On Monday, the Calendar of Saints celebrated the life and death of one of my favorites; I’d like to share him with you today as a way of entering the season of Lent. Saint Polycarp served as bishop of Smyrna (an important port in Anatolia) in the second century. He is believed to have been a favored disciple of St. John the Apostle, which means that he learned his faith sitting at the feet of one who had sat at the feet of Jesus.
He was in his eighties when the Emperor Diocletian began a persecution of Christians that took many lives. The time was rich for martyrs, and when, at the end of a previous one, the crowds began to call for Polycarp to be next, Polycarp refused to flee. Nevertheless, when his friends pressed him and pressed him, he agreed to flee to a farm, at which he had a vision of his pillow bursting into flames. He told his friends and explained that his meant he was, indeed, to die. His friends forced him to move again, but the Roman authorities found him and came to arrest him. They were shocked to find that their prey was a venerable and courageous old man, but they brought him to the governor. The governor was reluctant to burn such an ancient and revered man and begged him to renounce Christ, but Polycarp replied, “Eighty-six years have I served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”
When they led him to the stake, Polycarp refused to be nailed to it, replying that “He who gives me power to endure the fire will grant me to remain in the flames unmoved.” So he prayed that God would find him “a rich and acceptable sacrifice.” The martyrology records that when the Romans lit the flames, the fire belled around Polycarp and refused to consume him. The Romans, however, who were no respecters of miracles, then sent a man with a dagger to dispatch him. He died in 156; the account of his death is the earliest surviving Christian martyrology.
Eighty-six years have I served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me? What I love about Polycarp’s answer (apart from it’s sublime cheekiness) is the light it sheds on the nature of fidelity. Faithfulness to Christ (faithfulness to anything) is not a matter of one minute or one decision, but of the entire direction of our lives. Eighty-six years led up to Polycarp’s death, just as they lead up to the death of any one of us. The question is what we are serving.
For what are you willing to be spent? We talk a good line now about balance, moderation, health of body and of mind, but at least in our big cities (and I suspect elsewhere as well), we speak those words while running ourselves ragged in the service of work, home, hobby. And perhaps this needs to be so. We have a deep need to give ourselves away, and to do it for something that matters. The poet Galway Kinnell writes,
you kindle can light the great sky —
though it’s true, of course, to make it burn
you have to throw yourself in….
He goes on to add:
How many nights must it take
one such as me to learn
that we aren’t, after all, made
from that bird that flies out of its ashes,
that for us
as we go up in flames, our one work
to open ourselves, to be
And so, this Lent, I ask you two questions:
Look at your life. For what are you being consumed? (Not, please notice, what do you wish to spend yourself for, but what is actually the current thrust of your life and your time?)
Then, once you have an answer, ask yourself this: What does it have to do with the love of Christ?
Have a blessed and joyful Lent, and may it bring you both penitence and new birth,
Citations from Galway Kinnell, “Another Night in the Ruins.” You can find the whole poem in Body Rags or in A New Selected Poems.
In the course of looking for images for this post, I learned that someone is about to release a movie based on Polycarp. The trailer looks really bad.