The Feast of St. Agnes
Today the church tells the story of Agnes. The story of Agnes is a dark story, and Christians have been telling it for 1600 years. Agnes was a beautiful girl who attracted many suitors, though she rebuffed them all because she wanted to remain a virgin, and be faithful to God alone. As a result, Agnes suffered a cruel death which violated her sexuality. She was twelve years old.
So what are we to make of this story? The early church Fathers praised Agnes’ courage and chastity, and remarked upon her name, which means ’pure’ in Greek and ‘lamb’ in Latin. In the Gospel reading for today Jesus encourages us to ‘become like children,’ and perhaps what is important to us in Agnes’ story is the exemplification of a certain kind of innocence and purity of heart that Kierkegaard describes as ‘willing one thing’.
Agnes wanted to remain a virgin. The word ‘virgin’ comes from the Greek word ‘vir’ which means ‘man’. ‘Vir’ means ‘man’, but it also means ‘strength’ and ‘force’, as in ‘virtue’ and ‘virility’. ‘Vir’ means ‘man’, and ‘virgin’ literally means ‘beholden to no man’; that is, one who refuses to be defined by anything other than their own conscience. ‘Virgin’ signifies strength of character, the ability to stand alone, the courage do the right thing even when it’s hard – even when we stand in opposition – and Agnes exemplifies that.
To be a Christian is often to stand in opposition, and Christians have always told stories to remind themselves of that. All over the world today, Christians are remembering the story of Agnes. It is a dark story, but it is told and retold to remind us that to be a Christian is often to stand in opposition, and we will need courage: the courage to will one thing – to do the right thing, even when it’s hard. Faith gives us that courage. It’s God gift to us. The dark story of Agnes reminds us of that today.
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