Summary: The martyr-bishop Januarius testifies to the truth of the Gospel, and his alleged blood miracle must get the attention of the unbeliever.

19 September 2011

St. Januarius

There is a famous passage in the Acts of the Apostles in which the rabbi Gamaliel advises the Sanhedrin to leave the early Christian community alone, because if it is God’s will, they would not be able to destroy it, and if it is not God’s will, it would collapse on its own. Our saint, today, was, as many faithful Christians and Jews have been, caught up in that reality.

Cyrus, king of Persia, did what the Assyrians and Babylonians failed to do. He put together a Persian empire that ruled most of the Middle East for over 200 years. He did so by reversing the loot, plunder and exile policies of Assyria and Babylon. The Jews were one of the peoples who returned to their homeland under his wise governance. He didn’t exactly leave them alone–after all, there was taxation–but he let them reestablish their religion and culture. In other words, he was a practitioner of the rule of subsidiarity: solve local problems locally, and permit home rule.

Diocletian, the Roman emperor, lived almost a thousand years later. He inherited a dying Roman empire, but as a dynamic and autocratic ruler, one with military expertise, he reinvigorated it. He did so by destroying and pillaging his enemies, standardizing taxation and governance, and enforcing uniformity throughout his realm. In other words, he inherited the mantle of Assyria. Ironically, he conquered Sassenid Persia. His final act of autocracy–probably inspired by his co-emperor, Galerius–was to persecute the Christians, who he thought were undermining his rule by worshiping a dead carpenter. His was the worst persecution of Christians to date. He began by destroying a new Catholic church in Nicomedia, after looting its stores and burning the Scriptures. Many Christians died, mostly in the East.

Januarius, as bishop of Benevento, was performing one of the works of mercy when he was arrested. He was visiting some deacon friends in prison. They were then all rounded up and put in the arena with the wild beasts, who refused to eat them. (I find it comforting that deacons are considered inedible by cats.) Unrepentant, the Roman authorities had them beheaded. It appears that some of their blood was collected, as often happened in these later martyrdoms, and venerated as a relic. This is the blood kept in the cathedral of Naples that appears to liquefy three times a year, once today. In Italy, this martyr-bishop is known as San Gennaro.

Such claimed miracles are scoffed at by many. Atheists attribute it to some chemicals allegedly added by a medieval alchemist. Clotted blood may be liquefied by agitation, but the resulting suspension will not reclot. Every explanation and attempt to reproduce the phenomenon by chemists seems to have failed.

I think such miracles prove the power and humor of God. Remember that God made us in His own image and likeness. That’s where we get our intellect, our will, and the attendant cleverness, compassion and humor. But God respects the freedom of our wills. He does not force us to do good or to think well. If we insist on not believing in Him, He does not (usually) send an angel or something else to force our belief.

But He also doesn’t want the atheist to be completely without extraordinary evidence, or the believer to coast on personal experience and the marvels of ordinary life. Sometimes He gives us unusual and inexplicable events–like tilmas with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, or blood that liquefies three times a year only on important feasts. That’s part of God’s good humor and everlasting mercy, a wink of His eye that even a committed unbeliever cannot ignore. And another reason to give Him thanks and praise.

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