Perpetua and Felicity are two saints who are seldom removed the litany of saints and ever since I can remember hearing that litany, their names have been there. I have known of them nearly all my life and yet I have never known their story. Up until I saw that today was their feast day, I hadn’t known them nor did I have much inkling to read about their life.
But wow. Just wow.
The year was either 202 or 203 and the account of the martyrdom took place in Carthage, North Africa and was written by Perpetua herself, with a few editorial introductions and explanations. She was a noblewoman and became Christian, much to the dismay and anger of her father. She knew Christianity was punishable by death, and was indeed jailed shortly after her baptism. She joyfully accepted the consequence, even though she had an infant child who was still nursing at the time and, from what can be understood in her account, did not eat in between visits to the jail, or at least not much.
That’s right: she left her nursing, infant child and remained joyful due to her suffering for Christ. And it wasn’t because she couldn’t care less about her young son; on the contrary, it was indeed a part of her suffering. After a time in jail, she was allowed to keep her son with her in the prison, and she found amazing comfort in this. But she did not shirk away from her impending death because of love for her son. She was given numerous occasions in which to deny her faith and at each one she chose Christ.
As a mother in a first world country, I have luxuries that I can’t even recognise, and this story shocks me. I stopped eating my meal as I read Perpetua’s account. I couldn’t stomach eating while reading about her faith in action and the heart-wrenching situation she was in. That she chose for love of Christ. What sufferings do I chose for the love of Christ? And beyond that, which do I chose in joy? If I’m to be honest, it is embarrassingly few. And in Perpetua’s choice, she chose joy in the suffering. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-19). Perpetua’s response to the love of Christ reminds me of Ann Voskamp’s writings, where I learned that thanksgiving precedes the miracle. Thanksgiving and joy. Eucharisteo. Perpetua embraced eucharisteo.
Felicity was a slave who was 8 months pregnant. What surprised me in her story was how even in a society that found public entertainment in killing those with whom they disagree, they would not do so to a pregnant woman for the sake of the innocent child in her womb. We recall with gruesome memory the horrible ways in which followers of The Way were killed, and yet, and yet, they recognised the innocence of a baby in utero, who deserved no such death. How strange the tables have turned today. Felicity gave birth a few days before her martyrdom; her daughter was taken to be brought up by another Christian. She also contained joy at suffering for Christ and would have her life no other way.
Their story draws me into how we receive suffering in our lives, and draws my attention especially to those families fleeing war and violence in their homes and towns. Some of them leave family behind, whether parents, their own children, or their spouse, and know not the fate of them. They flee in the hope to find a better life, to find freedom from violence, to find peace. They flee to live. We are often on the opposite end of that spectrum – we suffer, but not as these people suffer. We instead have something we can give, we have our very selves, our very selves whom the Holy Spirit resides in, and we have honed and prepared ourselves in Christ just for situations like this – to be Christ and be Christ joyfully in situations that are desperate and full of fear. We may not be persecuted for our faith here, we may not be fleeing our homes for fear of our lives, but we have been trained up in Christ and can offer the peace of Christ to those who find themselves in those situations. We can be Christ, living out the gift of Eucharisteo to those who face life with desperation we can barely imagine. We can chose Christ just as Perpetua and Felicity chose Christ – by choosing love of him in place of love of ourselves. We can in a very tangible way be Christ in just as radical a way as these saints we celebrate today – when we witness Christ’s love to others, we are bringing glory to God and showing how radical God’s love for us can be.
For more detailed information on their lives, read the account according to Perpetua.
Copyright 2015 Jane Korvemaker.