Feast of St. Agnes 2017
St. Thomas' Women's Retreat homily
May the words I speak and the words you hear be God's alone. Amen.
Today we are celebrating the feast of St. Agnes of Rome. Agnes lived in Rome in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. This was a time of major persecution by the Roman emperor, Diocletian, who was no friend to Christianity. Under his command, churches and scriptures were destroyed, and Christians were brutally tortured and killed.
We don’t know a whole lot about Agnes, but we do know her name means “pure” in Greek and “lamb” in Latin. This is fitting, because Agnes was only 12 or 13 when she was executed for her faith. As you can imagine, her young age caused people to question the leadership of Rome. Was the emperor so weak that he felt a little girl was a threat? Killing a virgin was against the law; therefore, it was hypocritical for Rome to say Christians were destroying the old ways when they themselves were ignoring old ways to kill them. And finally, if a little girl was able to face her death without fear, then maybe there was something powerful about Christianity.
Agnes’ martyrdom in 304 shook the empire and helped to bring about the end of the Diocletian Persecution. Within 9 years of her death, Rome’s new emperor, Constantine, had declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire.
We celebrate martyrs like St. Agnes because their witness to Christ inspires us to face the troubles of our own day with courage and faith. In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are those who have the humility of children. Through the life and death of young Agnes and martyrs like her, as the collect says, God has used “those whom the world deems powerless to put the powerful to shame.”
Throughout history, women have been deemed powerless. We have had to work and fight and negotiate and protest just to have our voices heard. In this work, we have had strong women and girls to guide us: Mary, the teenaged, unwed mother of Jesus who spoke of God’s incarnation as the catalyst of flipping the world order; Joan of Arc, whose visions and courage inspired the French during the 100 Year’s War; Sojourner Truth, who fought for civil rights and women’s suffrage; and more recently Saint Mother Teresa, whose life spent living among and caring for the poorest of the poor in India earned her the Nobel Peace Prize and eventually sainthood. These women and millions more have bravely stood up to “put the powerful to shame.”
You and I will most likely not achieve what these women did in their lifetimes, but we find courage in their devotion and witness to Christ. And we find strength when we gather (like we are today) to hear of God’s love and mercy and justice, and then take and eat and become the Body of Christ. The Good News is that, as Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, we can take heart because God resides within each one of us (2 Cor 6:16). God makes God’s self at home in our hearts. With that knowledge, we can face whatever comes our way.
Fourth Century Icon of St. Agnes in Rome
image found here