Saint Lawrence, Deacon and Martyr
“Once the mother of false gods, but now the bride of Christ, O Rome, it is through Laurence thou art victorious! Thou hadst conquered haughty monarchs and subjected nations to thine empire; but though thou hadst overcome barbarism, thy glory was incomplete till thou hadst vanquished the unclean idols. This was Laurence’s victory, a combat bloody yet not tumultuous like those of Camillus or of Caesar; it was the contest of faith, wherein self is immolated, and death is overcome by death. What words, what praises suffice to celebrate such a death? How can I worthily sing so great a, martyrdom (Prudent. Peristephanon, Hymn ii).”
Thus opens the sublime poem of Prudentius, composed little more than a century after the Saint’s martyrdom. In this work the poet has preserved to us the traditions existing in his own day, whereby the name of the Roman deacon was rendered so illustrious. About the same time St. Ambrose, with his irresistible eloquence, described the meeting of Sixtus and his deacon on the way to martyrdom (Amber. De offic. i. 41). But, before both Ambrose and Prudentius, Pope St. Damasus chronicled the victory of Laurence’s faith, in his majestic monumental inscriptions, which have such a ring of the days of triumph (De Rossi, Inscript.ii. 82).
Rome was lavish in her demonstrations of honour towards the champion who had prayed for her deliverance, upon his red-hot gridiron. She inserted his name in the Canon of the Mass, and moreover celebrated the anniversary of his birth to heaven with as much solemnity as those of the glorious Apostles her founders, and with the same privileges of a Vigil and an Octave. She has been dyed with the blood of many other witnesses of Christ, yet, as though Laurence had a special claim upon her gratitude, every spot connected with him has been honoured with a Church. Amongst all these sanctuaries dedicated to him, the one which contains the martyr’s body ranks next after the churches of St. John Lateran, St. Mary’s on the Esquiline, St. Peter’s on the Vatican, and St. Paul’s on the Ostian Way. St. Laurence outside the Walls completes the number of the five great basilicas, that form the appanage and exclusive possession of the Roman Pontiff. They represent the patriarchates of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, which divide the world between them, and express the universal and immediate jurisdiction of the Bishops of Rome over all the churches. Thus through Laurence the eternal City is completed, and is shown to be the centre of the world and the source of every grace.
Just as Peter and Paul are the riches, not of Rome alone, but of the whole world, so Laurence is called the honour of the world, for he, as it were, personified the courage of martyrdom. At the beginning of this month, we saw Stephen himself come to blend his dignity of Protomartyr with the glory of Sixtus II’s deacon, by sharing his tomb. In Laurence, it seemed that both the struggle and the victory of martyrdom reached their highest point; persecution, it is true, was renewed during the next half century, and made many victims, yet his triumph was considered as the death-blow to paganism.
“The devil,” says Prudentius, “struggled fiercely” with God’s witness, but he was himself wounded and prostrated forever. The death of Christ’s martyr gave the death-blow to the worship of idols, and from that day Vesta was powerless to prevent her temple from being deserted. All these Roman citizens, brought up in the superstitions taught by Numa, hasten, O Christ, to thy courts, singing hymns to Thy martyr. Illustrious senators, flamens and priests of Lupercus, venerate the tombs of Apostles and Saints. We see patricians and matrons of the noblest families vowing to God the children in whom their hopes are centered. The Pontiff of the idols, whose brow but yesterday was bound with sacred fillet, now signs himself with the cross, and the Vestal Virgin Claudia visits thy sanctuary, O Laurence (Prudent).”
It need not surprise us, that this day’s solemnity carries its triumphant joy from the city of the seven hills to the entire universe. “As it is impossible for Rome to be concealed,” says St. Augustine, “so it is equally impossible to hide Laurence’s crown.” Everywhere, in both East and West, churches were built in his honour; and in return, as the Bishop of Hippo testifies, “the favours he conferred were innumerable, and prove the greatness of his power with God; who has ever prayed to him and has not been graciously heard (Aug. Serm. 303 and 302)?”
Let us then conclude with St. Maximus of Turin that, in the devotion wherewith the triumph of St. Laurence is being celebrated throughout the entire world, we must recognize that it is both holy and pleasing to God to honour, with all the fervour of our souls, the birth to heaven of the martyr, who “by his radiant flames has spread the glory of his victory over the whole Church. Because of the spotless purity of soul which made him a true Levite, and because of that fullness of faith which earned him the martyr’s palm, it is fitting that we should honour him almost equally with the Apostles (Maxim Taurin. Homil. 75 and 74).”
The August sun has set behind the Vatican, and the life and animation, which his burning heat had stilled for a time, begins once more upon the seven hills. Laurence was taken down from the rack about mid-day. In his prison, however, he took no rest, but wounded and bleeding as he was, he baptized the converts won to Christ by the sight of his courageous suffering. He confirmed their faith, and fired their souls with a martyr’s intrepidity. When the evening hour summoned Rome to its pleasures, the prefect re-called the executioners to their work; for a few hours’ rest had sufficiently restored their energy to enable them to satisfy his cruelty.
Surrounded by this ill-favoured company, the prefect thus addressed the valiant deacon: “Sacrifice to the gods, or else the whole night long shall be witness of your torments.” “My night has no darkness,” answered Laurence, “and all things are full of light to me.” They struck him on the mouth with stones, but he smiled and said: “I give Thee thanks, O Christ.”
Then an iron bed or gridiron with three bars was brought in and the Saint was stripped of his garments and extended upon it while burning coals were placed beneath it. As they were holding him down with iron forks, Laurence said: “I offer myself as a sacrifice to God for an odour of sweetness.” The executioners continually stirred up the fire and brought fresh coals, while they still held him down with their forks. Then the Saint said: “Learn, unhappy man, how great is the power of my God; for your burning coals give me refreshment, but they will be your eternal punishment. I call thee, O Lord, to witness: when I was accused, I did not deny thee; when I was questioned, I confessed thee, O Christ; on the red-hot coals I gave thee thanks.” And with his countenance radiant with heavenly beauty, he continued: “Yea, I give thee thanks, O Lord Jesus Christ, for that thou hast deigned to strengthen me.” He then raised his eyes to his judge, and said: “See, this side is well roasted; turn me on the other and eat.” Then continuing his canticle of praise to God: “I give thee thanks, O Lord, that I have merited to enter into thy dwelling-place (Adon. Martyrol).”
As he was on the point of death, he remembered the Church. The thought of the eternal Rome gave him fresh strength, and he breathed forth this ecstatic prayer: “O Christ, only God, O Splendour, O Power of the Father, O Maker of heaven and earth and builder of this city’s walls! Thou hast placed Rome’s sceptre high over all; thou hast willed to subject the world to it, in order to unite under one law the nations which differ in manners, customs, language, genius, and sacrifice. Behold the whole human race has submitted to its empire, and all discord and dissensions disappear in its unity. Remember thy purpose: thou didst will to bind the immense universe together into one Christian Kingdom. O Christ, for the sake of thy Romans, make this city Christian; for to it thou gavest the charge of leading all the rest to sacred unity. All its members in every place are united, a very type of thy Kingdom; the conquered universe has bowed before it. Oh! may its royal head be bowed in turn! Send thy Gabriel and bid him heal the blindness of the sons of Julus that they may know the true God. I see a prince who is to come, an Emperor who is a servant of God. He will not suffer Rome to remain a slave; he will close the temples and fasten them with bolts forever.”
Thus he prayed, and with these last words he breathed forth his soul. Some noble Romans who had been conquered to Christ by the martyr’s admirable boldness, removed his body: the love of the Most High God had suddenly filled their hearts and dispelled their former errors. From that day the worship of the infamous gods grew cold; few people went now to the temples, but hastened to the altars of Christ. Thus Laurence, going unarmed to the battle, had wounded the enemy with his own sword (Prudent).
The Church, which is always grateful in proportion to the service rendered her, could not forget this glorious night. At the period when her children’s piety vied with her own, she used to summon them together at sunset on the evening of the 9th August for a first Night-Office. At midnight the second Matins began, followed by the first Mass called of the night or of the early morning (De nocte, in primo mane: Sacramentar. Greg. apud H. Menard).” Thus the Christians watched around the holy deacon during the hours of his glorious combat. “O God, thou hast proved my heart, and visited it by night, thou hast tried me by fire, and iniquity hath not been found in me. Hear, O Lord, my justice; attend to my supplication (Introit, wx Ps. xvi.: Antiphona apud Tommasi).” Such is the grand Introit which immediately after the night Vigils, hallowed the dawn of the 10th August, at the very moment when Laurence entered the eternal sanctuary to fulfil his office at the heavenly altar.
Later on certain churches observed on this feast a custom similar to one in use at the Matins of the commemoration of St. Paul; it consisted in reciting a particular Versicle before repeating each Antiphon of the Nocturns. The Doctors of the sacred Liturgy tell us that the remarkable labours of the Doctor of the Gentiles and those of St. Laurence earned for them this distinction (Beleth. cxlv.; Sicard. IX., xxxix.; Durand. VII., xxiii. Pent. IV).
Our forefathers were greatly struck by the contrast between the endurance of the holy deacon under his cruel tortures and his tender-hearted, tearful parting with Sixtus II., three days before. On this account, they gave to the periodical showers of “falling stars,” which occur about the 10th August, the graceful name of St. Laurence’s tears: a touching instance of that popular piety which delights in raising the heart to God through the medium of natural phenomena.
Hymn: Deus, tuorum militum
O God, of those that fought Thy fight,
Portion, and prize, and crown of light,
Break every bond of sin and shame
As now we praise Thy Martyr’s name.
He recked not of the world’s allure,
But sin and pomp of sin forswore:
Knew all their gall, and passed them by,
And reached the throne prepared on high.
Bravely the course of pain he ran,
And bare his torments as a man:
For love of Thee his blood outpoured,
And thus obtained the great reward.
With humble voice and suppliant word
We pray Thee therefore, holy Lord,
While we thy Martyr’s feast-day keep,
Forgive Thy loved and erring sheep.
All honor, laud, and glory be,
O Jesu, Virgin-born, to Thee,
All glory, as is ever meet,
To Father and to Paraclete. Amen
This morning, as soon as Laurence had given up his brave soul to his Creator, his body was taken, like precious gold from the crucible, and wrapt in linen cloths with sweet spices. As in the case of Stephen the protomartyr, and of Jesus the King of martyrs, so now, too, noble persons vied with each other in paying honour to the sacred remains. In the evening of the 10th August, the noble converts mentioned by Prudentius bowed their heads beneath the venerable burden; and followed by a great company of mourners, they carried him along the Tiburtian Way, and buried him in the cemetery of Cyriacus. The Church on earth mourned for her illustrious son; but the Church in heaven was already overflowing with joy, and each anniversary of the glorious triumph was to give fresh gladness to the world.
Thrice blessed are the Roman people, for they honour thee on the very spot where thy sacred bones repose! They prostrate in thy sanctuary, and watering the ground with their tears they pour out their vows. We who are distant from Rome, separated by Alps and Pyrenees, how can we even imagine what treasures she possesses, or how rich is her earth in sacred tombs? We have not her privileges, we cannot trace the martyrs’ bloody footsteps; but from afar we gaze on the heavens. O holy Laurence! it is there we seek the memorial of thy passion; for thou hast two dwelling-places, that of thy body on earth and that of thy soul in heaven. In the ineffable heavenly city thou hast been received to citizenship, and the civic crown adorns thy brow in its eternal Senate. So brightly shine thy jewels that it seemeth the heavenly Rome hath chosen thee perpetual Consul. The joy of the Quirites proves how great is thine office, thine influence, and thy power, for thou grantest their requests. Thou hearest all who pray to thee, they ask what they will and none ever goes away sad.
Ever assist thy children of the queen city; give them the strong support of thy fatherly love, and a mother’s tender, fostering care. Together with them, O thou honour of Christ, listen to thy humble client confessing his misery and sins. I acknowledge that I am not worthy that Christ should hear me; but through the patronage of the holy Martyrs, my evils can be remedied. Hearken to thy suppliant; in thy goodness free me from the fetters of the flesh and of the world. Amen.
The Liturgical Year. 1904. Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. Translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. Imprimatur, 1910.