On 21st January the church remembers Agnes, a girl of about 13 years, who lost her life rather than deny her faith. She was a victim of the great persecution which took place under Emperor Diocletian for around two decades. Born of a pagan family, she is likely to have become a Christian as a result of having a Greek nurse-slave to educate her. Agnes’ faith was no mental assent only, but resulted in her dedicating her whole life to Jesus, her Saviour.
The readings were Psalm 23, Revelation 7:13-17, Matthew 18:1-7. Learn more about Agnes in her story given below.
Agnes of Rome, or St Agnes, is somewhat different from most of the saints we remember because she was martyred as a child. She didn’t have time to become someone high up in the church or to spend a lifetime of prayer and serving others but despite that she made enough impact to ensure that she is remembered 1700 years after her death. In this week of Christian Unity it’s good to know that the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Catholic Churches, Anglican Communion and Eastern Orthodox Churches all remember Agnes.
Agnes was born around 291 AD to a noble Roman family who followed their pagan religion. It was the tradition at that time for rich families to pay for their daughters to be educated by nurse-slaves until it was time for them to marry. The Greek ones among them were often very well educated and taught their charges well. They were also often Christian, which seems to have been the case for Agnes’s nurse. As a result, Agnes became a Christian as a child.
The prefect of Rome, Sempronius, wanted Agnes to marry his son Phocus. Agnes was known for her modest beauty and Phocus fell in love with her. In 304, when Agnes was around 13 years old, he went to her home in the hope of persuading her that a marriage between them would be an ideal one. He took ornaments and jewels as gifts for Agnes but she did not respond as he had hoped. She surprised him by saying: “I am already the spouse of a Lover much more noble and powerful than you.” Naturally Phocus was consumed with jealousy and asked: “Who is this lover, more noble and more powerful than I, the son of Rome’s prefect, I whom all the girls of the empire would be happy to marry?” Agnes answered: “He is a Prince. A Prince whose bride keeps, as the most glorious of crowns, a spotless virginity. To this Lover, I have vowed my fidelity.”
Phocus eventually unpicked the riddle of what Agnes had said to him and realised that she was a Christian. This was in the time of the great persecution of Christians under Emperor Diocletian which lasted from 284 to 305. Phocus reported his discovery to his father and Sempronius ordered Agnes to be arrested. He was sure that the threats he could hold over her would be enough to ensure her cooperation. In his court the prefect asked Agnes: “My child, you are accused of the great crime of being a Christian. Do you persist in this state?”
“Yes, I am a Christian. I have vowed my fidelity and my virginity to Christ,” she replied.
The prefect tried to persuade Agnes to go to the temple of Vestra to offer a sacrifice and vow her virginity to the goddess. Agnes protested that there was no way that she could bow before idols, which were lifeless. This caused the prefect to become very angry and condemn her to death for blasphemy against the gods. Roman law did not allow a virgin to be put to death so Sempronius arranged for Agnes to be stripped naked and dragged through the streets to a brothel. As she was stripped, the story in the ‘Acts of the Martyrs’ says that her hair began to grow so that it covered her body. Immediately that she arrived in a room in the brothel an angel stood holding a white robe for her to put on.
Legend has it that Phocus was the first man to approach the room intent on raping Agnes. On entering the room he was stuck dead by lightning. (Other versions of the story say every man attempting to enter was struck blind.) When the prefect heard what had happened he went to Agnes and accused her of killing his son by witchcraft but she said his death was caused by the angel defending her. Sempronius then asked Agnes to pray for his son to live, which she did. He came back to life and ran out of the room saying that the Christian God was the only God. The prefect was then unwilling to have Agnes put to death but the crowds demanded it. His sub-prefect ordered Agnes to be burned at the stake but that didn’t work, either because the wood didn’t catch light or because the flames didn’t touch her. The judge then ordered the guard to behead her or some say he sank his sword into her throat.
This is what Ambrose wrote about her:
“There was not even room in her little body for a wound. Though she could barely receive the sword’s point, she could overcome it. Girls of her age tend to wilt under the slightest frown from a parent. Pricked by a needle, they cry as if given a mortal wound. But Agnes showed no fear of the blood-stained hands of her executioners. She was undaunted by the weight of clanging chains. She offered her whole body to the sword of the raging soldiers. Too young to have any acquaintanceship with death, she nevertheless stood ready before it. Dragged against her will to the altar of sacrifice, she was ready to stretch out her hands to Christ in the midst of the flames, making the triumphant sign of Christ the victor on the altars of sacrilege. She was even prepared to put her neck and hands into iron bands – though none of them was small enough to enclose her tiny limbs.
She stood still, praying, and offered her neck. You could see the executioner trembling as though he were himself condemned. His right hand began to shake, and his face drained of colour aware of her danger, though the child herself showed no fear. In one victim then, we are given a twofold witness in martyrdom, to modesty and to religion. Agnes preserved her virginity and gained a martyr’s crown.”
Agnes is usually shown in art holding a palm and with a lamb by her feet or in her arms. This is due to her name being similar to the Latin for lamb, ‘Agnus’. The name actually comes from the Greek ‘Agne’ which means chaste. She is the patron saint of chastity, gardeners, girls, engaged couples, rape victims, and virgins.
The custom has grown up around this feast day that on this day two lambs are brought to the Pope to be blessed from the abbey of Tre Fontane. The blessing is carried out in the church of Sant Agnese fuori le mura which Pope Honorius I built in the 7th century to replace an earlier one which Constantine built in 350 over the catacomb where Agnes’ bones lay. On the Thursday of Holy Week the lambs are shorn and their wool is used to make a pallium, a narrow white scarf worn around the shoulders, which is given to a newly consecrated metropolitan archbishop. The pallium is a symbol of the sheep which the Good Shepherd carried home on his shoulders. Pope Gregory the Great sent one of these scarves to Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 601. As a result, there is a representation of a pallium on the coat of arms of Archbishops of Canterbury to this day.
Agnes was only very young but she shows us that you don’t have to be important or powerful to do great things for God. By the power of the Holy Spirit Agnes was able to stand firm in face of all that the great state of Rome could throw at her and act as a great example of faith. She shows us that it’s the quality of our lives, not the quantity, which matters. I’ll let St Ambrose have the final word about her: “The crowds marvelled at her spendthrift attitude to life, discarding it untasted, but as if she had lived it to the full.”
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor