Perpetua, Baptism, and the Lenten Journey

A sermon at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, March 9, 2014

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. The most popular understanding of Lent is that it’s a season for self-improvement. A time to do all the drudgery of spiritual spring cleaning—maybe lose a little weight—so that we can really notice how happy we can be when Easter comes. But the origin of Lent isn’t that at all. Lent was the season of the final preparation of the catechumens (that is, the people who were preparing for baptism, much as we have an inquirers class going on at St. Mark’s now)—this was the final stage, of a very intense inquirers class.
The Gospel lessons from this year’s lectionary actually reflect this: we start with Jesus own baptism—where the tempter tries to distract his focus, and he responds “One does not live by bread, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”—in other words, he remained focused on the wisdom of God and the scriptures. Next Sunday is Nicodemus who learns about being born from above. The following Sunday is the Samaritan woman at the well who learns about living water from this stranger who deeply and mysteriously knows everything she has been hiding from herself, then the man who was born blind who receives his sight and can see the truth, and finally Lazarus who is restored to life. Lent is the new life of baptism, and together we walk the way to participation in Christ’s death and resurrection in baptism and re-affirmation of baptism at Easter, the feast of Christ’s resurrection.
We walk this way with the catechumens, those learning the essentials of the way of Christ—as, I guess, we all still are.

I would like to tell you about a catechumen who means a lot to me. She died one thousand eight hundred and eleven years ago last Friday. We know this, because there was a public entertainment in Carthage to celebrate the Emperor’s birthday in 303 and that entertainment included having Perpetua and her companions face wild beasts and gladiators in the arena. The birthday of such an important person as the emperor is a matter of public record: March 7. The Romans weren’t always persecuting the Christians in those days, but sometimes regional governors would decide that it was important to make an example of those who wouldn’t make the prescribed sacrifice of a bit of incense to the Emperor’s genius. So, early in 303, a number of young Christians were arrested. Perpetua was twenty-two years old, she was married—though we hear nothing about her husband—and she had a little baby, and like the rest of her companions, she was a catechumen, preparing for baptism.
The reason that Perpetua is so important to me is that I’ve done some work on the writings of early Christian women, and the central part of the little work that is entitled The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas was actually written by Perpetua. Her account of her experience during her imprisonment is the earliest Christian writing that is unambiguously in a woman’s own voice.
After an introduction by an editor, these are the first words she writes:

While we were still under arrest (she says) my father out of love for me was trying to persuade me and shake my resolution. “Father,” said I, “do you see this vase here, for example, or water-pot or whatever?” “Yes, I do,” said he. And I told him: “Could it be called by any other name that what it is?” And he said, “No.” “Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.” At this my father was so angered by the word “Christian” that he moved toward me as though he would pluck my eyes out. But he left it at that and departed, vanquished along with his diabolical arguments.

For something written over 1800 years ago, Perpetua’s writing about her relationship with her father seems pretty familiar. Her writing is unaffected, but passionate, and, at least to my ear, authentically expresses the experience of a young person from a world far away in time, place, and culture. The striking thing about Perpetua’s text is the calm confidence, and even joy, that she shares with her fellow Christians in prison. She writes: “Some days later, an adjutant named Pudens, who was in charge of the prison, began to show us great honour, realizing that we possessed some great power within us.” When she was anxious or concerned, it was for her baby’s well-being, or for the suffering of her deceased brother, who she saw in a dream. When she expressed sorrow, it was entirely for her father and other non-Christians who were distressed at her suffering and that of the others. These catechumens rejoiced not for suffering, but in being with Christ. Perpetua writes about several dreams or visions which she had in prison. This is the end of her account of one of her first visions:

“Then I saw an immense garden, and in it a grey-haired man sat in shepherd’s garb: tall he was and milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands of people clad in white garments. He raised his head, looked at me, and said: ‘I am glad you have come, my child. He called me over to him and gave me, as it were a mouthful of the milk he was drawing; and I took it into my cupped hands and consumed it. And all those who stood around said: ‘Amen!’

In North Africa, in the second and third Christian centuries, those who were baptized received, in addition to the bread and wine of communion, a cup of milk and honey. In this vision, Perpetua is describing heaven, the culmination of the spiritual journey, and she describes it in the terms of the baptismal liturgy. Interestingly, she interprets the vision as a message that she won’t be released or spared suffering in the arena. But for her, it is a message of life and hope, not death.

Lent is a season of life and hope. We travel along with these catechumens, those in Carthage and those here at St. Mark’s, we travel with Winnie, as she speaks a word of truth and hope on yet another side of the world. In that journey we receive life as a gift, not as something we earn by lifting ourselves by our bootstraps or resisting a piece of candy. With Jesus and with Perpetua we focus on the life that God gives us and we move on toward that new life of the resurrection.


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