The Magicians

The Burning of Rome by Robert Hubert
The Burning of Rome by Robert Hubert

The Roman Emperor Nero despised the clean, upright living of the Christians in his city.  He called them “magicians.”  Because, to pagan eyes, the worship of the one, true God looks like superstition or black magic.  The pagan Romans generally regarded Christians as excessively religious.

The Roman race believed that they had descended from the ancient warriors of Troy. The Greeks had burned Troy to the ground, during the time when the Judges ruled Israel. The Trojan hero Aeneas fled westward to Italy.

Emperor Nero fantasized about watching Rome burn, just as Aeneas’ famous father-in-law Priam had watched Troy burn.  So, it appears, Nero ordered his henchman to set fire to his own city.

But he blamed the magicians for the fire.  The people to whom St. Paul wrote his letter to the Romans therefore became martyrs.  Burned at the stake.  Or fed to packs of wild dogs. Everyone knew they had nothing to do with the big fire.  But the Romans killed the Christians anyway.

We read at Holy Mass today:  “Jesus saw their faith.”

The martyrs of Nero’s Rome literally provided light int he darkness of a ruined city, as their bodies’ burned during the night.  But the truly great light is faith in Christ.

Lord Jesus loved us to the end, and He offered His life in sacrifice for us–to turn death from a curse into a blessing, to make our lives on earth worth living.

The first martyrs of our mother Church gave their lives back to Christ, responding to love with love.  There’s no more potent magic.

Peter, Paul, Rome, and Us

peterpaulEvery year we keep a solemnity in honor of the founders of the church in Rome. Every five or six years, this feast day falls on a Sunday. This year, the Solemnity of Ss. Peter and Paul not only falls on Sunday, it falls on a Sunday during… Well, during two things.

1. Each summer now for three summers, we have prayed and fasted for two weeks, a fortnight. For freedom of religion in America.

The ancient Romans believed supernatural powers upheld their vast empire. The emperor encouraged everyone to believe that he was divine as well as human. And it annoyed him immensely when events occurred that made him look weak in the supernatural department. Things like military defeats. Or like the city of Rome burning down in a massive fire. How to explain such cruel luck when a divine emperor ruled? Well, it must have happened because the Christians refused to offer the customary pagan sacrifices.

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Remembering All the Martyrs of Nero

We call Abraham our father in faith. For one thing, Abraham imitated our heavenly Father in this way: He was prepared to offer his only son in sacrifice. The similarity stuns us when we read, “Abraham took the wood for the offering, and laid it on his son’s shoulders.”

The human race has always known that we make peace with God by offering sacrifice. But, by the same token, we have also never been able, by ourselves, to come up with a truly worthy victim.

Again, in this matter, Abraham acted with pure faith. Isaac asked him, “Father, where is the sheep for the offering?” Our father in faith replied, “God Himself will provide the lamb.”

God provides the peace-making lamb, the victim worthy of sacrifice to the almighty, infinitely good Father.

And in His consummate love for us, God provides this worthy victim from among our own kind. We can boast now, like proud children: ‘Look, Father, we were worthless. But then a worthy man offered Himself to You on our behalf!’

Saints Peter and Paul, and the other Apostles, explained all this to us nearly 2,000 years ago, right when it all happened. Since then, the Lord, acting with the same consummate loving kindness towards us, has provided countless lambs for worthy sacrifice from among the Christian people. Namely, the martyrs.

The Burning of Rome by Robert Hubert
The martyrs did not choose themselves; a self-chosen martyr, in fact, betrays the Gospel.

But God ripened the time, at certain moments, giving certain Christians the consummate opportunity to bear witness. And they went to their deaths singing with joy.

God ripened the time like this in Rome at the dawn of the Christian age. His choice of location was no accident. The Lord, for His own reasons, chose the city of the emperors to be the perennial capital of His Church on earth. So He moistened the earth there with the blood of His chosen witnesses at the very beginning.

When we offer our peace-making sacrifice to the Father, we sometimes refer to Abraham and also to Abel. After Cain killed him out of jealousy, Abel’s blood cried out from the ground to God as an urgent prayer.

So, even though today we recall acts of great violence and the shedding of innocent blood, we rejoice. God has taken the malice and selfishness that led to this bloodshed and turned it to our advantage. God is greater than Pontius Pilate; He is greater than the emperor Nero; He is greater than all the evil and discord that rends the history of mankind. At the holy altar of Christ and His martyrs, we find peace.

Very Unlikely Confederates

Could two more different men than Peter and Paul possibly be found? Yes, they were both Jewish males, born in the same decade. But any similarity ends there.

Paul was bookish; Peter was a man of the sea. Paul was a city-slicker, cosmopolitan, a Roman citizen; Peter came from the quiet seaside hills. If it weren’t for Christ, Peter probably never in his life would have left the shores of the Sea of Galilee. If it weren’t for Christ, Paul probably would never in his life have spoken with a single Galilean.

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