Msgr John Broadbent
5 April 2011
The scriptures read at Mass today are a small portion of the often lengthy readings for the Christians of the early church. The Eucharist, which most people attended only on Sunday and in private homes or catacombs, was the climax of their week and lasted for hours.
Most early Christians could not read because many, especially the poor, had no formal schooling. For those who could read there were no comfortable little bibles. The scriptures were inscribed on bulky papyrus scrolls, the result of hours of copying. Some congregations or parishes could afford to buy only some portions but even if they had the whole of the Old and New Testaments, these were kept hidden and under guard. The homily centred on the scriptures and life in the community.
The three sisters commemorated on the April 3 lived in Thessalonica (modern Salonika) in Greece. They must have been converts as both parents appear to have been pagan. But they must have been wealthy enough to own scriptures and had learnt to read. They read the scriptures daily and loved them.
Roman empire falling
At that time, the Roman Empire under Diocletian was beginning to fall on hard times. As students of history know, the upper classes in most great and rich empires squander the empire’s money by leading dissolute lives while the poor become poorer and the economy takes a dive.
Determined to restore the empire to its former glory, Diocletian (284AD) changed the empire’s political structure creating two emperors, one in the East based on Nicomedia in modern Turkey and the other based on Milan, Northern Italy.
The Barbarian tribes particularly the Germans on the northern border were infiltrating the empire to conquer parts of it. On the eastern border, the Persians were once again becoming a great empire and large standing armies needed to be stationed at Milan and Nicomedia to march large distances quickly. No provincial governor could be trusted with such an army lest he use it to depose the emperor. Diocletian chose Maximian as his co-emperor.
Another force which blocked Diocletian’s wish to restore the empire was the growth of Christianity and loss of the old Roman religion. If the Romans returned to worshipping the old gods, especially since Augustus’ time (the first emperor under whom Jesus was born), the emperor would be as divine as God and the old spirit of Rome could be revised.
All previous persecutions had made the crucial point that a Christian must offer sacrifices to the emperor as god, the point at which they were condemned to die. Now Diocletian revived this point to reinforce his and Maximian’s authority as emperor and co-emperor. With Maximian agreeing to do the same in his half, Diocletian began his persecution of the Christians in 306AD. Thus ensued the bloodiest persecution of them all in which hundreds of thousands of Christians shed their blood for Christ.
Not only could they not make a god of their emperor, but the wily Diocletian saw that the writings the Christians used at their services gave them strength and courage. While the scriptures existed, they must be destroyed or even the martyrs’ deaths would not stop Christianity multiplying. So when a Christian was arrested, their house would be routinely ransacked in search of the offending documents.
When Agape and her sisters were arrested and brought before the magistrate on the witness of a person who had been observing their house, the magistrate demanded they pray to and for the emperor. They resolutely refused. We learn this from the report of their trial the authenticity of which is unquestioned. [The Acts of Perpetua and Felicity have been widely criticised.]
When the magistrate, Dulcitius, shortly afterwards ordered their house searched, rolls of scriptures were found. Finally, Dulcitius asked Agape, ‘Will you act as we do who are obedient and dutiful to the Emperor?’ She answered, ‘It is not right to obey Satan. I am not to be influenced by anything you can say.’
Dulcitius ordered Agape and Chionia to be burnt alive.
St Irene was martyred later and different versions of the Acts of Agape and Her Sisters give varying accounts of the martyrdom. The more probable one was that she was shot in the throat with an arrow.
When we think of the bravery of these three sisters and their love of the scriptures and how generations of monks in the centuries that followed copied the scriptures by hand and quill onto scrolls, we realise the love those early Christians had for the scriptures. It makes us wonder, ‘Do I really appreciate reading my bible?’
I know we meet Jesus in a very special way in his real presence in the Eucharist, in prayer, in my neighbour and in the scriptures in a special way, too. What do I do about it?
How about reading more each day in Lent and meeting Jesus? How about looking at the Sunday Mass readings during the week in preparation? All who read some scripture regularly love it as did Ss Agape, Chionia and Irene.