Telling the Stories that Matter: February 28 – Martyrs in the Plague at Alexandria

In the middle of the third century, Christianity was not an acceptable thing to place one’s trust or faith in if you were a citizen or subject of the Roman Empire. Within the bounds of the pax romana there was no room for those who insisted “blessed are the peacemakers.” Though Alexandria was fairly far away from the heart of the Roman Empire it was a city of renown and prestige–it was a jewel within the crown of the Empire resting upon seven hills. So, in Alexandria the party line of persecution of Christians held with fervor and Christians were forced to worship and meet in secret lest they be turned over to the authorities and slaughtered by the blade of the Empire. Clergy and Church leaders were of especial interest to the rulers and powers of Rome–to convince a leader of the Church to renounce their faith weakened the resolve of others Christians while executing a leader who refused to renounce their faith deprived the Church of leadership the empire assumed it needed to continue.Essentially, there was a struggle to see who would garner the ultimate allegiance of the people: Jesus the sacrificial savior or the Empire and its assurance of security through control.

Yet, things changed when a plague began sweeping through the Roman Empire and claiming victims on all sides. It seemed that the disease cared little for whom allegiance was paid to as it killed both Christians and non-Christians with ease and speed. Alexandria was particularly hard hit by the plague with over 5,000 people dying every day in its deadly grip. Soon, people began abandoning those who showed any trace of a symptom of the disease and fleeing to the countryside so that they might escape with their lives. With the density of the urban population, the disease spread quickly. Many fled even going so far as to abandon their children, parents, and spouses in the streets because of fear of infection. Having escaped they did their best to keep a watch on the city so that the infection might die out with its victims and they might return.

Once their persecutors had fled in the wake of the plague, the Christians of Alexandria began to come out of hiding and to take care of the sick and dying. They knew that it would likely cost them their lives yet they felt compelled to care for the abandoned and dying by the faith they refused to deny even under threat of torture and death. Soon, the non-Christians who had fled Alexandria began to hear that many of the Christians had stayed behind and had chosen not to save their own lives so that they might comfort those who were already losing theirs Since the city had been abandoned by all those who could afford to escape, there was little persecution of the Christians even though they had come out of hiding. They met in public to worship and proclaim their faith and were welcomed by those who remained because they offered hope and healing when everybody else had run for their lives. Most of those who remained died and were buried with the ones they cared for. Since their faith bade them stay and the world bade them go, they are martyrs having died on account of a faith that changed and held them.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: February 26 – Photina, The Samaritan Woman at the Well

Jesus had heard that the Pharisees were talking about him having baptized and made more disciples than even John–even though he had never baptized anybody with water and it had been his disciples who had done that–he left Judea and headed back toward Galilee. He decided to get there by going through Samaria. He stopped in a city called Sychar which was near the place Jacob had given to Joseph. The well Jacob had dug was there and Jesus stopped at it because he was tired and it was very warm since it was about noon.

A Samaritan woman named Photina came to get water from the well while Jesus was there but the disciples had gone to the city to get food. Jesus asked Photina for a drink and she responded: “Aren’t you a Jew? Would you really ask a Samaritan woman like me for a drink?”She knew well that Jews refused to associate or share with Samaritans.

Jesus responded, “If you really knew what was happening here, then you would have asked me and I would have given you living water.

“You have no bucket, sir, and this well is very deep so where are you going to get this ‘living water’ you’re talking about?” she asked, “Whether you like it or not, Jacob dug this well and his sons and flocks–the ones the Jews claim as only their own–drank from it. Are you greater than Jacob?”

Jesus said to her, “If anybody drinks the water from this well, they’ll become thirsty again but the water I offer is different. When you drink the water I offer, within you it becomes a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Still not quite getting it, the woman relented and, perhaps somewhat incredulously, asked Jesus for some of his water so that she might never be thirsty again and might never have to return to the well. Jesus understood that she still didn’t quite get it and so he said to Photina, “Go, get your husband and come back with him.”Photina told Jesus in a small voice that she did not have a husband and he responded with all the truth, “You’re right when you say you have no husband but you’ve had five before and you’re living with a man now who is not your husband.” Photina was shocked and perhaps struggled to find the words, at first, but she was starting to get it.

She responded, “Sir, I can tell you’re a prophet, so answer a question for me: Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain here but you Jews say that the right place to worship is in Jerusalem. Which is correct?”

Jesus said to her, “Believe me, the time is coming when that question won’t matter. Right now, you worship what you don’t know and we worship what we know–don’t forget God’s promise to Abraham that salvation comes through the Jews. But the time is coming–in fact, it’s here right now and right at this well–when the true worshipers of God will worship God not in Jerusalem or in Samaria but in spirit and truth. This is what God desires is worship, after all. God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.”

Photina said to Jesus, “Oh, I know that Messiah–salvation–is coming and when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”

Jesus smiled and said to her, “I am he. I am the one you’re waiting for.”

As he said that, his disciples rounded the corner with food in their arms. They were astonished that he was speaking with a Samaritan woman by himself at the well but they knew better than to rebuke either Jesus or Photina. Photina returned to the city and gathered people to come with her saying, “You won’t believe whom I met at the well. I met a man who knew everything I had ever done. Could this one be the Messiah?” The Samaritans came out to the well with Photina.

At the same time, the disciples were urging Jesus to eat but he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” They didn’t understand what he meant. They were not quite getting it. So, he continued, “What sustains me is doing the will of God and to complete my mission and work. Don’t you say, ‘Look at the fields…only a little while longer to the harvest?’ Stop for a second and look around and you’ll see how the fields are ripe for harvest–people are ready for salvation. Some are already being brought into the fold. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ You’ve been sent out to reap and harvest what you didn’t sow. You’ve not started salvation, you’ve joined in with salvation already in progress.”
Then, the Samaritans arrived at the well with Photina and many were already placing their faith in him because of what Photina had said. They asked Jesus and disciples to stay with them and be their guests and they did so for two days. He accepted their hospitality and had many conversations with them and because of these conversations even more believed. It was then that they began to say to Photina, “It’s not just because of your words that we now believe. We’ve heard him speak to us as well because of you and we believe that this one truly is the Savior of the world.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: February 22 – Sophie Scholl and Companions, Martyrs, Opponents of the Nazis, Nonviolent

Hans and Sophie Scholl had allied themselves with a secretive group within Germany. In the early 1940s, this was akin to signing your own death warrant given the subject that the group was concerned with: Nazi atrocities and how they might be stopped. They were university students and they were proponents of nonviolent resistance. Instead of planning assassinations and armed coups, these people–including Sophie’s brother Hans–formed a group that became known as “The White Rose.” Encouraged by their philosophy professor–Kurt Huber–the White Rose wrote, published, and distributed pamphlets about what the Nazis were doing. In their own words: “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!” They published statistics about the numbers of Jews and political dissidents arrested and executed in the name of “Nazi progress.” Along with these statistics they appealed to the people of Germany to refuse to be a complicit part of genocide and atrocity.They also took to graffiti with a tar based paint on university buildings. Their graffiti proclaimed a great desire for freedom that they felt Hitler and his ilk were slowly strangling in Germany.

Sophie and Hans must have been anxious as they approached the university building where hundreds of students were attending class. They carried suitcases and this would be very conspicuous for two young people during the day. But they had no other easy way to carry the leaflets into the hall without the suitcases and so they did it anyway. Few knew who the members of the White Rose were but loyalists were on the lookout for suspicious behavior. They arrived at the class building and began quickly unloading the leaflets into several piles in the common area to where the classes would be dismissed.Once the classes began to empty, the students would pick up the pamphlets and read yet another stirring argument against passive acceptance of evil. The Nazis had recently lost the battle of Stalingrad and so the White Rose hoped to capitalize on it and convince yet more people that the Nazi campaign was not only evil but doomed to failure. Its writing hearkened back to the first leaflet they had released: “Isn’t it true that every honest German is ashamed of his government these days? Who among us can imagine the degree of shame that will come upon us and our children when the veil falls from our faces and the awful crimes that infinitely exceed any human measure are exposed to the light of day?”

Hans and Sophie had dropped off the pamphlets and were fleeing before classes were dismissed when they noticed a handful of pamphlets still in the suitcase. Sophie grabbed them quickly and ran back to the building. She ascended the stairs and in a poetic–and partially prophetic–gesture she flung them into the air and let them flutter down to the floor. She was witnessed by the custodian who turned in Hans and Sophie. Soon, Sophie and all those who associated with her were arrested and facing trial for treason. They had dared to speak ill of those who would not accept the truth. For this, they were tried and condemned to be beheaded. On February 22, 1943, they were executed in the guillotine. Sophie was strong and confident to the end of her life and was not deterred by those who hoped to whitewash their sins. She died a martyr because she refused to stop seeing and decrying the atrocities that were being perpetrated. Her dying words were: “God, you are my refuge into eternity” while Hans preferred the prophecy of “…your heads will fall as well.”

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Telling the Stories that Matter: February 16 – Janani Jakaliya Luwum, Martyr, Priest, Enemy of Idi Amin

Janani Jakaliya Luwum knew that he carried only a letter and no weapons but he was aware that the actions he was setting himself about would carry violent repercussions. As Archbishop of the Anglican church in Uganda, he knew that critical words could very well result in his own death at the hands of the man whom his letter addressed: Idi Amin. Yet, he was gripped with a faith that said it would be better to suffer while speaking truth to the dangerous and powerful than it would be to poison his soul and mind by stifling the movement of the Holy Spirit. He had converted to Christianity when he was approximately twenty-six years old and had gone on to ministerial training the following year. Janani had taken vows before God and the Church that he would not shirk his duties as a shepherd and priest and in doing so he might have been signing his own death warrant. He was ordained a priest in 1954 and Amin came to power in 1971. Yet, Amin’s power could not deter Janani. So, he wrote a letter and personally delivered it to Idi Amin. The letter was a group effort of clerical leaders in Uganda protesting Amin’s way of keeping power and control through the easy distribution of military death to those who stood in his way. For bringing yet more attention to these deaths and disappearances–and especially for the letter–Janani was arrested and charged with treason.

It was January 16, 1977, when Janani was arrested along with two other cabinet ministers. Idi Amin and his henchmen immediately went to work spreading slander and lies about Janani’s politics and offenses. He was labeled a traitor and paraded before a crowd. As he and a large audience looked on, other men were brought onto a stage who confessed to knowing about and participating in illegal activities with Janani and his companions. Idi Amin insisted to all who would listen that Janani had been trying to initiate a coup against him and was intent on violent insurrection. The men who had confessed had never met Janani but Idi Amin had used them to implicate the Janani and his companions. The “confessors” were freed for they had done their part and there was never any intention to punish them–they were merely there to win the crowd’s approval. After the supposed “confessions” were heard, Janani and the men were put into a car to be transferred to an interrogation center. The next day, it was reported that they had crashed on their way to the interrogation center and all three had died from their injuries.

Yet, when they found the bodies and prepared them for burial they noticed that Janani had been shot multiple times are relatively close range. He had been shot once with a pistol in his mouth and three times in the chest. The story leaked out that they had been transferred to a military base where they were beaten, tortured, threatened, and finally shot to death. Idi Amin himself pulled the trigger that stole the life of Janani. He died a martyr because he refused to compromise the truth and he would not be frightened by the threats of those in power. For this offense, he died. By this offense, he proclaimed life deeper and more real than any that the world’s powers could offer.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: February 14 – Valentine, Martyr, Enemy of the State, Priest

Claudius Gothicus was emperor for only two years before dying of smallpox. But in those two years he unleashed wrath upon Christians and those would dare to defy the emperor and his empire by aiding and comforting Christians.His particularly favorite punishment was death for those who opposed him or for those who felt an inclination to lessen his wrath. He also had the opportunity to kill one of the world’s best known martyrs: Valentine. Valentine was twice condemned by Claudius’ decree: he was a Christian and he gave aid and succor to Christians. Furthermore, he was a prized victim for the empire because he was a Christian priest. As a priest, it was his duty and privilege to administer the sacrament of marriage. Those Christians who wanted to undergo this sacrament would come to him and he would hear their vows and call them to become one flesh and not simply two people living together for mutual benefit. This was a special and unique ceremony and for these ceremonies, he was arrested, beaten, and imprisoned. For hoping to cultivate love among those who were murdered and oppressed, he was required to die.

Luckily–or perhaps unluckily–Claudius took a liking to Valentine. Perhaps it was because of Valentine’s association with marriages or perhaps it was because Claudius felt that Valentine was associated with love. Surely, Claudius felt he understood love–he was the emperor, a divine being according to the senate–but he did not truly understand what Valentine had been doing and preaching. Instead, he knew a love that took, demanded, coerced, and manipulated. Yet, he conversed regularly with his prisoner and found it enjoyable. At least, he found it enjoyable until Valentine tried to preach to him. He was outraged that anybody would try to preach to the emperor as if the emperor didn’t already know everything. He ordered Valentine to be beheaded for this offense.

As Valentine was bound in chains and retrieved from his cell, the jailer seemed to want to ask something. Finally, the jailer could withhold himself no longer and told Valentine about his deaf and blind daughter. Though the jailer was the emperor’s man he recognized true power and true love in Valentine and felt that he might be his daughter’s last chance. With a smile that denied he was headed for death, he pronounced a prayer of healing for the jailer’s daughter. When he would return home later, he would find her cured of her blindness and deafness. In that moment, he would feel the beginnings of his own conversion away from the empire and toward the God who had called Valentine. Before he would find out, though, he would take Valentine to the place where the emperor demanded. There, Valentine was beheaded for swearing allegiance first to a God who is love after he refused to deny his God in favor of the emperor.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: February 8 – Paul Miki and Companions, Martyrs

Paul had been called to preach a Gospel that the world found foolish yet was truer than any story ever told. Paul had been charged to tell the grand story of how God had created humans in God’s own image but humanity had turned its back upon God. In the stunning climax, God became human to redeem those whom God loved even as they continued to reject God. For being a preacher and a storyteller, he was regarded as an oddity in Japan at first. Eventually, though, this surprise turned to hatred as those who came to power had no room in their world for a man like Paul who had turned his back upon his nation in their estimation. By swearing their allegiance to God, Paul and his fellow Christians threatened the power that the ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi–known as Taikosama–held.

Ironically, the rulers an leaders of Japan had initially been the ones who welcomed Christian missionaries to Japanese shores. They had welcomed them gladly because they knew that Western powers endorsed the Christian churches and they suspected that this would increase trade possibilities. Further, the rulers had grown somewhat uncomfortable with the Buddhist monks who would not do as they told them to do and felt that an influx of Christianity could limit the power of the monks. Yet, as Christianity grew in both Japan and the Philippines, they became aware that it demanded more and more allegiance from its members than they were comfortable with their citizens giving away. Further, it seemed that the politically savvy among the western powers knew better how to manipulate the Christian churches to gain power in foreign locations.Soon, Christianity was banned in Japan and those who swore allegiance to Jesus were executed for it. Ministers and vocal Christians were martyred and persecuted. Paul and his companions were twenty-six of the victims.

They were arrested and charged with being Christians. They refused to deny their faith and so they were gathered in chains and sentenced to march to Nagasaki while singing a hymn–for all six hundred miles. It took nearly thirty days for the soon-to-be-martyrs to arrive in Nagasaki and they greeted the day that they arrived with renewed singing and rejoicing. They were brought before twenty-six crosses and they met them with joy. One of the twenty-six, a man named Gonsalo, rushed forward unaware of how tragic this experience was supposed to be and pointed at a nearby cross, “Is this one mine?” he asked hopefully. Taken aback, nobody responded to him at first but eventually one of the soldiers indicated which cross was his. He knelt down and embraced it with tears in his eyes. Slowly, they were affixed to their crosses while they sang hymns and joked with each other. Paul was so short that when bound to the cross his feet could not reach the support and so they were forced to bind him to the cross by tying him under his arms and across his chest. One soldier stepped on Paul’s chest as he tightened the knot and a minister among them complained at the brutality but Paul insisted that it was okay because the man was just doing his job.

Once the crosses were raised Paul began preaching to the awestruck crowd. They had come to see the power of the Japanese rulers and had found willing martyrs proclaiming life even as they slipped into death. The soldiers were amazed and some were converted. The crowds listened to Paul as he preached and proclaimed his own forgiveness of the people and the powers who persecuted and executed the Body of Christ. All twenty-six of them died as the powers of Japan tried to prove their dominance. All they had proven was that despite their own political machinations, the Kingdom of God had arrived in Japan and could not be turned back.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: February 3 – Blaise, Martyr, Physician, Healer

To be honest, the crowd was a little shocked to see the woman at the parade with her child. Didn’t she know there would soon be blood and screaming? They were further shocked when she pushed her way to the front of the crowd. What kind of mother was so keen to see the gory death of a man at the hands of the Roman Empire? The greatest shock, however, was to watch her step across the unspoken boundary that separated audience from spectacle and willingly interpose herself upon the death story being written for Blaise. She carried the child before him and knelt down at his feet.What a sight! A free woman kneeling at the feet of a condemned criminal! She even raised up her young son before the man and implored him to help the child who was choking on something. Blaise halted as best he could and considered the situation briefly. To the surprise of the crowd, he simultaneously prayed for the child while manipulating the child’s throat. Soon, the child was fine thanks to Blaise and Blaise was kicked forward by the guards to continue upon the previously schedule death march. Blaise was more than willing to insert a little life into the story because that’s what he had been doing for years.

Blaise was a physician in Caesarea who practiced his profession differently than so many others. Instead of promising great cures and healing, Blaise did not make a spectacle of himself and his talents. Yet people came from miles around to be healed and cured by his gifted hands and under his gifted prayers. He was known to be a Christian when Christianity was a crime but his goodness and benevolence were able to win over many from their uninformed biases against the Body of Christ. Whereas other physicians offered help at a very dear cost, Blaise offered very dear help at little to no cost for those who needed it most. This kind of radical and ridiculous benevolence and love rankled those who stood to gain by doing the opposite. Then, one day, the bishop of the area died and Blaise was appointed the next bishop to great acclaim from the Christian population.

Blaise was not the bishop of the area for long, though, as he was turned in by those who opposed him and his charity. He was well known for healing and curing the people whom Rome would rather forget and so he was an easy target for the powerful. They marched him to the appointed place of his execution and then raked over his body with iron combs. Each vicious stroke raised fresh blood to his skin that would never be healed by human hands. He died a martyr–having saved a child on his way to his own death–because he refused to deny the faith that caused him to give his life away in small gifts of health and prayer. Blaise died proclaiming life in the face of death and even taking a small break in the midst of a spectacle of execution to bring life to one more person.

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