*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 1st of January 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.

Happy new year! And, as a Christian, I can tell you that because celebrating the New Year on the 1st of January is no longer forbidden as it once was. For most of the history of the Christian church, you have two options for a new year- the first day of Advent or March 25th (or sometimes the 1st).

And so, while today is a secular holiday more than a religious one- there is a critical festival today. From the Rose Bowl, here close to me in Pasadena and its accompanying parade, the nation turns its eyes to the tv screen to watch college football. And few spectacles across America tie in all regions of the country, as does college football

(and let me make an argument briefly for the sanctity of college football over pro football despite my affinity for the NFL- Saturdays are for football and how often do you check the schedule for your NFL team and your church calendar, and if you live on the West Coast… I digress)

It’s worth noting that Christians have had a historically uneasy relationship with sports. Today we hear from pastors about families missing Sunday service for club sports and the like, but it used to be a lot worse. Violent and gladiatorial.

We don’t need to get into how violent they were but consider this:

The bloodsport became an easy way to dispose of the surplus poor, prisoners of war, or others with no other way out. I was reading from a roman letter in which one man was bummed for his friend who held gladiator games, but the panthers he ordered to spice things up never arrived. Dang. Maybe next time. It was still pretty bloody nonetheless.

So you might see why many Christians opposed these games, especially when they could be the prisoners forced to fight or defend themselves against hungry beasts (this is where we get the idea that Christians were thrown to wolves etc.… under various Emperors).

And it is in this context; we can remember the possibly mythical “last ever gladiator match,” which is said to have taken place on this day, the 1st of January in 404. This date is also used as the day that St. Telemachus died. How did he die? He was stoned to death at a gladiator match for opposing the spectacle and brutality. Shocked by this, the Christian Emperor Honorarius banned the games. The historical veracity of this is… uh… dicey. BUT, the story of the saint who ended the Gladiator games has been told throughout the centuries. Chroniclers said it in the Middle Ages; it makes it into Foxe’s Book of Martyrs from the 16th century; Alfred Lord Tennyson told of Telemachus in a poem, and a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan used the story for a prayer breakfast speech in the 1980s.

I will stay away from parallels between modern sport and the church. There is a place for a Christian prophetic voice to speak to the violence endemic in sports today and how we might respond.

For our purpose on this show, let me tell you about the contemporary responses from Christians to these games. The problem was the violence, but not solely so. Tertullian wondered about those who had been unjustly condemned and sent to die in the amphitheater.

“But who is my guarantee that it is always the guilty who are adjudged to the wild beasts, or some other doom, and that the guiltless never suffer from the revenge of the judge, or the weakness of the defense, or the pressure of the rack?”

Tertullian and others also argued that just punishments were ok- but why must we observe them? The lynchpin argument came from the religious content of the Roman Gladiator games. These contests were religious in nature and came from funeral traditions in which people were mourned and remembered by having others fight to the death. Sure it sounds weird. But like eating meat offered to idols, attending what was seen as a pagan religious celebration was scandalous. In the end, it wasn’t so much the violence that doomed the games, but the usurpation of ceremony and pomp that should be reserved for Jesus.

Nonetheless, why should this get in the way of a good story: a little saint stood athwart his culture and shouted “stop, in the name of Christ,” and the games ended. Not quite, but we remember St. Telemachus on the likely anniversary of his death, sometime between 350 and 404 on this, the 1st of January.

The Last Word for today on this first day of the new year comes from Revelation 21- amongst my fav verses:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5 Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 1st of January 2022 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a Purdue Boilermaker, Christopher Gillespie- when you hear this; the game will be over; when I’m recording this game they haven’t played yet, I’m calling it: Purdue wins 35-28. Please note that the spread is 7.5 points.

The show is written and read by a man with no college team in a bowl game- but we beat Oklahoma by stealing their coach. I’m 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.