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The Tears and the Embrace of Ecclesia Mater

Eusebius of Caesarea is well known for his highly optimistic appraisal of the Roman Empire’s turn — first, in toleration, then, in support — to the Christian religion under Constantine. The first self-professed Christian emperor is very much a hero for the Church in the eyes of this fourth-century historian, especially in his Life of Constantine. Modern Christian assessments of Constantine, and the associated “turn” to a Christian Empire, are generally more mixed, to say the least. But in partial defense of Eusebius we can at least say that his optimism about Constantine was fed by his experience of the severe trials Christians had faced for generations at the hands of various representatives of the Empire. It is at least understandable why a bishop writing when he did would have breathed a long sigh of relief at the prospect of a supportive civil authority, even if we, in retrospect, see well the perils that came along with it.

Of course, the spiritual temptations that came along with a more peaceful political situation for the church were not necessarily new with Constantine. The church had already experienced, in the often relatively long and auspicious periods of practical toleration during the first few centuries, the interior dangers that arise when it gets too comfortable in its temporal welfare.

St. Cyprian bitterly lamented the number of Christians who willingly sacrificed to the imperial gods during the Decian persecution (250-251), and blamed these “lapses” on Christians in previous decades putting too much store by the material comforts they were able to acquire in a relatively persecution-free period (e.g., under Philip the Arab). Each was more intent on increasing his property than putting it at the feet of the apostles for the common good, and even bishops “became ministers of earthly kings,” and went wandering around markets looking for good deals, lending money at compound interest, rather than catechizing the faithful from their pulpits (as Cyprian says in his On the Lapsed). Eusebius, therefore, might have seen that the tolerance — even more the support — of the political authority came with its temptations for the church, and that it would be wise to be a bit more circumspect about the prospects of a Christian emperor. Besides, the thesis that there was a close correlation between his bad (Arian) trinitarian theology and his heavy-handed monarchical political theology remains persuasive.[1]

Still, Eusebius understood at least at one level that the Christian faith commits a person to an allegiance that transcends in an absolute sense any claims a temporal authority could make on her. It is striking, for someone who has often assumed him to be the first proponent of a Christianity that serves as a nicely domesticated civil religion, to read Eusebius’s accounts of the pre-Constantinian martyrs. Consider this passage with which he prefaces his account of the martyrs under Marcus Aurelius (161-180):

Other historians have confined themselves to the recording of victories in war and triumphs over enemies, of the exploits of commanders and the heroism of their men, stained with the blood of the thousands they have slaughtered for the sake of children and country and possessions; it is peaceful wars, fought for the very peace of the soul, and men who in such wars have fought manfully for truth rather than for country, for true religion rather than for their dear ones, that my account of God’s commonwealth will inscribe on imperishable monuments; it is the unshakable determination of the champions of true religion, their courage and endurance, their triumphs over demons and victories over invisible opponents, and the crowns which all this won for them at the last, that it will make famous for all time. (History of the Church, Book 5, preface)

Christians for Eusebius — at least in this passage — are first of all members of a commonwealth that is not from this world. Its field of battle is the soul, its enemies invisible. True religion is its dearest possession, and truth its one sure prize. Its soldiers fight not by spilling the blood of others, but by a confession of faith that may cost them their own. And they do this without bitterness or anxiety, tranquilly accepting these interior contests incited by exterior aggression as coordinated by God’s providence for their salvation. As Cyprian said of the Decian persecution, the Master often wants to make trial of his household, when its faith has grown languid and sleepy.

Perhaps the most moving of the accounts Eusebius gives is a long excerpt reproduced in the same book from a letter in his possession that he tells us was written from the churches in Lyons and Vienne in Gaul to Christians in Asia Minor, likely from around 177. The account reads much like the many famous early martyrdom accounts such as the Martyrdom of Polycarp or the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity: bold confession of Christ by sturdy-souled Christians before a raging and hostile populace.

Vettius Epagathus, a Christian of some influence, stepped out from the crowd as his brethren in the Lord were being led before the governor’s tribunal and asked for permission to speak in their defense in order to prove that there was “nothing godless or irreligious in our society.” The crowd roared in derisive anger, and the governor curtly asked Vettius, “Are you a Christian?” When Vettius confidently and clearly affirmed that he was, he too was “admitted to the ranks of the martyrs.” He was called thereafter the “advocate” of the Christians, we are told, who himself was filled with the Advocate.

A deacon named Sanctus showed “superhuman courage” when he withstood “the entire range of human cruelty” — the fire, the rack, the rope — such that his poor body became “all one wound and bruise, bent up and robbed of outward human shape.” Through all his torture, Sanctus was pilloried with questions — about his name, his race, his birthplace, his legal status. He gave only one answer, over and over again: Christianus sum — “I am a Christian.” Firm in his confession, he found his suffering body “bedewed and fortified by the heavenly fountain of the water of life that flows from the depths of Christ’s being.” Indeed, it was Christ himself suffering in that body, accomplishing a glorious witness to the fact that “where the Father’s love is nothing can frighten us.”

Particularly moving is the account of a woman named Blandina. She appears to have been, in the eyes of her torturers, a low-born, unattractive woman, possibly with some sort of disability. Through her, the account says, “Christ proved that things which men regard as mean, unlovely, and contemptible are by God deemed worthy of great glory.” A domestic servant of some sort to another Christian woman facing the ordeal, Blandina evidently did not even inspire confidence among her mistress and friends that she had the wherewithal to make a bold confession in light of her “bodily weakness.” But, having been subjected to such tortures, morning to night, that even her captors were left amazed and at a loss for what else they could do to her, “the blessed woman, wrestling magnificently, grew in strength as she proclaimed her faith, and found refreshment, rest, and insensibility to her sufferings in uttering the words: ‘I am a Christian: we do nothing to be ashamed of.’”

We meet Blandina again later in the account. After being confined for a time in a filthy prison, she was brought back to the arena, where she was hung on a post in the form of a cross. When her fellow Christian sufferers looked to see her in the midst of their own agony, they saw “in the person of their sister the One who was crucified for them.” Yet Blandina lived on, and was later brought for yet another round in the arena, this time with another Christian prisoner — Ponticus, a boy of 15. While they inflicted on the boy every horror that might make him swear to the gods, he was “encouraged by his sister in Christ,” as she urged him on and stiffened his resistance, like Éowyn whispering courage in Merry’s ear on the Pelennor Fields. In this final round, Blandina finally breathed her last, “rejoicing and exulting at her departure as if invited to a wedding supper, not thrown to the beasts.”

Alongside these edifying episodes, the authors of this letter draw attention to one especially important feature of this particular persecution, a feature that is clearly important in Eusebius’s mind, too. The letter observes that some among the Christians brought to trial were in fact not yet ready for the ordeal. They were not sufficiently trained, but were rather “still flabby,” in no condition for such a giant struggle. These, the letter laments, denied Christ. Ten people, the authors say, “proved stillborn, causing us great distress and inexpressible grief.” Those who denied Christ, however, wound up suffering even more than the confessors: punished not for the name of Christian but rather as grotesque murderers (elsewhere in the account Christians are charged with having Thyestean banquets — i.e., eating their children), they were also mocked by their captors for their cowardice, and torn inwardly by their consciences.

It was under these circumstances, the letter tells us, that “the infinite mercy of Jesus was revealed to a degree rarely known in the brotherhood of Christians, but not beyond the skill of Christ.”[2] Those who had denied Christ, after suffering their extra tortures, were cast into prison right alongside the valiant confessors. This time of respite “was not idle or unfruitful,” for as they lay in gaol the confessors were “bestowing grace” on those who had failed, and through their gentle mercy, their generous encouragement, the fallen were raised up, the dead brought back to life. Those “who had denied their Master” were “conceived and quickened a second time,” learning to confess Christ once more. There was thus “great joy in the heart of the Virgin Mother, who was receiving her stillborn children back alive,” and when the previously lapsed Christians were called forth into the arena again, having been told by the authorities that they would be released if they persisted in their denial, “they confessed Him and so joined the ranks of the martyrs.” Thus was Christ greatly glorified to the confounding of their persecutors, and the lapsed were “added to the Church.”

Eusebius later transcribes another portion of the letter that expresses a special tenderness toward these confessor-shepherds who gently led the lost sheep back into the one fold. “They defended all and accused none,” the letter says; “they loosed all and bound none; they prayed for those who treated them so cruelly, as did Stephen, the fulfilled martyr … If he pleaded for those who were stoning him, how much more for brother-Christians?” Indeed, the greater heroism of these confessors was not that they delivered their bodies to be burned, but that they were aflame with charity: “[t]his was the greatest war they fought against [the devil] through the reality of their love, that the Beast might be choked into bringing up alive those whom he thought he had swallowed already. They did not crow over the fallen, but the things they themselves had in abundance they bestowed with motherly affection on those who lacked them.” They shed “many tears” for their brethren to the Father, and when they “asked for life … He gave it to them.” “Peace they had ever loved; peace they commended to our care; and with peace they went to God, leaving no sorrow to their Mother, no strife or warfare to their brothers, but joy, peace, concord, and love.”

This letter gives us in these final passages perhaps the earliest textual witness we have to an explicit ascription of “motherhood” to the church. She is the virgin mother who rejoiced to embrace her stillborn children once more, safely back in the bosom of the church, that they might valiantly pass through the ordeal of martyrdom to their eternal reward. But it is the confessors who present to the fallen the visible faces of that affectionate and solicitous mother. Their tears for the fallen are her tears for the fallen, mother church herself crying out to the Father for their revitalization. Eusebius clearly shares the tender sentiment toward the maternal solicitude of these confessors, though with a bit of a polemical edge: “So much may profitably be said about the affection of those blessed ones for their brothers who had fallen from grace, in view of the inhuman and merciless attitude of those who later behaved so harshly towards the members of Christ’s body.” With this last clause, he no doubt has such parties as the Novatianists and the Donatists in mind, who generally regarded Christians who lapsed in the persecutions as having forfeited the possibility of reintegration into the Church, even by rigorous penance.

Cyprian might have read the Lyons/Vienne letter a bit differently, given his frustration in Carthage with confessors who, after the Decian persecution had waned, were excessively lax in issuing pardons to the lapsed apart from the established disciplines of penance. Subverting the normal means of grace by their justly acquired moral authority, these confessors, Cyprian urged, were compromising the bishop’s pastoral authority and therefore the established organs of the Church’s unity (Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Catholic Church came out of this debate). Would Cyprian, then, have looked on the Lyons/Vienne confessors as imprudently putting the cart of reconciliation before the horse of penitential discipline?

I think not, given the difference in circumstances. The lapsed in the gaol of Gaul were facing an imminent return to the arena, and their confessor co-captives knew that they needed the church’s merciful embrace and fortifying grace immediately, that they might return to the battle alive in Christ once more, ready boldly and joyously to confess him. The lapsed in Carthage, after the abrupt ending of the Decian persecution, needed a somewhat different treatment for their interior wounds, the kind of longer and slower spiritual therapy that the church’s established disciplines could provide. But Cyprian, too, was a prudent steward of the church’s motherly solicitude, for when persecution again threatened in 252, a synod in Carthage deemed that the lapsed still under the penitential discipline should be readmitted to the peace of the church immediately. None could be denied the blood of Christ who might be called upon to shed blood for Christ.[3] Eusebius and Cyprian share a basic confidence in their ecclesial mother always to supply her children with whatever aid they need to stand up again and walk bravely, in any circumstance, the way of salvation. For Cyprian, this means deferring, under ordinary conditions, to the normal and established means of grace. For Eusebius, it means those with a certain kind of “charismatic” authority deploying their influence, under extraordinary conditions, solely to the end of mercy, reconciliation, communion, and peace with God and the brethren.

In no way do I want to become a “Eusebian” — either theologically or politically. But it is nevertheless striking that even someone who could go on to say rather caesaropapist things about the earthly monarch — as a vicar of the singular heavenly one — couldn’t do otherwise than take for granted that the church, not the temporal authority, was his first mother. The allegiance to Christ that she nurtures in her children by her sacramental embrace and by her compassionate tears is the allegiance that transcends all others.


[1] See, e.g., Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, pp. 68-69.

[2] ibid., p. 198.

[3] On this, see Karl Baus, History of the Church, Vol. 1: From the Apostolic Community to Constantine.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you. I highly commend visiting Old Lyon and the Amphitheater there. It is an unforgettable experience. The road that leads up there–Chemin Neuf–has recently birthed an active and growing ecumenical movement in France.

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