Polycarp was a bishop from the town of Smyrna (in modern day Turkey) who was executed for being a Christian in 156 C.E. At his trial he was interrogated by the Roman proconsul. Members of his congregation, who were present, recounted the exchange:
And again [the proconsul said] to him: “I shall have you consumed with fire, if you despise the wild beasts, unless you change your mind.”
But Polycarp said: “The fire you threaten burns but an hour and is quenched after a little; for you do not know the fire of the coming judgment and everlasting punishment that is laid up for the impious. But why do you delay? come, do what you will.”
The story continues of how Polycarp was stripped and walked willingly onto the pyre. After he prayed, the fire was lit, but then a miracle happened:
For the fire made the shape of a vaulted chamber, like a ship’s sail filled by the wind, and made a wall around the body of the martyr. And hew as in the midst, not as burning flesh, but as bread baking…
At length, when the lawless men 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. And 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.
The church was a threat to the Roman Empire because Christians refused to pay homage to the pagan gods (who protected the state), which makes this story a lesson in Christian political tactics. Jesus Christ turns the world upon its head. God becomes human. Foolishness becomes wisdom (1 Cor. 1:27). The cross becomes glory (John 13:31). Stories of martyrdom were told to remind the church that the gospel is an inversion of reality. Three inversions stand out in the Martyrdom of Polycarp.
Death is Life – The early church believed that when people die, their souls go to a waiting place. A human being is a soul and a body. So life beyond the grave is only half-a-life. But the martyrs were different. Their souls went immediately into the presence of Christ, experiencing a greater measure of the peace we will all share in the kingdom (Rev. 6:9ff). That is why they remain connected to their bodies even beyond the grave, and why we venerate relics as “vestiges of the future,” so to speak. Relics anticipate the resurrection. One might say that the soul of Polycarp was able to attend to Christ because, over many years, the Spirit had taught him to stop clutching at everything that is not Jesus.
Peace is War – We do not wage a war against “flesh and blood,” wrote Paul (Eph 6:12). Our enemies are spiritual, but they do take human form. The early church believed Rome acted for the devil. The battlefield was the arena, and the Christian soldier could only defeat the demons by going peacefully to her death. Rome valued courage and nobility. The peace of the martyrs in the face of unjust suffering put the empire to shame, slaying it with its own sword.
Defeat is Victory – The blood gushed forth from Polycarp’s side, just as it had from the side of Christ (John 19:34). It extinguished the fires of pyre, just as Christ’s blood extinguishes the fires of hell. Had Polycarp followed his baser instincts – had he pleaded for his life or fought back against his oppressors – he would have been defeated. Instead, he attained the goal of the Christian life. The fires surrounded him, but he looked like baking bread. He had become a eucharist. By ceasing to grasp at himself, he had become the body of Christ.
These lessons are counter-intuitive, but so is pretty much everything the church teaches: If you want to build up the body of Christ, if you want to become a saint, stop trying, stop grasping, and start learning how to die.