A vision can be expressed in one sentence. The early Church had its moments of crisis and its own internal conflicts, and yet it was replete with heroism. These few sentences coming from the mouth of these early Christians capture this zeal.
About seventy years after Jesus death, in the year 100AD, a bishop was arrested, chained and taken to Rome to be killed atrociously in the public arena simply because he was a Christian. During his crossing to Rome, he writes letters to a number of Churches that are full of fatherly exhortations but also express his inner soul. “I am the wheat of God and may I be grounded by the teeth of the wild beasts so that I may become the pure bread of God.”
He wants martyrdom! And yet, understandably he has his self-doubts of faltering at the last moment. And so he exhorts his fellow Christians to facilitate this last act of love towards His Master. His martyrdom will mean not defeat but going to the presence of the Lord. “Let me be fodder for wild beasts-that is how I can get to God.” His desire was granted. He met the wild beasts and his death in Rome soon afterwards.
Even though insignificant in numbers, the Church was surrounded by suspicion and hostility. Yet the Church saw itself as a soul-like instrument of God that can bring healing to the world. Written around the year 130AD, an anonymous letter, known as the Letter to Diognetus is a real gem. “What the soul is in the body that are Christians in the world.”
The Letter goes on to elucidate what this means. As citizens, we share in all things with others, and yet we endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to us as our native country, our birthplace is a foreign to us.
We marry, as do others; we beget children; but we do not destroy our offspring. We have a common table but not a common bed. We are in the flesh, but we do not live after the flesh. We love all, and are persecuted by all. We are poor, yet we make many rich; we are completely destitute, and yet we enjoy complete abundance. We are reviled, and yet we bless… Amazingly true!
Justin, the first great philosopher of the Early Church was beheaded in the year 165AD. He was schooled in Greek philosophy but one day while walking on the seaside, he was brought to faith in Christ through the witness of an old man. Justin reported that “straightway a flame was kindled in my soul . . . I found this philosophy alone (Christian faith) to be safe and profitable.”
He decided to write a defense of this new movement to none other than the Emperor himself, the one presumed to be the most powerful man in the world. “You can kill us, but you can’t hurt us” he writes boldly.
In this ‘First Apology’ as it is called, Justin confesses frankly that the Christians would pray for their Emperor, gladly pay their taxes, and exceed the normal expectations of citizenship. Yet they would never compromise their faith. The threats of the political system are not going to undermine their faithfulness to Christ. All that the state could do was to kill the body, but for Christians that was not the end of existence, for they knew the Lord would be with them and they would rise again!
“The dungeon became to me as it were a palace.” The words were uttered by a young woman, 22 years old, from Carthage in North Africa. It was around the year 200.
Her name was Perpetua. Coming from a family of substantial wealth and education, she had recently given birth to baby boy. She had also just been put in the dungeon because she would not renounce her Christian faith. At first she was not allowed to have her baby with her in prison. Then the authorities relented and permitted her to nurse and care for the child. All at once, she reported, she began to feel better and felt her health return. Then it was that the prison became her palace and she adds that she was content to stay there!
She was given the opportunity to disown her faith but she constantly refused and so was eventually brought into the arena and killed. Leaving even her only son …an orphan.
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.