August 10 – Saint Laurence, Deacon and Martyr
“Once the mother of false gods, but now the bride of Christ, O Rome, it is through Laurence thou art victorious! Thou hadst conquered haughty monarchs and subjected nations to thine empire; but though thou hadst overcome barbarism, thy glory was incomplete till thou hadst vanquished the unclean idols. This was Laurence’s victory, a combat bloody yet not tumultuous like those of Camillus or of Cesar; it was the contest of faith, wherein self is immolated, and death is overcome by death. What words, what praises suffice to celebrate such a death? How can I worthily sing so great a martyrdom.”
Thus opens the sublime poem of Prudentius, composed little more than a century after the Saint’s martyrdom. In this work the poet has preserved to us the traditions existing in his own day, whereby the name of the Roman deacon was rendered so illustrious. About the same time St. Ambrose, with his irresistible eloquence, described the meeting of Sixtus and his deacon on the way to martyrdom. But before both Ambrose and Prudentius, Pope St. Damasus chronicled the victory of Laurence’s faith, in his monumental inscriptions, which have such a ring of the days of triumph.
Rome was lavish in her demonstrations of honor towards the champion who had prayed for her deliverance, upon his red-hot gridiron. She inserted his name in the Canon of the Mass, and moreover celebrated the anniversary of his birth to heaven with as much solemnity as those of the glorious Apostles her founders, and with the same privileges of a Vigil and an Octave. She has been dyed with the blood of many other witnesses of Christ, yet, as though Laurence had a special claim upon her gratitude, every spot connected with him has been honored with a Church. Amongst all these sanctuaries dedicated to him, the one which contains the martyr’s body ranks next after the churches of St. John Lateran, St. Mary’s on the Esquiline, St. Peter’s on the Vatican, and St. Paul’s on the Ostian Way. St. Laurence outside the Walls completes the number of her five great basilicas that form the appanage and exclusive possession of the Roman Pontiff. They represent the patriarchates of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, which divide the world between them, and express the universal and immediate jurisdiction of the Bishops of Rome over all the churches. Thus through Laurence the eternal City is completed and is shown to be the center of the world and the source of every grace.
Just as Peter and Paul are the riches, not of Rome alone, but of the whole world, so Laurence is called the honor of the world, for he, as it were, personified the courage of martyrdom. At the beginning of this month, we saw Stephen himself come to blend his dignity of Protomartyr with the glory of Sixtus II’s deacon, by sharing his tomb. In Laurence, it seemed that both the struggle and the victory of martyrdom reached their highest point; persecution, it is true, was renewed during the next half century, and made many victims, yet his triumph was considered as the death-blow to paganism.
“The devil,” says Prudentius, “struggled fiercely with God’s witness, but he was himself wounded and prostrated for ever. The death of Christ’s martyr gave the death-blow to the worship of idols, and from that day Vesta was powerless to prevent her temple from being deserted. All these Roman citizens, brought up in the superstitions taught by Numa, hasten, O Christ, to thy courts, singing hymns to thy martyr. Illustrious senators, flamens and priests of Lupercus venerate the tombs of Apostles and Saints. We see patricians and matrons of the noblest families vowing to God the children in whom their hopes are centered. The Pontiff of the idols, whose brow but yesterday was bound with sacred fillet, now signs himself with the cross, and the Vestal Virgin Claudia visits thy sanctuary, O Laurence.”
It need not surprise us that this day’s solemnity carries its triumphant joy from the city of the seven hills to the entire universe. “As it is impossible for Rome to be concealed,” says St. Augustine, “so it is equally impossible to hide Laurence’s crown.” Everywhere, in both East and West, churches were built in his honor; and in return, as the Bishop of Hippo testifies, “the favors he conferred were innumerable, and prove the greatness of his power with God; who has ever prayed to him and has not been graciously heard?”
Let us then conclude with St. Maximus of Turin that, “in the devotion wherewith the triumph of St. Laurence is being celebrated throughout the entire world, we must recognize that it is both holy and pleasing to God to honor, with all the fervor of our souls, the birth to heaven of the martyr, who by his radiant flames has spread the glory of his victory over the whole Church. Because of the spotless purity of soul which made him a true Levite, and because of that fullness of faith which earned him the martyr’s palm, it is fitting that we should honor him almost equally with the Apostles.”
Mass.—The deacon has followed his Pontiff beyond the veil; the faithful Levite is standing beside the ark of the eternal covenant. He now gazes on the splendor of that tabernacle not made with hands, feebly figured by that of Moses, and but partially revealed by the Church herself.
And yet today, though still an exile, Mother Church thrills with a holy pride, for she has added something to the glory of the sanctify of heaven. She triumphantly advances to the altar on earth, which is one with that in heaven. Throughout the night she has had her eyes and her heart fixed on her noble son; and now she dares to sing of the beauty, the holiness, the magnificence of our fatherland, as though they were already hers; for the rays of eternal light seem to have fallen upon her as the veil lifted to admit Laurence into the Holy of Holies.
The Introit and its verse are taken from Psalms 95:
|Confessio et pulchritudo in conspectu ejus: sanctitas et magnificentia in sanctificatione ejus.||Praise and beauty are before him: holiness and majesty in his sanctuary.|
|Ps. Cantate Domino canticum novum: cantate Domino omnis terra. Gloria Patri. Confessio.||Ps. Sing ye to the Lord a new canticle; sing to the lord all the earth. ℣. Glory, &c. Praise.|
No doubt our weakness will not be called upon to endure the ordeal of a red-hot gridiron; nevertheless, we are tried by flames of a different kind, which, if we do not extinguish them in this life, will feed the eternal fire of hell. The Church, therefore, asks on this feast of St. Laurence that we may be gifted with prudence and courage.
|Da nobis, quæsumus omnipotens Deus: vitiorum nostrorum flammas exstinguere; qui beato Laurentio tribuisti tormentorum suorum incendia superare. Per Dominum.||Grant us, we beseech thee, Almighty God, to extinguish the flames of our vices; who didst grant to blessed Laurence to overcome the fire of his torments. Through our Lord, &c.|
|Lectio Epistolæ beati Pauli Apostoli ad Corinthios.||Lesson of the Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians.|
|Cap. ix.||Ch. ix.|
|Fratres, Qui parce seminat, parce et metet: et qui seminat in benedictionibus, de benedictionibus et metet. Unusquisque, prout destinavit in corde suo, non ex tristitia, aut ex necessitate: hilarem enim datorem diligit Deus. Potens est autem Deus omnem gratiam abundare facere in vobis: ut in omnibus semper omnem sufficientiam habentes, abundetis in omne opus bonum, sicut scriptum est: Dispersit, dedit pauperibus: justitia ejus manet in saeculum saeculi. Qui autem administrat semen seminanti: et panem ad manducandum praestabit, et multiplicabit semen vestrum, et augebit incrementa frugum justitiae vestræ.||Brethren, he who soweth sparingly, shall also reap sparingly: and he who soweth in blessings, shall also reap blessings. Every one as he hath determined in his heart, not with sadness, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound in you; that ye always, having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work, As it is written: He hath dispersed abroad, he hath given to the poor: his justice remaineth for ever. And he that ministereth seed to the sower, will both give you bread to eat, and will multiply your seed, and increase the growth of the fruits of your justice.|
He hath dispersed abroad, he hath given to the poor: his justice remaineth forever. The Roman Church loves to repeat these words of Psalm cxi in honor of her great archdeacon. Yesterday she sang them in the Introit and Gradual of the Vigil; again they were heard last night in the Responsories, and this morning in the Versicle of her triumphant Lauds. Indeed, the Epistle we have just read, which also furnishes the Little Chapters for the several Hours was selected for today because of this same text being therein quoted by the Apostle. Evidently the choice graces which won for Laurence his glorious martyrdom were, in the Church’s estimation, the outcome of the brave and cheerful fidelity wherewith he distributed to the poor the treasures in his keeping. He who soweth sparingly, shall also reap sparingly; and he who soweth in blessings, shall also reap of blessings; such is the supernatural economy of the Holy Ghost in the distribution of his gifts, as exemplified in the glorious scenes we have witnessed during these three days.
We may add with the Apostle: What touches the heart of God, and moves him to multiply his favors is not so much the work itself as the spirit that prompts it. God loveth a cheerful giver. Noble-hearted, tender, devoted, and self-forgetful, heroic with a heroism born of simplicity no less than of courage, gracious and smiling even on his gridiron: such was Laurence towards God, towards his father Sixtus II, towards the lowly; and the same he was towards the powerful and in the very face of death. The closing of his life did but prove that he was as faithful in great things as he had been in small. Seldom are nature and grace so perfectly in harmony as they were in the young deacon, and though the gift of martyrdom is so great that no one can merit it, yet his particularly glorious martyrdom seems to have been the development, as if by natural evolution, of the precious germs planted by the Holy Ghost in the rich soil of his noble nature.
The words of Psalm 16, which formerly composed the Introit of the Mass of the night, are repeated in the Gradual of the morning Mass. The Alleluia-Verse reminds us of the miracles wrought by St. Laurence upon the blind; let us ask him to cure our spiritual blindness, which is more terrible than that of the body.
|Probasti, Domine, cor meum, et visitasti nocte.||Thou hast proved my heart, O Lord, and visited it by night.|
|℣. Igne me examinasti, et non est inventa in me iniquitas. Alleluia, alleluia.||℣. Thou hast tried me by fire, and iniquity hath not been found in me. Alleluia, alleluia.|
|℣. Levita Laurentius bonum opus operatus est: qui per signum crucis cæcos illuminavit. Alleluia.||℣. The Levite Laurence wrought a good work, who gave sight to the blind by the sign of the cross. Alleluia.|
|Sequentia sancti Evangelii secundum Johannem.||Sequel of the holy Gospel according to John.|
|In illo tempore: Dixit Jesus discipulis suis: Amen, amen dico vobis, nisi granum frumenti cadens in terram, mortuum fuerit, ipsum solum manet: si autem mortuum fuerit, multum fructum affert. Qui amat animam suam, perdet eam; et qui odit animam suam in hoc mundo, in vitam aeternam custodit eam. Si quis mihi ministrat, me sequatur, et ubi sum ego, illic et minister meus erit. Si quis mihi ministraverit, honorificabit eum Pater meus.||At that time: Jesus said to his disciples: Amen, amen I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, Itself remaineth alone. But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world, keepeth it unto life eternal. If any man minister to me, let him follow me; and where I am, there also shall my minister be. If any man minister to me, him will my Father honour.|
The Gospel we have just read was thus commented by St. Augustine on this very feast: “Your faith recognizes the grain that fell into the earth and, having died, was multiplied. Your faith, I say, recognizes this grain, for the same dwelleth in your souls.” That it was concerning himself Christ spoke these words no Christian doubts. But now that that seed is dead and has been multiplied, many grains have been sown in the earth; among them is the blessed Laurence, and this is the day of his sowing. What an abundant harvest has sprung from these grains scattered over all the earth! We see it, we rejoice in it, nay, we ourselves are the harvest; if so be, by his grace, we belong to the granary. For not all that grows in the field belongs to the granary. The same useful, nourishing rain feeds both the wheat and the chaff. God forbid that both should be laid up together in the granary; although they grew together in the field and were threshed together in the threshing floor.
Now is the time to choose. Let us now, before the winnowing, separate ourselves from the wicked by the manner of life, as in the floor the grain is threshed out of the chaff, though not yet separated from it by the final winnowing. Hear me, ye holy grains, who, I doubt not, are here; for if I doubted, I should not be a grain myself: hear me, I say; or rather, hear that first grain speaking by me. Love not your life in this world: love it not if you truly love it, so that by not loving you may preserve it; for by not loving, you love the more. He that loveth his life in this world, shall lose it.
Thus because Laurence was as an enemy to himself and lost his life in this world, he found it in the next. Being a minister of Christ by his very title, for deacon means minister, he followed the Man-God, as the Gospel exhorts; he followed him to the altar, and to the altar of the Cross. Having fallen with him into the earth, he has been multiplied in him. Though separated from St. Laurence by distance of time and place, yet we are, ourselves, as the Bishop of Hippo teaches, a part of the harvest that is ever springing from him. Let this thought excite us to gratitude towards the holy deacon; and let us all the more eagerly unite our homage with the honor bestowed on him by our heavenly Father, for having ministered to his Son.
The Offertory repeats the words of the Introit to a different melody; it is earth’s echo to the music of heaven. The beauty and sanctity that so magnificently enhance the worship of praise around the eternal altar ought to shine by faith in the souls of the Church’s ministers, as the Angels beheld them shining in Laurence’s soul while he was still on earth.
|Confessio et pulchritudo in conspectu ejus: sanctitas et magnificentia in sanctificatione ejus.||Praise and beauty are before him: holiness and majesty are in his sanctuary.|
At this point of the Mysteries it was once Laurence’s duty to present the offerings; the Church, while now presenting them, claims the suffrage of his merits.
|Accipe, quæsumus Domine, munera dignanter oblata, et beati Laurentii suffragantibus meritis, ad nostræ salutis auxilium provenire concede. Per Dominum.||Graciously accept the offerings made to thee, O Lord, we beseech thee; and the merits of blessed Laurence thy martyr, pleading for us, grant them to become a help to our salvation. Through, &c.|
Laurence worthily fulfilled his august ministry at the Table of his Lord; and he, to whom he thus devoted himself, keeps his promise made in the Gospel, by calling him to live forever where he is himself.
|Qui mihi ministrat, me, sequatur: et ubi ego sum, illic et minister meus erit.||If any man minister to me, let him follow me: and where I am, there also shall my minister be.|
After feasting at the sacred banquet of which Laurence was once the dispenser, we beg that the homage of our own service may draw down upon us, through his intercession, an increase of grace.
|Sacro munere satiati, supplices te, Domine, deprecamur: ut, quod debitæ servitutis celebramus officio, intercedente beato Laurentio Martyre tuo, salvationis tuæ sentiamus augmentum. Per Dominum.||Replenished with thy sacred gifts, we suppliantly beseech thee, O Lord, that what we celebrate with due service, by the intercession of blessed Laurence, thy martyr, we may perceive to contribute towards our salvation. Through our Lord, &c.|
This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)