A few weeks ago some of us joined the diocesan congregation for their patronal festival. Since then, I have been thinking a lot about St Agnes and about Fr Raglan’s homily.

The story of St Agnes is an uncomfortable one. During the infamous persecution under Emperor Diocletian, many were tortured and executed for their faith. Agnes had, while still only young, chosen a celibate life as her vocation. She refused an offer of marriage from a rich Roman. Women and girls are still subject to abuse after rejecting marriage offers. Recently a 14-year-old girl was beheaded in Afghanistan for the same thing. It is her dedication to Christ, however, her reason for rejecting marriage that makes St Agnes a martyr. She made her decision to stick by her decision for Christ at a time when being a Christian was dangerous.

In his homily, Fr Raglan talked about how St Agnes’ love for Christ gave her the freedom to face whatever came. Spiritual freedom comes when we encounter that God who loves us completely and we are able to respond completely in return. St Agnes dedicated one aspect of her life to God, that of remaining chaste. This dedication gave her the freedom to give up her life.

Thinking about how St Agnes faced such evil reminded me of a section Alexander Schmemann’s “For the Life of the World” on Baptism. He writes:

“Hatred is not merely absence of love. It is certainly more than that, and we recognise its presences as an almost physical burden that we feel in ourselves when we hate.”

He goes on to give examples of evil in our modern world and then says

“…whatever the value or the consistency of [evil’s] presentation in theologies and doctrines, it is this reality that the Church has in mind, that it indeed faces when at the moment of baptism, through the hands of a priest, it lays hold upon a new human being.” Who has just entered life and who, according to statistics, has a great likelihood some day of entering a mental institution, a penitentiary or at best the maddening boredom of suburbia. The world from which the human being has received his life, which will determine his life is a prison. The Church did not have to wait for Kafka or Sartre to know it. But the Church also knows that the gates of this hell have been broken and that another Power has entered the world and claimed it for its true owner. And that claim is not on souls alone, but on the totality of life, on the whole world.”

Evil is a reality, cold and calculating. It is a reality that we carry when we hate. Through our sin we participate in it. Yet God met this reality with total, self-emptying, self-giving love.

St Agnes was faced with a great evil, which threatened her life. However she had experienced God’s great love and may be she knew life lived under this evil would be a prison. She had known the freedom that comes from knowing the alternative and therefore she had the freedom to lay down her life. It meant following the path that Christ had already trod but as Fr Raglan told us martyrdom is not a choice to die but a choice for life, the life given by God. In the face of great evil, St Agnes chose Great Love and chose Life.

In all our choices, this Lent, St Agnes, pray for us.