Sunday March 8 2015 for All Saints, St Andrews. ‘Perpetua and her Companions’.
Just imagine: it is March 7 (as yesterday) it is the year of Our Lord 203. We are visiting Carthage – in what is now Tunisia; and that we are in the Roman arena there, where a good crowd has gathered for the day’s spectacle. The programme includes the inevitable deaths of a small group of what have become known as Christians. And it is this occasion and the fate of this group that we are invited to commemorate and consider at this time. We may well ask why we should recall this particular horror – the fate of a young woman, Perpetua, one of her companion slaves, Felicity, and some named men of different ages- in a place and time so different from our own, in the context of a Christian liturgy? Let me suggest to you in the course of my sermon, that there is no more appropriate context than this for reflection on their fate, and that we may have much to gain by attending to it.
To begin with, it is quite extraordinary in being Perpetua’s particular story, for the account of her suffering, her ‘Passion’, and that of her companions, comes to us in a text of just twenty-one brief sections, with 3-10 being Perpetua’s very own prison diary, probably in Greek originally, and explicitly written ‘ by her own hand and according to her perceptions’. The introductory sections and the end sections come from an editor, with 11-13 from the hand of one Saturus, a man added to the earlier round up of Perpetua and her companions, to share their fate. So right from the early era of Christianity’s taking hold outside its original homeland, we have a first-hand text, from an exceptionally well educated twenty-two year old, honourably married, with a small son she was still breast-feeding, rounded up from her home in a well-established family of brothers, mother and father, as the result of a decree issued just the previous year by the emperor, Severus, determined to stamp out this upstart religious cult as he would see it. It derived, after all, from stories told about the meaning of the life and death of a Galilean rabbi at the hands of the Roman authorities in an obscure Roman-occupied eastern territory of the empire. Everyone would know perfectly well the fate of those who opposed Roman rule – but why the significance attributed to the death of just one of the many thousands strung up on scaffolds in execution sites across the empire? Carthaginian opposition to Roman rule was virtually crushed by this time, so it would be extremely unlikely that anyone would see the fate of a handful of members of a particular household as in any way exceptional as part of the spectacle of Roman-run games.
One point of immediate interest in Perpetua’s prison-diary: she nowhere refers to her husband, and we have simply no idea of where he might have been- he might have been on some commission or other hundreds of miles away, and if, as and when he ever returned, he was going to face a household in deep mourning, without himself perhaps sharing Perpetua’s faith. So it is clear that the burden of trying to get Perpetua to change her mind and return home with her little son fell on her frantic father, tearing out his hair and his beard, casting himself at her feet, cursing his years of life, asking for her pity, appealing to his love for her, kissing her hands, reminding her that he had preferred her above her brothers, asking her to consider the future of her little son who would have to grow up without her. Quite apart from his daughter’s intransigence, there was also the issue of the conversion of the slave, Felicitas, and others in the party. As we know from many a context, baptising a slave into the ‘body of Christ’ had profound implications for how she or he was then to be regarded- her whole status in the household was changed. If these two were indeed to return home, father was going to be faced with some important matters to sort out.
As it happens, Felicitas herself was as courageous as Perpetua. Eight months pregnant when arrested, she gave birth to her little daughter just two days before the group were to be turned into the arena, and both these young women explained to those who chided them that the courage they had needed to give birth to their children, and then to part with them from prison, would be the courage that would sustain them in the arena, without there being any doubt that Christ would continue to be present with them in the courage with which they faced the crowd and their eventual death. Perpetua attempted to console her father by telling him that she lay in the power of God; Felicitas said that in the arena ‘Another would be in her who would suffer for her because she was suffering for him.’ Baptised in prison with others of the group, Perpetua then insisted that ‘ the Holy Spirit bade me make no other petition after the holy water, save for bodily endurance’.
All they had to do to escape the fate that awaited them was to perform one simple action: to drop a pinch of incense on to an altar fire, a ceremonial gesture known as ‘a sacrifice for the safety of the emperor’ – the emperor as in some sense divine, at the pinnacle of a whole political and military structure holding the empire together. Christians were people who refused to concede ultimate authority to the emperor and all that he stood for, whatever was claimed about the necessity of the imperial cult for the security of the populations of the empire. No one would dispute the magnificent achievements of the Roman authorities, but Christians could not and would not concede ultimate authority to any emperor, nor would they endorse the brutality and violence with which that authority was enforced. Those who had learned to say that they believed in one God, the Father Almighty, manifest in an apparently helpless man executed with such cruelty as was told in the passion-narratives of Jesus- and yet maintained that through this man salvation was to be found- these people could not be tolerated. The pleas of Perpetua’s father that his daughter and her companions escape their condemnation by performing the appropriate rite had to be resisted; the women had to part from their beloved children- a little son just about weaned; a newborn daughter whose life would depend on the availability of another woman to feed her.
In the time left to them what sustained the group and as it were reinforced Perpetua’s importance to them were her visions, visions above all of paradise, visions of reconciliation between those who had not been reconciled in this life, and of great importance to her personally, a vision of her seven- year old brother who had died of what she wrote of as ‘ a gangrene in the face’ –now healed, able to drink from life-giving water, and to play as a child of his age would. Saturus too recounted his share of the visions of consolation. And at the heart of the paradisal visions was the exchange of the ‘Kiss of Peace’, and the plea to Perpetua and her companions to make peace where there had been quarrels, and wrongs to be forgiven.
The concluding part of the narrative of witness, of martyrdom, of course comes from someone who somehow or other got hold of and preserved Perpetua’s prison diary and added to it an account of how she and Felicity and the others behaved when pitched into the arena. To begin with the two young women were stripped and draped in nets, and for once some in the crowd retained a few shreds of humanity, for the narrative relates how ‘The people were horrified, beholding in the one a tender girl, in the other a woman fresh from childbirth, with milk dripping from her breasts.’ Recalled from the arena, clothed in rough tunics, back they went to confront the tormented animals supposed to destroy them. We hve a moving glimpse of Perpetua in the arena, for when thrown to the ground, she got back on her feet, did her best to recover the decency provided by her tunic, and even re-pinned up her hair – she was not going to appear as one already in mourning, in this, the hour of her glory. To the end, she supported Felicity and the others, and when they were moved as a group to the platform where they were to have their throats cut, they kissed one another – the rite of the Pax again, – and Perpetua herself as it were had to take charge of the last moment of her life by helping out the young gladiator detailed to finish her off by guiding his sword to her throat.
The first and obvious point to attend from this harrowing story is I think to remind ourselves of the political issue – that confessing even the first line of a Christian creed is to make a political statement about where, ultimately, lies the authorship therefore authority of the whole created context of which we are a small part. It may be delegated, it may have different manifestations in human culture- in a President, in a Prime Minister, in a monarch, a judge, a bishop, a code of law or whatever, but none of these are ultimate. But secondly, we fool ourselves if we suppose that we are fundamentally so very different from the crowds in a Roman the arena. It is at least arguable that we have only to attend to what is on offer on our television screens to see how we remain addicted to violence, violence in sport (in close-up), in many forms of entertainment, in partly sanitised ‘news items’, violence in the prejudices which block possible solutions to admittedly appallingly difficult problems, many of them self-inflicted, lacking the imagination, courage, patience and compassion to energise the long-term political solutions they require. And this addiction to violence is sustained and fed by the accessibility of the ‘spectacular’ – not the spectacle of the arena, but the world-wide availability of visual evidence and reports of comparable brutality or the threat and promise of it. Where are we to find the courage to withstand this addiction and to become the kinds of communities focussed quite unequivocally on the rejection of cruelties of so many kinds of which we allow ourselves to be only partly aware?
And of course, what of the ‘Kiss of Peace’? I for one had no idea until recently that it would turn up twice in the context of a narrative of martyrdom, although of course there are many biblical passages which reflect it as a ceremony of reconciliation, and it is also found in early texts about the eucharist. But recall that the occasion from which the eucharist takes its rise- Christ’s last supper with his disciples, includes disturbing moments of betrayal – not just slipping off to tell the authorities where a trouble-maker might be located, but something more subtle and insidious in the insistence of the disciples that they will never betray Christ. They still have not learned that their fidelity to him depended primarily, first and foremost, on his fidelity to them and not the other way round. We too need at the very least to recall the grace of his fidelity in however minimal a gesture of reconciliation, of forgiveness of one another, in the heart of the eucharist. Making a kiss of it in today’s world isn’t an option for all sorts of obvious reasons, – but if we are to continue with hand-shakes they must surely mean more than a sort of trivial conviviality- on that basis we can do without the gesture and look forward to refreshments after the eucharist, cheerfully avoiding the people we do not like. But the gesture of the ‘Pax’ is there to remind us that it is Christ’s fidelity to us that makes possible our fidelity to one another, however occasional or fragmentary that may be to begin with. Somehow or other, may I suggest, Christian communities need to recover a sense of the profound intention behind the ‘Kiss of peace’ or its handshake substitute, not just to cope with ourselves and our inevitable differences and dislikes, but really to help us engage with our cultural addictions to violence and brutality, our acceptance of cruelty and callousness wherever these are to be found. If we are at least prepared to attempt this, I suggest then we may begin to align ourselves with the faith and courage of two young women and their companions in that arena so long ago. Otherwise, why commemorate and recall them?