Sermon preached by the Rev. Dominique Peridans on the Feast of Saint Agnes
January 23, 2022
She was an incredibly beautiful girl, irresistibly beautiful to some. Her hand had several times been asked in marriage. Her faith was such, however, that she always declined, making it known that she already had a spouse by the name of Jesus.
Other suitors persisted, ill-intentioned. Yet, awed by her strong presence, they left her untouched—save one suitor who attempted to violate her. In so doing, he was miraculously struck blind. Her faith was such that she prayed for his blindness, and he was healed.
One of her suitors was Procop, the Governor's son. He tried to win her with promises and rich gifts, but the beautiful girl kept saying, “I am already promised to the Lord of the Universe. He is more splendid than the sun and the stars, and has said that He will never leave me!”
In great anger, Procop denounced her as a Christian and brought her to his father, the Governor. The Governor too promised her rich gifts, if only she would deny Christ. She refused. He tried to change her mind, to no avail. He put her in chains. He sent her to a brothel. At the last, she was condemned to death. Yet, she was as happy as a bride on her wedding day. Of her Divine Spouse she said, “He who chose me first shall be the only one to have me!" She then prayed and bowed her head for the death-stroke of the sword.
The day: January 21. The year: 304.
Her name: Agnes, derived from a Greek adjective meaning “pure, sacred”. Her age: 13.
She is the patroness of our parish, our strong sister along the way. When we come to church, it probably does not really cross our mind that she awaits us. She does.
She journeys with us, per the movement of the Holy Spirit, intervening insofar as we let her. Let her.
This gospel reveals one of her traits, which the Lord would like to forge in us: child- like-ness. This is revelation about becoming like children.
What happens in this gospel?
There is an interesting progression. The disciples, entrusted with great responsibilities, approach Jesus about greatness. “Can we all be board members for life?!?” Worldly and limited, sadly, is their perspective. They do have a good instinct, however. As Church Father, Origen (d. 254), exhorts,
“We ought to be imitators of the disciples: when any question of doubt arises among us, and we find not how to settle it, we should, with one consent, go to Jesus.”
The disciples rightly go to Jesus. When any question of doubt arises for us, personally or as a parish, we ought to go to Jesus. The disciples are entangled in concerns about greatness. And, as St. Jerome (+420) remarks,
“Jesus heals their ambitious strivings, by arousing an emulation in lowliness. He calls a child, whom he puts among them.”
And, with a living metaphor before their very eyes, Jesus cuts to the chase: Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Or, perhaps, case opened…
Child-like-ness. This is revelation about becoming like children. What is it about children that makes it possible to enter the kingdom of heaven, i.e. enter the life of the King? St. Hilary (+367) tells us
“Jesus calls infants all who believe through the hearing of faith; for infants follow and love their father and mother… do not bear hate, or speak lies…and believe what they hear to be true.”
Saint Jerome (+420) rephrases this:
“Unless you have innocence and purity of mind, you shall not to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
And so we must ask, for example, regarding the life that we are called to live together here, as sisters and brothers: do I believe and trust or do I somehow sow seeds of doubt and division?
The revelation continues: Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. The Holy Spirit wishes to transform our hearts, making us child-like, thus making us welcoming of the most vulnerable among us, in whom Jesus awaits us. Mysterious, liberating business this is that goes deeper and deeper.
About such children the vulnerable in whom He awaits us, Jesus speaks very strongly. He always does so when he lays His heart on the line.
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.
This was common Jewish punishment of the greater criminals. But, why is fastening a millstone and drowning better than putting a stumbling block? Perhaps because putting a stumbling-block before one of the little ones leads to death of the heart?
The Holy Spirit wishes to transform our hearts, making us child-like, then to become welcoming like we have been welcomed. I am safe in God’s lap, including the childish parts of me, and, from there, am now able to welcome whomever He brings across my path, into my life. By this mysterious fire of love at work in us, to which we much choose to yield each day, we can welcome the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely.