Friday, October 4, 2013

Quo Vadis Domine?

Rome in her heyday
"Simon Peter said to Him, "Lord, where are you going?" Jesus answered him, "Where I am going you cannot follow Me now, but you shall follow Me afterward" (John 13:36). In the ancient Latin translation, Peter asks Domine, quo vadis? "Wither goest Thou, Lord?" Jesus was going to His death, and Peter was predicted to die in the self-same way at a later period: ""Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish"" This He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God" (John 21:18-19).

Jesus had just predicted Peter's martyrdom. How did Peter die? How did he give his life for the sake of his Lord? The book of Acts ends while Peter was still living. So the only sources we could turn to are traditions and some scraps from early Christian writings. Tertullian in the 3rd century says, "Peter is girded by another when he is fastened to the cross" (ANF, 3.648). So, it was by crucifixion, the same mode of execution used against Jesus, that Peter was to suffer. To die like his Lord died - was that more than Peter deserved? The Roman soldiers had ideas of their own!

Peter had to prove his faithfulness in many ensuing travails for the sake of his love for Christ. As a result, he was destined to succumb to the most brutal demise at the hands of the tyrant Nero. Peter thereby would have procured much glory to God by way of his mysterious sacrifice, that is, by being crucified upside-down, according to ancient sources. Being crucified upside down, let alone crucifixion itself, was probably the most subversive form of execution. It was profoundly barbaric, and no doubt, gruesome and shocking to look at. The soldiers themselves would have gotten quite a kick out of such a sadistic behavior.
We recall in the Gospel that Peter was the first to confess Jesus as the Christ. Peter derived that knowledge through the Spirit so that he was able to gaze into the soul of Jesus and confess his celestial kingship.

Furthermore, we are reminded of the story of Jacob's dream of the heavenly ladder - a staircase to heaven - and the rock upon which he had rested his head, and upon waking he utilized it as a cornerstone for a new sanctuary: Bethel, a house of God.

Likewise Peter's supernatural perception was the cornerstone upon which the rest of the whole edifice of faith was built; and that stone, namely Peter, was the author of that first Christian confession. Like Jacob's rock, Simon Peter, the Galilean fisherman is the prototypical temple in which we confess our faith in Jesus as the Christ.

"If we, too, have said like Peter, "You are the Christ...we become a Peter...For every disciple of Christ is a rock...And upon every such rock is built every word of the church" (Origen, ANF, 9.456, c. A.D. 245).

The scribes and the Pharisees, the religious establishment of his day, had taken away the keys of knowledge, whereas upon Cephas was bestowed the keys by his master: because out of his head flowed the spirit of God.

Peter's ministry and his fate were special. Never would the thought enter into the mind of a lowly fisherman in Galilee that he would one day be fated to journey to Rome and there eventually suffer a horrendous death - as a seal of his apostleship.

Beyond the apostolic narratives in the Book of Acts we merely have legendary fragments of Peter's activities in Rome, but one thing is certain: Peter had become a major "pillar" of the church in Rome according to the Epistle of Clement, a first century Christian correspondence.

"Through ency and jealousy, the greatest and most righteous pillars have been persecuted and put to death. Let us set before our eyes the illustirous apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, he departed to the place of glory due to him" (Epistle of Clement to the Romans, ANF., 1.6, c. A.D. 96).

Clement was a near contemporary of the apostles. He had no doubt heard about Peter's Roman martyrdom of A.D. 64 by the emperor Nero through oral traditions.

"The universally known church was founded and organized at Rome by two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul" (Irenaeus, ANF., 1.415, c. A.D. 180).

"Mark was the follower of Peter, when Peter publicly preached the gospel at Rome before some of Caesar's equestrian knights" (Clement of Alexandria, ANF., 2.573, c. A.D. 195).

With nothing but a staff in his right hand, a simple girdle, a modest money bag, a fisherman's garb and perhaps a basket of the gospel flung on his left shoulder Peter strode into the city through the famous Via Egnatia with the warmth of the sunrise on his back. How stunned he would have been at the sudden glance at the power and glory of Rome, the city built on "seven hills" and perpetuated through conquests. How advanced and how lofty her edifices and temples would have appeared to a small-time beach peasant. Simon Peter had brought the imperial capital to her knees. What was once exalted was brought low; what was once humble was exalted.

Upon sojourning in the "Eternal City", Simon Peter had managed to win many faithful adherents to the gospel. He had testified to the truth of the Gospel and taught great crowds in the forum and in the marketplaces of Rome.
4th century Roman depiction of Peter and Paul

Furthermore, there were hoards of senators and equestrians flocking to Peter, and there were as many wealthy and prominent women who heard his preaching. Many of then have now secured the faith delivered by the apostle.

"Now the brethren assembled and all those that were in Rome, taking their places...and the senators, prefects, and officers also collected together. Then Peter came in and took his place in the centre" (Apocryphal Acts of Peter, c. A.D. 150). The account is legendary and apocryphal, therefore, it should be taken with a grain of salt; but I do believe the legend contains some elements of truth.

Among the noble throng was one illustrious woman by name of Xanthippe. She came to Peter with an entourage of other noble ladies who, like Xanthippe, had separated from their husbands. They received the seal of baptism and thereafter became faithful Christians. Her husband Albinus was furious and he was instigated to go to the judge and make accusations of abduction and indoctrination against Peter. The Roman authorities were now privy to the activities of the early Christians.

According to Tacitus, the Roman historian, by A.D. 64 Christians had by then become the "multitudo ingens" - an immense crowd. It was no doubt thanks to Peter's activities there. To Peter, though, the city with its magnificent temples and amphitheatres was the second Babylon, who was fated from old to pass away.

Peter must have remained in the city under his Roman patrons for a considerable amount of time. I imagine him sitting on the steps of a colonnaded basilica in the Forum Romanum and watching all kinds of strangers passing by: some deeply impoverished others opulently sumptuous. He would have seen the irrational elements of city life: the superstitions, the mob mentality, the brutal hardships, the depravity and the deviancy. He would have seen pagan processions and the processions of the bloody gladiators accompanied by scantily clad band of flute-girls and thunderous cheers of the bystanders. The noises, the urban mania and the commotion would have been almost unbearable to our humble villager. And unlike his native Capernaum, Rome was a multicultural and multi-ethnic cosmopolis: people all over the east and the west are flocking by the masses into this ancient city.

Cities were/are also marketplaces for new ideas as well as cesspools of psychotic individuals and all the scum and villainy. How have the hearts of men become hardened! I think there was much compassion in Peter's heart for all these people. Like Christ before him, he was willing to die on the behalf of the church in Rome, which he had surely loved to the utmost.

In the backstreets of the narrow winding streets of Rome Peter would walk along his Roman friends. The buildings next to each other are close enough for two neighbours from their windows to shake hands across the alley. The churches would meet in the cenacula - upper rooms where people would dine together. Even rooms above or below bathhouses were used as early meeting places of the Christians.
Among his friends was a noble woman named Chryse; along with his chief apostles Andronicus and his wife Junia. Among patricians he had Clement as his disciple. John Mark was his fellow countryman, interpreter, scribe and son of a Jerusalemite woman named Mary. He also had many servants and the poor, one of whom was Gemellus the ex-gladiator, Davus, one of Nero's slaves, Marcellus the doorkeeper and Lydia the clothes merchant.

The buildings are dilapidated; its walls are also defaced with crude graffiti : the names of fools and their lovers are infinite in number. References to wine, baths, prostitutes and music are ubiquitous; there were even cartoonish caricatures of the emperor Nero. Peter glanced to a particularly striking image: he saw a donkey crucified on a cross and a boy kneeling in front of it in obeisance, and a poorly written inscription at the bottom, "Alexamenos worships his god." He had already passed by several taverns, a butcher-shop and a gambling quarter. Various flutes, citharas and water-organs were echoing through the winds of the night alleys. The golden oil lanterns were glowing in their lampposts on the streets and doorways like fireflies. Love and music were in the air that night. The plebeians and their servants are being festive; eating, drinking, going to the baths or lifting weights; love-making and merry-making. Something in these people told them that all that would change very soon perhaps.

Graffito which reads "Alexamenos worships his god" a crude reference to the Christian worship
With torches in hand the group of Roman Christians and Peter in front with his wife finally came up to the door. They adjourned upstairs. A little later, a brother came out the door with meat in his hand. Just outside the door there was a lamppost and a dog tied to it. The brother quickly tossed the meat across the alley while the dog galloped and knocked the lamppost on the ground, putting its flame out. That way neighbours would not be suspicious as to why it was dimmed so early in the evening.

Upstairs in the sacred Cenaculum they had a love meal, sang hymns, broke bread, partook of the communion and listened happily to Peter's gracious words. Peter recounted an episode of Jesus' life where he had called Peter and his brother Andrew from the boat on the Sea of Galilee and how Christ commanded them, "follow me and I will make you to become fishers of men!" That was quite a while ago, and now he fishes in the imperial capital of the world itself.

When the service was concluded, the Christians dispersed. The hosts urged Peter to stay with them for couple of nights.

During Peter's sojourn in Rome, a massive conflagration erupted in the city. Here began the most destructive and terrifying fire Rome had ever experienced. Between the Palatine and Caelian hills the huge flame spread from the Circus - and fanned by the winds - it broke out in shops and the temples then to the mansions and houses. The fire was a terrifyingly ravaging force: people are panic-stricken, women and children are shrieking, elderly and the invalids are being unselfishly helped; the streets are filled with tumultuous crowds, outcries of injustice being inflicted and abject confusion. All the flaming walls of the buildings are bearing down on them; some are being suffocated by the thick fumes and some are being burned to death by the menacing flames.

Furthermore, gangs of soldiers were tossing their torches, feeding the destructive fire - apparently acting out on orders.

Ten out of fourteen Rome's districts were leveled to the ground and reduced to scorching cinders.
At that time, Nero was quartered in Antium, his imperial estate just outside Rome. Having heard the news about the devastating conflagration he quickly readied his chariot and found his illustrious palaces all aflame. Word on the street was that Nero was the actual incendiary and that he had deliberately orchestrated the murderous deed. Furthermore, according to popular hearsay Nero was seen fiddling on his lyre and singing from the epics of Troy's destruction on his garden palace as Rome was burning.

To quell the rumors of his evil machinations Nero began contemplating about ways to fabricate scapegoats. He needed a quick decisive solution - one that would serve both him and the hateful multitude. He had heard of the notorious gang of the Christians, and that the populace hated them for their anti-social and deviant tendencies and that they prophecy the destruction of the world by fire. They were just too perfect!

Through the word of the jealous husbands whose wives had converted to the faith, Christians were identified, taken from their homes with their families, bound in shackles and thrown in the dungeons to await execution in the arenas. Nero had them torn to pieces in the circuses by wild animals, had them crucified en masse and some were even impaled and used as torches to give light to his gardens at night. Men and women were led into the arenas to be executed while the hateful spectators would unanimously cry out "away with the atheists!" The Christians faced death with so such fearlessness  that the crowds, along with the soldiers and noble senators, were astonished by their firm resolution and unwavering courage in the face of their brutal demise. Out of love for Jesus and his kingdom they suffered these earthly torments with rejoicing, knowing that they would ascend with him to the highest paradise.

The violence of the persecution had eventually become so abhorrent and extreme that the fickle populace began pitying the Christians; for they now perceived that they were being sacrificed to glut one tyrant's brutality rather than to national interests.

"They say, accordingly, that the blessed Peter, on seeing his wife led to death, rejoiced on account of her call and conveyance home. He called to her very encouragingly and comfortingly, addressing her by name and saying, "Remember the Lord!" Such was the marriage of the blessed and their perfect disposition towards those dearest to them" (Clement of Alexandria, ANF., 2.541, c. A.D. 195).

According to tradition, Peter even had a wife - as Paul says he did (1st. Cor. 9:5) - and she had suffered martyrdom along with other believers in Rome before Peter himself.

While all this was happening Peter was advised by the brethren to flee the city disguised to prevent being handed over to the emperor. But Peter said to them, "Brethren, shall I become a coward and a deserter?" They then replied, "No, but that you will go on preaching the gospel of God." Simon Peter then reluctantly agreed and decided to leave the city in disguise. Before he left he took Mark aside and instructed him "Mark my son, take these discourses and compose a narrative account of all the sayings and deeds of Christ as well as his passion and resurrection to life. For I do not intend to leave you with nothing and lest the memory of Christ's teachings diminish in your hearts." Having said this he left.

As Simon Peter was going out the gate in the night he saw a vision of Christ entering Rome. He asked the Lord in astonishment, "Domine, quo vadis" - "Lord, where are you going?" Then Jesus said to him, "I am going to Rome to be crucified." Peter, taken aback by these strange words, "Lord, are you going to be crucified a second time?" Then Good Shepherd, clad in his dazzling apparel answered him "Yes Peter, I am going to Rome to be crucified again the second time." When Peter suddenly came to he saw the Lord ascending to heaven. A blessed spot it was wherein Peter was granted this vision. He then arose and went back into the city with rejoicing for he knew that he now had to suffer crucifixion the same way his master had.

Ancient papyrus fragment of the Acts of Peter
The brethren were distressed at seeing Peter return to Rome and intent on suffering along with them. "Such is the Lord's will," and he strengthened their faith and resolve. All the brethren were now in tears. Then a cohort of soldiers rushed in and apprehended the apostle. He was brought to Agrippa the prefect and was charged with irreligion and sedition. he was condemned to be crucified.

The soldiers dragged Peter to the place of his crucifixion just outside the sacred walls. Then he remembered the oracle of his Lord as he was told by the Sea of Tiberias, "Simon Bar Jonah, when you were young you used to gird yourself and went wherever you wanted; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you and take you where you do not want to go." This indicated by what death he would glorify Christ and now it was finally being fulfilled.

And when they had arrived at the hill, Simon requested to be crucified upside-down. So they nailed Peter's hands and feet to the beams, inverted the cross, and erected it downwards. When the jeering soldiers had left the whole mass of brethren came to Peter, crucified there head downwards and arms fully "stretched out" under the dark, blood-red night: a horrendous sight for any to behold. Peter told them about the mystery of the cross, the ineffable grace, and how it was going to be disclosed. "You who hope in Christ," says Peter, "for you the cross must not be this thing that is visible; for this passion, like the passion of Christ, is something other than that which is visible. Withdraw therefore from things of outward appearance and from all that appears to have solid existence but is not real; for you shall know the real secret of your salvation. This crucifixion that you see is an image of subversion. The manner in which I have been crucified is the manner of the birth of our savior as he descended falling head downwards from celestial heights so as to save us from this world. For he says in a mystery: "Unless you make what is on the right hand as what is on the left and what is on the left as what is on the right and what is above as what is below and what is behind as what is before, you will not recognize the Kingdom. For the nail that holds the cross-piece to the upright in the middle is the turning point and repentance of man."

Then Peter continued to glorify God and blessing his disciples, "Oh Lord, give us that which you have promised: which eye has not seen nor the ear heard nor have ever entered into the heart of man. We praise you, we give thanks to you and we confess you; and being as yet without strength we glorify you; for you are God alone and no other, to whom be glory now and for all eternity, Amen."
The great crowd, as they stood there listening to his gracious words, when they had shouted Amen with a resounding cry after him, Peter gave up his spirit to the Lord.

Clement witnessed the passing of blessed Peter. So he secretly took his body down, covered his body with spices, embalmed him and laid him in his own crypt.

Faith in Rome continued to grow, devouring every district and conquering every rank of distinction. They were gaining strength until the arrival of Paul. Paul himself had likewise suffered martyrdom under Nero by being decapitated. Paul did not get crucified, since he was a citizen of Rome, and Roman citizens were spared of that form of execution.

Nero was infuriated when he discovered that Peter had already been executed; for out of vengeance for converting so many of his fleeing slaves to Christ he wanted to keep him for torture for an extended period of time. He continued on brutalizing the band of Christians until he was forced out of the city by the praetorian guards and by condemnation of senators for all his crime and finally died in a remote place.

The above is only a haphazard piecemeal of the legendary accounts of Peter's sojourn and martyrdom in Rome. Please do not think that the above account was somehow inspired or that it should be taken seriously. If you do not agree with the details of his execution or of his teachings, then please disregard them if you wish.

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