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February 23, 2009

As Bread That Is Baked

Polycarp On this day, 1854 years ago, Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna who was linked to John the Apostle, was martyred.

I use the verb "martyred" because, as The Martyrdom of Polycarp tells us, it took some doing.  After being betrayed by his servant, Polycarp was brought before the proconsul who urged him to "swear by the Fortune (the guiding spirit) of the Emperor; repent and say 'Away with the Atheists.'" 

Not being an atheist, Polycarp simply said, "Away with the atheists." The increasingly irate proconsul told Polycarp to "swear and I will set you at liberty; reproach Christ." To which the elderly bishop replied, Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?

That's when things became interesting: After continued refusals to renounce his faith, Polycarp was sentenced to be burned. As he was tied to the stake, he prayed,

O Lord God Almighty, the Father of thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of Thee, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before thee, I give Thee thanks that Thou hast counted me worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Thy martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before Thee as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as Thou, the ever-truthful God, hast fore-ordained, hast revealed beforehand to me, and now hast fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise Thee for all things, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, with whom, to Thee, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.

Christians from liturgical backgrounds may notice, as this blogger did, that Polycarp's prayer before the flames

incorporates many of the elements of Eucharistic prayer, more or less in the order that one might expect to find them in the Great Thanksgiving: address to Almighty God; thanksgiving for Jesus Christ, who reveals the knowledge of God; mention of angels, powers, creatures, saints (like the introduction to the Sanctus); thanksgiving for taking part in the body, including reference to the cup; prayer for the efficacious power of the Holy Spirit; prayer for the reception of the sacrifice; concluding trinitarian doxology and amen.

Thus, what happened next shouldn't come as a surprise:

When he had pronounced this amen, and so finished his prayer, those who were appointed for the purpose kindled the fire. And as the flame blazed forth in great fury, we, to whom it was given to witness it, beheld a great miracle, and have been preserved that we might report to others what then took place. For the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet odor [coming from the pile], as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there.

Eventually, Polycarp was stabbed to death, but it was too late: as his persecutors feared, their gods were well on their way to being overthrown, helped, in no small measure, by the story of the man they turned into a "fat and happy sacrifice."

(Image courtesy of Monastere Magnificat)

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Rachel Coleman

Thanks, Roberto. I'm slogging through Eusebius (trying to catch up with the 14-year-old, which is what you get for taking your kids to the library during their first week of life) and this motivates me to keep on.

We modern American believers are pretty wimpy, I'm afraid, when compared to Polycarp.

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