Sunday, September 16, 2012

September 16 - Cyprian, Martyr, Bishop, Received Second Chances

Cyprian had been raised as a non-Christian and received a fine education before converting to Christianity in the early third century. It is clear that he was a man of means and affluence because of his possession of a villa and his considerable influence among the citizens of Carthage before his conversion. When he converted to the Faith, he gave away a significant portion of his wealth and possessions to the poor people of Carthage. This was greeted with joy and appreciation from the poorer citizens and respect from others. In a short time, he was ordained to ministry in Carthage. Years later, he was elected Bishop of Carthage.

From his position as bishop, he began to hear the rumblings of a terrible set of events that would soon befall North Africa. Emperor Decius had been speaking against Christians and had started persecuting Christians within the Roman Empire. Eventually, these edicts were picked up in North Africa. Carthage was considered a significant target for these persecutions because of the growing number of Christians there under Cyprian's watchcare. Ministers of the Faith were being rounded up and compelled to sign statements of allegiance to the Emperor and sacrifice before the Roman gods and powers. If they refused, there were drastic and dire consequences. When the edict was pronounced in Carthage, however, Cyprian was nowhere to be found.

He had fled Carthage claiming to have seen a vision and heard God's calling to avoid the persecution. He was accused of cowardice and lack of faith before other clergy and their common superiors. In many ways, Cyprian had lost the credibility that allowed him to speak so forcefully to the people he guided and ministered to. He still administered Carthage as its bishop but did so through intermediaries and without stepping foot into the city. The general disapproval of other Christians was abundantly clear to Cyprian who received letters and messages intended to rebuke and question his decision to leave Carthage.

For years, the battle that Cyprian would fight was two-fold: (1) defending his flight from Carthage as ordained by God, and (2) whether or not to accept Christians that had denied their faith back into the embrace of the Church. This was a tenuous position for Cyprian who argued against allowing "lapsed Christians" back into the Church except in exceptional circumstances. His argument was constantly weighed against the public consideration that he had fled the persecution. For Cyprian's enemies, he behaved hypocritically by refusing mercy to those who had crumbled under the same pressure they accused Cyprian fleeing from. Cyprian would wage this battle to the day he died even after he returned to Carthage (following the Decian persecution).

The edicts and actions that would eventually be referred to as the "Valerian Persecutions" began in 256. Roman priests and ministers were martyred (including Sixtus II, and Laurence) and the persecution crept its way into Carthage. This time, however, Cyprian remained in Carthage to face the persecution. As was the practice of the persecutors, the leaders of the Christian communities were called out first and commanded to deny their faith. Cyprian was brought before the Proconsul and proclaimed his faith boldly. For this, he was exiled from Carthage. And, so, he left Carthage again because of persecution but this time he was forced to do so. While in exile, he ministered to others who had been exiled by the persecutions and provided Christian discipleship and formation for those who had refused to deny their faith. The Christian community in exile had maintained their faith and Cyprian had received a blessed second chance to stand in an exiled Kingdom.

A year later, he was summoned again to his villa in Carthage because of a new edict demanding the execution of all Christian clergy to suppress the growing Faith. He refused to deny his faith and was threatened with execution. When this did not deter him, the proconsul condemned him to be decapitated by sword. He responded, "Thanks be to God!" They took him into an open place in the city so that people could watch what happens to those who follow God and refuse the Empire. He was followed by his flock to the place of his execution where he removed his own clothes without assistance from the Empire. He knelt down and prayed for Carthage, for his persecutors, and for himself. Finally, he tied his blindfold and bowed his head. Then, the Empire showed its weakness in its ferocity--in it, the Church showed strength in its weakness.

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