A couple blocks away from the Casa Santa Maria, the American priests’ house in Rome, you will find the Sicilian bakery named “Nonna Vincenza” (Grandma Vincenza). I was first introduced to this place by a friend who was buying a birthday cake for his mother who was visiting us in Rome. While we were there, we bought some pastries for the house, one of which looked remarkably like, well, like this:
When I asked my priest friend what these ones were called, he answered, “St. Agatha’s Breasts”. Oh! And that is how I learned the story of St. Agatha, virgin and martyr, whose feast we celebrate February 5.
Veneration of St. Agatha goes all the way back to the 6th century, but we know very little about her: that she was Sicilian and that she died a martyr. The story goes that she had dedicated her life to God at a young age, promising not to marry, or rather, to belong only to her Divine Spouse, Jesus Christ. Of course, the young men in the village had other ideas. When she refused to marry one Quintian, he denounced her as a Christian, hoping that the threat of torture and death would induce her to marry him.
He was wrong, and so Agatha suffered. One of the punishments inflicted on her was to have her breasts cut off. Around the year 251, she gave the ultimate witness to Christ and died the martyrs death. She is often depicted as holding a plate with her breasts on them, just like St. Lucy is depicted holding a plate with her eyes that were taken out. Agatha is the patron saint of bell-makers (the shape!), of bakers, who make special pastries and bread in the shape of breasts on her feast day (and on other days of the year, as my trip to Nonna Vincenza’s proved), and of breast cancer patients.
One of my high school students told me once that he thought heaven would be boring. Why? It would be boring just to think about God and do “God stuff” all day long. I replied to him that the saints show us how much more interesting God and “God stuff” is than anything we can think up for ourselves. The saints break us out of many of our false notions of religion, and particularly of the false notion that Christ gives us less rather than more life.
One of these false notions is in the very name of our saint, Agatha, which in Greek means “good”. What an abused word this “good” is in our everyday living of Christianity and in our Christian imagination! Good is often equated with nice, so that the highest goal of our deflated Christianity would be not to ruffle too many feathers, to get along with others, and to smile at people more often. Christ told us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and we love ourselves so little, we aim so low, that “nice” is the best thing we can come up. If only we really loved ourselves, then we would have something better to give our neighbor than “nice”. We could give him “good”.
St. Agatha found the best that life had to offer when she met the Love that loved her all the way to death on a Cross. For this love, she was willing to do anything, and her virginity was not so much a giving up as a being totally “taken” by the goodness of the Savior. Her virginity and her martyrdom had the same source and the same goal: the Good. How could she settle for any lesser good, when she had found the Good?
The opposite of good is evil. The history of salvation, along with Christian experience, teaches us that the more good shows itself, the more evil is rooted out. But in its being rooted out, evil rears its ugly head, evil shows its face. A dog does not bark except when it feels threatened, and the evil one would rather be left alone, would rather “we let sleeping dogs lie”. When the Good comes, He exposes all of our idols as false, all of those attempts to set up a lower good as the god of our life. And we like our idols; we are attached to them. So, the revelation of the Good is also the exposure of evil and of its false claims on our life. The reality of martyrdom, today as in the past, is such a paradox, because it is a sign of the victory of God’s Kingdom at the moment when all we see is defeat.
Evil cannot be defeated except by its being exposed. The manifestations of evil–ordinary or extraordinary–are signs of evil’s downfall. It means that the Good is about to win, is winning. Just think of those who have been converted after witnessing a martyr’s death or even causing a martyr’s death (St. Maria Goretti’s killer). Just think of the famous phrase, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.”
Evil is not defeated by “nice”, which would rather have an absence of conflict than expose evil for what it really is. Nice is generally a good policy, except when it would mean covering up what must be exposed, turning a blind eye to what in the end can only bring destruction. “Nice” needs to become “Good”. The Good does not try to “sugarcoat”–pun very much intended–the idols and the masks behind which evil hides.
The saints remind us and invite us into the adventure of the only battle truly worth fighting: the confident march though the world of the Good that overcomes every evil. As the Chronicles of Narnia say of Aslan, “He is not a tame lion, but he is good.” St. Agatha tells us by her very name, but also by her virginity and her martyrdom, that there is a Good for which it is worth dying. He is the same Good, Jesus Christ, for whom it is also worth living, who makes life worth living.