What strikes me most about stained-glass windows is not the imagery of Christ or Mary or even God himself. These are somehow too far above me. What strikes me continually are the faces of the Apostles, like this one of John. This is an old John, the John of the Assumption, who had accompanied Christ and then His mother, Mary, on their earthly travels and now is a witness to Mary’s being received bodily into heaven. St. Polycarp, whose feast we celebrate today, was a witness of John, catechized by the Apostle, as we would say today.
I had always thought of the earliest saints as furthest back in the past, and therefore most behind me. Now, I understand that they are ahead of me, leading me toward what I hope is a common destiny.
Likewise, I had always thought of these early saints as the oldest saints, most distant and therefore, in some way, least relevant, least moving for me. But this impression has changed for me and the change was reinforced this morning, when I heard a visiting priest talk of Polycarp. The future bishop of Smyrna was not old but young—he must have been—when he followed John, who must have been old himself by that time. Polycarp died in AD 155 at age 86, while John is thought to have died in 101. We know John was young when he met Jesus (18? 20?), and Polycarp could not have been older than his 20s when he met John.
These men were (are?) young at the critical moment of meeting, coming into contact with a Presence that changed their lives forever. It is in this act of witness that all the vitality and power of the saints comes through most powerfully to me: that face in the stained-glass window, that moment of impact with a Presence greater than oneself.
Father Murphy spoke of Polycarp’s martyrdom and of his famous defense of the Faith. Asked to save himself from being burned at the stake by renouncing Christ, Polycarp said, “Fourscore and six years have I served Him, and he has done me no harm. How then can I curse my King that saved me?”
The saints are for me the most powerful witness to the reality of Christ, and martyrs like Polycarp are witnesses to the power of faith to change us. Is my faith strong enough to face martyrdom by fire with such unflappability, with such a memorable turn of phrase? Though I do have faith, I must admit, I sometimes doubt it.