Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Noble Saint with the Funny Name
I LOVE today's saint, but his name, so unfamiliar in our culture, has always been a bit of a stumbling block for me. Polycarp means "fruitful" and he certainly was, dying a martyr's death at age 86.

The bishop Polycarp was one of the last members of a generation that had actually known the Apostles and received the Gospel from them. Polycarp was a disciple of St John like his friend, the blessedly heroic St Ignatius of Antioch (traditionally identified with the little child whom Christ pointed to as an example for the Twelve). Polycarp's martyrdom took place decades after that of Ignatius. Martyred at an advanced age, he is more of a contemporary of St Justin, the Roman writer who gave us such a detailed description of Christian worship in his time, a description that in many ways still fits today.

Justin explained that in that Sunday worship, the presider offered a long prayer of thanksgiving over the gifts of bread and wine, "giving thanks to the best of his ability" for the grace that has been shown us in Jesus. There is something of an echo of this in the eyewitness account of the bishop Polycarp's martyrdom. In fact, the Christians of Smyrna (present day Izmir, Turkey) carefully wrote up a transcript of Polycarp's trial and then described his martyrdom, making multiple copies of this document so that it could be shared with the other Churches of Asia, the way the letters of Ignatius and of Paul had been distributed in the same areas. When the copies were wearing out, new copies were made and the scribes added their name and short note at the end. (Thanks, Gaius! Thanks, Pionius!)

As Polycarp was tied to the stake, he began to pray, summing up his whole life in God's presence in words that sound very much like the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass. It only makes sense: in the Mass, we do offer ourselves along with the bread and wine, and we hope that we will be transformed, body and soul, into a living presence of Jesus. After a long life, leading prayers from the altar every Sunday for his community, Polycarp had no better words to use in commending his spirit to the Lord. Maybe Polycarp's last words can inspire your own prayer at the Offertory of the Mass:
O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of You, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before you, I give You thanks that You have counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Your martyrs, in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as You, the ever-truthful God, have foreordained, have revealed beforehand to me, and now have fulfilled.
Wherefore also I praise You for all things, I bless You, I glorify You, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, with whom, to You, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.

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