What psalm did you sing, Perpetua, when you were thrown into the arena to face the wild beasts? I can’t help but wonder as I reread the martyrdom account of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, whose feast we celebrate today. The calm and joy of both women astounds me.
What psalm would one sing in the face of death? And how could one find the courage to even sing?
Martyrdom contradicts everything we are told to value in this world. It entails giving without reserve, sacrificing all, even the greatest good, which is life itself. And yet the martyrs are a stark, beautiful, and perhaps even uncomfortable proof of what sacrificial love can look like. They help us to readjust our eyes to the eternal.
“Who are the martyrs?” Pope Francis asked in his message for the beatification of the Spanish Martyrs of the Twentieth Century. “They are Christians won by Christ, disciples who learned well the meaning of ‘loving to the end’ that took Jesus to the Cross.… Christ goes before us in love; the martyrs have imitated him in love to the end.”
We read in the first letter to the Corinthians just what we are called to when we are called to love. “Love is patient, love is kind,” he begins. But what else does Paul write? That love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” The martyrs, such as Perpetua and Felicity, give testament to this love.
What sets Perpetua and Felicity apart for me is their role in the Church not only as martyrs, but as women, specifically mothers. The account of their martyrdom includes text from Perpetua herself and is one of the few documents we have from the early Church of lay women martyrs. How beautiful that we celebrate the witness of these two women on the same day. Together, they give us a rich portrayal of grace by experiencing suffering with joy and remaining perpetually faithful to Christ. The account of their martyrdom notes that even those who had come to watch the martyrdom shuddered “seeing one a tender girl, the other her breasts yet dropping from her late childbearing.” As a new mother myself, re-reading their account makes their sacrifice all the more visceral. Both Perpetua and Felicity lost everything by human standards to face their martyrdom: family, wealth, possessions, children. Yet both gain everything by God’s standards: eternal life resting in the beatific vision.
Both women live up to their names. Perpetua remains steadfast to her faith. While Felicity, which means intense happiness, joins the Christian martyrs with joy and serenity, praising God for the early birth of her child so that she could join her companions in martyrdom. The example of these women seems baffling to our world. How could a mother give up her child? How could a person give up wealth, possessions, titles, security? Apart from God, these sacrifices make no sense.
So what can we learn from the martyrs? “The Holy Fathers say: ‘Let’s imitate the martyrs!’” Pope Francis continued in his message.
Does this mean we must forfeit our lives, give up everything, if we are to follow Christ? Some have been and still are called to give their physical lives for the Christian faith. However, I think we can all live out martyrdom in many different ways. Pope Francis expands on this understanding. He continues, “We always have to die a bit to come out of ourselves, of our egoism, our wellbeing, our sloth, our sadnesses, and open ourselves to God, to others, especially the neediest.”
In other words, we can join in the sacrifice of the martyrs, and of Christ for that matter, each and every day by offering up our own prayers and hardships—by dying to ourselves first and foremost. While we may not be called to give our physical life for our faith, we are always being challenged to give up anything in our lives that is not love. Lent is a particularly intense time of this dying to self, or mortification, in order to grow closer to our neighbor and to Christ. Additionally, we are called to endure this process of “everyday martyrdom” with joy and hope—something Perpetua in particular models beautifully with her singing.
Let us follow the advice of St. Augustine as we continue our pilgrim journey: “Sing as wayfarers do—sing but continue your journey. Do not grow tired, but sing with joy!”
Question for Reflection: In what ways can you die a little to yourself this Lent?