My family are beach people. Growing up in coastal New England, our summers always involved lengthy days on sandy shores and in cool waters. But occasionally, we would trade the chilly waters of the Northeast for the warmer waves of North Carolina. On one Sunday drive down to the Outer Banks for a week’s vacation, I was given charge of finding us a church to stop at for Mass. Budding student of early Christianity that I was, I naturally selected St. Polycarp’s Parish in Smyrna, DE.
“What hath Smyrna to do with small-town America?” you might ask. How’d a rural trading town get the name of an ancient port city in Asia Minor? Well, no one really knows. But, according to the town website, oral tradition passed on one answer. A wandering preacher came to town and gave the citizens a sermon that pierced their hearts. The preacher chose as his text Revelation 2:8-11, the message to the church of Smyrna. Hard words, but words of comfort: “I know your tribulation and your poverty…Do not fear what you are about to suffer…Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:9-10). These words strengthened those who heard them preached. When, following trials, their community flourished, the men and women remembered these words and chose Smyrna as their name.
This story explains why, on June 23, 1883, Bishop Becker of Wilmington dedicated the first Catholic church in Smyrna under the patronage of St. Polycarp. The saint, unfortunately not well known these days, served as the bishop of ancient Smyrna during the first half of the second century. St. Polycarp’s witness to his love for Jesus Christ in martyrdom presents a sort of archetype of faithful discipleship.
After decades of dedicated service to his flock, the aged St. Polycarp endured the tribulations of persecution. The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, the earliest surviving account of Christian martyrs, written by eyewitnesses shortly after the event, paints a vivid and moving picture of a man deeply faithful to his God. When he was dragged before the Roman officials and was begged, out of pseudo-respect for age, to deny Jesus Christ, St. Polycarp poignantly responded, “For eighty-six years I have served him, and he has never wronged me. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” He did not fear what he was about to suffer, but was faithful unto death.
The author explains how Christians worship Christ, “but the martyrs we love as disciples and imitators of the Lord, as they deserve, on account of their matchless devotion to their King and Teacher. May we also become their partners and fellow disciples!” Christians love the saints because they imitate our Lord to an exemplary degree. And their witness calls out to us, in the words of St. Paul, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).
During Lent, we can look to the example of the martyrs and become imitators of them. Our Lent may not involve the torture of cruel persecutors and jeering, crowded amphitheaters, but only the ordinary trials of the Christian life in simple towns like Smyrna, DE. Yet, especially during Lent, we are invited to turn our hearts more fully to the Lord, to become fellow disciples with martyrs.
Even to us, He says, “I will give you the crown of life.”
Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. (used with permission)