Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Three Holy Centurions

Roman centurion, 1st century A.D
We oftentimes overlook the fact that the first gentile Christians were the centurions. There were not just one, but quite a few who had come to the knowledge of Jesus, and they were among the earliest Christians after the Jews. But who exactly was a ‘centurion,’ and what exactly did they do? There are three main centurions that I would like to focus on in the New Testament that have paved the way of Christianity’s universal inclusion.

Firstly, the word ‘centurion’ derives from the Latin centurio, centurionis, meaning “head of a centuria,” a group of about 80-100 soldiers. He was the Roman army officer, sort of an equivalent to our captain (Gingrich Lexicon 3662). The Roman army was divided into what were called the “legions.” Each legion had about 4000-5000 infantrymen with around 300 cavalrymen. Each legion, in turn, was divided up into six centuria (i.e. centurions) of a hundred men each. Therefore, the centurion was the one who presided over the group of 100.

The Roman writer, Polybius says this about them: “The Romans wish the centurions to be not so much daring and adventurous in spirit but rather steadfast and persevering and with good leadership ability. They do not want men who will rush thoughtlessly into battle or who will initiate the fighting, but rather men who will hold their ground when outnumbered and hard pressed and who will die at their posts” (Polybius, History of the World, 6.22-24). 

The New Testament uses the Latin form centurion (kentyrion), as well as the more common Greek form, Hecatontarches, literally, “the ruler of a hundred.” The Latin version is only found in the Gospel of Mark: 15:39, 44, and 45. The former is found in twenty-two other places in the New Testament.

The First Holy Centurion:

While Jesus was teaching in the town of Capernaum, which is by the Sea of Galilee, a centurion had a servant dear to him who was sick. He was a respected man in the Jewish community, which is a surprise considering their brutal disposition that they were notorious for. This centurion appeared to be a “God-fearing” (theouphoboumenos in Greek) gentile who had donated a large money towards founding and building of a synagogue in the town. Even the Jewish elders besought Jesus to heal his servant for him, since he was well deserving and had treated the Jews with respect.

As Jesus was on His was to heal the centurion’s ailing servant, the centurion himself stopped Jesus on the way: “Domine, non sum dingus,” “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof…for I am a man also placed in authority, with soldiers under me, and I say to the one ‘go’ and he goes, and to the other ‘come’ and he comes, and to my servant ‘do this’ and he does it. Just say the word and my servant will be healed” (Luke 7:7-8). He did not need to see Jesus himself performing the miracle; it was enough for the centurion that Jesus say the word, so that he would believe that his servant was blessed. This act of faith by hearing and not seeing is that which astonished Jesus and of the type that would become the bedrock of all gentile believers coming after him.

The Second Holy Centurion:

When Jesus bowed His head and gave up His ghost after He had hung on that cross for good six hours, with an intervening three-hour solar eclipse, and the ensuing earthquakes, and other strange happenings, the centurion who stood by was in careful watch. He was the guardian of the crucified Lord. He was the one who stood closest to His cross where the other disciples had abandoned Him and His women followers were looking on from the distance. When the centurion saw all these things, and how He had died – how the spirit came out of Him and ascended into the sky – he was astonished and fearful. The centurion, perceiving through faith, that Jesus was more than a mere mortal who was subject to such shameful death. This knowledge brought him to his knees, declaring “Truly this Man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39). 

The centurion, who was nearby guarding Jesus, was the first one to have seen Jesus actually die! He was the first witness of our Lord’s death. He was also later summoned to Pilate in order to ascertain if Jesus was dead; the centurion must have also granted the body of Jesus to Joseph, and had probably helped with getting Jesus off from His cross, and of removing the nail out of His body. He must have treated the body of the “Just Man” (Luke 23:47) with respect and reverence. He wouldn’t have thrown Jesus’s body off to the dogs to devour as were other ‘criminal scum.’

On the further note, there is also an ancient tradition dating back to around the first century about a certain centurion who was placed as a guard to the tomb of Jesus. He was conveniently called “Petronius” (Petra in Greek means ‘stone,’ an obvious playful reference to the tomb’s stone door). He was the one who had witnessed the earthquakes, the angelic visitations, and has even seen Jesus coming out of His tomb alive. Thus making the obscure centurion named Petronius as the first witness to Jesus’s resurrection. But that is a stuff of pious legends, stemming from obscure oral traditions.

The Third Holy Centurion:

The third guy is finally named: Cornelius. He was the centurion of what was called the “Italian Regiment,” which was stationed at Caesarea Philippi, then a Roman military capital of the province of Judea. He was a very pious man, no doubt himself a God-fearer (a special class of sympathizing gentiles known as the theouphoboumenoi, God-fearers). He prayed daily along with his household, gave alms, worshipped the God of Abraham, and supported the local synagogues. 

Then suddenly, during one of his meditations, “About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, "Cornelius!"” (Act 10:3). Not only was Cornelius granted the heavenly vision but that God even sent a vision to the apostle Peter. When Peter had proclaimed the Gospel to centurion with his family, the Holy Spirit fell upon them as it had to the Jews. This was when Peter had learned that God had for the first time broken the barriers that had separated Jews from the gentiles. This is the event that mark a new and revolutionary era of faith. How blessed was that soldier of Christ indeed!

There are many other centurions to tell of, even the bad one that had Paul whipped by accident. But I can’t simply get into all of them here. The above examples are enough to edify the faith. Remember, it is always the minor characters of the Bible that play the most curial and pivotal roles. Other examples of people who were least esteemed by their society: women, children, the tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, and drunkards.

We must take after the centurions as prime examples of our faith. Paul himself had seen what centurions could really teach us about faith. He took what was once a formidable Roman weapon and turned it into a weapon of Christ: “put on the whole armor (Latin, armatura) of God…stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate (Latin, lorica) of righteousness, having shod your feet (Latin Caligae) with the preparation of the gospel of peace; and above all, taking the shield (Latin, scutum) of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And take the helmet (Latin, galea) of salvation, and the sword (Latin, gladius) of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:11-18). Every centurion’s item is listed as articles of faith and are used as strong spiritual metaphors. The scutum, galea, and gladius were all centurion’s weapons, and they are powerful weapons of faith indeed! 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Early Christian Experiences of the Trinity

        We know how profoundly mysterious the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is. The wisdom behind God’s triune nature is so sublime that it defies our common patterns of thinking. Our knowledge of the Trinity must be beyond intellectual and must go above any verbalization. The early Christians, though not possessing of the most eloquent philosophers, were nonetheless recipients of that revelation.

        So, the doctrine of the Trinity is based on revelation and experience. I will set forth the main three: experiences of the Father, that of the Son and that of the Holy Spirit: 
           1) Father: when Jesus took Peter, James and John up on the mountain by themselves to pray, and after Jesus was transfigured, the disciples were enveloped in the white cloud; the disciples had experienced God’s presence there in the “pillar of cloud” as in Exodus, within which they heard His voice: “This is My beloved Son. Hear ye Him” (Luke 9:35). As the children of Israel became fearful of God’s presence on Mount Sinai, so the disciples “were fearful as they entered the cloud” (Luke 9:34). 

         2) Son: As Paul was on his way to Damascus with letters from the chief priests to arrest Christians there. As he neared the city, “suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And He said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting…” (Acts 9:4-5). Paul had seen the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus as had the earlier disciples: “and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once…” (1st Corinthians 15:5-6). Jesus’s presence was very real indeed and that was the early Christian experience of the second person of the Trinity. 

3)  Holy Spirit: When the disciples were in the small house church in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, they suddenly experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit: “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting…And they were filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:2-4).

So, we see from these three main events how the Trinity was fully manifest in the lives of the early Christians. It was a reality that was seen, heard, felt, and handled (cf. 1st John 1:1). This is how the apostles were energized and strengthened. They did not have to believe in it as some theological proposition – they have seen God in His Triune presence themselves by their own experience.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Lessons from the Desert

At the height of Rome’s decadence, many Christians had once decided to flee to the wilderness. There, in the arid heat of the Egyptian desert, the saints had arduously sought the Kingdom of God through self-discipline and contemplation. Within caves and the oases, Christians founded monastic communities of monks so that they could practice their faith as a community of the committed.

St. Anthony of Egypt was one of the pioneers of that spiritual movement. He was called to sell all that He had, give to the poor, and focus his mind exclusively on Christ. He battled many demons and temptations, and was regarded as a wise and a godly man. When asked about the Christian life, he answered, “always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures.
Upon being asked about the state of the world, the monk replied, “A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘you are mad, you are not like us.’”

St. Anthony of Egypt certainly knew what it was like for the Lord when He fasted for forty days in the desert (Greek, heremos). Jesus himself had experienced temptations as did Anthony after him. In fact, Anthony echoed Jesus’s sentiment as He Himself was tempted by the devil: “whoever has not experienced temptations cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

The word hermit is derived from the Greek heremos, which means, “desert,” or “wilderness.” The Spirit drove Jesus into the heremos. Those who are likewise driven to heremos themselves are “hermits.”

The three above statements come from “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers,” translated by Benedicta Ward.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Trump of God

“God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet” (Psalm 47:5).
How that rings true: God rouses us day by day from our sleep. Human life is captivated by desire – by drunkenness and carousing, by gluttony and by anger. Our spirits are always willing but the flesh is too weak to catch on.
The world drunk on madness of pleasure will never be aware of God. And in our ignorance, God sounds the thunderous trumpet, rousing us suddenly from deep slumber.
Jesus warns: “For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:22-23), and as Luke adds, “there is nothing buried that will not be uncovered” (12:2). 

Paul says that God will descend with “the trump of God” and with the “voice of the archangel” (1st Thessalonians 4:16). Can you imagine, in your “peace and safety” and in your drunkenness in the night, sudden destruction overtakes you like the onset of labour pains (1st Thess. 5:3)? The thought alone is scary. When John Lennon sings “Instant karma is coming to get you,” it feels very much like that!
No hidden action escapes God; he only winks at them for the time being (Acts 17:30).
If we have ears of faith we can, in our repentant heart, recognize the trumpet call and turn away from the Desire of the world. We are given just one chance and one opportunity, “the days are short,” and the more we waste our time and energies the more too late it’s going to become!
Jesus comes as a “thief in the night;” will he find faith resonant in you?

Ad Romam I

When I was a child I still remember being enthralled by watching historical movies; particularly the ones about ancient Rome and Early Christianity.
My eyes voraciously feasted on such classic epics as Ben Hur, Quo Vadis, The Robe, The Ten Commandments, Spartacus, Cleopatra, Demetrius and the Gladiators, etc..
Charlton Heston and Peter Ustinov became my cultural heroes.The euphonious orchestra of the soundtrack of Ben Hur still rings in my ears, evoking those nostalgic childhood moments. Watching these movies was like my gateway to the world of antiquity - the world of Jesus and his apostles, which I yearned to experience in any way I could. 

Ben Hur
As a child I'd also read avidly on gladiators, the chariot races, the praetorian prefects, emperors and battles. I could only faintly conjecture the experiences of our spiritual forebears as they were confronted by the city in central Italy, by the river Tiber, that had once ruled the world.

I wonder how a fisherman from Capernaum even make his way there? And what could it have been like for him?
I've always felt that there was much vibrancy, titillation, and enrapturing experience of being a Christian at that time - after all, the teachings of Jesus were still a novel and a living experience that resonated with fresh potency within the hearts of early believers in the great cities-centres like Rome. I've always imagined a scenario of the working-class plebeians enjoying their nocturnal convivial worship together, celebrating the communion, jovially hymning to Christ "as to a god," and being thrown to the beasts (Latin ad bestias) in the Colosseum. That was also the impression I'd gotten when I read the writings of the early Christians, such as Ignatius of Antioch and Tertullian of Carthage. The Acts of Perpetua and Felicitas game me a panoramic view to the whole grizzly reality of Christian persecution under the emperors.
I was also fascinated by a classic novel, written by a nineteen-century anonymous writer, The Martyr of the Catacombs, and being entranced by stories of Christians hiding out in the subterranean catacombs for the fear of the Roman government, like a band of rebels. Of course, nothing could have been farthest from the truth as derived from the real pages of history!
That was, at least, my then fanciful romanticizing of sacred history which lamentably is all due to the nefarious Hollywood indoctrination factor. All these mellifluous myths have certainly caught my fancy back then.
On the other hand, I still think the popular legends resound with the realities of being a first-century Christian; and them having to cope with social ostracism, at best, or death by wild beasts in the arena, at worst. There was much savagery and hate back in those days - but the pristine purity and love of the early Christians had eventually - through several centuries - won the day.
Of course, that is not to become voluntarily blind to how utterly corrupt the Roman church had subsequently become; how bishops of Rome would lord it over them and establish a religio-political hybrid system during and after the time of the emperor Constantine.
Consider the words of Tertullian in the 3rd century, writing from Africa:
"So, again, Babylon, in our own John, is a figure of the city of Rome. For she is equally great and proud of her sway" (ANF, 3.162, c. A.D. 200). This echoes Peter's apocalyptic use of Babylon as a codename for Rome: "she who is in Babylon" (1st Peter 5:13), and of John in the Book of Revelation.

Iesous Xristoc Theou Huios Soter (Jesus Christ, God's Son, the Savior)
The "ichthus" anagram
Firstly, how ever did the church get started in Rome? It may surprise many people but Roman Christians have been around before the apostles Paul and Peter. So, it's a bit puzzling as to how they got there in the first place - and that so early!
Much of the history of pre-pauline Christianity in Rome is "shrouded in haze". The book of Acts only mentions that there were Christians whom Paul had encountered on his way to face his trial at Rome (28:15), and that before then, Paul was received by the brethren living in Puteoli, - the harbour that served as a gateway to the East (28:13).

So, Puteoli would be our first identifiable locus of primitive Christian presence in Italy. The book of Acts records how Paul and his crew, with their Alexandrian ship "whose figurehead was the Twin Brothers" - Castor and Pollux - sailed from Sicily, circled around and finally docking to "Puteoli, where we found brethren, and were invited to stay with them seven days" (28:11-14). It was not only at the port city that Christians had already been established before the arrival of Paul but even at Rome: "when the brethren heard about us, they came to meet us as far as Appii Forum and Three Inns" (28:15).

Ruins of the "Three Taverns"
The Appii Forum, or The Marketplace of Appius was a small town just outside of Rome. It was situated along the famous Via Appia - The Appian Road: it was the famous highway that stretched from Rome to the north to Capua to the south. Rome was renowned for paving highway systems that led to the city - it had certainly facilitated long-distance travel: both safety-wise and convenience, derived from a smoothly paved pathway.

North of the town was the "Three Taverns" or as it was called in Latin Tres Tabernae, which was a place where the well-known mansio was situated. The mansio was an inn for weary travelers and merchants to rest who were on their way to Rome. Ruins of the inn where Paul stayed are extant to this day at "Treponti" (as it's called in Italian).

So we could see Biblically and archeologically that Christians have established their presence in Italy from very early period. I think the book of Acts furnishes us with very important clues. In chapter 2, for instance, on the day of Pentecost there were many visitors and proselytes from Rome who had experienced the coming of the Holy Spirit on the church in A.D. 33. After they had witnessed the "great wonder of God" and after having listened to Peter's sermon and getting baptized, the early disciples must have taken the gospel back to Italy as they were sailing back.
So, the church at Puteoli and the brethren at the Three Taverns were the first-fruits of Christians in Europe and Christians that had been converted directly by the apostles themselves.

I will surely speak on early Roman Christians at another time in a long series of blog posts. This subject is simply too long and rich to be covered in just one post.