The Feast of Perpetua & Felicitas: March 7
a blog post from Melody Schwarting, Children’s Sunday School Coordinator
In Lent, we remember our bodies are a place where we can encounter the Lord. We see differently, with a new crucifix and different colors around the nave. We hear differently, with more silence in worship and a crotalus (the wooden knocker) instead of bells. We taste differently, with a wafer instead of bread. We feel differently, taking communion from handmade earthen vessels and ash on our foreheads. Our bodies, dust though they are, are not too humble for the Lord to love. One ancient text from the church demonstrates this with special power.
Remember that you are dust.
At our Ash Wednesday service, we heard a reading from Joel: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days I will pour out my spirit” (Joel 2:28-29). Peter quoted it in his sermon in Acts 2, and so did the editor of the first text written by a Christian woman.
Diary of a noblewoman
The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas is a diary, with additions by an editor, telling the story of a martyrdom in 203 ACE. Vibia Perpetua, the diarist, was a young noblewoman in Carthage, which was in the Roman Empire in North Africa (modern-day Tunisia). Perpetua was well-educated and well-married, but her choice to confess the Christian faith caused conflict in her family. We don’t know who turned in Perpetua and her fellow catechumens, but it may have been someone close to her, like her father. He persisted in thinking he could persuade Perpetua out of her faith, but for her, being a Christian was an identity. When her father “kept trying to dislodge [her] from [her] beliefs,” Perpetua pointed to a small pitcher, asking him, “Is it able to be called by any other name other than what it is?” Her father, seeing her logic, answered “No.” She said, “I too cannot call myself by any other name other than what I am, a Christian.”
Endurance of the flesh
Soon after this, Perpetua and her companions, all fellow catechumens, were baptized so they could receive the Eucharist before they were moved from house arrest to prison. Perpetua wrote, “the Holy Spirit told me to seek nothing else from the water of baptism except the endurance of the flesh.” Many martyrs pray for endurance in physical torment, but Perpetua’s concern was of a different nature. She was breastfeeding her son, and the separation from him required by prison and impending martyrdom put her at risk of mastitis, and her son at risk from abrupt weaning.
A vision of sustenance
Perpetua prayed for a vision to sustain her. In her dream, she bested a snake and entered a garden, where a shepherd fed her fresh, soft cheese. From this vision, she knew she would soon leave this world, but also that she and her son would be sustained by heavenly food. She wrote, “And as God willed it, he [my son] did not wish to nurse anymore, and my breasts did not become inflamed, and I was not tormented by breast pain or by concern for my child.” Perpetua’s mother and brother (whether biological or in Christ) took care of her son. She received several more visions while in prison that sustained her and her companions with hope that the Lord would be present with them in the gladiators’ arena.
Felicitas, one of Perpetua’s companions, was a slave from another household. As Joel prophesied, the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the flesh of an enslaved woman. She was eight months pregnant when captured. Even Rome’s bloodlust for gladiator games had its limits, and Romans did not send pregnant women into the arena. Felicitas did not want to be martyred apart from her companions, because she would have been executed alongside common criminals, and her companions could not bear for her to suffer alone in prison. Together, they “poured out abundant prayer to God, with a continuous cry in unison.”
Once again, the Holy Spirit provided supernatural obstetric intervention. Felicitas went into labor and was safely delivered of a girl, who was raised by her sister as her own daughter. The prison guards taunted Felicitas, asking how she could endure in the arena if she was in that much pain from childbirth. Felicitas answered, “At this moment, I suffer what I suffer; in [the arena], however, there will be another who suffers on behalf of me, since now I am going to suffer on His behalf.”
As Perpetua’s words ended, the editor picked up the story on the morning of their martyrdom, “the day of their victory.” Perpetua walked into the arena “with a luminous face and calm step as the bride of Christ, as the beloved of God, casting down the gaze of all by the strength of her eyes.” Felicitas “was passing from blood to blood, from the midwife to the net-carrying gladiator, as she was about to be washed after childbirth in a second baptism.” Felicitas was leaking milk in the arena, suffering more than the vicious trials planned. Perpetua, Felicitas, and their companions faced a bear, a wild boar, a leopard, and a savage cow. Those who survived the animals gathered together in the arena, kissing one another as during the Passing of the Peace. Half-dead, covered in blood, they were finally executed by the sword.
Perpetua and Felicitas stand out among women martyrs for being mothers. Virgin martyrs like Lucia of Syracuse and Agnes of Rome were often chosen in art and remembrance to represent martyrdom, because their virginity was yet another imitation of Christ. Yet, Perpetua and Felicitas remind us of another powerful aspect of the way we relate to God, through our bodies, even pregnancy and nursing.
Jesus was the first to compare salvation to rebirth when he spoke with Nicodemus in John 3. Jewish circumcision was limited to males, but baptism is a universal image of birth. The Eucharist, our spiritual food, was often connected to breast milk in the early church, especially by Gregory of Nyssa (the ancients believed breast milk came from blood). The Passion connects the images of baptism and Eucharist with the physical experiences of birth and nursing as expressed in martyrdom.
Throughout history, women’s bodies have been called malformed (the Greeks), disgusting (the Victorians), objects to be owned and exploited by men (all of time) and worse. Even in our day, the daily experiences of living in a woman’s body are not to be discussed in polite company. The Passion presents us with a counter-cultural alternative. In the Passion, God calls pregnant and breastfeeding women “beloved.” The Holy Spirit is sent to them as midwife, and Jesus Christ is imaged in the bodies of postpartum women. The Triune God, sovereign over all, sets apart women as holy vessels for his own purpose.
Our bodies, beloved of God
This Lent, as our penitence makes room for Jesus’ life-changing power, let us consider our bodies as beloved of God. Lent is not about ascetically denying our physical selves. It is about accepting our mortality and welcoming the Holy Spirit into our bodies as his own temple. In temporary or chronic pain, in aging and loss of function, in suffering and ecstasy, in health and illness, God makes his power manifest in our bodies. Nothing is too disgusting, shameful, or frightening for him.
Like Perpetua, we can expect God to meet us in our deepest physical needs. Like Felicitas, we can remember that “another has suffered on my behalf,” that Jesus experienced embodiment too, and he has redeemed our bodies. We are made in the image of God. His Son came to us as a human. The Holy Spirit is poured out “on all flesh.” The whole Trinity participates in our embodiment, reminding us of the resurrection, when our physical bodies will be glorified like Jesus’ resurrected body. With Job we can proclaim, “in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:26).
For Further Reading
The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity. This is a short text, well worth reading for its theological and historical importance and the many details not included here.
Perpetua’s Journey: Faith, Gender, and Power in the Roman Empire, by Jennifer A. Rea and Liz Clarke (illustrator). A graphic novel version of the Passion, including the full text and historical context. This translation is the one quoted here.
Scripture quotations are from the NRSVue.