On the Birthday of the Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity
1. This day, coming round year after year, is a reminder to us, and after a certain fashion represents for us the day on which God’s holy servants, Perpetua and Felicity, adorned with the garlands of martyrdom, burst into bloom in perpetual felicity, holding onto the name of Christ in the war, and at the same time also finding their own names in the reward. We heard of the encouragement they received in divine revelations, and of their triumph in their sufferings, as it was all being read; and all those things, recounted in such glowing words, we perceived with our ears, and actually saw with our minds; we honored them with our devotion, and praised them with love.
However, a solemn annual sermon is also owed by me at a celebration of such universal devotion. If what I can offer is quite unequal to the merits of these saints, I can still contribute my own enthusiastic feelings to the joy of this great feast. What, after all, could be more glorious than these women, whom men can more easily admire than imitate? But this redounds supremely to the praise of him in whom they believed, and in whose name they ran the race together with faithful zeal, so that according to the inner self they are found to be neither male nor female; so that even as regards the femininity of the body, the sex of the flesh is concealed by the virtue of the mind, and one is reluctant to think about a condition in their members that never showed in their deeds.
So the dragon was trampled on by the blessed Perpetua’s chaste foot and victorious tread, when the ladder by which she would go to God was set up and revealed. Thus the head of the ancient serpent, which had been the ruin of woman as she fell, was made into a step for woman as she ascended.
Our delight in the spectacle of martyrdom is very different from the delight of the actual spectators
2. What could be more lovely than this spectacle? What more gallant than this contest? What more glorious than this victory? At that time, when the holy bodies of the martyrs were exposed to the wild beasts, the nations were roaring throughout the amphitheater, and peoples meditating vain things. But the one who dwells in the heavens was laughing at them, and the Lord was mocking them. (Psalm 2:1-4). Now, however, at this time, the descendants of those whose voices were impiously raging against the flesh of the martyrs are raising their voices in pious praise of the martyrs’ merits.
Nor at that time was the theater of cruelty filled with as great a throng of people to see them killed, as the one that now at this time fills the church of family piety to do them honor. Every year loving-kindness watches in a religious service what ungodliness committed on one day in an act of sacrilege. They too watched, but with a vastly different intention and attitude. They achieved by their shouts what the wild beasts did not complete with their bites. We, on the other hand, both deplore what was done by the godless, and venerate what was suffered by the godly. They saw with the eyes of flesh sights with which to glut the monstrous inhumanity of their hearts; we behold with the eyes of the heart sights which they were not permitted to see. They rejoiced over the martyrs’ dead bodies, we grieve over their own dead minds. They, lacking the light of faith, thought the martyrs liquidated; we, with the clear sight of faith, perceive them crowned. Finally, their shouts of abuse and mockery have been turned into our shouts of admiration and joy. And these indeed are religious and everlasting; while those were impious then, and are of course non-existent now.
If this life, which the martyrs gave up, is so sweet, what must that life be like, for which they exchanged it?