Lent Should Awaken Us to the Ongoing Persecution of the Church
“Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world.” —Blaise Pascal
An engineer in Alexandria named Ctesibius is said to have invented the pipe organ around 265 B.C., originally an “hydraulis” using water to raise air pressure. Although there was a “water organ” in the narthex of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople for heralding the Emperor, one theory holds that organs are not commonly used in the Byzantine rite because they are reminders of the horrors endured by the holy martyrs as pagan entertainment. There were many places in the various circuses and amphitheaters throughout the Empire where these spectacles took place. Possibly the first to be sentenced to the damnatio ad bestias, or being fed to wild beasts, in the Flavian amphitheater of the Colosseum of Rome, was Ignatius, bishop of Antioch.
On Feb. 24, that Colosseum will be floodlit red, along with churches in Syria and Iraq, to publicize the persecution of Christians in our own day. The sponsoring organization, Aid to the Church in Need, reports that in a dozen countries, conspicuously in Egypt and Turkey, anti-Christian persecution has reached a new peak. The situation has worsened in Nepal since new “blasphemy” laws were introduced. While crowds applaud the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang to the sound of music, around 70,000 Christians are languishing in North Korean labor camps. There is a faint echo here of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, but at least they had Jesse Owens.
Floodlighting may be one vivid way to awaken the attention of people in more comfortable lands to what is happening. Much of our media, as they either willfully or uncomprehendingly ignore the persecution, are like the idols that “have mouths but cannot speak; eyes, but cannot see; ears, but cannot hear” (Psalm 115:5-6). Looking the other way can become a habit. For instance, much of the world ignored the deportations by the Nazis in 1942 from Lyons, France, when those marked for death were herded into the same Colosseum where the saints Blandina, Ponthinius, Epidodius and Alexander were brutalized in the second century.
The modest abstinences and disciplines of Lent should awaken the senses to perceive things of God more clearly. They can also alert somnolent consciences to harsh realities in other parts of the Church. In Holy Week the Church will remember how Christ awakened the three apostles as they slept through his agony. Pascal said, “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world.” It was the triumphant risen Lord who asked Paul, “Why are you persecuting me?”—for heaven does not ignore earth: “…to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). The Resurrection acclamation, “Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat! – Christ conquers! Christ reigns! Christ commands!” was inscribed on the obelisk that is now in St. Peter’s Square, but that once stood in the Circus of Nero and cast its shadow on the suffering martyrs.