Almighty and everlasting God, you choose those whom the world deems powerless to put the powerful to shame: Grant us so to cherish the memory of your youthful martyr Agnes, that we may share her pure and steadfast faith in you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Today is the feast of St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr in Rome. St. Agnes was one of the really popular saints of the early Church, right up there with Christopher and Lucy. Her story is one of those “I’ll die before I’ll ever marry” stories which were so popular back then. Her dedication to virginity and her heroism under torture was an inspiration to those suffering martyrdom in the fourth century and on. The earliest document containing the story of St. Agnes is the Depositio Martyrum from the year 354. Much of her legend comes from the writings of St. Ambrose and St. Austin, and from Prudentius’ hymn. According to St. Austin, her name in Greek signifies chaste and in Latin, lamb.
According to the story, Agnes was born to a Christian family of the Roman nobility around the year 29I. When she was I3 years old she was considered one of the most beautiful and desirable young women in the city of Rome. All the (hetro) guys wanted her and were lining up at her door, bringing gifts of great price, not just yer flowers and chocolates. However, one young man in particular was obsessed with Agnes: Procupius, the son of Symphronius, the prefect. He outdid all the other suitors with his gifts, and when he came to visit Agnes’ parents to ask for her hand, he promised them even more valuable presents. When Agnes refused his gifts and proposal of marriage, he figured that he just needed to bring even better, more precious jewels to convince the object of his desire, so he returned with even more precious and rare jewels. Our Agnes responded to Procupius and his presents (speaking in a most archaic form of English) thusly: “Begone from me, fuel of sin, nourishment of vice, food of death; begone from me, for already a lover has secured my heart; he has given me ornaments more precious than yours, and has placed his ring upon my finger as a pledge of fidelity. He is incomparably more noble than you, both in origin and dignity. He has been pleased to adorn my right hand with a priceless bracelet, and to encircle my neck with diamonds. He has set in my ears rings of peerless pearl and has girdled me with precious stones dazzling as the light of the sun in spring. My Beloved has placed his sign upon my forehead, that I may recognize no lover bat himself. He has clothed me in golden tissue and adorned me with innumerable ornaments. He has shown me countless treasures, of which he has promised me the possession, if I remain faithful to him. Could I then so wrong my first love as to accept another and abandon him to whom I am united by the most ardent affection!” Procupius couldn’t believe what he was hearing! He was the son of the prefect, for goodness sake! But our little lambykins continued: “Yes, he is far nobler, his power is greater, his aspect more charming in my sight, his love sweeter to my heart, his grace, in a word, more ravishing than anything to which he could possibly be compared. His voice like a melting harmony enchants my ears. Virgins my companions cease not to sound his praise, and such is his beauty, that the sun and the stars behold it amazed- His ministers are angels, who are eager to serve him. At his touch the sick are healed, the dead are awoke by the odor of his virtue. His resources never fail, his riches never decrease. He has already prepared a dwelling for me. I have pledged my faith, I have vowed to be entirely his. Milk and honey flow from his lips. I have felt his chaste embrace. His body was united to mine, and the blood from his stricken cheek has impressed itself on mine. But know that his mother was a virgin that he was begotten by the Father from all eternity. I can love him as I remain chaste, press him to my heart and iest jure, receive him as my Spouse and still be a virgin. And the children of this union will be brought forth without pain; their number will increase and multiply."
Instead of slapping ol’ Procupy into reality, her words simply worked him up even more, to the point that he was sick in bed, so lovesick that he couldn’t move. Once his dad’s doctors figured out what was going on, the told the prefect, who went to see Agnes and her parents, to ask, once again, for her fair hand. Agnes told the prefect that noting in the world would make her violate the fidelity she had vowed to her first love. Symphronius reminded her and her parents that, being the son of the prefect, Agnes was not going to find a better husband than Our Boy Procopius. She still refused, and, after asking around, Symphronius was overjoyed to learn that Agnes and her family were Christians. Now he really had the power! He knew that nobody, not Agnes’ parents or the other Christians or the members of Agnes’ social class would dare stand up to her in front of the tribunal. He reminded young Agnes that she and her family could lose their social standing and become slaves or even be executed. Agnes didn’t budge; she was married to Christ and would not take another. The prefect had Agnes arrested and let her cool her heels in the dungeon for the night. The next day Agnes was brought before the prefect, who reminded her that his son wanted to marry her and that she couldn’t do any better than Our Boy Procupius. Agnes responded, “I pray you injure not my Spouse by supposing that I could allow myself to be seduced from him by vain promises. My life belongs to him who has chosen me the first." Back to the dank, dark, dungeon for Agnes!
The next morning, Agnes was brought before the prefect, who, realizing that she had not changed her mind, said, “I perceive that you will not have done with your folly, nor will you lend an ear to the counsels of wisdom until your heart is torn from the Christian superstition, whose wicked arts you practice. You are then to be consecrated to the worship of the goddess Vesta, so that if you are determined to preserve your virginity, you may, at least, devote it to watching day and night at her august altars." Agnes responded, "If I have refused a union with your son, who although under the dominion of an insensate passion, is, at least, a living man, endowed with understanding, capable of seeing, feeling, and walking; who enjoys the light of day in common with the good: if, for the love of Jesus Christ, nothing has been able to persuade me to listen to him, how could I vow to serve a deaf and dumb idol, destitute of feeling and of life? How could I so outrage the supreme God as to bow my head before a vain bit of stone?” The prefect said, “Look, I know you’re just a kid, and so your blasphemies against the gods are the result of you being young and not having reached the age of reason, but really, think about what you are saying and how you are exposing yourself to the anger of the gods!” Agnes, responding in more Archaic English, said: "Set aside this pity for my youth, and think not that I wish to make use of such a plea in order to gain your indulgence. Faith resides not in the rears of time, but in the sentiments of the heart, and the all powerful God considers rather the state of our soul than the length of our life. As to your gods, whose anger you fear on my account, leave them to their rage; let them make themselves heard, let them order that they shall be venerated, and command that they shall be adored. But since you will never obtain the object of your desires. carry out your intention without delay." Symphronius responded “ENOUGH! I’m the friggin’ PREFECT!!! What is wrong with you? So, you aren’t afraid of physical pain? Well then, I know what IS important to you: your modesty. Look, for the honor of your noble family, either sacrifice to Vesta and become one of the Holy Virgins serving at her altar, or I will have you dragged to a brothel, where the horny young men of Rome will pay good money to have at you (Symphronius was so upset that he was speaking twentieth-century English)!” Agnes responded, “Not so, Christ forgets not his own; never will he abandon to destruction that modesty so precious in his sight. He is ever present to aid the pure. He will not suffer a blemish to the honor of my virginity. Over this you have no power, although you may stain your sword in my blood. I know the omnipotence of Jesus Christ my Lord; I trust in him and despise your threats, confident that I shall neither sacrifice to your idols, nor suffer any harm. For the Lord has placed his angel near me to be my protector, and the Son of the true God, whom you know not, is my rampart and my defense; he will never fail me. Your gods, on the contrary, are made of brass, fitter for fashioning utensils for the use of man. or of stone, which would better serve to pave the public way. No, the Divinity resides not in a senseless stone, but dwells in heaven; it is not brass or other metal that constitutes a God; it is sovereign power, it is omnipotence. Know then, you and all those who imitate you, that if you forsake not the worship of idols, a fate like unto theirs is reserved for you. For even as they have been molded by tire, so their adorers will burn in flames, not to be cast into form, but to be destroyed and to perish forever." To which the prefect answered, “THAT DOES IT!! STRIP HER NAKED AND DRAG HER OFF TO THE BROTHEL AND LET THE HORNY DOGS OF ROME PAY GOOD MONEY TO HAVE THEIR WAY WITH HER!!! AAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!”
Well, the thugs stripped our Agnes of her robes, but her hair, which had been unbraided to add to her shame, grew and grew and grew until it covered her nakedness. She was brought to the Agonale Circus, where people turned from looking at her. However, an angel of the Lord accompanied her and surrounded her with a brilliant light, which prevented anyone form approaching her or even seeing her. Agnes prayed, and once she finished her prayer, she opened her eyes and saw a robe of brilliant whiteness at her feet. She donned the robe, praying “Thanks be to thee, Jesus Christ, my Lord, who hast received me into the number of thy servants, and hast sent me this garment." Everyone was amazed by what was happening, except one person: the brain-damaged Procupius, who, in an incredibly stupid move, approached the Most Holy Virgin and started talkin’ dirty! But the Angel of the Lord struck him with a bolt of lightening, and he fell to the ground, blinded and half dead. One of his stupid friends, seeing this, cried out to his Less Than Intelligent Companions: “Come on, friends; come on, Romans, come on you who fear the gods! This slut has killed the son of the prefect with her sorceries!” Some of his stupid friends said, “Yeah! Let’s git ‘er!” but others said, “I don’t know; things have been gittin’ a lil’ weird ‘roun here!” Some of the people watching even said, “Hey! She’s an innocent girl! Stop it!!”
Word got back to Symphronius that Procupius had been struck blind and half dead and came running to the circus to see ‘sup? He screamed at Agnes, “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE? WHAT KIND OF WITCHCRAFT IS THIS?” To which Agnes replied, “It is the demon, whose inspirations he followed, who has received power over his life. Why have all the others, who had the same intention, escaped a similar fate? It is because they gave honor to God, who sent his angel to my rescue. This angel has clothed me with a robe of mercy, and has protected my person, offered and consecrated to Christ from the cradle. Those, who, seeing the heavenly light, gave honor to God, have been suffered to depart unharmed and uninjured. But he, who, notwithstanding this manifestation, dared to approach me, has been struck by the angel of the Lord and suffers the penalty which you behold." The prefect, thinking “why does she talk so strangely?” said, “Look; I believe you that no witchy-funny-business took place if you’ll bring him back to life!” What kind of logic is that? To which our Girl answered, "Although your faith is not worthy to obtain such a miracle from God, yet as the time has come to manifest the divine power of Jesus Christ, my Lord, let all go away that I may speak to him in prayer." Once everyone stepped back a bit, she threw herself on the body of her cruel suitor and prayed that God would restore his life. All of the sudden, Procupius opened his eyes, took a deep breath, pushed Agnes off of him, stood up and started walking around, shouting "There is but one God in heaven, on earth, in the whole universe; He is the God of the Christians! All our temples are vain all the gods adored in them are vain! And vain as themselves is the aid expected from them." Many of those watching started shouting “THAT DOES IT!!! I’M GETTIN’ SAVED! I’M GONNA BE A CHRISTIAN!!”But others, still unconvinced and joined by the priests of the Temple of Vesta and overcome by the spirit of archaic English (which appears to be a demon of some sort; pay attention, 1928 BCP worshippers!), started shouting, “Seize the sorceress! Away with the worker of enchantments, who troubles the minds of the people, and perverts their souls!"
Now, even though he appeared to promise to release Agnes if she brought his shiftless son back to life, the prefect Symphronius was afraid of the crowd and turned over the punishment of Agnes to his ambitious lieutenant, Aspasius, the task of quelling the sedition taking place. Aspasius, overcome by ambition, became incredibly violent, and, to make the priests and pagans happy, had a great fire to be lit on which he ordered Agnes to be thrown. Agnes was tossed on the fire, but it split into two huge flames, which went left and right, burning all those on either side of the fire. Agnes, standing in the middle of the lames, raised her arms in the orans position and prayed "All powerful God, alone to be adored, alone to be feared, Father of Jesus Christ, our Lord, I bless thee! Because, through thine only Son. Thou hast saved me from the threats of those impious men, and from defilement while treading the foul places of the demon. Behold now, by thy Holy Spirit, I am penetrated as with a celestial dew. The fire is arrested and dies out before me while the flames divide and turn against those who kindled them. I bless thee, Father of love, who hast given me courage to walk intrepidly towards thee even through fire. Behold! What I have believed, I now see! What I have hoped for, I possess what I have desired, I now embrace! My lips and my heart confess thee. For thee my inmost being longs. Behold, now to thee I go, the only and true God, who, with thy Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, and with the Holy Spirit, livest and reignest forever and ever. "
Since the fire didn’t work, it was decided that Agnes would be beheaded. The crowd gathered around her, some crying, some hoping for some entertaining violence (they were Romans, you know!). When the executioner appeared, Agnes, seeing this fearful sight, exclaimed: "Oh! what a happiness! It is a fierce and barbarous man who now approaches me. Draw near I prefer your terrible countenance to that of those impassioned young men who lately threatened me. See, I acknowledge it, behold the suitor whom I love. Come then! I will go myself to meet you, not restraining the ardent desire which draws me towards you. Strike behold my breast; I want your sword to penetrate even to the bottom of my heart. Spouse of Christ, it is thus that I shall escape from the darkness of earth and rise to the abode of light. Open, oh all-powerful God, open the gates of heaven, until lately closed to man! Christ Jesus draw my soul to thyself a victim first to thee by virginal consecration, now to thy Father by martyrdom's immolation!" Then she ran eagerly to the chopping block, like a bride going to her nuptials! She bowed her head to adore her Lord, Jesus Christ, and to receive that final stroke. The executioner was put off by all this, and took a few minutes to prepare himself; he knew that this act would condemn him. He finally worked up the nerve necessary and, with a single stroke, severed Agnes’ head from her body. The stroke was so clean that she felt no pain, and her soul, freed from its prison of flesh, rose towards heaven, where the angels received her on her way, marking her progress with a shining track. According to the hymnist Prudentius, that poet of the martyrs, Agnes, as she rose towards heaven, “in passing the terrestrial globe at her feet, and casts a last look upon the darkness from which she is flying. She thrills with joy, she is in wonder at the sight of the sun moving in his orbit, with the planets revolving round him. She smiles with pity in beholding the turmoil of human existence, and the rapid flight of time, which carries away with it, kings, tyrants, empires, the pageantry of wealth and honours, which swell the heart with vanity. She regards with compassion that thirst for gold and silver, which, like a raging fever, consumes mortals, and pushes them on to every species of crime. She, pitying looks down upon palaces mean abodes they seem, erected at so great a cost; upon the vanity of ‘purple and fine linen.’ She grieves, so to speak, over the hatreds, the fears, the desires, the continual dangers of earth: its sorrows so long enduring, its joys so rapid in their flight; over that dark envy, with its lighted fire-brand, which withers every hope and tarnishes all human glory; and lastly, she sorrowfully considers the dark night of Gentile superstition, which appears to her worse than all other evils. She tramples beneath her feet all these things; she triumphantly places her heel upon the head of that cruel dragon, who sullies with his venom both earth and hell. The foot of a virgin again becomes fatal to him. and plants itself upon his inflamed crest. Vanquished, humbled, he dares no longer raise his head.”
Agnes martyrdom was a powerful image to the people of Late Antiquity, and her witness brought many to decide that change of mind and heart in which one follows God’s way instead of one’s own way. And that’s why we remember St. Agnes, holy virgin and martyr of Rome, today.