Saturday, November 07, 2020

The Feast of All Saints 2020: The Martyrs

From the Breviary according to the use of the Roman Curia, 1529, the continuation of the sermon for the fourth day in the Octave of All Saints.

That wicked lion, also called a dragon in the cunning of his malice, saw that through the unity of the faith, the people were being gathered to the worship of the one true God, which he had scattered over places made steep by various crimes, and corrupted with the foul worship of idols. In order to assault that same faith, worried and fearful he sought to rage against the sons of the Church by means of the vessels of wrath. But as the devil drove them on to fight such a happy fight, to the arena of so distinguished a victory, the Lord Jesus Christ sent (His) mightiest soldiers for the conversion of the erring, like lambs among the wolves. And so those who struggled against them on the other side might either be converted to the Faith and return to life, or being overthrown by the Faith, might perish forever with the author of death; while those of our part might either rejoice for the conversion of the erring, or, being slaughtered by them, might be crowned for their patience with a glorious passion.
St George Slaying the Dragon, 1889/90, by Gustave Moreau (1826-98); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The rather obscure phrase to describe the devil’s corruption of the true worship of God, “scattered over places made steep by various crimes” (per abrupta scelerum sparserat), seems to require a bit of explanation. Following the book of Wisdom, and the consensus of the Church Fathers, our anonymous author takes it for granted that idolatry existed in the world before the coming of Christ because the devil had it taught to men. The “steep places of crimes”, therefore, are the hearts of men, made stony by the crime of idolatry, and unable to receive the seed of the Gospel, as in the parable of the sower (Matthew 13, 1-23 and parallels)

From the earliest times, the Church has likened the martyrs to soldiers, and referred to them in the liturgy with military language, as in the passage above. There have of course also been many famous soldier martyrs, one of whom, Saint Marcellus the Centurion, has his feast day on October 30th, the day before the vigil of All Saints. The story of his martyrdom is told in the original acts of his military trial, which survive and are considered by scholars to be entirely authentic. The document is brief enough to be given in full.

During the consulship of Faustus and Gallus (298 A.D.), on the 5th day before the kalends of August (28 July), when the former centurion of the first cohort had been brought in, the captain Fortunatus said, “What were you thinking to discard your belt and hurl down your sword and staff ?”

Marcellus replied, “I have already told you on 21 July, loudly and in public, before the standards of this legion, when you were celebrating the anniversary of your emperor, that I am a Christian and cannot observe this oath unless to Jesus Christ the Son of the Living God.”

The captain Fortunatus said, “I cannot conceal your rash behaviour and so I will report these things to the ears of our lords the Augusti and Caesars. You, of course, will be sent to the court of my lord Aurelius Agricolanus, the vice-praetorian prefect, under armed guard by the consular official Cecilius.”

During the consulship of Faustus and Gallus, at Tingis, on the third day before the kalends of November, when Marcellus, the former centurion of the first cohort, had been brought in, an official announced, “The praeses Fortunatus has sent him to your power. There is here for your greatness also a letter concerning his case which I will read out if you so direct.” Agricolanus said, “Let it be read out.” (In the original text, this letter is placed before the paragraph beginning “During the consulship…on the third day…”)

“Manilius Fortunatus sends greetings to his lord Agricolanus. On the anniversary most happy and blessed throughout the whole world of our same lords the Augusti and Caesars, when we were willingly celebrating the festival, lord Aurelius Agricolanus, the centurion Marcellus, seized by what madness I do not know, wantonly disgirded himself of belt and sword and decided to hurl down the staff which he was carrying before the very headquarters of our lords. I have decided that it was necessary to report what was done to your power, even for him to have been sent to you also.”

When it had been read out, Agricolanus said, “Did you say those things which are recorded in the captain’s record?”
Marcellus said, “I did.”
Agricolanus said, “Were you serving as a centurion?”
Marcellus said, “I was.”
Agricolanus said, “What madness possessed you to cast aside aside your oath and say such things?”
Marcellus said, “No madness possesses him who fears God.”
Agricolanus said, “Did you make these separate statements which are recorded in the captain’s record?”
Marcellus said, “I did.”
Agricolanus said, “Did you hurl down your weapons?”
Marcellus said, “I did. It is not proper for a Christian man, one who fears the Lord Christ, to engage in earthly military service.”
Agricolanus said, “Marcellus’ actions are such that they ought to be disciplined.”
And so he stated, “It pleases (the court) that Marcellus, who defiled the office of centurion which he held by his public rejection of the oath and, furthermore, according to the captain’s records, gave in testimony words full of madness, should be executed by the sword.”
When he was being led to execution, Marcellus said, “May God be good to you, Agricolanus.” In so seemly a way did the glorious martyr Marcellus pass out of this world.

The altar of the Church of Saint Marcellus in León, Spain, of which city he is the Patron Saint. His relics were translated there from Tangiers (in modern Morocco), the place of his martyrdom, in 1493, and are in the silver reliquary seen here under the altar.
The statue of St. Marcellus in the center of the reredos seen above.

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