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How the Church Has Changed the World: He Walked Among Us

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

"Master," said the young man, "Your way of life is the noblest I've ever known, and when I hear your words about God I seem almost to touch the heavens."


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justinm"I have no more to give," said the master, with a patient smile.  "There can be no more for man on earth."

"No more," said the youth.  "Master, how do you know this God who made the heavens and the earth, by his immortal idea?  I know what you'll say," he added, with a touch of sadness.

"I say what must be said.  I know him through the soul."  Teacher and pupil fell silent.  Waves of the sea could be heard with a steady hush in the distance, as they broke upon the shore.

"You will never see God?" said the pupil.

"I see him with my mind," said the teacher.

"And when you die?"

"When I die," said the teacher, "there are many opinions as to that…."  And he continued, skipping like a stone tossed by a boy on the surface of the sea of knowledge, from Pythagoras to Heraclitus to Socrates and Plato.  The pupil let his mind wander; he had heard the old song.  He longed for more, something that would also be the key to open up all he had known and learned.  "If only I could see him," he thought.

A letter to an important man

"My Lord," said the woman, laying her hand on her husband's shoulder, "more trouble out of Scythia, is it?"  She saw a long Greek letter on the table.  They were in a garden graced with pomegranate and fig trees, and the lentils the emperor liked to tend with his own hands.  He led a simple life, and loved justice.

"Oh, my dear," he said, as if his mind had been somewhere else.  "No, not Scythia.  It's a letter from a follower of that Jewish sect, those who worship Chrestos or Christos."

"How could they follow a man who was crucified?"

"Good men have been known to suffer," said the emperor, a philosopher at heart.

"Fools bring suffering upon themselves," said she.

"The writer," he said, "Justinus of Syria, is a philosopher.  He calls Socrates a Christian too, though Socrates didn't know it."

"Only a philosopher could say something like that," said Faustina.

"The writer," he said, "Justinus of Syria, is a philosopher.  He calls Socrates a Christian too, though Socrates didn't know it."

"Yes," said the emperor.  The jest was meant for him too.

"Does this Justinus from Syria then wish you to join his club?"

"Yes," he said, laughing.

"I'll wager," said Faustina, "he and his people have been accused of wicked deeds, and he's writing to justify himself."

"Well, yes.  It really is quite impressive," said the emperor.  "They don't expose their children.  The men don't dally with prostitutes.  They share their wealth so that the poor don't go hungry.  They pay the tax.  They are not permitted to speak or to work against their enemies.  They pray for them instead.  They pray for me too.  They meet once a week to recount the words and deeds of this Christos, and they share a meal," he said, rubbing the back of his neck, "which they say is the flesh and blood of Christos.  The busybodies around them say they devour children or something."

"Listen to this," he said, reading.  '"We believe that this Jesus Christ is the only genuine Son begotten by God, his Word first-begotten, and his power, who became man according to God's will, and taught us these things for the conversion and salvation of the human race."'

"Gods have taken human form before, the poets say."

"In disguise," said the emperor.  "But this man, they say, was born as a small child."

"I don't see the difference."

"Well, look at the world around us, its order, intelligence, and beauty.  When I retire to my chamber and dwell upon it, my soul still cannot touch the God who made it, no matter how high I rise.  But these people say that God, the unknown and unseen God, came down to man as man and not in disguise, to speak to men, touch them, and die on their behalf.  So," he said, rolling up the scroll, "I'll tell the proconsul to leave them alone, so long as they keep quiet, like mice."

"It will fade," said Faustina.  "All such things do."

"I wonder," said Antoninus Pius.

Other interlocutors

"You say you follow the Word of God, Justin," said Trypho, speaking for his friends who were with him.  "But you ignore the Sabbath, the circumcision, and the laws God gave to Moses.  Aren't these the words of God?  The command has been given."

"And has been fulfilled," said Justin.  "Circumcise your hearts, says God.  He spurns sacrifices.  Didn't God say through Ezekiel that he would take away your hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh, and write his Law upon them?  If a Scythian knows God and his Christ and keeps the everlasting righteous decrees he is a friend of God, and God rejoices in his offerings."

"But this Jesus was crucified!"

"All the more confidently do we believe," said Justin.  Trypho opened his eyes wide.

"He is a man in affliction," said Justin, "and acquainted with sickness, because his face has been turned away; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.  He bears our sins, and is distressed for us; and we esteemed him to be in toil and affliction.  But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him.  With his stripes we are healed."

"And he rose from the dead?"

"He said he would.  It was the sign of Jonah, that he predicted.  'Nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption,'" said Justin the Greek, explaining the prophets, the psalms, and the lives of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David.

Trypho was taken aback.  "You know our Scriptures as well as our scribes do."

"I know them because I've been taught by the Word who gave them."

It was a long conversation.  In the end, Trypho and his friends thanked Justin, and bid him success on the voyage he was about to take.  "We've found from you more than we expected, and you've helped us investigate the Scriptures more diligently."

"I'll pray for you, Trypho," said Justin.

Final witness

The year is 165.  Antoninus Pius has died, and Marcus Aurelius, the most conspicuously pious of all the Roman emperors, is in his place.  Marcus said he would follow the lead of his peaceful predecessor, but the times boded ill for Christians.  Invasions from Germans in the north and Parthians in the east kept him mostly on the frontier, and city-dwellers turned to bloody spectacles to distract their troubled minds.  Persecuting Christians was one.

When asked whether they imagined they would rise to heaven after their execution and be rewarded, Justin replied with manly directness, "I do not imagine it, but I know and am fully convinced of it."

Justin was in Rome, where he had debated the Faith with the skeptic Crescens, and endured satires and denunciations and slanders from leading authors—Lucian, Fronto, Celsus.  Marcus seems to have assented to seeking Christians out and compelling them, on pain of death, to sacrifice to the pagan gods.

The prefect Rusticus summoned Justin and four of his friends to confess what they believed and to capitulate.  When asked whether they imagined they would rise to heaven after their execution and be rewarded, Justin replied with manly directness, "I do not imagine it, but I know and am fully convinced of it."

"Unless you obey, you will be mercilessly punished."

"Do what you will," they replied.  "We are Christians and do not sacrifice to idols."  They were scourged, then beheaded.

So the first Christian philosopher died—Saint Justin Martyr, who had gone through the pagan philosophies and found them wanting, and who had immersed himself in the Scriptures and found them all pointing toward Jesus Christ.

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Acknowledgement

Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: He Walked Among Us." Magnificat (June, 2019).

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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