Memorial of Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyr
2 Samuel 1:1-4, 11-12, 19, 23-27
The lives of many adults are conflicted. Especially if they entail multiple responsibilities, the possibility of conflict in choosing a proper course of action involves complexity. As for instance, in today’s Eucharist, as we celebrate the memorial of the virgin-martyr Agnes, accompanied by the biblical readings prescribed by the church for the day, we see this issue at play.
When we listen to the narrative out of the Book of Samuel, we hear of David rising to power in Israel, and consolidating his position as leader and king of Judah. It entailed a struggle involving arms, combat and warfare. People died, as the narrative recounts today: Saul and Jonathan perished in battle. David certainly had to be conflicted by this situation as he fought the constituents of Saul, his predecessor as king, with Saul’s son Jonathan at his father’s side. How do we assess this situation? Saul and David as enemies; Jonathan as David’s closest friend; Jonathan fighting alongside his father, Saul. Was David driven by personal ambition for power? Was he acting out a divine commission from God that the line of David was to prevail and give rise to the promised Messiah? What shall we say? David was certainly not perfect, yet he was beloved of God.
The gospel account simply intensifies this conundrum. As Mark presents it, Jesus is still early into His public ministry, but has already garnered a reputation throughout the land for His teaching and miracles. The people flood around Him, so much so that it proved impossible for Jesus and His companions to have time enough even to eat a meal. His relatives get upset about this situation. Is this a legitimate concern of theirs? Is Jesus pushing the button too far, to His own detriment and that of His mission? Are His relatives acting out of spite or envy at His success? How shall we evaluate this strange situation?
Then there is the young girl, Agnes, memorialized today as one of the glorious martyrs of the early church. A beautiful girl with several suitors, she refused them all, intending to consecrate her life entirely to God. Apprehended for her Christian faith and her adherence to its highest tenets, a victim of the anger of her suitors, she is persecuted, then executed. Her persecution saw her sent to a house of prostitution. What shall we say of all this? Is too much too much, in terms of her own commitment to chaste virginity? Was she just proving stubborn?
It is difficult to live very long in this life and avoid similar ambivalences about what to say, what to think, what to do, or not do. Retiring from life and its conflicts is not viable. Giving up before these problems and adopting an attitude of "who cares" before them is not the path to take. Trying to do the right and good thing is the Christian way, such as, we believe, David, Jesus and Agnes attempted. In Jesus’ case, we have no doubt that He always took the right and good course of action. And it is likely that David and Agnes did too.
But they were human, and mistakes were always possible for them, as for us. We can’t avoid them, but we can constrain and gradually reduce them. Remaining close to the Lord in prayer, reading of His Word in the bible, approaching the sacraments are all steps in the right direction. They help us approach life’s complexity with confidence and an informed conscience.
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.