Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Hebrews 12:1 (NIV)

Perpetua and Felicitas

She was 22 years old with a newborn baby, a son. A noblewoman by birth, educated and fluent in Latin and Greek, she was a young bride, a woman who had married honorably. She was her father’s favorite, his only daughter in a family of sons. She was also a criminal, by her own confession — a follower of Jesus Christ. The year was 203 and the emperor had declared it illegal to convert to Christianity. Her name was Perpetua.

Much of what we know about her comes from her own prison diary, which perhaps represents the oldest Christian writings from the hand of a woman.

Perpetua had a maidservant and friend named Felicitas. Felicitas was also a Christian. Like Perpetua, she was young, and she was 8 months pregnant. She was arrested with Perpetua along with three men. Felicitas gave birth in prison shortly before their execution.

Perpetua describes her initiation into prison life:

“After a few days we were taken into prison, and I was much afraid because I had never known such darkness. O bitter day! There was a great heat because of the press, there was cruel handling of the soldiers. Lastly I was tormented there by care for the child.”

Undoubtedly, Perpetua had never been in such a position.

In prison, her father came to her repeatedly, sometimes commanding, sometimes begging, sometimes angry — doing all in his power to convince her to simply renounce her faith and to save herself and her child. He pleaded for himself and Perpetua’s mother, that they might not lose their daughter. He pleaded on behalf of her son, that he might not lose his mother. He tore at her heartstrings to save her life. In one interchange, Perpetua tried to explain, in a way that He might understand, why she could not deny Christ:

“Father,” she answered, “do you see this vessel — waterpot or whatever it may be?…Can it be called by any other name than what it is?”

“No,” he replied.

“So also I cannot call myself by any other name than what I am — a Christian.”

Perpetua knew that to save her life, she must lose it. She wrote of her father after one visit:

“This he said fatherly in his love, kissing my hands and grovelling at my feet; and with tears he named me, not daughter, but lady. And I was grieved for my father’s case because he would not rejoice at my passion out of all my kin; and I comforted him, saying: That shall be done at this tribunal, whatsoever God shall please; for know that we are not established in our own power, but in God’s. And he went from me very sorrowful.”

Notice the phrase “he would not rejoice at my passion.” Perpetua had had a dream which convinced her and those around her that she and her friends would not be delivered out of the prison by the Lord, but would become martyrs. And their hope shifted from this world to the world to come. They rejoiced at the promise of suffering for her Lord.

At her trial, Perpetua watched her father be beaten because of her faith and her child taken from her, but she remained resolute. One biographer described Perpetua’s entrance to the amphitheater like this:

Now dawned the day of their victory, and they went forth from the prison into the amphitheatre as it were into heaven, cheerful and bright of countenance; if they trembled at all, it was for joy, not for fear. Perpetua followed behind, glorious of presence, as a true spouse of Christ and darling of God; at whose piercing look all cast down their eyes…Perpetua began to sing…

A wild, savage bull was let into the ring. Perpetua and Felicitas were wearing loose robes. Perpetua was thrown by the beast first. Upon landing hard, she sat up and arranged her robe “mindful rather of modesty than of pain.” She then asked for a hairpin to pin up her disheveled hair. In the culture, women wore their hair down when they were in mourning, and Perpetua wanted to be as one prepared to meet her groom with joy, not one mourning a loss. At one point, she encouraged believers around her saying “Stand fast in the faith, and love you all one another; and be not offended because of our passion.”

When the ladies were not killed by the bull, the crowd called for them to brought into the arena and killed with a sword, so that the people could witness their death. Perpetua and Felicitas, hearing the cries, rose without prompting, kissed one another as a sign of peace and came forward to be slain. The executioner was a novice, perhaps nervous in front of the large crowd. Perpetua took his hand and put the sword to her throat, demonstrating that she was giving her life of her own free will.

It is said that the adjutant of the jail where Perpetua and Felicitas were held became a believer, as did many in the crowd that day. Augustine noted two centuries later that joined together, “perpetua felicitas” means “everlasting happiness.” Most would not give that title to a martyr, but Augustine points out that it is exactly what the two women gained.

The next time you see a woman’s hair clip, let it remind you of the faithfulness of a young woman, her maidservant and their God.

Quotes taken from:

  • Paul Halsall, editor, Internet Medieval Sourcebook: St.Perpetua: The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity 203,
  • Dave Kopel,

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