Home > Worship Resources > Festivals & Commemorations > Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, Martyr, 156 (February 23)

About the Commemoration

Polycarp, a principal connecting link between the apostolic age of the church and Christian life of the second century, was born about the year 70. Irenaeus, who had known him in his youth, says that Polycarp was a disciple of St. John the Apostle and that “Apostle in Asia” appointed him bishop of Smyrna (modern Izmir, Turkey). He was a close friend of Ignatius of Antioch (see October 17), and it was probably at Polycarp’s request that Ignatius wrote his famous epistles to various churches in Asia Minor and to Polycarp himself.

Only one work by Polycarp has survived, his Epistle to the Philippians, which many believe is actually composed of two letters, one written ca. 115 enclosing Ignatius s epistles and the other written about 135 to warn the Philippian church against the spreading Marcionite heresy, a dualistic faith that rejected the Old Testament and distorted orthodox doctrines. Polycarp’s Epistle was still read in the churches in the time of St. Jerome, but it was not included in the canon of the New Testament.

During much of his life, Polycarp was in many ways the leading figure of Christianity in Asia Minor, and he was referred to with great respect and affection by Irenaeus and Ignatius. As a very old man Polycarp went to Rome to discuss the problem of the dating of Easter, a vexing problem for the early church. After his return to Smyrna, he died a martyr’s death in 155 or 156 at the age of eighty-six. The commemoration of his death is the first saint’s day whose observance is attested in the history of the church; a reliable account of his martyrdom is given in the eyewitness report, the Martyrdom of Polycarp. The report testifies to the assembly of the faithful at the old bishop’s grave “as occasion allows” to celebrate “the day of his martyrdom as a birthday.” As early as the mid-second century, commemorations of martyrs at their graves on the anniversary of their deaths was a Christian practice.

After some Christians had been thrown to the lions. Polycarp was called before the proconsul, and, when he refused to give divine honors to the emperor and confessed himself a Christian, he was condemned to death. Since the games were over he could not be thrown to the lions, as he fully expected, but was instead burned alive. The Martyrdom of Polycarp places his death on February 23, and the Eastern Churches have commemorated him on this date. From the eighth century the Western Church observed his day on January 26, but the present Roman calendar (1969) moved his commemoration to February 23, and the Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Church and the Methodist For All the Saints followed that precedent.

Excerpts from New Book of Festivals & Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints by Philip H. Pfatteicher, copyright, 2008 by Fortress Press, an imprint of Augsburg Fortress.

See also: Polycarp


From The Martyrdom of Polycarp

There was a great commotion when it was learned that Polycarp had been arrested. Therefore, when he was brought before him, the proconsul asked him if he were Polycarp. And when he confessed that he was, the proconsul tried to persuade him to deny the faith, saying, “Have respect to your age,” and such other things as, “Swear by the fortune of Caesar; change your mind; say ‘Away with the atheists!'”

Polycarp looked with earnest face at the whole lawless crowd in the arena, and gesturing to them with his hand, groaning, and looking up to heaven, he said, “Away with the atheists!”

The proconsul was insistent and said, “Take the oath, and I shall release you. Curse Christ.”

Polycarp said, “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

The proconsul persisted. “Swear by the fortune of Caesar.” Polycarp answered, “If you vainly suppose that I shall swear by the fortune of Caesar, as you say, and pretend that you do not know who I am, listen carefully: I am a Christian. If you desire to learn the teaching of Christianity, appoint a day and give me a hearing.”

The proconsul said, “Try to persuade the people.”

But Polycarp said, “You, I should deem worthy of an account; for we have been taught to render fitting honor to rulers and authorities appointed by God so long as it does us no harm; but as for these, I do not consider them worthy that I should make a defense to them.”

The proconsul said, “I have wild beasts. I shall throw you to them, if you do not change your mind.”

Polycarp said, “Call them. Repentance from the better to the worse is not permitted us; but it is noble to change from what is evil to what is righteous.” Again the proconsul said to him, “If you do not fear the wild beasts, I shall have you consumed with fire, unless you change your mind.”

Polycarp replied, “The fire you threaten bums but an hour and is quenched after a short time; but what you do not know’ is the fire of the coming judgment and everlasting punishment that is laid up for the impious. Why do you delay? Come, do what you will.”

When he had said these things and more, he was inspired with courage and joy, and his face was full of grace, so that it did not fall with dismay at the things said of him, but quite the opposite. The proconsul was astonished, and he sent his own herald into the midst of the arena to proclaim three times, “Polycarp has confessed himself to be a Christian.”

Quickly then they surrounded him with the material for the pyre. When they were about to nail him also, he said, “Leave me as I am. For the One who gives me strength to endure the fire will enable me also to remain steadfast on the pyre, without the nails.”

So they did not nail him, but only tied him to the pyre.

He looked up to heaven and prayed, “Lord, almighty God,…I bless you for judging me worthy of this day and this hour, that in the company of martyrs I may share the cup of Christ….Let me be received among the martyrs in your presence today as a rich and pleasing sacrifice.”

When he had said the Amen and finished his prayer, those attending to the fire lighted it. When the flame leapt up, we who were permitted to see it saw a wonderful thing, and we have been spared in order to tell others what happened. The fire made a shape like a ship’s sail filled by the wind, and made a wall around the body of the martyr. He was in the midst, not as burning flesh, but as bread baking or as gold and silver refined in a furnace. We smelled a sweet fragrance like the breath of incense or some other precious spice.

Finally, when the lawless officers saw that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they commanded an executioner to go to him and stab him with a dagger. When he did this, a great quantity of blood came forth, so that the fire was quenched and the whole crowd marveled that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect.

Later we took up his bones, more precious than costly jewels and more valuable than gold, and laid them away in a suitable place. There the Lord will permit us, so far as possible, to gather together in joy and gladness to celebrate the day of his martyrdom as a birthday, in memory of those athletes who have gone before us, and to train and make ready those who are to come hereafter.

The Martyrdom of Polycarp, chaps. 9.2-12.1; 13.3-14.2; 15.1-16.1; 18.2-3, trans. PHP.


O God, the maker of heaven and earth, you gave your venerable servant, the holy and gentle Polycarp, boldness to confess Jesus Christ as King and Savior, and steadfastness to die for his faith: Give us grace, following his example, to share the cup of Christ and rise to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

1970 Roman Missal, trans. LFF

Readings: Psalm 116:10-17 (before Ash Wed.); Psalm 34:1-8 (after Ash Wed.); Revelation 2:8-11; Matthew 20:20-23

Hymn of the Day:How firm a foundation, O saints of the Lord” (H82 636, 637; LBW 507; LSB 728; ELW 796)

Prayers: For a life of devotion; For boldness to witness to the faith; For courage to follow Christ, even to death; For faithfulness to the apostolic tradition.

Preface: A Saint (3) (BCP); All Saints (LBW); Saints (ELW)

Color: Red