God was on their side, even when men rose against them

Today, 2 Jun 2012, is the memorial of the martyrs who gave their lives in awe-inspiring witness to Jesus Christ in 2nd century France. Some were arrested in Lyons and others were arrested in Vienne, both being major cities in the year 177. The persecutions in these places were particularly violent and brought forth extraordinary heroism in these martyrs.

The full story is told in Book 5 of Eusebius of Caesarea’s ‘Church History’, and I cannot recommend highly enough that you read the account for yourself, starting at www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iii.x.ii.html . Because the story only goes on for the equivalent of six pages it won’t take long to read.

Before the Christians were called upon to shed their blood, they had to endure increasing levels of persecution. To be a Christian at that time meant that you were excluded from bath houses and meeting places and from visiting anyone. What the catalyst was that stirred up the mob so violently against the Christians isn’t revealed in Eusebius’ record. It was the equivalent of a lynch mob that dragged the Christians before the governor, convicted them of belonging to Christ and then had them all thrown in prison.

Of these heroes of faith, Vettius Epagathus a man of status, Sanctus the deacon, Maurus the newly baptised, Attalus, Blandina, Biblis, Pothinus the bishop of Lyons, Alexander the physician and Ponticus a teenager, are mentioned by name.

Vettius Epagathus spoke up on behalf of the Christians, and asked permission to give a speak in defence of the Christians before the raging mob. Denying his request, all the governor wanted to know was whether he was a Christian or not. Vetticus clearly stated that he was. Eusebuis’ account implies that Vetticus’s answer gained him a swift martyrdom.

Sanctus the deacon was put through tortures in order to wring information about his background and about the Christians. To each and every question he replied, ‘I am a Christian’. After having had red hot plates of brass pressed against his flesh, following other tortures, Sanctus was given a few days respite back in the prison. When the torturers had another go at him, this time all of the savage treatments had the opposite effect and transformed his body from a mangled mess into a wholesome one once more. Finally together with some companions he was placed in the arena and subjected to whips, savage beasts, the howls of the crowd, and roasting strapped to an iron chair.

Maurus the newly baptised was one who shared in the tortures of the arena with Sanctus the deacon.

Attalus was well known to the people, and was paraded in the arena with a sign ‘This is Attalus, the Christian’. Because someone remembered that he was a Roman citizen he was taken back to the prison where he was of great encouragement to those seeking God’s strength to endure the martyrdoms to come. The respite was brief, since the crowds eagerly wished to see him die in the arena. Attalus, even when put on the iron chair to roast, clearly and loudly tried to tell the crowd that they were in error about the Christians.

Blandina was subjected to interrogations and tortures for hours on end, persevering with God’s grace even when her tormentors grew too tired to continue. From her all they learned was ‘I am a Christian, and nothing wicked happens among us.’ When her time came to be taken to the arena, Blandina was hung on a stake in the form of a cross as food for the wild beasts. All through this ordeal she prayed and encouraged the other martyrs. Since the wild beasts didn’t touch her she was returned to the prison. On the last day of the arena games Blandina was again brought in, and subjected this time to all the tortures that the men had been subjected to. In addition they bundled her into a net and tossed her to a bull to be thrown around. All were amazed at how she was able to suffer for so long before entering her heavenly reward.

Biblis was a Christian who had been overcome by fear and had denied Christ. Since she had given in once, perhaps the authorities hoped that she would more easily divulge the secrets of the Christians under torture. The opposite happened. The tortures brought home to her what the reality of hell would be like, and God’s grace helped her to choose heaven and to rejoin those willing to persevere in giving their lives in martyrdom for Him. 

Pothinus the bishop was of advanced age and physically frail. He endured the brutalities meted out to him for love of Jesus. After giving his verbal witness to the governor he was set upon by those who dragged him around, hitting and kicking him and throwing things at him. With only the barest life left in him, Pothinus was returned to prison where he died soon afterwards.

Alexander the physician was a bystander who tried to unobtrusively encourage the Christians to stay firm in faith. As soon as the crowd noticed that Alexander was a sympathiser they made the governor aware of him. After telling the governor that he was indeed a Christian, Alexander was thrown in prison and sent to the area on the same day as Attalus. All during these final sufferings Alexander had all his focus on God, praying silently and fervently in his heart.

Ponticus, a fifteen year old Christian had been forced to witness the tortures of other Christians in the hope of breaking his resolve. It didn’t work. On the same day as Blandina, he bravely went through the tortures of the arena until he gave up his spirit into God’s hands.  

Only with God’s heavenly aid and strength were these holy martyrs and their unnamed companions able to endure such sufferings, bravely witnessing to the One who had suffered on the Cross to redeem them. He was on their side, enabling them to become living images of the Crucified One before the howling, enraged populace.

May St Vettius Epagathus, St Sanctus, St Maurus, St Attalus, St Blandina, St Biblis, St Pothinus, St Alexander and St Ponticus and their holy companions pray for us that we too may become worthy of the promises of Jesus Christ.