Liturgical commentaries for the feast of Saint Lawrence, deacon and martyr.
Once the mother of false gods, but now the Bride of Christ, O Rome, it is through Laurence thou art victorious! Thou hast conquered haughty monarchs and subjected nations to thine empire; but though thou hadst overcome barbarism, thy glory was incomplete till thou hadst vanquished the unclean idols. This was Laurence’s victory a combat bloody yet not tumultuous like those of Camillus or of Caesar; it was the contest of faith, wherein self is immolated and death is overcome by death.
What words, what praises suffice to celebrate such a death? How can I worthily sing so great a martyrdom? Thus opens the sublime poem of Prudentius, composed little more than a century after the saint’s martyrdom In this work the poet has preserved to us the traditions existing in his own day, whereby the name of the Roman deacon was rendered so illustrious.
About the same time St. Ambrose, with his irresistible eloquence described the meeting of Sixtus and his deacon on the way to martyrdom.’ But, before both Ambrose and Prudentius, Pope St. Damasus chronicled the victory of Laurence’s faith.
In his majestic monumental inscriptions, which have such a ring of the days of triumph! Rome was lavish in her demonstrations of honour towards the champion who had prayed for her deliverance upon his red hot gridiron. She inserted his name in the Canon of the Mass, and moreover celebrated the anniversary of his birth to heaven with as much solemnity as those of the glorious apostles her founders, and with the same privileges of a Vigil and an Octave.
She has been dyed with the blood of many other witnesses of Christ, yet as though Laurence had a special claim upon her gratitude, every spot connected with him has been honoured with a church. Amongst all these sanctuaries dedicated to him, the one which contains the martyr’s body ranks next after the churches of St. John Lateran, St. Mary’s on the Esquiline, St. Peter’s on the Vatican, and St. Paul’s on the Ostian Way.
St. Laurence outside the Walls completes the number of the five great basilicas that form the appanage and exclusive possession of the Roman Pontiff. They represent the patriarchates of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, which divide the world between them, and express the universal and immediate jurisdiction of the Bishops of Rome over all the churches. Thus through Lawrence the Eternal City is completed, and is shown to be the centre of the world and the source of every grace. Just as Peter and Paul are the riches, not of Rome alone, but of the whole world, so Lawrence is called the honor of the world, for he, as it were, personified the courage of martyrdom. At the beginning of this month we saw Stephen himself come to blend his dignity of Protomartyr with the glory of Sixtus II’s deacon, by sharing his tomb.
In Laurence, it seemed that both the struggle and the victory of martyrdom reached their highest point; persecution, it is true, was renewed during the next half-century, and made many victims, yet his triumph was considered as the death-blow to paganism.
"The devil," says Prudentius, "struggled fiercely with God’s witness, but he was himself wounded and prostrated for ever. The death of Christ’s martyr gave the death-blow to the worship of idols, and from that day Vesta was powerless to prevent her temple from being deserted. All these Roman citizens, brought up in the superstitions taught by Numa, hasten, 0 Christ, to Thy courts, singing hymns to Thy martyr. Illustrious senators, flamens and priests of Lupercus, venerate the tombs of apostles and saints. We see patricians and matrons of the noblest families vowing to God the children in whom their hopes are centred. The pontiff of the idols, whose brow but yesterday was bound with the sacred fillet, now signs himself with the Cross, and the vestal virgin Claudia visits thy sanctuary, 0 Laurence."
It need not surprise us that this day’s solemnity carries its triumphant joy from the city of the seven hills to the entire universe.
"As it is impossible for Rome to be concealed," says St. Augustine, "so it is equally impossible to hide Laurence’s crown."
Everywhere, in both East and West, churches were built in his honour; and in return, as the Bishop of Hippo testifies, the favours he conferred were innumerable, and prove the greatness of his power with God; who has ever prayed to him and has not been graciously heard?’ Let us, then, conclude with St. Maximus of Turin that in the devotion wherewith the triumph of St. Laurence is being celebrated throughout the entire world, we must recognize that it is both holy and pleasing to God to honor, with all the fervour of our souls, the birth to heaven of the martyr who by his radiant flames has spread the glory of his victory over the whole Church.
Because of the spotless purity of soul which made him a true Levite, and because of that fullness of faith which earned him the martyr’s palm, it is fitting that we should honour him almost equally with the apostles.
Source: Liturgical Year by Dom Guéranger.