Sunday, February 22, 2009

St Polycarp - a link in the chain



This morning at Mass we thanked the Lord for the ministry and martyrdom of St Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who was born (most likely) in 69 A.D., and was martyred in 155 A.D. We asked this holy man to pray for us that we, too, might be faithful in our witness to the Gospel of Jesus and the Faith once delivered to the saints, especially when such faithfulness entails sacrifice of one kind or another.

In his youth, Polycarp sat at the feet of the Apostle John from whom he learned the Faith. Furthermore, according to Irenaeus it was “by apostles in Asia” that he was appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, the second of the seven churches of Revelation (Revelation 2:8-11). It says in Revelation that the Lord knew their works and tribulation and poverty - although really they were rich! It goes on to predict a time of tribulation, as well as the reward of the crown of life for those who are faithful unto death.

The name Smyrna comes from the sweet smelling incense “myrrh.” The Church at Smyrna was indeed a sweet smelling sacrifice, offered completely to God, its members mercilessly fed to wild beasts or burned alive. The city came under Byzantine rule in the fourth century. This lasted until Seljuk Turks conquered it in the 11th century. Then in 1415, Smyrna became part of the Ottoman Empire. It is now the modern Turkish city of Izmir.

We know that Polycarp was regarded as a gentle, godly pastor, and a key mainstream leader within the Church of his day. Near the end of his life he travelled to Rome as spokesman of the Churches in Asia in order to discuss the proper date of Easter with Pope Anicetus. They parted friends, neither having persuaded the other, and the Pope - as a mark of deep respect - “conceded” Polycarp the celebration of the Eucharist in Rome (Eusebius v.23-5).

Polycarp vigorously defended the truly incarnational Catholic Faith against the fashionable gnostic sect of Valentinians - whose version of Christianity reminds us of many ideas we come across today! (As St Irenaeus wrote of this sect, “They create their own Scriptures, boasting that they possess more Gospels than there really are. Indeed, they have gone to such a degree of audacity, as to entitle their comparatively recent writing the Gospel of Truth though it agrees in nothing with the Gospels of the Apostles so that they have really no gospel which is not full of blasphemy.” - Against Heresies 3.9)

And, as if the Valentinians were not enough, Polycarp also had to defend the Faith against Marcion who denied that the God of the Old Testament was also the God of the New Testament. (In fact, many modern day Christians tend to be Marcionites in their approach to the Old Testament, a point driven home by Fr Aidan Nichols in his book on the Old Testament, “Lovely Like Jerusalem.”)

St Polycarp was a friend of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch. When Ignatius was being taken under guard to Rome for his execution, he met Polycarp at Smyrna. Later, from Troas, Ignatius wrote Polycarp a letter which has survived. You can read it HERE. We also have the letter written by Polycarp to the Church at Philippi in Macedonia. It is HERE.

Polycarp was martyred, with twelve others, when he was 86 years old, during a time of persecution. We have the “acts” or legal proceedings and description of his martyrdom.

On Holy Saturday, he was carried before the proconsul and threatened with death in the fire if he would not renounce the Christian faith. The proconsul liked the old man and urged him, saying, “swear, and I will release you, - Curse Christ.” Polycarp answered, “eighty and six years have I served him, and he never once wronged me; how then shall I blaspheme my King, who has saved me?”

“When the pyre was ready, Polycarp removed his outer clothes and loosened his girdle. He even tried to take off his shoes, a thing which he never did before because the faithful used constantly to vie with one another to see who could touch his flesh first. Such was the honour in which he was held, even before his martyrdom, for the saintliness of his life. Immediately the irons with which the pyre was equipped were fastened round him, but when they tried to nail him as well, he said, “Let me be. He who gives me strength to endure the fire will also grant me to stay on the pyre unflinching even without your making sure of it with nails.’ So they did not nail him, but only tied him up.

“And so he was bound, putting his arms behind his back like a noble ram taken from a large flock for a sacrifice, a burnt offering acceptable to and made ready for God. Then he gazed up to heaven and said: “O Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed child Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you, God of the angels and the powers and of all creation, God of the whole race of the righteous who live in your sight; I bless you, for you have thought me worthy of this day and hour to share the cup of your Christ, as one of your martyrs, to rise again to eternal life in body and soul in the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be taken up today into your presence among your martyrs, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, in the manner you have prepared and have revealed, and have now brought to fulfilment, for you are the God of truth, and in you is no deceit. And so also I praise you for all things; I bless you and glorify you through our eternal high priest in heaven, your beloved child, Jesus Christ, through whom be glory to you and to him and to the Holy Spirit, now and for the ages to come. Amen.”

(From The Letter of the Church at Smyrna on the Martyrdom of St Polycarp - translation from The Divine Office)

Apart from the glories of his ministry and martyrdom, St Polycarp is important as a link between the original Apostles and the Age of the Fathers. It is significant that his short Letter to the Philippians has 112 quotes and allusions to Scripture. Of these, only a dozen are from the Old Testament; the rest are from what would come to be called the New Testament. These are the New Testament books he quotes:

Matthew’s Gospel, Mark’s Gospel, Luke’s Gospel, Acts, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Hebrews, 1 Peter, 1 John, 3 John.

Those who study the formation of the New Testament canon see this is an important indication that although considerable debate took place in the life of the Church on the fixing of the outer limits of the canon - a process that really took until 397 A.D. - the Apostolic writings were already “canonical” during the ministry of one who learned the Faith from the Apostles. (By the way, it is significant that Irenaeus - who had been a student of Polycarp - quotes from 21 of the 27 books of the New Testament, and probably alludes to three others.)

St Polycarp is also important as a link with those who affirm specifically “Catholic” beliefs about the ministry and the sacraments.

We just mentioned St Irenaeus who became Bishop of Lyons around 178 A.D. He was born around 130, only a century after the death of Jesus. When he was young there were still people around who had known the Apostles, heard them preach and studied with them, and who spoke and taught about them. Irenaeus writes:

Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. (Against Heresies, III.3.4)

Irenaeus learned many things from Polycarp. He writes:

“I remember the events of that time more clearly than those of recent years. For what boys learn, growing with their mind, becomes joined with it; so that I am able to describe the very place in which the blessed Polycarp sat as he discoursed, and his goings out and his comings in, and the manner of his life, and his physical appearance, and his discourses to the people, and the accounts which he gave of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord. And as he remembered their words, and what he heard from them concerning the Lord, and concerning his miracles and his teaching, having received them from eyewitnesses of the ‘Word of life,’ (1 John 1:1) Polycarp related all things in harmony with the Scriptures.

“These things being told me by the mercy of God, I listened to them attentively, noting them down, not on paper, but in my heart. And continually, through God’s grace, I recall them faithfully. And I am able to bear witness before God that if that blessed and apostolic presbyter had heard any such thing [i.e. heresy], he would have cried out, and stopped his ears, and as was his custom, would have exclaimed, O good God, unto what times have you spared me that I should endure these things? And he would have fled from the place where, sitting or standing, he had heard such words.” (Eusebius 5.20.5-7)

The Apostle John, who outlived the rest of the Twelve, taught Polycarp, who - in turn - passed his teaching on. According to his testimony, Irenaeus received this same teaching from Polycarp, and also passed it on - an example of “capital T tradition” being guarded by the Apostolic Succession, for there it is . . . John, Polycarp, and Irenaeus . . . the early Church’s bishops in succession.

What did Irenaeus get from Polycarp? What did he pass on? One of his key teachings was to do with the Eucharist. His clear statement on this subject was necessitated by the Gnostic heresies, all of which were dualistic, seeing spirit as good, and matter as evil, or at least incapable of goodness. Many of them denied that Jesus had a real body, and therefore denied that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus. How could God's presence be in any way associated with physical things like bread and wine? So . . . here is a passage from Irenaeus’ teaching on the Eucharist, which he heard from Polycarp, who learned it from John, who received it from Jesus:

1. When Christ visited us in His grace, He did not come to what did not belong to Him: also, by shedding His true blood for us, and exhibiting to us His true flesh in the Eucharist, He conferred upon our flesh the capacity of salvation . . .

2. But vain in every respect are they who despise the entire dispensation of God, and disallow the salvation of the flesh, and treat with contempt its regeneration, maintaining that it is not capable of incorruption. But if this indeed does not attain salvation, then neither did the Lord redeem us with His blood, nor is the cup of the Eucharist the communion of His blood, nor the bread which we break the communion of His body. For blood can only come from veins and flesh, and whatsoever else makes up the substance of man, such as the Word of God was actually made. By His own blood he redeemed us, as also His apostle declares, “In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins.” And as we are His members, we are also nourished by means of the creation (and He Himself grants the creation to us, for He causes His sun to rise, and sends rain when He wills). He has acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation) He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies.

3. When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made, from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which [flesh] is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord, and is a member of Him? even as the blessed Paul declares in his Epistle to the Ephesians, that “we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones.” He does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit has not bones nor flesh; but [he refers to] that dispensation [by which the Lord became] an actual man, consisting of flesh, and nerves, and bones, that [flesh] which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives increase from the bread which is His body. And just as a cutting from the vine planted in the ground fructifies in its season, or as a corn of wheat falling into the earth and becoming decomposed, rises with manifold increase by the Spirit of God, who contains all things, and then, through the wisdom of God, serves for the use of men, and having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ; so also our bodies, being nourished by it, and deposited in the earth, and suffering decomposition there, shall rise at their appointed time, the Word of God granting them resurrection to the glory of God, even the Father, who freely gives to this mortal immortality, and to this corruptible incorruption, because the strength of God is made perfect in weakness, in order that we may never become puffed up, as if we had life from ourselves, and exalted against God, our minds becoming ungrateful; but learning by experience that we possess eternal duration from the excelling power of this Being, not from our own nature, we may neither undervalue that glory which surrounds God as He is, nor be ignorant of our own nature, but that we may know what God can effect, and what benefits man receives, and thus never wander from the true comprehension of things as they are, that is, both with regard to God and with regard to man. 
(Against Heresies, Book V Ch II)

Why am I giving you such a chunk of St Irenaeus on this feast of St Polycarp? I’ll tell you why. In my teenage years I made friends with people from across the spectrum of Christian traditions . . . good friends, sincere friends, some of whom did (and still do) shame me with the reality of their walk with God. Furthermore, I believe that many of those traditions have preserved aspects of the Gospel and even the Catholic Faith that have at times been overlooked by the Catholic Church. And it is obvious that the Holy Spirit still uses these traditions in different ways to bring people to know Jesus.

But at a time when I wanted to know the truth about the sacraments, I had to come to terms with the fact that to deny Catholic teaching meant accepting the Church up to 397 A.D. as being able reliably to tell me what constituted the Word of God (the canon of Scripture), and then using relatively novel (400 years old) interpretations of that Scripture to prove that the same Church was in error on just about everything else she demonstrably believed back then! For me it was clear: I could not logically accept the New Testament as the Word of God without also accepting the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the sacrificial dimenson of the Eucharist, and the Apostolic Succession etc etc.

(By the way, it also became clear to me that the Anglican Tradition in its instinct is truly Catholic, for Canon 6 of the same 1571 Convocation that authorised the final form of the Thirty-nine Articles states:

“Preachers shall . . . see to it that they teach nothing in the way of a sermon, which they would have religiously held and believed by the people, save what is agreeable to the teaching of the Old or New Testament, and what the Catholic fathers and ancient bishops have collected from this selfsame doctrine . . . “

In other words, whatever else may be said about Anglican ambiguities and comprehensiveness, and the language of our formularies (and lots of things ARE said!), the intention of that Canon is quite clear: the clergy are to teach the same things about the Eucharist that we find passed on by St Polycarp!)

Another small digression . . . I must give you two more quotes from the same period. Writing between 80 A.D. and 110 A.D., St Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (and, as we have seen, a friend of St Polycarp) calls the Blessed Sacrament:

“the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead.”
(To the Smyrnaeans VII.1)

St Justin Martyr says the same kind of thing a little later on - around 150 AD (i.e. still before St Polycarp, who learned the Faith from the Apostle John, had died):

“We do not consume the eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink, for we have been taught that as Jesus Christ our Saviour became a man of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God, so also the food that our flesh and blood assimilates for its nourishment becomes the Flesh and Blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of His own words contained in the prayer of thanksgiving.”(Apology I.66)

Summing up, then . . . Irenaeus was taught by Polycarp, who was taught by John the Apostle - John who leaned against the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper, stood by the cross with Mary, bore witness to the Resurrection, taught about Jesus being the Bread of Life (John 6), and celebrated many, many Masses - that the bread and wine really becomes the flesh and blood of Jesus, from which we receive his life for our own flesh, and which then leads to the resurrection of our bodies.


God of all creation,
it was your gracious will
that the holy bishop Polycarp
be numbered among the companyof the martyrs;
grant through his intercession
that we may share with him
the cup of Christ’s sufferings,
and so rise again to everlasting life.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God for ever and ever.
Amen.

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