Wednesday, July 18, 2012

July 18 - The Great Burning of Rome


Nearly 2,000 years ago on this day someone started a small fire. But, a fire never consents to remain small and, so, it began to ravage the homes of many Romans near the Circus Maximus. Regrettably, these houses were close together and made of wood and cloth. Soon, the "great city of Rome" was set alight and burning with abandon. Even in our day--nearly 2 millenniums later--fires are terrifying forces of destruction that can become unquenchable if left unchecked. Consider the wildfires that plague the American west consuming fuel and producing nothing more than ash and death. This great fire was left unchecked and the burning continued.

The fire burned for an entire week. Those who stood in its way were made to cower and flee or to be consumed and feed the horrific onslaught. There was little room to run given that of the fourteen districts of Rome, four were consumed entirely and seven more were crippled. Devastation had taken residence in great Rome. Rome! So many powers and principalities had quaked before it and acquiesced to its commands and demands. So many had bought into the gospel of "Pax Romana" that declared protection and security to be more valuable than free will and community. The great flames offered no quarter or peace to mighty Rome and, tragically, many lives were lost.

Where, then, did the fire come from? Some say Nero set it because of insanity--that the Pax Romana had prepared those who gave their lives to it to execute atrocity for insanity. Some say Nero set it because he wanted to remove the poor from around the Circus Maximus and rebuild it in a new and beautiful fashion--that the greed and lust of one man burned up the least of Rome. Some say Nero was nowhere near Rome when it happened and, instead, rushed back to fight the flames of an unquenchable destroyer--that bad things happen in this world and the flames of chance consume even those dear to us: Christian or Roman. Nero said it was the Christians. And the words of the Emperor are the gospel of the empire.

Nero, feeling the pain of accusation from the people he likely tried to save, shifted blame away from himself and toward another group. Tacitus writes, "Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace." Christians were known as incestuous (even wife and husband called each other brother and sister) atheist (having denied the Roman Gods) cannibals (met at night and ate the body and blood of their leader). They were an easy target for the flames of Nero's vengeance. These people who refused to deny their Lord--Jesus Christ--were gathered together and punished for the great fire that stripped Rome of its greatest value: protection and security. They were commended to the flames of sacrifice to appease the quailing hearts of an empire that had realized--all too suddenly--that it could bring the "Pax Romana" but not peace.

And, so, Christians were crucified like their Lord. They were wrapped in animal skins and mauled by animals. They were wrapped in flammable garments and set ablaze to provide light for Nero and the people of Rome. They did not fight back. They did not deny their faith. Instead, they stepped forward and into the flames that had mastered Rome. They died in a different way that would be apparent to all who saw. While Nero capitalized on the loss and rebuilt Rome and a "golden palace," more Christians died--for some most certainly died in the fire--with the words of their Lord on their lips: "Father, forgive them for they don't know what they're doing."

They were right; Rome was fleeing from death in a panic and Christians proclaimed a different gospel with a different set of values: There is no peace in domination and control--there is only peace in love. The Empire cannot and does not want to save you. And, so, the flames of vengeance and retribution found no fuel and were suffocated. Yet, another fire was fueled: the fire of the Christian witness and the good news of redemption for all people.

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