Laurence the Deacon, one of the most popular saints of the Roman Church, was martyred during the persecution initiated in 257 by the emperor Valerian. That persecution was aimed primarily at the clergy and the laity of the upper classes. All properties used by the Church were confiscated, and assemblies for Christian worship were forbidden. According to the Depositio Martyrum, on August 4, 258, Pope Sixtus the Second and his seven deacons were apprehended in the Roman catacombs. They were summarily executed, except for the archdeacon, Laurence, who was tortured and then martyred on August 10th. Though the historical details are few, there is a tradition that the prefect demanded information from Laurence about the Church’s treasures. Laurence then assembled the sick and poor to whom, as archdeacon, he had distributed the Church’s relief funds, and presented them to the prefect, saying, “These are the treasures of the Church.” According to legend, Laurence was executed by being roasted alive on a gridiron, but this is probably derived from a later source, as the contemporary instrument of execution for a Roman citizen was the sword.
In Rome five ancient basilicas are dedicated to Laurence, including the one erected by the emperor Constantine the First over his tomb, which in in a catacomb on the Via Tiburtina. The present Church of St Laurence Outside the Walls includes a choir and sanctuary erected by Pope Pelagius the Second (579-590) and a nave by Pope Honorius the third (1216-1227). In the seventh century, Pope Vitalian sents relics of Laurence to King Oswiu of Northumbria, and there are several early English dedications to the saint.
The Greek word from which we derive our English word “martyr” simply means “witness. But in the age of persecutions, before Constantine legalized the Church early in the fourth century, a martyr was one who bore witness even unto death. For Laurence, as for all martyrs, to die for Christ was to live with Christ.
prepared from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980), with additions
Almighty God, you called your deacon Laurence to serve you with deeds of love, and gave him the crown of martyrdom; Grant that we, following his example, may fulfill your commandments by defending and supporting the poor, and by loving you with all our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The icon of Saint Laurence is taken from Aidan Hart’s gallery of icons and is reproduced here with his generous permission.