Our Convention this year begins with the celebration of the feast of St. Agnes, whose memory we honor today. Agnes was a young woman of Rome who perished in the last great persecution of the Church, during the reign of the emperor Diocletian. The emperor sought the renewal of his troubled empire, threatened by enemies, through his own totalitarian rule. The power of the emperor was considered sacred, and brooked no dissent from Christians, who did not worship at the altar of empire. One historian called this fierce attack on the church, during which Agnes was martyred, “the most thoroughgoing and ruthless persecution of the century” (Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture, 175).
Sources disagree as to the details of Agnes’ death: whether she was the victim of judicial execution or of privatized pagan terror is unclear. Where sources agree is in Agnes’ youth: she was in her early teens. St. Ambrose, a few decades after her death, wrote “the more hateful was the cruelty, which spared not so tender an age; the greater in truth was the power of faith, which found evidence even in that age.” “Let men admire,” the bishop wrote, “let children take courage, let the married be astounded, let the unmarried take an example” (On Virginity 2.5-6).
It’s easy to miss the sea change that the raising up of martyrs like St. Agnes represented. The ancient world venerated the worldly philosopher, the generous philanthropist, and the victorious statesman, above all. The classical ideal looked for inherent virtues, coupled with achievement, as the true markers of worth. The richest, the most powerful, the most celebrated, those fortunate few who had parlayed their gifts into success: these were the god-like figures who reigned in the popular imagination of the day.
Agnes was the antithesis of all this. What Ambrose and others saw in her was faithful, humble obedience. Though she was from a patrician family, Agnes was what we might call “no account.” As a female minor, she was subject to her father. Her testimony to Christ set her firmly athwart not only the progress of imperial power, but also at cross purposes with the authority of her family. When Christians looked to Agnes as an example, they did not see a flash in the pan apotheosis of popular fame, the sort of thing the pagans looked for, but rather one who was obedient, above all, to Christ.
“Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:4). Jesus’ saying is set here within the context of a dispute about greatness. To be great in the kingdom of heaven was not figured like greatness among the gentiles. It requires making oneself of no account, like a little child: in fact, like St. Agnes.
Greatness, in Christian estimation, has nothing to do with inherent virtues, but everything to do with the grace of God. Humility, after all, has enough good sense to rely upon God, and not upon the self. In our Gospel, Jesus places a child in the center of the apostolic circle, holding up to his followers the example of humility.
Humility has very little do with an “aw shucks” attitude, either. A becoming modesty is all very well and good: that is, “I don’t know if I can do that.” But modesty cannot be false, for greatness depends upon true humility. That kind of humility is willing to dare great things, knowing that the result may be a humiliating failure! (I hesitate to preach this, my friends, because it is so close to the bone.) My former bishop Charles Jenkins used to say, “We may fail, but we’ll fail forward!” Christians, after all, are required to be obedient, to be faithful: Jesus has nothing to say here about being successful. In fact, humility is far closer to humiliation than it will ever be to success.
Humility brings us to the foot of the cross, ever closer to the Savior. Jesus himself is our model: the One who was willing to “empty himself, taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7), as St. Paul says. This is where St. Agnes stood, as a beloved child of God.
It’s not a bad place for us to stand, as we begin a third year of ministry in time of pandemic. Humble servants of God shouldn’t rely on their own powers or plans, but instead upon the power of God. These challenging times have turned many plans to dust. These times have taught us, once again, to rely on the power of God.
That power is able to sustain us, even in the face of death. The power that flows from Jesus’ death and resurrection is able to raise us up and give us new life. Let us be astonished, and take good courage, at the mercy of God! His humble servants should dare great things, knowing that God upholds this world, and will bring his loving purpose for us to completion.