It is the 10th of August 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 258.
The year 258 is one of the most critical years in the early church and Roman history. The brief context to understand this year is the Ante-Nicene church and what Roman historians call "the Crisis of the 3rd Century." The phrase is a catch-all to describe the genuinely disastrous 200s for a Roman Empire that would soon rapidly decline and dissolve.
In 247, Rome celebrated its 1000th anniversary, but things were far from celebratory and nostalgic. After the assassination of Emperor Severus in 235, the ensuing 50 years saw 26 different claimants to Caesar's seat. This included the "Year of Six Emperors" in 238.
All of this helped to fracture the empire into different regions. This interrupted the free trade routes, which had been so essential to Rome's growth and prosperity. Amid the breakdown of the empire into different zones, coinage was devalued, the plague spread, and new groups of barbarians with names like Goths and Saxons and Franks were sniffing around Rome's farthest boundaries.
In the church, we refer to this as the Ante-Nicene period, meaning "pre" Nicene. In our year of 258, the population of Christians in the Roman empire was likely less than 5%. The real center of Christianity was North Africa. The apologists were writing against new anti-Christian writings, and the first widespread persecution began under Decius.
By 258, the Decian persecutions had subsided, but a new Emperor would resume them. This was Valerian the Elder, an Emperor from 253-260. This is a remarkably long reign by 3rd century standards. Valerian decided to institute a kind of loyalty oath. That is, everyone was required to make public sacrifices in honor of the Empire and Emperor. Anyone who didn't would have their property seized. While Christianity represented a small percentage of the empire, wealthy matrons and patrons were thought to be the economic lifeblood that sustained the church. Thus, we see one of the oldest traditions begin, that of persecuting the church with the intent of taking their money and land.
Two of the most eminent Christians in the year 258 were Pope Sixtus II and Bishop Cyprian of Carthage. These two men were well respected and helped center the authority of the church in the bishop's ability to forgive all sins (even the sin of apostasy during persecution!) and in the administrative system centered in Rome. Despite Rome indeed not being the capital of 3rd century Christianity, the Emperor feared the growing influence of this small but powerful group in the epicenter of imperial power.
Cyprian and Sixtus were both executed by Valerian, and rather than depress Christianity, it began the growth and spread of Christianity. Over the next century, the Christian population in the empire that stood at about 5% would grow to over 60%. And this was in large part due to the martyrs, Cyprian and Sixtus being the most famous. But soon, more and more would not hesitate to bear the cross of death by the state in the name of Christ.
And it was on this, the 10th of August, in 258, that a deacon named Laurence would go to his death as a witness to his faith. In early August, Valerian had ordered that any bishop, priest, or deacon in the church be put to death. St. Lawrence would become one of the earliest and later popular Ante-Nicene martyrs. Constantine and a handful of Popes would build chapels and churches in his honor over the next few centuries.
The "actual" story of his martyrdom is less important than the story that was told about Laurence. He was known as being especially attentive to the poor, and when he heard of Pope Sixtus' death, it is said he took the church treasury, and had it distributed to the poor. Upon being arrested, the story is that he was ordered to be publicly executed by being tied to a gridiron placed over a fire. His iconography usually displays a gridiron after his supposed manner of death. It is said that he went bravely to his death, even joking before succumbing to the flames, "I'm well done on this side. Turn me over!" He is today, somewhat crassly, the patron of cooks and the patron saint of the poor, among many other patronages. One of the most famous early martyrs, he is referenced by Ambrose, Augustine, and many other post-Nicene church fathers. The St. Laurence gulf and river in Canada are named after him as they were discovered in the 16th century on the feast of St. Laurence, which is today's date, the 10th of August, in memory of his martyrdom in the year 258.
The reading for today comes from St. Cyprian, a word on the connection between martyrdom and the Lord's Supper.
"And, as the Eucharist is appointed for this very purpose, that it may be a safeguard to the receivers, it is necessary that we may arm those whom we wish to be safe against the adversary with the protection of the Lord's abundance. For how do we teach or provoke them to shed their blood in confession of his name, if we deny to those who are about to enter warfare the blood of Christ? Or how do we make them fit for the cup of martyrdom, if we do not first admit them to drink, in the church, the cup of the Lord by the right of communion?"
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 10th of August 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by the patron saint of Lutheran pastors that are also sound engineers and professional coffee roasters, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.