Monday, January 30, 2017

St. Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr

St. Polycarp was an early apostolic Father, unique because he was a living bridge between the apostles and the next generation of Christian believers. Polycarp was a disciple of John the Evangelist and is said to have received all of Christ's teachings from John himself.  As the church began to grow in the second century, Polycarp became bishop of Smyrna and one of the greatest defenders of the faith at a time when heresies and persecution were rampant in the Greco-Roman world.

Polycarp met St. Ignatius of Antioch as the saint passed through Smyrna in chains on his way to martyrdom. The two saints had a close relationship discussing and even debating matters pertaining to the faith.  One such discussion and debate centered on handling the celebration of the liturgy and when special feasts should be celebrated.  The two went to Rome to meet with Pope Anicetus to resolve their conflicts.  Nevertheless, their love of Christ, each other and the church never hindered their relationship. This can be seen in a letter written by Ignatius to Polycarp which is still intact today.  By the strengthening and encouraging words of Ignatius, Polycarp continued to be steadfast in faith and zealously defended the church, as Ignatius said,“Your mind is grounded in God as on an immovable rock.”  As Polycarp continued to speak out against the heresies, he also encouraged Christians to pursue holiness.  “Stand fast, therefore, in this conduct and follow the example of the Lord, 'firm and unchangeable in faith, lovers of brotherhood, loving each other, united in truth, helping each other with mildness of the Lord, despising no man.  When you can do good, do not put it off, for alms-giving frees from death.  You must all be subject to one another and keep your conduct free from reproach among pagans, so that from your good works you may receive praise and the Lord may not be blasphemed on account of you.  But woe to him on whose account the name of the Lord is blasphemed.  Teach sobriety, therefore, to all, and practice it yourselves, also”  (The Letter to the Philippians of Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and Holy Martyr; chapter 10).

Like many other saints of the early church, Polycarp was arrested and put to death for his belief in Christ as documented in a letter written by the Church of Smyrna to the Church of Philomelium.  The letter states that Polycarp had been taken to the Roman arena in Smyrna, where he was put on trial before the proconsul who threatened him with torture and death.  Polycarp stood firm in his faith and was sentenced to be burned at the stake. As the executioners prepared for his execution, Polycarp offered up an incredible prayer of love and praise to God, “Lord God Almighty, Father of Thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received full knowledge of Thee, God of the angels and powers, of the whole creation and of the whole race of the righteous who live in Thy sight, I bless thee, because I may have a part, along with the martyrs, in the chalice of Thy Christ, 'unto resurrection in eternal life.' resurrection both of soul and body in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit.  May I be received today as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, among those who are in Thy Presence, as Thou hast prepared and foretold and fulfilled, God who art faithful and true.  For this and for all benefits I praise Thee, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, through whom be to Thee with Him and the Holy Spirit glory, now and for all ages to come.  Amen.”  Once Polycarp finished his prayer the executioner lit the stake, but Polycarp remained untouched by the flames as they formed an arch over him like wind in a ship's sail and he himself began to take on the odor of freshly baked bread.  Agitated by the miracle the executioner stabbed Polycarp to death, and witnesses recounted that the martyr's blood itself extinguished the flames.

Polycarp lived the life of the Gospel and the passion of Christ.  He is a prime example of how one can defend the Faith and achieve great holiness in the midst of a pagan world.  We celebrate Polycarp's birth into eternal life on Febuary 23, the day he was martyred on the ancient calendar from the year 156 A.D.  

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