53. The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp

I promised that this week I would write about The Triumph of Orthodoxy, and the post was all ready to go and well worth reading, if I do say so myself. That can wait till next year. For then I remembered that today, February 23, is the feast of the Holy Hieromartyr Polycarp. This is a wonderful story, which you ought to hear. So…

The Life of Saint Polycarp

Polycarp was born a pagan about the year 70 and was converted to Christianity by Saint John the Theologian, the beloved apostle. Polycarp became the second bishop of Smyrna, which is the modern Izmir on the southwest coast of Turkey. It is said he was a man of great seriousness and holiness, zealous in his defense of the Orthodox faith.

At the time there was a heretic named Marcian who had revised the Holy Scriptures, removing the Old Testament and leaving only Luke’s Gospel and Paul’s epistles in the New Testament. He left out Saint John the Theologian, Polycarp’s mentor, so this was no laughing matter! One day Marcian met Polycarp, and Polycarp ignored him. Marcian was incensed: “Polycarp, don’t you know me?” asked Marcian. “Indeed I know you”, said Polycarp. “You are the firstborn of Satan.” That ended the conversation. That story came to us from Saint Irenaeus of Lyons in Gaul (left), who was a disciple of Polycarp.

Still he was a man of peace and gentleness. One time he visited Rome to confer with the Pope about a dispute that had arisen about the date of Pascha. (Some things never seem to change…) In Rome they always kept Pascha on a Sunday. In Asia Minor they were then celebrating Pascha on the 2nd day after Jewish Passover, which meant Pascha usually was not on a Sunday. Polycarp refused to quarrel over it. He and the Pope of Rome agreed not to break communion over the issue and to continue their separate customs till they came to agreement.

We also get a picture of Polycarp from Saint Ignatius of Antioch who visited with Polycarp while he was being taken under custody to Rome to be executed. He later wrote an epistle back to Polycarp which begins: “Greetings from Ignatius…to Polycarp… While I was impressed with your godly mind, which is fixed as it were upon the immovable rock, I am more than grateful that I was granted the sight of your holy face. God grant that I may never forget it… Just as pilots demand winds, and a storm-tossed sailor a harbor, so times like these demand a person like you…”

Saint John, Saint Ignatius, Saint Irenaeus – imagine knowing them all!

The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp

Polycarp’s arrest took place about the year 155. Polycarp was then an old man in his eighties. The fifth imperial persecution broke upon the Church, this time under the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. We have an eyewitness account from the book The Martydom of Saint Polycarp. Already there had been martyrs. Bishop Polycarp, it says, “was not perturbed, but desired to remain in the city. (to the left: ancient Izmir) But the majority induced him to withdraw, so he retired to a farm not far from the city and there stayed with a few friends, doing nothing else night and day but pray for all men and for the churches throughout the world, as was his constant habit. And while he was praying it so happened, three days before his arrest, that he had a vision and saw his pillow blazing with fire, and turning to those who were with him he said, “I must be burned alive.”

Soldiers came searching for Polycarp, and tortured 2 slaves till they told where he was. Late in the evening they came to the farm and found him in bed in the upper room of a small cottage. He could have escaped but chose not to, saying “God’s will be done.” Then he went downstairs and talked with them, and ordered them food and drink as much as they wished, and asked only that they give him an hour to pray undisturbed. In fact he took 2 hours, remembering by name all whom he had met with at any time during his life, both small and great. (His words were heard because in those days silent prayer was almost unknown. People prayed aloud.) It was written that the soldiers were sorry that they had come to arrest such a devout old man. Then they mounted him on a donkey and took him into the city.

The chief of police met him. The authorities knew him and liked and respected him. Polycarp, they said, what harm is there to say “Lord Caesar” and to offer incense and the like and save yourself? At first he did not answer them. When they persisted, he finally said, “I am not going to do what you advise me.” They gave up and hurried him into the arena, where a great crowd was gathered. The proconsul, a Roman, tried to persuade him to give in: “Have respect for your age. Swear by…Caesar, change your mind; say ‘Away with the atheists’. (Christians were called atheists in those days because they did not believe in the pagan gods.) Polycarp sighed, waved his arm toward the crowd of pagans in the arena, and said “Indeed. Away with the atheists.” The proconsul insisted: “Take the oath, and I shall release you. Curse Christ.” Polycarp answered, “86 years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” They argued back and forth, but Polycarp refused to yield. Finally the proconsul gave up. He sent a herald into the midst of the arena to proclaim 3 times: “Polycarp has confessed himself to be a Christian.” The crowd erupted in anger, went wild as crowds often do, crying out for his death. Let a lion loose on him!

By now it was late evening, and the wild beasts had been put away for the night. So another form of execution was chosen, that which Polycarp had foreseen: death by fire. The old man was stripped of his clothing, and they were about to nail him to the post so he would not escape or fall down. Polycarp said, “Leave me as I am. God who will grant me to endure the fire will also give me grace to stand unmoved. You do not need the nails.” So they tied him to the post, his hands behind him, like an animal to be sacrificed. Polycarp looked up to heaven and began to pray, his last words on earth. He was a bishop. It was a liturgical prayer. Here is part of it: “Lord God almighty, Father of thy beloved and blessed servant Jesus Christ… I bless thee because thou hast deemed me worthy of this day and hour, to take my place among the martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, for the resurrection to eternal life of soul and body in the immortality of the Holy Spirit; among whom may I be received in thy presence this day as a rich and acceptable sacrifice… For this and for everything I praise thee, I bless thee, I glorify thee, through the eternal and heavenly high priest Jesus Christ, thy beloved Servant, through whom be glory to thee with him and the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”

They then lit the fire. Those standing saw to their amazement that the flames did go not straight up consuming the martyr, but rather formed a chamber, a wall around him, with him in the midst not burning, It was was written “…as bread baking or as gold and silver refined in a furnace. And we perceived a sweet aroma like the fragrance of incense or some other precious spice.” Finally, when it was seen that his body would not be consumed by the fire, an executioner was commanded to go in and stab him, and immediately he died, and from that small wound a great quantity of blood came out and quenched the fire. Just to mock the Christians, the authorities burnt his body, The account says, “Later we [the Christians] took up his bones, more precious than costly stones and more valuable than gold, and laid them away in a suitable place. There the Lord will permit us, so far as possible, to gather together in joy and gladness to celebrate the day of his martyrdom as a birthday, in memory of those athletes who have gone before, and to train and make ready those who are to come hereafter.”

This is the interior of Saint Polycarp Church in Izmir.

Eusebius wrote later, “Polycarp everywhere taught what he had also learned from the Apostles, which also the Church has handed down; and this alone is true” (Eccl. Hist., Book IV, ch. 14,15).

And so today February 23, 2018, 18 and a half centuries years later, we still honor Saint Polycarp on the day of his martyrdom. God grant that we may be faithful, as he was, to the end.

The right arm of Saint Polycarp was kept at the Holy Monastery of Panagia Ambelakiotissa  outside Nafpaktos in the Peloponnese of Greece, from 1475 until it was stolen, for reasons never explained, on March 14, 2013. Although the three thieves were apprehended, the relic has not been discovered..


Here are the Church’s hymns sung today in honor of the Holy Hieromartyr Polycarp.

Troparion — Tone 4
By sharing in the ways of the Apostles, you became a successor to their throne. Through the practice of virtue, you found the way to divine contemplation, O inspired one of God; by teaching the word of truth without error, you defended the Faith, even to the shedding of your blood. Hieromartyr Polycarp, entreat Christ God to save our souls.
Kontakion — Tone 1
Through virtues, you offered spiritual fruit to the Lord,  therefore, you were glorified as a worthy hierarch, wise Polycarp.  Today, we who have been enlightened by your words extol in song your praise-worthy memory, thereby giving glory to the Lord..

Next Week: Back to our Series on Orthodoxy and Other Faiths – Roman Catholicism

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