Friday, June 6, 2014

The witness

Astrides hands were still smarting as he neared home. His tutor, Maximus, had been in a foul humour and had been very free with the rod whenever one of his pupils got a question wrong or was too slow to answer. In Astrides case it didn't help that the tutor suspected that he was the one responsible for his nickname of 'Minimus.' He was a short man and didn't like being reminded of the fact. So whenever Astrides missed a question he brought the rod down with extra vigour. The boy thought it very unfair. He had, as it happened, been the one to first call the man Minimus, but the tutor had no proof of that; and he thought it most unjust that his teacher should be extra severe with him without some evidence.
'Astrides.'
Lost in thought, the boy jumped at the voice that hissed out his name from the alley yards from his home. He peered into its gloom. A girl was standing there, beckoning to him. He recognised her. It was Juliana. They had been friends until a few years ago, when his father decided that her family was unsuitable and had forbidden them to play together any more.
'What do you want?'
'Come closer.'
'Why? You know I'm not supposed to talk to you.'
'Please, Astrides. It's important.'
With a sigh, he walked over the the mouth of the alley. He saw he had something in her hands covered with a cloth. He guessed what it was and what she wanted.
'I need you to do something for me, Astrides.'
'Sorry, Juliana. My father would thrash me just for talking to you. Have you any idea what he'd do to me if he caught me helping you out?'
'Its important, Astrides.'
'Not more important than my backside!'
'But you don't even know what I want.'
'Of course I do. You've got a basket of food under that cloth. I'm the jailer's son. You want me to sneak some food to one of the prisoners. And I can guess which one. And you know the way my father feels about you lot. There's no way I'm getting involved with this.'
'But he's an old man and he hasn't had anything in three days.'
'So? In another day or two he'll be out or dead. Whichever way, it won't matter. But my bruises will still be sore.'
'Please, Astrides. We used to be friends.'
'Used to be, Juliana. But that was a long time ago. I've no reason to risk a beating for either you or your friend.'
'I can pay.'
Astrides looked at her with narrowed eyes. Taking a risk for free was one thing; for money was something else. And his father was always happy to take a bribe for doing small favours for his prisoners.
'How much?' he said.
Juliana held up a small silver coin, a denarius. It was what a man would earn in a day working in the fields or in a workshop. It wasn't a fortune, but it was a lot of money for him.
He thought about it for a few moments.
'All right,' he said. 'I'll try. That's the best I can do. If I can sneak it to the old man, I will. But if I think I’m going to get caught, I'll dump the food. And no refunds. That's the deal. Take it or leave it.'
'Thank you, Astrides,' said the girl. There was a tear in her eye. She pressed the food and the coin into his hands and started away down the alley. After a few steps she stopped and looked back at him.
'I was always sorry that your father wouldn't let us play together any more,' she said. Then she was gone.
Astrides felt a little guilty as he walked the remaining few yards to the prison gate. If a denarius was a lot to him, it was more to Juliana. She came from a poor family. The coin probably represented months of savings for her. He felt bad about taking it from her. Especially as he had no intention of doing what she asked.
The guards let him through with a nod. He went straight to the jailer's private quarters. He father was sitting at the table in the small kitchen, drinking a beaker of wine, a dish of olives in front of him. Astrides put the basket and the coin on the table.
'What's this?' said his father.
'Someone gave them to me in the street. They wanted me to give them to Cyprian.'
His father grinned.
'But you knew better, didn't you boy?
Astrides shrugged.
'They'll probably get you to cut his head off in the next day or two. No reason to get in any trouble for him. It's not like I could expect to get a regular stream of bribes out of this.'
His father roared with laughter.
'Smart boy. I knew there was a reason I was paying Maximus all that money to educate you. There's a brain in that thick skull of yours after all.' He picked up the coin and started to put it into the pouch on his belt. Then he stopped and put it back on the table. He slid it towards his son with one finger.
'Here, keep it. You've earned it. You can put the food in the pantry.'
As Astrides was emptying the basket, he stood up.
'I've got to go out. The governor wants to see me. He's going to talk to Cyprian tomorrow and there are arrangements to be made.'
'Arrangements?' said Astrides. He paused in what he was doing. 'What kind of arrangements?'
'Well, if he won't make the sacrifices as the law demands, there'll be an execution. And it'll have to be a public one, to discourage anyone else who might be thinking of disrespecting the gods. '
'And do you think he'll refuse?'
'Most likely. A sensible man would do as he was told. What's a little sacrifice compared to having your head sliced off? But these Christians aren't sensible. They'll stick to their Jesus whatever the cost. Madness if you ask me. That or no brains. Not like you. Not like my clever boy.' He rubbed his son's head and went out.
Astrides went back to putting the food in the small cupboard that was their pantry. When he was done he turned around and saw the small coin still sitting on the table. Suddenly he felt dirty, as if he hadn't washed in a week. He picked the coin up and slipped it into his own belt pouch. Then he turned to the pantry and took out an apple and a small barley loaf about the same size. He shoved them under his tunic and headed down to the cells.

He passed guards at places along the way, but they said nothing. There were used to the boy coming and going. Deep in the lowest level of the prison he stopped before a small door. It had an opening high up set with thick bars. Standing before, he was conscious of how dark it was in the corridor, and how damp and chilled the air was. The smell of the place was bad: it smelled of unwashed bodies, and rotting food, and human waste. There was another smell as well, that he couldn't identify. He wondered if it was the odour of pain and fear. It wouldn't be surprising if it was. The prison was a place where pain and fear lived and thrived.
He tapped on the door.
'Cyprian,' he said in a whisper, standing close. In the darkness something moved. An old man came to the bars. He smiled at the boy.
'Astrides, isn't it?' he said. 'The jailer's son? Juliana mentioned you to me.'
'She did? Why?'
'The loss of your friendship was part of the cost she had to pay for following her faith. She thought it a very high price.'
'Did she? Why did she pay it then?'
'You'd have to ask her. But I am sorry that her decision hurt you. If it helps, she misses you.'
'Poor Juliana. She misses a lot of people. She misses you too. She paid me to bring you some food. ' He gave a quick look left and right.' Here,' he shoved the bread and fruit through the bars. 'She gave me more. A lot more. But that's all I'm going to risk bringing you.'
'I understand,' the old man said, taking the food. 'I know how your father feels about me. About us. You are very brave to bring even this.'
'Brave?' said Astrides. 'Foolish more like. I could have just kept the money and done nothing.'
'True. And I thank you for what you have done.'
'Don't thank me. Thank Juliana. If you ever see her again. She's the one who paid me.' He started to go, but turned back.
'Will you do it?' he asked.
'Do what?'
'What the governor wants? Make the sacrifice.'
'I think you already know the answer to that question.'
'But why? It's just a pinch of incense thrown onto some hot coals and a few prayers. You don't even have to mean it. No one would know.'
'I would. And God would.'
'Your god you mean.'
'There is only one God, Astrides.'
'It's talk like that's going to get your head cut off. Probably tomorrow.'
'Killing me won't change the truth.'
'But how do you know it's true? This Jesus lived a long time ago. You never saw him or any of the things he did. How can you know if any of it is true?'
'That is a good question. And it deserves a good answer. But I doubt if there is time for me to give it. But perhaps this will do. Those who knew him were willing to die because they knew what they had seen and heard was true. And because of their witness to that truth, those who knew them were also willing to die. And so on, down to this day. When people are willing to die for something, it is hard not to believe that it is true.'
'And now it is your turn to die? You are going to be the next witness to Christ to prove to others that what he said was true.'
'If I die, others will know I believe. And if I make the sacrifice, many would think that I do not, and perhaps lose faith themselves. And if they lose faith, they will lose the eternal life that Christ promises us. That is not something I wish to be responsible for.'
'So you'll die so they'll keep believing?'
'I'll die to help them, yes. But I'll also die to help myself.'
'You lost me there.'
'If by my death I give witness to the truth of Christ, then eternal life is mine. But if I deny him to save my own life, then I sacrifice eternal life for a few short years in this life. That is the sacrifice I chose to make, over the one that the governor asks of me.'
Astrides shook his head.
'My father is right. You people must be mad. Dying to save your life? How can you expect any one to believe something like that.'
He started walking away. Cyprian's whispered voice came down the dark corridor after him.
'And yet many do. And more do every day. That is why they want to kill us. To stop us. But it won't work. The witness of our faith in the face of death will only call more and more to Christ. Perhaps it will call you, Astrides. I will pray that it does.'
But the boy kept walking and said nothing in return.

Returning to their quarters he found his father waiting.
'Where have you been?'
Instinct warned Astrides that his father already knew the answer to his question; one of the guards had probably told him he had gone to the cells. So he didn't try to hide the truth.
'I went down to talk to Cyprian.'
'And why would you do that? His father's face looked grim.
'Because of what you said. To see if he was really crazy enough to die for this faith of his.'
'And what did you find out?'
'That you were right. They must be mad. Nothing he said made any sense. Not to me anyway.'
'And what exactly did he say?'
'A lot of stuff about his death being a witness to the truth of what Jesus taught; and that dying for his faith would encourage others to keep strong and persuade others to believe.'
'And what did you think of that?'
'As you said, crazy. What else could it be?'
His father said nothing for a long time. The silence in the room seemed to squeeze the boy. He wondered if he was in for a beating anyway. When his father spoke at last, it was far worse.
'You shouldn't have spoken to him. That's why I told you to keep away from Juliana. That's how their kind work. You listen to them and at first you think what they have to say is beyond belief. Then before you know it, it all seems real and you're one of them. And the next thing you know, soldiers are knocking at your door and you're down in the cells waiting for someone like me to come and finish you off. If you're lucky, that is. If you're not, its the wild beasts in the arena. I want you to see for yourself where this leads. Tomorrow, when we take the old man to the governor you're coming with me. We'll see what he has to say when he faces the governor. And if he doesn't see reason, then you'll see what happens to those who won't.'
Astrides was appalled. The thought of watching a man being executed made his stomach churn.
'Father,' he began, but his father cut him off.'
'It's the only way to be sure. This thing is like an infection. All this talk of dying for the faith can seem like a romantic and noble thing. Nothing like hearing a few screams and seeing some blood to bring someone back to reality. You heard all his fine talk. Now you can see for yourself where it leads to. I'm not loosing you to this madness. I've already lost …' He stopped. 'Just you be ready in the morning.' He walked out of the room.
Astrides' mind whirled. Just thinking about what he was to witness the next day brought the taste of bile into his mouth. And what had his father meant? What had he lost? For the first time he realised he never really knew what had happened to his mother. All his father had ever told him was that she had died when he was young.
As he got up from the table to go to his room, he realised that he was crying.

They started out at dawn the next day. Even so a crowd had gathered. From their murmuring of support for Cyprian they were clearly fellow Christians. His father had the prisoner surrounded by a large group of guards. But there was no need; the crowd made no attempt to interfere.
Cyprian had smiled when he saw Astrides; but it turned to a frown when he realised the boy was accompanying them to the court, to be held in the governor's palace, the Villa Sexti. They had no opportunity to speak.
In silence the group marched the short distance to the court, surrounded by the whispered words of encouragement to Cyprian from his friends, which hung on the cold morning air as if they were part of the the slight mist that the weak dawn light had yet to burn away.
The governor's palace was a building no larger than the prison, with carefully kept gardens to the front, and tall pillars before it. The governor, Galerius, was waiting for them in the great hall where he held court. He sat on a carved wooden chair, wearing a white toga, surrounded by other men similarly dressed. Astrides guessed they were other government officials. Galerius began as soon as the prisoner stood before him.
"Are you Cyprian?"
"Yes, I am."
"And are you the leader of this sect which opposes the gods of Rome and our religious practices?'
"I am."
"The most holy emperors bid you to sacrifice."
"I will not do it."
"Consider your position. You know the penalty if you do not."
"Do what you must. When one's cause is just there is nothing to think about.'
The governor sighed. He had a brief word with his advisers who stood near. The he spoke. Astrides thought his eyes looked sad.
'So be it. You have conspired with others against the religion of Rome and the lawful commands of the emperors. You will be made an example of to keep others from such crimes. By your blood will the law be confirmed.' Then he said in a loud voice: ' By the sword Cyprian will die!'
'Thanks be to God,' said Cyprian.
Astrides was startled by his words. The old man's friends began to cry out: 'We are also Christians; we should be killed with him,' but the governor and the guards ignored them. Cyprian was led back out into the palace garden and led to a small paved area before the steps. With a sickening lurch of his stomach, Astrides realised that this was the place of execution. His friends helped the old man remove his outer garments and then to kneel on the stone flags, which they had already covered with white cloths. Then Astrides' father stepped forward, unsheathing his short sword.
'Wait,' called out Cyprian. Astrides drew in a breath. Was the old man going beg for a second chance to make the sacrifices when faced with the sword? But instead he gestured to his followers:
'This man deserves payment for his work. Give him 25 gold pieces.' Astrides gasped. Twenty-five gold pieces was a fortune, more than his father was paid in a year.
'I don't need your money,' his father said with a sneer. But when the small bag of coins was held out to him, he took it nonetheless. Some of the women and girls in the crowd began to weep. Astrides saw that Juliana was one of them.
'Do not cry,' Cyprian called out to them. 'I die as a witness to Christ and all that he has done for us. And I go to be with him now.' Astrides realised that the old man was looking straight at him as he spoke. He gave the boy a slight smile and a little nod. Then Astides' father raised the arm that held his sword. The boy closed his eyes. The soft gasp of the crowd and the quiet weeping of some hid all other sound. After some moments he opened his eyes again. But there was nothing to see. The body had been borne away and the cloths taken up from the ground. There wasn't even a trace of blood to show that a man had died there moments before. The crowd was streaming away in the direction of the town square. Astrides supposed that was where they were taking what remained of the old man. The boy stood alone with his father.
'Well?' said the man. Astrides looked at the ground. He said nothing. A strange sound came into the silence. It was from the crowd. They were singing. The boy couldn't make out the words. But it sounded like a happy song.
'Well?' said his father again. 'Have you nothing to say?'
This time his son answered him.
'What kind of people sing a joyful song when someone they love is killed before their eyes?' he said. His father looked at him through slitted eyes.
'Who cares what they do. They're all mad. But what about you? Have you nothing to say about what you saw here today?' Astrides thought for a moment.
'The governor said that Cyprian was to die to make an example of him. And that he certainly did. I thank you for bringing me here today, father.'
'You thank me?'
'Yes. I have learned an important lesson. One that I think could not have been taught in any other way.'
His father threw his arms around him.
'Thank the gods … I was afraid that I might lose you like … well, that I might lose you to this crowd of fools.'
Together they walked back to the prison. They separated at the gates.
'I'll see you later, son.'
'Yes, father.'
'Have a good day at school. Don't get into trouble with your teacher. You really shouldn't call him Minimus, you know. He doesn't like it.' He gave a laugh and hugged his son again. Letting go, he went through the prison gates.
Astrides walked slowly away. But he didn't go toward his school. Instead he went to the town square where the crowd still stood singing. He scanned the crowd, looking for Juliana. When he spotted her, standing with a group of women near the back he went over.
'Juliana,' he called. She looked up. She was smiling even though her face was streaked with tears.
'Astrides,' she said, 'aren't you supposed to be in school?'
'I need to talk to you.' The girl came closer.
'I need you to do something for me?'
'Yes?'
'I need you to tell me more about what it is to be a Christian.' And still smiling the girl threw her arms around him.

(c) Fr Levi/Patrick G Burke 2013








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