Editor's note: March 7 is the feast day of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity in the Roman Catholic Church.
When first married, my wife and I joined a PC(USA) church, partially out of our commitment to male-female equality. So at our new members’ class, when we were asked, in a darker-timeline version of a mixer, to try and name the apostles from memory, the table my wife and I were at came up with twenty apostles (not quite what the leader had in mind). The Twelve, plus Matthias, Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, Apollos, Andronicus, and of course — not to leave out my wife’s favorite — Junia. Another member of the church was nonplussed. They had never considered the concept of a female apostle. Nor were they ready to. We were shortly told that we were willfully misinterpreting Romans 16.
Now, I readily agree Paul is not obviously saying that Junia was an apostle. But my wife and I enjoy pushing these sorts of buttons. It's a bit of who we are as a couple. When we got married we swapped the usual 1 Corinthians 13 (“love is patient; love is kind”) with Galatians 5. The look on people’s face when Paul held forth on circumcision and castration was priceless. I call it holy confusion.
So you can understand why we thought long and hard about what to name our newborn daughter. Ultimately, we landed on the name Felicity.
People hear this and say, “Oh cute, like the TV show from the 90s!”
We respond with, “Actually she was a slave in the first century who was killed for her faith by a bull before a crowd of pagans.”
Most folks haven’t read the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, one of the earliest accounts of Christian martyrdom, and widely believed to be an authentic prison diary. Perpetua was respectably born and well educated enough to record the events leading up to her death. As the story opens, we see her in prison with her father as he pleads with her to recant her faith and live. He doesn’t want to see her die. He wants her to raise her infant son, perhaps have more children. He wants what any parent wants — for his children to flourish. But she, in response, points to a pitcher, and asks him if he sees the pitcher.
“I see it,” he says.
“Can it be called by any other name than that which it is?”
“Neither can I call myself anything other than what I am, a Christian.”
And her father, overcome with anger, leaves her. And he leaves her with a new, rather strange family. It includes slaves and people with strange names from various parts of the empire. She recognizes that the “flourishing” her father wants is not the flourishing she is being called to in Christ. The greater nobility is in laying aside her birthrights, her family, and her education to be counted with the poor in spirit, the truly blessed — like Felicity, a slave.
It is hard for us to picture what this is like. Paul wrote movingly of Christ’s stepping down into humanity, although a more recent image would be Arwen, from The Lord of the Rings, leaving Elvish immortality and incorruptibility to choose a mortal life with Aragorn. Perpetua is breaking social categories, incurring shame, and, we find out, her father is beaten by the provincial governor. She is embracing torture and death. The pitcher is the pitcher, and Perpetua has become a Christian.
Felicity, Perpetua’s new spiritual sister, is eight months pregnant and worried she will not be able to be martyred with the rest of them, since the Romans won’t kill her until she gives birth. She actually wants the martyrdom. So they hold a vigil and as they pray and cry out to God she gives birth in the cell. The little family of believers gives the child to a fellow member of the church to be raised as their daughter. Shortly after, the Romans throw them to the wild beasts as punishment for their faith. And as the story closes and the crowd calls for soldiers to come in and finish the job that the wild beasts left undone, the small group of Christians gathers in the center of the arena to pass the peace one last time.
They are finished by the sword, and the text ends with jubilance:
“O most valiant and blessed martyrs! O truly called and elected unto the glory of Our Lord Jesus Christ! Which glory he that magnifies, honors and adores, ought to read these witnesses likewise, as being no less than the old, unto the Church's edification; that these new wonders also may testify that one and the same Holy Spirit works ever until now, and with Him God the Father Almighty, and His Son Jesus Christ Our Lord, to Whom is glory and power unending for ever and ever. Amen.”
Where our world would see tragedy, we are told to read victory. Holy confusion.
When I was young, my father taught me that dulce et decorum est pro patria mori — "it is sweet and right to die for your country." It is a statement that is always true for a Christian, for our country is the Kingdom of Heaven.
So Felicity, my daughter, you will be tempted to deny Christ. And I know from watching my own good Christian parents, your Marmie and Bompa, that I will feel tempted to ask you to walk away from Christ, just a little, so that you can have this-worldly flourishing. But your mother and I named you as a constant reminder of otherworldliness. Hold fast to the faith, even against all else. Strength, joy, and happiness are found in Christ alone. It will look, often, like weakness, suffering, and sorrow. There will be people telling you to recant every step of the way. Ignore them.
Your mother and I pray that you embrace the faith, hope in the resurrection, and remember the greater danger of spiritual death over physical death. Be, like your namesake, a slave to Christ.