The Martyrs Of Lyon
Grant, O Lord, that we who keep the feast of the holy martyrs Blandina and her companions may be rooted and grounded in love of you, and may endure the sufferings of this life for the glory that shall be revealed in us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
In the year 177 a persecution began in the Gallic cities of Vienne and Lyons. These two cities were missionary centers in Gaul and attracted Christians from Greece and Asia. The bishop in Lyons was Pothinus, an elderly man of great faith. Christians were being excluded from the social life of Vienne and Lyons and pagan mobs would throw stones and insults at them when they were seen in the market place or at the public baths. Because the Christian Eucharist was not open to outsiders, many stories spread about what went on in these gatherings. Stories spread that Christians were eating the flesh and drinking the blood of babies, who they had rolled in flour before killing them. Another story was that they would hold meals with dogs tied to candle sticks (probably large menorahs). According to the stories floating about town, at one point in the meal, the celebrant would throw some meat to the dogs, who would them lunge for the meat and pull down the menorahs, extinguishing them and in the resulting darkness, an orgy would take place, complete with incestuous acts. These stories made people think that Christians were a threat to the morals of the community so they encouraged their persecution. Really, no one wants incestuous cannibals in the neighborhood! After a while, Christians were banned from any public place in Lyons. If people saw Christians in a public place, they would curse them, beat them, drag them along the ground, stone them and imprison them. When they confessed Christ they were locked up in the Gaol and awaited the governor’s arrival.
This was very difficult for the Christians; some were strong but others just couldn’t take the pressure and would recant. There were others who were willing to be witnesses, to be martyrs for Christ. One day a group was brought before the governor: Sanctus, a deacon from Vienne; Maturus, a recently baptized Christian; Attalus, who had always been a pillar and support of the Church in his native Perganum; and Blandina, a female slave, who turned out to be the strongest of the group. When brought before the governor and accused, she said, “I am a Christian: we do nothing to be ashamed of.” Sanctus the deacon was a strong person, too. His torturers had hoped that they would be able to force him to say something improper; they would demand his name, race, an birthplace, or whether he was a slave or free, and to every question he replied: “I am a Christian.” When they ran out of ideas, they pressed red-hot copper plates against the most sensitive parts of his body. He stood strong, refusing to give in to them. His body was one huge bruise, but he still stood firm. After a few days they put him on the rack, hoping that this would break him. But instead of collapsing and giving in, Sanctus’ body became erect and straight and recovered its former appearance. One woman, Biblis had denied Christ, but was still tortured. While she was on the rack she came to her senses, coming out of a deep sleep and realizing that she was in danger of eternal punishment in hell. She said to the slanderers, “How could children be eaten by people who are not even allowed to eat the blood of brute beasts?” She joined the ranks of the martyrs. The bishop Ponthinus was over ninety years old and, of course, quite weak physically; he suffered problems with his breathing. He was brought to the governor before the entire populace of the city, with the crowd jeering and shouting at him. The governor asked him, “Who is the Christians’ God?” Ponthius answered, “If you are a fit person you will know!” He was dragged among the crowd, who rained blows upon his body and others throwing whatever they could find at him. They threw the barely breathing bishop into a dungeon, where he died two days later. Instead of scaring the others, his death inspired them to embrace the crown of martyrdom. Marturus, Sanctus, Attalus and Blandina were taken into the amphitheatre to face the wild beasts. There, in front of everyone, Maturus and Sanctus were taken through all manner of punishments, as if this was their first day in the arena. They ran the gauntlet of whips; they were mauled by the beasts; they endured every torment that the frenzied mob of the arena demanded. They were placed in iron chairs and their flesh roasted until people were suffocating from the stench, yet they heard nothing from Sanctus other than “I am a Christian.” Sanctus and Maturus finally expired, but Blandina was hung on a post and exposed as food for the wild beasts let into the arena. She looked to the others as if she was hanging on a cross, and her prayers and encouragement to the others inspired the others, who, in their agony, saw their Lord and Savior crucified for them, reminding them that anyone who suffered for the glory of Christ has fellowship forever with the living God. Since the beasts hadn’t eaten her yet, she was taken down from the pole and returned to the gaol for another day. Attalus had to walk about the arena wearing a placard which read This is Attalus the Christian while the crowd heaped its fury upon him. However, the governor learned that Attalus was a Roman citizen, and so he returned him to the gaol while awaiting instructions from Caesar. The witness of Blandina and Attalus inspired those who, in an earlier bout of weakness had denied Christ, returned and stood before the governor confessing their faith in Christ. Alexander, a doctor from Phrygia who had lived in Gaul for many years, returned to confess before the governor. The crowd was furious that someone who had recanted would now confess Christ, and they screamed at him. The governor made him come forward and asked who he was. Alexander answered, “A Christian.” This angered the governor and he was condemned to the beasts. The next day he was taken into the arena with Attalus. Once again, they endured the entire gauntlet of punishments. They died that day. Alexander didn’t make a sound, not even a groan, but communed with God in his heart. When Attalus was placed in the iron chair, he finally cried out while the smell of roasting flesh rose from his body, “Look! Eating men is what you are doing! We neither eat men nor indulge in any malpractices.” They asked him what name God answered to and he replied, “God hasn’t a name like a person.”
To top everything off, Blandina was returned to the arena with Ponticus, a youth of about fifteen years. They were forced to watch Attalus and Alexander being tortured and were constantly told to renounce the Lord, but they stood firm. Of course, this enraged the crowd, and the two were subject to all the tortures which Alexander and Attalus had suffered, and after each horror were commanded to recant, but they held firm. The crowd noticed that Blandina was encouraging Ponticus, and he bravely endured every punishment until he finally gave his spirit back to God. According to Irenaeus’ account, Last of all, like a noble mother who had encouraged her children and sent them before her in triumph to the King, blessed Blandina herself passed through all the ordeals of all her children and hastened to rejoin them, rejoicing and exulting at her departure as if invited to a wedding supper, not thrown to the beasts. Blandina suffered the whips, then the beasts, then the griddle, and then was finally dropped into a basket and thrown to a bull. She was tossed all over the arena, but was totally indifferent to it all; she was communing with Christ and preparing to be with Him. She, too, finally was sacrificed, and the crowd said that they had never known a woman suffer so much for so long.
One might think that this was enough for the crowd, but one would be wrong. Even though the martyrs were now all dead, they still vented their rage on their lifeless bodies. Those who had died in prison, such as Bishop Ponthius, bodies were thrown to the dogs, and the corpses watched day and night so that none of the Christians could take the bodies and bury them properly. Then they took the remains and burned them. Other bodies were left exposed to the elements, the heads removed from the torsos. These, too, were watched and a proper burial denied. After six days of being exposed to every kind of insult and to the open sky, the bodies were finally burnt to ashes and swept into the river, denying any burial. They did this because they thought that, by destroying the bodies, they would defeat God and rob the dead of their rebirth; ”in order that they may have no hope of resurrection, the belief that has led them to bring into this country a new foreign cult and treat torture with contempt, going willingly and cheerfully to their death. now let’s see if they’ll rise again, and if their god can help them and save them from our hands.” Bishop Eusebius, in his History of the Church, writes “So much may profitably be said about the affection of those blessed ones for their brothers who had fallen from grace, in view of the inhuman and merciless attitude of those who later behaved so harshly towards the members of Christ’s body.” Sanctus, Attalus, Alexander, Ponticus, Bishop Ponthius, Blandina and the others were true Christian soldiers, because they fought against the forces of evil which wanted to destroy the followers of Christ. Remember their witness next time you hear someone claiming persecution because they can’t pray at a High School football game or teach Bible stories in a Public School.
Yesterday we celebrated the Feast of the Visitation, which was transferred from Sunday, and yesterday was actually the Feast of Justin Martyr, which I have transferred to today, but I'm keeping the Feast of the Martyrs of Lyon today. So we have the double-martyr-action here at Padre Mickey's Dance Party.
Justin was born to a Greek-speaking Roman family around the year 114 in Samaria, near Shechem, close to Jacob's Well. He was well educated in Greek philosophy and was a follower of Socrates and Plato. He lived in Ephesus for a while and then moved to Rome. His mind was always working and this made him restless, so he liked to take long walks along the beach so that he would be uninterrupted in his reflections. Once, while walking along a beach in Ephesus he met a man who began to talk to him about Christianity. Justin was already impressed by the moral life lived by Christians and by their bravery in persecution. While talking with this man Justin says, "Straight away a flame was kindled in my soul and a love for the prophets and those who are friends of Christ possessed me." He became a Christian as a result of this encounter, and he began to preach the gospel and Christianity as the only "safe and profitable philosophy." He moved to Rome in the year 150 and started a school of Christian philosophy which had many students. He also began to write and produced three books: First Apology, Second Apology, and Dialogue with Trypho. In this case, an apology is not saying "I'm sorry;" it is a defense of an idea. The First and Second Apologies of Justin are philosophical defenses of Christianity. Dialogue With Trypho is also an apology written in the style of a conversation. The Apologies are defenses of Christianity against the Greek charges of irrationality and the Roman charge that Christians are atheists. Dialogue with Trypho is a defense of Christianity against the Jewish accusation that the Christians distorted the Hebrew scriptures. Here is a passage from Justin's First Apology: You call us Christians "atheists." We confess that we are atheists in so far as the gods of this world are concerned, but not in respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness, moderation, and all other virtues, who is entirely pure. It is this God, and the Son (who came forth from God and taught us these things, and about the host of other good angels who follow and are made to be like him), and the prophetic Spirit whom we worship and adore.
When you hear that we are looking for a kingdom, you rashly suppose that we mean something merely human. But we are speaking of a kingdom with God, as must be clear from our confession before you when you bring us to trial, though we know that death is the penalty for such a confession. For if we looked for a human kingdom we would deny our Christ in order to save our lives, and would try to remain in hiding in order to obtain the things we look for. But since we do not place our hopes on the present world, we are not troubled by being put to death, and we know we will have to die one day in any case.
Justin taught that Christianity was the completion of all philosophy and that the philosophies of Plato and Socrates were merely small glimpses of what was to come. He taught that other religions, especially the various cults which spread through the Roman Empire were demonic distortions of the truth proclaimed in the Good News of Jesus. Such teaching, of course, did not make him very popular with other philosophical teachers in Rome. Justin accused one teacher, Crescens, of the Cynic school of philosophy, of ignorance and immorality. Crescens brought legal charges against Justin, and Justin and six of his pupils were arrested and brought before the prefect Rusticus. Rusticus gave them the opportunity to renounce their faith and live, if they would only offer sacrifice (incense) to the emperor. They all declined this offer. Rusticus said to Justin, "Do you suppose, then, that you will ascend into heaven and receive some recompense?" To which Justin replied, "I do not suppose it, but I know and am fully persuaded of it." Rusticus gave them all another chance to renounce their faith, to which Justin said, "No right-thinking person falls away from piety to impiety." Rusticus said, "Unless you obey you will be mercilessly punished." Justin said, "Through prayer we can be saved on account of our Lord, Jesus Christ, even when we have been punished, because this shall become to us salvation and confidence the more fearful and universal judgment seat of our Lord and Savior." The others said, "Do what you will, for we are Christians and do not sacrifice to idols." So Justin and his six students were taken out and scourged and then beheaded. The title Martyr was given to Justin and that is why we know him as Justin Martyr. Justin and his students, and Blandina and the Martyrs of Lyon were true Christian soldiers who fought a battle against the forces of evil which wanted to destroy the followers of Christ. And although thousands of Christians would die terrible deaths just like Justin and his students, the martyrs would win in the end. By the year 313 the Roman Empire became Christian, and the government which once took property away from Christians returned it and also gave them new lands and buildings. The government which once killed Christians for not offering incense to the emperor now built new churches like Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, where incense was now offered to the Triune God. The martyrs did not die in vain, and their witness is one of the reasons why we are gathered together here this morning. Their witness shows us that God can help us endure anything.
Almighty and everlasting God, you found your martyr Justin wandering from teacher to teacher, seeking the true God, and you revealed to him the sublime wisdom of your eternal Word: Grant that all who seek you, or a deeper knowledge of you, may find and be found by you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.