“My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for ordeals.” ~ Sirach 2:1
Noted Catholic Radio personality Father John Riccardo has said in the past that his favorite scripture quote is the one from the Book of Sirach that I chose to kick off today’s Reflection. Honest, succinct, and so very core to the Catholic experience not only in the year 2021 but throughout the ages, today our Church memorializes a young Saint who imbued and embraced this mindset, the great Virgin and Martyr Saint Agnes.
Said to have been breathtaking in beauty and in possession of fortitude and faith the likes of which matched her mirror’s reflection in immensity, very little is otherwise known of this doubly crowned member of the Communion of Saints. What we do know of her story however is rather similar to that of another precocious and beloved Saint of our Church, the Patroness of good eyesight Saint Lucy https://discover.hubpages.com/religion-philosophy/The-Feast-of-Saint-Lucy.
According to tradition, Agnes, whose name in Greek means “pure,” lived in Rome right around the turn of the third century. Some claim she was born into a Christian family, while other historians maintain that she was of Roman nobility and, interestingly enough, the only Christian among her pagan family members. Agnes was martyred around the age of 12 or 13 at the order of Emperor Diocletian for declining a marriage proposal from one of his top-ranked henchman, asserting that she longed only to be the bride of her Lord Jesus. “Christ made my soul beautiful with the jewels of faith and virtue. I belong to him whom the angels serve,” is a quote that is attributed to her.
The Great Persecution, which lasted from 303-311 AD, was the last and most severe of all the Roman persecutions. Thousands of Christians were put to death by the wrathful and psychotic Emperor Diocletian. Many were burned alive, including Saint Agnes. It can certainly be said that being a committed Christian in the Roman Empire during the first three centuries of the Church called for a radically countercultural attitude and lifestyle. Looking ahead to Saturday’s short but tell-all Gospel passage (Mark 3:20-21), we are told that those who were in Jesus’ midst believed that he was “out of his mind.” His followers, logic therefore dictated, were to be placed in that same category.
Throughout scripture, Jesus warned those who showed an interest in following him that they too would be condemned, treated as outsiders and yes, hated, because of him (John 15:18). Perhaps you’ve experienced similar treatment in your place of work, your social circle, your family even, merely for living a genuine Sacramental Catholic life. If you haven’t, you will. In his essay American Unity, author David Carlin explains that America is in the midst of a great revolution, comparable in many ways to the Communist Revolution in Russia or the Nazi Revolution in Germany. “One of the great differences between earlier European revolutionists and our present-day American revolutionists,” explains Carlin, speaking of those who loathe our country and it’s Christian origins and traditions, “is that our Americans, having profited from the mistakes made by Communists and Nazis, proceed gradually, not suddenly. If, for example, you shoot priests and nuns and ordained ministers, you may wake the Christians up, and they may fight back. And so, if you wish to get rid of Christianity (which is of course precisely what our revolutionists wish to do), please don’t be overly aggressive; above all, don’t be violent. Instead, destroy it with a slow squeeze. As the religion dies, its adherents, most of them little more than nominal adherents in any case, will hardly notice what’s happening.”
Carlin would appear to assert that the very idea of Christian martyrdom as we know it is undergoing a transformation, from “red” to “white” if you will. That the Oscar Romeros and the José Sánchez del Ríos of our Church will be replaced by the Sisters of the Poor for instance, who are officially back on notice just as sure as they will undoubtedly be dragged back into the courtroom to defend their position on employee contraceptive coverage. That these government officials could be so doggedly determined to force an order of Catholic nuns to violate their deeply held religious beliefs on matters pertaining to birth control tells you all you need to know about the battle that currently rages. In 1 Peter 4:12, the Rock of our Church reminds us that we were forewarned when he states “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” Even in Mark 6:45-52, when the Apostles were rowing in their boat and suddenly found themselves being tossed about violently on the seas, it’s important to recognize the oftentimes overlooked fact that they would not have found themselves in the midst of such a raging storm had they not been following Jesus https://hubpages.com/religion-philosophy/Daily-Mass-Reflections-19.
In many ways, we too are living in a pagan culture not unlike that of St. Agnes’ time. The cross is gravely misunderstood and ultimately rejected. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” Jesus famously says in Matthew 16:24. In the days of the Israelites, the idea of voluntarily taking up and embracing a cross was beyond radical. Crucifixions at the time were commonplace and they were brutal. The cross would appear to be every bit as distasteful in our secular world today. The gods we are instead strong-armed into embracing and worshipping publicly are not of the Roman god variety but instead the gods of wealth, luxury, prestige and admiration, smartphones and other assorted electronic distractions, fame of course, and many others. Anything that will brings status, riches, and comfort. Once again, the complete antithesis of what Saint Agnes lived for. And died for.
But how do we reconcile a life of suffering in the era of insatiable secularism? How do we embrace it? Understand it? Explain it to others?
It’s important first to reflect upon and understand the following statement offered up by noted author Viktor Frankl in his seminal book Man’s Search For Meaning: Suffering minus meaning equals despair. In one particular example, Frankl explains that concentration camp prisoners who fixated on an all-consuming reason to live, whether it be to reunite with loved ones, to complete unfinished work, or perhaps even to proclaim to the world the vicious atrocities that they were forced to bear, were far more likely to survive. Suffering minus meaning equals despair. In Colossians 1:24, Saint Paul proclaims "Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church." What could possibly be lacking in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for us? Our participation.
Therein lies our meaning.
Imagine for a moment that you were on hand for Jesus’ Crucifixion. If you didn’t know Him, or if you simply didn’t know any better, you would’ve written it off as just another ruthless display of Roman power and authority. Just another senseless death, another example of a young man tragically cut down in the prime of his life. Yet we know this wasn’t the case at all. And herein lies God’s awesome power. Our Lord is so amazing that he can take suffering, unspeakable evil even, and derive good from it. “Take my Son, nail him to a cross,” he says “and watch what I do with it. I’ll save the world.”
God wants his world back; the world that His Son died for. Of this I have become thoroughly convinced. The only way we can assist him in this, and as we know, God always seeks our cooperation in carrying out his divine plan, is to offer up our suffering and unite ourselves to Jesus on the cross. In doing so, we share in this incredible redemption story.
I’d like to leave you with the words contained in Verses 2-11 from the second chapter of the Book of Sirach, essentially picking up where I left off with our opening quote. May these words embolden and inspire you as you contemplate the role that suffering plays in your life and how best to grow and flourish in the face of it.
“Be sincere of heart and steadfast, and do not be impetuous in time of adversity. Cling to him, do not leave him, that you may prosper in your last days. Accept whatever happens to you; in periods of humiliation be patient. For in fire gold is tested, and the chosen, in the crucible of humiliation. Trust in God, and he will help you make your ways straight and hope in him. You that fear the Lord, wait for his mercy, do not stray lest you fall. You that fear the Lord, trust in him, and your reward will not be lost. You that fear the Lord, hope for good things, for lasting joy and mercy. Consider the generations long past and see: has anyone trusted in the Lord and been disappointed? Has anyone persevered in his fear and been forsaken?has anyone called upon him and been ignored? For the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” ~ Sirach 2:2-11
. . . Saint Agnes, pray for us.
For a reflection on today’s Gospel (Mark 3:7-12), please revisit my essay from last year: