Memorial of St. Agnes
1 Corinthians 1:26-31
The story connected to St. Agnes is a Christian update of the classical confrontation of David and Goliath, and it comes down to what each of them saw each of them saw as they approached one another in an epic confrontation. Goliath, a giant of a man, saw a relatively puny opponent approaching him, and despised him as an inferior. David, a ruddy youth, paid little attention to the size of the warrior in his line of vision, as he searched the desert floor trying to catch sight of just the right-sized stone for his slingshot. Both found what they were looking for, but David’s eyesight paid off more handsomely.
St. Agnes had David’s kind of eyesight. She saw an opportunity for God to stand at her side and not cower before the menacing Roman executioner in the line of her vision. The soldier, for his part, pitied the frail girl he saw before her as he prepared to dispatch her quickly with his sword. It could well be that Agnes and the soldier both enjoyed excellent eyesight, but they focused their vision on different objects: Agnes saw strength, the soldier saw weakness. Agnes had better eyesight.
She was like the real estate mogul in Matthew’s gospel story today, who saw a piece of land that seemed promising to him. So he explored the plot, and saw, to his delight, that his realty instincts were on target, for he found a treasure buried there, prodding him to sell all his assets to buy that field. The property he saw fulfilled his professional hunch that his lucky day had come. His property instincts served him in the same way as the merchant Jesus spoke about on this same occasion, who explored the bazaar and found what he saw and judged to be "a pearl of great price", motivating him to do the same thing as the other, selling all he had to purchase it. Both of these men had great instincts, leading them to trust what they saw.
So, it’s a question of eyesight: what does one see? The policeman sitting in his squad car in Ferguson, Missouri, saw a hulking giant of a man approaching him, and he didn’t like what he saw. The ensuing melee was the consequence of eyesight: was it faulty vision, or was it penetrating and accurate? And the same question presents itself to all of us. What do we see? Is our vision impaired, or is it accurate? What accounts for the vision enjoyed by David, or Agnes, or the land agent, or the merchant? For the latter two (and the police officer??) it was likely instinct as well as vision. For David and Agnes it was the counterpart of physical eyesight: faith.
Their faith in the presence of a loving and caring God, even in extreme circumstances, was like the medicinal drops the oculist places in our eyes, clarifying what had been shadowy or murky, enabling us to see quite clearly what had been blurred before. David saw a promising stone for his slingshot rather than the size of his opponent, just as Agnes saw God present at her side rather than the weapon of the executioner. Both had faith in God, crowding out other sights, no matter how fearful.
So it is on this memorial of St. Agnes that the pope presents bishops the vestment called the pallium to those becoming metropolitan bishops over their region, so named because the pallium is made of sheepskin, from the animal called "agnus" in Latin. The name Agnus derives from that and is invoked at communion time, in the eucharist: "Behold the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) Who takes away the sins of the world…"). Hopefully, the pallium bestows on the new metropolitan bishops the faith to see, in the discharge of their duties, as clearly as David and Agnes.
Fr. Sebastian MacDonald, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago.