St Cecilia, Virgin and Martyr (Memorial)

Commentary on St Cecilia, Virgin and Martyr  (Memorial)

Cecilia was a Roman martyr of the 3rd century but practically nothing certain is known about her life. About the 4th century AD there appeared a Greek religious story based on the loves of Cecilia and Valerian, which were a glorification of the celibate life.  It was intended to replace the more sensuous romances such as that of Daphnis and Chloe, then very popular.  Cecilia’s later popularity is mainly due to legends dating from the 5th century, some 200 years after her death.

The tradition is that she was a Christian of noble birth and promised in marriage to a non-Christian called Valerian.  But, as she had already made a vow of virginity to God, she let her husband know that she did not want to consummate their marriage.  As a result, her husband and his brother, Tiburtius (Thateus), themselves became Christians. They were arrested and martyred about the year 230 under the Emperor Alexander Severus.  Soon afterwards, Cecilia herself was brought before the prefect.

She refused to offer pagan sacrifice, converted her persecutors to Christianity but was then  sentenced to death.  Her executioners first tried to kill her by locking her in an overheated sauna-type bathhouse.  When this failed, she was to be decapitated but, after her executioner failed in three attempts, he fled the scene.  Cecilia survived for three days in a semi-conscious state before finally succumbing. In the last three days of her life, she opened her eyes, looked at her family and friends and then closed them forever.  Those keeping vigil knew that she had entered paradise. Later her house was dedicated as a church by Pope Urban, who had encouraged her in her fidelity.  Unfortunately this story finds no confirmation in any other contemporary source.  She is not mentioned in the writings of Jerome or Ambrose, for instance, although they were particularly interested in the martyrs.

While many legends arose in the case of many early saints, in Cecilia’s case, her very existence is uncertain (similar to Christopher and Philomena).  The only basis on which her existence might be argued is the existence of a church, called the titulus Ceciliae in the Trastevere, Rome, and which was founded by a certain Roman lady called Cecilia.  It dates from about the 5th century, was magnificently rebuilt by Pope Paschal I about 820, when her supposed relics, with those of her companions, were brought there by the pope. The church was again rebuilt by Cardinal Emilio Sfondrati in 1599.  Then the tomb of Cecilia was opened and the body was found incorrupt but it quickly disintegrated through contact with the air.  The sculptor Maderna, however, made a life-size marble statue of the body “lying on the right side, as a maiden in her bed, her knees drawn together and seeming to be asleep”. A replica of this statue occupies Cecilia’s supposed original tomb in the cemetery of Callistus.  The church was in recent times the titular church Cardinal Carlo Martini, former Archbishop of Milan.

Cecilia is one of seven women, excluding the Blessed Virgin, commemorated by name in the First Eucharist Prayer of the Mass.  She is probably best known as the patron of musicians and choirs since the 16th century.  The origin of this seems to be found in the antiphon taken from her Acts: “As the musical instruments (at her wedding feast) were playing, Cecilia sung (in her heart) to the Lord, saying: ‘May my heart remain unsullied, so that I be not confounded’.”

The traditional account of her life is famous as the Second Nun’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

In art her principal emblem since the 16th century is an organ (as in Raphael’s painting at Bologna) or some other musical instrument such as a lute but she appears without emblem in ancient representations such as the mosaic in S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (6th century), and in Roman frescoes in the catacomb of Callixtus and in the church of S. Maria Antiqua.


Readings: Hosea 2:16b,17b, 21-22; Ps 44; Matthew 25:1-13

The Gospel reading comes from Matthew’s account of the end times where Jesus speaks of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and mingles it with images about the Second Coming of Jesus for the General Judgement.  This section also contains three important parables linked to the Final Judgement.

We have the first of these parables as our reading for today’s feast.  Not surprisingly, it is the parable of the 10 bridesmaids, often referred to as the Ten Virgins.  Jesus says that the Kingdom of God (he uses the word ‘heaven’) can be compared to ten bridesmaids going out to welcome the bridegroom at a wedding.

Five of them were sensible and had foresight and the other five were foolish.  The sensible ones took a reserve of oil for their lamps while the foolish ones did not.  Then the groom took much longer to come than expected and all the virgins became heavy-eyed and sleepy.

At midnight the call went up, “The groom has arrived!  Go out to greet him!”  But as the bridesmaids trimmed their lamps, the foolish ones realised all their oil was used up.  They asked the sensible virgins to share some of their oil.  They refused on the grounds that all of them would end up with not enough.  They told the foolish girls to and get more oil.

But, while they were on their way, the groom arrived and those who were ready went into the wedding hall with him.  And the door was locked.  When the foolish virgins arrived, they begged for the door to be open.  “Lord, Lord, open the door for us.”  But he answered with one of the most chilling statements in the Gospel: “I’m sorry but I do not know you.”

The moral is then given: keep your eyes open for you do not know the day or the hour.

We know that in the very early Church many believed – and it is reflected in the earliest letter of Paul – that Jesus would come again during the believers’ lifetime.  (Even in our own days, there are preachers who talk about the imminence of the ‘end times’.  One date being given is 21 May 2011.)  Or there are people who work on the principle of ‘eat, drink and be merry’ and straighten things out just before the end comes.

Jesus is warning that this is not a very good idea.  We do not know when the Bridegroom will come.  We have no idea when life on our planet will come to an end.  Even more practically, we do not know when our own time on this earth will terminate.  The point of these Gospel texts is that, whenever it happens, we be ready, that our lamps are burning bright.

This is not a question of piling up good works and putting them into some celestial account.  It is clear from the Gospel that God does not work that way.  What is important is that at any given moment we are in a right relationship with God.  And how do we do that?  We do it by seeking, finding and serving God in every experience of every day, finding and loving God in every person that comes into our life.  Sometimes we will fail but we just turn round and start all over again. What is most important is where we are when he calls us.  Strangely enough, we guarantee the future by focusing on the present, on the here and now.

Cecilia was just such a faithful virgin who had consecrated her whole life to God and in bringing others to know and love him and unhesitatingly gave that life back to God.

The First Reading is a short passage from the prophet Hoseah.  The words describe Yahweh speaking to Israel but they can be understood as describing the Lord calling someone to be espoused to him as his bride, very appropriate for someone who has vowed virginity and makes Christ her Spouse.

“I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart,” says the Lord.  And “she shall respond there as in the days of her youth, when she came up from the land of Egypt.”

The Lord then makes his proposal of marriage: “I will espouse you to me forever; I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy.  I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the Lord.”

Words again which apply so well to Cecilia who was truly a Bride of Christ, a Bride who was always ready with her lamp burning to greet her Lord.






Comments Off on St Cecilia, Virgin and Martyr (Memorial)

Printed from LivingSpace - part of Sacred Space
Copyright © 2022 Sacred Space :: :: All rights reserved.