The Fires of Polycarp: Bishop, Martyr, and Saint

Read at St. Stephen’s on Sunday, January 24th, in recognition of the feast day of St. Polycarp (69-155) of Smyrna, celebrated in Anglicanism on the earlier date of January 26th, rather than February 23rd.

Born on 69 AD, only 36 years after the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Polycarp is one of the three Apostolic Fathers, along with Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch. Much of his life is recorded in the second century text, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, a major source for this brief discussion. As an Apostolic Father, Polycarp forms an important historical link between the apostles’ ministry in the Book of Acts and the councils held over scriptural doctrines by the early Church Fathers in the second, third, and fourth centuries. A bishop of Smyrna, St. Polycarp knew John the Presbyter and others, who had witnessed the ministries of Jesus Christ and St. Paul on a personal level. For refusing to worship a false idol, the Roman emperor had Polycarp burned at the stake, but the accounts read that the flames would not touch him, so they killed him by the sword.

As bishop, Polycarp met with other ecclesiastical authorities frequently, including the Bishop of Rome, Anicetus. The two bishops discovered disagreements between themselves about worship practices, including the date of Easter, but agreed that doctrinal and spiritual unity was more important than differences of liturgical tradition – as important as they nevertheless recognized these to be. He also played a role in preserving and copying much of the New Testament. But flexibility on lesser matters did not weaken Polycarp’s commitment to total integrity in his faith to Christ. When the heretic Marcion, angry that Polycarp ignored him, asked, “Do you know me?”, Polycarp replied, “Yes, I know you, the first-born of Satan.”

Polycarp’s integrity shone most brightly, of course, when the threat of burning at the stake was presented to him. He replied to the Roman Emperor, “Eighty and six years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong… How then can I blaspheme my king and saviour? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked!” About his own death he said, “I bless you Father for judging me worthy of this hour, so that in the company of the Martyrs I may show the cup of Christ.”

It is clear that the fires of the Holy Spirit were with Polycarp in the testimony of his life, which can be seen in his sermon to the Philippians, preserved in the writing of his younger contemporary, St. Irenaeus. We close with a sample of his stirring exhortation: “To Him all things in heaven and on earth are subject. Him every spirit serves. He comes as the Judge of the Living and the Dead. His blood will God require of those who do not believe in Him. But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments, and love what He loved.”

By Anthony G. Cirilla

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