Saint Agatha, virgin and martyr (d. 251?)
As in the case of Agnes, another virgin-martyr of the early Church, almost nothing is historically certain about this saint except that she was martyred in Sicily during the persecution of Emperor Decius in 251. Legend has it that Agatha, like Agnes, was arrested as a Christian, tortured and sent to a house of prostitution to be mistreated. She was preserved from being violated, and was later put to death. She is claimed as the patroness of both Palermo and Catania. The year after her death, the stilling of an eruption of Mt. Etna was attributed to her intercession. As a result, apparently, people continued to ask her prayers for protection against fire.
When Agatha was arrested, the legend says, she prayed: “Jesus Christ, Lord of all things! You see my heart, you know my desires. Possess all that I am—you alone. I am your sheep; make me worthy to overcome the devil.” And in prison: “Lord, my creator, you have protected me since I was in the cradle. You have taken me from the love of the world and given me patience to suffer. Now receive my spirit.”
The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Mark (6:14-29)
King Herod heard about this, for Jesus' Name had become well known. Some were saying, "John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him." Others said, "He is Elijah." And still others claimed, "He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago." But when Herod heard this, he said, "John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!" For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, "Ask me for anything you want, and I'll give it to you." And he promised her with an oath, "Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom." She went out and said to her mother, "What shall I ask for?" "The head of John the Baptist," she answered. At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: "I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter." The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John's head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. On hearing of this, John's disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)
One of the notable features of modern Western society has been the clash of two dominant theories, a liberalism that expresses itself in capitalism, and a centralism that expresses itself in socialism. The one stresses the free initiative of individuals, while the other stresses a central authority for the protection of individuals. It could be said that one point at issue is the question of one’s environment. Liberalism hopes for an environment that gives the widest scope for personal freedom, while socialism strives to build an environment that provides the needs of all. The dangers and possibilities of both are reasonably clear, and the challenge for each is to keep everything in due balance. But let us take the case of one of the founders of modern Socialism, Robert Owen. Perhaps the greatest Christian thinker of 19th century Britain, John Henry Newman, had a brother (Charles) who abandoned Christian belief and became a socialist — more particularly, a follower of Robert Owen. Robert Owen (1771–1858) built his socialist theory on a few philosophical pillars, one of which was the denial of free will. No one, Owen thought, was responsible for his will and his own actions, because his whole character is formed independently of himself; people are products of their environment. The point I wish to highlight here is this stress on man’s environment because this stress has become common in much of modern thought. There is no doubt that environment is critically important, especially for those whose power of free and responsible choice is yet to develop — such as the young. But the exercise of personal freedom, whatever be one’s environment, is of critical importance if a person is to flourish — and our Gospel passage today (Mark 6: 14-29) illustrates this. In the case of Herod we see what happens when environment shapes human action. Herod had the advantage of frequent contact with John. Ironically, he was, we might say, in the best of environments. But what happened?
We read that, with John imprisoned, “Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him” (Mark 6:20). Herod, according to St Mark’s account, had some redeeming features, certainly more than Herodias his wife. He had something of a conscience, and recognised and had a certain respect for holiness. But consider how easily and how greatly Herod fell: he suddenly had John executed. While the event was a spiritual triumph for John the Baptist, it was a catastrophic moral fall for Herod. He had been in one environment but fell when he was in another. What brought about this fall? It was the fear of what others would think. We read that “Herod was deeply distressed but, thinking of the oaths he had sworn and of his guests, he was reluctant to break his word to her. So the king at once sent one of the bodyguard with orders to bring John's head. The man went off and beheaded him in prison” (Mark 6: 26-27). That is to say, the pressure of human respect and personal vanity in the presence of others led him to violence against a person of great holiness, one whom he knew, frequently heard, and indeed admired. Herod had before him a person of very high holiness. This shows dramatically that no matter what graces are offered, no matter how near God may be, one must exercise one’s own freedom and be vigilant against sin. A good environment is not enough to produce goodness of life. Let us take an even more serious scenario. Consider the familiarity and constant company Judas was granted with Christ himself. What an environment this was! Judas was counted as one of the personal friends of God the Son made man. He had the blessing and the training to be a direct associate in the work of Jesus Christ. How could such a person have ever gone wrong? Yet he went so terribly wrong, doing in his own way what Herod had done to John. He betrayed Jesus Christ into the hands of his executioners. He did not exercise his personal freedom against sin.
Sin can bring anyone down if it is entertained, however favoured be the environment. Sin brought down angels even in the environment of heaven itself. We must be constantly on guard against sin, this enemy ever ancient and ever near. Our power of free choice is so important. It cannot be replaced by a dependence on the right environment. Herod was in the right environment, as was Judas, as was Lucifer and the demons in the beginning. We must choose aright, choosing to be vigilant against sin and its occasions. Every day let us examine our conscience. Let us guard against sin, especially the sin we are particularly prone to commit. So then, now I begin!