21 January 2017

Homily - 22 January 2017 - On Saint Agnes of Rome

The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

I could not help but notice today a great ball of light moving across the sky. It was, naturally, the sun, whom we do not see often enough in these winter months. As I looked towards it with wonder and appreciation, I thought of one of the verses we heard only a few moments ago: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Isaiah 9:1). This may not be an altogether incorrect interpretation of this verse, but it is surely not the interpretation the prophet had in mind.

Rather, “according to Isaiah, the people who sinned sat in the shadow of death. For these a light arose, not by the merits of their virtues, but by the grace of God.”[1] This great light that arose is, of course, Jesus Christ, who is called “the sun of justice” and who calls himself “the bright morning star” and “the light of the world” (Malachi 3:20; Revelation 22:16; John 8:12).

While recognizing Jesus as the one true light, the Church has long looked to Mary as another great light who, like the moon, reflects the light of her Son. Indeed, the very name of Mary means “Star of the Sea.” Why?

            If we reflect for a moment on the nature of human life, we quickly realize that

Human life is a journey. Towards what destination? How do we find the way? Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope. Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by — people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way. Who more than Mary could be a star of hope for us? With her “yes” she opened the door of our world to God himself; she became the living Ark of the Covenant, in whom God took flesh, became one of us, and pitched his tent among us (cf. John 1:14).[2]

The Blessed Virgin Mary may be the brightest and clearest of these secondary lights, but the light of the lives of the other saints also illumines the way before us, the way that leads to Jesus Christ. It is he who shines the light of his face upon the darkness of our sins. It is he who calls to repent of our sins and reform our lives. And it is who desires that we so imitate him that we might also be “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). This is why he tells us, “Let your light so shine before me, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14, 16).

One such light arose for us more than seventeen hundred years ago, our heavenly patroness, Saint Agnes of Rome. While we do not know the precise year in which she gave up her life for the One who gave his life for her (though it was about the year 305), she was brought to trial on January 21st and martyred on January 28th.

A girl of great beauty, Saint Agnes was both a Roman citizen and a Christian who lived during the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian. By the age of twelve, she had already consecrated her virginity to Jesus Christ and refused numerous offers of marriage because of her loving commitment to Jesus.

Brought before a judge, she was interrogated then threatened with death by burning… Refusing to serve the gods in the temple of Vesta, as ordered by the prefect, she was exposed naked in a brothel as a final insult to her triumphant and enticing virginity… Her radiant purity deterred all but the son of the prefect, who, attempting to have his way with her, was struck blind but had his sight restored by her forgiveness. .. Finally exasperated by her resistance, the governor or prefect ordered her to be beheaded, and she was accordingly killed in this way, in the Stadium of Domitian, known as the Circus Agonalis (now the Piazza Navona, dominated by the church of Sant’Agnese in Agonia).[3]

Normally, “childhood is computed in years, but in her immense wisdom she was old; she was a child in body but already aged in spirit. Her face was beautiful, her faith more beautiful.”[4]

If we remember for a moment the ancient Roman adage of nomen est omen, that the name is a sign, we can see that

the name Agnes comes from agna, because Agnes was as meek and humble as a lamb. Or her name comes from the Greek word agnos, pious, because she was pious and compassionate; or from agnoscendo, knowing, because she knew the way of truth [which] is opposed to vanity and falseness and doubting, all of which she avoided by the virtue of truth that was hers.[5]

In all of these features of her life, we can look to the light of Saint Agnes and see the way to heavenly glory.

The faithful and courageous witness of Saint Agnes is especially striking if we remember that she shed her blood for Jesus when she was only twelve. Typically, as Saint Ambrose says, young girls of that age “are unable to bear even the angry looks of parents, and are wont to cry at the prick of a needle as though they were wounds.” Saint Agnes, though, “was fearless under the cruel hands of the executioners”[6] because, as she said to the man who attempted to force himself upon her:

The one I love is far nobler than you, of more eminent descent. His mother is a virgin, his father knows no woman, he is served by angels; the sun and moon wonder at his beauty; his wealth never lacks or lessens; his perfume brings the dead to life, his touch strengthens the feeble, his love is chastity itself, his touch holiness, union with him, virginity.[7]

Is our faith strong enough to say something similar?

If you and I, dear brothers and sisters, look to Saint Agnes and entrust ourselves to her intercession, she can help us to become like lights shining in the darkness of this world. More than living a merely good life, she can teach us how to live a life of heroic virtue.

The example of Saint Agnes is particularly poignant today. How many people value others only because of physical beauty? How many people fail to recognize their own dignity and misuse and abuse their bodies for momentary pleasure? In the midst of the darkness of this hedonism, the light of Saint Agnes’ chastity and fidelity shines brightly before us and upon us. Let us, then, look to her, who, “disdaining the advantages of noble birth, merited heavenly honors; caring nothing for what human society desires, she won the society of the eternal king; accepting a precious death for professing Christ, she at the same time was conformed to his likeness.”[8]

May she show us how to be meek and humble, to be pious and compassionate, and to oppose vanity, falsehood, and doubt. By imitating her, may we be found faithful lambs of the Good Shepherd and counted among his flock. Amen.

[1] Saint Ambrose of Milan, On Paradise, 5.29. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament Vol. X: Isaiah 1-39. Steven A. McKinion, et al, eds. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2004), 70.
[2] Benedict XVI, Spe salvi¸ 49.
[3] Paul Burns, ed., Butler’s Lives of the Saints, New Full Edition: January (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1998), 146.
[4] Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, Vol. 1. William Granger Ryan, trans. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993), 102.
[5] Ibid., 101.
[6] Saint Ambrose of Milan, Three Books Concerning Virgins, II.7.
[7] Saint Agnes of Rome, in Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, 102.
[8] Saint Ambrose of Milan, Preface of Saint Agnes. In Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, 104.

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