Lent seems to be a perfect time for stories about the early Christian martyrs, like Perpetua, Felicitas, and the other martyrs of Carthage, who died in 202 CE. It was a rough time for the members of the early church, what with the Caesars still being very anti-Christian, probably a fear left over from Caesar Augustus and his immediate successors.
Perpetua was a well-brought-up woman, a very young widow with a small child, and a catechumen (an unbaptized convert) in the local church. In comparison, Felicitas was a pregnant slave, soon to give birth, who was also probably a catechumen. With them were three men, Saturus, Secundus, and the slave Revocatus. We know much of their story from the writings of an anonymous writer who recorded their last days. Extracts of this historical episode can be found at Perpetua and Felicity by James Kiefer. It’s quite interesting, yet sad, but also uplifting.
Several things struck me in this recounting. One was that Perpetua’s father came to beg her to renounce her faith for the sake of her father, her family, and her infant son. He implored her to think of what her profession of faith and public execution would do to endanger her family, although he alone would be saddened by her death. He went away sorrowfully because Perpetua chose Jesus over her family and kinfolk.
These days, sometimes young people choose a path that leads to their death, although not for the same reasons. There are many cults and sects which seem to offer unlimited peace, joy, and salvation, but which, in reality, lead their followers into drugs, false beliefs, isolation, and, sometimes, even death. That would possibly be something like the followers of Jesus in the early church, tempted by a messiah who promised heaven and rewards for living righteous lives. I wonder, would it be so easy to choose Jesus if we lived in Perpetua’s time? What about our own?
Another thing I found interesting in this tale was that Perpetua had visions of heaven, of fighting against a gladiator who represented the devil, whom she defeated. She also had a vision of her young brother, who had died at age eight of cancer. She was reassured to see him well, as he would be in heaven.
The third thing that resonated with me was the sight in my mind of Perpetua and her group standing in the Coliseum, awaiting the deaths that were coming. They had refused the costumes the guards brought them to wear, and Perpetua told the guard that since she was being put to death for not worshiping the Roman gods, she was earning the right to die in her own clothes. That sounded a bit cheeky but was probably one of the bravest things she could have said to her captors.
Saturus was the first to die by being mauled by a leopard. The bear would not leave his cage and the wild boar killed his keeper instead. The two other men were saved, for the moment.
Perpetua and Felicity were both wounded, but Perpetua used her torn clothing to cover herself and then arranged her hair as if she were a fine lady preparing for dinner. Evidently, she felt that if she had to be executed, she would go to her death as a brave and properly clad martyr. The first four were beheaded, dying quietly and without defending themselves. Perpetua’s executioner, however, only got the job half done with his first stroke, so Perpetua guided his hand to her throat to finish the job.
When I read stories like this one, I have to try not to laugh at those who claim martyrdom today when their ideas are not accepted, they feel they are being wronged over small things, or people disagree with them. Our Christian calendar is so full of real martyrs, those who faced death because they followed Jesus and didn’t back down when the time for execution came. To me, it’s complaining of the pain of a splinter versus being shot or hacked with machetes for a much greater cause. I think of the march to Birmingham, the martyred children of Japan, Oscar Romero, the Ugandan martyrs, and others who are so much better examples of following their faith to the very end. It’s still going on today, and we have been too silent on other massacres and martyrdoms around the world in the past. When will it end? Is the lesson of Perpetua and her companions just a nice story?
Lent seems to be calling for me to think about these things, not to make me feel bad, but to remind me that Jesus himself was martyred because of fear and arrogance among both the Romans and some of the Jews. He was crucified for our transgressions, as we are told, and so what are we willing to do in return? As surely as Jesus saved us, aren’t we called to save others? Aren’t we called to take care of the poor, the sick, children, the elderly, the imprisoned, and those who need our help to save them from persecution, bullying, and false imprisonment?
I think this week I will be thinking more on Perpetua and Felicity. They were strong women in a time when women were perceived as weak. They had the strength and faith to stand up for their beliefs, bravely and faithfully. I bet I can find some of those women around today. I think I’ll look for them this week as well. I can never have too many positive role models.
Image: The martyrdom of Perpetua, Felicitas, Revocatus, Saturninus and Secundulus, from the Melogion of Basil II (ca. 1000 AD). Found at Wikimedia Commons.