St Polycarp (c. 69—155) is one of my heroes. We have only one letter of his extant, plus sundry references in St Ignatius and St Ireneaus which emphasize Polycarp’s importance as a link with the apostolic past. Irenaeus asserts that Polycarp had been taught by St John himself and knew many who had known Jesus Christ in the flesh. He mentions his martyrdom, but our chief source of information comes from a Letter of the Smyrneans. It is one of the most exciting narratives ever penned and provides a clear and beautiful picture of fidelity and courage in old age. Indeed, it is for his glorious martyrdom that Polycarp is chiefly remembered today.
It is tempting to think of old age as a time when our life’s work is done, when we slip gradually into Shakepseare’s sixth and seventh ages and are, as far as this world goes, no longer of any account. Some of us, of course, have never been of much account anyway, and as we grow older we merely face this truth with more and more frankness. I myself believe that old age is very far from being of no account. We may not be called to martyrdom like Polycarp; but it is quite likely that when we are at our weakest and most vulnerable we shall be called upon to perform the most heroic act of our life: to die. Just as Polycarp’s death showed how he had lived, so will ours; and it will require just as much courage, though ours may — I hope will — be expressed differently.
We pray for the grace of a good death, but perhaps we shrink from thinking what that might mean. So often the business of dying is a bit bleak, a bit laboured, messy even. A good death does not necessarily mean to die ‘bravely,’ with sobbing family gathered round an immaculately sheeted bed and all the paraphanalia of a text-book ‘holy death’. Rather, it means to die trusting, however imperfectly, in the God who made us, surrendering ourselves into his hands, returning our spirit to him who gave it. It means uttering the great Amen to the gift of life; and it doesn’t really matter whether we proclaim it firmly or whisper it feebly. All that matters is that we say it.
Today, let us give thanks for Polycarp and all who have shown us the way.