23rd February (died Smyrna c.155)
Bishop and martyr
On 21 January 2002 a statement was signed in Alexandria by Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious leaders from Israel, condemning violence in the name of religion and in particular calling for a ceasefire in the escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This press report (from an Israeli newspaper) reflects a long tradition that is present in all faiths of tolerance and respect for difference. Polycarp, by his life and work exemplified an ability to politely and respectfully agree to disagree, and he died a martyr not for condemning his opponents, but for refusing to renounce his own faith. He is also for us a direct and personal link over the centuries to the time when Christ walked the earth, helping us to feel closer to the reality and nearness of his presence. Born sometime around 70 AD, Polycarp was particularly close to John the Evangelist and according to Irenaeus was “instructed by the apostles, and was brought into contact with many who had seen Christ”. This continuity of faith and connection with the founders of the church was valued by what were then 3rd generation Christians: “Whatsoever things he had heard from the eye-witnesses of the Word of life, regarding His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures”
He became bishop of Smyrna on the Adriatic coast, and held that post for forty years. Although much has been written about him - particularly his death - there are only tantalising clues to the sort of man he was. Irenaeus, himself a noted early father of the church, was a pupil of Polycarp and treasured his teaching: ‘not on paper but in my heart, for the things we learnt in childhood are part of our soul’.
He was seen as a holy man, described during his lifetime as ‘the blessed Polycarp’ and known not only as a leader but as someone holy "even before his grey hair appeared". Ignatius of Antioch said to him "your mind is grounded in God as on an immovable rock".
When controversy arose between the Eastern and Western branches of Christendom over the date of Easter, it was Polycarp in old age who was chosen to confer with Pope Anicetus on behalf of the Eastern church. They did not come to any agreement, and even today the two branches of Christendom celebrate different dates. However they disagreed in love, finding no difference in their Christian beliefs, and Anicetus asked Polycarp to celebrate the Eucharist in his own papal chapel.
Many of Polycarp’s writings survive, reflecting a deep faith and generosity of spirit.
Polycarp faced increasing persecution of Christians in a Christ-like way, much admired in his own church, not seeking martyrdom but waiting on the will of God. It was a time when Christian were placed in the arena to face wild beasts and after one particularly bloody event the crowd demanded more, shouting ‘bring us Polycarp’, known as a holy leader, and in spite of him presiding as bishop for four decades. Polycarp was persuaded to leave the town and spent time praying in a nearby farm until he was captured. Lengthy and detailed accounts still exist of his arrest, interrogation and death - the earliest recorded martyrdom apart from Stephen. Taken before the pro-consul and presented with a choice to renounce his faith or lose his life, he replied, ‘I have been Christ’s servant for eight-six years and he has done me no harm. Can I now blaspheme my King and my Saviour?’ Instead of being fed to wild animals he was burnt at the stake (a more painful death) as he had foreseen in a vision. According to tradition, eyewitness accounts describe the flames arching over his head so that he appeared to be refined like gold or baked like bread, and when his tormentors saw he was not dead they stabbed him, whereupon his blood flowed so vigorously as to quench the fire.
His remains were buried outside the city and the Eucharist regularly celebrated over his grave, this being the first recorded regular commemoration of a martyr.
In our troubled times today it sometimes seems we promote intolerance and thirst for revenge more than we seek to understand and honour. Perhaps the answer, as it seems Polycarp found, lies somewhere in a generous humanity grounded in the love of God - whatever our faith.