Friday, February 5, 2010

Feast of St. Agatha

Today is the feast of St. Agatha, one of the Church’s earliest consecrated virgin-saints. She is believed to have suffered martyrdom around the year 250 A.D., in Catania, Italy, during the Decian persecution.

According to tradition, St. Agatha appeared in a vision to St. Lucy in order to encourage the latter consecrated virgin to hold fast to the faith during her own martyrdom. This “visitation” is commemorated in a proper antiphon for the feast of St. Lucy:

Orante, Sancta Lucia, apparuit ei beata Agatha, et consolabatur ancillam Christi.

(While St. Lucy was praying, Blessed Agatha appeared to her, and she consoled the handmaid of Christ.)*

The second reading of today’s Office of Readings is a beautiful homily from the ninth century by St. Methodius of Sicily:

(Emphases, in bold, and comments, in red, are mine.)
From a homily on Saint Agatha by Saint Methodius of Sicily, bishop

The gift of God, the source of all goodness

My fellow Christians, our annual celebration of a martyr’s feast has brought us together. She achieved renown in the early Church for her noble victory; she is well known now as well, for she continues to triumph through her divine miracles, which occur daily and continue to bring glory to her name. (Among other things, the intercession of St. Agatha is held to have prevented a volcanic eruption.)

She is indeed a virgin, for she was born of the divine Word, God’s only Son, who also experienced death for our sake. John, a master of God’s word, speaks of this: He gave the power to become children of God to everyone who received him.

The woman who invites us to this banquet is both a wife and virgin. To use the analogy of Paul, she is the bride who has been betrothed to one husband, Christ. A true virgin, she wore the glow of pure conscience and the crimson of the Lamb’s blood for her cosmetics. (This particular image seems jarring to us now, but here I think St. Methodius was trying to convey the idea that St. Agatha found her beauty in her love of Christ.) Again and again she meditated on the death of her eager lover. For her, Christ’s death was recent, his blood was still moist. Her robe is the mark of her faithful witness to Christ. It bears the indelible marks of his crimson blood and the shining threads of her eloquence. She offers to all who come after her these treasures of her eloquent confession.

Agatha, the name of our saint, means “good.” She was truly good, for she lived as a child of God. She was also given as the gift of God, the source of all goodness to her bridegroom, Christ, and to us. (Here, we have an early example of the idea of a consecrated virgin’s self-gift to Christ being a gift to the wider Church as well.) For she grants us a share in her goodness.

What can give greater good than the Sovereign Good? Whom could anyone find more worthy of celebration with hymns of praise than Agatha?

Agatha, her goodness coincides with her name and way of life. She won a good name by her noble deeds, and by her name she points to the nobility of those deeds. Agatha, her mere name wins all men over to her company. She teaches them by her example to hasten with her to the true Good, God alone.


let your forgiveness be won for us
by the pleading of St. Agatha,
who found favor with you by her chastity
and by her courage in suffering death for the gospel.

Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.


* Translation from the companion booklet to CD “Women in Chant: Gregorian Chants for the Festal Celebrations of the Virgin Martyrs and Our Lady of Sorrows,” by the Abbey of Regina Laudis.

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