“Turn me over, I’m done on this side.”
These reputed words from St. Lawrence (26 December 225 – 10 August 258) as he was being cooked alive on a gridiron relate both the gruesomeness and the glory of his martyrdom. He was born on the feast day of St. Stephen, the first deacon who died a martyr’s death, at the feet of Saul, who would later became St. Paul. How appropriate, therefore, that Lawrence should also both become a deacon and die for the sake of Christ so that on 10 August every year, we celebrate the glory of St. Lawrence.
In the year 258, the Roman Empire was well on its way in the slow, torturous decline toward its eventual collapse in the fifth century. The Roman Emperor Valerian needed money to fund the never-ending wars on its borders that the Empire had to fight against the barbarians. The Christians were rumored to possess great wealth of gold and silver that they used within their liturgical services. Therefore, Valerian wanted their money, and so began the latest persecution of the Church and the Christians.
Lawrence himself was of Spanish origin, and he befriended the future Pope Sixtus II while Lawrence was a young man. The two eventually travelled to Rome, and when Sixtus became pope in 257, he ordained Lawrence a deacon. Further, Sixtus appointed Lawrence the “archdeacon” of Rome, which was the most important position among the traditional seven deacons in Rome. The archdeacon was responsible not only as the principal deacon to serve the pope within liturgical functions and in the pope’s secular administration of the Church, but archdeacons were also responsible for administering and maintaining the treasury of the Church and distributing alms to the poor. Very often, in fact, the archdeacons of Rome become popes themselves.
In August 258, Valerian issued a Roman edict announcing that all bishops, priests, and deacons should be put to death (by beheading, as was the usual way) and that all their wealth should be confiscated immediately. Pope Sixtus II was captured along with his deacons celebrating Mass at the cemetery of Pope St. Callixtus. The authorities allowed Lawrence to live, but in three days, he was to appear before a local governor and present the wealth of the Church before the magistrate. Lawrence begged and pleaded with Sixtus that the pope should not go to his death without his deacon beside him, but Sixtus assured Lawrence that he would, indeed, follow Sixtus to martyrdom in three days.
Lawrence immediately busied himself emptying the coffers of the Church and distributing all of the sacred vessels that contained gold and silver among the poor to prevent the magistrate from desecrating the liturgical implements used at Mass. For three days, Lawrence worked diligently at his task. The magistrate, however, imagined that Lawrence was taking a full inventory and gathering all of the gold, silver, and other valuables to present to him.
On the third day, Lawrence gathered together the wealth of the Church: the poor, lame, indigent, lepers, the blind, the sick, widows, and young maidens. He arranged them in rows and presented them before the Roman governor. The magistrate was not amused to see people of misfortune and misery standing before him, and he demanded to know where the treasures of the Church were. Lawrence replied that these people were the treasures of the Church! The magistrate was furious that Lawrence appeared to be mocking him in front of everyone. Therefore, he ordered that Lawrence should be put to death, but it should not be a quick one. He wanted Lawrence to suffer a slow, painful torture. Therefore, Lawrence was set upon a gridiron heated several times over and roasted until he died. St. Lawrence is, therefore, the patron saint of chefs, restauranteurs, and comedians because of his abovementioned quote in which he petitioned to be turned over to be roasted on his other side when his first side was “cooked.”
The life, and more properly, the death of St. Lawrence brings together all of the Christian elements found in the faith we profess each week. His charity for Christ and for his spiritual father, Sixtus II, motivated Lawrence to live out what Jesus revealed in Luke 6:20, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” It is no surprise that great miracles were associated with Lawrence soon after his martyrdom. The Fathers of the Church assure us that one of the signs of our predestination in heaven with God is our charity that we show to the poor. Christ Himself chose at the end of His earthly life to have nothing—not even a grave in His own name. Jesus assures us that any action, from the least to the greatest, that we do for one who is poor, when we are doing it for Him, correspondingly guarantees us an eternal reward from Him. St. Lawrence was not afraid to go to meet Christ, his Redeemer, because Lawrence had already seen Jesus’ face in the people he was serving each day. May we follow in the great example of Lawrence and all the martyrs who triumphed gloriously over any momentary worldliness to see instead the eternal life destined for them and for us who serve Jesus daily most especially in the poor, the forgotten, and those who the world sees as “un-important.” May we be most blessed, indeed, like St. Lawrence, in serving them most graciously!
May you have a most blessed and holy week!
Fr. Shawn William Cutler
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