Friday, January 19, 2024

Wise As Serpents And Simple As Doves

On the general calendar, today is the feast of a group of martyrs from Persia, a couple named Marius and Martha, and their sons Audifax and Abbacum. Martha is of course a Jewish name, while “Abbacum” (or “Ambacum” is the Greek form of the name of the prophet Habakkuk, indicating perhaps that she at least was of Jewish descent. (Marius, on the other hand is as Roman a name as they come, which suggests perhaps that he was descended from a Roman soldier who served on the Empire’s eastern frontier.

In the reign of the emperor Claudius II (268-70), they came to venerate the tombs of the martyrs, taking care of their fellow Christians who were in chains for the Faith, and burying some of those who were actually killed. For this, they were arrested and after refusing to sacrifice to the gods, tortured, then led out of the city an executed. This is consonant with the idea that Marius was of Roman descent, since Romans convicted of capital crimes were entitled to be executed away from the public view, and hence outside the city. (The same happened with St Paul.)
The Martyrdom of Ss Marius, Martha, Audifax and Abbacum, ca. 1750, by the Italian painter Corrado Giaquinto. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The traditional account of their history is regarded as unreliable, though not entirely so, in part because the reign of Claudius II falls within a period which was almost entirely peaceful for the Church, between the end of the persecution of Valerian in 258, and the beginning of that of Diocletian in 303. Nevertheless, their feast is extremely ancient. In the old Gelasian Sacramentary, the oldest of the Roman Rite (ca. 750 A.D.), they are celebrated jointly with St Sebastian on January 20th. Thirty years, they have their own feast day on Jan. 19th in the Gellone Sacramentary, although the copyist of the manuscript changes the possessive form of Marius’ name to the feminine “Marie”, perhaps thinking that the martyrs in question were somehow the sisters of Lazarus. (The manuscript is full of very random spelling errors, so this may not be in any way deliberate or meaningful.)
Today is also one week before the feast of St Polycarp. When he revised and greatly expanded the Roman Martyrology in the 1560s, Cardinal Baronius also added to this day a martyr who is mentioned early in the account of Polycarp’s martyrdom.
“At Smyrna, the birth into heaven of the blessed martyr Germanicus, who, in the reign of Marcus Antoninus (Pius) and Lucius Aurelius, when he was flourishing in the beauty of his first youth, was condemned by the judge, and through the grace of God, and putting aside the fear of bodily weakness, willingly provoked the wild beast prepared for him; and being ground (like wheat) by its teeth, merited to be made one body with the Lord Jesus Christ, the True Bread, by dying for him.”
The last part of this sentence, “being ground (like wheat) etc.”, is a deliberate reference to the words of St Ignatius of Antioch, a contemporary of Polycarp and Germanicus, in his Epistle to the Romans (chapter 4): “I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.” As the acts of Polycarp note, Germanicus, once he had been condemned, did not just accept martyrdom, but embraced it.
“… the most noble Germanicus strengthened the timidity of others by his own patience, and fought heroically with the wild beasts. For, when the proconsul sought to persuade him, and urged him to take pity upon his age, he attracted the wild beast towards himself, and provoked it, being desirous to escape all the more quickly from an unrighteous and impious world.”
This heroic act was then provoked the pagans of Smyrna to seek out Polycarp for martyrdom. “… upon this the whole multitude, marveling at the nobility of mind displayed by the devout and godly race of Christians, cried out, ‘Away with the atheists; let Polycarp be sought out!’ ”
The authors of the Acts of Polycarp introduce Germanicus not only for the sake of historical completeness, but also to point that there is a difference, and an important one, between accepting martyrdom when it comes, and going out of one’s way to provoke it, for another who had done exactly the latter wound up yielding to the persecutors and offering the sacrifice as they demanded. “Quintus … when he saw the wild beasts, became afraid. This was the man who forced himself and some others to come forward voluntarily (for trial as a Christian). After many entreaties, the proconsul persuaded him to swear (by the divine personification of Caesar) and to offer sacrifice. Wherefore, brethren, we do not commend those who give themselves up (to suffering), seeing the Gospel does not teach us to do so.” (Matthew 10, 23).
Polycarp is therefore commended as one who, in obedience to the Lord’s command, did not seek to be martyred, but heroically accept martyrdom when it came for him. A wise lesson for every age, as are the words from Matthew 10 just a few verses earlier than the ones cited in the acts of Polycarp, “Wise As Serpents And Simple As Doves”

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