ST. LAURENCE, DEACON IN THE CHURCH OF ROME IN THE THIRD CENTURY
l most solemnly tell you, unless a wheat grain
falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a
single grain, but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.
On the 10th of August we honour St. Laurence, one of the martyrs under the persecution against Christians ordered by the Emperor Valerian in the mid-third century, A.D. He thought by killing all the bishops, priests and deacons of the Church he would be able to exterminate Christianity. Accordingly Pope Sixtus II and most of his clergy whose day we commemorated on the 7th August were martyred four days previously. They were dragged from the catacombs of St. Callistus where Sixtus was saying Mass and led out for immediate execution. Not only were clergy persecuted but also all church property was confiscated and meetings of Christians forbidden under this order. Laurence escaped the first round of executions as he was a friend of the Roman prefect. At the time he was the chief (i.e.archdeacon) of the seven deacons at Rome. In his early life Laurence had been recommended to Sixtus when he was Archdeacon of Rome, who instructed him in the Scriptures and holy living. When he became bishop of Rome, he ordained Laurence.
What we know of what happened to Laurence was recorded a century later by Bishop Ambrose of Milan and the poet Prudentius. The prefect promised to set Laurence free if he would surrender the wealth of the church. To this Laurence agreed, but insisted it would take him three days to so. During that time he placed all the Church's money into the safekeeping of trusted stewards. On the third day he assembled before the prefect what were really the treasure and wealth of the Church: the sick, the aged, the widows, the orphans and the poor. But the prefect was not amused at what Laurence considered was the church's wealth, and ordered his execution immediately. This was supposedly on a gridiron. This Laurence bore with great courage and even cheek. It is said that when he had cooked enough on one side, he asked to be turned over. Of course this traditional view of his death has been challenged by those who claim that as a Roman citizen he could only have been beheaded. But then we have no proof that Laurence was a Roman citizen. As Leo the Great said as he finished his homily on Laurence:
"You gain nothing by this, O savage cruelty. When his mortal frame is released from your devices, and Laurence departs for heaven, you are vanquished! The flame of Christ's love could not be overcome by your flames, and the fire which burnt outside was weaker than the fire that burnt within Laurence's heart."
His martyrdom made a great impression on the people of Rome, and as a consequence many were converted. The great St. Augustine tells us that many miracles happened through the prayers of Laurence. One of these seems to be immediately after his death. Prudentius relates that God immediately began to answer the prayers of St. Laurence, for even some of the senators present at his death were convicted and converted the same day because of his piety and tender-hearted fortitude, and carried his body on their shoulders and gave him an honourable burial in Veron Field near the road to Tibor on the 19th August, 258. A.D.
In Rome, Laurence quickly became one of the most popular saints, and there are five ancient basilicas dedicated to him, including the one built over his tomb called St. Laurence-outside-the-walls. His name is in the Canon of the Mass. The most complete cycle of his life was painted by Fra Angelico for the chapel of Nicholas V in the Vatican. In the famous Ravenna mosaics Laurence is depicted carrying a long cross and the Gospel book in his hand on his way to martyrdom. There are also stained-glass windows of his life in the cathedrals of Bruges and Poitiers. In England too there are very early associations with Laurence. Pope Vitalian sent relics of Laurence to the Christian king of Northumbria in the 7thC., and by the 16thC 228 churches had been dedicated to this courageous saint, including that lovely Anglo-Saxon church in the little village of Bradford-upon-Avon, near Bath, and where the Orthodox church has an annual celebration of its Liturgy. And my own parish church in Australia is dedicated to Christ Church St. Laurence.
So on this day we give thanks to Laurence for his fortitude in death, and the sheer loveliness of his character. We pray that his example not only as a martyr but also as deacon will strengthen us to serve one another's needs in this world and fulfil the commandment to love and care for our neighbour.