O God the King of saints, you strengthened your servants Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions to make a good confession, staunchly resisting, for the cause of Christ, the claims of human affection, and encouraging one another in their time of trial: Grant that we who cherish their blessed memory may share their pure and steadfast faith, and win with them the palm of victory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Today is the Feast of Saint Perpetua and her companions, Felicitas, Revocatus, Secundulus, Saturninus, and Saturas. They all lived in the city of Carthage, in North Africa, during the late second-early third century. Vibia Perpetua was a relatively well-off young widow with an infant. Felicitas and Revocatus were her slaves, but these three, with Secundulus and Saturninus, were catechumens, people studying in preparation for baptism, under the care of the priest Saturas. In those days people who wanted to be baptized had to study for three years. They were also watched closely during that period to make sure that they were sincere about their desire to become Christians, that they had begun to live a moral life, and to make sure that they were not sent to spy upon and betray the Christians to the government. Once a person had finished their three years in the catechumenate, they were baptized at the Easter Vigil.
In the year 202, the Emperor Septimius Severus decreed that there would be no more conversions to Christianity and that everyone must sacrifice to the divinity of the emperor. This required a person to take a little incense and drop it into the sacrificial fire in front of the government priests. Since Christians only believe in the divinity of Christ, they could not and would not participate. Perpetua and her companions were all arrested and put into prison. The conditions in these prisons were terrible and the only way one was fed was if family or friends brought the prisoner food. Visiting prisoners was a very important aspect of being a Christian in those days; Jesus said that when we visit prisoners in his name, we are visiting him, and this was taken seriously by the Christians of that era. Many Christians were being arrested because of their faith, and this had been happening since the earliest days; St. Paul, St. Peter, and almost all of the apostles had spent some time in prison, and St. John was even exiled on the island of Patmos for a while. Not only the leaders of the Church were imprisoned; people like Perpetua, a nursing mother, were locked in filthy cells with shackles on their ankles simply for desiring to be baptized. The martyrs and confessors went to prison willingly rather than betray their faith. in the Letter to the Hebrews, we read: “Recall the former days when you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated... For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised.” These people were spiritual athletes, and they endured these terrible trials for the sake of their faith.
When Perpetua was brought before the Proconsul, she refused to sacrifice to the Emperor and she refused to deny Christ. Her father came and begged her to think of what she was doing; he begged her to think of her little baby, to think of her family name. Here she was, a well-born woman, spending her time with slaves and others. Here she was, a nursing mother, imprisoned with her baby. Here she was, bringing great shame upon her family; all she had to do was offer a little incense to the divinity of the Emperor and denounce this “Christ” and his followers and everything would be all right. But Perpetua would not turn against Christ and the Christian faith. She stood before the Proconsul and her father and said, “I am a Christian.” The Proconsul finally let her father take the baby home with him, and Perpetua was returned to the dungeon. Perpetua and her companions were Montanists, a group who believed strongly in the direction of the Holy Spirit and were given to visions and prophecy. Perpetua experienced several dreams and visions in prison. She dreamed that she climbed a ladder to heaven, to a garden in which she saw those who were martyred before her. She had a vision in which her brother, who had died of cancer, appeared to her healthy and drinking of the water of life; and she also dreamed that she was a warrior, that she became a man and fought the Devil, defeating him to enter heaven. After that last dream, she awoke understanding that she was to fight in the arena, not with the wild beasts, but with the Devil himself.
On the day of March 7, 202, Perpetua and Felicitas, Revocatus, Secundulus, Saturninus, and Saturas, encouraging one another to be brave before whatever pain they may suffer and before whatever awaited them, were led to the arena. There, wild beasts were unlashed upon them: a leopard, a wild boar, a bear, and even a wild steer attacked and mangled them. The steer tossed Perpetua and Felicitas about with its sharp horns but although they were bruised and dishevelled, they held up. Perpetua didn’t even know that she was being tossed about; like so many martyrs, she was in a state of spiritual ecstasy and she cried to the others: “Stand fast in the faith and love of one another. And do not let what we suffer be a stumbling block to you.” Eventually her five companions were killed by the beasts, but Perpetua was still alive. The animals were tired, the crowd’s bloodlust was sated, yet she was still alive. A soldier with a sword was sent to finish her off, but he was inept and unsure and his first blow merely pierced her throat between the bones, leaving her alive. She shrieked with pain, and then took the blade with her hands and guided the sword into her heart. The report of her martyrdom ends: “Perhaps so great a woman, feared by the unclean spirit, could not have been killed unless she so willed it.”
The memory of Perpetua was very important to the Christians in Carthage, and to all the Christians in Africa. The story of her martyrdom infused the African Church with much vigor and it was one of the strongest and most enthusiastic of all the churches in the first five centuries.
In the reading we heard from Matthew’s gospel this morning, Jesus warned the Twleve of the trials to come, but these trials were also experienced, not just by the Twelve, but by regular people like you and I. Jesus said, “They will deliver you up to the tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.” The martyrs of the first three centuries and in the centuries to come all experienced these things. Jesus also warned: “Many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.” This was the experience of the Early Church and it is also the experience of Christians today. We need to be aware fo false teachings like the Prosperity Gospel and we need to be aware of those who create dissent and schism instead of unity and love. Jesus also said, “Those who endure to the end will be saved. And this gospel will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations.” Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions endured to the end, and in just over one hundred years after their deaths, the Emperor Constantine declared tolerance for Christianity and the persecutions in the empire ended. With the backing of the Roman Empire, the Gospel of the Christ spread throughout what they considered the world, and then continued to spread, day after day, year after year, century after century, until it spread even to the Americas, to this isthmus, a world of which Perpetua, Constantine, and the Apostles had no idea even existed. And now, some eighteen hundred years later, we sit here in a church in Watsonville in the state of California in a country unknown to the people in Africa, hearing the story of the bravery of Perpetua and her companions, sharing the bread and wine as the Christians of her time did, coming together to pray and sing and heal, just as they did. The faithful witness of the martyrs, of people like Perpetua and the others, have made it possible for us to hear the Good News, have made it possible for us to learn of salvation, have made it possible for us to have eternal life. May we all share the bravery and faithfulness of Perpetua, Felicitas, Revocatus, Secundulus, Saturninus, Saturas, and all the martyrs.