Friday, 7 March 2014
Women's World Day of Prayer: Perpetua and Felicity
Whenever we assemble at the table of Our Lord, we feast together not just as a congregation, but with our contemporaries throughout the Church. And today, we feast with two particular guests of honour. Two of our contemporaries in the faith whose names you may have heard, but perhaps you do not know so well. We feast today with Perpetua and Felicity.
These two North African women were martyred in their home city of Carthage, in what is now Tunisia, on this day in AD 203. At this point, you might expect me to say, "and that's all we know about them," as is generally the case with martyrs of their vintage. But you'd be quite wrong, because exceptionally, we still have eye witness accounts of their imprisonment and martyrdom. I'm afraid they make quite harrowing reading, but nonetheless inspiring for that.
The fact that Perpetua and Felicity are women is not just a passing aside: it really does matter to their story. They were imprisoned for breaking the imperial law which banned Christianity on pain of death. They were cruelly treated. Deacons of the church were allowed to visit them and treat their wounds. But in this, they were not alone. Men suffered the same fate with them.
What makes Perpetua stand out is that she broke family ties. Her father came into prison to try to persuade her to recant so, the report says, that she would not sully the family name. Disobeying the man of the household, the paterfamilias, and putting your family into disrepute was at least as dangerous for a woman in North Africa then as it is now. And yet, Perpetua persevered in her faith until the end.
Felicity, on the other hand, was something that no man can be: she was pregnant. The Roman authorities exercised uncharacteristic humanity in that they would not execute a woman with child. So, they waited until two days after Felicity gave birth, to a daughter, who was adopted by a Christian woman. Then they threw her and Perpetua into arena for the entertainment of the upright local citizens. First they were scourged, then trampled by wild beasts. They gave each other the kiss of peace that the ancient church shared at the Eucharist, and survives in our modern liturgies in the handshake we will share today. At last, they were put to the sword.
Their feast was kept locally in Carthage ever thereafter, and in Rome from the fourth century at the latest. And this is the feast we keep today, not just in memory of them, but with them, along with all the women and men who have ever suffered for Christ and those suffer for him still today. That is why I call Perpetua and Felicity "contemporaries." They are not just dead heroes whose memory we keep. The Christian Church is the Church of the living and the dead, spanning earth and heaven, and at the Eucharist the whole Church feasts together, drawn as one into the eternal sacrifice of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Posted by Tom Plant