The Holy Martyr Agatha.
The holy Martyr Agatha, who was from Palermo, or perhaps Catania, in Sicily, was an exceedingly beautiful and chaste virgin. In the reign of the Emperor Decius, Quintian, the Governor of Sicily, a lascivious man completely given over to the passions, heard the report of her holiness and her wealth, and wished to attain worldly glory for himself by winning the heart of a virgin of more noble birth than himself, to satisfy his greed with her family wealth, and to satisfy his lust with her singular beauty. He had Saint Agatha seized and put in the custody of a woman named Aphrodisia, who with her daughters, who were as depraved as their mother, ceaselessly assailed the virgin’s virtue from all sides, day and night, with fabulous promises and frightful threats, even offering her precious stones, golden raiment, houses and land near her own village, the use of servants of all kinds, over the space of thirty days, without the least success. Aphrodisia returned to Quintain and told him that Agatha was immovable in her faith, saying that it would easier to soften stone than to change her spirit.
In fury, Quintian had Agatha brought before him and interrogated her. He asked her, if she were of such high birth, why she were debasing herself in the servile condition of a Christian. She answered that to be Christ’s servant was the highest nobility, whereas his nobility had brought him to such a base capitivity that not only did it make him the slave of sin, but even subjected him to the worship of stocks and stones. He asked her why she blasphemed and scorned the worship of the gods. “Call them not gods,” she said, “but demons. For these are demons, of whom you make images of bronze, and marble, and plaster.”
Quintian told her to choose between various torments with evil-doers, or to sacrifice to the gods, as their very divinity obliges us to recognize them as gods. Saint Agatha answered, “May your wife be like Venus, and you like Jupiter.”
When Quintian threatened her for speaking injuriously to her judge, she answered that he had just said that the divinity of his gods proved they were worthy of being worshipped: “Therefore may your wife be like Venus, and you like Jupiter, so that you also might be numbered with your gods.”
When he threatened her further, she marvelled that he was unable to perceive how foolish it was to consider them to be gods whom he considered it an insult to be given as examples to follow. She bade him confess them to be so vile, so degraded, that to curse someone, all one needed do was to wish that they were like the gods with their execrable way of life.
Quintian told her to sacrifice to the gods or he would kill her with many kinds of torture.
Agatha said, “If you give me over to wild beasts, when they hear the Name of Christ they will become tame; if you employ fire, Angels will minister to me with saving dew from Heaven; if you threaten me with switches and wounds, I have the Holy Spirit within me, in Whom I despise all your tortures.”
Quintian then commanded that she be cast into a dark dungeon, telling her to repent if she wanted to escape horrible tortures. She answered, “You repent, you servant of Satan, if you want to escape eternal torments.”
Quintian, being publicly put to shame, had her taken away, while Saint Agatha rejoiced in the dungeon as if it were a festival, and committed to her Lord the coming struggle.
The next day Agatha’s bold replies so enraged the Governor that he had her tortured, and then had her breast ripped to shreds then cut off, and sent her back to prison. As she was shut up in prison, around the middle of the night an old man, with a child going before him holding a light, came to her bringing various medications in his hand and said to her, “This insane Governor has inflicted many corporal punishments upon you, but with your responses to him you have subjected him to even graver torments.” He then told her he had been present when she was suffering the tortures, and that he saw that her wound could still be healed. When she steadfastly refused healing by medicines, he asked her why she did not want him to heal her.
“Because,” said Agatha, “I have my Saviour Jesus Christ, Who cures all things by His word; one word of His alone restores everything: He, if He will, can make me whole.”
Then the old man, smiling, said: “And He it was Himself that sends me to you: for I am His Apostle; know that in His Name you will be made whole.” And so saying, he disappeared.
Saint Theophanes the Branded refers to this in the second and third Troparia of the Seventh Ode of his Menaion Canon to Saint Agatha on February 5:
Seized with a violent madness, the adversary was terribly perplexed when he beheld thy restoration and thy breast made whole again; for thou, O Martyr, didst cry with joy to thy Bridegroom: Blessed art Thou, the God of our Fathers.
Christ’s disciple came in splendour to thee when thou wast in prison, O virgin and invincible Martyr of the Saviour; and he healed thy grievous wounds, which thou hadst suﬀered while exulting and saying: Blessed art Thou, the God of our Fathers.
February Menaion, pages 35–36
Saint Agatha prostrated herself in prayer and gave thanks to God for taking thought of her and sending His Apostle to her. When she rose from prayer and looked at the wounds on her body, she saw that all her wounds were healed, and her breast restored.
Four days later Quintian had Saint Agatha brought before him again, threatening her with torments even more cruel if she would not sacrifice to the gods.
Agatha answered, “All your words are foolish, vain, and iniquitous; your commands defile the very air. Wherefore you are miserable, without understanding and senseless. For who else would call a block of stone to his help, and not the Most High and true God, Who deemed me worthy to heal me of all the wounds that you inflicted on me, and has even restored my breast to its original wholeness?”
Quintian said, “And who is it that healed you?”
Agatha answered, “Christ, the Son of God.”
Quintian said, “Must you name Christ again?”
Agatha answered, “I confess Christ with my lips, and I never cease to call upon Him in my heart.”
Quintian said, “I will now see whether your Christ will heal you.”
He then commanded that sharp pot-sherds be strewn on the prison floor mingled with live coals, and that her naked body be rolled in them. No sooner had this begun than an earthquake shook all Catania, and the people, believing this to be caused by the injustice being done Agatha, ran to the judge’s tribunal. Quintian took flight and had Saint Agatha returned to her dungeon. Here, after making her prayer to her Lord, Saint Agatha gave up her spirit, at Catania, in the year 251.
At her burial, an Angel placed a stone tablet on her grave inscribed with the words, “A righteous mind, self-determining, honor from God, the deliverance of her fatherland.” The following year this was fulfilled when Mount Etna erupted, spewing forth violent fire from which Catania was manifestly saved by Saint Agatha’s prayers.
In the Hodoeporicon of Saint Willibald, recounting travels that he took between the years 721 and 728, it says of the Saint and his companions, “. . . then they departed and betook themselves to the island of Sicily, that is to say, to Catania, where the body of Saint Agatha, the virgin, rests. Mount Etna is there. Whenever the volcanic fire erupts there and begins to spread and threaten the whole region the people of the city take the body of Saint Agatha and place it in front of the oncoming flames and they stop immediately.” (The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany, tr. and ed. by C.H. Talbot, Sheed and Ward, 1954, p. 160.)
The holy Martyr Agatha, the protectress and chief patroness of Sicily, is, with perhaps the exception of Saint Agnes of Rome, the most highly venerated Virgin Martyr of the West. Saint Damasus, Pope of Rome, Saint Ambrose of Milan, Saint Isidore of Seville, and Saint Methodius, Patriarch of Constantinople, all wrote in praise of her.
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