08 March 2009

'A Glorious & Noble Martyrdom'—Hieromartyr Polycarp of Smyrna

Today, 23 February on the Church’s calendar, was the feast of the Hieromartyr Polycarp of Smyrna, who suffered sometime just after the middle of the second century. According to Michael Holmes, ‘By any standard Polycarp must be reckoned as one of the more notable figures in the early postapostolic church’ (Michael W. Holmes, ed. and rev., The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., trans. J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996], p. 119). A disciple of St Ignatius of Antioch, he served the Church as a bishop for at least forty and perhaps as many as sixty years or more, before being burned and stabbed to death by the Roman authorities at the age of eighty-six.

One of St Polycarp’s own disciples, St Irenaeus of Lyons, has left us an eloquent and moving testimony concerning his elder in his great work Against Heresies (III.3.4; ET in Robert M. Grant, ed. and trans. Irenaeus of Lyons [London: Routledge, 1997], p. 126):

And there is Polycarp, who not only was taught by the apostles and conversed with many who had seen the Lord, but also was established by apostles in Asia in the church at Smyrna. We ourselves saw him in our early youth, for he lived long and was in extreme old age when he left this life in a most glorious and noble martyrdom. He always taught the doctrine he had learned from the apostles, which he delivered to the church, and it alone is true.

Concerning the ‘most glorious and noble martyrdom’ of St Polycarp, we are blessed to have still extant an epistle from the Smyrnaeans to the Church of Philomelium—commonly called the Martyrdom of Polycarp—which seems to be the product of eyewitnesses to the bishop’s holy contest ‘in accord with the pattern of the gospel of Christ’ (Holmes, p. 143). I shall give a few excerpts from it.

First, it is to be noted that towards the end the epistle speaks of ‘the training and preparation of those who will’ suffer martyrdom ‘in the future’ (Holmes, p. 136). The rôle and necessity of this period of training and preparation is a common feature in the many accounts of Christian martyrdom from this, the earliest such account outside of the New Testament, to our own day (see, for example, the accounts of the Holy Martyr Onuphrius and the Martyr Abo the Perfumer of Baghdad, which I have posted on before). As we shall see, despite his many years of refinement in the Christian life, St Polycarp himself passed through such a period:

5. Now the most admirable Polycarp, when he first heard the news [that he was to be arrested], was not disturbed. In fact, he wanted to remain in town, but the majority persuaded him to withdraw. So he withdrew to a farm not far distant from the city, and there he stayed with a few companions, doing nothing else night and day except praying for everyone and for the churches throughout the world, for this was his constant habit. And while he was praying he fell into a trance three days before his arrest, and he saw his pillow being consumed by fire. And he turned and said to those who were with him: ‘It is necessary that I be burned alive.’ (Holmes, p. 137)

The story of St Polycarp’s exchange with the magistrate after entering the stadium is perhaps the most stirring passage in the Martyrdom. Here it is in part:

9. But as Polycarp enetered the stadium, there came a voice from heaven: ‘Be strong, Polycarp, and act like a man.’ And no one saw the speaker, but those of our people who were present heard the voice. . . . (2) . . . And when he confessed that he was [Polycarp], the proconsul tried to persuade him to recant, saying, ‘Have respect for your age,’ and other such things as they are accustomed to say: ‘Swear by the Genius of Caesar; repent; say, “Away with the atheists!”’ So Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd of lawless heathen who were in the stadium, motioned toward them with his hand, and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, ‘Away with the atheists!’ (3) But when the magistrate persisted and said, ‘Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ,’ Polycarp replied, ‘For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’

10. But as he continued to insist, saying, ‘Swear by the Genius of Caesar,’ he answered: ‘If you vainly suppose that I will swear by the Genius of Caesar, as you request, and pretend not to know who I am, listen carefully: I am a Christian. Now if you want to learn the doctrine of Christianity, name a day and give me a hearing.’ . . .

11. So the proconsul said: ‘I have wild beasts; I will throw you to them, unless you change your mind.’ But he said: ‘Call for them! For the repentance from better to worse is a change impossible for us; but it is a noble thing to change from that which is evil to righteousness.’ (2) Then he said to him again: ‘I will have you consumed by fire, since you despise the wild beasts, unless you change your mind.’ But Polycarp said: ‘You threaten with a fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished, for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you wish.’ (Holmes, pp. 138-9)

The description of St Polycarp’s death itself is no less astonishing. The hieromartyr refused to be nailed to the stake, saying, ‘Leave me as I am; for he who enables me to endure the fire will also enable me to remain on the pyre without moving, even without the sense of security which you get from the nails’ (Holmes, p. 140). He then offered a moving prayer, blessing God for counting him worthy to be numbered among those martyred for Christ, ‘as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as you have prepared and revealed beforehand’ (Holmes, p. 141). Then the narrative continues:

15. When he had offered up the ‘Amen’ and finished his prayer, the men in charge of the fire lit the fire. And as a mighty flame blazed up, we saw a miracle (we, that is, to whom it was given to see), and we have been preserved in order that we might tell the rest what happened. (2) For the fire, taking the shape of an arch, like the sail of a ship filled by the wind, completely surrounded the body of the martyr; and it was there in the middle, not like flesh burning but like bread baking or like gold and silver being refined in a furnace. For we also perceived a very fragrant odor, as if it were the scent of incense or some other precious spice.

16. When the lawless men eventually realized that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they ordered an executioner to go up to him and stab him with a dagger. And when he did this, there came out a large quantity of blood, so that it extinguished the fire; and the whole crowd was amazed that there should be so great a difference between the unbelievers and the elect. (2) Among them most certainly was this man, the most remarkable Polycarp, who proved to be an apostolic and prophetic teacher in our time, bishop of the holy church in Smyrna. For every word which came from his mouth was accomplished and will be accomplished.

Finally, there is an interesting account of the disposal of St Polycarp’s relics. It seems that these received a second cremation, since, as we have seen, the first had not truly removed the flesh and there was a notion that the Christians should not be allowed to venerate it and thus ‘begin to worship this man’ (Holmes, p. 142). This occasions some instructive words in chapter 17.2 and following from the author of the epistle on the nature of Christian veneration of the Saints, for the unbelievers—

did not know that we will never be able either to abandon the Christ who suffered for the salvation of the whole world of those who are saved, the blameless on behalf of sinners, or to worship anyone else. (3) For this one, who is the Son of God, we worship, but the martyrs we love as disciples and imitators of the Lord, as they deserve, on account of their matchless devotion to their own King and Teacher. May we also become their partners and fellow disciples!

18. The centurion, therefore, seeing the opposition raised by the Jews, set it in the middle and cremated it, as is their custom. (2) And so later on we took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and deposited them in a suitable place. (3) There gathering together, as we are able, with joy and gladness, the Lord will permit us to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom in commemoration of those who have already fought in the contest, and for the training and preparation of those who will do so in the future. (Holmes, p. 142)

A Protestant friend of mine just recently discovered St Polycarp through David Bercot’s interesting book, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up: A New Look at Today’s Evangelical Church in the Light of Early Christianity (Tyler, TX: Scroll, 1989), where the hieromartyr is described as ‘a model of faith and devotion’ (p. 8). Although I do not agree with Bercot’s ecclesiology nor, thus, with all of his conclusions, much of the basic idea of this book strikes me as very Orthodox. The first chapter (pp. 1-4) is simply a retelling of much of the Martyrdom of Polycarp, and it ends with these interesting words:

By burning Polycarp, the people of Smyrna thought they would blot out his name forever and bring an end to the hated superstition called Christianity. But like the proconsul, they grossly underestimated the vitality and conviction of the Christians. Rather than intimidating other Christians, the death of Polycarp inspired them. Rather than disappearing, Christianity grew.

Ironically, what the Romans couldn’t accomplish was eventually accomplished by professing Christians themselves. Today, the name of Polycarp has been largely forgotten, and the Christianity of his day is unknown to most westerners. (Bercot, p. 4)

It is a ringing indictment of the Protestant, and particularly, the evangelical world for its amnesia concerning these precious champions of the Faith. But thanks to God, St Polycarp and all of the holy Martyrs and Fathers of the Church have continued to be commemorated by the Orthodox since the very foundation of the Church.

There is an excellent collection of resources on St Polycarp here, and my friend, Justin Martyr, has posted on him here and here. I shall give a brief excerpt from St Polycarp's own epistle in a later post.


Justin said...

I look forward to your post on his epistle. Thank you for posting this.

I hope more modern Christians will fight the amnesia and remember that, as the 'Martyrdom' text confirms, it was the early Christians themselves who first venerated the departed Saints. It was not a Roman invention or pagan corruption.

It is right to venerate the memory of Blessed Polycarp and all the Saints. Holy Polycarp, pray for us and teach us your courage.

Esteban Vázquez said...

I do no regret that it is now St Gregory Palamas rather than St Polycarp who is commemorated on the Second Sunday of Lent, but I do wish that St Polycarp's commemoration in the Menaion hadn't fallen, as it were, by the wayside.