An excerpt from the account of the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna on the West Coast of Asia Minor (now Turkey). He was apprehended by the Roman authorities when in his eighties, on February 23 around the year 155 AD. Polycarp knew St. Ignatius of Antioch, another bishop and martyr, and is reported to have known the apostle John, son of Zebedee. On account of this, he is regarded as one of the apostolic fathers, the earliest group of the fathers of the church who play a special role in transmitting to us the apostolic tradition. This account of his martyrdom was written down and preserved by an eyewitness who was a member of the Christian community of Smyrna.
W hen the pyre was ready, Polycarp took off all his clothes and loosened his under-garment. He made an effort also to remove his shoes, though he had been unaccustomed to this, for the faithful always vied with each other in their haste to touch his body. Even before his martyrdom he had received every mark of honor in tribute to his holiness of life.
Polycarp placed on the Pyre
There and then he was surrounded by the material for the pyre. When they tried to fasten him also with nails, he said: “Leave me as I am. The one who gives me strength to endure the fire will also give me strength to stay quite still on the pyre, even without the precaution of your nails.” So they did not fix him to the pyre with nails but only fastened him instead. Bound as he was, with hands behind his back, he stood like a mighty ram, chosen out for sacrifice from a great flock, a worthy victim made ready to be offered to God.
Polycarp’s Final Prayer
Looking up to heaven, he said: “Lord, almighty God, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to the knowledge of yourself, God of angels, of powers, of all creation, of all the race of saints who live in your sight, I bless you for judging me worthy of this day, this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ, your anointed one, and so rise again to eternal life in soul and body, immortal through the power of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among the martyrs in your presence today as a rich and pleasing sacrifice. God of truth, stranger to falsehood, you have prepared this and revealed it to me and now you have fulfilled your promise.
“I praise you for all things, I bless you, I glorify you through the eternal priest of heaven, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. Through him be glory to you, together with him and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.”
Martyrdom – like bread that is baked
When he had said “Amen” and finished the prayer, the officials at the pyre lit it. But, when a great flame burst out, those of us privileged to see it witnessed a strange and wonderful thing. Indeed, we have been spared in order to tell the story to others.
Like a ship’s sail swelling in the wind, the flame became as it were a dome encircling the martyr’s body. Surrounded by the fire, his body was like bread that is baked, or gold and silver white-hot in a furnace, not like flesh that has been burnt. So sweet a fragrance came to us that it was like that of burning incense or some other costly and sweet-smelling gum.
This excerpt comes from a letter on the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp by the Church of Smyrna (Cap. 13,2-15,2). It is used in the Roman Office of Readings for the Feast of St. Polycarp, bishop and martyr, on February 23.
Banner/featured image of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp by an unknown artist. Public domain.