Laughing in the Face of Death

This week, we remember the life of St. Lawrence and his example of joy and faithfulness in the midst of his martyrdom.

By: Rev. Robert Wagner, Guest Contributor

Many of us are familiar with St. Lawrence, deacon and martyr, because of the particularly cruel way he was executed: he was burned over hot coals while fastened to an iron grill. Knowing this, is it macabre that he is considered the patron saint of cooks? Maybe not. The details of his martyrdom show that St. Lawrence expressed humor in even the most dire situations, so perhaps the saint would find it fitting that the gruesome means of martyrdom would be transformed into what some would find a Catholic joke. Through the eyes of faith, levity is possible, for even death loses its sting.

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There are several accounts of the life of St. Lawrence. This is a summary of some of the details in those accounts. St. Lawrence moved from Spain to Rome in the middle of the third century. Pope St. Sixtus II, who was familiar with his virtue and intelligence, named St. Lawrence as his archdeacon, placing him at the head of the seven archdeacons who served the Holy Father. Within the first year of his papacy, however, the Roman Emperor Valerian issued a decree that all bishops, priests and deacons of the Church put be to death. So on August 6, in the year 258, the Pope and four of his deacons were arrested while celebrating Mass. St. Lawrence, who was not with the Pope when he was arrested, met the soldiers and their prisoners as they were being led away and begged that they take him as well. He, too, wanted to die for his belief in Jesus Christ.

“Soon you also will follow,” said Pope Sixtus, who then charged St. Lawrence to care for the treasures of the Church in his absence. Hearing this, the prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence turn the Church’s treasures over to him. Lawrence asked for three days to collect them all. During that time, he distributed the goods to the thousands of needy throughout the streets of Rome who were under the care of the Church at that time.

When he appeared before the Roman prefect three days later, we witness his fearlessness and joy, for St. Lawrence did not come bearing gold and silver, but instead brought with him the forsaken men and women of Rome, such as the poor, the crippled, the orphans, and the widows. “These are the true treasures of the Church,” the deacon proclaimed, but the prefect was not amused, nor did he possess the faith to find the truth in deacon’s words. He imprisoned St. Lawrence, hoping this punishment would persuade the deacon to turn over the wealth of the Church to him.

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Immediately upon his imprisonment, St. Lawrence converted the jailer, who then had his family baptized. Frustrated even more, the Roman prefect finally gave the deacon his great desire: martyrdom. He sentenced the deacon to be slowly burned to death by being grilled over hot coals. St. Lawrence willingly went forth, offering prayers for the city of Rome as he lay on the grill over the flames. It is said that he never lost his humor, as well, at one point telling his executioners, “Turn me over; I am done on this side.”

Because of his firm faith, joyful martyrdom, and love for the poor, St. Lawrence became a source of conversion throughout the pagan city of Rome. After witnessing his martyrdom, several Roman senators converted to Christianity, and then made sure that his body was given a proper burial outside the city walls. Many other conversions followed in the coming days, months and years and as devotion to St. Lawrence increased in the city, paganism began to decline. Within 50 years, the Emperor Constantine passed the Edict of Milan, marking the end of the persecution of Christians in the Roman empire.

On his feast day, August 10, the day he entered into heaven, let us remember the courage, charity and desire of this great deacon of the Church, and pray for his intercession during a time of increasing martyrdom around the globe, as well as attacks against religious freedom in our own country. Let us ask Our Lord that we may follow in the footsteps of St. Lawrence as we serve God and his Church, enlightened by faith and trusting in the Resurrection so that we, like St. Lawrence, may remain steadfast in our witness to Jesus all the days of our life, no matter the dangers we face.

And finally, let us be joyful Catholics who never lose our sense of humor!

St. Lawrence, deacon, martyr, and patron of cooks, pray for us!


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