Thoughts On the Feast of St. Polycarp

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Casper Ten Boom

(Above Casper Ten Boom in his workshop.)

I read the later story before the earlier one. When I was in college, someone gave me a copy of The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. Ten Boom tells the story of her family: Corrie, her sister, Betsie, and their father, Casper, Dutch watchmakers who became the unlikely members and then leaders of a World War II underground group hiding Jews from the German occupiers. I say unlikely because Casper was old and his daughters were unmarried middle-aged women who had led quiet, orderly lives, never leaving their childhood home.

But they were also devout Christians. One night, as Corrie was delivering a repaired watch to a Jewish man who could no longer dare to walk the city streets, she prayed, “Lord Jesus, I offer myself for your people. In any way. Any place. Any time.”

God answered that call.

Goodness is like that, I think. It follows the living water, even when, like the tree, it does not know its name.

The Ten Booms were faithful. God was faithful. Many lives were saved. Corrie and her sister wound up in Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, where Betsie died. Casper died in prison, shortly after their arrest.

Corrie tells the story of that arrest. She tells of the German officer who saw her father and called him out of the line, saying, “I’d like to send you home, old fellow. I’ll take your word that you won’t cause anymore trouble.”

She writes, “I could not see Father’s face, only the erect carriage of his shoulders and the halo of white hair above them, But I heard his answer.

‘If I go home today,’ he said evenly and clearly, ‘tomorrow I will open my door again to any man in need who knocks.’”

The two women never see their father alive again.

In graduate school, I read the account of St. Polycarp’s martyrdom. The first time through, I kept thinking, “I’ve read this before.” And then I remembered that I had read something strangely, wonderfully similar, the account of Caspar Ten Boom’s arrest and death.

Polycarp’s feast day in this month, on the 23rd.  I would like for every Christian to read the account of his martyrdom and death and to tell the story around dinner tables and on car rides and in the darkness before bed. It is not a gruesome story, though he is burned alive, because death, even this cruel death, seems smaller, somehow, than the life that shines so brightly through Polycarp.

This is the story as translated by J.B. Lightfoot and modernized by Stephen Tomkins:

As Polycarp was being taken into the arena, a voice came to him from heaven: “Be strong, Polycarp and play the man!” No one saw who had spoken, but our brothers who were there heard the voice. When the crowd heard that Polycarp had been captured, there was uproar. The Proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On hearing that he was, he tried to persuade him to apostatize, saying, “Have respect for your old age, swear by the fortune of Caesar. Repent, and say, ‘Down with the Atheists!’” Polycarp looked grimly at the wicked heathen multitude in the stadium, and gesturing towards them, he said, “Down with the Atheists!” “Swear,” urged the Proconsul, “reproach Christ, and I will set you free.” “Eighty six years have I have served him,” Polycarp declared, “and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

Those who were that day, those who watched Polycarp burn, recalled that the aroma was of bread baking in the oven.

Like Polycarp, Casper could have used his advanced age to escape punishment. But punishment, either the fear of it, or of death, is never the issue. Both men persist in following Christ. “Eighty six years have I served him and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” For Casper, it would be blasphemy to turn away from his door a person in need. For Polycarp it would be blasphemy to lead his flock away from the shepherd. They will stand fast. They will obey. Wherever that obedience leads, they will follow. Whatever that obedience means, they will accept.

If you travel in the high desert of the Texas Panhandle you need to know where to find water. The best way is to follow the trees. Look down from the roadbed and search for stands of cottonwoods and elms. The trees grow up where their roots can find water. Year after year, in dry seasons and when the welcome rain comes, the trees stand, pointing the way to their nourishment and their strength. As long as people have walked those plains, the story has always been: Look for the trees.

Goodness is like that, I think. It follows the living water, even when, like the tree, it does not know its name. Human goodness looks for the nourishment and the strength to stand and to endure. The first time I read the account of Polycarp’s death, I wondered if Ten Boom had, consciously or not, copied his account and tailored it for her father’s own. But I am older now and have seen enough of human goodness to know that it follows certain patterns. Like the trees that remain after tornados and blizzards and drought, goodness sinks deep roots and stands, sentinels for us to follow.

– Melissa Musick