3 Extraordinary Stories of Women Who Died for Their Faith
- Patricia Engler Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2020 2 Mar
As strange as it sounds, I used to be afraid of listening to my Christian radio station at 9:00pm. That’s when news about persecuted Christians aired, and to my kiddie-sized ears, few stories sounded more horrifying than those of real martyrs.
What good, I wondered, could stem from learning of such traumatizing tragedies?
During my teen years, however, I acquired a taste for reading the epic exploits of Christians worldwide—even those serving where believers risk daily danger. The astounding ways God proved His faithfulness in these Christians’ lives, even during the darkest trials, left me wonderstruck.
If that’s who God is, I thought—if that’s what prayer does, what Scripture means, and what happens when ordinary people surrender themselves to God—then I wanted to know God that way too.
Suddenly, I realized how powerful martyrs’ stories are. They can ignite our faith, spark our courage, and kindle a passion for eternity which can’t help fanning into action.
Contagious as a forest fire, that passion refines our priorities, fuels our God-given mission, and changes our surrounding landscape.
The author of Hebrews understood how earlier Christians’ stories rally us to pursue stories of our own, calling us to remember those
“who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.
Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. …Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 11:33-35 and 12:1).
As women running the races marked out for us, we can glean especial inspiration from early female martyrs.
Though they, as women lacking voices in Roman politics, would likely never have crossed history’s stage, their final actions etched images of Christ’s glory in His early church which we can still see, still celebrate, still learn from today.
With this in mind, let’s step back in time to discover what three female martyrs can teach us.
1. Perpetua Teaches Us How to Ground Our Identity in Christ
Vibia Perpetua, a young noblewoman, wife, and mother, lived from 182-203 AD in Carthage, a Roman city near North Africa’s gleaming Mediterranean. The details of Perpetua’s spring largely from her own diary, to which eyewitness editors have added their descriptions of her death.
Let’s step into her story:
Follow Carthage’s winding stone streets to pass below a certain arched doorway, and you’ll hear the clatter of chariots outside give way to the murmur of two voices within.
“Father,” the softer voice is saying, “do you see this little pitcher lying here?”
“I see it, Perpetua.”
Peering into the room where the speakers recline, you too can see the pitcher, half-shadowed in flickering lamplight which illuminates a woman’s face. She’s young—maybe 22. And judging by the infant son in her arms, she’s also a new mother.
“Can the pitcher be called by any name other than what it is?” she asks.
“No,” the deeper voice acknowledges.
“Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am, a Christian.”
At this, you hear a crash. Then a roar. You can’t intervene in the domestic disquiet which unfolds anymore than you can prevent the Roman guards from herding Perpetua, her infant, and a handful of fellow believers to the city dungeon.
Days pass. Eventually, Carthage stirs with news that games are about to take place in celebration of Caesar’s birthday. If you elbow your way into the amphitheatre’s jeering throng, you’ll see a band of condemned prisoners entering the arena.
But their eyes, rather than sparking with criminal bitterness, are shining with wordless joy. Behind them comes Perpetua, carrying herself like a woman who knows who she is—or rather, whose she is. Her very motions evince what one onlooker would later describe as “step and gait as a matron of Christ, beloved of God; casting down the luster of her eyes from the gaze of all.”
She and her co-prisoner Felicitas, another young mother, must face a wild cow. The beast tosses Perpetua skyward once; as the moment arrives for her to encounter its horns again, you notice Perpetua reaching to bind back her tousled tresses.
After all, as one eyewitness would remark, it’s “not becoming for a martyr to suffer with dishevelled hair, lest she should appear to be mourning in her glory.”
Before Perpetua’s final faceoff with the beast, she leaves these words to fellow Christians:
“Stand fast in the faith, and love one another, all of you, and be not offended at my sufferings.”
At last, she falls by a gladiator’s hand.
The moral of her story:
From Perpetua’s refusal to call herself anything but a Christian, to her carriage as a daughter of God upon her death, Perpetua’s actions consistently affirm how she considered her identity to be inseparable from Christ’s.
By God’s grace, let’s also be women who rest in Christ’s identity, who stand fast for His name, who walk like we know whose we are—and who do it all with tidy hair.
2: Lucia Teaches Us to Be Immovable in Our Stance for What’s Right
According to church tradition, Lucia of Syracuse lived from 283-304 AD. In those days, the emperors completely erased Christians’ legal rights, forcing everyone to worship only as the government-specified or suffer the harshest penalties. No pity. No exceptions.
Lucia, the daughter of a Roman nobleman, never married.
Let’s step into her story:
A salted breeze whistles off the Ionian Sea as you pick your way along Syracuse’s alleys, staying mostly in the shadows. But what’s that light bobbing ahead—someone with a lantern?
The lantern-bearing figure turns toward a bundle huddled against the wall; as she bends, you see her face. A feminine face. She can’t be more than 21.
“Please,” she whispers, handing something to the bundle, “take this.”
The bundle stretches forth a hand to accept the twinkling object. Jewelry?
“I told you,” a searing voice hisses from somewhere around the next corner, making you jump, “Lucia’s betrayed you!”
“Unbelievable,” a second speaker responds, cursing. “I don’t care if she did vow to remain single for her God. Her mother betrothed her to me, and those jewels she tosses to beggars are my rightful dowry. Come, there’s not a moment to lose.”
With that, two sets of footsteps fade into the night.
Should you warn Lucia? You glance up the street, but the girl and her lantern have vanished.
Soon, morning breaks, and with it, news of a trial.
“Lucia’s betrothed has denounced her to Governor Paschasius,” the gossip whirs throughout town, “she’s before the governor now!”
Running to Paschasius’ judgement seat, you arrive to see Lucia’s slender silhouette contrasted against the bulking forms of the governor and his guards. Between them stands the outline of a stone altar.
“Your betrothed accuses you of unlawful worship,” Paschasius growls, “but you may dispel this misunderstanding. Sacrifice to the emperor’s image, and you shall have your freedom. If you will not—your home shall be the brothels.”
Spears rattle. Guards, like snarling wolves, close around her. Fierce hands seize her shoulders, yet she won’t budge!
“Bring a yoke of oxen!” the flustered commander shouts. But not even the strength of oxen can move this stoic maiden.
“Enough,” the governor bellows at last, “light a fire.”
The guards heap straw around Lucia; one of them raises a torch, then drops it like a comet. No sooner does the fatal comet thud into the straw than a flaming swirl engulfs the maiden.
Yet she stands unscathed!
Finally, the soldiers have had enough of this recalcitrant rebel too stubborn to burn, this creature whom neither words nor oxen nor fire can sway. Instead, one of their swords deals Lucia’s final sentence.
The moral of her story:
In the face of ever-increasing oppositions, no threat dissuaded Lucia from doing what she knew was right. That doesn’t mean she never felt afraid; she simply refused to sacrifice her faith to her fear. By God’s grace, let’s also be immovable when confronting our fears to stand for what’s right.
3: Catherine Teaches Us How to Boldly Speak Truth, Pursue Justice, and Make Disciples
What we know of Catherine of Alexandria comes handed down through centuries of church tradition. A Roman governor’s daughter, she is believed to have lived from 287-305 AD.
Let’s step into her story:
You’re standing in the thriving Egyptian metropolis of Alexandria, just outside the city governor’s house. The door opens; all around you, bystanders’ heads turn to see a girl of about 18 march into the streets.
“Who is she?” you ask a nearby merchant paused in his tracks.
“Catherine, of course,” he whispers. “Who doesn’t know of the governor’s daughter? Beware of her, traveler. She may be beautiful as a Nile lily, but her words have persuaded hundreds to join the Christian cult. Besides, why she, a girl, should study philosophy, science, languages, and medicine no one can say. And why she refuses to marry—”
But you can’t catch the rest of his sentence—not when you need to follow Catherine. Tracking her determined steps, you eventually find her seeking audience before Emperor Maxentius himself!
“It isn’t right to kill them,” she challenges the emperor, “you must stop these persecutions against Christians.”
Clearly, this girl’s got guts!
The emperor’s eyes narrow. He summons 50 pagan philosophers, his wisest orators, to silence this fiendish female’s pro-Christian arguments. Not only does she win the ensuing debate, but her irrefutable logic also compels several listeners to themselves become Christians! These converts taste the consequences of their treason immediately, but the execution is too light a sentence for Catherine. No, she must be thoroughly scourged. Imprisoned. Condemned to death by the breaking wheel.
While she awaits her fate, 200 visitors seek her in prison—and not one remains unconverted. Finally, the executioners lead Catherine to the wheel. But instead of the wheel breaking her, she breaks it upon contact. A quick blow by sword ushers Catherine into eternity.
The moral of her story:
From advocating for persecuted brethren, to proclaiming truth before the governor’s orators, to making prison an opportunity to share Christ, Catherine boldly approached life for what a Christian’s time on earth is: a short-term missions trip. By God’s grace, let’s also be bold in investing our earthly time into eternal purposes.
The Ultimate Takeaway
Ultimately, the lessons we draw from these women’s stories will look different for each of us, as their testimonies speak specifically into the unique races God gives us to run (Hebrews 12:1). Yet we can all learn from some key elements which Perpetua, Catherine and Lucy have in common.
Namely, these women’s actions remind us what’s eternally significant. Like all martyrs, they counted comfort, wealth, status, earthly relationships and even life itself as loss (Philippians 3:8), not because those things aren’t valuable, but because something far more valuable lay at stake.
Looking at these women’s lives, we also see how God’s Spirit bears fruits in believers during real-world trials, yielding love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galations 5:23, NIV) which come only from Christ.
We see the brutal lengths to which evil goes, yet we witness how God’s goodness shines through every crack in our sin-broken world.
Climactically, we see in Perpetua, Lucia and Catherine the paradoxical ruin and triumph which John described in Revelation 12:11 (NIV): “They overcame (Satan) by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.”
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Miguel Bruna