On Tuesday, we looked at the Passion of Ss Perpetua and Felicity, one of the most important surviving accounts of an early Christian martyrdom. The Church in Roman Africa was justifiably proud of its many martyrs, and St Augustine, himself an African, often preached about them, especially on their feast days. Here is an excerpt of one of the four sermons he preached about Perpetua and Felicity, in which he plays on the meaning of their names, “everlasting happiness.”
“Hodiernus dies anniversaria replicatione nobis in memoriam revocat, et quodammodo repraesentat diem, quo sanctae famulae Dei Perpetua et Felicitas coronis martyrii decoratae, perpetua felicitate floruerunt, tenentes nomen Christi in praelio, et simul invenientes etiam suum nomen in praemio. Exhortationes earum in divinis revelationibus, triumphosque passionum, cum legerentur, audivimus; eaque omnia verborum digesta et illustrata luminibus, aure percepimus, mente spectavimus, religione honoravimus, caritate laudavimus. Debetur tamen etiam a nobis tam devotae celebritati sermo sollemnis, quem si meritis earum imparem profero, impigrum tamen affectum gaudio tantae festivitatis exhibeo. Quid enim gloriosius his feminis, quas viri mirantur facilius, quam imitantur? Sed hoc illius potissimum laus est, in quem credentes, et in cuius nomine fideli studio concurrentes, secundum interiorem hominem, nec masculus, nec femina inveniuntur;
… solemnitates eorum, sicut facimus, devotissime celebremus, sobria hilaritate, casta congregatione, fideli cogitatione, fidenti praedicatione. Non parva pars imitationis est, meliorum congaudere virtutibus. Illi magni, nos parvi: sed benedixit Dominus pusillos cum magnis. Praecesserunt, praeeminuerunt. Si eos sequi non valemus actu, sequamur affectu: si non gloria, certe laetitia: si non meritis, votis: si non passione, compassione: si non excellentia, connexione. Non nobis parum videatur quod eius corporis membra sumus, cuius et illi, quibus aequiparari non possumus, ‘quia si unum membrum patitur, compatiuntur omnia membra: ita cum glorificatur unum membrum, congaudent omnia membra.’ … Miramur eos, miserantur nos. Gratulamur eis, precantur pro nobis. Illi corpora sua tamquam vestimenta straverunt, cum pullus Dominum portans in Ierusalem duceretur: nos saltem velut ramos de arboribus caedentes, de Scripturis sanctis hymnos laudesque decerpimus, quas in commune gaudium proferamus. Omnes tamen eidem Domino paremus, eumdem magistrum sequimur, eumdem principem comitamur, eidem capiti subiungimur, ad eamdem Ierusalem tendimus, eamdem sectamur caritatem, eamdemque amplectimur unitatem.
(St Augustine in His Study, ca. 1498, by an anonymous Austrian painter known as the Master of Grossgmain. Image from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)
This day as it comes around each year recalls to our memory, and in a certain way, represents for us the day on which God’s holy servants Perpetua and Felicity, adorned with the crowns of martyrdom, flourished in perpetual felicity, holding onto the name of Christ in battle (with the devil), and at the same time also finding their own names in the reward. We heard of the encouragement they received in divine revelations, and of the triumphs of their sufferings as they were being read (this refers to the ancient custom by which the passions of the martyrs were read during the Mass), and all those things, recounted in such glowing words, we perceived with our ears, and saw them with our minds; we honored them with our devotion, and praised them with love. However, a solemn annual sermon is also owed by us to the celebration of such universal devotion; but if what I offer is quite unequal to their merits, I can still show my own energetic feelings at the joy of so great a feast. For what is more glorious than these women, whom men admire more easily than they imitate them? But this is most especially the praise of Him in whom they believed, and in whose name they ran the race together with faithful zeal, so that according to the inner self they are found to be neither male nor female; …
… let us celebrate their feasts as we are doing, most devoutly, with sober cheer, in a holy assembly, with faithful thoughts and confident proclamation (of their sanctity.) It is no small part of imitation, to rejoice together in the virtues of those who are greater. They are great, we are little; but the Lord has blessed the little with the great (Ps. 113, 21). They have gone ahead, they have stood out before us. If we cannot follow them in deed, let us follow in affection; if not in glory, then certainly in joy; if not in merit, then in desire; if not in suffering, then in fellow feeling; if not in excellence, then in our relationship with them. Let it not seem to us too small a matter that we are members of the same body as they, even though we cannot compare with them, ‘for if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; so too, when one member is glorified, all the members rejoice with it.’ (1 Cor. 12, 26) …We admire them, they have compassion on us. We congratulate them, they pray for us. They laid down their bodies like garments (on the road), when the colt carrying the Lord was led into Jerusalem (Matt. 21, 1-9); let us at least, as if we were cutting branches from the trees, pluck hymns and praises from the Scriptures, that we may offer them for our common rejoicing. In the end, we all obey the same Lord, follow the same teacher, accompanying the same leader, are joined to the same head, make our way to the same Jerusalem, pursue the same charity, and embrace the same unity.”