St. Agatha of Sicily: 5 February

Catanae, in Sicilia, natalis sanctae Agathae, Virginis et Martyris; quae, temporibus Decii Imperatoris, sub Quintiano Judice,
post alapas et carcerem,
post equuleum et torsiones,
post mamillarum abscissionem,
post volutationem in testulis et carbonibus,
tandem in carcere, Deum precans, consummata est.

St. Agatha’s entry in the Martryologium Romanum is quite impressive, given the litany of sufferings she endured before her death. In fact, the text says that she died only “after beatings and imprisonment, after being stretched on the rack and impaled, after her breasts were cut off, and after being rolled in ceramic shards and embers”. Like Agnes of Rome whose memory we recently recalled, Agatha of Sicily is likewise one of the famous virgin-martyrs of noble birth who, after refusing the advances of a pagan man, was killed for her unwavering faith in Christ.

Around the year 250 AD, the emperor Decius decreed a new wave of persecution against Christians. Quintianus, the local consul in Catania, decided to utilize this edict as a means for satisfying his lust. He ordered Agatha arrested and brought to his quarters, where he intended to impose his wicked desires upon her. But to keep her as his own, Agatha would have to abjure the Christian religion and make sacrifice to the gods of Rome. Agatha refused. Seeing her resoluteness, the consul sent the young girl to the care of a woman named Aphrodisia, who with her nine daughters shared beds with various men in exchange for riches and patronage. These women for thirty days attempted with all forms of persuasion to break Agatha’s virtuous will, enticing her with promises of prestige while reminding her of the ghastly tortures already prepared. With tears, and fervent prayers, she firmly pushed these temptations aside, and at the end of thirty days she was brought back to Quintianus.

Twice she stood trial before the consul, and twice she professed a stern rebuke of Quintianus. After the first interrogation, the outraged official remanded her to jail, but not before ordering her beaten severely by his guards. After the second interrogation, Quintianus offered to save her if she but submit to the State religion; Agatha replied that Christ alone was her salvation. Frustrated at the failure of all his vicious efforts, Quintianus then consigned Agatha to be stretched on the rack as sharp hooks and spikes tore at her virgin flesh, and she endured it with the same cheerfulness that Agnes will later show as she faces a Roman sword. Wishing to humiliate her even more, the consul ordered her breasts cut off and returned to prison, this time to solitary confinement.

Despite her isolation, Agatha was miraculously healed (according to legend, the Apostle Peter visited the girl and cured her wounds). When four days had past, the guards brought the healthy girl to Quintianus, who in a fit of maddened incredulity, commanded that she be stripped, beaten, and dragged through a pile of burning coals and broken pottery. This would be her final trial. As the embers and shards burned and scraped away the fleeting remnants of her broken flesh, Agatha was thought to have said: “Lord, my Creator, you have ever protected me from the cradle; you have taken me from the love of the world, and given me patience to suffer: receive now my soul”– and after pronouncing these words, she entered the glorious company of the angels. For this reason we read in the Martyrology the words Deum precans, consummata est.

Indeed, the ancient writers of the Martyrology intended to demonstrate the consummately Christlike fashion in which she made her final testimony. Those final four words, Deum precans, consummata est, seems to be a deliberate textual parallel to John’s passion narrative (19:30), which in the Vulgate reads: cum ergo accepisset Iesus acetum dixit “consummatum est”, et inclinato capite, tradidit spiritum (when he had taken the vinegar, he said “It is finished”, and bowing his head, gave up the ghost). We know that on the Cross, despite the intensity of his trials, Jesus continued to pray to the Father. That great psalm of lamentation, the Quare reliquisti, he intoned with a loud voice not only as recognition of his own human suffering but as a firm declaration of hope in the saving power of God. Agatha, too, likewise offered unto heaven an ultimate prayer as her own mortal body was pierced at the hands of pagan tyrrany. Because of her imitation of Christ, the churches in Catania and Carthage quickly added her name to the celebration of the Eucharist, and her memory found its way thereafter into the liturgy of Rome. The whole Latin Church accordingly commemorates St. Agatha in the Roman Canon, in the second list of saints at the Nobis quoque, in celebration of her corageous conformity to Christ. Yes, Agatha was consumed, not so much by fire but for the love of the Lord; and like a small candle that has reached the end of its wick, she gave all of herself until she had none left to give, only to rise like the scent of perfumed wax or the smoke of incense unto the glory of heavenly altar, where with Felicity, Perpetua, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and innumerable fair Christian maidens, she eternally gazes on the glory of the Lord unveiled.

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