February 23 — Polycarp of Smyrna

Polycarp of Smyrna (ca. 69–155 or 156 or 166 or 167 or 177) was a disciple of John the Apostle (Sep 26) and bishop of Smyrna on the western coast of what is now Turkey. He is numbered among the Apostolic Fathers*, who are not (as one might think) the fathers of the apostles, but their (spiritual) sons. He led his flock with “apostolic zeal,” and was well-loved of his presbytery. At his “trial” he was called by his accusers “the teacher of Asia” and “the father of the Christians.”[1]

When persecution against the Christians started breaking out like acne, Polycarp was persuaded to leave Smyrna for a small house in the country. Whilst 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 “HIDE ME HIDE ME HIDE ME,” which 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) to the local stadium, where the lions were just being put to bed and the snack vendors were shuttering their carts. En route the Irenarch asked him, “What’s the harm in calling Caesar, ‘Lord’?” but Polycarp 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. When enjoined to say “Away with the atheists!” (meaning Christians), he pointed to the proconsul and the crowd, and said, “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? Give me 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, look it up, 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 (what remained of) his bones. They did so reverently, putting them to rest in a place of great honor[2]. Apropos of nothing, but delightfully, Iranaeus (Jun 28) records Polycarp’s favorite expression of exasperation as: “Good God! What did you keep me alive to see this for?”

His prayers are invoked, for some reason, against dysentery and earache.


[1] And yes, I admit there are “too many” quote marks in that paragraph. It is up to the reader to determine which are “scare quotes” and which are the other kind.
[2] Where exactly that place was, my sources do not divulge. But be sure it was honorable.