Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Beauty vs. a Beast

Once upon a time in the city of Carthage....

I feel like that is how I should start this post, because parts of it feel like a story, or something that should be turned into a movie - something that could have happened, but really just feel made up. Is this the case? There are some scholars out there that would say that this was a case in which someone took extra liberties with the events that were transpiring during this time, but I fall on the other line of scholarship - that believe that we have a quite extraordinary document in our possession - one that is not only accurate, but telling in so many ways of the thought process of a martyr for Christ.

Do I have your scholarly minds intrigued yet? Do I have scholarly-tended minds out there yet? (only kidding, my friends, only kidding)

Last week, I mentioned that a theology of martyrdom was beginning to develop among the early Christian church. They believed that martyrs were given an extra measure of grace - that the Holy Spirit would give them supernatural endurance to be able to withstand horrible, horrible things happening to them. They also believed that they would be chosen by God for this - martyrdom was a calling, like someone is called to the pulpit these days, if you will. I don't think that they were wrong in thinking these things, they had the words of Jesus written down by the disciples at this point. They knew that He said following Him would mean persecution and even death. They also knew that the Helper was now sent, and it would be through Him that they would be able to give witness (by the way, the Greek word for witness is martyr - just something to ponder).

This brings us to Carthage in the year 203 AD. For those of you who do not know, although the freshman in high school that is in my Sunday school class knew this, Carthage is in Northern Africa along the Gulf of Tunis, just across the Mediterranean Sea from Italy's boot. In 203, Carthage was under rule by the Roman Empire. Just one year prior, the Empire at the time, named Septimus Severus, had issued an edict saying that no one was able to convert to Judaism or Christianity or any other religion besides Emperor worship. What did this mean exactly? Well, it meant that if you were already a Christian, you could remain one until you died. But that if anyone became a Christian, they would be killed. Basically, Emperor Septimus was betting that this would stop other religions dead in their tracks. If you weren't allowed to convert to them, then there was no one to take over once the older generations died off.

(Sidetrack - did you know that the greatest demographic to leave the Christian Church now is teenagers-30 year olds? What are we doing as the body of Christ to ensure that we aren't dying off?)

OK, so that was 202 AD that the edict went out. In 203, there was a woman named, Perpetua. She was a noble woman who had a father, mother, two brothers, a husband and had just given birth to a son. She sounds great, right? The leading lady of a movie - someone with gumption. To add on to her character, she and a group of four other people, including a servant girl named Felicity, were all catechumens of Christianity in 203.

Catechumens? What does this mean? Does this mean that she was a Roman Catholic or a Lutheran or one of those people? Ahhhh, not quite. A catechumen meant that she was going through catechism, i.e. training in becoming a Christian. This training would include being taught the message of Jesus, who Jesus was, what communion was, what baptism was, etc. This training, this catechism, would last for about 3 years too. If at any point, a catechumen decided that what he/she was being taught was a bunch of bologna, they could leave the class, and they would never have been a Christian. Here's why, because at the culmination of catechism, once they were taught everything and affirmed that they believed everything, they were then baptized as the initiation process into the Christian faith. They were converts at the moment of baptism.

So, Perpetua, Felicity and the others were catechumens in 203, a year after the edict saying that they could not become converts. But they are in year 3 of their catechism class; they fully believed that Jesus was their Lord and Savior, so each of them was baptized. All of this happens to Perpetua as she is being berated by her father. He is NOT a Christian. He pleads with her to stop "this nonsense" and to come back to him. He pleads with her for his grey hairs on his head; he beats her; he weeps over her. But, Perpetua stands against her father and with her Savior. She is baptized. A week later, they are imprisoned by the Roman guards in Carthage - the local governor decides that he is going to use these converts as a sacrificial gift to the Emperor's son, Geta, for his birthday present.

This should be a movie, right? I mean, two years into your teaching and training, you are told that you cannot complete it, or you will be killed. But, it's too late! You already know that this is the WAY, the TRUTH, and the LIFE, so against the advice and pleas of all of your family, you are baptized into the body of Christ. And on cue, the soldiers come and cart you off to prison, where you await your death.

Normally, I would say that I could not even imagine what a person would have been going through during this time, but this is the wonderful thing about the story of Perpetua - she kept a diary. So, all of this stuff that I have been spouting off, as if I know what I am really talking about, is because we still have the pages of her diary. Fascinating! Now, some might be balking at whether someone would really be allowed to write down this stuff, plus she was a woman - back then women were about as likely to know how to read and write as a pig being allowed a seat at the dining table. But, Perpetua as a NOBLE woman. A noble woman would have had the opportunity to be taught how to read and write. She also would have been given special privilege in the prison. So, I tend to take this as a real document.

Moving on.

Perpetua, and her friends with her, were given special privilege in prison. Instead of being trapped in one of the crowded, hot, dark cells, they were moved to a more spacious, private cell - where their deacons could come and minister to them. Not only their deacons, but their family could come to. So, Perpetua again had to deal with her father pleading with her. He brought her son into the prison cell and pleaded with her for the life of her son. Perpetua began to pray for her son -fearing that she would die before he stopped needing her milk. Hours later, he stopped breast-feeding, and no longer needed her. Perpetua rejoiced that her Lord had released her from this, so she could die undistracted.

It was around this time too that her friends in the prison began to notice that God had been favoring her. They told her that she should pray to God for a vision. She prayed, and God did grant her a vision.

"I beheld a ladder of bronze, marvelously great, reaching up to heaven; and it was narrow, so that not more than one might go up at one time. And in the sides of the ladder were planted all manner of things of iron. There were swords there, spears, hooks, and knives; so that if any that went up took not good heed or looked not upward, he would be torn and his flesh cling to the iron. And there was right at the ladder's foot a serpent lying, marvelously great, which lay in wait for those that would go up, and frightened them that they might not go up. Now Saturus went up first (who afterwards had of his own free will given up himself for our sakes, because it was he who had edified us; and when we were taken he had not been there). And he came to the ladder's head; and he turned and said: Perpetua, I await you; but see that serpent bite you not. And I said: it shall not hurt me, in the name of Jesus Christ. And from beneath the ladder, as though it feared me, it softly put forth its head; and as though I trod on the first step I trod on its head. And I went up, and I saw a very great space of garden, and in the midst a man sitting, white-headed, in shepherd's clothing, tall milking his sheep; and standing around in white were many thousands. And he raised his head and beheld me and said to me: Welcome, child. And he cried to me, and from the curd he had from the milk he gave me as it were a morsel; and I took it with joined hands and ate it up; and all that stood around said, Amen. And at the sound of that word I awoke, yet eating I know not what of sweet."

In her time in prison, God granted her two more visions, but I am going to leave those out and give you some homework or something further to read about. This first vision is what I find to be most important, because it parallels the account of what happened in the arena. If you did not catch it in the vision, Saturus, the man who taught them in their catechism class, offered himself up to the guards to be killed along with his catechumens. Something else of great import also happened during this time. Three days before they were to be brought out for the games, Felicity, the servant-girl, was still 8 months with child. They began praying that she would give birth to her child, otherwise she would not be able to be executed with her Christian family, since the law prevented pregnant women to be executed. Before the third day, she gave birth, and a woman who was nursing was found and took the child. Felicity rejoiced that she would be able to go to the arena with her family - this servant-girl was no longer a servant, for in the family of Christ, there is neither free nor slave, nor male or female, nor Jew or Gentile, only one body, one family - all together.

At this point in our story, Perpetua has given over her diary to a deacon, and he picks up where she left off. The day came, and all were prepared. They walked into the arena with their faces filled with joy, beaming bright, ready to go to their heavenly home. Saturus, the leader who willingly gave himself up to die with his students, was being prepared for a wild boar. As the gladiator attempted to tie Saturus to the boar, the animal turned on the gladiator and killed him. Saturus managed to get away with merely being dragged around. He was next to be tied to a raised bridge where a bear would have his way. Saturus greatly feared the bear and did not want to face it. He was tied to the bridge, but the bear would not come out of his den. Saturus was returned to the gate, almost completely unharmed. What did we mention earlier about a special grace given to martyrs?

For Perpetua and Felicity, they were stripped naked and put in a net, being made ready for a savage cow, who had been trained and raised to kill. When they were brought out, the crowd cried out against the gladiators, for they saw two women, one who had just recently given birth to a child, whose breasts were dripping with milk, and the other who also was still tender-looking and was known to be a noble woman. The gladiators brought the women back in and gave them robes to cover themselves up with. The cow trampled Perpetua and ripped her robe along her thigh. She began to cover up her naked thigh, and took a pin to her hair to make sure that she did not look disheveled. She glanced over at Felicity who had likewise been trampled by the cow, walked over to her and helped her stand up. The crowd was won over by the hearts of the two women, the cow was called back, and the women returned to the gate.

Once they returned, Perpetua began to ask what happened and when they were to be given to the cow? She had not felt a thing. It took many people pointing out the marks, bruises and cuts on her body to convince her that she did indeed face a cow. Again, the Holy Spirit seemed to have given a supernatural endurance to be able to withstand horrible pains.

When they returned to the arena, Saturus was forced to face a leopard. One bite from the cat, and Saturus was finished. Before he died, he took the ring from the finger of his guard, dipped it in his own blood, and told the guard to remember the faith that he and his friends had. In the midst of dying from a leopard bite, he remembered the guard standing over him and made sure that the guard knew what Christian faith was all about.

The rest were brought up to the platform and beheaded one-by-one. Perpetua watched her friends being killed and waited for her turn. When the executioner came to her, he lowered his sword but missed the mark and pierced her collarbone instead. She cried out in pain, and the executioner's hand began to quiver. She gently took the shaking sword and guided the mark true to her throat. As her vision had foretold, she watched Saturus climb the ladder before her and soon after joined him in the heavenly garden robed in white.

This is the story of Perpetua, Felicity, Saturus and several other converts to Christianity in 203 AD in Carthage. Tertullian would later become the Bishop of Carthage and be the one to coin the phrase, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." As much as Emperor Septimus wanted to stop people from converting to Christianity, it was stories like these, the witness that they bore that began to spread the seed of the gospel. More and more people became Christians because of the faith of the martyrs. If a noble woman could withstand her father, be able to say goodbye to her son, face a deranged cow and eventually, calmly place the sword to her throat, then there must be something to this Man she called Savior. It could make for a great movie, but I think it makes for an even better reminder to our faith - that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (martyrs) who have gone before us, faced far greater and more horrible things than we could ever imagine, and remained faithful to their Savior.

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