Did you know that in the Early Church, Christians celebrated days on which saints were martyred as their birthdays? Not instead of–as. To their mind (and to ours, if we truly believe what we say we do), the day a Christian dies is the day they enter into the eternal life promised to them by God–a day to be celebrated! It’s a homecoming!
Today is one such day, the Feast of Saints Perpetua and Felicity. On March 7, sometime in the early 200’s, Perpetua, Felicity, and the rest of their church were martyred in Carthage (modern-day Tunisia). Their story is incredible, and Perpetua’s especially so. Her bravery and incredible courage (I mean, the woman guided the sword to her own throat because the gladiator was so nervous he was shaking…how much braver can you get?) were what inspired me to choose her as my patron saint on the day of my Confirmation.
I love how she stood up to her society, to her own family in the name of Christ.
I love how she led her church into the gladiator ring and gave them strength to endure.
I love how she maintained her dignity and modesty even in the midst of her passion.
And I love–as I just found out today–that she was 22 when she was killed, the same age I was when I took her name during my Confirmation. When the Bishop of Juneau anointed my forehead with oil and said “Be sealed, Perpetua”, I imagined an onlooking angel in Heaven calling, “Oy! Perpetua, come here! Look! Someone’s taking your name!” I imagined her walking over, curious and maybe even a little bashful, peering down at the scene. “That’s exciting”, she says, “We should celebrate!” and the great multitude of heaven did. Later that year, in the midst of an excruciating labor, I remember one of the few prayers I could muster being directed at Perpetua and her servant Felicity, who gave birth to her daughter in jail while the church awaited their executions. “Pray for me” I gasped between contractions, and I imagined Perpetua and Felicity running into the throne room of God, tripping over their robes as they came before God begging, “Please! Help her!” And He did.
Many people–and I once counted myself among this number–discount the Catholic church’s practice of venerating saints, saying that we are worshiping them. What I have come to learn is that there is a vital difference between veneration and worship; I honor Perpetua in the same way that I honor certain friends of mine, women of faith who I deeply respect and humbly ask for their prayers every so often. But I don’t worship her. On the contrary, her presence and example point me toward God like she is the needle of a compass and He is true North. “You think what I did was cool?” she says, extending a finger skyward, “It all came from Him, go and see.” She stands as a witness to God’s power and strength–not coincidentally, the original meaning of the word “martyr” means “witness”. See what linguists did there? The fact that Perpetua isn’t alive in a bodily sense shouldn’t make a difference, as we as Christians believe in eternal life and the Communion of the Saints (a doctrine mentioned even in the Apostles’ Creed, which is used in many Protestant churches). Asking Perpetua for her prayers to be added to mine is no different than asking my friend Katy, or my mom, or my favorite priest–I just can’t sit down and have a cup of coffee with her and talk with her about it later, and her prayers are better heard since she’s, you know, in Heaven with God.
All of this is to say: saints are cool. We should celebrate saint days. Whether you painstakingly researched your saint name or your parents chose it for you, take a minute today to look them up. If their life just isn’t that interesting to you, look up another one. Might I suggest Saint Bibiana, who is the patron saint to be invoked against hangovers? Or Saint Clare of Assisi, who had a really interesting friendship with Saint Francis? Or Saint Simeon Stylites, who spent years living on top of a column? Saints are our Christian family, and like any other family there are a few nuts and crazies thrown in there for some fun around the Thanksgiving table. Here are a few ways to celebrate your chosen saint’s feast day:
- Dress up!
- Take yourself or a few friends out for a meal
- Spend an hour at Adoration. If your chosen saint has any written works or biographies, read them during your Holy Hour.
- Buy some balloons, flowers, an ice cream cone–whatever it is that says “Celebration!” to you
- Go to daily Mass
- Find an icon of your saint and display it in your living area
- Put up some Christmas lights (in our house, we keep a strand up at all times to light on feast days)
- Pick a small indulgence–I’m a big fan of Nutella–and enjoy it throughout the day
- Post it on Facebook
- Make a mini-pilgrimage to a local shrine, cathedral, or retreat house…somewhere that you can meditate on how your saint shows you more about an aspect of God
Happy celebrating! And Happy Saint Day to me!