Thanksgiving, Martyrs and Intentional Celebrations

Today is Thanksgiving, and I’ve spent the week reading stacks of seasonally-themed picture books with my kids: books about Thanksgiving meal gathering traditions, funny books about turkeys, the history of the first Thanksgiving of the Pilgrims, and the story of Sarah Hale — who we have to thank (no pun intended) for our national day of celebration.

But today, for us Catholics, it is also another important feasting day; it is the memorial of St. Cecilia, a martyr of the third-century Church.

If you don’t know her story, she was sentenced to death by suffocation in the scalding hot steam of the baths, but she was unharmed after being locked up in them overnight. The second attempt to execute her was decapitation; but the executioner could not cut off her head, despite three hacks at her neck, and she was left bleeding to die. She lived for three days more. Her body was exhumed in 1599 and found to be incorrupt. Read her whole story; it is powerful…..but…not really the kind of “happy” tale that would typically come up today around your dinner tables.

But maybe it shouldn’t be weird if it did.

Perhaps our holiday celebrations have become commercialized and stylized to the point that we are totally disconnected from the weight of their origin. It might be a trite reflection to simplistically connect the these two feast days by emphasizing that we get to live in a country where we aren’t martyred for our faith, a country that brought the Pilgrims here in the first place to have a chance to worship and practice their faith freely. While that is true, I think that such a statement by itself still removes us a bit from the reality that we are memorializing.

These holidays and holy days — be they national or religious — exist because of real people and for profound reasons, of which we should not lose sight amidst all of our traditions. Our intentional celebrations are important. We shouldn’t forget or avoid remembering the harsh challenges that people faced, because it is the surmounting of those circumstances that brought about the events we celebrate — whether it be a people group that avoided starvation and settled a colony in the New World or a saint that exhibited impenetrable faith and won her heavenly reward.

Material icons often overtake the holidays’ greater significance: turkey plates for Thanksgiving, blow-up Santas for Christmas, Peeps in baskets for Easter. You know what I mean. I’m all about decorations, but decorations are not all these days are about.

As I sit with my kids and a stack of books, I’m not saying don’t read the silly one about the turkey; I’m saying read the hard one too. Tell the difficult story. These were real people, and their stories and circumstances deserve an empathetic response. These holidays and celebrations require us to enter into the stories of real people in history and see them as part of our own.

 

Copyright 2018 Jessica Ptomey

My Reading Challenge Pick for “Writings of an Early Church Father”

I’ve been sharing what I’m reading throughout the year for the 2017 Catholic Reading Challenge, and I’m chipping away at my list. There’s only three months left! This was a shorter one, but a powerful one… 

Category: Writings of an Early Church Father

My Pick: The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians & The Martyrdom of Polycarp

Before reading St. Polycarp of Smyrna’s epistle and the account of his martyrdom, I had been semi-familiar with his story and when he lived. But I gained some important insights on his impact as a Father of the Church after doing this reading. The book I have linked to above includes both his epistle and the account of his martyrdom by Evarestus (along with several other early Christian writings). It also provides brief biographical information on the saint, which we have due to various other early Church writings.

Polycarp’s Connection to Christ

The first thing that I found fascinating was his direct connection to the original 12 Apostles, specifically the Apostle John. We know from Irenaeus’ writings that Polycarp (who wasn’t martyred until the age of 86) was a disciple of the Apostle John and handed down the teachings of the Apostles to several generations throughout his long life. In fact, St. John the Apostle himself appointed Polycarp to his position as Bishop of Smyrna. Think about that: Jesus –> John –> Polycarp — he’s one person removed from direct communication and relationship with Christ on earth!

Polycarp’s Pastoral Words

His epistle reminds me of many of the letters of the New Testament with its pastoral style and apostolic exhortations. He clearly lived his life ready to give it up for Christ, and he encouraged his flock of believers in the same mindset. After all, early Christians basically lived their daily lives with the realization that they would most likely die at any time for their faith. Polycarp’s epistle describes St. Ignatius and other Christian prisoners on their way to be martyred in Rome: “For those chains they were wearing were the badges of saints; the diadems of men truely chosen by God and our Lord.”  Continue reading “My Reading Challenge Pick for “Writings of an Early Church Father””

Heritage and Legacy of Faith

By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
Today is the feast day of St. Bartholomew. He was one of the 12 Apostles (also know as Nathanael), of whom Jesus said, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile” (John 1:47). In response to Jesus’ parting command to his disciples to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel,” Bartholomew took the good news of Christ to India and greater Armenia. He died a gruesome martyr’s death in Armenia, but planted seeds of faith that would grow into a rich legacy and heritage one day. Armenia became the first Christian nation in 301 A.D.

I’m half Armenian; my dad is full. His father was born in America, but his mother came over from Armenia when she was a young girl. When I became Catholic three years ago, I had a newfound love for my Armenian heritage, founded squarely in the country’s historic Catholic faith. My sister and dad got to visit Armenia for 10 days a couple of years ago, and the pictures of some of these old church ruins and still standing chapels are symbols of the legacy that these missionary Apostles left behind. Reflecting on St. Bartholomew’s sacrifice today was sobering for me; suddenly the centuries of time that separates the apostles’ lives from mine seems to have shrunk. This man gave his physical life to bring spiritual life to a country full of my ancestors. His love of Jesus and faith in the Gospel were unshakable.

Sometimes we take for granted the faith that we have received, the faith that has been passed down to us. We in America and much of the western world today live in an age and culture where many view the practice of Christianity as an optional Sunday activity, like brunch or golf. But we don’t realize what we are relegating to the margins of our life and culture. We are throwing away something precious, something that men and women like Bartholomew died preserving. Even though I’m a practicing Catholic, and my faith is precious to me, I know I am constantly in danger of taking it for granted. But today, Bartholomew’s face and story make that less likely to happen. Today, I send thankful prayers to heaven to St. Bartholomew, and I ask for his intercession in return. Pray for us, St. Bartholomew, that the words Christ spoke of you will be true of us too.