February 23 is the feast day of St. Polycarp of Smyrna.
Polycarp was born approximately 70 A.D. Polycarp is thought to have been personally discipled by St. John, as John is known to have lived to an old age – perhaps as late as100 A.D. According to Tertullian, St. John the Apostle appointed Polycarp to be Bishop of Smyrna.
In the late first century, John wrote his Revelations, containing the Holy Spirit’s letter to the church in Smyrna at Rev. 2:8-11. In it, the Holy Spirit warned the Smyrneans of a coming persecution from “the synagogue of Satan” who “say they are Jews, and are not.” Although Polycarp probably was not yet bishop when John wrote Revelations, his church still faced conflict with the Pharisaic Jews and the Romans throughout Polycarp’s lifetime.
Ignatius, BIshop of Antioch, addressed Polycarp as the Bishop of Smyrna, in a personal letter that Ignatius wrote to Polycarp during Ignatius's journey to Rome for execution, some time between 108 and 115 A.D. Ignatius began his letter saying, "Since I had been impressed by the godly qualities of your mind -- anchored, as it seemed, to an unshakable rock -- it gave me much pleasure to set eyes on your sainted countenance (may God give me joy of it)."
Polycarp was considered holy during his life. Indeed, Polycarp had difficulty removing his shoes for his execution, as he had not been accustomed to ever unfastening his own shoes. The faithful would eagerly compete for the privilege to do so and to touch Polycarp's bare skin. However, Polycarp did not mince words when confronted with heretical thinking. When he heard the Gnostics, Polycarp cried out, "O good God! For what times hast thou kept me that I should endure such things!" When the heretic Marcion called upon Polycarp to recognize him, Polycarp replied, "I do indeed; I recognize the first-born of Satan."
Polycarp was beloved and revered, but he did not have the intellectual wherewithal to debate the Gnostics in philosophical argument. Nonetheless, Irenaeus reported that Polycarp had converted many Gnostics to Christianity while in Rome in 154 A.D. Polycarp had gone to Rome for discussions with Anicetus over the proper observance of Easter, an undecided issue on which Eastern practice differed from Western practice in that day.
Polycarp was arrested and martyred some time between 155 and 165 A.D. Andrew Louth concluded that Polycarp probably died in 155 or 156 A.D., while W.H.C. Frend estimates the year as 165. If Frend is correct, that would mean Polycarp was killed around the same year as Justin Martyr.
A written account of Polycarp’s arrest and execution was made by someone named Marcion from Polycarp’s church. That account was sent from the church at Smyrna to inform Christian communities elsewhere of Polycarp’s death. Eusebius quotes long portions of it. During the martyrdom of another Smyrnean Christian named Germanicus, the crowd in the circus had cried out, "Down with the Infidels! Go and find Polycarp!” Polycarp went into hiding in farms in the countryside. His betrayers were said to have been of his own household (suggesting that the farmhouse where he was arrested was his own retreat).
The mounted policemen found him in bed in an attic late at night. He did not try to escape, but said, "God's will be done." When he heard the police arrive, he went down from the attic and spoke to them, offering food and drink. He asked for an hour to pray undisturbed. He stood and prayed aloud for two hours before he stopped. During that time, he prayed for everyone chance had ever brought into contact with him and for the entire Catholic Church (the name that had been given by Ignatius of Antioch for the universal Church). The mounted police then set him on an ass and took him into the city.
When Polycarp stepped into the arena, the Proconsul urged him to admit that he had been in the wrong and to say (of the Christians who would not acknowledge Caesar as Lord), "Down with the infidels." Polycarp looked around the crowd of heathens in the circus, swept his hand toward them, and said, "Down with the infidels!" As for Christ, he said, "Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?"
The Proconsul had already declared the beast fighting closed, so the rules would not permit him to throw Polycarp to the wild animals in the arena. Thus, it was ordered that Polycarp be burned alive. However, in the presence of the arena's witnesses, the fire took on the shape of a hollow chamber forming a wall around him like an oven, and all became aware of a delicious fragrance like incense. When the rulers realized that Polycarp would not be burned, they sent a man to stab him. As blood rushed out of the wound, a dove is said to have also flown out.
Under pressure from the Pharisaic Jews, the Roman Proconsul ordered that Polycarp’s body not be released, for fear that Christians would begin to worship Polycarp instead of Christ. Thus, Polycarp’s body was burned, and his bones were turned over to the Church. His bones were considered precious and were preserved, an early example of Christians preserving such relics.
Chadwick, Henry, The Early Church
Daniélou, Jean, and Henri Marrou, The First Six Hundred Years
Eusebius, The History of the Church
Frend, W.H.C., The Rise of Christianity
Ignatius, Epistles to Polycarp and to Smyrna, from Early Christian Writings
Irenaeus, Against Heresies
Louth, Andrew, Notes and Biographical Introductions in Early Christian Writings
Marcion (of Smyrna), "The Martyrdom of Polycarp", transcribed by Gaius from the papers of Irenaeus, from Early Christian Writings