Today is the feast day of St Lawrence (225-258), one of the earliest Christian martyrs and one of the few who died telling a joke.
Lawrence was one of the seven deacons of Rome who were martyred in the persecution ordered by the Emperor Valerian. At the beginning of August 258, the emperor ordered all the Christians bishops, priests and deacons to be put to death. However, the prefect of Rome demanded that before he was executed he should hand over all the riches of the church. Lawrence asked for three days to collect them all, but spent the time distributing the money to the poor and needy.
According to St Ambrose, Lawrence then presented himself to the prefect with a collection of poor, blind and needy people. 'Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the Church's crown,' he said.
On this day in 258, he was martyred. Legend has it that the prefect had a huge gridiron prepared over hot coals, that Lawrence's arms were dislocated and that he was roasted alive. After being tormented for a while, he said: 'I'm well done on this side. Turn me over!'
Scholars question whether this account is correct, pointing out that the emperor actually commanded clerics to be decapitated, and the truth may never be known. But Lawrence's is an inspiring story and, like many Christians in those dangerous days, he kept the faith and died for it.
St Lawrence, for obvious reasons, is the patron saint of cooks – and comedians.