Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Mom's Advent Meditations: St. Bibiana

December 2nd:  Feast of St. Bibiana

Bibiana suffered in the Christian persecution supervised by the Roman governor, Apronianus, under Emperor Julian in about the year 363 A.D.  In this persecution, her mother, Dafrosa, was beheaded and her father, Flavian, a Roman knight, was tortured and sent into exile where he died of his wounds. Thus orphaned, Bibiana and her sister, Demetria, were left with no means of survival, all of their possessions having been confiscated by the Roman government.  Still, they were able to remain in their family home, adding prayer to their enforced fasting. Apronianus, seeing that deprivation had apparently not swayed the girls away from Christianity, summoned them, intending to convince them to give up their faith, but it was to no avail.  After declaring her faith, Demetria fell dead, and Bibiana, equally strong in her determination to hold fast, also professed her faith, but lived to frustrate the Roman governor and glorify God. In an attempt to destroy her virtue, Apronianus placed Bibiana in the hands of an evil woman who used physical violence, along with all other manner of persuasion to loosen her resolve, but Bibiana stayed true. Finally, enraged at the stubbornness of the young woman, Apronianus ordered her to be tied to a pillar and beaten with scourges tipped with lead balls until she expired. The saint endured the torments with a joy inexplicable to her executioners, at long last dying under the blows.  The Roman governor, desperate for some kind of victory over the perseverance of the holy martyr, ordered her body to be left out in the open to be desecrated by wild animals, but it was left untouched, and was retrieved for Christian burial after two days. Her remains and that of her sister and mother were eventually removed to the site of the basilica which bears her name today.

The Basilica of Santa Bibiana

The Basilica of St. Bibiana
In a very early biography of Pope Simplicius (468–483), Liber Pontificalis, we find that Pope "consecrated a basilica of the holy martyr Bibiana, which contained her body, near the 'palatium Licinianum' " (ed. Duchesne, I, 249, as per Wikipedia). The Basilica of Santa Bibiana still exists in Rome, near the ancient temple of Minerva. You can visit it today! Restored many times over the centuries, it was built over the original site of Bibiana and Demetria's family home  The bodies of St. Bibiana, her mother, and her sister, lie within a tomb situated under the main altar.  The column or pillar just inside the chief entrance to the basilica is reputed to be the one that St. Bibiana was tied to when she was flogged to death.


Third day of Advent -- and having read the history of St. Bibiana this morning with the children, I've been thinking about her all day.   How can the story of this saint move us forward during this holy season?  What can this girl from 2,000 years in the past teach us?  

Though we don't ever learn the age of this young martyr, I picture Bibiana being the age of my oldest daughter, about 19 or 20, a comparison that adds a twist of reality -- and a certain sort of terror -- to the story. I've been trying to picture our Michelle in this same situation. How must it have been for Bibiana?  A Roman citizen, a young woman from a well-off family, she probably grew up knowing little of want or hunger --  same as our daughter.  I'm sure that like our girl, she was cherished by her parents and had a close loving relationship with her sister. She had nice clothes, good food to eat, friends she enjoyed...  but she and her family gave it all up for Christ.* 

It's impossible to imagine losing more than Bibiana lost.  Both of her parents were martyred in a brutal way, she lost everything her family ever owned, was deserted without support, witnessed the sudden death of her beloved sister, then was subjected to the worst kinds of mistreatment and torture... But, through it all, exhausted, heart-sick and afraid, she held fast to her Faith.  Through threats and temptations, she held fast.  Abandoned and bleeding, she held fast.  Tied to a pillar and beaten mercilessly, she held fast.  She never wavered and is described as being joyful to the end.  Joyful!

You know why?  By her own will, Bibiana had absorbed the lessons taught to her by her parents, she understood the real meaning of her Faith, she prayed unceasingly, and made use of the grace God sent down to her for strength to persevere through temptations and even torture.  But joyful?  Where do you find  joy in a situation like this? And how does such a young woman achieve such a victory at all?

Well, you know there was a lot of praying going on!  And you can be sure she wanted to follow the good example of the rest of her family, but there's also this:  having endured what she had for love of God, Bibiana breathed air from the wings of the Holy Ghost and exhaled the gift of wisdom --  hard-won wisdom maybe, but real wisdom about the true meaning of things. Earthly things.  Even earthly loves.  Forcibly separated from every temporal attachment, Bibiana found nothing standing between her and the Infinite.  Nothing blocked the view between the soul of Bibiana and the Face of God.  Most definitely, there at the pillar, oblivious to everything else, she looked into the Face of God.   And words cannot describe that. There are no words.  Only joy.


Dear St. Bibiana, during this season so overtaken by concerns for material things, help me to share in your wisdom and keep my priorities fixed on heaven. As I go through the days of Advent, making all the practical plans and preparations necessary for the holidays, help me remove any obstacles, so that on Christmas day, when I look into the manger, nothing will stand between me and the Infant Jesus.  Pray for me that I may some day experience the joy you know, seeing God face-to-face.   Amen.

* Interesting historical note: St. Bibiana and her family lost their lives in the last full-scale Roman persecution, one that terrorized the Christian population after the Christian reign of Constantine in the early fourth century. Most might think that all persecutions ended with Constantine, but it was not so. Emperor Julian (as in "Julian the Apostate") followed a long line of Christian emperors following Constantine; he reigned from 361-363 A.D.    The last non Christian emperor of Rome, he felt it his calling to restore Rome to its former greatness by (among other things) purging the empire of Christians in favor of the old pagan ways.  Mercifully, his time on the throne was short, but you can imagine it came as a terrible shock to the Christian Church at that time to feel they were heading back to the days of persecution they thought they'd left behind!

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