In the early church, Lent served as a time when catechumens, Christians awaiting baptism, were taught the principles of their faith, and participated in a variety of spiritual disciplines including things like fasting and prayer. The baptism itself would take place on the eve of Easter Sunday and it symbolized the process by which the new Christians die to their old selves under the baptismal waters before rising in the light of Christ. So, in a way, the disciplines of Lent were meant to prepare a person following the way of Jesus for such a radical transformation.
On this day, March 7th, at Carthage in about the year 202AD Perpetua and her companions, themselves catechumens preparing for baptism, were martyred by beast and sword in the arena. They were sentenced to die for the crime of being Christian and so denying the divinity of the emperor. Perpetua’s aged father attempted to persuade her to renounce the Christian faith for her own sake and for the sake of her nursing infant. But Perpetua remained committed to bear witness to her faith to the point of death, her confidence being bolstered by a series of visions visited upon her. In the visions she fought the Devil in order to ascend to her reward in heaven, and in this light she understood the temptations of Satan to be her real foe, and not the trials of the arena. Her heart’s desire was not to escape from the clutches of her earthly tormentors, but to escape like a bird from the snare of sin.
The suffering and death of Perpetua represents the apex of a life lived in perfect imitation of Christ. And the powerful testimony of such sacrifices led early Christian thinkers to associate martyrdom with the sacraments of the Eucharist and Baptism. Origen, a third century theologian, for example, used baptismal imagery to liken martyrdom to a form of mysticism through which one is transformed and illuminated by Christ into a more perfect reflection of God’s love in the world. Origen spoke of outward martyrdom as a life sacrificed in bearing witness to Christ in order to become risen again. And he spoke of inward, secret, martyrdom as the Christian battle against things of the world and flesh that keep us enslaved in sin and separated from God. As circumstances changed and outward martyrdom became less common, monasticism came to be seen as one alternative. Monastics would retreat to the solitude of the desert entering into spiritual warfare with demons, in order to win freedom from their earthly passions and so surrender to the blossoming of God in their hearts. Jesus said “the one who endures to the end will be saved,” which is true not only for the end of our mortal life, but also for the end of those parts of ourselves that keep us in sin, a reward for enduring the battle with our own demons.
This Lenten season as we prepare not just for Jesus’ resurrection, but also for our own death and resurrection in Christ, we can draw inspiration from Perpetua and her companions. With courage and discipline they endured the pain of earthly trials and physical death, and so were raised into eternal life in Christ. Their blood becomes mixed with the Eucharistic blood of Golgotha, as a sacrifice and offering for their fellow Christians.
The day before their death sentence was carried out Perpetua and her companions were offered a customary final meal, and they chose to take that opportunity to share a feast of Christian love in communion with one another. They perished the day after, but not in vain, because we remember them, and we honor them, and we participate with them in the mystical body of Christ. And now, together, we prepare to celebrate the feast of God’s Love, our hope and our prayer being to courageously face the death of our sinful selves, and so be ready to receive Christ and become one with Christ.
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