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June 19, 1998     The Message
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The Message -- for Catholics of Southwestern Indiana What's in Church history for me? By JOHN F. HAUGHT Catholic News Service To know who we are we must be able to say where we came from. Apparently even our earliest tribal ancestors instinctively realized that without a sense of origins they could have no sense of their own identity. So they told stories we now call them myths -- about the decisive events in their past. And what about the church? With- out a story to tell about the church's own communal history, its members would have only the most nebulous sense Of what it means to be Christian or Catholic. Knowledge of the church's past is essential for our own sense of who we are religiously. We need to know the struggles our predecessors underwent, the heroic figures and deeds that shaped the church's unique character, and how the faith's fundamental teachings came to be formulated. But there is a deeper reason to famil- iarize ourselves with the church's his- tory. The hhurch understands itself to be a community of hope. As the biblical authors were fully aware, however, talk about God's promises and faithfulness cannot enkindle hope as long as it remains only an abstract idea. It has to be embodied in narrative -- story -- form. The substance of faith, even that of the most theologically sophisticated believ- ers, still comes alive for us only when we meet it in the humble form of stories. By telling stories about God's actions to save and renew -- even in the most desperate of circumstances-- our hearts become imprinted afresh with faith's healing power. Stories penetrate to levels of awareness that theoretical or scientific expression can never reach. "The substance of faith. comes alive for us onl meet it in the stories," explains fessor John E Haught. stories about God's save and renew  even'. most desperate of our hearts become afresh with faith's power." -- CNS photo by It is especially in stories that we learn to trust. We can best appreciate church history's importance, then, by approaching it as a necessary extension of the need to tell sto- ries about God's fidelity and about human responses to it. Already in the New Testament we have dr evidence of the early Christian com- munity's sense of obligation to pass on m in the form of stories -- the saving truths about a promising and faithful God. The Gospel stories about Jesus, of course, are the most obvious instances of Christian faith's instincts in this regard. To these stories St. Luke's Acts of the Apostles adds fascinating new accounts of the deeds of Christianity's earliest heroes, especially Peter and Paul. In a sense, in Acts we have "church his- tory's" first installment. Reciting the struggles, victories and squabbles of the primitive church, Acts can serve 6r us as a bridge linking the past 20 centuries of church history to the earlier narrative traditions of the Bible. Following the example of Acts, it seems to me, we are invited today to keep on telling the extended story of the church. If we fail to do so, we begin to lose touch with the grander story of God's promise that constitutes the leit motif of the entire biblical vision. In her collective memory the church holds a rich, varied and often troubled archive of reports about efforts, throughout the turies, to remain faithful to story" of God's It nourishes our hope repeatedly encounter the ways in which the presence of a faithful expressed in holy and writings since the Luke. For this well to learn about the church's life in history. However, along wi0 accounts of martyrs history By FATHER EUGENE LaVERDIERE, S.S.S. Catholic News Service P The New Testament took pains to situ- ate Gospel events in history. For example: Luke's Gospel situates Jesus" birth in the reign of Caesar Augustus while Quirinius was the governor of Syria (2:1). Luke also situates the beginning of the prophetic mission of John the Baptist in the reign of T'derius Caesar, when Pon- tius Pilate was governor of Judea (3:1). Knowing the historical background Of a New Testament writing helps us to understand -- and not to misunderstand its purpose and what it means for us. For instance, take the Book of Revelation. For a long time we thought that Reve- lation was written for Christians suffer- ing a great persecution launched by Emperor Domitian. And we thought the book's purpose was to bolster their courage at a time when the end of the world was thought to be imminent. To this day, many look to the Book of Revelation for predictions regarding the world's end. They interpret the b(_k, wth its dragons and beasts, as a code referring to people and institutions today. Often the book is viewed as dark and vengeful, predicting the destruction of people perceived as evil. Today we know there is no evidence of such a persecution in Domitian's time. For a long time, then, we were mistaken. We can trace this mistake to Bishop Melito of Sardis (circa 160-"170), who addressed a writing to the Emperor Mar- cus Aurelius. For Melito, only evil emperors, like Nero, persecuted Christians. A good emperor, like Marcus Aurelius, did not! But Domitian had a bad reputation among the nobles. And the Roman his- torians were mostly from the upper class. Especially at the end of Domitian's reign, they thought of him as a second Nero. From there it was an easy step for Melito to present Domitian as the second great persecutor of the Christians.It was also an easy step to believe Melito, since he was bishop of Sardis, one of the seven churches that received a special message from the Lord in the tk)ok of Revelation. Surely there were persecutions at the time the book was written (circa A.D. 95), but they were local and sporadic. They also came from different sources. They are described in the message to the seven churches in the Book of Revela- tion (2:1-3:22). With a correct historical understand- ing of the Book of Revelation, it can help Christians to persevere in the ordinary difficulties they experience. But we may lose sight of this if we think the book focuses only on the end times. It is a book of hope. But there is another point to make about the background of the Book of Revelation. Domitian presented himself as Lord and God. For the Christians, that was an affront to the true God. That's why the Book of Revelation has a very dim view of the Roman Empire. The author presents a God whose dominion overpowers and destroys Cae- sar's dominion. Nobody can pretend to be God and endure! The Book of Revelation invitc us to have a similar attitude in the face of evil. And in the Lord's Prayer, we pray for that every day: Thy kingdom come, thy ... And lead us deliver us from Misunderstanding text of a biblical meanings into it that ing the historical ference. Father LaVerdiere, a priest, is a Scripture for of Emmanuel magazine.