Today is the feast day of Saint Agatha, one of numerous Virgin Martyrs of the ancient Roman canon about whom we know very little, and what little is said about her is wrapped in hagiographic myth. She has the special distinction of being traditionally depicted holding her own pert severed breasts on a platter. The standard acclamation of these women is that their merit was in their “chastity,” in addition to their bravery in martyrdom.
This representation does not do these brave and bold women of early Christianity justice, in my opinion. It is high time we take a closer look at just what made their virgin martyrdom remarkable.
The focus on “chastity” suggests that refusing marriage was a conquering of fleshly desire for the sake of their heavenly Bridegroom. But their brief biographies reveal that sacrificing female desire had nothing to do with their martyrdoms. Each one refused a forced marriage, and was violently punished for refusing to follow Roman law that required adult women of proper parentage to submit herself to the controlling hand of a husband for the purpose of breeding good citizens of the Empire. Whether or not these women’s anatomical virginity actually remained intact, they were each physically violated because they would not participate in the mirage of consent that validated a Roman citizen’s marriage—a mirage because their fathers would be fined if they did not marry, and their fathers had the right to kill their own daughters for disobedience, and seemingly these women’s fathers handed them over to their torturers rather than protecting them.
What these women sacrificed their lives for was vindicating the radical Christian belief that in Christ there is no male and female, there is no slave or free, that women have the same agency and voice as men over their bodies and souls.
The egalitarianism of the Body of Christ was a radical contradiction and mortal threat to the social mores of the Roman Empire, so the powers of the day sought to crush and conform it. These women bravely stood for the truth that no matter what was done to their earthly bodies, they would not cede possession of their souls to any earthly authority, and neither could possession of their souls be taken against their will. The glory of their virginity was not in conquering lust, but in standing as witnesses of the Gospel: the Gospel of God humbling Himself to be born of a willing woman; a sign of contradiction to a society that would objectify women as breeders instead of persons fully made in the image and likeness of God.
image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Piero_della_Francesca_-_Polyptych_of_St_Anthony_-_St_Agatha_-_WGA17469.jpg