Being a committed Christian in the Roman Empire during the first three centuries of the Church meant you were willing to be radically countercultural — even if doing so resulted in death. In fact, this time period is often referred to as the Era of the Martyrs.
As worshippers of pagan gods, the Romans often refused to permit Christians to profess their faith openly. However, if Christians agreed to make public sacrifices to the Roman gods, emperors would turn a blind eye to what went on behind closed doors.
Many Christians refused to engage in this duplicity. But if they rejected social norms, they dishonored the emperor; thus the harshest punishments were reserved for them.
The Great Persecution, which lasted from 303-311 AD, was the last and most severe of all the Roman persecutions. Thousands of Christians were killed under the wrath of Emperor Diocletian. Many were burned alive, including the virgin and martyr St. Agnes.
Though little is known about St. Agnes’s life, she is one of the earliest women to be honored by the Church as a saint.
According to tradition, Agnes lived in Rome around the turn of the third century. Some claim she was born into a Christian family, while other sources maintain that she was Roman nobility — the only Christian among her pagan family members.
What is known is that Agnes was martyred, likely around the age of 12 or 13, asserting that she longed only to be the bride of Christ. Fittingly, her name in Greek means “pure.” Her name also became associated with the Latin word agnus, which means “lamb.” Thus, she is often depicted holding a lamb, a symbol of purity and of Christ, the Paschal Lamb.
In many ways, we too are living in a pagan culture not unlike that of St. Agnes. The gods we are asked to publicly worship are not Roman gods, but the gods of wealth, success, sports, work, fame, sex, busyness, technology… anything that will bring us status and comfort. In our society, suffering for the sake of high ideals has been demonized, something to be avoided at all costs. Amidst such hedonism, the cross is gravely misunderstood and ultimately rejected. Since the choice to follow Christ is radically different, it often makes others uncomfortable. Though we are not burned at the stake for our decisions that go against the grain, we do face persecution in various forms.