THE WONDERS OF ST CECILIA
Valerian was a young man who wanted to marry Cecilia. He got her parents' permission and in obedience to her mama and papa, Cecilia wore a flowing golden gown and tied the knot with Valerian. The shimmering gold wedding dress signified that she was a noble. When the orchestra was serenading the newly-weds, Cecilia prayed interiorly that she could stay a virgin. When she was a tiny babe, she had promised her whole self to the Lord.
Then the wedding night came. Cecilia did not share Valerian's hopes of consummating the marriage, and she revealed to him that she had a Guardian Angel who jealously stood watch over her body. Valerian was a good pagan lad who wasn't going to force himself on her, but he didn't immediately believe everything she said. He said he'd become a Christian if he could see this Angel. Cecilia said that first, he'd have to be baptized. He agreed, and he rushed underground to the catacombs where he met Pope Urban. The Pontiff was quite a fan of Cecilia and he fell to his knees in thanksgiving, "Lord Jesus Christ, good Shepherd, sower of chaste counsel, receive the fruit of the seed which You have sown in Cecilia." Then the Pope baptized the groom.
When Valerian arrived back at the bridal chamber, he saw Cecilia's Guardian Angel and was astounded when the Angel handed the couple a bouquet of flaming red roses and lilies which were white as snow. The immaculate lilies were, the Angel explained, a reward for Cecilia's heroic chastity; she'd kept her promise to remain a virgin for Christ. But the roses that were of a red-hot color foreshadowed their martyrdom. The Angel assured that these blossoms would never wilt or decay. They were a symbol of Cecilia's body, which would not suffer the ravages of time or be turned to ash in the grave.
Valerian's brother, Tiburtius came to visit the couple, and he was utterly amazed by the heavenly roses and lilies. Some credit Cecilia, and other Valerian for the conversion of Valerian's brother Tiburtius, but it is perhaps fairer to say both husband and wife influenced Tiburtius's decision to become a Christian, and when he heard how they had been awarded the posies of paradise, he consented to be baptized. But both brothers were soon arrested for being members of an illegal religion and promptly martyred. Cecilia performed the office of Tobit, buried them, was found out, and was brought up on charges of giving dead criminals a burial. She was so young that her persecutors feared falling foul of public opinion for putting to death a young widow. They offered her a chance to make an offering to the gods - in return for escaping the death penalty. She refused and they tried to suffocate her in her own bath.
This didn't work, and so they attempted to sever her head. An executioner came to her house and using the pavement of her bath in lieu of a scaffold, he struck her three times with the sword - the maximum number of attempts allowed under Roman law - but he failed to cut off her head. He felt so badly at butchering so beautiful a woman that he fled the scene. Cecilia lay on the tiles, her head hacked in three places, and she prayed for three days and three nights before she finally succumbed to death. She was buried in a cypress coffin, the wood that worms may not wreck.
652 years later, Pope Pascal wished to transfer her from the catacombs to the cathedral built in her honor on the site of her home where she had been martyred. Poor Pascal could not find her grave, but Cecilia appeared to him and showed him her resting place. Pascal then had her coffin taken out, placed in a white marble sarcophagus and moved to under the altar of her church in Trastevere, which was the site of her family home, with her dying gasps Cecilia had bequeathed it to the faithful.
1429 years after Cecilia died, it was thought that some restoration was needed to her church. When they were renovated the altar, they found a white marble sarcophagus which fitted the description left by Pope Pascal. They took the lid off and found St Cecilia to be incorrupt - she looked like she was resting - she'd been dead for 14 centuries and yet her neck still had the slice that ultimately killed her and her gold embroidered dress was still lovely and was dotted with blots of her blood as though it were a recent bandage. Cardinal Cesare Baronius - who was St Philip Neri's close friend and assistant and a very scrupulous fellow - was an eye-witness and wrote up a splendid testimony of this saint that seemed to be sleeping. Cecilia is, in fact, hailed as the first saint and martyr who did not suffer the decay of death and the first "incorruptible". Her whole body is one miracle.
Happy Feast of St Cecilia!
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This post was informed by Dr Pius Parsch's The Church's Year of Grace and Joan Carroll Cruz's The Incorruptibles. The classic painting St Cecilia and St Valerian was executed by Lelio Orsi.