Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Peace and Persecution

As I write the news media report destruction in the Holy Land, kidnapping in Africa, Christians fleeing Iraq and Syria. Innocent children are being killed, maimed, orphaned, and robbed of their childhood joys. On Facebook images of mass executions and other horrible scenes show up. It is easy to skip by them, keep scrolling down until a peaceful scene appears. News of violence and war makes me appreciate some of the lighter jokes and pictures of cats and dogs. On Facebook a few days ago there were pictures of a Christian young man, perhaps in his early 30's who was tried and condemned for a "crime" for which he was innocent. The scene was either in Iran or Iraq. The faces of those who were leading him to a makeshift gallows were grim and determined. The Christian was taller than his accusers. He stood out, not so much for his height, but for the glow on his face. He radiated a peaceful, joyous look of expectation. In a few minutes the man would breathe his last. Yet, there was no indication that he was fearful or angry. Instead he seemed fearless and happy. That same night I opened a book on the Fathers of the Church. I had turned to the page describing the martyrdom of St. Polycarp. He was already an old man of 86 years. Dragged before a Roman official, he was ordered to worship the Emperor who had proclaimed himself a god. Someone suggested that he pretend to worship the god. All he had to do was sprinkle a few grains of incense on the hot coals before Emperor's image. He did not have to really intend to worship, just pretend. Polycarp knew that behaving like that would be caving in to paganism. How could he, a bishop, and an elderly man give such bad example? The proconsul tried to persuade Polycarp: "Take the oath (to deny Christianity and declare Caesar a god) and I will release you. Revile Christ!" Polycarp would not deny Christ. Exasperated, the Roman proconsul said, "I have wild beasts and I will cast you to them if you do not repent!" Polycarp stood his ground: "Call them! It is impossible for us to repent from better to worse; it is good, though, to change from what is wicked to what is right." "Let him be devoured by the lions," came the sentence. However the animal keeper denied the judge's order, since his animals had done enough work for the day. A pyre was set up around the steadfast old man. The Christians who witnessed the event noted that Polycarp showed no fear. The chronicle of his last day says, "He was filled with courage and joy, and his face was full of grace...". A tradition says that the flames formed a circle around the martyr and did not scorch him. An executioner was ordered to dispatch the saintly old man. Instead of wiping out Christianity, Polycarp's death remains a tribute to the courage of the first Christians and an example for today's persecuted Christians. (Direct quotes are from the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp printed in Volume I of "The Apostolic Fathers, Bart D. Ehrman, Harvard University Press, reprint 2005). An ancient saying assures us that "God gives the grace of the moment." When we need the grace to be brave and to remain faithful in the face of persecution, grace and strength come. Let us lift up in prayer all those Christian men, women and young people who at this moment are suffering for their faith in Jesus Christ.

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