05 August 2011

5 August - Saint Afra of Augsburg

Today is the feast of the martyr Saint Afra of Augsburg, or, as it was called when she lived there in the late third century, Augusta Vindelicorum, an important outpost on the Roman frontier.

Originally, she was known to have suffered for her faith in the persecutions of Diocletion and was beheaded in Augsburg in the early 4th century.  Later depictions embellished the story a bit, making her a former prostitute and changing her execution to being burnt alive.

Her entry in the Roman Martyrology is short and succinct: "At Augsburg, the birthday of St. Afra, martyr.  After being converted from Paganism by the instructions of bishop St. Narcissus, and being baptized with all her household, she was delivered to the flames for the confession of Christ."

Curiosities of Popular Customs (1898), borrowing from Reverend Alban Butler's Lives of the Saints amplifies the story (although not as much as Father Butler):
"Afra, St., patroness of Augsburg, Germany. Her feast on August 5 is especially honored in this her native city.  Legend asserts that she was originally a courtesan, who with her three handmaidens, Digna, Eunomia, and Eutropia, led a dissolute life during the reign of Diocletian.  A priest named Narcissus, fleeing from persecution, took shelter in her house in ignorance of its character. He converted and baptized her and her companions, and she aided him to escape.  For this offence she was imprisoned, and when she confessed the faith she was burnt alive, August 7, 304.  All the members of her household also suffered martyrdom on the same day.  But for some reason St. Afra and her companions are commemorated on August 5.  Her relics are supposed to have been discovered in 955 by St. Ulfric.  They now repose in the church of SS. Ulfric and Afra in Augsburg."

Whatever the truth of it (and it should be remembered that medieval hagiographers were not as interested in writing facts as they were in edifying their readers), her words at her trial are a reminder that no matter what men say about our sins and our worthiness to follow Christ, Our Lord's boundless mercy is greater than any sin of ours, and the true penitent will find grace.

From the Lives of the Saints:
" The judge, by name Gaius, who knew who she was, said: “Sacrifice to the gods; it is better to live than to die in torments.”
Afra replied: “I was a great sinner before I knew God; but I will not add new crimes, nor do what you command me.”

Gaius said: “Go to the capitol and sacrifice.”
Afra answered: “My capitol is Jesus Christ, whom I have always before my eyes. I every day confess my sins; and, because I am unworthy to offer him any sacrifice, I desire to sacrifice myself for his name, that this body in which I have sinned may be purified and sacrificed to him by torments.”

“I am informed,” said Gaius, “that you are a prostitute. Sacrifice, therefore, as you are a stranger to the God of the Christians, and cannot be accepted by him.
Afra replied: “Our Lord Jesus Christ hath said, that he came down from heaven to save sinners. The gospels testify that an abandoned woman washed his feet with her tears, and obtained pardon, and that he never rejected the publicans, but permitted them to eat with him.”

The judge said: “Sacrifice, that your gallants may follow you, and enrich you.”
Afra answered: “I will have no more of that execrable gain. I have thrown away, as so much filth, what I had by me of it. Even our poor brethren would not accept of it, till I had overcome their reluctance by my entreaties, that they might pray for my sins.”

Gaius said: “Jesus Christ will have nothing to do with you. It is in vain for you to acknowledge him for your God: a common prostitute can never be called a Christian.”
Afra replied: “It is true, I am unworthy to bear the name of a Christian; but Christ hath admitted me to be one.”

Gaius said: “Sacrifice to the gods, and they will save you.”
The martyr replied: “My Saviour is Jesus Christ, who upon the cross promised paradise to the thief who confessed him.”

The judge said: “Sacrifice, lest I order you to be whipped in the presence of your lovers.”
Afra replied: “The only subject of my confusion and grief are my sins.”

“Sacrifice,” said the judge, “I am ashamed that I have disputed so long with you. If you do not comply, you shall die.”
Afra replied: “That is what I desire, if I am not unworthy to find rest by this confession.”

The judge said: “Sacrifice, or I will order you to be tormented, and afterwards burnt alive.”
Afra answered: “Let that body which hath sinned undergo torments; but as to my soul, I will not taint it by sacrificing to demons.” "

For such strength of purpose, she was delivered to the executioners, who carried out the sentence on her.  She died of smoke inhalation.

Saint Afra, pray for us, that we might close our ears to the accusations of the world and find our worth in the love of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Artwork: Saint Afra of Augsburg by the Master of Messkirch, c.1535/40.  Wurth Museum, Schwabisch Hall, Baden-Wurttemburg, Germany.  Swiped from Wikipedia.