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Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyr
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Pope blesses lambs on feast of St. Agnes
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St. Agnes, V. M. [Virgin and Martyr]
Monday, January 21, 2019
Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyr
1 Corinthians 1:26-31
Agnes, a little child, took a foolish risk. She gave all that she had. “The crowds,” says Saint Ambrose, “marvelled at her spendthrift attitude to life, discarding it untasted, but as if she had lived it to the full.” Unlike the daughter of Jephthah who asked of her father two months to wander on the mountains and bewail her virginity (cf. Jg 11:37), Agnes went with willing and joyful steps to the place of her execution.
Saint Agnes, Virgin & Martyr
Ambrogio Borgognone – 1495 – Detached Fresco
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan
Agnes, the daughter of a noble Roman family who had become a Christian, was martyred at the age of twelve or thirteen during a persecution of Christians when she openly declared her belief. Her name is in the Roman Canon, and in the earliest Church calendar (354 AD), her feast was assigned to January 21, on which all accounts of her death agree. Agnes was martyred in 304, in the persecution of Diocletian, or possibly earlier, in a third century persecution. According to very early accounts, her enraged persecuters attempted to burn Agnes, and when this failed, they decapitated her.
Testimony to her courageous witness was given in early accounts. An account of her martyrdom was written by Saint Ambrose (340-387) in “De Virginibus”, and Pope Damasus (ca. 304-384) extolled the heroism and virtue of the young girl, reportedly telling in a poem how she bravely faced fire, concerned only that her stripped body be covered by her long hair. The Pope also wrote an inscription to her on a marble slab, which can still be seen at the foot of the stairs leading to the sepulchre in the church built over her grave during the reign of Constantine (ca 275-337). According to the description of her martyrdom by Prudentius (348-413), as part of the persecution “the judge threatened to give over her virginity to a house of prostitution, and even executed this threat; but when a young man turned a lascivious look upon the virgin, he fell to the ground stricken with blindness…”.
The church built over her tomb in the 4th Century, Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura (“Saint Agnes outside the walls), stands today — on the Via Nomentana — much the same as it was after it was remodeled by Pope Honorius (625-638). A mosaic in the apse of the church shows the young saint as a Byzantine empress, amid flames with a sword at her feet.
Another perhaps more famous church, Sant’Agnese in Agone, faces the Piazza Navona in Rome. Originally a 9th century oratory built over the the site of her martyrdom, a brothel in the arcades of the Circus of Domitian, also known as the Circus Agonalis, it was consecrated as a church by Pope Calixtus II on January 28, 1123. The present church was extensively remodeled in the 17th century by Rainaldi, according to plans by Borromini, and was influential in Baroque architecture. The Roman ruins of the brothel where Agnes was martyred are accessible from inside the church.
Since the early middle-ages, Saint Agnes is usually depicted holding a lamb (agnus – a pun on her name) as a symbol of her purity. At least since the 9th Century, each year on the Feast of Saint Agnes, two lambs are solemnly blessed at the church of Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura. From the wool of these lambs are made the pallium (a strip of white wool with black crosses woven into the fabric) given by the Pope to an archbishop as a sign of office.
Propers for the Feast of Saint Agnes
Almighty, eternal God,
You choose what the world considers weak
to put the worldly power to shame.
May we who celebrate the birth of Saint Agnes into eternal joy
be loyal to the faith she professed.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. +Amen.
First Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:26-31
For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.”
Gospel Reading: Matthew 13:44-46
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
Daily Readings for:
January 21, 2011
(Readings on USCCB website) Collect: Almighty, eternal God, you chose what the world considers weak to put the worldly power to shame. May we who celebrate the birth of St. Agnes into eternal joy be loyal to the faith she professed. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Memorial of St. Agnes, virgin and martyr Old Calendar: St. Agnes
St. Agnes (c. 304) like St. Cecilia, is to be numbered among the most famous martyrs of Rome. When the Diocletian persecution was at its height, and when priests as well as laymen were apostatizing from the faith, Agnes, a girl of twelve, freely chose to die for Christ. When she was commanded to offer incense to false gods, she raised her hand to Christ and made the Sign of the Cross. When the heathens threatened to bind her hand and foot, she herself hastened to the place of torture as a bride to her wedding feast. Pain had no terror for her—although the fetters slipped from her small hands while even the pagan bystanders were moved to tears.
When the son of the Roman prefect offered to marry her, she replied: “The one to whom I am betrothed is Christ Whom the angels serve.” When the executioner, who was to behead her, hesitated, she encouraged him with the words: “Strike, without fear, for the bride does her Spouse an injury if she makes Him wait”. The name of “Agnes” means “lamb-life,” and hence the lamb is the symbol of the modesty and innocence of the virgin-martyr.
Agnes is one of the most glorious saints in the calendar of the Roman Church. The greatest Church Fathers vie with one another in sounding her praise and glory. St. Jerome writes: “All nations, especially their Christian communities, praise in word and writing the life of St. Agnes. She triumphed over her tender age as well as over the merciless tyrant. To the crown of spotless innocence she added the glory of martyrdom.”
Our saint’s name should be traced to the Greek hagne – the pure, rather than to the Latin agna – lamb. But the Latin derivation prevailed in the early Church. The reason may have been that eight days after her death Agnes appeared to her parents with a train of virgins, and a lamb at her side. St. Augustine knew both derivations. “Agnes”, he writes, “means ‘lamb’ in Latin, but in Greek it denotes ‘the pure one’”.
The Latin interpretation occasioned the yearly blessing of the St. Agnes lambs; it takes place on this day in the Church of which she is patron, and the wool is used in weaving the palliums worn by archbishops and, through privilege, by some bishops. In the church built by the Emperor Constantine over the saint’s grave, Pope Gregory the Great preached a number of homilies.
Reliable details concerning the life of St. Agnes are very few. The oldest material occurs in St. Ambrose’s De Virginibus, parts of which are read today at Matins. The value of the later (definitely unauthentic) “Passion” of the saint is enhanced by the fact that various antiphons and responsories in the Office are derived from it.
From such liturgical sources we may construct the following “life of St. Agnes”. One day when Agnes, then thirteen years old, was returning home from school, she happened to meet Symphronius, a son of the city prefect. At once he became passionately attracted to her and tried to win her by precious gifts. Agnes repelled him, saying: “Away from me, food of death, for I have already found another lover” (r. Ant.). “With His ring my Lord Jesus Christ has betrothed me, and He has adorned me with the bridal crown” (3. Ant., Lauds).
“My right hand and my neck He has encircled with precious stones, and has given me earrings with priceless pearls; He has decked me with lovely, glittering gems” (2. Ant.). “The Lord has clothed me with a robe of gold, He has adorned me with priceless jewels” (4. Ant.). “Honey and milk have I received from His mouth, and His blood has reddened my cheeks” (5. Ant.).
“I love Christ, into whose chamber I shall enter, whose Mother is a virgin, whose Father knows not woman, whose music and melody are sweet to my ears. When I love Him, I remain chaste; when I touch Him, I remain pure; when I possess Him, I remain a virgin” (2. Resp.).
“I am betrothed to Him whom the angels serve, whose beauty the sun and moon admire” (9. Ant.). “For Him alone I keep my troth, to Him I surrender with all my heart” (6. Ant.).
Incensed by her rebuff, Symphronius denounced Agnes to his father, the city prefect. When he threatened her with commitment to a house of ill fame, Agnes replied: “At my side I have a protector of my body, an angel of the Lord” (2. Ant., Lauds).
“When Agnes entered the house of shame, she found an angel of the Lord ready to protect her” (1. Ant., Lauds). A light enveloped her and blinded all who tried to approach. Then another judge condemned her to the stake because the pagan priests accused her of sorcery.
Surrounded by flames she prayed with outstretched arms: “I beseech You, Father almighty, most worthy of awe and adoration. Through Your most holy Son I escaped the threats of the impious tyrant and passed through Satan’s filth with feet unsullied.
Behold, I now come to You, whom I have loved, whom I have sought, whom I have always desired.” She gave thanks as follows: “O You, the almighty One, who must be adored, worshipped, feared – I praise You because through Your only begotten Son I have escaped the threats of wicked men and have walked through the filth of sin with feet unsullied.
I extol You with my lips, and I desire You with all my heart and strength.”After the flames died out, she continued: “I praise You, Father of my Lord Jesus Christ, because by Your Son the fire around me was extinguished” (4. Ant., Lauds).
And now she longed for union with Christ: “Behold, what I yearned for, I already see; what I hoped for, I already hold in embrace; with Him I am united in heaven whom on earth I loved with all my heart” (Ben. Ant.). Her wish was granted; the judge ordered her beheaded. —The Church’s Year of Grace, Pius Parsch
Patron: Affianced couples; betrothed couples; bodily purity; chastity; Children of Mary; Colegio Capranica of Rome; crops; engaged couples; gardeners; Girl Scouts; girls; rape victims; diocese of Rockville Centre, New York; virgins.
Symbols: Lamb; woman with long hair and a lamb, sometimes with a sword at her throat; woman with a dove which holds a ring in its beak; woman with a lamb at her side.
Things to Do:
Read St. Ambrose’s De Virginibus about the martyrdom of St. Agnes. “It is the birthday of a martyr, let us offer the victim. It is the birthday of St. Agnes, let men admire, let children take courage, let the married be astounded, let the unmarried take an example.”