Today is the feast of St. Cecilia, a young woman who was martyred in Rome around the year 230. She is the patron saint of musicians because, according to the Acts of Cecilia, she heard heavenly music on her way to her wedding. She was one of the most venerated martyrs of the Ancient Church and her feast has been celebrated in the Roman Church since the fourth century. The Acts of Cecilia was written in the fifth century, and its text was the basis for the version in the Golden Legend, a collection of the lives of saints written in the thirteenth century. What follows is my retelling of the story of Cecilia according to the version of the tale in the Golden Legend.
St. Cecilia was born of noble Roman lineage. Her parents were Christians and Cecilia was baptized as a baby. She “fostered and nourished the faith of Christ from the time she lay in her cradle,” she kept the gospel in her heart and said prayers day and night. At an early age she dedicated herself to remain a virgin. Her parents arranged a marriage with a young man named Valerian even though he was not a Christian. When the day of her wedding came, she heard heavenly music and sang in her soul, “O Lord, I pray that my heart and body may remain pure so that I may not be confused or perplexed.” That night, when she and Valerian retired to the Wedding Chamber, she said, “My sweet, beloved husband. I have a secret to tell you. Promise that you will tell no one what I am about to share with you.” Valerian was curious and promised to tell no one. Cecilia said, “I have an angel that loves me and protects my body whether I am asleep or awake. I have dedicated myself to be a virgin for the glory of God, and I am afraid that if you try to take my virginity the angel will kill you. But if you promise to love me only in a holy and pure manner, he will love you as I love you and will protect you, too.” Well, as one might expect, this wasn’t exactly what Valerian wanted to hear on his wedding night, and he said, “If you want me to believe this, I will have to see this angel. And if it turns out that there is no angel and that you love someone else, I swear that I will kill both you and your lover with my own sword!” Cecilia said, “If you believe and are baptized, you will see the angel.” She then told Valerian to to the Via Appia, three miles outside of Rome. There he would see the Bishop of Rome, Pope Urban, working with the poor and the sick. Valerian was to tell the pope what Cecilia said and listen to the pope, and if he believed what Pope Urban said, be baptized. Valerian followed instructions, and Pope Urban was happy to talk with him and baptize him. Pope Urban said, "One God, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of all, above all, and in us all, everywhere. Do you believe this?” Valerian responded, “There is nothing truer under heaven!” and was baptized. Then he returned to Cecilia and the Wedding Chamber. When he entered the Wedding Chamber he saw Cecilia talking with an angel. The angel had two crowns of roses and lilies. He gave one to Cecilia and one to Valerian and said, “Keep these crowns with a pure and undefiled body for I have brought them from Paradise and they will never fade or lose their scent or wither. They can only be seen by those who live chaste and pure lives. And because you listened and followed Cecilia’s wise counsel, what ever you wish shall be granted to you, Valerian.” Valerian told the angel, “There is no one in this world more dear to me than my brother, and I want him to know the truth of the gospel, too.” The angel replied, “Your petition pleases our Lord, and you both will come to him by the palm of martyrdom.” A few days later, Tyburtius, Valerian’s brother, came to visit the newlyweds. He was amazed because he smelled roses and lilies but didn’t see any in the room. Valerian told him that he and Cecilia had crowns of flowers which he couldn’t see, but if he believed he would see them, and he then preached the gospel to his brother. Tyburtius was converted that day and baptized by Pope Urban. After that he saw angels everyday and was constantly blessed by God.
Almachius, provost of Rome, was persecuting Christians and many were being executed for refusing to offer incense to the image of Jupiter. Valerian and Tyburtius were burying the martyrs and giving their goods to the poor. Word of their activities spread throughout the city, and Almachius had them called before him and ordered them to sacrifice to the image of Jupiter. They refused and were condemned to be beheaded. They were taken four miles outside of the city and beheaded, and Cecilia took their bodies and buried them. The man who arrested them, Maximus, was converted by their preaching. He went home and preached to his household and friends, and they, too were converted. Cecilia came to his house with priests and all were baptized. When Almachius heard that Maximus had converted and was baptized, he had Maximus beaten with whips with lead tips until he died. Cecilia took Maximus’ body and buried it with Valerian and Tyburtius. When Almachius heard of Cecilia’s activities, he had her arrested, too. She was brought to court, where she preached to the judges and lawyers. She converted them all to the faith, and they were crying to think that such a beautiful young woman should be condemned to death. She said to them, “Oh you good young men, I will not lose my youth, but change it into something more valuable, like changing clay into gold or a dirty place into a beautiful, clean palace. God will reward a hundred fold for one small gift of life. Do you believe what I have said?” They all answered, “We believe Christ to be very God and you are his servant.” Then Pope Urban was called and four hundred people were baptized that day! Almachius had Cecilia brought before him and questioned her, but she showed him no respect at all. He said, “Do you realize what power I have?” She replied, “Your power is nothing to fear, it is like a bladder full of wind which disappears when pricked with a needle and never meant anything to anyone.” He said, “I have the power to have you executed. Now sacrifice to Jupiter.” She refused, of course, and was condemned to death. Cecilia was taken home and condemned to be suffocated in her bath; the heat was turned up to its highest level, and should have suffocated her, but when the soldiers came in hoping to find her lifeless body, the room was cool and comfortable and she was quite alive. Almachius then ordered that she be beheaded in her bathroom. The executioner struck her neck three times with his sword but was unable to behead her. He left her there in her own blood, half alive and half dead, for three days. She continued to preach and made arrangements that all her goods go to the poor. She sent many people to Pope Urban to be baptized, saying, “ I asked God to let me live three more days so that I could commend these souls to you and ask that my house be used as a church.” Then she died and Pope Urban and the deacons took her body and buried her among the bishops and consecrated her house to be used as a church.
Sometimes it is difficult to prove that some of the martyrs of the Early Church actually existed, they are often simply a name on a martyrology, or list of martyrs. Cecilia Valerian, and Tyburtius’ names all appear in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum of Rome. It appears that her house actually was made into a church; records show that the building known as the church of St. Cecilia belonged to Gens Caecilia (Cecilia’s Family) and was donated to the church in Rome. So although the story from The Golden Legend contains elements which are difficult to believe, especially that a heterosexual man would agree to a marriage like that of Cecilia and Valerian, and while the angel seems more like a genie than a divine messenger, there is a good chance that there really was a Cecilia, Valerian, and Tyburtius. St. Cecilia was a young woman totally dedicated to Christ and the Church. The threat of death did not stop her from doing the work of the gospel, and even with her dying breath she gave all she had to the Lord. That is why she was held in such high esteem by Christians from the fifth century through the Middle Ages and that is why we remember her and her witness today.
Lord of mercy, be close to those who call upon you, with Saint Cecilia to help us hear and answer our prayers. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.