The Treasures of the World
Every day the media keeps our minds attentive to the atrocious cruelty that human beings inflict upon one another. We have seen it in Bosnia, in the activities of the IRA, in the Middle East and nearer home in the violence that threatens the safety of our streets. Such thoughts were on my mind as I looked up at the East window in my church and caught sight of Laurence the Deacon holding his gridiron. He diverted my thoughts to the violence in 3rd century Rome. In 258AD, as a member of the permanent order of deacons he assisted Sixtus, the Bishop of Rome, who had taken great care over the relics of the martyrs and removed the bodies of SS Peter and Paul to a safe underground cemetery. The Emperor Valerian responded by forbidding all Christians to enter their cemeteries. This led to the arrest and execution of Sixtus.
Laurence, pleaded with the bishop not to ‘offer this sacrifice’ without his attendant deacon. Sixtus insisted but prophesied, “A more glorious conflict awaits you. In three days time you will follow me.” Laurence was in charge of the money that maintained fifteen hundred widows and pensioners which the Prefect demanded that Laurence hand over. Laurence promised to comply but asked for three days in which to collect the articles and make an inventory of them.
Then he sold all the precious vessels and gave everything away to the poor. He invited the Prefect to follow him to one of the churches of the city. There he showed him, in long rows, the aged, the maimed, the blind. Another story is that Laurence persuaded the Prefect to send waggons to fetch his treasures, presenting himself at the head of the strange crowd. “There” said Laurence, “are the treasures of the Church.”
The enraged Prefect decided to teach Laurence a lesson. Instead of beheading him, he ordered him to be tortured by a slow fire, to persuade him to reject Christianity. Laurence was stretched on an iron grate, or gridiron and laid over the fire, but neither his faith nor his wit failed him. After he had been lying for a good while roasting, he asked his torturers to turn him, saying, ” I am done enough on that side.” It was August 10th, now his feats day.
Ambrose Over one hundred years later St. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan reminded his clergy of Laurence’s action. ” Truly,” said Ambrose, “Laurence was right. These people he presented to the Prefect are the treasures of the Church.” Ambrose himself had used church gold and silver to free some prisoners, so he understood. People in whom Christ lives are the treasures of the Church. As St. Paul said “We have these treasures in earthen vessels.” What greater treasures has Christ than those in whom he says He Himself lives. ” For when I was hungry , you gave me food; when thirsty you gave me drink; when I was a stranger you took me into your home”. And again, “Anything you failed to do for one of these, however insignificant, you failed to do for me. And they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
These people are the treasures of God’s world and anyone who harms them will be judged by God. Those responsible for the atrocities in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, will be judged. Laurence pointed to these treasures of God in 3rd century Rome, to the Prefect who had come for silver and gold, that such is not the Church’s treasure. The treasure Laurence showed the Prefect he could not carry off.
Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon in the Diocese of Durham