On Friday 21st January we celebrate the Feast of Saint Agnes of Rome, a virgin and martyr, held in esteem by the Church since her death circa 304. Her grave near the Via Nomentana was recognized soon after her death. She was young when she was martyred; St Ambrose stated that she was only twelve, and he testified about her death.
Born in Rome circa 291 A D, she came from a wealthy family and was a very beautiful girl. This meant she was highly regarded, and many young men sought her hand in marriage. However, Agnes had dedicated herself to Jesus. Whenever she received a proposal she would say in reply, “Jesus Christ is my only Spouse.”
According to legend, the young men she turned away became so frustrated and outraged by her devotion to God and purity, that they began to report her to the authorities for being a follower of Christ. In one incident, Procop, the Governor’s son, became very angry when she refused him. He tried to persuade her to take him as her husband with rich gifts and promises, but all Agnes would say was, “I am already promised to the Lord of the Universe. He is more splendid than the sun and the stars, and He has said He will never leave me!”
Agnes was arrested and dragged to one of the temples of Minerva. She was the Roman goddess of wisdom, medicine, commerce, handicrafts, poetry, the arts in general and later war. The young girl was ordered to offer her prayers and incense. Instead, brave little Agnes lifted her arms and prayed aloud to Jesus Christ.
So, her tormentors put cuffs on her, but these slipped off because her wrists were so small. They whipped her and dragged her through the streets saying they would stop if she denounced Jesus. Even the pagan onlookers wept at her plight and again a young man said he could save her if she married him. “I belong to my Saviour alone,” she answered. Eventually she was killed by the thrust of a sword through her throat.
‘He calls himself a lamb’
Through the resemblance of the word agnus to lamb, her principal iconographic emblem is a lamb, at least from the time of the mosaics at San Apolinare Nuove at Ravenna (6th century). She is seen always holding a lamb in her arms.
The sacrifice of lambs played a very important role in the Jewish religious life and sacrificial system. One of the most common images associated with Jesus’ sacrifice throughout Christian history, and specifically in John 1; 29, 36, and it seems certain that the evangelist is intending to portray Jesus, as the ultimate Passover Lamb. The Passover feast was one of the main Jewish holidays and a celebration in remembrance of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt.
The Jews at that time would also have been familiar with the Old Testament prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, who foretold the coming of One who would be brought “like a lamb led to the slaughter” and whose sufferings and sacrifice would provide redemption for Israel. That person was of course Jesus Christ, “the lamb of God.”
In the paintings and images of St Agnes the lamb nestles trustingly in her arms. They are both gentle and meek creatures. The meek are easily imposed upon. A lamb cannot escape the butcher’s knife; Agnes could not escape the Roman’s sword.
But in another context, we recall the Beatitude, Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. The meek forgo worldly power and submit to the power of God. In so doing they refuse to inflate their own egos and they are reticent in asserting power for themselves. They will inherit instead the perfect Kingdom that is coming to earth. They do not grow old in the ways of the world, but rather retain the innocence lambs and little children.
The Book of Revelation frequently used the image of the lion to refer to Jesus, even calling him the “Lion of the Tribe of Judah” and depicting him with the majesty and strength of the King of the Jungle. Jesus as the Lion conquered sin and death so that we could share in the glory of his eternal kingdom. The victory was made possible by his death on the cross in which he stepped in as the innocent lamb to be sacrificed for our sins, once and for all.
Therefore, in the Lion we discover the power of Christ as eternal King and in the lamb we find the grace of Jesus as an eternal saviour.
On the feast of St Agnes, the lambs are blessed which produce the wool from which the pallia for archbishops are woven.
Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of the Scholastic Philosophers and renowned Doctor of the Church never went anyway without a relic of little St Agnes.
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan