The Martyrdom of Polycarp
St. Polycarp fled from his own martyrdom, proclaimed it “in accordance with the Gospel,” and wants you to do the same.
On Sunday February 23rd, the Church celebrates the memory of one of the earliest martyrs of the faith, St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp was a son of the Church connected physically with the Apostles. He entered into his rest through martyrdom around A.D. 155 at the age of eighty-eight. Born in AD 69, the apostle John fathered him in the faith, along with the faith of his parents and family. The story of his martyrdom is one of the surviving documents we have among post-Biblical writings. It is an encouragement to live the faith and to possibly die for it, but contains instructions that may run counter to our ideas of martyrdom.
1. Don’t seek after persecution.
Polycarp didn’t, and the Church memorializes him. When persecution broke out in Smyrna, he hid, staying one step ahead of the soldiers looking to capture him. He knew he was a wanted man. Striding into the public square guaranteed his arrest, but he didn’t. He hid, and told others to do the same.
Quintus rejected the advice of his bishop. He threw himself into public, forcing soldiers to arrest him. At the moment of trial when death threatened his life, he turned and worshiped Rome, rejecting his true king and Savior. Apostasy like this terrified all Christians, and gave reason for constant prayer, vigil, fasting, and communion.
By running into the arms of persecution, the Christian forced the Roman guards into a position to murder. By hiding, the Christian might spare damage to the soul of a soldier. By making yourself a martyr, you exalted yourself trying to become a celebrity of the Christian community. The control of your own martyrdom removed it from the hands of God. No wonder such action could lead to apostasy.
2. God is praised, exalted, and obeyed.
Polycarp may have run and hid, instructing his flock to do the same. But one night, God sent him a vision that in 3 days, soldiers would arrest him and burn his body. He continued moving from house to house, until Rome found him. Escape was still possible, but he remained, saying “God’s will be done.” He did not control his martyrdom, but he placed His life in the hands of God. Even under arrest, he petitioned the soldiers, asking for time to pray. So even at the hour of his trial, he was communing with God. The soldiers marched him back to the authorities and the public, who cried for his execution. The guards tied him to a stake to burn his body. Before the flames ignited, Polycarp, like the Three Holy Youths in Daniel, cried out to the Lord in praise. Polycarp lifted his voice and said, “O Lord God Almighty…I bless You that You have counted me worthy of this day…for this reason, and for all things, I praise you, I bless You, I glorify You.”
3. Our enemies are loved and blessed.
When the soldiers came to arrest him, Polycarp embraced them with his words and brought forth a meal in an act of hospitality. They allowed him to pray undisturbed for two hours after, and during his prayer, he prayed for everyone, including his enemies and the Church. During his actual martyrdom, he never resisted or fought the soldiers as they placed him upon the pyre. Prisoners like Polycarp were nailed to the stake, but because of his calm they tied him in place.
Even the narrator of the account does not demonize those persecuting the Christians. The devil is the instigator, using men as pawns. The evil of those men is not a demonic nature but submission to the devil’s control. Thinking this way allows the Christian to love all people, even those who persecute unto death.
We live in a time where Christians are persecuted throughout the world. Even now, in Syria and Egypt, we hear stories of arrest, torture, and murder of Christians. We in the West are free from physical attack for our faith, yet we must pray for those who must undergo the ultimate trial of faith. Our prayer should support them with endurance, and also be for the salvation of the persecutors.
Those free from physical persecution should strive each day toward God, not abandoning Him in the midst of trials less fearful than death. Discipline, communion, and prayer must be part of our lives so that we will hold fast to our God now and at the hour of our death.