In an age where women are judged by the outward appearance of their flesh, there once was a a time when the true beauty, and strength of a woman came from within. Women were noble, modest, strong, virtuous, and held their bodies as icons, sacred vessels, from which to glorify God, and serve humanity through motherhood and the power of an intact family. Today, some women worship their forms and curves, nipping tucking, enhancing and enlarging, and most seem to disdain motherhood, albeit perhaps to squeeze in a designer family of a boy and girl, as long as they don’t get in the way of the woman’s ‘real’ life and real calling. But in the age of the birth of the Church, women were warriors of spirit, paragons of virtue, and chastity. Women who covered themselves, and gave themselves only to God, and their husbands, until death parted them. Women who gave society the greatest gift they could possibly give, and that is a home, where noble and holy children were raised. Gifts, better than gold, profit, and promotions.
So was this oppression? Did the women in early Christianity bear shame and brutality? On the contrary, we find that in The Church, the daughters of God were held, and still are held, in high esteem. Perpetua and Felicitas remind us that women can indeed “have it all”, for in the act of their loving obedience and submission to God, they become inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven, both now and forevermore.
On February 1st the Church remembers our sisters in Christ, Perpetua and Felicitas who departed this life for life eternal on this very day…
The Holy Martyrs Perpetua, Felicitas and those with them. Vibia Perpetua was from a patrician family, and lived in Carthage. She came to believe in Christ, and was baptized after her arrest as a Christian. A few days later, the twenty-two-year-old woman was taken to prison with her infant son. Arrested with her were her brother Saturus, the servants Felicitas, Revocatus, Saturninus and Secundulus, who were also catechumens.
In 203, Christians who refused to sacrifice to Roman gods were considered traitors. Emperor Septimus Severus was cracking down on anti-state elements. As he saw it, the sacrifice was simply a patriotic gesture, not much more than our salute of the flag. But the Christians saw it as a denial of Christ. Among those swept into the emperor’s dragnet in Carthage were two young women, Perpetua and Felicitas. The choice before them was clear: sacrifice or die.
For both women, the situation was complicated by motherhood. Felicitas was pregnant and Perpetua had a newborn son.
Perpetua’s pagan father tried to manipulate her motherly instincts. “Please, Perpetua, think of me, your aging father. But most of all, think of your little baby!” Because he could not convince the newly-converted 22-year-old to go perform her “duty,” he was flogged. A man should have better control of his daughter! Perpetua was baptized while in prison. Felicitas, her slave girl, gave birth there to a baby girl while in prison. She rejoiced because now she would be permitted to die with her companions. There was a law forbidding the execution of pregnant women.
Before her trial, Perpetua received visions from the Lord, reassuring her of his strength and presence. She wrote up her prison experience, becoming the first Christian authoress on record. She was condemned to die. On this day, February 1, 202, Perpetua and Felicitas left the prison for the arena “joyfully as though they were on their way to heaven.” Before a raging crowd, they were thrown to wild beasts. A mad heifer charged the women and tossed them, but Perpetua rose and helped Felicitas to her feet. She was ready, even eager, to die for the Lord. When she was thrown to the ground, Perpetua’s clothing ripped. She modestly covered herself and asked if she could have a hairpin. She fixed her hair to avoid an unkempt appearance that might suggest she was in mourning.
Perpetua even spurred the other martyrs on. “You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another,” she called to them. “Do not be weakened by what we have gone through!” When the beasts failed to finish them off, soldiers came to do the job. The young gladiator who was to execute St Perpetua was inexperienced and did not kill her with the first blow. She herself took his hand and guided it to her throat, and so she received the crown of martyrdom. This occurred in about the year 203. These two young women, new in faith, were instant heroines among fellow Christians. Joined together, their Latin names mean “everlasting (Perpetua) happiness (Felicitas),” which is what they expected to receive.
Saturninus and Revocatus had to face a leopard and a bear. Saturus was bitten by a leopard, but did not die. The martyrs were then led to a certain spot to be killed by the sword. The amphitheatre where these saints perished is located a few miles from the city of Tunis. In 1881, a room was discovered opposite the modern entrance into the arena. Some say this was a cell where the victims waited to be brought into the arena.
Your holy martyr Perpetua, O Lord,
Through her sufferings has received an incorruptible crown from You, our God. For having Your strength, she laid low her adversaries,
And shattered the powerless boldness of demons.
Through her intercessions, save our souls!
Christ our God, empower us to obtain the crown of eternal life with boldness and courage as did Perpetua and her friends. Let us live in truth, let us live for things that matter, let us give our lives for the valiant cause of proclaiming Christus Victor.