For today’s commemoration, we read a short biography of Polycarp taken from One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism: Christians Through the Centuries.
We give thanks to God for sustaining the faith of those who are martyred in His name. May we have confidence in knowing that the Holy Spirit is continually working to keep us in the one true faith, even in times of difficulty and persecution.
The Passion of Polycarp vividly portrayed an Early Church hero who answered Jesus’ call: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mark 8:34). The biography provided no data from the birth or life of this bishop, focusing exclusively upon Polycarp’s death and the events surrounding it.
This passion narrative begins with a series of events setting the stage for Polycarp’s death. Labeled an atheist by the people, the local authorities began their search for him. While this faithful bishop wished to remain in Smyrna to care for his flock, others persuaded him to flee. His brief exile was devoted to prayer. He envisioned a burning pillow, which foretold his manner of death. A young servant of his was captured, tortured, and betrayed Polycarp. With his arrest imminent, he refused to flee and responded, “The will of God be done.” Showing no fear of torture and death, he waited, ate a meal, and prayed for two hours. Following his arrest, Polycarp rode into town upon a donkey. Before Herod and Nicetes, he refused to acknowledge Caesar as Lord or offer incense to him.
The proceedings intensified as Polycarp was brought to the stadium. A heavenly voice cried out, “Be strong Polycarp, and be a man.” When he was commanded to revile the Christians condemning them as atheists, he instead turned to heaven and said the same concerning his Roman persecutors. When asked to reject Christ, he responded, “Eighty-six years I have served Him and He has done to me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?” First threatened with wild beasts, he was partially stripped of his clothing and tied to a post to be burned alive. Polycarp prayed to God:
“Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Son, Jesus Christ, . . . I bless you because you have considered me worthy of this day and hour, that I should be numbered among your martyrs in the cup of Christ to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. . . . Amen.”
Immediately following, the fire was lit. It surrounded Polycarp, but he remained unsinged. There was no smell of burning flesh, but the sweet smell of baking bread. Desirous of blood, his persecutors ordered him to be stabbed with a knife. From his wound came a dove and much blood that extinguished the fire.
Immediately following his death, both Nicetes, at the behest of the evil one, and the Jews from their remembrance of the Christ, requested that Polycarp’s body not be released to the Christians. A Centurion, however, burned his body, and the Christians collected his bones. These “precious treasures” were preserved for the annual celebration of Polycarp’s “birthday,” the single day of his earthly death and heavenly birth.
The numerous correlations between Polycarp’s martyrdom and the passion of Jesus are unmistakably obvious. For example, Polycarp’s equine mount was reminiscent of Jesus’ ride on Palm Sunday (Matthew 21:7), and his words, “The will of God be done” echoed those of the Savior in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39, 42). Moreover, the young servant turned traitor mirrored Judas, while the infamous name of Herod surfaced in both. Furthermore in his prayer at the stadium, Polycarp connected his death with the death of the other martyrs, and through his martyrdom hoped to participate in the resurrection of the arch-martyr, Jesus. The Passion of Polycarp clearly and repeatedly connected his life with the life of Christ via their respective passions.
Devotional reading is from One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism: Christians Through the Centuries, pages 70–71 © 2006 Thomas A. Von Hagel. Published by Concordia Publishing House.