Yesterday I outlined the various parallels which can be found between Jesus’ Passion and Polycarp’s Martyrdom. I ended the entry by asking:
“But what does this all mean? Why are there these similarities between the deaths of Jesus and Polycarp?”
The martyrdom account itself ascribes these similarities to the providence of God:
“By almost every step that led up to Polycarp’s martyrdom, the Lord intended to show us anew the type of martyrdom narrated in the Gospel…” – Mart. Pol., 1.1
But that then raises the question: why might God wish to present to His Church a death like that of Christ?
The Most Sincere Form Of Flattery
There’s a pastor here in the States called Rick Warren who wrote a very popular book called “The Purpose-Driven Life” in which he outlines what he sees as our major purposes of life. I’ve mostly enjoyed his books, but I think if I had to sum up the purpose of life in a single sentence it would be, in the title of that classic work by Thomas à Kempis, “Imitation of Christ”. I would suggest that the entire point of life is to become more and more like Jesus.
“[Polycarp] was not only an illustrious teacher, but also a pre-eminent martyr, whose martyrdom all desire to imitate since it was in accord with the Gospel of Christ” – Mart. Pol. 19.1
In the martyrdom account, Polycarp is presented as imitating Christ and this itself is commended and exhorted as worthy of imitation. Polycarp had laid down his life in giving witness to Jesus. In the coming years, many more would be called upon to do the same. In Polycarp, here was a template, an example par excellence of how one testifies to the Lord.
I know some people get rather twitchy at the suggestion that we imitate anyone other than Jesus. However, there is good Scriptural support for this idea. St. Paul himself said:
“Therefore I urge you to imitate me” – 1 Corinthians 4:16
…and the Letter to the Hebrews contains similar exhortations:
“We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised…Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” – Hebrews 6:12, 13:7
Some people have a fear that, in focusing upon mortal men, God is somehow robbed of His glory. However, the Martyrdom itself says that it was written in order that the recipients give glory to God!
“Take note, then of the contents of this letter and forward it to the brethren further away. They too, should glorify the Lord, He who makes His choice from among His servants.” – Mart. Pol 20.1
Glory is given to God for the way He worked through Polycarp – it’s not a competition between God and His Saint! When I started to grasp this idea, the Catholic conception of the Saints started to make more sense to me. As it says in the Martyrdom itself:
“Who can fail to admire the heroism of the martyrs, their patience and their love of the Master?…May we be privileged to follow in [Polycarp's] footsteps” - Mart. Pol. 2.1, 22.1
Christ We Worship, The Martyrs We Love
Towards the end of the Martyrdom, the Church at Smyrna wrote what I still think is one of the best explanations as to why Catholics give such honour to Saints. After Polycarp had been killed, there was some contention over his body. It was suggested that the Christians should not be allowed to obtain Polycarp’s body for fear that (bizarrely!) they would forsake Christ and start worshiping Polycarp instead! However, this is how the account’s writer responds:
“They did not realize that we could never abandon Christ, He who suffered for our salvation – the blameless one for sinners! – or worship any other. Him we worship as being the Son of God, the martyrs we love as being disciples and imitators of the Lord; and deservedly so, because of their unsurpassable devotion to their King and Teacher. May it be our good fortune, too, to be their companions and fellow disciples!” – Mart. Of Pol. 17.3