A message from Father Nick 65

Where the disciples were first called Christians

Like Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria emerged from the campaigns of Alexander the Great and is named after one of his generals. Renowned for the beauty of its broad streets, statues and mosaics, climate and natural setting, it remains a landmark of faith for us. After Jerusalem, it is the first Christian community we learn about – the Acts of the Apostles tells us that this is where the disciples were first called “Christians”. Antioch has been called “the cradle of Christianity”, and it is believed that Matthew’s gospel was written here.

Of course, Antioch was a Hellenistic environment: its language and culture were predominantly Greek, and these would help to shape the infant Church. Significantly, such great cities belonged to a Mediterranean-centred world. In Plato’s account,
Socrates describes the colonies of Greeks settled along the great sea’s shores as being “Like frogs around a pond.”

In turn, that “pond” became a Roman lake. When Barnabas and Paul set off from Antioch on their first missionary journey, their world was Roman, and the famous Pax Romana offered them a kind of protection. Whatever dangers the apostles might experience from shipwreck or brigandage, the Roman Empire was a secure environment in which to live and travel. That in itself would be a major factor in the early spread of the Gospel.

And, though sea-voyages were inevitably seasonal, travel was both possible and common (Paul’s ship in Acts 27:37 was carrying 276 people). Record times show a nine-day crossing from Naples to Alexandria and a seven-day crossing from Cadiz to Ostia, the port of Rome. On land private postal services covered thirty-six miles a day. (The imperial postal service managed ninety miles by travelling around the clock.)

As always too, there would be local elements. In Alexandria, these would reflect Egyptian tradition and even the world of sub-Saharan Africa. In Antioch, they would be more influenced by the East. We have already met Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, who yearned for martyrdom in Rome at the beginning of the 2nd century. As he travelled to the arena in chains he wrote a number of letters, which give us vital knowledge of the Church at that time. Other Antiochene Fathers were the engagingly named theologian Theodore of Mopsuestia and the great preacher St John Chrysostom, (Chrysostom means “golden-mouthed”).

But Antioch was famous too as a centre of pagan worship. Just outside the city lay the sacred groves of Daphne, with their shrines of Artemis and Apollo. Over time, for all its loveliness, the area acquired a dissolute reputation: as a place of immorality, luxury and feasting.

Pavement mosaic of Apollo and Daphne, Antioch

Some years ago, a friend and I stayed there while travelling. We had been to see the ancient cave church associated with St Peter (Antioch has links with both Peter and Paul). And on Sunday afternoon before evening mass, we visited the pagan groves. To our amazement, they were full of people singing, dancing and sharing picnics – as if no centuries had passed. But these were Muslims, not pagans. As they saw us, each group invited us to join them in that lovely Muslim way of hospitality – at the shrine of Apollo, all dissoluteness had gone. Muslims and Christians acknowledged each other and my friend and I continued on our way to mass. Strange indeed are the forces of history.

Cave church, Antioch