Telling the Stories that Matter: May 31 – Heliconis, Martyr, Idol Breaker

Perinus was the governor of the region that included Thessalonica in Greece. As governor he was charged with keeping order for the Roman establishment so that what passed for “peace” in Rome might be kept and those in power might remain in power. He had a nice title and a significant amount of power and wanted to keep both. So, he knew what to do with Christians and with people who would not pledge their greatest allegiance to Rome. In a way, you could call him progressive because in the year 250 he was already very willing to torture and kill Christians on account of their faith.But there was another tactic that he was especially fond of: character assassination.Sometimes, as in the case of Heliconis, he would have a Christian locked in the temple of Aesculapius after being beaten and tortured for their insistence in believing in Jesus. Then, after some time he would release them with congratulations and comfort–insisting that they had sacrificed to Aesculapius while they were captive in the temple. Though they often had not done so it was very tempting for them to allow Perinus to lie on their behalf.“After all,” they reasoned to themselves, “I didn’t sacrifice or say I did…so what’s the harm in pretending?” Heliconis, however, knew that such a deception was apostasy. To accept the benefit of worshiping an idol was to worship it with your mind. Plus, this lie would be used to demoralize Christian brothers and sisters.

So, when Heliconis was ordered to worship Aesculapius she was ready to resist no matter what. Perinus demanded that she sacrifice to the idol even though it was her denunciation of idols that had landed her in his presence. She responded, “Hear me, and know that I am a servant of Christ; as for Aesculapius, I do not know who he is. Do what you will.” So, Perinus had the woman beaten severely while other soldiers heated brands in a blazing fire. When the brands were ready, the soldiers burned and branded Heliconis’ body without mercy at the command of Perinus. The soldiers never doubted the justice in what they were doing–torturing an unarmed and unresisting woman for the sake of causing pain–because they had learned that Rome’s power was an absolute power that accepted no questioning. After torturing Heliconis cruelly for quite some time Perinus finally decided to lock her in a temple with a very large idol so that he might manipulate her into apostasy. They tossed her beaten body into the temple and locked the doors behind her.

They opened the doors much quicker than they expected, though, when they heard a thundering crash from within. As they looked into the temple they saw Heliconis grinning through her pain as she lie suffering on the floor and they saw the idol shattered around her.While they had waited outside the doors, Heliconis had summoned a thin remnant of her strength with a prayer and mounted the pedestal upon which the idol stood. With all that remained of her earthly might she pushed against it but it wouldn’t move. She said a prayer and tried again but it only seemed to move a fraction of an inch. Fearing that the guards would soon come and take her from the temple, she prayed to God and insisted that if God wanted her to do this thing, then God would have to make it possible.With this faithful prayer she pushed once again and the statue fell forward. The idol broke on the floor and made an indelible statement to Perinus, the soldiers, and all to whom Rome might try to lie. None could believe that Heliconis made a sacrifice to the god she had shattered with the help of her own God. In a rage, Perinus commanded that she be beheaded for this crime and the soldiers were quick to comply because they knew that Perinus had the power to do the same to them. Heliconis died a martyr and a destroyer of gods.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: May 22 – Julia of Corsica, Martyr, Captive, Slave

In 489, something horrific happened in North Africa: Genseric and those he had brought under his leadership crossed the sea from Spain and began wreaking havoc on those who stood in their way. They were Arians and felt that the time for talk had ended. Consequently, they began demanding the orthodox to become Arians or suffer for their faith. Genseric even succeeded in taking Carthage where Julia lived with her noble family and Christian brothers and sisters. When Genseric’s people encountered Julia they found her unwilling to renounce her faith or even listen to their attempts to convert her their particular brand of heterodoxy–Julia knew well that beliefs offered at the tip of a sword were not worthy of consideration without the threat of the blade. Because of he steadfast denial she was sold into slavery and shipped away from Carthage. This was a fairly typical practice for Genseric who reasoned that those who refused to be converted should be exiled from the land he wanted as his own. So, Julia who had been raised as a Christian in a noble family was suddenly a captive and a slave. She was sold to a man name Eusebius from Syria.

Eusebius was a merchant and did much business all around the Mediterranean Sea. He was not a Christian and, in fact, was willing to worship any of the gods of the peoples with whom he traded if it might help him make a little more money or gain a little more influence. Julia made the decision demonstrate the virtue of her faith in daily service to Eusebius. This did not make it likable or easy but it did give it an ultimate purpose and allowed her to connect her own story to that of other slaves who had escaped not only worldly chains but the more insidious mental and spiritual bonds–like Joseph, the son of Jacob. In only a short time, she was considered the greatest of all of Eusebius’ servants. He was astounded at the love she showed even as he demanded service of her and treated her as a possession. When she wasn’t working, she was praying or reading and drawing nearer and nearer to her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This devotion frustrated Eusebius at first but when he realized how much she did for him he learned to overlook this irritation. On Julia’s last trip with him they were sailing to the southern coast of what would be known as France with a ship full of expensive cargo. They landed on the upper peninsula of Corsica and as they were preparing the ship for the night, Eusebius noticed that there was a great sacrifice happening nearby. He gathered all of his people–all except Julia who refused to take part–and went to see the bull slaughtered by the governor of the region (a man named Felix).

At first, Felix was very happy to have unexpected guests who would come and pay homage to the gods he worshiped. However, word got back to Felix that not all of Eusebius’ servants had come to the sacrifice. He inquired after the one that remained on the ship and found out that she was a Christian and refused to have any part in the festivities. Not knowing that Genseric had already failed at the task, Felix resolved to convert Julia to his own evils. He asked Eusebius if he wouldn’t command her to come and he said that he had decided long ago that her service was so excellent that he’d rather not risk any damage to her. Felix volunteered to give Eusebius any four of his female slaves for Julia but Eusebius laughed it off and insisted that he wouldn’t accept everything Felix owned for Julia. Eusebius was a Roman citizen and so he was protected from any direct assaults upon his property from Felix, so Felix pretended as if it was over and offered Eusebius another drink. In only a little while Eusebius was thoroughly intoxicated and he passed out. As Eusebius fell to the ground in a stupor, Felix sent his men to bring Julia to him.

Julia came in chains and was commanded by Felix to make a sacrifice to his gods. She refused and so he made her an offer: perform one sacrifice and I will set you free as governor. Indeed the power to do so rested squarely in his hands but Julia was uninterested and responded, “My liberty is the service of Christ, whom I serve every day with a pure mind.” In other words, she claimed that she was as free as anybody could be and it was Felix who was in need of release from slavery–slavery to that far more deadly master: sin. Because of her refusal, Felix had her beaten severely by some of his strongest men. When that proved unsuccessful at securing her apostasy, he had her hair torn out slowly and painfully. She was asked if she would now renounce her faith to save herself further pain and eventual death. She responded that Jesus had been wounded and killed for her and it was appropriate that she be willing to do the same for him. So, they nailed her to a cross and crucified her. She died a martyr who was a slave that was more free than any.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: May 11 – Christopher, Martyr, Christ Bearer, Seeker of Something Worth Believing

Reprebus was a big man. He was a strong and very capable warrior at the service of the king of Canaan. He had no relation to or even understanding of the Christian faith and it wasn’t expected of him that he would have any interest in it if he was told of it. He was good at what he did–the bidding of those he served–and nearly all of the people must have known he lived a fairly comfortable life. But Reprebus had a strong desire to devote his life to something or someone greater than the ruler he served. He thought on his predicament for some time until he finally decided to seek out the greatest ruler in the world and become a servant to this great ruler. With his great strength and determination he knew that he could become a powerful and influential servant of any ruler and knew that serving the greatest of rulers meant that he would become the greatest of the ruler’s men.So, he left the king of Canaan and sought out the ruler most widely regarded as a king above all other kings and pledged his allegiance to this man.

Reprebus’ life was fairly comfortable in service to this new king–his new master–but it would not remain that way. One day while he was guarding his new king he happened to overhear the king in conversation with another man. The other man spoke of someone he called “the devil” and in response Reprebus’ king made a gesture of crossing in the air as if to ward off the presence of this “devil.” Reprebus knew what this meant that the man he served hoped to ward off another who was spoken of in hushed tones: it meant that there was somebody that even this great king feared. So, Reprebus committed himself to finding this one known as “the devil” so that he might serve him. What he found, though, was a band of marauding bandits led by a man who claimed to be the same devil that Reprebus was pursuing. Reprebus fell in with the bandits and became a man to be feared on the highways and byways of the Roman empire. He hurt many people in service to the devil that even the great king had feared but witnessed another disturbing turn of events when the devil he served balked at trampling upon a cross that had been left beside a road. Instead, the devil veered widely around it and demonstrated his own fear.Again, Reprebus knew that this meant there was another who was greater and so he went looking for someone who could tell him the meaning of this cross.

What Reprebus found out was that the cross was a symbol of the Lord of the Christians: Jesus Christ. He sought out a local teacher who could tell him how to follow Jesus since he had learned from the Christians that Jesus had died, been raised from the dead, and ascended again into the heavens. The teacher was a hermit who, when Reprebus asked him how he might follow Jesus, taught Reprebus to fast and pray and seek the will of God. Reprebus didn’t know how and was unaccustomed to such physical and spiritual disciplines. So, instead, the hermit found another discipline for Reprebus to practice. Noting Reprebus’ great strength and stature he told him to go down to the raging river nearby where people routinely lost their lives trying to cross it. When he got there, his job was to help people cross safely. With a walking stick in hand, Christopher began carrying people across the river to safety. He was thanked profusely but he always insisted that it was his calling to be there and that he would not accept but the most meager and necessary of gifts. He was, after all, serving the King of all Kings and could find no reason to want anything else.

One day, after helping many travelers cross the river a little boy came to the bank of the river and looked across it to the other side. Reprebus had helped children cross before and it was always an easy task because of their small size. When the boy asked to be carried over, Reprebus gladly obliged and picked up the child to put him on his shoulders. As he started to take a step he suddenly felt as if the child was the heaviest burden he had ever carried. He nearly stumbled but instead he took one slow and plodding step. He understood himself to be serving God almighty through helping people across the river and so he was unwilling to refuse assistance to anybody. So, he took another laborious and difficult step across the river with the boy on his shoulders. “Even if the boy was made of pure lead he couldn’t be this heavy,” reasoned Reprebus to himself. When he finally, after quite some time, let the boy down to the ground on the other side he was exhausted. Drinking deeply from the river he exclaimed to the boy: “That was far harder than I ever imagined…it was like carrying the whole world upon my shoulders.”

The boy responded, simply, You had on your shoulders not only the whole world but him who made it. I am Christ your king, whom you are serving by this work.” Having said this, the boy vanished from before Reprebus’ eyes. From then on he took another name: Christopher. After all, Christopher means “Christ bearer.” Having been confirmed in his faith, Christopher traveled to the city of Lycia to comfort two other Christians who suffered under heavy burdens: two who were being martyred. By showing up and visiting them, though, he was targeted for interrogation himself.Soon, he was arrested and accused of being a Christian. This was a charge he could not and did not deny. The ruler of the city hoped to woo him to his side by offering him money, power, and women if he would deny his faith and become the king’s servant. What the king didn’t know, though, was that Christopher had finally found something worth believing and would not be convinced to accept anything less. He converted the two beautiful women the king sent to seduce him as he had converted many of those whom he had helped to cross the river when they found out why he was exercising such charity at risk to his own life. For the offense of refusing a lesser king’s request and for converting the two women he was put to death and made a martyr.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: May 8 – Arsenius the Great, Tutor, Monastic, Ascetic

When Arsenius knocked on the door of the monastery, he brought with him the air of a man who had lived a life of luxury. He had been brought to the eastern Roman empire by the emperor Theodosius I to become a tutor for his sons who would later rule the empire as well. He had been well recommended by leaders in the Church at the time and so he had been gladly accepted into the world that accompanied the role of imperial tutor. He was given to standing and lecturing while his two students sat but Theodosius put an end to this and insisted that the students stand and the teacher rest. Furthermore, though Arsenius was not given to a life of luxury and pleasure at the first he was expected to live a life worth of envy in the empire since he was specially and personally chosen from among many to represent the emperor to his own sons. Theodosius could not imagine one of his men living in less than opulence and so he fitted him with fine clothes and provided him with rich foods. Slowly, Arsenius became accustomed to the pleasures and vanities of the imperial life and though he had been raised in a Christian family and taught to fear the seductive power of material goods, he became comfortable with their sway and pull upon him. All of this continued for some time until one day he realized how deeply into the grip of the world he had fallen. With each comfort, he had increasingly lost the ability to relate to and love the God who had called him to take up a cross and follow. So, he ran away.

He had done a good job of educating his students–the emperor’s two sons–but he could stay no longer within the grip of luxury and comfort and feel that he was living into the calling that God had placed upon his life. Though he identified himself as a “wretched wanderer” and wore tattered rags when he arrived at the monastery in Scetes, Egypt, it was clear to those who met him that he was a man accustomed to culture and comfort.Accordingly, they expected that he would balk at the commitments expected of an ascetic monk like themselves. They put him in the care of John the Dwarf so that he might be tested. He went with other monks to John’s cell for a meal. John loudly and brightly greeted each man but passed over Arsenius as if he was unworthy of recognition. After some time talking to everybody–that is to say everybody except Arsenius–John invited all of them to sit and eat at his table. There were enough chairs for everybody except Arsenius and John told each man where to sit conveniently leaving Arsenius out of the invitation. They ate and paid Arsenius no mind as he stood by watching. Finally, about half way through the meal, Arsenius threw a small piece of bread onto the floor of the cell at Arsenius’ feet and said, “I guess you can eat that if you want.” In the climax of the test, every monk waited to see what noble Arsenius would do. Would he finally suffer no more indignation and give up his foolish quest to renounce everything to gain Christ? Instead, Arsenius sat on the floor and quietly ate the piece of bread. John knew at that moment that there was hope for Arsenius yet.

For the rest of Arsenius’ life he lived within the walls of the monastery and accepted only the most basic of comforts (and occasionally not even those). Daily he grew in humility and devotion and soon he was well known in the monastic circles as a man who never seemed to cease in his prayer. By praying so constantly his prayers had escaped the need for words and became the ever present silence on his lips and dwelling in every beat of his heart. Prayer had become a way of life for Arsenius and renunciation had become the path that led him to salvation. Willing to cast aside anything and everything he was able to rise to meet his God. At one point the emperor Arcadius–one of Theodosius’ children he had tutored–found him and offered him the job of imperial almoner. If he accepted, he would be given the opportunity to care for poor and hungry people by distributing alms on behalf of the emperor. It seems that Arsenius’ lessons had stuck with Arcadius but Arsenius refused the position because he did not want to return to a world where might be tempted to regain his comfort and lose his calling. Eventually, he was forced to flee the monastery because of raids by the Mazici. The remainder of his life was spent wandering in the desert. He did so for fifteen years before finally stopping to dwell and rest in a monastery long enough to die and pass on his blessing and teaching to another group of monastics who had decided to give up everything to gain salvation.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: May 3 – James of Jerusalem, Martyr, One of the Twelve, Pillar of the Church

The scribes and the Pharisees–the religious elite of Israel in the year 62–came to James knowing that his word would be powerful to the assembled crowds. They were worried about the prevalence of Christians in the crowd and the seemingly contagious quality of what they were preaching and teaching. They must have known that James was a Christian because he did not make it a secret but, perhaps, they thought that he would bow before their influence because he spent his time among the Jews.They didn’t need him to deny his faith but simply to offer a weak witness of it before the assembled crowds. So, they met him at the temple and said to him, “James, we’re begging you to restrain those people! They’ve gone too far with their thoughts about Jesus. James, they even claim he was the Messiah!So, do us a favor and convince those in the crowd–the ones who have come here for Passover–about Jesus because they’ll listen to you. We all know what a good and righteous man you are and we all know that you are impartial. So, go out there and tell them the truth about Jesus. They’ll listen to you. In fact, why not go up to the top of the temple where everybody will be able to see and hear you. Everybody is here and they’re ready to listen to you.”

So, James climbed the stairs to the summit of the temple thinking about what he would say when he arrived there. While he climbed those stairs there were many thoughts flooding through his mind. He must have wondered why they thought he would try to convince the people not to follow after Jesus when he himself was a Christian, as well. He thought back to that night in the garden of Gethsemane when he, Peter, and John had been unable to stay awake long enough to watch after Jesus while he prayed. The words from that night echoed in his mind: “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Did it feel now that his flesh was weak as he climbed the steps knowing that he would very likely soon be tested? He thought to that awful and beautiful night when Jesus had died upon the cross and been buried. He thought about the doubtful but undeniable hope that had spread through him when he first heard that Jesus had risen and how it had bloomed and overwhelmed his mind when he first laid his eyes upon the risen body of Jesus. He remembered that stand he had made on behalf of Paul when there had been the dispute about who it was that they should reach out to: Jews or Gentiles.James had given his opinion knowing that it would almost indubitably end the conversation. Peter, James, and John would continue reaching out to the Jews and Paul and his men would reach out to the Gentiles knowing that the converts need not become Jews to become Christians. He had insisted that, “we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” All these thoughts flew through his mind as the steps he climbed–and the remaining seconds of his life–became less and less.

When he reached the top, the group that had begged him to make a statement stood just behind the doorway so that they might not be seen and the crowd might not suspect that this was a manipulated speech by James. James cleared his throat and surveyed the crowd full of Jews and some Gentiles. He thought of how each of those men and women were part of a calling and how it had been his own calling to reach out to them with truth and hope even if it cost him everything. People stopped their business and their walking to turn and look at the man standing on the temple. At first, it was one or two people who saw him by accident but soon every eye was on James as he spoke to them about Jesus and gave a loud voice to his testimony that Jesus was God and Savior. He testified to Jesus’ death and resurrection and, finally, one of the crowd behind the door jumped out and pushed him off the temple. He fell and was badly injured. The assembled crowd–and his executioners–assumed he must be dead after the fall but he struggled to his knees so that he might pray: “Lord God our Father, I beg you to forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.” The scribes and the Pharisees–and those loyal to them in the crowd–picked up stones and stoned James until he was dead.

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