21 January 2010

Saint Agnes, virgin and martyr


21 JANUARY 2010. Today the Church celebrates the memorial of Saint Agnes, one of the most extolled virgin martyrs in the ancient church.

Saint Agnes was born in A.D. 291 of Roman nobility and was raised in a Christian family. At the age of 12 or 13, on 21 January 304, during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian (although some historical study may not attribute her death to Diocletian), Saint Agnes was clothed in the robe of martyrdom.

Although some of the accounts of Saint Agnes' martyrdom may be legend, and there are several accounts that vary in their details, the basic principle in all of them is the same. Saint Agnes went joyfully to her death for Christ. The Prefect or Governor wanted Anges to marry his son, but she refused to, remaining instead chaste to Christ. For her refusal, Saint Agnes was condemned to death, but Roman law forbade executing a virgin. So, Saint Agnes was drug through the streets naked to a brothel. However, any attempt by a man to rape her left the man blinded and unable to move, as though paralyzed. After this, Saint Agnes was tied to a stake to be burned, but the wood would not burn. After, a soldier drew his sword and killed Saint Agnes by decapitation or stabbing her in the throat.

"She went to the place of execution," says Saint Ambrose, "more cheerfully than others go to their wedding."

Days after the death of Saint Agnes, a girl named Emerentiana was found praying at Agnes' tomb. She claimed to be the daughter of Saint Agnes' nurse and was stoned to death for refusing the leave the tomb and for reprimanding the pagans for killing Agnes. Emerentiana was also later canonized.

Saint Agnes' bones lie in the church of Sant'Agnese fuori le mura in Rome, built over the catacomb that housed Saint Agnes' tomb. Her skull is preserved in a side chapel in the church of Saint'Agnese in Agnone on Rome's Piazza Navona.

Saint Agnes is often pictured with a lamb. symbolic of her unblemished purity. She is the patron saint of engaged couples, girls, chastity, rape victims, and virgins. Each year two lambs, from the Trappist abbey of Tre Fontane in Rome, are blessed by the Pope on the feast day of Saint Agnes. Then, on Holy Thursday the lambs are shorn and the wool is used to make palliums that are given by the Pope to newly consecrated metropolitan archbishops to symbolize the archbishop's jurisdiction and unity with the Pope.

Prayer

All-powerful and ever-living God,
you choose the weak in this world
to confound the powerful.
As we celebrate the anniversary
of the martyrdom of Saint Agnes,
may we like her remain constant in faith.


Amen.

IMAGE: Saint Agnes by Francisco de Zurbarán (1635-1642) oil on canvas, from Wikimedia Commons.

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