Of the many wonderful lessons and habits imparted to me and my eight brothers and sisters by my parents, perhaps one of the ones I am most grateful for is their insistence on dressing well for Mass.
I loved to dress up, so I rarely protested (except for the sole time I made the mistake of trying to convince my mother that spaghetti straps were appropriate for church), but I do remember one of my brothers questioning my parents’ insistence on slacks over jeans.
“It’s a sign of respect. We get dressed nicely because we’re going to see Jesus, and we dress up for important things.” My mom responded. Her straightforward answer satisfied my brother, and I never heard another complaint, from him or any other sibling.
This simple lesson sprang to mind when I first read the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity. I had known little about the two martyrs, except for hearing their names recited during the Eucharistic prayers every Mass. I presumed they’d been killed in an arena like so many of their brethren, but could guess at nothing more than that.
On reading their Passion, I learned that indeed, these holy women had been condemned to die, along with their female companions, by being gored by a rabid heifer.
The cow ran at Perpetua first, and threw her into the air. Rolling to the side to preserve her modesty, she realized her hair had come down, a sign of mourning. The account reads:
Next, looking for a pin, [Perpetua] likewise pinned up her disheveled hair; for it was not meet that a martyr should suffer with hair disheveled, lest she should seem to grieve in her glory.
This young mother, facing death, refused to allow her killers to believe she wept for her suffering. Her life, so brutally cut short, would serve as a witness of the joy with which she went to meet her Creator. She was going to see Jesus, and so she re-pinned her hair.
I do not intend to draw any comparisons between the heroic actions of a young woman facing death in the arena for her faith, and getting up 10 minutes earlier on a Sunday to iron a skirt for Mass. However, Perpetua’s actions speak to a deeper truth, one that is often missing from our world today. We are creations of body and soul. Our eternal souls matter of course, but so too do our bodies. How we dress and present ourselves to the world matters deeply, not for any superficial reason, but because after his Ascension, our bodies are the only ones Christ has in this world to carry out his work to glorify his Father.
My parents’ instructions to dress appropriately for Mass had nothing to do with virtue signaling our piety to the world. They were teaching us to serve God, and to not hide the primacy we placed on our faith. They knew that if we were to do this in the large decisions of our lives, like discerning our vocation, then we would need to learn to do so in the small moments too, like slipping a cardigan over our sleeveless dresses before entering a church.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, it does not seem likely that I will be called to die a martyr’s death in the arena, so I do not know if I would face it with St. Perpetua’s courage, though I’d pray for the grace to do so. But thankfully honoring God does not always require the shedding of our blood.
St. Perpetua used her last moments on earth to give glory to God. In the last act she could take with her physical body, she honored Christ. May we make the same choice in our own lives, whether they be our final actions or one of many we have yet to take.
What a lesson for us all!