5 February 2010 Memorial of St. Agatha
Sirach 47, 2-11; Psalm 18; Mark 6, 14-29
St. Agatha, the saint of the day, is familiar to many of us who listen to the words of the priest at mass. In the first form of the Eucharistic Prayer, she’s always mentioned together with six other women martyrs (Felicity, Perpetua, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia and Anastasia). She was born in Catania, Sicily and was martyred around the year 251.
There are many strange things about the cult of the saints. I remember a statue of Agatha in one of our religious processions: she was holding a platter with her breasts on it. Yes: exposed breasts! Sta. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, also had her breasts exposed with a baby (St. Augustine) suckling one of them. She’s the patron of mothers.
The scientific modern mind like myself (and probably you) will wince at the thought of all these. So, I might as well put everything on the table; and let you wince some more! In the olden days, she was the patron of bell-founders (because of the bell shape of the mammary glands!); and bakers (the prude unartistic people changed what was on her platter into bread loaves!). An eruption of Mt. Etna was attributed to her intercession, so she became the patron of fire. She’s also the patron of other careers as well like miners, Alpine guides and nurses (I don’t know why). However, the age of art restoration brought the glands back on the platter, and (yehey!) rightly so: Today, she is the patron of breast cancer patients.
At the root of all these is a sense of wonder and a tragic love story. She was a rich, beautiful and noble girl during the time of the Roman persecution. A young Roman prefect named, Quintianus, fell madly in love with her. Having vowed herself to Christ and Christ alone, Agatha declined his offer of marriage. She was then arrested and suffered severely many tortures which included the slicing of her breasts. Thus, in art, the breast on the platter, was a symbol of the extent of her love for Christ. This is the same way artists depict graphically the head of John the Baptist on the platter (the Gospel today) and yes, how they paint the gruesomeness of the cross. Today, we are filled with awe and wonder for the depth of her faith.
These are her words: “My courage and my thought be so firmly founded upon the firm stone of Jesus Christ, that for no pain it may not be changed; your words be but wind, your promises be but rain, and your menaces be as rivers that pass, and how well that all these things hurtle at the foundation of my courage, yet for that it shall not move.”
Are you willing to undergo such torture for Christ? Imagine graphically what you will undergo. Now we get the point of all the strangeness! Every attribute as that of fire, or bells, or bakers, or miners has a story. And I can guess that many breast cancer patients also have their stories to tell.
In addition, it is said that St. Peter cured the wounds on her breast. We can only wish and pray that just as St. Agatha’s wounds were cured, those who are sick will also find healing.
There is also this thing about this faith I love: a young martyr in the first century now speaks to the women of the 21st century!
*rightmost picture of St. Agatha in full body by Francisco de Zurbaran.