Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A New Kind of Hope

Yesterday was the great feast day of St. Agnes of Rome, a twelve year old girl of noble family at the beginning of the fourth century. She openly professed her Christianity and died a martyr, which is certainly extraordinary in itself for a young girl. But there is another reason why Agnes is regarded as one of the great saints of the Church.

Carved statue of St. Agnes from the shrine at St. Agnes Catholic church in Arlington, Virginia.
Agnese Janaro was baptized in this church over 14 years ago. Was it really that long ago?!

The earliest accounts praise St. Agnes's heroism and her purity. Clearly she made an astonishing impression on those who witnessed her martyrdom and communicated her story. The traditions that come down from various sources, and that are reflected in the ancient liturgical texts for her feast, indicate that even before her martyrdom this young girl had already given over her life to Jesus in a total dedication--one that would inspire and shape the personal identity of countless women over the next 1700 years.

Agnes had consecrated her virginity to Christ, not for a term of service like the vestals of pagan Rome, but forever. She sacrificed her natural vocation to be a wife and mother in this world and embraced a life of virginity as a witness that God alone was the love of her heart. Christ would be her true husband, and as His bride she would begin to reflect the glory of the life of the resurrection by remaining a virgin, by being entirely for God and God alone, offering Him her entire identity as a woman.

But this was not her idea. It was He Himself who had called her. In the liturgy, Agnes says, "My Lord Jesus Christ has espoused me with his ring; he has crowned me like a bride."

There is no disparagement of earthly marriage here. Marriage itself serves as a sign of what she found, and finds its own fulfillment in being this sign.

Rather, something happened to this twelve year old girl, Someone revealed to her a new kind of life, an eternal life that was already dawning in that moment of her heart, a life and a love worthy of all she had and all she was, worthy of following exclusively, a life greater than any human hope even as it fulfilled the promise hidden in all hopes, a life that could not be broken by all the power of the most powerful Empire the world had ever known, a life greater than the whole universe: eternal life in communion with the God who is Love.

"I am espoused to him whom the angels serve; sun and moon stand in wonder at his beauty."

It was this Beauty that made her utterly fearless. It was a Beauty that so filled this child that all the connivance and energetic cruelty of the powers of this earth could not prevail against her freedom, even when they dedicated all their deception and all there brute force to crushing that freedom.

They did not prevail.

Now, Agnes of Rome sings in glory, in the company of a multitude of women who followed as she did, into martyrdom, into the prayer and silence that seeks Him alone and in so doing lifts up the cry of the whole world, into an exclusive devotion to Christ wherever He is found, seeking to bring comfort to His heart, seeking Him as missionaries, teachers, care-givers, companions and servants of the poor, workers of mercy. St. Agnes leads the song that brings sweet breezes of consolation to the weary, and the strength of a new kind of hope for all of us in the face of every danger and every kind of violence:

"What I longed for, I now see; what I hoped for, I now possess; in heaven I am espoused to him whom on earth I loved with all my heart."

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