Today is the feast day of St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. Contrary to the insistence of some of my friends, “Polycarp” does not mean “much fish” Rather, his name means “much fruit”, an appropriate appellation for a man whose life was full of the fruit of one whose life was devoted to Jesus Christ:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” – John 15:5
Polycarp, perhaps more so than any other Apostolic Father, provides us with a bridge between the Apostles and the Early Church. When Polycarp was young he sat at the feet of St. John and when Polycarp was old, another young man, St. Irenaeus sat at his feet and would later become one of the great defenders of the faith against the Gnostics.
Polycarp has a link to another Early Church Father. In fact, I have mentioned St. Polycarp on this blog before, when I wrote about the letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Smyrnaeans and his letter to the bishop of that city, Polycarp. In his letter, Ignatius exhorts Polycarp:
“The times call for you, as pilots do for the winds, and as one tossed with tempest seeks for the haven, so that both you and those under your care may attain to God. Be sober as God’s athlete: the prize set before you is immortality and eternal life” – Ignatius to Polycarp
The turbulent times did indeed call for a great bishop and they did indeed find one in Polycarp…
Whereas Ignatius left us seven letters, Polycarp leaves us only one, but fortunately it’s a beautiful one and is utterly soaked in Sacred Scripture:
“Let us then continually persevere in our hope, and [earnestness for] righteousness, which is Jesus Christ. [He] bore our sins in His own body on the tree, He did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth, but He endured all things for us, that we might live in Him. Let us then be imitators of His patience; and if we suffer for His name’s sake, let us glorify Him.” – Polycarp to the Philippians
The other document antiquity has left us concerning Polycarp is the account of his martyrdom. In the Martyrdom of Polycarp we hear how soldiers are sent to track him down and take him to the arena. When they arrive, he treats them graciously, gives them food and requests an hour to prayer privately, which is granted. He is then taken to the stadium where the proconsul urges him to reject Christ and swear by Caesar, to which Polycarp replies:
“Eighty-six years have I served Him, and He never did me any wrong: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”
What a great testimony to give at the end of your life! After threatening him with wild beasts (to no effect), the proconsul orders Polycarp to be burnt. When the fire fails to burn him, he is stabbed by a soldier and wins his martyr’s crown…
“O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received knowledge of You…, I give You thanks. I give you thanks that You have counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should [be one] of Your martyrs, [and share] in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through…the Holy Ghost.
…may I be accepted this day before You as…[an] acceptable sacrifice, …[as you] have foreordained, …and now have fulfilled.
[Therefore] I praise You for all things, I bless You, I glorify You, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, with whom, to You, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages.
Amen” – Martyrdom of Polycarp
St. Polycarp, pray for us.