How Eucharistic Faith was Handed Down

Since Easter is so early this year, most of February is in Lent this year. So it’s easy to forget about the saints of the month. But they are worth reflecting on.

Last Tuesday, on February 23rd, we celebrate the feast of St. Polycarp the martyr. He has the distinction of being the first martyr saint of whom we have an accurate and attested written record of his death. He was a disciple of St. John the Apostle, who tradition tells us lived to be a very old man, taking care of the Blessed Virgin Mary in his home at Ephesus until her Assumption into Heaven and then spending the rest of his life in prayer and contemplation. St. John was the only one of the twelve apostles who was not martyred for his faith. There is a tradition that he was almost boiled alive in oil, but he escaped and that is the story for another day.

We don’t have any record of exactly what St. John taught his disciple Polycarp, but we can be almost certain that they delved deep into the mysteries of the Holy Eucharist. After all, St. John was the beloved disciple who was so close to Our Lord Jesus that he leaned his head against his breast at the first Mass, the Last Supper when he was a very young man. (Again, tradition says he may have been just a teenager).

In the decades St. John had after the Lord’s Resurrection and Ascension into Heaven, learning from the wisdom of the Mother of God herself and then remaining united with Jesus mystically in his daily celebration of the Mass, how much wisdom and insight must he have gained about the Lord’s profound love for us revealed in the Blessed Sacrament!

We can almost picture the young man Polycarp sitting at the feet of his master, St. John, hearing in oral form what would become the Gospel of St. John, including many reflections on what became Chapter 6, the account of the Lord’s Discourse on the Bread of Life, in which Our Lord first revealed the mystery of the Eucharist: that those who ate and drank the Body and Blood of Christ could live forever in an eternally happy Communion with the Holy Trinity.

Polycarp lived to be an old man himself, and must have internalized those lessons, because when the Roman emperor began cruelly persecuting Christians and putting them to death and making sport of it by making a public display of their execution, he was ready to give his life in a profoundly Eucharistic way, as a living sign to non-believers of the saving power and love of the Blessed Sacrament. Here’s the account of Polycarp’s martyrdom from the breviary, the Church’s daily prayer book.

When 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.

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 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.”

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.

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