Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Tears of St. Lawrence of Rome (d. 258) by Chris White

Perseid Meteor Shower

Every August my wife and me enjoy laying on a blanket in our backyard to observe the night sky and the beautiful celestial event called the Perseid Meteor shower.  This event lasts for several nights (which is nice because Oregon summer nights are not always clear) and is quite dramatic to watch as brilliant streaks of light are seen as the evening sky is covered with “falling stars.”  I was surprised to find that this event is also known as the ‘tears of St. Lawrence’ because the meteor shower coincides with his feast day in the liturgical calendar of the Catholic church.  If it is axiomatic that tears cleanse the soul, the story of St. Lawrence’s tears brought cleansing of a different sort to his adopted city of Rome with his martyrdom.  Here’s how it happened.

Although Lawrence (aka Laurentius or Lorenzo) received the crown of martyrdom in Rome, he was born in Spain.  Although some of the story of his beginnings which are supplied to us by a man from antiquity named Lucio Morinco are legendary to some degree, they are not completely unbelievable and are all we have about his early life: “ St. Lawrence was a son of the duke of Spain whose name was Orenzo.  His mother was called Patience.  As an infant, the devil took him away from the cradle and placed him in the midst of the forest hoping he would perish there.  During that time the bishop who later became Pope Sixtus II was preaching in Spain.  Providence directed his path in such a way that he found the child which was lying under a laurel tree.  He took the child, and nourished him and gave him the name Laurentius (because of the laurel tree).  In Italian he was known as Lorenzo and in English, Lawrence. When he became an adult having many skills and aptitudes, he came with his master to Rome where Sixtus was eventually elected pope and made Lawrence archdeacon of the city. 

In some ways, this story brings more questions than it answers (such as how do we know his parents names if he was a foundling) but it does establish that Lawrence had a relationship with Pope Sixtus II that was close and familial and the laurel tree is a portent of the future, for the crown of laurels was the victor’s prize in Greco-Roman culture, and Lawrence was proven to be a champion both in his ministry and martyrdom.  It also follows the paradigm of Jesus’s life where the devil attempted to destroy him as a child and was only successful in his adult life through the agency of corrupt government.  Such would be true of Lawrence in the end.

Read the Scriptural requirements for Deacons here

So, while most of us at least partially understand who the pope is, what is an archdeacon?  The office of deacon (in the original language of the New Testament “diakonos” or servant) originates in the early church (Acts of the Apostles chapter 6) as a second layer of leadership devoted largely to practical acts of service on behalf of the church.  The efforts of the deacons were to free up the Apostles to concentrate their efforts on prayer and teaching the church in the truths of the gospel.  Since the church of Rome was very large and known for its organization, no doubt the role of archdeacon was one of oversight over the many deacons assigned to serve throughout the city.  Deacons in the city of Rome were also known to assist the bishop in his liturgical functions, teach new converts in preparation for their baptism (catechumens) and finally to distribute charity to the poor through a network throughout the city.
St. Stephen was the first deacon

Rome would have tolerated Christian doctrine out of diversity, but because the church was well-organized and hierarchically constituted, it needed to be destroyed.  The Decian persecution of 249-250 was where the Roman government first recognized the organized church was truly a threat to them. This later persecution under Valerian began as the result of an epidemic.  All persons were ordered to offer sacrifice to the gods on behalf of Rome to bring protection to the city.  Christians refused to participate for obvious reasons and this started the backlash.

The Rome authorities held forth that anyone found to be a Christian will be executed and will endure the seizure of their property to the benefit of the Imperial state treasury.  In the background of this persecution is another reality: the emperor was badly in need of funds to pay the Roman army and so he had a greater interest in the “seizure” part of the persecution than he did in mass executions.

Because of this, most rank and file Christians were ignored, but Christian leaders, influential personalities, and Christians known to be wealthy were directly sought out by the government.  They would have fewer victims but definitely more riches with this approach.

From the moment of Sixtus II’s election as pope, Lawrence his archdeacon was always by his side. Lawrence worked day and night, busy running to and fro with great zeal for his office and for doing good to those within and without the church of Rome.  He was well known to the people and some even called him ‘the angel of Rome’ because of his many acts of mercy and charity.

 Eventually the Pope’s location was discovered and he was arrested in the persecution.  As Lawrence watched his spiritual father undergo the indignity of arrest, his eyes were filled with tears.  He was sad not only for the loss of his shepherd and mentor, but also because he would not have the honor of dying together with him.
Pope Sixtus II

 Pope Sixtus consoled him with these prophetic words:  I will not leave you or abandon you son, but there are more difficult tests reserved for you.  Because I am already old, I will receive an easy test, but because you are young you will face a more difficult test from the tyrant.  Do not cry for in three days you will join me.

A classic poem on the Life of St. Lawrence

Sixtus quietly recommended that Lawrence distribute all the treasures of the church to the poor so that they who would not fall in the hands of the persecutors.   The holy deacon, enthusiastic about the prediction of the martyrdom and that he will soon be gaining glory did not waste any time.  He rounded up all of his assistants and distributed all the wealth of the church among the poor according to their needs.

Lawrence distributing "treasures" to the poor

Saint Ambrose, who provides us with many of the most credible details of Lawrence’s story, explains that the church did accumulate gold and silver in the form of beautiful chalices, plates, and accessories for their worship services.  Although some churches still met in homes, the church was also in the stage of development where they were also beginning to build buildings and it was quite natural for the faithful who had means to want to furnish them with beautiful accessories.

Ambrose tells us that the church did not give away the church treasure as liturgical implements but would melt them down and distributed the gold and silver as the need warranted.  The view was taken from the Old Testament when the Babylonians came and plundered the Temple in Jerusalem.  They took the implements of gold and silver that were intended for use in worshiping God and used them idolatrous purposes (something for which God would judge that nation for at a future date).  The thought of the church was if they were going to be plundered by the government, better to melt the gold down themselves and give it away for good purposes.

Beyond that idea, the church also felt that although beautiful things are a wonderful adornment to their worship, the more beautiful adornment is that of good works.  Sometimes, even if there was no threat of seizure, the church would still melt down its precious metals to redeem someone from slavery or to help Christians in a time of famine to be able to purchase food.

St. Lawrence is so awesome he has his own Facebook page. Like him here!

Getting back to St. Lawrence, upon taking leave of the pope he went to the home of a noble woman by the name of Ciriaca.  Her home is where the church’s treasures were stored and it was also a distribution center for the poor and for Christian pilgrims needing assistance.  During the persecution, Ciriaca hid Christians and church leaders in her home which eventually was found out by the authorities in a later time and led to her own martyrdom.

In today’s Rome, the church of Santa Maria in Domenica at the top of the Coelian hill is built on top of the site of St. Ciriaca’s home.  This church is also known as “the Navicella” because there is a fountain in the front of the church in the shape of a ship.  It is from this point that centuries ago St. Lawrence made haste to give away the treasures of the church.

While Sixtus was being led to his execution, Lawrence followed him saying “Oh holy father, do not abandon me;  I made good use of the treasures that you’ve entrusted to me.”
Upon hearing this, the soldiers immediately arrested Lawrence and brought him to the tribune Partenio who questioned him about these treasures and where they were being kept.
Eventually this information was brought to the emperor Valerian who wanted to meet with Lawrence.  He demanded that the treasures be brought to him and so Lawrence shrewdly requested three days that he could make a ‘proper accounting of them’ before turning them all over to the emperor.

Over the next three days, Lawrence went to all the people who had received his gifts and asked them to gather at a certain place on the following day.  When he reported to Valerian, all the poor people were gathered.  “Here,” as Lawrence pointed to all the poor, sick, crippled, aged, and ragged of the city, “is the treasure of the church.”
Lawrence before the Prefect of Rome

The emperor was enraged and stunned, but Lawrence pointed out that according to scripture, these truly are the trophies and wealth of the church.  This led to Lawrence being given the sentence of death.

The emperor informed Lawrence that he knew he was ready to die for his faith, but it was not going to be an easy and painless death by the sword.  In fact, he was going to be a burnt offering himself.  But it would be even more horrific because he would be roasted on a lower temperature over a longer time.

Although it was not as common a torture as it became in the Middle Ages, the tradition is that Lawrence was cooked while still alive on a Roman gridiron.  Imagine a large barbecue grill with legs high enough to build a cooking fire underneath.

Lawrence on the gridiron

 There are two traditions related to this event.  One is that fuel used to burn Lawrence was copies of the Bible which had been seized from the church.  The other one is that Lawrence asked his tormenters to flip him over because he was done on the backside.  Neither of these details are likely to be true, but they have been a part of the story so long that it would be unthinkable to leave them out.

Get a great downloadable book on St. Lawrence here

The execution in such a brutal way was shocking even to the Roman people who watched blood sport for entertainment. Several senators who came to watch this horrid spectacle were converted on the spot by Lawrence’s grace and prayers for the salvation of the lost while undergoing intense suffering.  They took his body and gave him an honorable burial.

Lawrence came into the presence of Christ on August 10, 258 AD.  It was his death that marked the death of idolatry in Rome.  While it wasn’t outlawed until the next century, the injustice of persecution and the steadfast witness of St. Lawrence and many others in the face of government sponsored violence put its practice into sharp decline that very year.
St. Lawrence outside the walls church in Rome

And so the tears of St. Lawrence, seen in the night sky of August, are not the tears of sadness but tears of joy that can only come when you realize God has used your life, every bit of it, to make His name hallowed on earth even as it is in heaven.

Ambrose.  On the Duties of the Clergy Book II.   26 Feb. 2015

Ferguson, Everett  Church History Vol. 1 : From Christ to the Pre-Reformation.  (Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 2013)
Frend, W.H. C.  Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church.  (Cambridge : James Clarke, 2008)
Kirsch, Johann Peter.  “St. Lawrence”  The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 9  (New York : Robert Appleton Company, 1910)  20 Feb. 2015 www.newadvent.org/cathen/09089a.htm
“Lawrence”  Dictionary of Christian Biography.  Michael Walsh ed.  (Collegeville : The Liturgical Press, 2004)
“Lawrence, Roman Martyr”  Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity.  Angelo Di Berardino Gen. Ed.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity Press, 2014)
Martina, Fr. Sergio.  The Papal Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls and its Saints.  Dina Saliola trans.  (Roma : Prima Edizione, 2012)
“St. Laurentius”  Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature Vol. 5.  McClintock and Strong Eds.  (Grand Rapids : Baker Books, 1981)
Saint of the Day: Lives, Lessons, and Feasts.  Foley and McCloskey O.F.M. ed. & rev.  (Cincinnati : St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001)
Schaff, Philip.  History of the Christian Church Vol. 2.  (Grand Rapids : Eerdmanns, 1910)
Ubodi, Flavio.  St. Lawrence Deacon and Martyr (between history and legend).  A.M. Barnido and Norberto Mariani trans.  (Rome: Basilica St. Lawrence Fuori le Mura, 2008)

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