In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
A patron is a “saint who is regarded as the intercessor and advocate in heaven of a nation, place, craft, activity, class, or person.”1 Here at Ascension and Saint Agnes, our patroness is Agnes, and she is depicted in the mural over the high altar. There’s also an altar and a window devoted to her on the epistle side of the sanctuary, and if you look at the window you see her name at the top and, underneath, a lamb because it symbolizes virginal innocence and because the Latin for lamb, agnus, is similar to Agnes. But around the lamb are harsh implements of torture – a dagger, a pyre, a sword – because the Acta Sanctorum from the Fifth Century tells us Agnes was martyred by the Roman Emperor Diocletian around the year 305 when she was only thirteen years old. One source says she became a Christian when she was ten, and she got in trouble when she rebuffed the advances of a high Roman official and told him: “The one to whom I am betrothed is Christ whom the angels serve. He was the first to choose me. I shall be his alone.”2 Notice the dove descending with a ring in its beak symbolizing her betrothal to Christ. The legends say Agnes was thrown into a brothel, but only one man dared touch her, and when he was struck blind for his trespass, Agnes prayed for him and he was healed. The accounts say Agnes was beaten, mocked, stripped naked in the street and, finally, sentenced to death:
A fire was kindled, and when she was placed on the pyre she prayed, “Thy Name I bless and glorify, world without end. I confess Thee with my lips, and with my heart I altogether desire Thee.” When she had finished praying, it was found that the fire had extinguished itself. Then they bound her with fetters, but the fetters fell from her. She was killed in the end by a sword, and after her death crowds followed her to her grave.3
Some dismiss these accounts as fairy-tales, but I’m not so sure we don’t have much to learn from Agnes, even if whatever actually happened to her is lost to time. For one thing, hers is a story of courage in the face of fear, and much of our lives – at least, much of my own life – is lived in fear. There are rather mundane fears of things like going to the dentist or speaking in public. Jerry Seinfeld said in a show on Broadway: “Studies show that fear of public speaking ranks higher than the fear of dying. I guess this means that most people at a funeral would rather be in the coffin than delivering the eulogy.” But I’m talking about fears that are more pervasive and less easy to shake:
The fear that I’ll be a bad parent and fail my children;
fear that I’ll lose a job, or never find a job or lose a home.
Some of us wake every morning to the fear that “Today could be the day everyone finds out I’m a fraud, and I’m holding my life together with both hands and baling wire.” Over time, any fear can paralyze us.
So I have two questions for Agnes: First, Why didn’t she freeze? How did she screw up enough courage to face down her torturers when she could have saved her own life? And, second, how, if at all, can we ever be that brave?
First: Where did Agnes get her courage? Agnes’ story is of a power that overcomes fear: Love. Today’s Old Testament reading is about that sort of love – the kind that waits through long winter rains, when mountain paths are impassible, and at long last comes to claim the hand of the beloved (SS 1:11), the kind of love that’s described later in the book as being “as strong as death” (SS 8:6). I read an interview with Gordon Brown, the English Chancellor of the Exchequer, who said courage is “not the absence of fear, because we are all afraid. Courage is the belief that there is something more important than safety.”4 If Agnes teaches us anything, it’s that she loved God so deeply, and was so certain of God’s love for her, that she believed her faithfulness to God was more important than her safety. That was something she would die for. The Greek word for martyr, martus or marturos, is where we get our word “witness.” We remember martyrs like Agnes not so much because of what they did, but because what they did witnessed to someone else. At the beginning of the procession this morning, Fr. Davenport said “The Lord is glorious in all his saints,” and we responded, “O come, let us adore him.” Agnes pointed to Christ who “was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before his shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” (Acts 8:32) The ultimate lamb left the ultimate safety and suffered the ultimate agony – being cut off from God – so that we could be reconciled to God. That’s the love that calmed Agnes’ heart when they drew the sword.
But what chance do I have of being that brave? How can we cultivate that kind of courage? Some of us believe we would be brave enough to die if we had to choose between death and renouncing Christ. But a faith like that isn’t mustered up in an instant; it is the result of a lifetime of choices. If we cave to fear in the little things, we’ll never be able to stand up in a real crisis. Oswald Chambers wrote:
My personal life may be crowded with small petty incidents, altogether unnoticeable and mean; but if I obey Jesus Christ in the haphazard circumstances, they become pinholes through which I see the face of God . . . . .5 What I think he means is something like what Lewis meant when he said “Every time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature . . . .”6 The question for us today probably won’t be whether we are be brave enough to die violently for our Lord, but whether we are brave and resolute enough to put to death our sinful selves for Christ’s sake day after day after day, in the petty, unnoticeable, haphazard circumstances of our lives. In the stories of our saints are reminders that yes, with God’s grace, it may be so.
Saint Agnes, pray for us.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
1 “Patron saint.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 19 Jan. 2007. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/patron saint>.