Saturday, January 29th, 2022

‘Si fieri potest’: a Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany

If it be possible, as much as it is in you, having peace with all men . . . Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good (Romans 12).

This afternoon I would preach a homily in honor of two of the Roman Church’s martyr’s. On Friday, we had the festival of St Agnes; today, we commemorate her foster-sister, Emerentiana.

When considering the martyrs, we can slip into an unconscious mistake about them, namely, by regarding them as solitary heroes. Doubtless the martyrs are heroes; but they are heroes not without a context; and such contexts make us appreciate the saints all the more. 

For Agnes and Emerentiana, that context is Rome at the end of the third century. Diocletian is emperor. Thus, it is not a time safe for Christians. St Agnes, a daughter of a patrician family, rebuffs every potential suitor who comes her way.  One suitor—the son of the governor—goes away not only sick and spurned, but angered. Thus St Agnes finds herself denounced as a Christian and her life is under threat. It is worth noting that this biographical pattern exists in a number of virgin-martyrs of the Roman calendar. (Most notably, St Agatha, celebrated on 5 Feb.)

Her captors attempt to break her will and her modesty by dragging her to a brothel, but there she is unharmed. A pyre is prepared for her, but the flames do not harm her. At length, she is beheaded. One of the antiphons during the course of the Night Office quotes her: “The One of whose beauty the sun and the moon stand in wonder, to this One alone I pledge my confidence!”

Two days later, her foster-sister, the catechumen Emerentiania is praying at St Agnes’ tomb. A group of young men overtake her and stone her to death.

Remember what we said before about context. Sts Agnes and Emerentiana make their witness during the Diocletian persecution; and though it is painful to admit, for every martyr, there is an apostate. How many fallen away Catholics stood in the crowds that attended the deaths of these martyrs? Only at the final judgement will we know the statistics. But the martyrs also force upon us the reality of apostasy. 

But this is well if it humbles us. The prospect of our infidelity in the face of dire struggle ought to make us more desperate for the grace which Christ gives, more confidently reliant on the divine assistance. This explains, in part, the purpose of the sacred liturgy for us. 

However, when it comes to ourselves, St Paul explains one of the dynamics of martyrdom in Romans ch 12, the passage I quoted above: “If it be possible, as much as it is in you, have peace with all men.” Words for martyrs and for us. The martyr, because he or she is first a Catholic, strives earnestly to live at peace with everyone. The martyr and the Christian is no provocateur. But because we journey through a fallen world, this peace is not always possible: a crisis point is reached in the life of the martyr, where peace is no longer possible—not because of any fault of his, but because the life of grace is pressing against the wounds of ignorance and wickedness. The Gospel stands for things, asserts things, and changes things in a human life. But there are forces that oppose the Gospel; and it is these forces of opposition that we often mean when we say the world

It must be said that each of us has had this experience in miniature; St Paul is not speaking to martyrs only. And the command he gives—“Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good”—is of course pertinent for our times. But St Paul could command peace because of what our Lord had previously said on the night he was betrayed:

Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, do I give unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be afraid.[1]

There is more to say on the matter. But the point for now is this: at times we use the language of heroism to speak of the martyrs, and we do this after the fact, fittingly. But no martyr ever used this language of himself; no martyr regarded himself or herself as anything other than a Catholic, trying to leave at peace with all men.


[John 14, 27.]

{Art Credit: El Greco, Madonna and Child with St Martina and St Agnes, c. 1597}

Homilies & Sermons