Early Third Century – 258
Feast: Liturgical Color: Red
A Deacon heads the Church for four days, then perishes like his fellow deacons
The Church’s liturgy, like all public rituals whether sacred or secular, is inherently conservative. Its form is not easily altered. Its content shapes, more than is shaped by, the Church and the wider culture. The liturgy moves through time like a great river moves through the land. It plows its own path, carving through the terrain, gradually and incontrovertibly forming a new landscape. One generation is too few to notice, but a few generations pass and, suddenly, a river separates two families, a valley turns into a lake, a dam submerges a city, water destroys what once had been, and the world is different. Feast days and solemnities, most notably Christmas and Easter, shape entire cultures too: their calendars, music, food, festivals, dress, dance, language, art, architecture, and on and on. There is almost nothing that the liturgy and its calendar do not touch. Liturgy creates worlds.
Besides being culture creators, liturgical Feast Days also preserve the past for the present and the future. A Feast Day freezes time and preserves the memory of the world’s oldest mind—that of the Catholic Church. The Church does not suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. She is rejuvenated with every baptism and so is perpetually young, impervious to the dementia typical of great age. Today’s saint, the Deacon Lawrence, is celebrated with a Feast on the Church’s calendar, not just an optional memorial or a memorial. This liturgical fact is revelatory and beautiful. He was martyred so long, long ago. He is not Christ, Mary, or a pope. Yet he has a Feast Day! What is the past telling us by this? What is the Church’s perennial calendar communicating to the faithful by this extraordinary fact?
This Feast draws open the curtains on the events of August 258 as if they were as fresh as the morning dew. Look and see the cast of characters. The emperor Valerian is to the side, sitting on his marble throne. An official reads the Emperor’s decree aloud: “All bishops, priests, and deacons are to be summarily executed.” Pope Sixtus II is roughly taken away by Valerian’s soldiers during Mass in the candle light of a catacomb on August 6th. Six of Rome’s seven deacons are killed with Sixtus. In accord with the Church’s theology, they were closer to their bishop than to any priest, so they die with him. The Church has been almost decapitated. There is only one deacon left. The hunt is on for Lawrence, the ranking head of the Church. He is found. He is martyred. It is August 10th. The curtain closes.
In a tradition already ancient by the third century, Rome had seven deacons to minister to the material needs of the impoverished, widows, and orphans of Rome. Lawrence excelled at this task, which he operated out of a house-church in central Rome. When the popular and well-loved Lawrence died, he was venerated with a fervor unlike almost any other early martyr. His cult spread like the fire that tradition says roasted him alive. Devotion to him spread as far north as Scandinavia, England, and Germany. Traditions large and small abounded.
The details of his martyrdom are incomplete. But holy legends have supplied what documents could not, and none of them are illogical, mythic, or banal. They might contain the essential facts. Lawrence was buried just outside the walls of ancient Rome, where a minor basilica, also the burial site of Pope Pius IX, still stands. Numerous other churches in Rome are dedicated to his memory, including the house-church where he ministered. The current church on the site is, to this day, still enclosed inside of a larger building just as the house-church was. The deacon-martyr Lawrence gave a witness so powerful to Rome that his death may have been the no-going-back-moment which proved that Christianity was here to stay, forever, in the capital of the world.
Saint Lawrence, may your example inspire all clergy, and especially deacons, to remain close to both their bishops and their people, providing faithful witness to the truths of our faith, which are worth living for, and dying for.
ST. LAURENCE was the chief among the seven deacons of the Roman Church. In the year 258 Pope Sixtus was led out to die, and St. Laurence stood by, weeping that he could not share his fate. “I was your minister,” he said, “when you consecrated the blood of Our Lord; why do you leave me behind now, that you are about to shed your own?” The holy Pope comforted him with the words, “Do not weep, my son; in three days you will follow me.” This prophecy came true. The prefect of the city knew the rich offerings which the Christians put into the hands of the clergy, and he demanded the treasures of the Roman Church from Laurence, their guardian. The Saint promised, at the end of three days, to show him riches exceeding all the wealth of the empire, and set about collecting the poor, the infirm, and the religious who lived by the alms of the faithful. He then bade the prefect “see the treasures of the Church.” Christ, whom Laurence had served in his poor, gave him strength in the conflict which ensued. Roasted over a slow fire, he made sport of his pains. “I am done enough,” he said, “eat, if you will.” At length Christ, the Father of the poor, received him into eternal habitations. God showed by the glory which shone around St. Laurence the value He set upon his love for the poor. Prayers innumerable were granted at his tomb; and he continued from his throne in heaven his charity to those in need, granting them, as St. Augustine says, “the smaller graces which they sought, and leading them to the desire of better gifts.”
Reflection.— Our Lord appears before us in the persons of the poor. Charity to them is a great sign of predestination. It is almost impossible, the holy Fathers assure us, for any one who is charitable to the poor for Christ’s sake to perish.
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.