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February 23 Saint of the Day – Polycarp of Smyrna

Polycarp of SmyrnaThis day in 1455 is the traditional date for the publication of the Gutenberg Bible, the first Western book printed with movable type. There was no Youth Edition; it had no zipper; the words of Christ were not in red. It’s a wonder anybody bought it.

Our saint today for both calendars is Polycarp of Smyrna (ca. 69 – 155 or 156 or 166 or 167 or 177), a disciple of John the Apostle and bishop of Smyrna on the western coast of what is now Turkey. He is numbered among the Apostolic Fathers, which are not (as you might think) the fathers of the apostles, but the spiritual sons of the apostles. He was by all accounts a fine bishop, leading his flock with “apostolic zeal,” and well-loved of his presbytery. At his “trial” he was called by his accusers “the teacher of Asia” and “the father of the Christians.”

When persecution against the Christians started breaking out like acne, Polycarp was persuaded to leave Smyrna for a small house in the country. While there he had a dream in which it seemed his pillow was on fire. At breakfast, he told his friends, “I’m going to be burned alive.” When the knock came on the door, he refused the offer to run to another place, saying only, “God’s will be done,” rather than the “HIDE ME HIDE ME HIDE ME” that I fear would have been my response. He went down and let his “pursuers” in himself, and asked his hosts to get them something to eat while he prayed for an hour or so. It actually ended up being a little over two hours, but apparently the food was good because the pursuers let him keep going. When he was done they asked each other, “Why are we arresting this venerable and godly old man?” Our source has them using the word “venerable” twice. They clearly thought he was venerable.

He was then taken in a chariot with the Irenarch (justice of the peace) Herod and his father Nicetes to the local stadium, where the lions were just being put to bed and the snack vendors were shuttering their carts. The Irenarch asked him, “What’s the harm in calling Caesar, ‘Lord’?” but he said, “Ain’t gonna do it,” and when the chariot stopped they angrily pushed him off, injuring his ankle. As he entered the stadium, a voice from heaven said, “Be a man, Polycarp!” The proconsul tried in various ways to get him to renounce Christ, but he answered stubbornly and in some cases flippantly — enjoined to say “Away with the atheists!” (meaning Christians), he pointed to the proconsul and the crowd, and said, looking up to heaven, “Away with the atheists!” Bam!

Another time he said, “For eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me wrong. Why should I blaspheme him now?” And finally, “Look, what are we waiting for? Bring on what you’ve got.” Since the beasts were off the clock and nobody wanted to pay them overtime, they decided to burn him. He prayed a long and beautiful prayer which there isn’t room here to reproduce, and when he was done they set the wood alight (no doubt thinking how venerable he was). The flames however would not burn him — they swept up and around where he was but did not touch him, so [WARNING THIS NEXT BIT IS ICKY — SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ IT] they pierced his side with a spear, and enough blood came out to quench the fire.

After he was dead, the Christians asked for but were refused his body, but after it was cremated, they were allowed to take away his bones. This they did reverently, putting them to rest in a place of great honor. Apropos of nothing, Iranaeus records Polycarp’s favorite expression of exasperation as: “Good God! What did you keep me alive to see this for?” (You seriously gotta love this guy.) His prayers are invoked, for reasons I could not ascertain, against dysentery and earache.


Bibliography
February 23 (Wikipedia)
The Apostolic Fathers (book on paper) (Click here for Kindle edition)
Eusebius’ History of the Church; (book on paper)(Click here for Kindle edition)
Hieromartyr Polycarp the Bishop of Smyrna (OCA)
Polycarp (Wikipedia)
Martyrdom of Polycarp (Wikipedia)
Metropolis of Smyrna (Wikipedia)
Church History (Eusebius) (Wikipedia)


Copyright © 2013 Alex Riggle. All Rights Reserved.

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About Your Intrepid Blogger

I live in the Tacoma area. When not writing things some people think are funny, I teach technology to 7th and 8th graders at a local middle school.

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