So imagine that you are a citizen of ancient Rome, and you find yourself walking down the road to the gates of the city. As you walk, you notice a baby lying by the side of the road, all alone. You are not surprised by this. Obviously, the child’s parents either have no means of feeding it, or simply do not want it. In either case, the infant has been abandoned to die, a perfectly normal method of dealing with unwanted children. What is not normal is what happens next: a stranger appears, picks up the baby, and takes it home.
Why, you wonder, would anyone trouble themselves with a baby left to die? What possible concern could they have?
You learn the truth from your drinking companions that evening. It’s the followers of this new religion. These Christians, as they are called, have developed a reputation for taking in unwanted children. No one knows why they do it, but there are rumors.
The one that will gain the most popularity and spread throughout the empire goes like this: everyone knows that Christians speak of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of their founder, Christ. As part of their cannibalistic rituals, new initiates who want to become a part of the sect are required to attend a secret meeting.
At the meeting, the neophytes are given a knife and told to cut a large loaf of bread. Inside the bread is a baby, which the neophyte has now killed. Guilty of murder and therefore bound to secrecy, the initiate is now a full member of the Christian community and joins the other Christians in eating the flesh and blood of the infant.
The ancient world had no other explanation of why strangers would rescue babies. The early Christians didn’t just love others; they created entire new categories of compassion. They were loving in ways that those on the outside couldn’t even comprehend–eating children seemed more rational than rescuing them from exposure.
The way Christians cared for others was often radical.
When plagues decimated entire cities, the citizens would flee to save their own lives while many Christians stayed behind to nurse the sick and dying, to give them comfort in their pain.
Who would do that?
Why would they do that?
Today we are used to the idea of caring for the weak and helpless–those who do not are considered cold and callous. And that isn’t a bad thing. What it shows is that Christianity really has changed how the world thinks about love.
But I want to make sure I remember a time when the love of Christians was so radical, that it made no sense. It was so strange, people had to come up with crazy stories to explain it. Do I love like that? Do you?