Thursday, January 21, 2021

Saint Agnes Witnesses to the Transformation of Life in Christ

She was not the first woman to sacrifice the possibility of marriage and motherhood in order to follow Jesus in a deeper way. 

But Saint Agnes gave physiognomy and voice to consecrated virginity as a marriage to Jesus, a singular spousal dedication to him that engages a woman's heart completely, beyond the competition of all human interests and even life itself.

The radiant life and sacrifice of a 12 year old girl in third century Rome, and no doubt her continual intercession thereafter, have fostered in the Church an awareness of the Church's own deepest life.

In an ancient liturgical antiphon, Agnes says: "I am espoused to him whom the angels serve; sun and moon stand in wonder at his beauty." 

There are numerous stories about this extraordinary heroic young woman, but what is certain above all is the astonishing ardor with which she embraced martyrdom when it was imposed upon her. It was for her the culmination of the singular commitment and focus of her life, which was her response - empowered by the Holy Spirit - to the gift of the love of Jesus, experienced in a profoundly personal that raised up and defined the whole form of her life.

Saint Agnes was venerated from the beginning (right after her death) by the clergy and the people of Rome, and then throughout the Western Church and also in the Eastern Churches. This was not unusual for martyrs in the early centuries of Christianity. But there was another aspect of her witness that was radically significant for Christian and human history. Indeed, we must try to appreciate the fact that St. Agnes showed the world a kind of life, a freedom, an originality, a way of giving and loving that were new for human beings, and especially for women, in the long and tired history of the human race. She indicated that women are cherished, ultimately, in a way no one had ever imagined.

She displayed the transcendent passion, creativity, and freedom of belonging to Jesus. Her martyrdom was transfigured into a joyful procession in which she made haste to give her whole self to Jesus, not only fearlessly, but with the conviction that in him she would attain the super-eminent fullness of life: a life immeasurably beyond anything she could have attained naturally even if she had lived a long life on this earth. “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" (expressed in another antiphon of the ancient liturgy that honors her on this, her feast day).

Agnes's witness shines brightly on the fact that for the spouse of Christ, nothing is lost. The sacrifices that are made do not express contempt for the goodness of earthly life, but rather the ecstasy of a love that seeks the Source of all goodness, and thereby finds a hundredfold of fruitfulness even for the life of this earth.

St. Agnes, a young girl, a virgin and martyr for the love of Jesus Christ, thus lived with such fullness that her presence and solicitude continue to this day. For seventeen hundred years, women have followed her example and given their whole selves to Jesus, loving him as their Spouse in prayer and seclusion, and also by serving him in those in need.

We call them nuns and sisters. We even call them "mothers." Today, more and more, we call them our friends and colleagues too, whether in religious habit or as lay women who consecrate themselves in the context of the many new charisms that the Spirit is giving to the Church of our time.

They have sought God and followed the lamb. And in this giving of themselves, they have been the colossal protagonists, the shining stars of love and hope, the bearers of peace and compassion to this world as well.

Agnes stands as one of the pillars of the greatest "women's movement" of all time, and her witness today remains as compelling as ever. She gave up marriage on this earth and everything else even to life itself. And in Christ she became a true mother to generation after generation of daughters to this day -- of women who freely choose to give themselves away beyond the reckoning of this age, and thereby to find a fullness of life beyond measure.