February 23, 2021

On Saint Polycarp and his Martyrdom (Fr. George Florovsky)

By Fr. George Florovsky

St. Polycarp

St. Irenaeus tells us that he sat at the feet of St. Polycarp, that St. Polycarp had been personally acquainted with St. John, that St. Polycarp was consecrated bishop by the apostles — Tertullian claims by St. John —, that St. Polycarp was held in great esteem, and that he was the last witness of the Apostolic Age. That he was held in great esteem is attested by his visit to Rome to discuss ecclesiastical matters with Pope Anicetus, especially the problem of the date of celebration of Easter. It was in Rome where St. Polycarp apparently met Marcion. Marcion, it is claimed, asked St. Polycarp if he recognized him whereupon St. Polycarp is recorded as having replied: "I recognize you as the first-born of Satan."

St. Polycarp was born about 70, consecrated bishop before 110, and died probably in 155 or 156. What is historically important is that St. Irenaeus claims that St. Polycarp wrote many letters, letters to Christian communities as well as to fellow-bishops. But of these "many letters" only one has come down to us. Once again we find ourselves in the reality of history, in that encounter of an age now past in which there was a vibrant, living faith and a busy exchange of letters, the nature of which we shall never have knowledge. But it can be safely assumed that whatever the content of those lost letters they would in no way give us a full knowledge of that living Christian faith that was active and complete, that faith, which prompted those letters. It is the deposit, the delivered faith, the handed down tradition, which is the catalyst of the letters. But we do possess one letter — St. Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians.

The Letter to the Philippians is very brief and, again, it is an occasional letter. About that original, living deposit and that tradition which has been delivered, St. Polycarp writes, "Let us turn back to the word delivered to us from the beginning this is what we believed." The context in which St. Polycarp appeals to "the word delivered to us from the beginning" is in opposition to "false brethren," in opposition to those "who bear in hypocrisy the name of the Lord, who deceive empty-headed people." St. Polycarp becomes more concrete: "For whoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is Antichrist, and whoever does not confess the testimony of the Cross is of the devil, and whoever perverts the sayings of the Lord to suit his own lusts and says there is neither resurrection nor judgment — such a one is the first-born of Satan". And part of that "word delivered to us from the beginning" is to "hold steadfastly and unceasingly" to Christ "our Hope and our Pledge — άρραβών of righteousness,” to Christ “who bore our sins in his own body on the Cross, who committed no sin, on whose lips no guile was found," to Christ who "for our sakes endured everything that we might live in him." As with St. Ignatius, St. Polycarp can speak of the deeds of the Christian life, of the "works," so to speak, of righteousness and simultaneously know that all grace initiates with God through Christ — χάριτι έστε σεσωσμένoι ουκ eξ έργων, αλλά θελήματι θεον, δια Ίησου Χριστου [Letter to Ephesians 2:8 ff.].

And what is St. Polycarp’s theology of Christ? He writes, "May God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Eternal High Priest himself, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, build you up in faith and truth and in all gentleness". This Christological statement is quite consonant with the understanding of Christ in the New Testament documents and with the definitions of the later Ecumenical Councils. St. Polycarp upholds the concrete humanity of Jesus, the Divinity of Jesus Christ, and his eternality.

The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp

The Letter of the Church of Smyrna to the Church of Philomelium — and "to all those of the holy and catholic Church everywhere — is an important document in early Christian literature. It was written shortly after St. Polycarp’s martyrdom in probably 156. It too is brief and an occasional letter. When asked by the Proconsul to renounce Christ, St. Polycarp’s reply is: "For eighty-six years, I have served Christ, neither has He ever done me any harm. How then could I blaspheme my King who has saved me — τόν βασιλέα μου τον σώσαντά μe? It is St. Polycarp’s last prayer that is of prime importance here. If the prayer is not precisely, as St. Polycarp delivered it, then it may contain much of what he did say. What is certain is that it reflects the "mind of the Church" at Smyrna and hence its content is important: "O Lord, God Almighty, Father of Thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received the perfect knowledge of Thee, God of angels and powers and all creation and of the entire race of saints who live in Thy presence. I bless Thee because Thou hast found me worthy of this day and hour that I may participate with the number of the martyrs in the cup of Thy Christ in die resurrection to eternal life both in soul and in body by virtue of the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received in Thy presence this day as a rich and pleasing sacrifice, just as Thou, the true God incapable of falsehood, hast prepared and revealed in advance and consummated. For this and for everything I bless Thee, I glorify Thee through the Eternal and Heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, through whom be glory to Thee together with Him and the Holy Spirit, both now and unto the ages to come. Amen". The Christological and Trinitarian nature of this prayer is unambiguous. God is the Creator of all things. Through Jesus Christ, who is eternal, a "perfect knowledge" of God the Father has been revealed. Immortality is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and that is a resurrection of both body and soul. Absent here is the Platonic idea of the immortality of the soul by nature — and this is precisely the Christian teaching: the soul is not, as the Platonists held, immortal by nature but rather immortal by grace, by the free will and merciful gift of God. Glory is given to God the Father, God the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

One other aspect of this letter deserves brief comment. It is the first time that we encounter the "veneration of the saints" in a document of this type in the early Church. Polycarp, the "apostolic and prophetic teacher and bishop of the Catholic Church in Smyrna," is now "crowned with the wreath of immortality." "Many," who knew St. Polycarp wanted "to have fellowship with his holy flesh." This is not described or portrayed as a novelty but rather as that which would be expected, as something natural. Indeed, it is fortuitous that the context affords the writer of the letter an explanation. The authorities hesitated to give the remains of St. Polycarp’s corpse to the Christians precisely because "Niceties, the father of Herod and brother of Alee" pleaded with the authorities "not to give up his body, ‘else,’ he said, ‘they will abandon the Crucified and begin worshipping this one’." This prompts the author of the letter to write that the opposition was "ignorant that we can never forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of the entire world of those who are saved, the blameless one for the sinners, nor can we ever worship any other. For we worship only One as Son of God, while we deservedly love the martyrs as disciples and imitators of the Lord because of their unsurpassable devotion to their own King and Teacher." Out of love for the man and out of respect for the body, which suffered for the sake of Christ the Christians in Smyrna "took up his bones, more precious than costly stones and more valuable gold, and laid them away in a suitable place. There the Lord will permit us… to gather together in joy and gladness to celebrate the day of his martyrdom as a birthday, in memory of those athletes who have gone before, and for the training and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps." Love, respect, joy, gladness, celebration, remembrance and memorial, a physical but holy relic from the real body of a real martyr to be used as a spiritual focus to train and to prepare others — these are the elements that comprise the love of the early Christians for the bodies of the saints. St. Polycarp "was not only a noble teacher but also a distinguished martyr, whose martyrdom all desire to imitate as one according to the gospel of Christ."

From The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century.