Today (February 23) is the Feast of Polycarp of Smyrna in both the Western and the Eastern churches. We read Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians and the account of his martyrdom in our first week back in December.
How old, you might ask, is the practice commemorating the saints and martyrs who have gone on to their reward? The answer is, at least since the death of Polycarp, either circa 155–56 or circa 166–67. The story of Polycarp’s martyrdom records that the Roman official who ordered Polycarp’s death at first refused to turn over his bodies to the Christians, for fear that they would abandon the worship of Jesus in favor of the worship of Polycarp. The Christians thought his fear patently absurd (ch. 17):
This he said at the suggestion and urgent persuasion of the Jews, who also watched us, as we sought to take him out of the fire, being ignorant of this, that it is neither possible for us ever to forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of such as shall be saved throughout the whole world (the blameless one for sinners), nor to worship any other. For Him indeed, as being the Son of God, we adore; but the martyrs, as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love on account of their extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master, of whom may we also be made companions and fellow-disciples! 1
But though the body of Polycarp was burned by the centurion, the Christians gathered his bones and commemorated the anniversary of his death (ch. 18):
The centurion then, seeing the strife excited by the Jews, placed the body in the midst of the fire, and consumed it. Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.
There you have a very early example of Christians marking their calendars to remember they are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses [martyrs].”
- Why the reference to “the Jews” stirring up the Romans against the Christians? Probably these references have been included because the Martyrdom of Polycarp is modeled on the Gospel of Matthew, and the authors wish to emphasize parallels to the death of Jesus. ↩