Director, La Salette Shrine
(In New Hampshire the Solemnity of the Ascension was celebrated last Thursday. This homily is based on the readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter: Acts 1:12-14; 1 Peter 4:13-16; John 17:1-11.)
There is a saying you may have heard, which goes, “If you were accused of being a Christian, would they find enough evidence to convict you?” I don’t much like it, actually, because of its accusatory tone, but it certainly fits the context of today’s second reading from 1 Peter, which reflects a time when believers were in fact being punished for the crime of being Christians.
There are not a lot of reliable statistics about the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, but there is ample evidence of the fact. For example, Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor in what is now northern Turkey, wrote the following to the Emperor Trajan around the year 111 AD:
“In the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated them as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly.
“Soon accusations spread... An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image..., and moreover cursed Christ—none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do—these I thought should be discharged.”About 100 years later, a Christian named Tertullian wrote a defense of Christians which reflects the attitude of pagans toward them:
“Monsters of wickedness, we are accused of observing a holy rite in which we kill a little child and then eat it; in which, after the feast, we practice incest... [People consider] the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, Away with the Christians to the lion!... [But] The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”Returning to Pliny:
“[Those who had once been Christians] asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.”
And that is precisely the attitude of St. Peter. “But let no one among you be made to suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as an intriguer.” In other words, suffer for being a Christian if you must, but please! never be arrested for a real crime. That would be a scandal and would only justify our accusers (as we know only too well in our time).
Martyrdom was the case with ten of the persons listed in the first reading. Of the Apostles, only John was not put to death.
The Gospel and the reading from Peter have a total of eight references to glory. This reminds me of another famous quotation from a martyr, St. Irenaeus, who died about the year 200, about 25 years before Tertullian. His most famous saying is usually given as “The glory of God is man fully alive,” but that translation is neither accurate nor complete. It actually reads: “The glory of God is a living man, but the life of man is the vision of God.”
The vision of God is not only the beatific vision we will enjoy in heaven. It is also and already the vision of faith that lights our path on earth. In that light we can accept being falsely accused, being mocked and stalked and talked about, while maintaining our Christian integrity and dignity.
The “glory” we have been given is to be worthy of the name of Christian by being faithful to the name of Christ.
I close with one last quotation, adapted from Shakespeare:
This above all: to thine own CHRISTIAN self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day,Thou canst not then be false to GOD OR any man.