Perpetua and Felicity: A (True) Story to Stir Your Soul This Easter

Perpetua and Felicity | Christian Mom ThoughtsAt the end of last year, I read a book called “Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction,” by Bryan M. Litfin. It was a wonderful introduction to the lives, beliefs and struggles of early Christians who had a hugely significant impact on the development of the church. Aside from learning a lot, there was one story that absolutely shook me. I literally thought about it for weeks. Each time it came to mind, there was a little earthquake in my soul.

I find this story incredibly convicting, and I want to share it with you today as we approach Easter.

***

The year was 203 AD. It was a time that Christians were severely persecuted by the Romans and a countless number were killed for their beliefs. Perpetua and her handmaiden, Felicity, were two of these early martyrs.

Perpetua was a young woman with a nursing infant. When she was accused of being a Christian, authorities threw her into a filthy, dark prison, and took away her baby. Some of Perpetua’s writings have been preserved, and she noted during that time that she was “extremely distressed” with anxiety for her infant. Some Christian deacons bribed the guards to move her to a better part of the prison, where she finally nursed her son. He had grown faint with hunger.

When Perpetua appeared before the local governor for her trial, her father pulled her aside, holding out her son, and cried, “Have pity on your baby!” The governor added, “Spare the infancy of your boy, and offer sacrifice for the well-being of the emperors.” The governor then asked Perpetua the final question for conviction:

“Are you a Christian?”

Perpetua resolutely replied, “Yes. I am a Christian.

It was official: she would be devoured by wild beasts for her beliefs. She was removed to await her penalty and that was the last time she ever saw her baby.

As she and fellow Christians marched toward the arena, Perpetua sang psalms. The first two Christians killed that day were attacked by a leopard, then bound in the stocks to be accosted by a bear. Next up, Perpetua and Felicity were stripped and led to the arena floor.

The Romans were ashamed when they saw the women’s naked bodies, for they could see how young they were, and Felicity’s breasts were still dripping with milk from her recent childbirth. The onlookers demanded they be clothed in tunics to ease their consciences.

They were clothed and returned to the arena. A wild heifer knocked Perpetua over and immediately mauled her. She could barely stand. In the midst of her suffering, she exhorted her fellow martyrs to stand firm. One by one, these Christians were torn into pieces that day. Perpetua was the last to die. She was killed by the sword – having guided the trembling hand of the young gladiator to her own throat.

***

I knew there used to be a lot of persecution and that people died for their beliefs, but reading the intimate details about the deaths of these two young women in a motherly stage of life similar to my own gripped my soul. I don’t know about you, but the word “martyr” subconsciously evokes an image of someone who was incredibly different from me: someone who lived a looooong time ago, had a halo like in one of those strange medieval paintings, and was carried along by some kind of superhuman faith that made them impervious to the threat of pain.

Then I read about Perpetua’s anxious separation from her baby; her father’s passionate plea to hide her beliefs; the crowd’s emotional reaction to seeing the naked bodies of two young women; and the very raw, human detail that Felicity’s breasts were still dripping with milk.

These were real people, just like you and me. They just lived at a time when they didn’t get to have the comfortable faith we have today.

I think faith is “tough” because I have trouble understanding things like God’s will and Canaanite genocide. Tough? That’s not tough. Having a Bible to study, the time to think about these things, and living in a country with the freedom to do so makes those questions a comfortable luxury.

Why would two young women without that luxury choose to give up everything and face a brutal death for their beliefs?

Because they believed whole-heartedly in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. It all came down to Easter. If Jesus wasn’t who he said he was, and wasn’t raised from the dead, there would have been no need for them to die for their faith. All the other “issues” we Christians can get lost in are the fine print of Christianity. If Jesus didn’t rise from the grave, nothing else matters and our faith is in vain (1 Corinthians 15:13-19).

This Easter, I pray we can all experience even a small portion of the spiritual conviction these young martyrs had, finding their life’s meaning in nothing other than the power of a risen Savior.

8 Comments

  1. Sharon Nichols Young on March 29, 2013 at 11:06 PM

    Bravo. Quite so. Those of us in the US have no clue, usually – even when we read present day accounts of people who are actually suffering and dying for their faith, we don’t truly “get it”. Personally… I think a part of it is, they “get” Good Friday. Jesus went through so much for us on the cross, anything we go through for Him is less in comparison. Even being mauled by beasts and slit in the throat by a Roman sword.



    • Natasha Crain on April 3, 2013 at 4:07 PM

      Good reminder, Sharon, that there are plenty of people suffering and dying for their faith even today! We really can’t fully comprehend it in the comfort of our living in the U.S. I think you’re right – they “get” Good Friday. A great way of putting it!



  2. Sharon Nichols Young on March 29, 2013 at 11:08 PM

    Ah, I hit submit before mentioning the other point… that Jesus actually had to experience separation from the Father on the cross, while WE get to have the presence of Christ with us when we suffer – the martyrs had it better than He did if in no aspect than that!



    • Natasha Crain on April 3, 2013 at 4:09 PM

      That is something that has always been really hard for me to grasp (the separation of Jesus and God at that moment). I can’t get my head around how they would be one at all points in eternity but separate at that one moment. Something I have to grapple with. 🙂



  3. Kari on March 31, 2013 at 2:59 AM

    This is exactly what I needed to hear and read. Thank You!



    • Natasha Crain on April 3, 2013 at 4:09 PM

      Thanks so much, Kari!



  4. Gary Neal Hansen on April 1, 2013 at 10:09 AM

    Hey Natasha! So glad you shared Perpetua & Felicity’s story here. I have my students read it in intro Church History every year, and it blows them away, especially because of the way it shows martyrdom in the context of parenting. It is easier to imagine standing up and giving all for Jesus when it is just us — but there they are as young mothers, still ready to lay down their lives to remain faithful to their Lord. I think the key is in Perpetua’s conversation with her own father, who begs her to not remain faithful. Her response is simple truthfulness: She is a Christian, and she can’t say that she’s not. Telling the truth will have consequences, and she’s ready to face them.

    If your readers would like to see the full text, it is available online through Fordam University here: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/perpetua.asp



    • Natasha Crain on April 3, 2013 at 4:13 PM

      Hi Gary – Thanks so much for stopping by, and for sharing this great resource! I pulled out just a few key points from the story, but there is indeed so much more to it. That’s so interesting that you use it to open your classes. I can see how it would be a perfect (and eye opening) conversation starter! It’s amazing when you realize how little you know about the early church, but how relevant it is. This book was a great experience for me!