January 21: Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyr—Memorial
c. 291–c. 304
Patron Saint of those seeking chastity and purity, engaged couples, rape victims, gardeners, young girls, and Girl Scouts
Liturgical Color: Red
He who chose me first for Himself shall receive me. Why are you delaying, executioner?…She stood, she prayed, she bent down her neck. You could see the executioner tremble, as though he himself had been condemned, and his right hand shake, his face grow pale, as he feared the peril of another, while the maiden feared not for her own. ~De Virginibus, Saint Ambrose
According to one tradition, the daughter of Emperor Constantine the Great—the first emperor to convert to Christianity and legalize its practice—contracted leprosy. Her name was Constantina. Seeking a cure, she approached the tomb of today’s young virgin-martyr and tearfully beseeched her intercession. The tradition further states that Constantina was indeed healed, and, in gratitude, her father commissioned the building of a church over Saint Agnes’ grave. To this day, a church adorns that same spot. To this day, it is named in honor of Saint Agnes. And to this day, the faithful beseech Agnes’ intercession in the same fashion as Constantina in days of old.
Very little is known about Saint Agnes, except for Saint Ambrose’s brief words written many decades after her death. We do know for certain that she was martyred at the age of twelve or thirteen. Later traditions have supplied what history cannot, including what follows.
Agnes was born into a noble Christian family in Rome. She was said to have been quite beautiful, which, together with her wealth and holiness, caused many young noblemen to seek her as their bride. But Agnes’ eyes beheld One Who was the most beautiful of all—her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. After taking in His beauty, she could look upon no one else. She dedicated herself to a life of virginity.
Such self-gift, however, was neither well received nor well understood by the young men of her time. Agnes was reported to the local prefect Sempronius for being a Christian, in an attempt to dissuade her from her vow of chastity. The prefect first tried to convince Agnes to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. She refused. Her heart was firm in its devotion to her Beloved. The prefect then tried to frighten her by displaying some instruments of torture in the hands of the cruel executioner himself. Agnes showed no fear and refused to burn incense to false gods. Outraged, the prefect ordered that she be taken to brothels to be violated by immoral men.
During these ordeals, Agnes knew her Heavenly Spouse would protect her. Evil men could stain their swords with her blood, but they could never profane her body consecrated to Christ. At the brothels, the men looked at her with lust from a distance, but appeared more frightened of her than she was of them. None dared approach her. None dared defile her. It is said that only one young man did approach her, only to be immediately struck blind and brought to the ground. Through a prayer spoken by Agnes, though, his sight was restored.
The prefect, having failed to convert Agnes back to paganism, or to defile her body, then condemned her to a death by beheading. Agnes willingly offered her neck to the executioner, who trembled with fear as he approached, while she was as joyful as a bride waiting to meet her Bridegroom.
Saint Agnes, along with Saint Cecilia, was one of the earliest martyrs whose name was honored by its insertion into the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I in today’s Mass.) Her name in Latin means “lamb.” As a result, since the sixteenth century, every year on her feast day two lambs are brought to the Roman basilica built over her tomb. Their wool is shorn and weaved into various pallia, vestments covering the shoulders. These very pallia are later placed on the shoulders of archbishops by the pope himself on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. Along with his crozier, or staff, the pallium symbolizes a bishop’s role as shepherd.
Saint Agnes, at a tender age you gave your life to Christ, choosing Him alone as your Spouse. Your fidelity to Christ was unwavering, showing you preferred death over betrayal. Please pray for me, that I may also choose Christ as the Spouse of my soul and be faithful to Him even until death. Saint Agnes, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
Book I, Chapter II
by Saint Amborse
Saint Agnes of Rome:
This treatise has a favourable beginning, since it is the birthday of the holy Virgin Agnes, of whose name, modesty, and martyrdom St. Ambrose speaks in commendation, but more especially of her age, seeing that she, being but twelve years old, was superior to terrors, promises, tortures, and death itself, with a courage wholly worthy of a man.
And my task begins favourably, that since today is the birthday of a virgin, I have to speak of virgins, and the treatise has its beginning from this discourse. It is the birthday of a martyr, let us offer the victim. It is the birthday of St. Agnes, let men admire, let children take courage, let the married be astounded, let the unmarried take an example. But what can I say worthy of her whose very name was not devoid of bright praise? In devotion beyond her age, in virtue above nature, she seems to me to have borne not so much a human name, as a token of martyrdom, whereby she showed what she was to be.
But I have that which may assist me. The name of virgin is a title of modesty. I will call upon the martyr, I will proclaim the virgin. That panegyric is long enough which needs no elaboration, but is within our grasp. Let then labour cease, eloquence be silent. One word is praise enough. This word old men and young and boys chant. No one is more praiseworthy than he who can be praised by all. There are as many heralds as there are men, who when they speak proclaim the martyr.
She is said to have suffered martyrdom when twelve years old. The more hateful was the cruelty, which spared not so tender an age, the greater in truth was the power of faith which found evidence even in that age. Was there room for a wound in that small body? And she who had no room for the blow of the steel had that wherewith to conquer the steel. But maidens of that age are unable to bear even the angry looks of parents, and are wont to cry at the pricks of a needle as though they were wounds. She was fearless under the cruel hands of the executioners, she was unmoved by the heavy weight of the creaking chains, offering her whole body to the sword of the raging soldier, as yet ignorant of death, but ready for it. Or if she were unwillingly hurried to the altars, she was ready to stretch forth her hands to Christ at the sacrificial fires, and at the sacrilegious altars themselves, to make the sign of the Lord the Conqueror, or again to place her neck and both her hands in the iron bands, but no band could enclose such slender limbs.
A new kind of martyrdom! Not yet of fit age for punishment but already ripe for victory, difficult to contend with but easy to be crowned, she filled the office of teaching valour while having the disadvantage of youth. She would not as a bride so hasten to the couch, as being a virgin she joyfully went to the place of punishment with hurrying step, her head not adorned with plaited hair, but with Christ. All wept, she alone was without a tear. All wondered that she was so readily prodigal of her life, which she had not yet enjoyed, and now gave up as though she had gone through it. Every one was astounded that there was now one to bear witness to the Godhead, who as yet could not, because of her age, dispose of herself. And she brought it to pass that she should be believed concerning God, whose evidence concerning man would not be accepted. For that which is beyond nature is from the Author of nature.
What threats the executioner used to make her fear him, what allurements to persuade her, how many desired that she would come to them in marriage! But she answered:
It would be an injury to my spouse to look on any one as likely to please me. He who chose me first for Himself shall receive me. Why are you delaying, executioner? Let this body perish which can be loved by eyes which I would not. She stood, she prayed, she bent down her neck. You could see the executioner tremble, as though he himself had been condemned, and his right hand shake, his face grow pale, as he feared the peril of another, while the maiden feared not for her own. You have then in one victim a twofold martyrdom, of modesty and of religion. She both remained a virgin and she obtained martyrdom.