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Diebus Saltem Dominicis – 3rd Sunday after Pentecost: Stay Frosty, My Friends

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Rome can be hot during the summer.  Blazing hot and breezy, a recipe for fire.  Rome had recorded 6 great fires in its history.  However, on 18 July of 64 AD, a fire started near the vast chariot area, the Circus Maximus.  According to the ancient historian Tacitus (56-120), who was in Rome at the time, the dry heat and strong wind fed the flames and the city burned for six days and 7 nights, destroying or damaging 10 of the City’s 14 regions.  Much of the City had wooden buildings, high rise dwellings of many floors, called insulae.  Water was often inadequate.  The Emperor Nero, last the Julio-Claudian line, was not in Rome when the Magnum Incendium, the Great Fire started.  He was in modern day Anzio at his seaside villa.  Nero rushed back to Rome and led extraordinary relief efforts.

However, afterwards Nero put his foot wrong in two ways.  He built a lavish palace complex with gardens which he intended to be also open to the public.  The expenses gave his political enemies in the Senate a stick to beat him with, thus the legend that Nero started the fire and then played the lyre while singing of the burning of Troy.  Never mind that the emperor’s palace on the Palatine Hill also went up in flames and Nero wasn’t even there.  Nero’s successors of the Flavian dynasty, who employed the historians, had reason to vilify the last Julio-Claudian and their line to firm up their own claims to power.

In the aftermath of the fire, there were massive problems with and among the starving and homeless populous, ready to blame Nero for the fire.  He found a scapegoat in a growing religious sect of people who would not honor the pax deorum, the peace with the gods.  This pax was a contractual arrangement, whereby if the Romans did X, the gods would do Y.   There were elaborate rites attached to all major public acts and to secure the pax that life and prosperity depended on.  Therefore, any people or group who refused participation in the rites of the civic religion to maintain the pax were considered to be treasonous.  Christians were essentially followers of an executed Jew.  Since the time of Augustus, Jews were tolerated in Rome because of their ancient presence in the City.  However, Christians were seen as anti-social because they did not live like the pagans of the time, they worshiped in private gatherings, they were sacrilegious because they didn’t worship the gods, and they were traitors because they endangered the civic religion of the pax deorum.  They did entirely foreign things while tacitly criticizing everyone else, called each other brother and sister and were, therefore, probably committing incest and they ate flesh and drank blood like cannibals.

In his Annales Tacitus wrote:

Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.

According to Tacitus, Nero famously laid into the Christians.  He had people wrapped in animal skins and sent to be torn apart by wild animals.  Others were covered with tar and ignited as human torches.  Many modern scholars today argue that these things didn’t happen, or they were on a large scale, or that its just anti-Neronian propaganda on the part of the Flavians.  Poor misunderstood Nero.

On the other hand, early Christians were, in fact, persecuted widely and word gets around.  They were persecuted in the Greek East as well, in the region called Asia Minor.  The sufferings of the early Church were bad enough that the Vicar of Christ, Peter (+64-68) issued his first “encyclical” letters to be read aloud to the Christian communities in Asia Minor.   He urged them to patience and fidelity in the face of their trials.  In chapter 4, Peter wrote: “do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you” (v. 12), an echo of the brutal fate of their brethren in Rome.

The Epistle reading for this Sunday, the 3rd after Pentecost, is famously sung each night at the office of Compline in the Vetus Ordo.  It is not read on any Sunday in the Novus Ordo, heard only on the Feast of St. Mark.  The pericope (cutting of Scripture for liturgical use) gives this website its name, One Peter Five (vv. 6-11).

There’s some context.  Here’s the reading.

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you. To him be the dominion for ever and ever. Amen.

I described the ancient times in that detail because our times now are more and more resembling them.  Peter’s words to his contemporaries, still today ringing with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are God-breathed (theopneustos), and helpful for our training and righteousness and our equipping for good works (cf. 2 Tim 3:16).  It is time to be clear-eyed and alert, like never before.

Peter stressed that the trials of this life must be lived with humility.  “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God (v 6).”  Who are we, really, before God?  Even though we are created “good” and in God’s image and likeness, who are we, fallen as we are?  Every one of us has reason to humble ourselves, as a good examination of conscience must reveal.

In our Gospel passage today from Luke 15:1-10 we have the parables about the woman who lost one of her ten drachma coins.  She lights a lamp to illuminate the dark corners and cracks and she sweeps and sweeps until she finds it.  But Christ immediately explains that there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents.  She strove for that coin, her salvation through repentance from sin.  The sweeping and lamp lighting was the deep examination of conscience needed when we are being honest with ourselves before the God who already knows.  Such a search deserves every effort, moving the chairs and furniture, getting down on our knees with that lamp and to brush and to look into places we don’t usually or don’t want to see.  We must be clear-eyed to spot both the filth that might hide the drachma and the drachma we need desperately to find.

Peter tells us to be humble.  He tells us also to be sober and watchful, because there is an enemy out there seeking to devour us.  In Greek, we read, “Népsate… be sober”, an aorist imperative.  Nepho certainly indicates temperance in the use of wine.  It also means being clear-headed, calm, well-balanced.  “Keep your eyes open! NOW!”  The aorist mood of this imperative has urgency.  The Enemy is here.

There are so many ways to intoxicate the mind available in this technological jungle which is filled with roaring and slithering.  Peter wasn’t just talking about wine.  He was also talking about the allurements of the world which the pagans indulged in.  He would be today, if I may be so bold, talking about these little telescreens in our hands.  Have you seen how some people watch their phones?  It borders on obsessive adoration.  Is there a more effective lion of soul-ripping teeth than something which can pour evil and addictive images along with sheer idiocy into our minds like hot and old running cocaine?  These are dangerous times for the life of the mind and for the health (salvation) of souls.

Népsate!”  It’s an aorist imperative.  The roaring lion isn’t “out there”.  He’s “in here”.

Nepho is found six times in the New Testament and not at all in the LXX (a Greek translation of the Old Testament).  Paul uses it twice in 1 Thess 5:6 and once in 2 Tim 4:5 also for being sharp.  The 1 Thess 5 use has the military, armor language: “Keep your head on a swivel.  Watch your six!”  The verb is thrice in 1 Peter.  In 1 Peter 1:13 there is, again, armor imagery, “staying frosty (néphontes) gird the loins of your mind”.  In 1 Peter 4:7-8, the Apostle warns us that we have a serious appointment coming up:

The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind (népsate – aorist imperative) so that you may pray.  Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

Again, “be clear” in the context of recognition that we are sinners.   The antidote to the sin includes loving as God has loved us, with sacrificial love that is charity.

Christ said,

“I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Christ’s Vicar said,

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.  Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be alert and of sober mind.

Stay frosty, my friends, and go to confession.

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