Feast of Agnes of Rome, January 21
Patroness of the Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes
Someone once wrote: If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
This is a question to reflect upon today as we celebrate a true Christian martyr, the spiritual inspiration of our founders and exemplification of selfless devotion to God. As I pondered this question and its connection to the call to being a faith witness, it reminded me of the time I was living in Menomonee Falls, WI. One day, two very young men from the new Open Bible Church appeared at my door with their bibles in hand and asked me, “Have you chosen Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”
This resulted in a twenty minute sharing of conversion stories and Scripture texts– and when they departed, I reflected on how skilled they were in locating just the right passage to prove their faith and convictions; I admired their desire to give testimony to the power of God in their lives, their eagerness to have me make a commitment, and their overall tenacity! So I asked myself, would I be able to do what they are doing? How do I witness the Word and Wonder of God?
Today we gather to remember and to celebrate St. Agnes of Rome, under whose patronage CSA was founded and called into being. She declared herself Christian in a pagan society and committed herself to remain virgin in a patriarchal culture. She gave testimony that she had chosen Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior with the public sacrifice of her life.
Much of her life and death are surrounded by legend, but early writings tell us that Agnes was born into a wealthy and powerful Roman Christian family and, according to tradition, she suffered martyrdom at the age of 12 or 13 during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian on January 21, in the year 305.
The story is told how the Prefect Sempronius wished Agnes to marry his son; for women at that time were property of the State and had children to promote the State's agenda. But Agnes refused and remained adamant that she had consecrated her virginity to Jesus Christ.
Her refusal was considered an act of treason and punishable by death. At that time, Roman law did not permit the execution of virgins, so Sempronius had a naked Agnes dragged through the streets to a brothel. In one version of the story, it is said that as she processed through the streets, Agnes prayed, and her hair grew and covered her entire body.
Some also asserted that all of the men who attempted to rape her were immediately struck blind. She was sentenced to death with many other Christian companions who refused to worship the Roman gods and to pay homage to the emperor as divine.
Legend has it that Agnes went unshackled to her death because all the irons were too large for her wrists. According to some accounts, when Agnes was led out to die, she was tied to a stake; however the bundle of wood would not burn or the flames parted away from her. As a result, the officer in charge of the troops drew his sword and beheaded her.
Agnes grew up in a patriarchal culture, whose religion included many gods – a religion of laws, customs, and prescriptions that no longer had the power to define her. Agnes chose a new way of life – a life of virginity. She was resolute in choosing her own power in Christ to define her new identity.
She is one of seven women commemorated by name in the prayers of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. She is the patron saint of gardeners, young girls, engaged couples, rape victims, and virgins. For her steadfast faith, she has been honored as a martyr.
The word “martyr” comes from the Greek meaning “witness.” Originally, the term referred to the Apostles who had witnessed the events of Jesus’ life and who died violently for their faith. However, as more early Christians were executed for their faith, “martyr” soon came to mean those who firmly believed in Jesus and were willing to sacrifice their lives for the Gospel. They found a treasure in this new way called, Christianity. Truly their search for this new Kingdom required a great price at this time in history.
Agnes, like many of the early Christian martyrs, is referred to as a “red martyr” as she shed her blood for Christ. Throughout the history of the Church, there have been many of these brave women and men who chose death, rather than to forsake Christ.
So, we may ask . . . are there martyrs today? Is there heroic and courageous witness for faith happening in our lifetime? Are we brave, steadfast, and worthy enough to be counted among their ranks as genuine witnesses to our faith?
Indeed, there are new witnesses of faith who have been killed because they professed their faith, promoted Christian values and convictions, held fast to a stance of social justice and non-violence, or who were voices for the poor, the least, the last, and the lost, or who died at the hands of persons with hatred for the faith. These witnesses bring us both hope and inspiration that God’s reign is truly alive in and among us, calling us to reflect on our own lives and willingness to sacrifice genuinely and selflessly.
These modern Christian witnesses most certainly are the new heroes and she-roes of our times who work for social justice at risk to their own lives – Let us recall:
• Oscar Romero of San Salvador, a champion of the poor who was assassinated while celebrating liturgy;
• Jean Donovan, Sisters Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford, and Maura Clarke, murdered by Salvadoran government troops in 1980;
• S. Dorothy Stang, SSND, who in Feb. of 2005, was murdered in the Amazon because she was outspoken in her efforts on behalf of the poor and the environment.
• In April of 2014, Jesuit priest, Fr. Frans van der Lugt, 75, who served the poor and homeless in Syria for 50 years and who refused to leave the war-torn country and was beaten and killed by two bullets to the head.
• In Sept. of 2014, three Italian women religious, Bernadetta, age 79, Luica, age 75 and Olga, age 82 years of age) were beaten, raped, and stabbed to death in Burundi, Africa as a result of a botched robbery and, other reports assert, that it was because their convent was built on the perpetrators’ ancestral land.
• And today, we undoubtedly, remember our own women of faith – CSA Sisters Maureen Courtney,(45) Jenny Flor Altamirano, (26) and Teresa de Jesus Rosales,(24) who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – young women who gave testimony with their lives as they lived justice in action and faith-filled generosity.
So what is the Good News for us today?
• Our God continues to invite everyone to live with hope, trust, courage, and faith. We are all called to be new witnesses of the Risen Jesus living the Beatitudes in this earthly community.
• As in the readings, we celebrate all witnesses who risk everything and refuse to be separated from the love of God; may we strive to model their zeal, courage, and conviction.
• That like Agnes, when we find ourselves standing naked in our vulnerabilities, limitations, powerlessness, doubts, dilemmas, and decisions that affect the social, economic, cultural, religious, and political challenges of life – may we more and more learn to call upon the Spirit for guidance, grit, and grace - for it is in God that we live and move and have our being.
• That like Agnes, we are all called to claim our new identity as women and men of faith in the 21st century – we pray to be attentive and open to the signs of our time, while remaining faithful to our own integrity as individuals, as a congregation, and as People of God in the church and world community.
So let us ponder again the question of the day: If we were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict us?
(Previously presented on January 21, 2015)