Thursday, July 2, 2015

July 2 - Rufina and Secunda, Martyrs

Everything seemed pretty rosy for Rufina and Secunda. After all, they lived fairly comfortable lives. They had each other for a best friend. They were betrothed to men that they loved and respected and who were also Christians. They had the support of their families both in their pending marriages and in the expression of their faith. Plus, they seemed to be growing daily in their devotion to their Lord Jesus and their activity in His Church. It seemed that everything was going exceedingly well for the two young women. That is to say they were going well until Valerian ramped up his persecutions against the Christians. Valerian rode the wave of military success to expand his ventures of death and torture among the Christians who still refused to swear their allegiance to the emperor and his empire.Though Valerian had yet to arrest and martyr Sixtus, Laurence, or Cyprian, he was well on his way to his own personal vendetta and massacre. The fianaces of Rufina and Secunda were arrested by the emperor's men and given two choices: deny their faith and swear their allegiance to Rome, or maintain their traitorous allegiance to Jesus and die at the hands of the empire.Woefully, the two men chose to save their lives and deny their Lord.

When the men returned to Rufina and Secunda it was evident what they had done. They would never have been allowed to leave if they hadn't taken part in some infernal imperial bargain. Rufina and Secunda were shocked that their fiances had given up the faith to which they still steadfastly clung. The men tried to convince the women to join them in their apostasy so that they might still be married and live happy lives. The women tried to convince the men that no life gained at the cost of their souls was worth living. They debated for quite some time before finally Rufina and Secunda told their fiances to leave them and forget all about them--Rufina and Secunda were unwilling to be joined in love with one who had forsaken the greatest of loves. As they parted, the men insisted that if Rufina and Secunda had been forced to face the same pressures and threats then they, too, would have caved before the imperial powers and seen the damnable reason of the empire's commands. Rufina and Secunda were unconvinced but the men comforted themselves in their apostasy by insisting it was inevitable and not truly a matter of choice. After all, the alternative meant they had abandoned life more abundant for only a little more of this corrupted life.

That night Rufina and Secunda gathered some of their possessions together and they set out to flee. They knew that their fiances had been charged with convincing them to renounce their faith and would be expected to return with compliant women to the imperial courts. Once the men arrived and told those in power that Rufina and Secunda had remained steadfast in their faith they would be arrested.So, they fled. They made it as far as Etruria before they were finally apprehended and brought before a prefect. The prefect knew their story and so he offered them one chance to change it and to offer a sacrifice of their faith before the empire. They refused and where beaten severely. The prefect wasn't so much interested in extracting a renunciation so much as causing two who had opposed Rome to suffer and die. Having proven their ex-fiances wrong, they accepted the martyr's crown when the prefect had them beheaded. Their bodies were recovered by the Church they had refused to leave and buried with a Christian funeral.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

July 1 - Moses the Black, Martyr, Peacemaker, Convert

Moses was a slave to an Egyptian slaveholder and did his job only because he was forced to do so. He was known as a man of excess who ate too much and drank too much as well as being sexually immoral and physically and verbally abusive. Eventually, he was cast out of the home of his master because he was finally caught stealing from the coffers and then he had murdered another slave to cover over his offense. He was cast into the wilderness but his hard life and dark desires had formed him into the kind of man who could survive for quite a while with very little. For those years he was fueled only by a dark rage and vengeful passion. He assembled around himself a band of thieves and bandits who obeyed his commands and executed his sinful desires. Having placed himself in a position of dominance and control he was able further to drift into the grasp of corruption--indeed Moses could be said to "live by the sword." One night he swam across a stream, with a knife clenched in his teeth, to murder a man in his sleep. He had targeted this man because the man's dog had foiled a previous robbery attempt by Moses and his fellow bandits. In that attempt, many of the band that followed Moses were arrested. Luckily for his victim--and for Moses--the dog alerted the owner and the authorities yet again. Moses knew he would be executed for his many crimes if he was caught and so he fled so that he might keep his freedom.

He fled from the authorities who were now searching for him and found refuge in a monastery in the desert of Scetes near Alexandria. At first, it was a convenient place to hide where the authorities would not come and take him and nothing more but through the slow and steady ministry of the monks, he began to be converted to the faith of his hosts. After many long day, he finally professed faith in the one who had said that all who live by the sword will die by the sword. He renounced his past life and sins and devoted himself to the monastic life even as he failed to fit into it well. He was a novice in the faith and often asked questions of his brothers so that he might learn how to live like a Christian. He now believe that his previous way of living was bankrupt and led to death but he knew no other way and so he had to be taught slowly. One night, thieves broke into the monastery to take some of their meager possessions. Being a big man and given to adventure, he disarmed each of the men and dragged them by the collar of their clothing into the chapel where the monks were praying. He interrupted their worship to ask their advice: "I don't think it's Christian to hurt them," Moses said, "so what do I do with them?" The thieves looked at the peaceful man who had skillfully disarmed them without a weapon and were impressed by his words. If Moses the Black could find peace through Jesus, they reasoned, then they could do the same. Soon, they converted.

Moses spent the rest of his life trying to become the best follower of Jesus that he could be. It was hard and though he was not especially gifted for the monastic life--his background game him no assistance--he grew slowly and steadily. Once, he was asked to attend a meeting of monks to discuss an appropriate penance for a brother who had sinned against the others.Moses didn't show up on time and so they sent a man to fetch him but Moses was unwilling to come. Finally, the brother in charge of the meeting went to bring Moses to the meeting and Moses agreed to do so because of his love and respect for the man. Before he left, though, he grabbed a jug of water that had a small hole in it. They walked all the way back to the meeting with the water leaking out behind him. When he finally arrived they asked him why he had brought a leaky jug with him and he responded,"My sins run out behind me and I do not see them, but today I am coming to judge the errors of another." The group dismissed themselves to reflect upon the message that Moses had brought to them and later decided that grace, mercy, and forgiveness were the appropriate responses to a brother who has sinned when each of us--all of us--has the same problem and same need.

Years later, Moses had become the leader of a group of desert monastics. As a group of Berber raiders bore down upon the monastery the monks argued that they must prepare to resist their attackers. Moses--who had once lived by the sword--forbade any resistance and, instead, instructed his monks to pack their things and flee the monastery immediately. He insisted it was better to run or to die than it was to take up the sword in resistance and when he said it he spoke from dark and painful experience. Most of the monks took him up on the offer but Moses and seven others stayed behind and waited for the raiders with open arms and plates of food. Moses knew that his own martyrdom was fast approaching and insisted that this was a good thing for he had lived by the sword and, now, he would gladly die by the sword. When the raiders arrived, they had no time for the hospitality of the monks and cut them down where they stood. Moses the Black who had misspent his youth found redemption not on the day he was martyred but on the day he met a group of monks who taught him another way--a way of peace, love, mercy, and grace.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

June 30 - Basilides and Potamiana, Martyrs

Potamiana was a Christian in Alexandria, Egypt, in the year 205 A.D. But Potamiana's faith amounted to far more than conviction and tolerated practice. No, faith for Potamiana was a likely death sentence. After all, the prefects and rulers of Roman Alexandria were more than willing to execute Rome's harshest forms of punishment upon those that Rome had declared enemies of the State--such as Christians who refused to make sacrifices to the Roman gods and values. So, Potamiana was condemned to suffer and die for her faith when she continued to abstain from the commanded idolatry of Rome. The prefect wanted Potamiana to be boiled to death in pitch slowly but he first wanted the woman to be raped by some gladiators because of her continued insistence that she was consecrated to celibacy by her faith in a foreign power: her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. So, she was placed into the hands and care of one of the Roman soldiers, one that the prefect trusted and who had become known as something of a loyal official within the court, named Basilides. Basilides was willing to make sacrifice before the idols and values of Rome and was given his charge over Potamiana so that she might suffer and die for her refusal.

Basilides took her from the court of the prefect and knew that she was first to go and be raped before being taken to the place of her public and gory execution. On the way, though, Basilides began to have second thoughts about the brutality of his orders. She had kept her virginity as a type of offering before the Christian God she worshiped and although Basilides didn't have the same reverence for her God he respected the tenacity she held. She showed unexpected bravery for a woman facing certain, gruesome death. So, Basilides did something very surprising--perhaps because he was ashamed at the idea of having the woman raped in addition to executed, perhaps because he wanted to get the whole thing over with sooner rather than later, or perhaps because he wanted to show Potamiana mercy--he bypassed the gladiators and took her directly to the spot of her death. Potamiana thanked Basilides and returned to her prayers as they walked to Rome's bloody altar where she would be turned over to death in the name of the Roman values and convictions. The crowds screamed at her and insulted this traitor to Rome as she walked the last few hundred yards. Basilides commanded the worst of them to stop and they did, for the most part. When they tried to throw stones and garbage at her he stepped in between her and the crowd knowing that none of these crowd would have the courage to throw such things at an emissary of the Empire. Once Potamiana was handed over for execution she was slowly lowered into a cauldron of burning pitch but she thanked Basilides for his kindness and mercy and promised that she would pray for him and for his conversion.

Potamiana died a martyr and Basilides went home shaken by her words and bravery. She had faced death without a tremor of fear and with a confidence that he wasn't certain he and others could have mustered in a similar situation. The love and forgiveness she had offered to those around her even as she was shown nothing but brutality and hatred haunted his thoughts. She had called his actions merciful even though Basilides was still leading her to her death in chains. A few nights after her death he a dream wherein Potamiana appeared and assured him that she was still praying for him and that she would gladly welcome him when he followed after her. Basilides knew what she meant and in the morning he sought out a priest and was converted to the faith of Potamiana and away from the faith of the empire. He knew intimately that there was a cost associated with such an audacious act but he paid it willingly. After his baptism, he went to his fellow soldiers and proclaimed his new found faith to them. At first they thought he was joking but their laughter turned to amazement when he insisted that he was telling the truth. Being loyal to the gods and values of Rome they turned him over to their rulers so that they might not incur Rome's condemnation themselves. Basilides was beheaded for being convinced of the faith of the one he had escorted to death--a faith that offered mercy even for the greatest of sinners and forgiveness and love even for enemies.

Monday, June 29, 2015

June 29 - Peter, Martyr, Apostle, Rock

"Simon Peter, listen to me," Jesus spoke earnestly, "The Adversary hungers for a chance to destroy you along with all of your brothers and sisters so that there will be nobody left to pick up the pieces. But, I've been praying that your faith will not ultimately fail you." Peter was perplexed by the sudden change in Jesus' attention and insistence. It almost sounded like Jesus was saying that Peter's faith would fail him soon and Jesus was hoping it wouldn't be forever. Jesus continued, "Once you have turned your back on me I pray you will regain your faith and use it to give comfort and courage to the other disciples--your brothers and sisters."

Peter was awestruck that Jesus was assuming some imminent abandonment. He was offended that Jesus would suggest such a thing when, from what Peter could tell, he had been a good follower and disciple. In fact, he must have assumed that he was clearly one of the leaders among the group. Though Jesus' words confirmed this they also insisted that failure was stalking him in the fog of the unknown that always lies ahead of us. Peter insisted, "Lord! Even if it means going to prison or, God forbid, dying, then I will never turn my back on you."

Jesus shook his head sadly, held Peter's over-confident gaze for a moment and said softly, "I assure you Peter that, three times even before the sun comes up, you'll deny only only our bond and connection but even that you ever met me." Having made this unpleasant pronouncement, Jesus moved on to other teachings. Later that night he was arrested and even though Peter had tried to defend him with his own sword, Jesus had insisted that this was the way things were supposed to be. Peter must have burned with rage at Judas as the man walked away from the whole incident richer for having sold out his supposedLord. Perhaps he vowed that he would not do the same as Judas and so he followed Jesus by stealth so that he could keep his eye on Jesus and wait for the signal to fight back and overcome Jesus' accusers and captors.

While he waited for that moment he began to feel the cold of the night and so he gathered around a nearby fire that some of the interested members of the crowd had built for warmth. He must have seemed distracted as he constantly looked to the face of Jesus among his captors as they tried and abused him. Perhaps while his attention was on the face of his Lord--who seemed intent on refusing to defend himself before their ridiculous charges--a servant girl was staring at him as if she knew him. She whispered to the small crowd, "I saw this man traveling with the one they're going to crucify."

Peter heard it and a little fear crept up his spine and encouraged him to defend himself before her not-quite-accusation. "Him?" he began, "I've never even met the guy." He said it because he must have known that attracting attention to himself would keep him from keeping his eyes on Jesus in anticipation of the revolution Jesus would indubitably start any moment. So, Peter told a lie in pursuit of what he deemed the "greater good" or being able to devote his full attention to what he expected Jesus would soon be doing. After all, it could happen at any moment and he didn't want to miss the signal.

But, then, another member of the crowd who had heard the servant girl took a more interested look at Peter. The man said, "You know, I think you're right. I think he's one of the disciples of that man. I'm sure I've seen him in that crowd." Now, Peter knew that the crowd was honing in on him and would soon label him a friend of Jesus. Peter knew that he couldn't help Jesus if he, too, ended up in the same dangerous position on trial before the powerful and influential. So, he decided again to tell a lie to protect himself and, in his own estimation, to protect Jesus' plan. He denied knowing Jesus louder and more forcefully. This seemed to work and so they left Peter alone because he seemed angry and unapproachable. Peter continued to watch and wait for a signal from Jesus but Jesus continued to walk the path that Peter was confident would end in his death.

After another hour of light conversation and discussion one of the men in the crowd finally came to a decision. He had agreed that Peter looked like one of the disciples of Jesus but wanted to hear Peter talk more to see if he could place his accent. Finally, the man yelled his accusation, "You guys are right! Listen to him talk...he's clearly from Galilee and you know that the man they're going to crucify spent a lot of time there. They say his disciples were from there."

Peter was furious that the crowd would not simply leave him alone so that he could do the will of God and wait for Jesus to tell him what to do. Instead, they wanted to make these accusations and get in the way. In his anger he spat out at the crowd, "You don't know what you're talking about! I don't know the man." As the last word left his lips, though, he heard the crow of a rooster and realized with a sudden and damnable certainty that Jesus' prediction had come true even as Peter had tried to remain loyal and wait for Jesus' signal. He gasped and turned to look upon the face of Jesus--who was now staring at him with a strange mixture of grief and hope. Peter realized what he had done and ran from the place weeping as he had never before--and would never again. In the pursuit of his will disguised as God's will he had betrayed the one he had vowed never to abandon.

After Jesus was crucified, Peter remembered the second part of what he had said. Even as the hour of his death approached, Jesus had held out the opportunity for mercy and forgiveness. Peter knew that there was healing even for a soul as sick with sin as he was. After the resurrection of God all things were made clear to Peter and the disciples he now led and comforted. He was brought back into the fold of discipleship with two commands that stand now for all Christians (who are, even now, both deniers and confessors of Christ): "feed my sheep" and "follow me." Peter would follow his Lord for the rest of his life until his martyrdom where he was crucified upside down at his own request so that his death could not be compared to that of Jesus.