Wednesday, February 25, 2015

St. Agnes of Rome (292-304 AD) : A Model of Sacrificial Purity by Chris White

St. Agnes "Pure"

Piazza Navona in Rome Italy
In present day Rome is a site popular with tourists called the Piazza Navona.  It has three fountains that are considered Baroque masterpieces and adding to its charm are many sidewalk café’s, gelato stands, street musicians, artists, and entertainers.  On a beautiful summer night, this is truly one of the more magical spots in all of Italy. 

On the western side of the oblong piazza stands a church.  It too is a masterpiece of the Baroque although some have criticized the façade of the Church as being poorly designed.  Not being qualified to evaluate such things, I simply accept St. Agnese in Agone Church as it is and enjoy the lovely art treasures inside caring little about building symmetry and the like.

St. Agnese en Agone Church

But behind the beautiful art and all the activities and entertainments of the piazza is a story of Christian heroism that is quite important .  At the end of the first century, the Emperor Domitian built a stadium with seating for 30,000 people on that very site.  It was a popular place for horse racing and gladiatorial games and was in use until the 5th century when it was abandoned and its materials were repurposed in many other buildings and homes around Rome.  It was here that a young Christian girl known to us as Agnes was martyred for her Christian faith at the tender age of 13.  Her story has continued to inspire Christians and people of all persuasions ever since. 
Artistic Model of Domitian Stadium

Piazza footprint of Domitian Stadium

In March of 303 AD, faced with all sorts of internal and external pressures, the emperor of the Roman Empire named Diocletian launched an all-out assault on the Christian church.  Typical with despotic rulers, if things aren’t going well, scapegoating a segment of the population is a good way to divert unwanted attention on your own leadership failures.  The reasoning goes like this: (1) things used to be great in the Roman Empire (at least for the elite classes); (2) Rome was founded on loyalty to the ancient  gods; (3) This one group does not respect or sacrifice to our gods; (4) therefore, destroy this one group and all problems will dissipate and our normal good fortunes will return.

In the case of the Diocletian persecution, the picture is not wholly unlike what happened to the Jews in Hitler’s Germany in the 20th century except that the Christians as a whole were a much larger segment of the populace.  Diocletian started with the prohibition of Christian meetings and then moved to the razing of any church buildings, imprisonment of church leaders, destruction of the Scriptures, and finally a mandatory requirement that anyone accused of being a Christian was required to make a sacrifice to the pagan gods of Rome upon pain of death.  In some parts of the Roman Empire, Christians were sent to “work camps” where they were essentially executed by being underfed and worked to death.  Eusebius, the early Christian historian, who was contemporaneous with these events, said in some locales, the jails were so full of Christians there was no room for criminals anymore.  Although this persecution slackened a bit with the unprecedented retirement of Diocletian in 305, it was continued in his successors until 313 when the Edict of Milan effectively brought freedom of religion to all people within the Roman world under Constantine.

There are several traditions regarding St. Agnes which seem to emphasize different facets of her story.  Rather than present them separately, I am going to synthesize them into a single narrative leaving it to the reader to do further research if they are inclined to know the other alternatives.

Agnes was born in 292 to an upper class Roman family.  It is believed the entire family was practicing Christians although the current times required them to keep a low profile about their faith.  The Prefect of Rome (a mayor with power) at the time was named Sempronius.  He knew Agnes and her family and really wanted her to marry his son Procop.  She was apparently quite a beautiful person both in appearance and personality and therefore quite a “catch” for any young man.  Agnes was approached with a marriage proposal a couple of times which she refused on the basis that she had consecrated her life to Jesus Christ and intended on living as a virgin. 
English version of Agnes

 In today’s sexual economy this may sound absurd, but it has a long tradition in the Christian church and is found in the Scriptures in 1 Corinthians chapter 7.  The purpose of such a consecration had nothing to do with the idea that sex and marriage were inherently evil, something the Bible does not teach, but rather this mode of life was a means of diverting all of your energy and attention on the pursuit of God.  The phrase often used by those in that station in life was “my spouse is Jesus Christ and my heart belongs totally to Him.”  Agnes couldn’t have made such vow without her parent’s consent at her age and so the refusal of marriage proposals was also with their permission.

Whether it was boldness, impetuosity, or simply the knowledge that her tender age exempted her from criminal punishment under Roman law, Agnes spoke quite freely about her consecration to Jesus Christ and that she was unavailable for a marriage contract.  After her second refusal of marriage to his son and the spurning of the offer of many gifts if she would change her mind, Sempronius went to the local courts to report Agnes as a Christian.

There might have been some politics involved in Agnes’s case that went beyond just her youth because when she appeared before the court, the governor made her lavish promises if she would publicly renounce her faith and then treated her with extreme harshness when she wouldn’t comply.  On either side of the equation, Agnes was a high profile example and useful to the Roman government for propaganda purposes.  To renounce her faith would provide a powerful testimony to the community that nothing is worth dying for especially your religion, to cling to her faith would give opportunity for the government to show just how cruel they can be in punishing those who do not comply with their policies.

When Agnes explained that she was virgin consecrated to Jesus Christ alone, the governor set about to torment her before having her executed.  Agnes was condemned to die and it is said she faced this prospect with the joy of a woman on her wedding day.  But the governor hoped that the miseries he had planned for her might cause her to reconsider her manner of life.

First, Agnes was sentenced to live in a well-known brothel next to the stadium of Domitian where the prostitutes serviced those attending the games and races there.  In Rome, a young virgin girl could not be given a death sentence, but if the girl was living as a prostitute, then the situation changes.  When game-day arrived,  Agnes was stripped naked along with the other prostitutes, and brought into the stadium much like a half-time commercial on a ball game today.  A different product to be sure, but the marketing strategy was still same.

Agnes covered by hair

There are a couple of traditions at this point in the story that may or may not be true but certainly add to the story.  The first one is that when Agnes was stripped naked and brought before the crowd, which would have been utter humiliation for a chaste young girl of her character,  God caused the hair on her head to suddenly and spontaneously grow to cover her private parts.  The second story is that a man at the arena who wanted to purchase her services.  When he came down and tried to touch her, he died suddenly.  Agnes told the guard detail that was leading her around that an angel unseen to them but visible to her was protecting her.  To prove this she prayed and the man was brought to life.  Did this actually happen?  We don’t know.  Could it actually happen?  I think the same God who says not hair on your head or a sparrow in the air falls to the ground without his knowledge and permission
 ( Lk.21:18, Mt. 10:29) is more than capable of helping a person in this manner.

When this was reported to the governor, he ordered that Agnes be taken to be burned alive as a pagan sacrifice.  Since she wanted to be a holy virgin to God, she was to be made an offering by fire to Minerva.  When the fire was lit beneath her rather than consume her, it continually went out.  The Lord was not going to allow her to become a sacrifice to anyone but Himself.

Finally it was decided to put Agnes to the sword. The Roman guard who was dispatched to decapitate her, cut her throat instead causing her to die quickly and mercifully.  For this reason iconography depicts her with a lamb (because lambs have their throats cut before they are used as a sacrifice) to symbolize her as a pure sacrifice before God.  This happened in a support room at the stadium of Domitian.

At the time of this incident, the harsh treatment and execution of Agnes was a shock and scandal to the citizens of Rome and brought pressure to bear on the government to bring an end to persecution of Christian citizens.  Not only was Agnes admired as an example of steadfast faith as she innocently endured evil, but was held forth as a model of purity and chastity for both women and men.  The name Agnes actually means “pure and chaste.”
Agnes as sacrificial lamb at sword

It is important to remember Agnes’ steadfast devotion was not the result of her great efforts or maturity, but really was made possible by the support of God given to her in her time of trial.  Agnes’ story was immortalized in her own generation when Constantine the Great built a church in her honor at the urging of his daughter Constanzia who visited her memorial shrine in Rome and claimed she had been healed of a disease.

January 21st is her memorial day on the calendars of the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches.  Since medieval times there has been a curious custom related to her feast.  If an unmarried woman skips her supper on the eve of the feast of St. Agnes, that night she will see her future husband in her dreams.  Of course, that being a true thing would be a terrific comfort to some women and to others, perhaps warning enough to pursue the path of St. Agnes herself and becoming the spouse of Jesus alone.

Reliquary with Agnes' Skull

“Agnes, Saint”  Saints and Angels Catholic Online. 20 Feb. 2015

“Agnes, Saint”  Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2005. 20 Feb. 2015

“Agnes, Saint and Martyr”  Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature Vol. 1  McClintock and Strong eds.  (Grand Rapids : Baker Books, 1981)

“Saint Agnes of Rome”  20 Feb. 2015

“Agnes”  Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity Vol. 1.  Angelo Di Berardino Gen. Ed.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity Press, 2014)

Cairns, Earle E.  Christianity Through The Centuries.  (Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1981)

Chidester, David  Christianity : A Global History.  (San Francisco : HarperSanFrancisco, 2000)

Guy, Laurie  Introducing Early Christianity: A Topical Survey of Its Life, Beliefs & Practices  (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2004)

Kirsch, Johann Peter  “Saint Agnes of Rome”  The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 1  (New York : Robert Appleton Company, 1907)  20 Feb. 2015

Saint of the Day: Lives, Lessons, and Feasts  Edited and Revised by Leonard Foley O.F.M. and Pat McCloskey O.F.M. (Cincinnati : St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001)

Todescato, Gianni  A Brief Guide to St. Agnese in Agone.  (Rome : LazziRoma, 2009)

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