Memorial of St. Agnes
Our parish church in Louisville is named after St. Agnes. She was a young girl in the ranks of the early church martyrs, who gave her life as witness to her faith in Christ. She went about this distinctively enough to merit incorporation into the Eucharistic prayer of the church, taking her place with other outstanding members of the primitive church.
Since her name, Agnes, bears close resemblance to the Latin word "agnus", which means "lamb", on this day the wool is sheered off two lambs, and is made into the pallium, a distinctive neck-pendant worn by archbishops, given them annually by the Pope on June 29th of each year. This may be the closest a young woman like Agnes comes to the office of archbishop, at least for awhile.
Archbishops are the contemporary successors of the twelve men appearing in today’s gospel, whom Jesus appoints as "the twelve", naming them "apostles". They were to carry on the mainline work of preaching and casting out demons. Their emergence is a significant development in the budding ministry of Jesus as He broadens His ministry, and prepares for the future. For He was about something new. The number "twelve" that He honors on this occasion refers back to a venerable usage among the Jews, referring to the sons of the patriarch Jacob as founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus now extends its use to another set of persons who are to help found a new Israel, a different people of God, the church. Rooted in the past, it points to a distinctive future.
Today’s Hebrews reading spells out this future by borrowing from the prophet Jeremiah’s reflections on the covenant, a sacred instrument at the heart of ancient Jewish history. Jeremiah prophesies continuing prominence for the covenant, but in a significantly new way, since it will not be written on scrolls but will be embossed on the human heart, close to us as our guide and direction, even as it was for the young Agnes.
The apostles, newly minted by Jesus, exemplify this new covenantal relationship with God, and the metropolitan archbishops, garnished with their pallium, symbolize this today. A covenantal relationship to God remains forever central in establishing a relationship to God, but, as in the case of ancient Israel, it has to be renewed innumerable times. In our time too, the covenantal bonding with God needs constant repair and maintenance. During this annual week of prayer for church unity, we are mindful of the various understandings of the covenant prevailing among the many Christian churches and fellowships. Each vies to be faithful in keeping the covenant, but differs one from the other in doing so.
St. Agnes reflects the heart of the covenant, as its fairest flower. Upon the apostles and (arch)bishops falls the responsibility of maintaining it in the hearts of us all. Fortunately, there are counterparts of Agnes in every age, and in each of the Christian churches and denominations. For did not Jeremiah prophesy: "…all shall know me, from least to greatest. For I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sins no more."?
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.