Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Eucharist in the Apostolic Fathers Part Three: St. Polycarp of Smyrna

St. Polycarp, an apostle of St. John the Evangelist, was the bishop of Smyrna and a contemporary of St. Ignatius.  He wrote a letter to the Philippians not soon after the martyrdom of Ignatius. Polycarp warned the Philippians against the heresies of the day, namely Docetism.  He does not mention anything Eucharistic is this short letter; its focus is rather narrow in scope.  There is also an account of his martyrdom, which is the first recorded account of martyrdom outside Scripture.  He gives a speech before he is burned at the stake wherein the beauty and eloquence of an old bishop is surely displayed.  In that speech there is not direct reference to Scripture, but Louis Bouyer mentions an interesting point about his martyrdom.  “The account of his martyrdom shows us this bishop handing himself over to the fire exactly as if he were going to celebrate the Eucharist for the last time.  And in this supreme celebration where he identifies himself with the victim, which is Christ, we can think that the prayer derives from the Eucharist, which he was accustomed to offer.”[i]  Polycarp is augmenting a primitive Eucharistic prayer for the offering of himself instead of the unbloody sacrifice on the altar.  “Thou has granted me this day and hour, in the cup of the Christ, for the Resurrection to everlasting life … may I, today, be received among them before Thee, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice as Thou … hast prepared beforehand, and shown forth, and fulfilled … I glorify Thee through the everlasting and heavenly high priest, Jesus Christ, thy beloved Child.”[ii]  We see again the Eucharistic Christianity that was so captivating about Ignatius of Antioch.  Polycarp, who did not know Jesus in the flesh, knew Him best through the Blessed Sacrament.  It felt most natural to pray his final prayer in Eucharistic fashion.

[i] Louis Bouyer, Eucharist: Theology and Spirituality of the Eucharistic Prayer, translated by Charles Quinn (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), 114-115.
[ii] Martyrdom of Polycarp, in The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 2 of the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998), 331-332.

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