Saint Lawrence, Deacon and Martyr – Feast
c. Early Third Century – 258
Liturgical Color: Red
Patron Saint of deacons, comics, and cooks
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 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 a memorial or an optional 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 interesting fact?
This Feast draws open the curtains on the events of August 258 as if they were as fresh as buns right out of the oven. Look and see the cast of characters. 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 6. 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 10. 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—he was burned alive on a gridiron. 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 and dying for.