Saturday, August 10, 2013
Why St. Lawrence is the Patron Saint of Comedians
So said St. Lawrence of Rome as he was being slowly roasted to death upon a gridiron for refusing to sacrifice to the gods of pagan Rome. St. Lawrence here exhibits a strange and dark sense of humor, one that seems almost unlike a saint at first. Here we have a man being painfully burnt to death, slaughtered over raging fires as he lies on metal bars, and he still manages to choke out amidst of the smoke and flames this last sarcastic swipe at the powers of mighty Rome.
Never have I ceased to be impressed by this story. We see similar instances of bravado in the lives of other martyrs, especially St. Polycarp, who proclaimed that the crowds waiting to watch him die in the arena were the real atheists and blasphemers1. But with St. Lawrence, there is something especially comedic about his words, despite the horrific circumstances. I can't even imagine how his persecutors must have balked at such words, nor how those sympathetic and crying onlookers must have cheered. To this day, these words have established St. Lawrence as the patron saint of comedians.
Of course, as is par for the course with the modern world, this event is now declared as never having happened - usually I assume this is because the event is interesting, and therefore it simply cannot be true. But as it is, the objection that most Christians in this time period were martyred by being beheaded; fine, let the skeptic hold to this, for what does it matter? Many are beheaded, but one is singled out. According to the early Christian poet Prudentius, we see the Emperor Valerian declaring "You say 'I am ready to die ; to the martyr death is an object of desire. "'You Christians have, we know, this vain persuasion. But I shall not grant your wish to be presented with a short way to your end in a quick death. I shall not let you die in a hurry. I shall hold on to your life and prolong it through slow, unceasing punishments ; a death which keeps you fast in its toils will drag out long-lasting pains. Lay the coals not too hot, so that the heat shall not be too fiery and seize on the stiff-necked fellow's face and get into the depths of his breast. Let its hot breath die down and languish so as to pour out with no strong gust but by degrees temper the torments and only scorch his body. It is well that of them all the head of their secret rites has fallen into our hands, for he by himself will furnish an example of what they next must fear. Get up on to the pyre they have laid for you, lie down on the bed you deserve ; and then, if you like, argue that my god of fire is nothing.'"2
Hear the words of Pope St. Leo the Great, who continues the description: "The baffled plunderer, therefore, frets, and blazing out into hatred of a religion, which had put riches to such a use, determines to pillage a still greater treasure by carrying off that sacred deposit, wherewith he was enriched, as he could find no solid hoard of money in his possession. He orders Laurentius to renounce Christ, and prepares to ply the deacon’s stout courage with frightful tortures: and, when the first elicit nothing, fiercer follow. His limbs, torn and mangled by many cutting blows, are commanded to be broiled upon the fire in an iron framework, which was of itself already hot enough to burn him, and on which his limbs were turned from time to time, to make the torment fiercer, and the death more lingering."3
Despite these witnesses, among others, we have modern works on the saints declaring that the martyrdom thus described is "quite unhistorical, as the contemporary instrument of capital punishment was the sword."4 In reading this, I chuckle to myself a little - as if the wild persecutions of Christians were so proper and by the book that no execution ever strayed from the prescribed method of execution.
In greater numbers, books are being released that attempt to make the case that the Christians never really suffered the intense and widespread martyrdom that they claim to have. But even in our own age, we mustn't ignore the fact that Christians are being daily subject to torture and martyrdom just as the early Christians were. In Egypt and Syria especially, Christians are being martyred daily for the sake of Christ by radical Islamists, and yet the secularized world of the West seems to mount barely more than a collective shrug when it comes to this.
As Thomas Carlyle once quipped, "If Jesus Christ were to come today, people would not even crucify him. They would ask him to dinner, and hear what he had to say, and make fun of it."5 This is precisely the attitude we see in modern secular society's views towards Christianity - now, we hear that Christ never existed, and that the martyrs of the early Church never were, or were put to death in isolated cases. Two thousand years on, I suppose this is easy for someone to say.
1 - cf. The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, IX
2 - Crowns of Martyrdom, II, "A Hymn in Honour of the Passion of the Most Blessed Martyr Lawrence."
3 - "On the Feast of St. Laurence the Martyr"
4 - David Farmer, Oxford Dictionary of Saints
5 - qtd. in D.A. Wilson, Carlyle at his Zenith