(Feast of Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyr)
Rev. Dominique Peridans
We find ourselves in chapter 18 of Matthew’s gospel. Much has happened in Jesus’ public life between Nazareth and this exchange: soaring sermon, multiple miracles, calling and commissioning and confession, predictions of Passion, Transfiguration and teaching on the need for complete surrender for a disciple.
And now: an intriguing question, a question that makes one wonder if the disciples are truly paying attention: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
To help answer the question, Jesus “calls a child, whom he puts among them”.
Jesus has a huge soft spot for children. Why? Children typically have open hearts.
And Jesus gravitates towards open hearts; it brings Him joy to indwell them. Indeed, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20; Luke 9:58)--save the human heart. Our hearts are Jesus’ pillow, if you will. Children’s hearts are really Jesus’ pillow.
The child also serves as a living metaphor. Jesus chooses, as St. Jerome (+420) says, “one whose tender age should express to them (disciples) the innocence which they should have.” Indeed, Jesus says: “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Humility is the fitting internal disposition before a great God, in Whose life we participate. And there are, of course, great benefits to being genuinely humble: we learn to be sensitive and to be grateful, to admire and to welcome...
But, this is more than a lesson in humility. This is really about divine love. The kingdom of heaven is one of love and only love can enter Love.
The same St. Jerome articulates a few qualities of a child, which speak to divine love and reveal what happens in a disciple of Jesus when transformed by divine love.
If any of you put a stumbling block
before one of these little ones who believe in me,
it would be better for you
if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.
Today, we celebrate our very special child-like sister in faith: Saint Agnes, our patroness, our friend. She was no better equipped than us to do what Jesus asks. But she said “yes” and, by virtue of divine love, she lived and loved heroically, and, by virtue of divine love, she journeys with us.
In the ancient Roman calendar of the feasts of the martyrs dating from 354, her feast is assigned to January 21. We moved it to today, so that, together, we be able to celebrate! She was martyred in 304 at the age of twelve for resisting sexual assault. She is, understandably, patron saint of young girls and girl scouts, and of those seeking chastity and purity. According to an account by St. Ambrose, born in what today is Belgium, Bishop of Milan, Doctor of the Church, died in 397, Agnes told the judges during her trial, “He who chose me first shall be the only one to have me.” Hername is derived from a Greek adjective meaning “pure, sacred”. All accounts unanimously point to her heroism under torture so to preserve her virginity in the name of her faith and her Lord.
The accounts vary regarding what exactly took place. In one account, the Roman Prefect Sempronius condemned Agnes to be dragged naked through the streets to a brothel. In another account, a fellow lusting after her during her trial was struck blind.
In another account, she was tied to a stake but the flames parted. Many agree that she died by the sword. What is certain is that the One who chose her first was the only one to have her. Let us, with her, with humility and forgiving and pure hearts, approach the Eucharistic table, in person or by desire if viewing livestream, and enter the kingdom of heaven.