St. Polycarp: Bishop of Smyrna, Staunch Defender of Orthodoxy, Martyr
The saint of the day for February 23rd is St. Polycarp (- 155), a disciple of the apostles, bishop of Smyrna, and a friend of St Ignatius of Antioch. He is one of the earliest Christians whose writings still survive.
St. Polycarp was one of the immediate disciples of the Apostles, in particular St. John the Evangelist. He embraced Christianity very young and was named bishop of Smyrna, a post which he held for 70 years. He was greatly respected by the faithful, wrote many letters and formed many holy disciples. His epistle to the Philippians – the only one to be preserved – demonstrates his apostolic spirit, his profound humility and meekness, and his great charity.
St. Polycarp fought against heresy. He was a staunch defender of orthodoxy and an energetic opponent of heresy, especially Marcionism and Valentinianism (the most influential of the Gnostic sects). He also taught that Christians must walk in truth, do God’s will, keep all of His commandments, and love whatever He loved. Christians must refrain from all fraud, avarice, detraction, and rash judgment. They must repay evil with forgiveness and mercy. He taught that one must pray all the time, so as not to be led into temptation, fast, persevere and be joyful.
During his episcopate, a violent persecution broke out in Smyrna against the Christians. During this time, though fearless, the bishop retreated to a neighboring village, spending most of his time in prayer.
A boy betrayed the bishop, and horsemen came by night to arrest him. He met his captors at the door, ordered them a supper, and prayed for two hours before he went with them.
He was led directly to the proconsul, who ordered him to blaspheme Christ. St. Polycarp refused and he was to be burned alive.
The executioners would have nailed him to the stake, but he convinced them that it wasn’t necessary. So they simply tied his hands behind his back. At the end of his prayer, the executioners set the fire, but the large flames formed into an arch, gently encircling but not burning his body. Exasperated, officials ordered a spearman to pierce him. Such a quantity of blood flowed from his left side that it put out the fire. The Christians wanted St. Polycarp’s body but the centurion burnt it to ashes. The bones were kept as relics.
Account of Polycarp’s Martyrdom
When the pyre was ready, Polycarp took off all his outer clothes and loosened his under-garments. There and then he was surrounded by the material for the pyre. Whey they tried to fasten him also with nails, he said, “Leave me as I am. The one who gives me the 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.
Looking up to heaven, he said, “Lord, almighty God, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom 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 through the power of the Holy Spirit.
“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 by 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. 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. – from a letter by the Church of Smyrna on the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp