All Hallows’ Eve

I wanted to write something just a little different, this week. About a week ago, I was curious about some of the “original” aspects of the Church’s observation of “All Hallows’ Eve”. As I expected, there are a wide range of theories of the holiday’s origin, with some evidence that the holy day truly originated from a ordained Catholic holy day dating back to 615 AD, meant to honor the lives of martyrs and to celebrate the lives of loved ones and family members who had gone on to Paradise. On the other side, some scholars believe it stems from an ancient Celtic festival.

There is a whole laundry list of traditions, some superstitious and others outright pagan. I was most interested, however, in that first thing I researched. All Hallows’ Eve, officially marked at November 1 by Pope Boniface IV, began with the purpose to remember and celebrate those who have finished their race — specifically those who faced the honor of martyrdom. I wanted to share little bit about one of those people, whose story was deeply inspiring to read.

I spent a few hours looking up names of Christians who faced persecution and martyr at the hands of evil and ruthless humanity. I could talk about the majority of the Twelve — tradition holds that almost every one faced a brutal death with nobility and bravery. I could talk about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died among the Jews he valiantly protected in a Nazi death camp. I could talk about the believers in Sri Lanka who lost their lives in a bombing on Easter Sunday last year. Each of those cases is worth remembering and thinking about — how can we emulate that courageous faith?

Instead, I was drawn to the story of Vivia Perpetua. She, her brother, and others, were martyred in an arena at Carthage, about 202 AD. There is a record of her journal that I absolutely recommend you read. She was arrested and put on “trial” — she could go free, go back to her aged and desperate father and newborn son, without facing the rage of wild beasts in an arena surrounded by bloodthirsty people. She would simply have to make an offering for the Emperor. She and her brother refused.

On the nights before she faced death, Perpetua had visions. In one of these, she saw a friend and a leader in her church community, one who had been martyred. In this dream, she sees a ladder leading up to the heavens. Her old friend quietly encourages her, telling her that he is waiting for her, and that she should not give in to the dragon. She climbs this ladder to find a garden that is beautiful and plentiful beyond words, and a white-haired Man dressed like a shepherd, milking sheep. (This is the point where I got a little choked up, I won’t lie).

This Man turned to face her, and, in her own words: “And he raised his head, and looked upon me, and said to me, ‘Thou art welcome, daughter.’”

She woke from this dream, having tasted eternity, and knew in an instant that she would be going home, very soon.

The whole journal is a beautiful read, and Perpetua had two other visions, including one where she stands before the Throne Room John sees in the Book of Revelation, with the countless multitude and the twenty-four elders on either side of the throne. Besides these visions, Perpetua’s infant son is blessed with a divine peace, even as he sleeps with her in her cold and dark prison room (the journal records that her son remains with her father, the day before she is sentenced to death). She and her brother are in constant prayer, in lock-step, even sharing dreams.

When the moment comes, friends of hers carry on what is recorded in her journal. She covers herself with her tunic when she is thrown to the beasts, more concerned with her modesty than her own mortality. She is with a young slave girl, Felicitas, who had only recently given birth, and lifts her to her feet, totally unaware of the mad, demonic howling of the crowd. When a young gladiator goes to finish what the beasts started, she guides his shaking hand to her throat. She is fearless and full of purity, nobility, and love, even facing the wrath of starved animals and the Roman Empire.

The final entry of her journal reads this way:

Possibly such a woman could not have been slain unless she herself had willed it, because she was feared by the impure spirit.

O most brave and blessed martyrs! O truly called and chosen unto the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ! whom whoever magnifies, and honours, and adores, assuredly ought to read these examples for the edification of the Church, not less than the ancient ones, so that new virtues also may testify that one and the same Holy Spirit is always operating even until now, and God the Father Omnipotent, and His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, whose is the glory and infinite power for ever and ever. Amen.

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