February 5, 2020: ST. AGATHA
February 5, 2020: ST. AGATHA, VIRGIN AND MARTYR
Lo! is come the bright festal day of the glorious Martyr and Virgin Agatha, when Christ took her to himself, and a double crown wreathed her brow.
Her bravery tired out the men that tortured her; she flinched not as they lashed her limbs; and her wounded breast reveals a dauntless heart.
Her prison was her paradise, where the Pastor Peter heals his bleeding lamb; and thence once more she runs to suffer, gladder and braver at every wound.
O God, who, amongst other miracles of thy power, hast bestowed the crown of martyrdom even on the weaker sex: mercifully grant, that we, who solemnize the feast of blessed Agatha, thy Virgin and Martyr, may, by following her example, come to thee. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.
Since the commencement of the Ecclesiastical Year, we have kept the Feasts of two out of the four illustrious Virgins, whose names are daily honoured in the Holy Sacrifice of the Lamb: the third comes to-day, lighting up the heaven of the Church with her bright soft rays. Lucy, first; then, Agnes; and now, the gracious visit of Agatha. The fourth, Cecily, the immortal Cecily, is to be one of that magnificent constellation, which gives such splendour to the closing of the year. To-day, then, let us keep a Feast in honour of Agatha, the Virgin Daughter of that same fair Sicily, which can boast of her Lucy. We must not allow the holy sadness of our present Season to take aught from the devotion we owe to our Saint. The joy wherewith we celebrate her merits, will lead us to study her virtues. She will repay us by her prayers; she will encourage us to persevere in the path which is to bring us to the God she so nobly loved and served, and with whom she is now for ever united.
Let us begin by reading what the Church tells us of the virtues and combats of this glorious Spouse of Christ.
The holy virgin Agatha was born in Sicily, of noble parents. The cities of Palermo and Catania both claim the honour of having been the place of her birth. She received the crown of a glorious martyrdom at Catania, under the persecution of the Emperor Decius. Her beauty, which was as great as her chaste and innocent life was praiseworthy, attracted the notice of Quintianus, the governor of Sicily. He spared no means whereby to compass his lustful designs upon the innocent virgin; but seeing that she scorned his offers, he had her apprehended as being guilty of the Christian superstition, and gave her in charge of a woman, named Aphrodisia, who was noted for her power of alluring to evil. But finding that her words and company had no effect on the holy maiden, and that she was immoveable in her resolution to maintain both her faith and her virginity, Aphrodisia told Quintianus that she was but losing her time with Agatha. Whereupon, he ordered the virgin to be brought before him, and he said to her: “Art not thou, that art so noble by birth, ashamed to lead the life of a base and slavish Christian?” She replied: “Better by far is the baseness and slavery of a Christian, than the wealth and pride of kings.”
Angered by her words, the governor bids her choose one of these two: adoration to the gods, or sharp tortures. On her refusal to deny her faith, he ordered her to be buffeted with blows, and cast into prison. On the following day, she was again led to trial. Finding that she was still firm in her purpose, they hoisted her on the rack, and laid hot iron plates on her flesh, and cut off her breasts. Whilst suffering this last torture, she thus spoke to Quintianus: “Cruel tyrant, art thou not ashamed to cut a woman's breast, that was thyself fed at the breast of thy mother?” She was then sent back to prison, where, during the night, a venerable old man, who told her that he was the Apostle of Christ, healed her. A third time she was summoned by the governor, and being still firm in confessing Christ, she was rolled upon sharp potsherds, and burning coals.
Suddenly, the whole city was shaken by a violent earthquake, and two of the governor's intimate friends were killed by the falling of two walls. The people were in such a state of excitement, that the governor began to fear a sedition, and therefore ordered the almost lifeless Agatha to be secretly conveyed back to her prison. She thus prayed to our Lord: “O God! that hast watched over me from my infancy, that hast separated me from the love of this world, that hast given me strength to bear the tortures of my executioners,—receive my soul!” Her prayer being ended, her soul took its flight to heaven, on the Nones of February (February 5th), and the Christians buried her body.
Trial of St. Agatha
The cities of Palermo and Catana, in Sicily, dispute the honor of her birth: but they [did] much better who, by copying her virtues, and claiming her patronage, strive to become her fellow-citizens in heaven. It is agreed that she received the crown of martyrdom at Catana, in the persecution of Decius, in the third consulship of that prince, in the year of our Lord 251. She was of a rich and illustrious family, and having been consecrated to God from her tender years, triumphed over many assaults upon her chastity. Quintianus, a man of consular dignity, bent on gratifying both his lust and avarice, imagined he should easily compass his wicked designs on Agatha's person and estate, by means of the emperor's edict against the Christians. He therefore caused her to be apprehended and brought before him at Catana. Seeing herself in the hands of the persecutors, she made this prayer: “Jesus Christ, Lord of all things, you see my heart, you know my desire: possess alone all that I am. I am your sheep, make me worthy to overcome the devil.” She wept, and prayed for courage and strength all the way she went. On her appearance, Quintianus gave orders for her being put into the hands of Aphrodisia, a most wicked woman, who with six daughters, all prostitutes, kept a common stew. The saint suffered in this infamous place, assaults and stratagems against her virtue, infinitely more terrible to her than any tortures or death itself. But placing her confidence in God, she never ceased with sighs and most earnest tears to implore his protection, and by it was an overmatch for all their hellish attempts, the whole month she was there. Quintianus being informed of her constancy after thirty days, ordered her to be brought before him. The virgin, in her first interrogatory, told him, that to be a servant of Jesus Christ was the most illustrious nobility, and true liberty. The judge, offended at her resolute answers, commanded her to be buffeted, and led to prison. She entered it with great joy, recommending her future conflict to God. The next day she was arraigned a second time at the tribunal, and answered with equal constancy that Jesus Christ was her life and her salvation. Quintianus then ordered her to be stretched on the rack, which torment was usually accompanied with stripes, the tearing of the sides with iron hooks, and burning them with torches or matches. The governor, enraged to see her suffer all this with cheerfulness, commanded her breast to be tortured, and afterwards to be cut off. At which she made him this reproach: “Cruel tyrant, do you not blush to torture this part of my body, you that sucked the breasts of a woman yourself?” He remanded her to prison with a severe order, that neither salves nor food should be allowed her. But God would be himself her physician, and the apostle St. Peter in a vision comforted her, healed all her wounds, and filled her dungeon with a heavenly light. Quintianus, four days after, not the least moved at the miraculous cure of her wounds, caused her to be rolled naked over live coals mixed with broken potsherds. Being carried back to prison, she made this prayer: “Lord, my Creator, you have ever protected me from the cradle. You have taken from me the love of the world, and given me patience to suffer: receive now my soul.” After which words she sweetly gave up the ghost. Her name is inserted in the canon of the mass, in the calendar of Carthage, as ancient as the year 530, and in all martyrologies of the Latins and Greeks. Pope Symmachus built a church in Rome on the Aurelian way, under her name, about the year 500, which is fallen to decay. St. Gregory the Great enriched a church which he purged from the Arian impiety, with her relics, which it still possesses. This church had been rebuilt in her honor by Ricimer, general of the western empire, in 460. Gregory II built another famous church at Rome, under her invocation, in 726, which Clement VIII gave to the congregation of the Christian doctrine. St. Gregory the Great ordered some of her relics to be placed in the church of the monastery of St. Stephen, in the Isle of Capreӕ, now Capri. The chief part, which remained at Catana, was carried to Constantinople by the Greek general, who drove the Saracens out of Sicily about the year 1040: these were brought back to Catana in 1127, a relation of which translation, written by Mauritius, who was then bishop, is recorded by Rocci Pyrrho, and Bollandus. The same authors relate in what manner the torrent of burning sulphur and stones which issue from mount Ӕtna, in great eruptions, was several times averted from the walls of Catana by the veil of St. Agatha, (taken out of her tomb,) which was carried in procession. Also that through her intercession, Malta (where she is honored as patroness of the island) was preserved from the Turks who invaded it in 1551. Small portions of relics of St. Agatha are said to be distributed in many places.
The perfect purity of intention by which St. Agatha was entirely dead to the world and herself, and sought only to please God, is the circumstance which sanctified her sufferings, and rendered her sacrifice complete. The least cross which we bear, the least action which we perform in this disposition, will be a great holocaust, and a most acceptable offering. We have frequently something to suffer—sometimes an aching pain in the body, at other times some trouble of mind, often some disappointment, some humbling rebuke, or reproach, or the like. If we only bear these trials with patience when others are witnesses, or if we often speak of them, or are fretful under them, or if we bear patiently public affronts or great trials, yet sink under those which are trifling, and are sensible to small or secret injuries, it is evident that we have not attained to true purity of intention in our patience; that we are not dead to ourselves, and love not to disappear to the eyes of creatures, but court them, and take a secret complacency in things which appear great. We profess ourselves ready to die for Christ; yet cannot bear the least cross or humiliation. How agreeable to our divine spouse is the sacrifice of a soul which suffers in silence, desiring to have no other witness of her patience than God alone, who sends her trials; which shuns superiority and honors, but takes all care possible that no one knows the humility or modesty of such a refusal; which suffers humiliations, and seeks no comfort or reward but from God. This simplicity and purity of heart; this love of being hid in God, through Jesus Christ, is the perfection of all our sacrifices, and the complete victory over self-love, which it attacks and forces out of its strongest intrenchments: this says to Christ, with St. Agatha, “Possess alone all that I am.”
Taken from: The Liturgical Year – Septuagesima, Edition 1870;
The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Vol. I, 1903; and
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume I, 1806.
St. Agatha, pray for us.