Perpetua and Felicity aren’t names we are typically familiar with, especially in evangelical Christianity. But these two power-house women have a critical message for all mother’s today and the temptation to idolize the family.
A young mother in prison, facing the death penalty under a bloodthirsty regime. Her father desperately trying to free his daughter; both of them heartbroken about the baby boy who might grow up motherless. It has all the trappings of an emotional court room drama.
Except that the young mother doesn’t want to be freed.
Introducing two remarkable women whose memory is celebrated today (March 7): Saints Perpetua and Felicitas. Looking at their story can help us regain some necessary clarity.
Let’s briefly visit North Africa in the year 203. After initially tolerating Christianity as a Jewish sect, the Roman Empire started to crack down on it. It now was considered a new religion – actually, Christians were considered atheists, because they didn’t believe in the gods (only in one God). What really upset the Roman Empire, though, was the staunch refusal of Christians to worship the emperor as a god. To many Romans, this was merely a symbolic gesture, a minor part of being a good citizen.
But the Christians stood to the claim that only God is God, in a way the emperor could never be. Consequently, the wrath of Rome fell on them.
Which is why Perpetua and Felicitas found themselves in prison as they were preparing to get baptised. At that point, Perpetua was about 22 years old, married, and had an infant son. Felicitas, her slave, was pregnant.
In our day and age, the social media channels would be brimming with this story. We can imagine tear-jerking headlines and articles complete with photos of the young mother and her baby. Our heart would go out to them, and many of us would leverage what legal and political influence they have in order to free these women.
So the actual response of these women to their situation baffles us all the more.
Perpetua and Felicitas were not interested in being freed. Their sole interest was in being faithful to God in their situation. And if that meant death for their faith, then they were ready to face it.
[Reframing our thinking about family] provides a much needed corrective to the individualistic tendencies that come more easily to the nuclear family. It’s ultimately about following Jesus, not living out the ideal family.
“But what about their children?”, you may ask. Here’s their response:
THREE WAYS THESE WOMEN CHALLENGE OUR 21st CENTURY WESTERN PERSPECTIVE
1. Serving God comes before family
Perpetua and Felicitas were not cold hearted or without emotion. Perpetua’s thoughts and feelings are well documented in her personal journal.
Every now and then, I hear young Christian people contemplate whether they should have children. The implication, especially for the women, is that with children it will be impossible to radically serve God.
We know her heart was torn by her father’s pleas to consider the fate of her child. For a short time, she had her baby boy with her in prison, and it looks like she loved him like any mother loves her children.
But even for the love of her baby, there was one thing she would not do: deny Jesus Christ. Repeatedly, Perpetua declared herself a Christian before the Roman officials. Both she and Felicitas managed to be baptised before their martyrdom, and it is evident that Jesus was the real center in their lives.
How different is this from what you might see or experience today! Every now and then, I hear young Christian people contemplate whether they should have children. The implication, especially for the women, is that with children it will be impossible to radically serve God. On the other hand, we know families who keep Jesus as a part of their lives, like a beloved piece of furniture. But there is no element of risk, of going out of their way in discerning God’s call and obeying it, because “the children”, “school”, “too busy”, and so forth.
Perpetua and Felicitas demonstrate that one thing, and one thing only, is ultimate: clinging to Jesus and honoring Him in every circumstance – even if that flies in the face of conventional wisdom and means heart-breaking decisions.
2. Spiritual family is real
Felicitas’ big concern was that she might miss the martyrdom with her friends. According to Roman law, no pregnant woman could be executed (side note: obviously, this ancient pagan culture had a higher view of life in the womb than we have in our Western nations today!). In the end, she didn’t; her baby girl was born shortly before the day of execution and given to a sister to nurture and raise.
This highlights an important fact: we are tempted to think of family in narrow, suburban terms of parents and children.
The New Testament, particularly the Epistles, challenge us to re-frame our thinking. Because all followers of Jesus Christ are declared brothers and sisters; they form one big family and are expected to live as such.
Perpetua and Felicitas were evidently much more sisters in the Faith than mistress and slave. And it seems that this meaningful bond extended to the four young Christian men who were to be executed on the same day as Perpetua and Felicitas. It shows us that spiritual family is real. It doesn’t supersede or replace the natural family. But it provides a much needed corrective to the individualistic tendencies that come more easily to the nuclear family. It’s ultimately about following Jesus, not living out the ideal family. When we are so inward focused and only concerned about our blood relatives, or aspiring to be the happy family that smiles at us from billboards and ads, we come dangerously close to idolatry: raising up something other than Jesus and giving it our devotion.
3. Happiness is an eternal thing, not a temporary one
After months in prison, and separated from their babies, one might expect Perpetua and Felicitas to face their martyrdom subdued and distraught. The opposite was the case: the two women and three men (one had died in prison) were composed and at peace when thrown into the arena to be killed by wild animals.
Are our first thoughts regarding happiness pictures of smiling family members, in good health, pursuing our favorite activities … Or is there room for bliss that we can but taste here on earth?
Injured by a crazed cow, yet not fatally wounded, Perpetua even asked to fix her hair before her throat would be cut by a gladiator – because she didn’t want to look sad or in disarray on the joyful occasion of entering eternal life.
In this, she holds a mirror up to us. Where do we see true happiness located? Are our first thoughts regarding happiness pictures of smiling family members, in good health, pursuing our favorite activities – and thus thoroughly this-sided? Or is there room for bliss that we can but taste here on earth, a joy that is so surpassing that we know it will make our earthly happiness pale in comparison?
We do well to remember these precious women. They are examples of exceptional courage, but much more: they point us to the uncomfortable truth that Jesus is worth both living and dying for.
And they shake our assumptions, challenging us to consider whether we serve God, even as parents and families, or whether we use our families to avoid taking risks for Jesus.
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