It is so hot today that skin burns after only a few minutes in the midday sun. The light dazzles all the more when touched momentarily by the edge of a cloud; there will be thunderstorms by evening. The vendors are busy. Crowds have come out, and the world and his wife are buying lunch.
I am watching the girl standing in the full glare of sun and sand. At dawn the sand was pristine, but the past few hours and so many feet have churned it to a tawny sea of tangled footprints, paw-prints ... her face is upraised to the merciless sky and her thin arms are outstretched in surrender. Not the slightest breeze lifts her unkempt hair or cools the sweat on her breasts. She is oblivious to me, yet I have stayed close for every one of her eighteen years. She is my charge, my responsibility.
Her name is Lydia. She was born into a middle-class family who made their money from the wine trade. Coming out into the full sun will have been a shock to her system; she is used to shade. She has lived in shadowed courtyards, curtained rooms, cooled by great trees. She has walked under porticos, protective canopies, veiled and draped against the Mediterranean climate. Her exquisite skin has barely tanned. Such refinement is prized. Why is she here?
I knew her in her mother’s womb. I saw her grow through a childhood full of stories and family fights and tears. The girl became dreamy and given to passions. She was tender-hearted yet her temper could flare; she could not bear injustice, raging at cruelty. She would call down all the powers of Heaven upon the head of anyone hurting a child, kicking a dog, crushing a butterfly. She longed - as I knew she would, from her first breath - for a greater beauty to invade the world.
* * *
Lydia was fifteen, in budding womanhood but still too young to go about Rome on her own; so this particular Feria she was out walking with her aunt Pris, browsing the crowded alleys near the river for fresh fruit and sweets. Because Lydia loved scarlet, Auntie Pris bought her a little carnelian bracelet; eyes shining, she slipped the stones on her wrist ... where they remained, her tangible keepsake of a red-letter day.
They had crossed by the old bridge to the poorer side of the city where immigrant communities huddled together in multi-storey apartments fit only for the wrecking-ball. It stank.
“Why are we stopping, Auntie? I don’t like it here.”
“We have an appointment, Lydia. I didn’t tell you in case you refused to come. I very much want you to meet my friends who live in this block; they have a visitor from overseas who has been writing to us all for quite some time and has a remarkable story to tell. I think you are grown-up enough to hear it.”
“Who is their visitor?”
“His name is Paul ... or Saul. He is Jewish, like my friends Mary and Benjamin. He has been in prison for two years for his beliefs. He may come to stay with us afterwards. Be polite, now. They can’t help how they are forced to live.”
At the far end of the inner courtyard a door stood open. A bearded man stepped out of the gloom to meet them. Lydia had seen Jewish families in the streets before, but had never met any. How should she behave?
“Prisca! How wonderful to see you. Welcome to my house. So this must be Lydia. Lovely girl! I am Benjamin. Come in. Come in. Everyone’s here. We shall all break bread together.”
They were ushered into the cool, barely furnished room; in the yellow lamplight Lydia saw about a dozen men and women seated on benches and one very distinctive, emaciated man slightly apart on a stool. The only space left was the family bed, so the two late-comers made themselves as comfortable as they could on its edge.
“This is my niece Lydia, Mary,” said Auntie Pris. Mary smiled and offered water.
“We have very little,” she said,”But please share our refreshments. I believe Paul is ready to speak now.”
I watched Lydia’s face as she and Prisca listened to the visitor’s extraordinary story. He told of his birth in Cilicia and Jewish upbringing in Jerusalem. He told of events in that city twenty-nine years ago when a radical Nazarene preacher was arrested by the Roman authorities and killed by crucifixion, leading to escalating trouble from scores of his supporters who swore he had risen from the dead. I saw tears in her eyes as he counted the brutal deaths for which he had been personally responsible, and she sobbed as his voice broke at the memory.
I already knew the next part of Paul’s story, and the joy that was about to flood the young girl’s soul as he continued ...
"One day I had to travel to Damascus to take more of the Nazarene’s followers into custody. At noon on the road, suddenly I was overwhelmed by unspeakable brilliance - by blazing, heavenly Light! Stunned, I fell to the ground. In the Light was a Voice. The Voice said, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?' So I asked, 'Who are you, Lord?' The Voice answered, 'I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’ When I eventually struggled to my feet I was totally blind. I had to be led for the remainder of the journey. The blindness lasted for three days; I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t drink. All I could do was pray for God’s forgiveness and guidance. After that I committed my life unconditionally to Jesus. I travel, I teach, I write. I plant churches. I have wonderful friends like you, all around the Mediterranean. Together in Christ, through love, we can change the world.”
“Auntie Pris, I want to be a Christian.”
Lydia’s body was singing from the long hug she had shared with her new hero. How fragile his punished limbs, yet what strength and passion animated his voice and sparkling eyes! My dear charge had stepped onto her path, a path from which there would be no turning back and which she would follow to the very end. She went every week to meetings with Prisca and the others, persuaded her bemused parents to join them, and delighted in making the family’s houses beautiful for Paul’s treasured visits, garlanding every room with fragrant roses and jasmine, setting bowls of apples, grapes and figs on every table. She listened and learned. I watched her become shiny.
Then the unbelievable happened.
The city caught fire.
It was the tenth year of Nero’s reign. The emperor was away in Antium on the night of July eighteenth when flames were seen at one end of his beloved Circus Maximus. With horrifying speed they leapt and spread through wooden buildings and kiosks until almost the whole of Rome was ablaze under the night sky. Nero returned to desolation, a massive relief effort, and unanswered questions.
He needed a scapegoat.
So he blamed the Christians.
* * *
That is why you are here, my precious Lydia, on the burning sand of the unscathed arena. You are here, and Mary, and Auntie Pris, and Aquila, and Stachys, and Rufus, and Persis. Seven of you were chosen, for the seven stars. You have been stripped, and beaten till the red blood runs between your broken toes. The crowd is snacking on figs and bread, all eyes on the gate where the animals appear. Your emperor, that fat purple blob in the royal stand, is rolling with laughter as you stand praying together like crosses under the waiting heaven.
It’s a lion. He survived the onslaughts of the Bestiarii this morning and is starving both for meat and for revenge. The midday sun lights his ragged mane like a fire. A few paces toward the group of unarmed people and he can smell the blood. No need for animal skins today. He begins to run. The seven people separate, four fleeing in panic toward the barriers, two shuddering in an unbreakable embrace, and one - my Lydia - still standing like a bloodied cross, staring defiantly now straight into the animal’s eyes.
I watch him spring. She falls. She is torn apart. Everything is scarlet.
I see her rise.
“Lydia!” She turns to me in joy.”Lydia, enter the lion!”
Goaded, he has already set off after Persis. Their souls briefly fuse, girl and lion; the beast chokes on a carnelian bracelet ... and stops still. With a howl of misery he falls in the stinking sand and the crowd gasps in wonder.
“A miracle! A sign!” the murmurs become shouts ...“Let them go!”
The emperor turns to his entourage then stands and gives the signal. A Bestiarius rushes into the arena and finishes the lion like a fallen gladiator.
We both know that many other Christians won’t survive.
The age of martyrdom is just beginning.