Author's Note: The following post originally appeared in Sacred Friendships: Celebrating the Legacy of Women Heroes of the Faith which tells the story of over fifty remarkable Christian women. For Part One of this two-part post, read Not Your Father’s Church History.
On the day of Perpetua’s final hearing before being martyred for her faith in 203 A.D., the guards rushed Perpetua to the prisoners’ platform. Her father appeared with her infant son, trying to guilt her by imploring her to, “Have pity on your son!” He caused such an uproar that the governor ordered him thrown out and he was beaten with a rod.
Perpetua writes of this horrible incident. “My father’s injury hurt me as much as if I myself had been beaten. And I grieved because of his pathetic old age.” Perpetua provides a classic portrait of biblical empathy. Her as if experience of her father’s pain is the essence of sustaining soul care — making the agony of others our very own.
Perpetua not only finds in Christ the strength to empathize with her father, she also summons Christ’s power to console and encourage her family and her fellow martyrs.
“In my anxiety for the infant I spoke to my mother about him, tried to console my brother and asked that they care for my son. I suffered intensely because I sensed their agony on my account. These were the trials I had to endure for many days.”
Incredibly, Perpetua’s greatest pain was her ache for others who hurt for her!
A few days passed after the hearing and before the battle in the arena commenced. During this interval, Perpetua witnessed to her persecutors and ministered to other detainees.
“Pudens, the official in charge of the prison (the official who had gradually come to admire us for our persistence), admitted many prisoners to our cell so that we might mutually encourage each other.”
Facing death, Perpetua shared words of life with all who would listen.
Felicitas (Perpetua’s friend and fellow prisoner) was in her eighth month of pregnancy. As the day of the contest approached, she became very distressed that her martyrdom might be delayed, since the law forbade the execution of a pregnant woman. An eyewitness to their eventual death shares his account of their journey together.
“Her friends in martyrdom were equally sad at the thought of abandoning such a good friend to travel alone on the same road to hope. And so, two days before the contest, united in grief they prayed to the Lord.” Immediately after their prayers, her labor pains began and Felicitas gave birth to a girl whom one of her sisters reared as her own.
This eyewitness records their witness for Christ to the very end.
“On the day before the public games, as they were eating the last meal commonly called the free meal, they tried as much as possible to make it instead an agape. In the same spirit they were exhorting the people, warning them to remember the judgment of God, asking them to be witnesses of the prisoners’ joy in suffering, and ridiculing the curiosity of the crowd. . . . Then they all left the prison amazed, and many of them began to believe.”
To the very end, Perpetua maintains her perpetual persistence.
“The day of their victory dawned, and with joyful countenances they marched from the prison to the arena as though on their way to heaven. If there was any trembling, it was from joy, not fear. Perpetua followed with a quick step as a true spouse of Christ, the darling of God, her brightly flashing eyes quelling the gaze of the crowd.”
As they were led through the gates, they were ordered to put on different clothes; the men, those of the priests of Saturn, the women, those of the priestesses of Ceres. Of Perpetua we are told:
“But that noble woman stubbornly resisted even to the end. She said, ‘We’ve come this far voluntarily in order to protect our rights, and we’ve pledged our lives not to recapitulate on any such matter as this. We made this agreement with you.’ Injustice bowed to justice and the guard conceded that they could enter the arena in their ordinary dress. Perpetua was singing victory psalms as if already crushing the head of the Egyptian.”
Here we witness not only Perpetua’s courageous example of persistence, but also her model of biblical confrontation. She provides riveting testimony to Christ’s power at work in the inner life of a Christian woman whose spirit could never be overpowered.
Why is Perpetua’s willingness to sacrifice all for God so seldom seen in modern Christianity?