An Evensong address: Good Shepherd, Palm Bay, FL. 12 January 2019.
In the 2nd century, Christian merchants from the Roman provinces of Asia and Phrygia settled on an island in the Rhone river near a town called Lugdunum, which is now called Lyons in southern France. The merchants brought with them not only things to sell, but also their religion, Christianity.
These Christians did fairly well: as one historian says, they prospered, acquired servants, learned Latin, attracted some local converts, and
…perhaps…stirred the envy of the population. By 177 the community included a wide cross section of society. It contained Roman citizens such as the Phrygian Attalus, a physician Alexander, and merchants… (W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity; 1984, p. 183)
To a modern person it might be surprising that although the community included a cross section of society, including the professional and wealthy, many of its most prominent members were servants or slaves.
Now in the year 177 a persecution of the Christians in Lyons began. Amazingly, the best remembered leaders of the Christians in this persecution turned out to be a slave girl named Blandina and a fifteen-year-old boy named Ponticus.
The persecution quickly turned violent, and Christians who would not renounce their faith were ‘condemned to the beasts or, if Roman citizens, were…beheaded. In the end some forty-eight Christians perished in prison or in the amphitheater on 1 August 177.’ The last two to be killed were the girl and the boy, Blandina and Ponticus, the youngest of the martyrs. In the face of torture and impending death, Blandina encouraged men and women who were her elders and her social superiors to be steadfast and to refuse temptations to renounce their faith merely to save their lives. The historian writes that ‘those who watched her first tortures in the amphitheater are reported to have said, “Never among them had a woman suffered so much for so long.”’ (Frend, p. 184)
These people are now known as the Martyrs of Lyons. I read their story in the 1980s. Many years later I read a piece by Canon Marvin Gardner in Virginia, which helped me understand the event. I would like to read this piece to you now. Father Gardner was writing about Church growth and the young. The ancient Church, he says,
…did attract young people. But not the way we would think. St. Ambrose did not lead teens on ski trips in the nearby Alps. Nor did St. Basil sponsor junior high dances in Pontus. There’s not even a hint of a pizza party. There is no evidence from all the ancient patriarchates of the East and West of a single bulletin announcement for a single parish youth group. Yet the Fathers had enormous success in youth and young-adult ministry. Many of the early martyrs were teens, as were many of the Christians who took to the desert for the solitary life. There’s ample evidence that a disproportionate number of conversions came from the young. How did the Fathers do it?
They made wild promises. They promised young people great things, like persecution, lower social status, public ridicule, severely limited employment opportunities, frequent fasting, a high risk of jail and torture, and maybe an early violent death at the hands of their pagan rulers. The Fathers looked young people in the eye and called them to live purely in the midst of a pornographic culture. They looked at some young men and women and boldly told them they had a calling to virginity. And it worked. Even the pagans noticed how well it worked. The brightest young man in the empire’s brightest city – a teenager named Origen of Alexandria – promised himself to God entirely in virginity. And, as he watched his father being taken away to be killed, Origen would have gone along himself and turned himself in, if his mother hadn’t hidden all his clothes.
[T]here was an overwhelming Eucharistic faith among the young people of the Church. Tarsicius was a boy of third century Rome. His virtue and devotion were so strong that the clergy trusted him to bring the Blessed Sacrament to the sick. Once, while carrying a pyx, he was recognized and set upon by a pagan mob. They flung themselves upon him, trying to pry the pyx from his hands. They wanted more than anything to profane the Sacrament. Tarsicius’ biographer, the fourth century Pope Damasus, compared them to a pack of rabid dogs. Tarsicius ‘preferred to give up his life rather than yield up the Body of Christ.’ Even at such an early age, Tarsicius was aware of the stakes. Jesus had died for love of Tarsicius. Tarsicius did not hesitate to die for love of Jesus.
What made the Church attractive in the third century can make it just as attractive in the twenty-first. In the ancient world and in ours, young people want a challenge. They want to love with their whole being. They’re willing to do things the hard way – if people they respect look them in the eye and make the big demands. These are the distinguishing marks of youth. You don’t find too many middle-aged men petitioning the Marines for a long stay at Parris Island. It’s the young men who beg for that kind of rigor.
No young man or woman really wants to give his life away cheaply. Tarsicius knew better. So do our young people.
And I hope our older people do too. A parish has many purposes. But one of its main purposes is to inspire you and me with the love of our Lord so that we will give him our lives. Giving the Lord our lives means serving his children whom we see around us every day, talking with him daily in our prayers, and receiving his Body and Blood in the Blessed Sacrament for which Tarsicius died and by which all Christians live.
Our parishes are mostly little places. As with the church in Lyons in 177, we have members from various walks of life, but most of us are not great people as the world judges such things. But nobody today remembers the great people of second-century Lyons. We remember two teenagers who burned with the love of Christ and who did not hesitate to die for the sake of that love.