The drought had brought disaster throughout the countryside of Smyrna – a port on the Aegean sea in Asia Minor which is now Izmir in Turkey. The crops had failed, animals were dying, and disease was spreading due to the lack of clean water. The community would not be able to endure much longer. The bishop, and his young priest, Pangratios, exhorted a three day-period of prayers and fasting to be observed by all Christians. Pangratios, and as many as could manage, fasted the entire period. Finally on the third day, the clouds began to appear in the heavens; that afternoon, the rains came and refreshed the parched land.
Everyone rejoiced, and it soon became known throughout the land that God had ended the drought in answer to the fasting and prayers of Father Pangratios and the faithful Christians. Soon Pangratios was being called by a new name: Polycarp – which means “many fruits.”
Polycarp was born in 70 A D to a Christian family who received its faith from the very apostles of Lord Jesus. In these apostolic times, the young Church lived and was strengthened by visits of the apostles and their disciples They had already warned of difficult times in their epistles, calling the Christians too that “you say also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed ” (1 Peter vs 13).
Polycarp was chosen by the bishop as his personal secretary; and later, when he was forty years old became the bishop of Smyrna. There, he remained for 86 years of his life, faithfully serving the Church.
The year Polycarp was martyred, there was a civil celebration in Smyrna, and games were being held at the local amphitheater. A well-known Christian boy named Aereanicus had been killed, preferring to fight the beasts rather than to follow pagan practices, the alternative given to him. When he had been slain by the animals, the Christians were accused of having brain washed him into doing such a foolish thing as prefer death to a “simple sacrifice”. The mob began shouting; “Bring us Polycarp!”
The rest of the story is told in a letter which was soon afterward written by the Christians at Smyrna to the Christians at Philomenius. This letter has come to be called the Acts of the Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp.
When Polycarp heard of these events, he was not disturbed, and desired to remain in the city. But the faithful were able to convince him to withdraw to a farm nearby with a few friends. Polycarp prayed night and day, for all men and for the churches throughout the world. One night while he was praying, Polycarp had a vision, seeing his pillow blazing with flames. He came to his friends and said, “I must be burned Alive.”
Now, the soldiers who were searching for him arrived at Polycarp’s own house, and when they could not find him, they seized two young servant boys. One broke down under their torture and betrayed where the bishop had gone. And late in the evening of that Friday, they rode to the farm. They took the servant boy with them and found Polycarp in bed in the upper room of the small cottage. When he heard of their arrival he went downstairs and talked with them. Polycarp knew why they had come and greeted them. The soldiers became upset that there had been such an uproar and eagerness to arrest such an old man. Polycarp ordered a meal for the band of captors, and asked them to give him an hour or so in order that he might pray. This was granted. The soldiers were astonished to see the bishop pray intently for two hours, remembering the names and the needs of so many of his flock.
When he had finished praying, Bishop Polycarp was put on a mule to ride back to the city, where he was to appear before the officials. While they were heading down the road, a carriage came to meet them and escort them the rest of the way. In the carriage were Herod, the captain of the police, and his father, Nicetes. They were interested in speaking to the venerable old man, and asked him to join them in their vehicle, which he did. “What is wrong about saying, ‘Caesar is the lord of the world?'” asked the captain. “All you have to do is sprinkle a little incense in front of the emperor’s statue, and you’ll save your life.” At first Polycarp didn’t answer, but because the two men were so insistent with him, he finally replied, “I will not do what you advise, for to do so would be to deny the true Lord of all”, so they began to insult him and threaten him, but to no avail seeing that they were getting nowhere, they shoved him out of the carriage. As he fell, Polycarp’s leg was bruised, but he continued to walk on at a brisk pace, as if he had not been hurt.
Acts of Martyrdom
The stadium was already filled with people, shouting so loudly that it was impossible for anyone to speak and be heard above the noise. But Polycarp heard a voice from heaven, saying, “Be strong, Polycarp, for I am with you “. The bishop was brought before the proconsul, Statius Quadratus, who asked “Are you Polycarp, the leader of the Christians in this city?” “Yes,” replied the bishop. “Then have pity on yourself, an old man, and swear by the genius of Caesar ” (To swear that the emperor possessed the “genius” of God was considered blasphemy ). “Change your mind and say, ‘Away with the godless. ” Quadratus was referring to the Christians as the godless ones, but Polycarp turned and waved his hand in the direction of the mob in the stadium and proclaimed, “Away with the Godless!” Polycarp was referring to the pagans and the Jews, not the Christians among them.
The proconsul continued to try to persuade Polycarp. “Swear, and I will release you! Curse Christ! But the old bishop replied, “For eighty-six years I have served Jesus Christ, and he has never done me wrong. How can you expect me to betray and blaspheme my King who has saved me?” Quadratus answered, “I have wild beasts If you don’t change your mind, I will have you thrown to them “. “Then bid them to be brought,” said Polycarp.
The proconsul tried again. “I’ll have you destroyed by fire if you care not about the animals”. “Then bring on that fire, which only burns for a short time and then goes out,” replied the bishop. “Apparently,” he continued, ‘You are ignorant of the everlasting fire of judgment and punishment which awaits the wicked. Why do you delay? I am ready to die for Jesus Christ “.
Quadratus finally relented and sent his herald into the middle of the arena to proclaim three times “Polycarp has confessed himself to be a Christian”. Within moments, the mob brought wood to make the fire. The bishop removed his outer garment and shoes and was led to the mound of wood. The guards attempted to tie him to a stake, but Polycarp said, “Leave me as I am, for God will give me the strength to withstand your torments so the soldiers bound him with his hands behind his back. Then Polycarp prayed to God: ” … I bless You, because You have seen fit to allow me this hour to share with the martyrs in the cup of Christ, to rise to eternal life, both in soul and in body, in the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be accepted among them in your sight today, as a pleasing sacrifice. For this, I praise You, I bless You, and I glorify You … “.
Now the fire was lit and a great flame burst over the whole fire, completely covering the bishop’s body. For some time, the flames failed to burn his flesh; finally, an executioner was sent to stab him with a dagger. Once dead, Polycarp’s body was consumed by the flames and reduced to ashes. The Christians who were present collected what remained of his bones and lovingly laid them to rest in a fitting place, where they assembled yearly to rejoice in his memory.
Thus, in 155 A D the beloved Pastor and teacher of the Christian community in Smyrna had gone to join the triumphant Church in Paradise.
May his blessing and prayers be with us. Amen.