Today we optionally celebrate the Feast of St. Agnes of Rome, born 291 AD and died a martyr circa 304 AD at the age of 12 or 13. Like many saints of the 3rd century, there are no historical records per se, but only the stories that were told within the Christian community. Those accounts were collected in the 5th century Acts of Saint Agnes.
She was born into a family of Roman nobility, a Christian family, that then encountered the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. The Great Persecution was the last and most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire rescinding Christians’ legal rights and demanding that they comply with traditional religious practices. Prior to this there were persecutions announced empire-wide were locally horrific in places and ignored in others, but the Great Persecution was different. Earlier the demographics of Christian were the low born and poor, but several centuries in the faith had spread to noble and wealthy families. Origen, writing about 248 AD, tells of “the multitude of people coming into the faith, even rich men and persons in positions of honor, and ladies of high refinement and birth.” Christianity was now a threat to the very nature of Roman life in which traditional Roman religion was inextricably interwoven into the fabric of Roman society and state, and Christians refused to observe its practices and so were considered seditionists.
Agnes was reported to have been not only of family of nobility, but also beautiful. Not surprising she had many suitors of high rank and make clear her expectations of their commitment to the faith. One spurned suitor turned her into the authorities. The Prefect Sempronius condemned Agnes to be dragged naked through the streets to a brothel. In one account, as she prayed, her hair grew and covered her body. It was also said that all of the men that attempted to rape her were immediately struck blind. The son of the prefect was struck dead but revived after she prayed for him, causing her release. There commenced a trial from which Sempronius recused himself, allowing another figure to preside and sentence St. Agnes to death. She was led out and bound to a stake, but the bundle of wood would not burn, or the flames parted away from her, whereupon the officer in charge of the troops drew his sword and beheaded her, or, in some other texts, stabbed her in the throat.
The first known account comes from a sermon of St. Ambrose (354) in which she is praised for her faith and martyrdom. It seems her story was well known. In time she was seen as the patron of those seeking chastity and purity, and hence the patron of young girls and Girl Scouts. But a superstitious practice also arose in folk customs that called for young girls to engage Saint Agnes’ Eve (20–21 January) with a view to discovering their future husbands. It was said that a girl could see her future husband in a dream if she performed certain rites on the eve of St. Agnes. Then the proposed husband would appear in her dream, kiss her, and feast with her. A Scottish version of the ritual would involve young women meeting together on St. Agnes’s Eve at midnight, they would go one by one, into a remote field and throw in some grain, after which they repeated the following rhyme in a prayer to St. Agnes: “Agnes sweet, and Agnes fair, Hither, hither, now repair; Bonny Agnes, let me see the lad who is to marry me.”
The musical artist Sting wrote an instrumental piece, “St. Agnes and the Burning Train” on his album “The Soul Cages.” The burning train refers to a fire on a train his grandmother was on, on an occasion near Christmas when she was coming to visit him. The fire on the train perhaps was a reminder that life is precarious, and death is may be waiting around every corner.
Between martyr, medium of future spouses, and a reminder that life is precious, I am drawn to the last. Agnes knew that her faith was more precious than life here and let that guide her steps.
The word “martyr” comes from the Greek martyria, “to give witness.” And witness to the faith, she is. A treasure of the church. The gospel for the feast day is from Matthew 13, the parable of the buried treasure.