Daily Reading for January 21 • Agnes, Martyr at Rome, 304
S. Agnes, when about thirteen years of age, was demanded in marriage by the son of Symphronius, the Prefect of Rome. But she was a Christian and vowed to celibacy, and therefore refused his offers. She was seized and commanded to burn incense to the gods, but resisted with holy firmness. Exposed to public infamy, she was preserved from pollution. At length the axe of the executioner put an end to her suffering. Her parents buried her body near the Via Nomentana, and visited her tomb in secret. One night they saw her in a dream appearing to them in glory with a spotless lamb by her side. It is thus she is always represented.
It is a winter’s day in Rome,—the sky is blue and bright,
And palaces and temples glow in that serener light;
Apollo of the Palatine from his lordly hill looks down,
And Jove that guards the Capitol,—the Eternal City’s crown;
And Syrian gold and Indian pearls attend on Roman pride,
And Ostia’s barks bring boundless wealth at each returning tide.
But there is concourse in the street, and rush toward the dome,
Where the great Prefect sits to wield the bloody sword of Rome;
And there amid the victors, and the faces, and the swords,
One Christian Virgin dareth still to own herself her Lord’s.
The Prefect’s son had loved her; but she would not be his bride,
For all her hope and all her heart was on the Crucified.
Now, Christian maidens, close your ears;—for compassed by her foes
Into the place of scorn and shame the blessed Agnes goes.
Shame on the recreant faith that deems Omnipotence so weak,
Shame on the tongue that dares unchecked such coward words to speak!
Nay, listen, Christian maidens, still!—By tyrant foes arraigned,
Christ’s Martyr may be tempted sore, but never can be stained.
The bloody axe has sent her home to sojourn with the blest,
And lovely Nomentana was the region of her rest;
And far and nigh they came to watch, and far and nigh to pray,
For precious in God’s sight they knew that tenement of clay.
A heathen band pursued them there;—and in the hallowed place,
A Catechumen only dared that heathen band to face.
The same rough path Saint Agnes’ feet so bravely learnt to tread
The ashes of Saint Agnes might pass with little dread.
Nor fear because the holy wave have never tinged thy brow:
He Who hath called, baptizes thee in holier manner now!
He to His land of rest and light shall bear thee hence away,
And give thee place with them that bore the burden of the day.
Once more, before her parents’ eyes, beside her tomb upcast,
Amid the Virgins’ lovely choir, the Virgin Martyr passed,
Transfigured and beatified in that celestial glow,
And at her right hand stood a lamb more white than whitest snow.
And, “Weep not for me,” said the form—“who evermore above
Dwell in their bright companionship whom here I learnt to love.”
O who could weep, bright Saint, for thee? Who would not rather pray,
That thy communion may be his in life and death alway,
That thou and all thy blessed peers, enthroned in heaven and light,
Would think on us who yet endure the labour and the fight?
So shall we find, whatever change God’s will shall bring to pass,
That a Martyr’s intercession is a triple wall of brass.
Poem in honor of S. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr, in Lyra Sanctorum by William John Deane (London: Joseph Masters, 1850).