"Yet She on earth hath union
With God the Three in One
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won:
happy ones, and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we
Like them, the meek and lowly
On high may dwell with Thee."
On March 7, in the year 203, Sts. Perpetua and Felicity were called home to be with their Lord. Of all the records of martyrdoms that have come down to us, this account is one of the most interesting for at least one main reason: it was written by Perpetua herself, while she was in the prison, awaiting her death with her friends, and fellow Christians. This makes it one of the earliest pieces of writing by a Christian woman. She wrote up until the day before her death, and as it was later circulated among the Churches, an eyewitness completed the story by writing about the day of their deaths.
This account, known as "The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity," was so popular in the early centuries of the Church that it was often read during the Sunday morning worship services.
Because of the length of the account, I'm not going to read it all to you this morning, but I will share with you several parts of it.
In the year 203, Perpetua made the decision to become a Christian, although she knew it could mean her death during the Emperor's persecution. Her surviving brother (another brother had died when he was seven) followed her leadership and became a catechumen as well.
Her father was frantic with worry and tried to talk her out of her decision. As we look back, we can easily understand his concern. At 22 years old, this well-educated, high-spirited woman had every reason to want to live - including a baby son who was still nursing. We know she was married, but since her husband is never mentioned, many historians assume she was a widow.
So Perpetua's father tried several times to get his daughter to renounce Christ and make a sacrificial offering to the Emperor. But Perpetua's answer was simple and clear. Pointing to a water jug, she asked her father, "Do you see that jug sitting there? Can you call it by any other name than what it is?"
Her father answered, "Of course not." Perpetua responded, "Neither can I call myself by any other name than what I am - a Christian."
This answer made her father so angry that he attacked her.
Shortly before Perpetua was arrested, she was baptized in water, during which time she says that she heard the voice of God speak to her. And in that message God told her that she was not to pray for anything else except for endurance in the face of severe trials.
Perpetua was arrested shortly thereafter with four other catechumens [people who were learning the Christian faith and preparing for Baptism], including her servant girl named Felicity. Their Priest who had been preparing them for baptism had already been imprisoned a few days before them.
The prison was so crowded with people that the heat was suffocating. There was no light anywhere and Perpetua says that she "had never known such darkness." The soldiers who arrested and guarded them pushed and shoved them without any concern. Perpetua had no trouble admitting she was very afraid, but in the midst of all this horror her most excruciating pain came from being separated from her baby.
The young servant, Felicity, was even worse off than Perpetua, because Felicity suffered the stifling heat, overcrowding, and rough handling while being eight months pregnant.
Two deacons who often came in and ministered to the prisoners paid the guards so that the martyrs would be put in a better part of the prison. There Perpetua's mother and brother were able to visit her and bring her baby to her. When she received permission for her baby to stay with her, she writes: "my prison suddenly became a palace for me." Once more her father came to her, begging her to give in, kissing her hands, and throwing himself at her feet. But she told him, "We lie not in our own power, but in the power of God."
Shortly before her trial, Perpetua received a series of visions from the Lord, reassuring her of his strength and presence.
When she and the others were taken to be examined and sentenced, her father followed, pleading with her: "Think of your mother, your brother, your aunt. Please, Perpetua, think of me, your aging father. But most of all, think of your little baby!"
The judge, out of pity for her father, also tried to get Perpetua to change her mind, but when she stood fast, she was sentenced with the others to be thrown to the wild beasts in the arena. Her father was so furious that he refused to send Perpetua's baby back to her. In her diary, Perpetua said that she considered it a miracle that her breasts did not become inflamed from lack of nursing.
Meanwhile Felicity was also in great torment. It was against the law for pregnant women to be executed. As cruel as the Romans were, at this period in Roman history it was illegal to execute pregnant women. In the city of Carthage, in Northern Africa, to kill a child in the womb was to shed innocent and sacred blood. And so Felicity was afraid that she would not give birth before the day set for their martyrdom, and that her companions would go home to heaven without her. To a Christian in the early years of the Church, there was no higher honor and privilege than to die as a martyr for your faith in Jesus Christ. So they all began praying for Felicity.
Two days before the execution, Felicity went into a painful labor. The guards made fun of her, insulting her by saying, "If you think you suffer now, how will stand it when you face the wild beasts?" Felicity answered them calmly, "Now I'm the one who is suffering, but in the arena Another will be in me suffering for me because I will be suffering for him." She gave birth to a healthy girl who was adopted and raised by one of the Christian women of Carthage.
The officers of the prison began to recognize the power of the Christians and the strength and leadership of Perpetua. In some cases this helped the Christians. For example, the warden let them have visitors - in fact, the warden admired their faithfulness so much that he later became a catechumen himself, and in due time was baptized as a Christian. But in other cases it caused superstitious terror, as when one officer refused to let them get cleaned up on the day they were going to die for fear they'd try some sort of spell. Perpetua immediately spoke up and said to him, "We're supposed to die in honor of Caesar's birthday. Wouldn't it look better for you if we looked better?" The officer blushed with shame at her reproach and started to treat them better.
There was a feast the day before the games so that the crowd could see the martyrs and make fun of them. But the martyrs turned this all around by laughing at the crowd for not being Christians and exhorting them to follow their example.
The four new Christians and their Priest went to the arena with great joy and calmness of soul. The other catechumen that had been with them had died shortly before that in the prison. As they were led into the arena, Perpetua, in usual high spirits, met the eyes of everyone along the way. We are told that she walked with "shining steps as the true wife of Christ, the darling of God."
The eyewitness account says that Perpetua and Felicity left the prison for the arena "joyfully as though they were on their way to heaven."
When those at the arena tried to force Perpetua and the rest to dress in robes dedicated to their gods, Perpetua challenged her executioners. "We came to die out of our own free will so we wouldn't lose our freedom to worship our God. We gave you our lives so that we wouldn't have to worship your gods." She and the others were allowed to keep their own clothes.
Before a raging crowd, the Christians were thrown to the wild beasts. The men were attacked by bears, leopards, and wild boars. The women were stripped naked and had to face a cow that had gone mad because of rabies. When the crowd, however, saw the two young women, one of whom had obviously just given birth, they were horrified and the women were taken out of the arena and given some loose-fitting white robes to put on. Perpetua and Felicity were then thrown back into the arena so roughly that they were bruised and hurt. The rabid cow charged the women and tossed them, but Perpetua rose and helped Felicity to her feet. She was ready, even eager, to die for the Lord.
She called out to the other martyrs: "You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another - and do not be weakened by what we have gone through!" When the beasts failed to kill the women, soldiers came to finish them off. But the soldier who came to Perpetua was trembling so much that he couldn't hold the sword steady by her throat. So Perpetua put her hands on the blade of the sword and held it steady for the soldier, indicating that she was giving her life willingly.
These two young women, new in the faith, quickly became heroines, examples for Christians everywhere. Even today, we can be inspired by their uncompromising faithfulness to the Lord. These were ones, as the writer of the book of Hebrews says, "of whom the world was not worthy."
Perpetua said that she couldn't call herself any other name but Christian. If you were to make a list of all the names and designations that you would like people could call you, would the name "Christian" be high on that list? Your challenge today is to live as if that name, "Christian," was the only name you could be called by.