Perpetua and Felicitas — March 7


Bible connection

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given;  they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?”  They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed as they themselves had been killed. — Revelation 6:9-11

All about Perpetua (c. 182-c.203) and Felicitas 

We have little idea what brought Perpetua to faith in Christ, or how long she had been a Christian, or how she lived her Christian life. Thanks to her diary, and that of another prisoner, we have some idea of her last days—an ordeal that so impressed the famous Augustine that he preached four sermons about her death.

Perpetua was a Christian noblewoman who, at the turn of the third century, lived with her husband, her son, and her slave, Felicitas, in Carthage (the ruins are a suburb of Tunis, today). At this time, North Africa was the center of a vibrant Christian community. Emperor Septimius Severus may have  believed Christianity and there is doubt about the tradition that he fomented persecution in North Africa. The hostility to Jesus followers that broke out was probably a local issue. Among the first to be arrested were five new Christians taking classes to prepare for baptism, one of whom was Perpetua.

Her father immediately came to her in prison. He was a pagan, and he saw an easy way for Perpetua to save herself. He begged her to simply deny she was a Christian:

“Father do you see this vase here?” she replied. “Could it be called by any other name than what it is?”

“No,” he replied.

“Well, neither can I be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.”

All this was recorded in her own hand and later formed into a book you can still read, that includes an account of another victim. The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity (Latin: Passio sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis) describes her imprisonment as a Christian in 203, completed after her death by a redactor. It is one of the oldest and most illustrative early Christian texts.

In the next days, Perpetua was moved to a better part of the prison and allowed to breast-feed her child. With her appearance before the authorities approaching, her father visited again, this time, pleading more passionately: “Have pity on my gray head. Have pity on me, your father, if I deserve to be called your father, if I have favored you above all your brothers, if I have raised you to reach this prime of your life.”

He threw himself down before her and kissed her hands. “Do not abandon me to be the reproach of men. Think of your brothers; think of your mother and your aunt; think of your child, who will not be able to live once you are gone. Give up your pride!”

Perpetua was touched but remained unshaken. She tried to comfort her father—”It will all happen in the prisoner’s dock as God wills, for you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves but are all in his power”—but he walked out of the prison dejected.

The day of the hearing arrived, Perpetua and her friends were marched before the governor, Hilarianus. Perpetua’s friends were questioned first, and each in turn admitted to being a Christian, and each in turn refused to make a sacrifice (an act of emperor worship). Then the governor turned to question Perpetua.

At that moment, her father, carrying Perpetua’s son in his arms, burst into the room. He grabbed Perpetua and pleaded, “Perform the sacrifice. Have pity on your baby!” Hilarianus, probably wishing to avoid the unpleasantness of executing a mother who still suckled a child, added, “Have pity on your father’s gray head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperor.”

Perpetua replied simply: “I will not.”

“Are you a Christian then?” asked the governor.

“Yes I am,” Perpetua replied.

Her father interrupted again, begging her to sacrifice, but Hilarianus had heard enough: he ordered soldiers to beat him into silence. He then condemned Perpetua and her friends to die in the arena.

Perpetua, her friends, and her slave, Felicitas (who had subsequently been arrested), were dressed in belted tunics. When they entered the stadium, wild beasts and gladiators roamed the arena floor, and in the stands, crowds roared to see blood. They didn’t have to wait long.

Immediately a wild cow charged the group. Perpetua was tossed into the air and onto her back. She sat up, adjusted her ripped tunic, and walked over to help Felicitas. Then a leopard was let loose, and it wasn’t long before the tunics of the Christians were stained with blood.

The process was too slow for the impatient crowd, which began calling for death for the Christians. So Perpetua, Felicitas, and friends were lined up, and one by one, were slain by the sword.

In his book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, Alan Kreider tries to understand how Perpetua (and othes with her) made such a big impression on many who saw her — their guard became a Jesus follower!

Perpetua’s authoritative influence lay not only in their visions; it lay in the lives that embodied the visions. … [The formation of their way of life and demeanor came] through the recitation of certain phrases that people can repeat day by day, and especially when they are in toruble. …The phrase “I am a Christian” has tremendous importance…[It connotes] an entire way of life, an entire value system, that was fundamentally contrary to the way of life embodied in the amphitheater (p. 50).

The state murders did not offend the crowd, but the way the Christians showed their alternativity impressive hundreds.


Docudrama: Lost Legacy Reclaimed: Perpetua  

The story told as a seven-minute episode on Dateline:

What do we do with this?

John the Revealer sees the blood of the martyrs as the seeds of the church. The willingness of Perpetua and her newly-converted friends to die rather than worship the Emperor (and the Empire complex), is the signature act that validates the possibility of faith and transformation for those dominated by Rome. Notably, their community in death transcends class. For race-dominated, Eurocentric Christians, it is noteworthy to consider that they were Africans.

Is martyrdom dead? Is your Christianity all locked within your personal identity? Does it intersect with the Empire in which you live? Have you already recanted when asked to worship the “emperor?” These young women ask us important questions with their courage, faith and deaths.

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