Saint Agnes, virginity, and martyrdom
There are persons in the Church today who argue that chastity or celibacy are no longer understood or appreciated in a society that is supersaturated with sexuality. I maintain the exact opposite.
A reflection in two unequal parts.
First, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council called for the updating of the General Calendar of the Roman Rite. Calendars have to be scrutinized from time to time. Some of the changes made sense; for example, putting Anne and Joachim together or re-assigning saints to their proper day of death (since saints who had occupied that date were removed from the General Calendar). Other changes were very ill-advised, and here I am thinking at this time of year of the elimination of the Septuagesima season, comprised of the three weeks preceding Ash Wednesday. All the Eastern Churches (both Catholic and Orthodox) have a “pre-Lent,” as does the Ambrosian Rite. The Anglican Ordinariates also maintain this season of preparation.
In the classical Roman Rite, “septuagesima” refers to the “seventy” days before Easter, while “sexagesima” refers to the “sixty” days and “quinquagesima” to the “fifty” days. Now, those are not exact times; they are “rounded off” numbers, but they serve as “markers” or “mileposts” or “guideposts.” The Latin word for “Lent” is “Quadragesima” to signify “forty days.” All of the Romance languages have a variation of that for their designation of the Season of Lent.
So, what’s so important about a pre-Lenten season? It’s psychologically very helpful. With its loss in the mainstream, people often wake up on Ash Wednesday morning, surprised that “Lent is here already.” It’s hard to change gears so quickly, let alone having given serious thought to what kind of penitential path one should be taking. By the way, I highly favor a practice of Benedictine monasteries, whereby the monks ask the abbot to assign them a penance, rather than assuming one on their own. Mutatis mutandis, why not ask the people you live or work with to suggest an appropriate penance for you? You may not like the penance, but it may be the best penance you have ever undertaken.
Pope Paul VI often referred to the Church as the “expert in humanity,” by which he meant that the Church has been at this business of dealing with human beings for a long time and has amassed considerable wisdom in the process; unfortunately, he didn’t always show that kind of “expertise.” Part of that wisdom, though, was the realization that we mortals do best when we are gradually coaxed into a lifestyle change. The Byzantines have maintained, at least on paper, some rather rigorous fasts for Lent. In the lead-up to “Great Lent,” as they call it, there is “Meatfare Sunday,” designating an end to the consumption of meat. That is followed by “Cheesefare Sunday,” after which eggs and dairy products are eliminated from one’s diet. This is really the Eastern Church’s “spacing out” of the Latin Church’s Mardi Gras, in its spiritual observance, not in its licentiousness.
At any rate, in the pre-1962 calendar, this is Septuagesima Week. So, forewarned is forearmed. Use this time to prepare well.
My second point of reflection this evening revolves around the saint of the day, Agatha, a third-century martyr of Sicily, whose name in Greek means “Good Woman.” And she was. She is one of the virgin-martyrs hailed in the Roman Canon. Traditional spirituality identifies three types of martyrdom (martyros is the Greek word for “witness”); red, green and white. Red martyrdom, obviously, refers to shedding one’s blood for Christ. Green usually connotes a confessor of the faith, who endures persecution, but not unto death, while white martyrdom often highlights a life of consecrated virginity. In Christian art, a virgin-martyr can frequently be known as she bears the palm of victory for having shed her blood and the lily for having lived the vocation of a virgin.
Historical records inform us that Agatha lived during the persecution of the Roman Emperor Decius. She came from a noble family and had, by the age of fifteen, made a vow of virginity, thus causing her to reject the amorous (or perhaps better, lascivious) advances of the Roman prefect Quintianus. He took his revenge by denouncing her as a Christian, resulting in all kinds of demented tortures, including confinement to a brothel, being stretched out on a rack, torn with iron hooks, burned with torches. At one point, some truly perverted pagan cut off her breasts with a pincer (hence, her depiction in sacred art holding a platter with her breasts thereon). Her persecutors then tried to burn her at the stake, but that plan was upset by an earthquake. It seems that she finally just died in prison. The Church holds her up as patroness of rape victims, breast cancer patients, and wet nurses.
I want to lay aside considerations of her martyrdom – since I think we all know a great deal about that phenomenon; instead, I want to focus on her virginity.
All too often, we are treated to tirades about the Catholic Church’s low esteem for women. I wish to dispel that calumny presently.
Christian theology puts front and center the doctrine of the Incarnation and proclaims it to be the greatest event in human history. What is fascinating about this is that the conception and birth of the God-Man takes place solely from within the dialogue between a heavenly messenger and a young virgin. Yes, the event that splits history in two – earth-shattering in its effects and implications – occurred without a male agent. The fact of Mary’s virginity – her perpetual virginity – did not have solely theological consequences; it had major sociological repercussions.
What do I mean? In the Greco-Roman world, women were treated like chattel. Among the Jews of old, women fared somewhat better, however, the discrepancies were apparent in divorce legislation, so that a man could dismiss his wife for the most frivolous of reasons – the equivalent of burning his toast once too often – with the woman reduced to penury. To be sure, there was a sexual double standard: a woman “caught in adultery” would be stoned to death – and the man? Oh well, boys will be boys.
In the Christian Dispensation, all of that is reversed; the process began with the veneration accorded the Blessed Virgin Mary. The respect rendered to Our Lady had what we might call a “trickle-down” effect. While women in the ancient world had value only because of the sons they could bear or the pleasure they could provide in bed, an appreciation for virginity gave women a dignity in and of themselves. That appreciation, in turn, raised the societal level of appreciation for all women.
Already in St. Paul, we find the seeds of this notion (see 1 Corinthians 7); by the time we get to the Middle Ages, Christian women are movers and shakers in the world of society, politics, religious life and the Church-at-large. Here we can think of Catherine of Siena and Hildegard of Bingen, followed by Teresa of Avila. In this country, by the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, if you were told that a woman was the president of a college or hospital, you could bet the bank on the fact that she was a Catholic nun. In the late-twentieth century, two of the most identifiable women in the world would have been Mother Teresa and Mother Angelica. I think it would be fair to say that consecrated virginity steels one for mission and even serves as remote preparation for possible martyrdom.
Interestingly, the connection between virginity and holiness existed even among the pagan Romans. The college of Vestal Virgins (numbering between four and seven, depending on historical sources) is testimony to the basic instinct to make such a connection. Now, to be clear, embarking upon the virginal state does not grant one automatic access to sanctity; it didn’t do so in Ancient Rome and it doesn’t do so today. However, in a highly sexualized culture like that of Rome, chastity was esteemed, probably because it was in such little evidence among the hoi polloi. That esteem made those women guardians of the sacred fire which, in the popular judgment, safeguarded the life and future of the Roman people. Their chastity and their watchfulness of the sacred fire were inextricably linked: Violations of chastity and allowing the fire to be extinguished were both subject to the penalty of live burial.
There are many unthinking persons in the Church today who argue that chastity or celibacy are no longer understood or appreciated in a society that is supersaturated with sexuality. I maintain the exact opposite. Precisely because the society is so afflicted, the witness of consecrated chastity is all the more valuable and valued. Our priests and religious are charged with guarding the sacred fire of the love of Christ, which is the impetus for pastoral zeal and evangelization. History also teaches us that when esteem for chastity/virginity is cast aside, the loss of the dignity of women is not far behind.
Adherence to chastity gives one a power, whether male or female. In fact, one can say it confers a virtus– a “manly” power within the one who possesses it, whether male or female. That is why the Introit or Entrance Antiphon for the Mass of a Virgin-Martyr in the Missale Romanum of 2002 gives us this text:
Ecce iam séquitur Agnum pro nobis crucifíxum: strénua virgo, pudóris hóstia, víctima castitátis.
Behold, now she follows the Lamb who was crucified for us, powerful in virginity, modesty her offering, a sacrifice on the altar of chastity.
In the very decadent society we inhabit, all too like that of Rome before the fall, we ask Almighty God to strengthen the resolve and witness of all who follow the Lamb in His own virginity and martyrdom. May He also give us the holy assurance that the lives of such consecrated persons will be able to raise up a new civilization of life and love, just as it did centuries ago from the dung heap and ashes of Old Rome, blossoming into an Age of Faith like that of the High Middle Ages – producing inestimable flowers of literature, art, music and architecture – and countless saints.
St. Agatha, holy woman, virgin and martyr, pray for us.
(Note: This following homily preached on the liturgical memorial of St Agatha, within the Week of Septuagesima, February 5, 2021, at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City.)
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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 178 ArticlesReverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.