St Agnes by Guarino (1650)
Today the church remembers a very special person. She was a child of a wealthy noble Roman family at the time of Diocletian. She was well educated and like her parents, was a Christian. At that time it was common for girls just entering womanhood to receive offers of betrothal. Thirteen year old Agnes was no stranger to this but unlike others in her position, she rejected these offers. She made her position clear. She wished only to dedicate her life to her Lord and not marry. It is understood that the rejected young men took revenge by submitting her name to the authorities as a follower of Christianity. Christians were increasingly under attack by Diocletian and Agnes was dragged from her home to a trial in which she stood firm in her faith. Reports of the details of her martyrdom vary but it is accepted that her death resulted from being tied to a stake and being struck in the neck by a sword. Public opinion was so affronted by this event that the Emperor's persecution of Christians declined immediately. Her martyrdom was on 21 January 304.
Because of the legend around her martyrdom, Saint Agnes is patron saint of those seeking chastity and purity. She is also the patron saint of young girls and girls scouts.
Agnes' death occurred less than 300 years after the death of her Lord and Saviour. Today, 2000 years later, there is still persecution of Christians in the world. This does not necessarily lead to death but rejection of a person not having a shared belief continues. Closer to home there is still sadly division amongst Christians about our faith. We are in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Agnes lived in Rome where St Paul was imprisoned and met his death. It is pertinent that in his letter to the church in Rome he wrote; “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
In reflecting on yesterday's inauguration it was encouraging to hear in President Biden's Inaugural speech that he made many biblical references. His message in particular brought out the need for unity and as Paul wrote “If it is to lead, do it diligently”. I pray that this new administration will indeed follow through with the promises that were given. And finally remembering St. Agnes: Eternal God, shepherd of your sheep, whose child Agnes was strengthened to bear witness in her living and her dying to the true love of her redeemer: grant us the power to understand with all your saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love that surpasses knowledge, even Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen
John Hillier - Retired Priest