Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Perpetua and Felicitas, Martyrs, Mothers, Brave to the End

The emperor Septimus Severus decided that the Jewish and Christian religions must be curtailed if Rome was truly to rule and command the masses it lorded over. There was no room for any other lord within the iron grip of the Roman empire and Septimus Severus had finally decided on one very specific way to put an end to non-Roman allegiance: outlaw conversion upon penalty of death. To further strengthen the decree he made it retroactive a number of months. Perpetua and her servant Felicitas were recent converts and they were caught up in the chaos of legalized death and persecution. Before the authorities could seize them, they were baptized by the priests of their congregation even as they knew this was signing their own arrest warrant. They along with a few others were arrested and imprisoned for the crime of their faith. Perpetua had just given birth to a baby boy and Felicitas was nearly eight months pregnant when they were imprisoned.

As a new mother, Perpetua was in pain and desperate to nurse her baby who had not yet been weaned. She suffered in her cell and struggled to maintain her faith even with the aid and comfort of her new sister Felicitas. Two deacons from her congregation bribed the jailer and secreted Perpetua's son into the jail. Perpetua nursed her baby boy and would remark that this single act of mercy by the deacons confirmed her faith in her in a powerful way. Further, it gave her renewed resolve to withstand the tortures that most surely awaited her and Felicitas. She wrote that after that blissful moment she felt as if her prison cell had become a palace. They were given something resembling a trial and given an opportunity to renounce their faith and save their lives. They refused and were taken back to prison with the words of their punishments ringing in their ears--"Cast them to the wild beasts and let them be torn to pieces."

That night Perpetua was visited by three significant events. Her father came to her carrying his grandson--Perpetua's baby boy--and begged her to reconsider her faith. He first pleaded and then commanded her to renounce her faith so that she might be a mother to her baby. Perpetua held fast and insisted that if she renounced her faith then she would not be a boon to her son but only a disgrace. After her father left she had a vision wherein she stepped on the head of a dragon and climbed a rickety ladder to a meadow of great pastoral peace. From the vision she found great peace and it further renewed her resolve to be martyred. Finally, she went to Felicitas who feared that she might not be allowed to be martyred with the others because of her pregnancy. As she was telling this fear to Perpetua and they were praying over it, she went into labor and delivered her own healthy child. In the morning, they were marched to the amphitheatre where they would be martyred and Felicitas carried her newborn baby with her. Christians accompanied them on the march and Felicitas gave over her daughter to a Christian woman so that the child might be raised in the Faith for which her mother was willing to die.

Once they were in the amphitheatre, they were whipped and beaten before the bloodthirsty crowd. Wild animals were released into the arena to kill the Christians and all but Perpetua and Felicitas were soon dead. Perpetua and Felicitas were mortally wounded but this was not enough for the fierce crowd. They gave each other the Christian "kiss of peace" as their executioner approached with his sword. He killed Felicitas and then turned to Perpetua. He was shaking at the thought of yet more murder and so Perpetua guided the blade of his sword to her neck and gave him silent permission to perpetrate the Empire's atrocities. 

Although the execution in the Coliseum was intended as entertainment, and enjoyed as such by most of the jeering crowd, some of the spectators, inspired by the martyrs' fearlessness, became converts; nor were these spectators the last people who would be encouraged by Perpetua and Felicity, who, even at the cost of their lives, worshipped God and not the state. They are celebrated on March 7. 

No comments:

Post a Comment