ST. AGNES, VIRGIN AND MARTYR
FEAST DAY – JANUARY 21
St. Agnes is one of the most glorious saints in the calendar of the Roman Church. The great Church Fathers vied with one another in sounding her praise and glory. St. Jerome writes: “All nations, especially their Christian communities, praise in word and writing the life of St. Agnes. She triumphed over her tender age as well as over the merciless tyrants. To the crown of spotless innocence she added the glory of martyrdom.” St. Agnes is said to have suffered martyrdom at age 12. The cruelty that did not spare so young a child was hateful, but the power of faith in the child was greater.
Our saint’s name should be traced to the Greek hagne – the pure, rather than to the Latin agna – lamb. But the Latin derivation prevailed in the early Church. The reason may have been that eight days after her death Agnes appeared to her parents with a train of virgins, and a lamb at her side. St. Augustine knew both derivations. “Agnes”, he writes, “means ‘lamb’ in Latin, but in Greek it denotes ‘the pure one’. The Latin interpretation occasioned the yearly blessing of the St. Agnes lambs; it takes place on this day in the Church of which she is patron, and the wool is used in weaving the palliums worn by archbishops and, through privilege, by some bishops. In the church built by the Emperor Constantine over the saint’s grave, Pope Gregory the Great preached a number of homilies. Reliable details concerning the life of St. Agnes are very few. The oldest material occurs in St. Ambrose’s De Virginibus, parts of which are read today at Matins.
From such liturgical sources we may construct the following “life of St. Agnes”. These legends tell that Agnes was a beautiful and soon-to-be-marriageable young woman. But the stories are rooted in actual events and convey kernels of truth about her. One day when Agnes, then thirteen years old, was returning home from school, she happened to meet Symphronius, a son of the city prefect. At once he became passionately attracted to her and tried to win her by precious gifts. Many eager young men pursued her, but she rebuffed them because she had consecrated her virginity to Christ. This spurned suitor took revenge by reporting to the authorities that Agnes was a Christian. She was brought before a judge who tried to persuade her to recant. He threatened her with fire and torture, but she did not flinch. Then he had her stripped at a brothel and urged young men to seduce her. “You may stain your sword with my blood,” she said, “but you will never profane my body that I have consecrated to Christ.” All were so stunned by her presence that only one boy tried to touch her. Legend says he was struck blind, and that Agnes healed him. Then a light enveloped her and blinded all who tried to approach. Another judge condemned her to the stake because the pagan priests accused her of sorcery.
“Surrounded by flames she prayed with outstretched arms: “I beseech You, Father almighty, most worthy of awe and adoration. Through Your most holy Son I escaped the threats of the impious tyrant and passed through Satan’s filth with feet unsullied. Behold, I now come to You, whom I have loved, whom I have sought, whom I have always desired.” She gave thanks as follows: “O You, the almighty One, who must be adored, worshiped, feared – I praise You because through Your only begotten Son I have escaped the threats of wicked men and have walked through the filth of sin with feet unsullied. I extol You with my lips, and I desire You with all my heart and strength.” After the flames died out, she continued: “I praise You, Father of my Lord Jesus Christ, because by Your Son the fire around me was extinguished”. And now she longed for union with Christ: “Behold, what I yearned for, I already see; what I hoped for, I already hold in embrace; with Him I am united in heaven whom on earth I loved with all my heart”.”
—The Church’s Year of Grace, Pius Parsch.
Her wish was granted; the judge ordered her beheaded. Exasperated and egged on by her first accuser, the governor ordered her execution. Agnes was taken to the Stadium of Domitian, where she courageously faced a nervous soldier who hacked her to death with his sword. Was there room for a wound in that small body? The sword could barely strike her, yet she had the inner strength to strike back. Now girls her age usually can’t even bear a parent’s angry glance. Or they usually cry at the slightest wound or abrasion. Agnes, however, faced her persecutors fearlessly. She was not fazed by the heavy weight of the chains they wrapped around her. And she freely offered her body to the executioner’s sword.
St. Agnes’s death was “a new kind of martyrdom!” She taught us adults the meaning of valor while she was still a child. Agnes hurried to the place of her execution more joyfully than a bride goes to her wedding. And she was adorned not with plaited hair, but with Christ himself. Over the centuries the little virgin martyr became one of the most popular saints in Christian history.
St Agnes is the patron saint of: betrothed couples, chastity, crops, engaged couples, gardeners, Girl Scouts, girls, rape victims, and virgins.