Thursday, January 21, 2010

Feast of St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr (c. 291-304)

At Rome, the passion of St. Agnes, Virgin, who under Symphronius, the prefect of the City, was cast into the flames. At her prayer they were extinguished, and she was slain with the sword. Blessed Jerome writes thus concerning her: "The life of Agnes is praised in the literature and speech of all peoples, especially in the Churches, she who overcame both her age and the tyrant, and consecrated by martyrdom her claim to chastity."
-- Martyrlogium Romanum, January 21

* * *

The feast of St. Agnes, which we observe today, is particularly known to many for the wonderful custom wherein two lambs are brought to the Pope to be blessed. The wool from these lambs will be used to make the pallium, which pallia will be bestowed upon the new Metropolitan Archbishops on the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul on June 29th.

Blessed Ildefonso Schuster notes of today's feast that "[in] ancient times that station was held in the Basilica of St. Agnes on the Via Nomentana, where on the occasion of this feast St. Gregory preached one of his forty celebrated homilies on the Gospel. The Fathers of the Latin Church, Jerome, Ambrose, Damasus and Prudentius all join in singing the praises of this virginal 'Lamb' who fearlessly faced the sword and the stake..."

While the original Constantinian basilica of St. Agnes is no longer standing, here is the 7th century basilica of S. Agnese fuori le mura, built by Pope Honorius I:

(Image source)

The Apse Mosaic of S. Agnese shows St. Agnes in the centre with Pope Honorius and Pope Symmachus on either side

Prudentius describes the martyrdom of St. Agnes in the Liber Peristephanon in his hymn, The Passion of Agnes -- the entirety of which, despite its length, was found in the Lauds and Vespers of her feast in the Mozarabic breviary. Here is that hymn in its entirety:


The native home of Romulus now enshrines
The tomb of Agnes, virgin and martyr blest.
Reposing there in sight of its lofty towers,
The maiden watches over the sons of Rome,
And pilgrims, too, enjoy here protecting care,
Who pray to her with pure and believing hearts.
With splendid twofold diadem she is crowned:
Virginity unmarred by the stain of sin
And glory won by freely embracing death.

That maiden, they relate, who was not yet ripe
For marriage vows and still but a child in years,
Her soul aflame with rapturous love of Christ,
Withstood the impious edict to sacrifice
To idols and abandon her holy Faith.

Assailed at first by every art and wile,
Now by the coaxing words of a fawning judge,
Now by the butcher's sinister threats of doom,
Dauntless she stood, nor shrank from her stern resolve,
Willing to give her body to torments sore,
Nor quailing from the threat of a cruel death.

Then spoke the angry tyrant: 'If she can face
The thought of grinding torture and woeful pangs,
And sets at naught her life as of little worth,
Her consecrated chastity she holds dear.
Into a common den of impurity
I am resolved to cast her unless she bows
Before Minerva's altar and begs her grace,
That virgin she, a virgin, has dared despise.
There all the youths in wanton delight will rush,
To seek this newest slave of their lustful sport.

Then Agnes answered: 'Never will Christ forget
His own nor let our precious virginity
Be snatched from us. He will not abandon us.
He ever shields the chaste and will not permit
The gift of holy purity to be soiled.
My blood may dye your sword, if it is your will,
But never will my body be stained with lust.

So spoke the maid; the prefect then gave command
That she should stand exposed in the public square.
As there she stood, the pitying throngs fell back 40
And turned their eyes away in respectful awe,
None daring to regard her with brazen look.

It chanced that one was forward enough to fix
His gaze upon the maiden and did not fear
To look with lustful eye on her sacred form,
But lo, a flame as swift as a lightning flash
Quick struck his wanton eyes with its trembling dart.
The youth fell down and, blinded by glaring light,
Lay panting in the dust of the crowded street.
His fellows lifted him from the ground, half-dead,
Bewailing him with clamorous words and tears.

The virgin went forth singing a hymn of praise
In thanks to God the Father and Christ, His Son,
That when exposed to peril of vilest stain,
Her chastity had triumphed, and she had found
The den of squalid infamy clean and pure.
Some tell that Agnes, asked to implore of Christ
That He restore the sight of the guilty wretch,
Poured forth a fervent prayer, and the prostrate youth
Regained the breath of life and his vision whole.

In her ascent to heaven the saint had passed
But the first step; a second was yet to come.
The bloody tryant burned with revengeful ire.
'I am outdone,' he groaned. 'Go, unsheathe your sword,
You soldier there, and carry into effect
The laws our prince and sovereign lord decreed.

When Agnes saw the furious headsman stand
With weapon drawn, in transports of joy she cried:
Tar happier am I that a swordsman comes,
A wild uncouth barbarian, fierce and grim,
Than that a languid suitor pays court to me,
A lovesick creature, scented with rare perfumes,
Who would destroy my soul with my chastity.
This butcher is the lover who pleases me:
His bold advances I shall go forth to meet
And will not try to hinder his ardent suit.
I gladly bare my breast to his cruel steel
And deep into my heart I will draw his blade.
Thus as the bride of Christ I shall mount above
The darkness of the world to the realms of light.

Eternal King, unfasten the gates of heaven
That till of late were closed to the sons of earth,
And call Thy virgin spouse to Thyself, O Christ,
A victim to the Father now sacrificed.

As Agnes spoke these words, she inclined her head
In humble prayer to Christ, that her gentle neck
Might readier be to suffer the threatened wound.
Thus was her ardent longing fulfilled at last,
For with one blow the soldier struck off her head
And speedy death prevented all sense of pain.

Then putting off the garment of flesh, her soul
Flies forth and speeds untrammelled into the skies,
Her shining path surrounded by angel choirs.
In wonder she looks down on the world below;
On high she views the darkness beneath her feet,
And at the circling wheel of the sun she laughs
As round its orb the heavenly spheres revolve.
She sees the raging whirlwind of human life
And all the vanities of the fickle world:
Despots and kings, imperial power and rank,
The pageantry of honor and foolish pride,
The thirst for gold and silver, which all men seek
And gain by every species of wickedness,
The stately palaces with their gilded walls,
The vain display of richly embroidered robes,
The hatreds, fears, desires and impending woes,
The long enduring griefs and the fleeting joys,
Black envy with its smoking firebrands that blight
The hopes of men and tarnish all human fame,
And last, but worse than every other ill,
The sordid clouds and darkness of pagan rites.

All these things Agnes tramples beneath her feet,
And with her heel she crushes the dragon's head,
That monster vile who poisons all things of time
And plunges them into the infernal pit.
But vanquished now and under the virgin's foot
He lies crestfallen, prone in the dust of earth,
His fiery head not daring to lift again.
Meanwhile the virgin martyr's unsullied brow
God circles with a glorious twofold crown:
One glowing with the rays of eternal light,
A sixty-fold reward, and the other fruit,
Increased a hundred-fold, of celestial grace.

O happy virgin, glory but lately dawned,
O noble dweller in the celestial courts,
Adorned with thy resplendent twin diadem,
Deign now to turn thy face on our miseries.
To thee alone the Father of all has given
Power to make pure the dwelling of sin itself.
I, too, shall be made clean by thy radiant glance
If thou wilt fill my heart with its gracious light.
All is pure where thou deignest in love to dwell,
Or where thine own immaculate foot may tread.

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