The 'Dies Natalis' of St Polycarp
The account by the Christians of Smyrna is a report on the death of their bishop, Polycarp, given in the form of a letter to the Christian community of Philomelium and, through them, to the whole Church. It tells how the pagan population of the town, who had killed a young man named Germanicus during a festival, demanded of the magistrates that all 'atheists' should be done away with, and they cried "Fetch Polycarp." What is fascinating is that the pagan Romans considered Christians to be atheists because they refused to worship the pagan idols and thus conform to the Roman way of life. This led to persecutions by local communities (as attested to by Polycarp himself in his letter to the Philippians) and would later lead to the criminalization of Christianity and state persecution. However, the date was c. 155 and in the early days of the Church, hence persecution and hostility was localised and sporadic. Thus, the pagans of Smyrna began to clamour for Polycarp's blood. Polycarp, meanwhile, was waiting calmly in a farm near the city and he was now an octagenarian. He was sought out at the farm and brought to trail. Arrested, he refused to deny Christ and was killed by the sword, despite his advanced years, and his body was then burned at the stake, in the town theatre.
Eusebius draws upon this account and sees in this Passion narrative of St Polycarp clear echoes of the Passion of Christ. The account of Polycarp staying in a farm and awaiting arrest mirrors Christ praying in Gethsemane, and the rest of the story provides the basis of the martyr as identified with Christ. Hence, Polycarp's death, in echoing the death of Jesus Christ, the king of martyrs, forms the pattern of Christian martyrdom for centuries to come; it is the archetypal martyrdom.
In addition, Eusebius writes: "To [Christ], as the Son of God, we offer adoration; but to the martyrs, as disciples and imitators of the Lord, we give the love they deserve for their unsurpassable devotion to their own King and Teacher: may it be our privilege to be their fellow-members and fellow-disciples" and he says "so later on we took up [Polycarp's] bones, more precious than stones of great price, more splendid than gold, and laid them where it seemed right." Thus it appears that in Eusebius' account there is a carefully elaborated theology of Christ's redemptive suffering, of Christian discipleship, and of the due devotion to be shown to the saints and their relics, those elements that are the heart of Christian understanding of martyrdom and the development of the cult of the martyrs.
It was the commemoration of Polycarp's martyrdom that established the custom of celebrating the anniversary of a martyr's death, seen as the dies natalis, the 'birthday into heaven'. Thus, this commemoration of St Polycarp was the first of all sanctoral' days in the Church's Liturgy. Polycarp's final prayer also forms a basis for the development of the Eucharistic Prayers of the Church, showing elements that are present in these great orations and ending with a doxology and the 'Amen' which had been taken over into Christian liturgy from Jewish practice:
"O Father of Thy beloved and blessed Son, Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to know Thee, the God of angels and powers and all creation, and of the whole family of the righteous who live in Thy presence, I bless Thee for counting me worthy of this day and hour, that in the number of martyrs I may partake of Christ's cup, to the resurrection of eternal life of both soul and body in the imperishability that is the gift of the Holy Ghost. Among them may I be received into Thy presence today, a rich and acceptable sacrifice as Thou hast prepared it beforehand, foreshadowing it and fulfilling it, Thou God of truth that canst not lie. Therefore for every cause I praise Thee, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, through the eternal High Priest, Jesus Christ thy beloved Son, through whom and with whom in the Holy Ghost glory be to Thee, both now and in the ages to come. Amen."
The image above is a detail from 'The Christian Martyr's Last Prayer' by Gerome.