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St Afra and Companions
Martyrs (entered heaven on August 7, 304)
Of course it pains me to here of your succumbing to temptation over the summer. But I am sure that it pains you even more, now that the Holy Spirit has brought you back to your senses. Above all, though, it pains Christ, who only wants you to live the most meaningful, fulfilling life possible, now and into eternity. When you sin, you spit in the face of his generosity. But never fear, my repentant niece! He came to call sinners, not the righteous, and he has already paid the price for your sin by suffering the unspeakable torments (physical and spiritual) of his glorious Passion. You have only to turn back to him, confess your sins, and receive his forgiveness. You may be encouraged by the remarkable example of today’s saint.
Afra lived in the Roman Empire (in what is today southern Germany) under the Emperor Diocletian. As I’m sure you remember, Diocletian unleashed the most hideous and systematic persecution of the Church in Roman history. He wanted to do away with it completely. Afra was one of its victims.
She had been a common prostitute before converting to Christianity, and this was well known to all the officials in town. When she was forced to come and sacrifice to the Roman gods (this was the test: Christians wouldn’t do that, since they believed in only one God, so making the demand was the surest way to identify who was really a Christian), she refused, publicly acknowledging her faith in Christ to the Roman Governor, Gaius. But Gaius knew her background and began trying to undermine her faith. He told her that Christ could never accept such a sinner as she. She 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.” He insisted, cajoling her to go back to an easy life and make some more money, threatening to have her whipped in front of her former customers, describing the tortures he would inflict on her, and returning again to the point that Christ would never have anything to do with a prostitute. She parried every thrust, finishing with: “It is true, I am unworthy to bear the name of a Christian; but Christ hath admitted me to be one.”
In the end, she was condemned, taken to a nearby island, and burned at the stake. Three other former prostitutes and fellow converts watched from afar, and then, with Afra’s mother, brought the body to be buried in the family tomb. While they were still there, Gaius sent guards to apprehend them and force them all to sacrifice to the Roman non-gods. Each followed Afra’s example of fidelity, so the guards filled the tomb with branches and logs and set it all afire with the four women locked inside.
We never were worthy of the great gift Christ offers us, and after we have sinned, even less so. But the less worthy we are the more gloriously can Christ’s mercy shine when we let his forgiveness truly transform our lives. As Afra put it during her trial, “I was a great sinner before I knew God; but I will not add new crimes… My Capitol [place of sacrifice] is Jesus Christ, whom I have ever 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.”
May your renewed love for God and for your neighbor give you the same joy and fortitude exhibited by St Afra, heroic woman of the Church.
Your loving uncle,