In our last installment concerning The Martyrdom of Polycarp we uncovered the ancient Christian custom of preserving the bodies or bones of saints as “relics” – objects intended for veneration by future generations. The ancient Christians honored Christ by paying honor and respect to the mortal remains of deceased saints. They revered saints because in doing so they gave glory to Christ from whom the saints receive grace and holiness. By studying and imitating their lives Christians sought to share in the holiness of saints, looking to them as examples of faithfulness and as imitators of Christ.
In the case of martyrs (those who died violently as witnesses to the faith) their imitation of Jesus comes through more directly as they shared in His suffering through their own deaths. In the martyrdom account of Polycarp this parallel between a martyr’s death and Christ’s death on the cross takes on a Eucharistic tone:
“…And as the flame blazed forth in great fury…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…”
This description of “flesh” appearing like “bread” is undeniably Eucharistic. In the Eucharist (the communion meal of bread and wine shared by Christians) the Lord’s body is made present under the appearance of bread. We discussed this Real Presence of Christ when studying the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, also a student of John the Apostle and a friend and fellow bishop of Polycarp. Ignatius tells us that the Eucharist is a source of unity within the Catholic Church – we are united to one another by participating in the one sacrifice of Christ made present in the Eucharist, and we unite ourselves to Christ by offering our own suffering as a participation in His suffering made present in the Eucharist. Like Polycarp, Ignatius also compared his own death to the Eucharist in this way: “I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”
It is fitting then to honor saints as imitators of Christ, especially those who die a martyr’s death, who link their own suffering to that of the Lord.
Carrying this analogy further, the Martyrdom even suggests that the suffering of these holy and faithful people offers some relief of punishment for sins:
“…And, looking to the grace of Christ, they despised all the torments of this world, redeeming themselves from eternal punishment by [the suffering of] a single hour. For this reason the fire of their savage executioners appeared cool to them.”
This is called “redemptive suffering” – which is the Catholic teaching that our suffering here on earth can go toward the relief of any punishment for the sins of the one suffering, or even for the sins of others. Paul suggests this idea with regard to his own afflictions: “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church.” (Colossians 1:24)
Paul says that his suffering fills up “what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body.” Not that Jesus’ suffering was ineffective, but that His suffering has a dimension that transcends time and draws us into a relationship with Him, across the centuries, by linking our suffering to His own. We as believers are His Mystical Body. How fitting it is that His Body, the church, should share in the sufferings that He underwent in His own human body while He lived among us. How else can we explain what Paul says about Jesus’ afflictions “lacking” in any sense of that word? If we are to “fill up” what is lacking in His suffering, it can only mean that our own suffering has a redemptive quality through and in Christ’s sufferings.
So when we read in the Martyrdom that Polycarp and his companions were “redeeming themselves from eternal punishment,” we must read this in light of Paul’s own testimony in Scripture. Our suffering has spiritual benefits, not in spite of Christ’s suffering, but through and in His suffering. My suffering can “fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.”
A further comparison between Polycarp’s death and the sacrificial death of Jesus is to be seen in the references made to Polycarp as a “ram,” as an unblemished offering to God in the mode of Jewish sacrificial offerings of old:
“…placing his hands behind him, and being bound like a distinguished ram [taken] out of a great flock for sacrifice, and prepared to be an acceptable burnt-offering unto God…”
So too Polycarp offers a prayer on his own behalf: “… may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as You, the ever-truthful God, hast foreordained, hast revealed beforehand to me, and now hast fulfilled.”
The sacrifice of one’s life in the name of Jesus is the surest way to fulfill what the Lord said when He insisted that we must lose our lives to gain eternal life, and we must take up our cross and follow Him. (Mark 8:34-35) Certainly we are not all called to be martyrs in this way, but those who have met this fate in the course of Christian history, stand out as exemplary models of Christian faithfulness and rightly deserve our respect and honor. Their bones, now shattered fragments of a life once lived in harmony with God’s will, are to us, (as the Martyrdom of Polycarp states): “more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold.”
To this day, Catholic churches around the world house the relics of saints “deposited..in a fitting place whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate...both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.”
The Martyrdom of Polycarp bears witness to the ancient Christian celebration of saintly lives, and to the collection of relics and the spiritual benefits of suffering. Written sometime shortly after his death in 155 AD, The Martyrdom of Polycarp is one of the oldest authentic examples of Christian Acts of the Martyrs, which tell similar tales of heroic faith and virtue under threat of death and persecution. Polycarp’s direct link to Apostolic times, having lived in the First Century and studied under one or more of the Apostles, gives to this text an added weight. We see here a Church shaped directly by Apostolic faith as transmitted by a hand-picked successor to the Apostles. The information we glean from this source adds yet another layer of understanding to our knowledge of authentic Christianity from the earliest centuries. If we wish to believe as the first Christian believed, we must accept with due reverence what was taught by a man such as Polycarp of Smyrna.