A Message from Father Nick 10 – 21st May 2020
The changing of a worldview
One of our earliest Christian documents is a second century account of the martyrdom of St Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (Izmir in modern Turkey). Polycarp was eighty-six when he died and as a boy he had been taught by an elderly St John. The account of his martyrdom concludes with a postscript:
It was the second day of the first fortnight of Xanthicus, seven days before the kalends of March, when our blessed Polycarp died his martyr’s death two hours after midday on the Greater Sabbath. The official responsible for his arrest was Herod; the High Priest was Philip of Tralles; and the proconsul was Statius Quadratus – but the ruling monarch was Jesus Christ, who reigns for ever and ever. To him be ascribed all glory, honour, majesty, and an eternal throne from generation to generation. Amen.
In this we see both the deep assurance of early Christian faith and the reason state officials found it so subversive. Polycarp could have avoided martyrdom if he had simply been prepared to say, “Caesar is Lord” and offered incense to the emperor, but of course he refused to do so. For him there could be only one Lord.
When, by an amazing reversal of fortune, Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire and large numbers of churches were built, these contained their own witness to Christian faith. The dominating image in the centre of each apse mosaic was the figure of Christ in majesty.
The image we show, from the church of Sts Cosmas and Damian in Rome, is particularly interesting because of its freshness and energy. Made in the 6th century – which has been described as “a time of intense suffering” in the declining world of old Rome – it shows the Lord advancing on a carpet of radiant clouds to meet his people in their need. On either side of him the apostles Peter and Paul support the martyrs Cosmas and Damian.
It is a perfect image for the last week of our Easter season and an illustration of the prayer in Aramaic shared by Paul (1 Cor 16;22) and the first Christians: “MARANATHA”: the Lord has come” – or simply, “Come Lord…”