Reflections from the Church Fathers-St. Polycarp (c. 69-155)

How we see the Trinity in the writings of St. Polycarp

Within the epistle of St. Polycarp to the Philippians, the Divine economy is expressed more in terms of the Father and the Son. Nevertheless, the love of God and salvation which streams from God are expressed in a benediction contained within the epistle that is very reflective of the writings of St. Paul, combined with Polycarp’s own personality as he reflects on the importance of patience and longsuffering that sustains martyrs.

“Now may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the eternal High-priest Himself the Son of God Jesus Christ, build you up in faith and truth, and in all gentleness and in all avoidance of wrath and in forbearance and long suffering and in patient endurance and in purity; and may He grant unto you a lot and portion among His saints, and to us with you, and to all that are under heaven, who shall believe on our Lord and God Jesus Christ and on His Father that raised him from the dead.” (Philippians, 12:2)

In account of Polycarp’s martyrdom, there is a prayer from the lips of Polycarp that expresses Trinitarian terminology and Christian soteriology that reminds one of the Anaphoras of the Byzantine Churches. To the extent that it is an accurate recording of St. Polycarp, we have  a strong sense of his view of the Holy Trinity and God’s action to save mankind.

”…Then he, placing his hands behind him and being bound to the stake, like a noble ram out of a great flock for an offering, a burnt sacrifice made ready and acceptable to God, looking up to heaven said; ‘O Lord God Almighty, the Father of Thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received the knowledge of Thee, the God of angels and powers and of all creation and of the whole race of the righteous, who live in Thy presence; I bless Thee for that Thou hast granted me this day and hour, that I might receive a portion amongst the number of martyrs in the cup of [Thy] Christ unto resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and of body, in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among these in Thy presence this day, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as Thou didst prepare and reveal it beforehand, and hast accomplished it, Thou that art the faithful and true God.
 For this cause, yea and for all things, I praise Thee, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, through the eternal and heavenly High-priest, Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, through whom with Him and the Holy Spirit be glory both now [and ever] and for the ages to come. Amen.’ (Martyrdom, 14:1-3)

In both the account of his words at his martyrdom and his own words to the Philippians, Polycarp shows his faith in God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

St. Polycarp on the Incarnation

Like other Fathers dealing with docetism, St. Polycarp speaks of the Incarnation in very Johannine terms.

For every one who shall not confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is antichrist: and whosoever shall not confess thetestimony of the Cross, is of the devil; and whosoever shall pervertthe oracles of the Lord to his own lusts and say that there isneither resurrection nor judgment, that man is the firstborn ofSatan. Philippians 7:1

Polycarp’s other words on Christ are less focused on the Incarnation of  Christ as opposed to His suffering, dying and rising for the salvation of mankind.

“…our Lord Jesus Christ, who endured to face even death for our sins, whom God

raised, having loosed the pangs of Hades; on whom, though ye saw Him not, ye believe with joy unutterable and full of glory; unto which joy many desire to enter in; forasmuch as ye know

that it is by grace ye are saved, not of works, but by the will of God through Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:2b-3

The reality of the incarnation is thought of in order to help one understand that the same sufferings of martyrdom which he and other Christians faced was already conquered by Christ Himself as our High Priest, as the above quoted passage so beautifully illustrates (Philippians 12:2).

St. Polycarp on the Church and the Holy Mysteries

The bulk of Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians speaks very practically to the life and mission of the Church. Not only does he commend his readers to read the writings of Ignatius, he also speaks to serious problems of the holiness of the Church.

One key issue that is important for the life and mission of the Church pertains to those in the ministry, particularly a presbyter named Valens and his wife. The integrity and holiness of the Church was a key concern to him, and for this reason he wrote:

“But woe to him through whom the name of the Lord be blasphemed. Therefore teach all men soberness, in which ye yourselves also walk. I was exceedingly grieved for Valens, who aforetime was a presbyter among you, because he is so ignorant of the office which was given unto him. I warn you therefore that ye refrain from covetousness, and that ye be pure and truthful. Refrain from all evil. But he who cannot govern himself in these things, how doth he enjoin this upon another? If a man refrain not from covetousness, he shall be defiled by idolatry, and shall be judged as one of the Gentiles who know not the judgment of the Lord, Nay, know we not, that the saints shall judge the world, as Paul teacheth? But I have not found any such thing in you, neither have heard thereof, among whom the blessed Paul labored, who were his  letters in the beginning. For he boasteth of you in all those churches which alone at that time knew God; for we knew Him not as yet. Therefore I am exceedingly grieved for him and for his wife, unto whom may the Lord grant true repentance. Be ye therefore yourselves also sober herein, and hold not such as enemies but restore them as frail and erring members, that ye may save the whole body of you. For so doing, ye do edify one another.” (Philippians 10:3-11:4)

The fall of Valens was used as a key testimony that the life of the Church is to be the Body of the Lord, whose name could be blasphemed through a poor witness. In praying for his restoration, he sees the salvation of the entire Body of Christ, which is key to the mission of the Church.

In his martyrdom account, we also see that Polycarp was a man of prayer, and that his prayers had a focus on the Church.

 “Now the glorious Polycarp at the first, when he heard it, so far from being dismayed, was desirous of remaining in town; but the greater part persuaded him to withdraw. So he withdrew to a farm not far distant from the city; and there he stayed with a few companions, doing nothing else night and day but praying for all men and for the churches throughout the world; for this was his constant habit.” (Martyrdom 5:1)

Through his prayers and instruction for the life of the Church, we see St. Polycarp was a bishop with a deep concern for his flock.

St. Polycarp on Salvation in Christ

In conjunction with the comments on priestly holiness and restoring the fallen, Polycarp wrote to the Philippians beautifully from a positive perspective on the Christian life that is desired by God. He spoke to what God desires for all estates of life, be they that of the priests, deacons, their wives, the widows, the young men, or maidens. As just one example of this vocation to holiness that Polycarp asks of his readers, let us focus on his writing to the younger members of the Body.

“In like manner also the younger men must be blameless in all things, caring for purity before everything and curbing themselves from every evil. For it is a good thing to refrain from lusts in the world, for every lust warreth against the Spirit, and neither whoremongers nor effeminate persons nor defilers of themselves with men shall inherit the kingdom of God, neither they that do untoward things. Wherefore it is right to abstain from all these things, submitting yourselves to the presbyters and deacons as to God and Christ. The virgins must walk in a blameless and pure conscience.” (Philippians 5:3)

The life of purity and submission to leaders within the Church is praised as the key to bringing joy and peace to the Christian life. Polycarp writes extensively on this, imparting words of wisdom for the faithful who reads his words.

In addition to living a life of purity in day to day living, Polycarp’s own testimony as a martyr shows that virtue culminates in embracing the Cross of Christ. The above cited section (Martyrdom 14) from the martyrdom account makes it clear that martyrdom is not just a matter of not denying Christ-instead, it is the foremost means by which he has received his portion of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

As the faithful gathered to receive his bones and venerate them each year on the anniversary of his martydom (aptly called a “birthday”, as Polycarp would like us all to see the life in his death), may we too learn from Polycarp’s vision of union with Christ even in death as the source of life.

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