As we wait for Spring, here’s a game to while away the wintry evenings. Which event from the past would you most like to have witnessed? It can be something public or domestic, famous or homely (I except the events of our Lord’s earthly life, as being too sacred to set into the balance with others.)

Someone, I suppose, might choose the founding of the city of Rome, or else, going maybe further back, desire to have heard Homer sing the Odyssey or the Iliad to his lyre. We might have heard great Homer in his hall, begins one of Belloc’s ballades. Or would you choose to have seen Joseph discover himself to his brethren; or further back by far, our common father when he came forth from his mighty ship and saw a whole world made new?

Or to return to a more recent antiquity, what about watching the 300 take up their places at Thermopylae, and hearing one of the Spartans say to General Leonidas (trying to keep the fear from his voice), ‘The Persians are so many that their arrows will blot out the sun!’, and hearing Leonidas answer, ‘So much the better – we shall get to fight them in the shade’?

It would have been fine, too, to have heard Socrates and the others at the world’s most famous dinner-party discussing the nature of love; or to have been at the Academy on the day when a promising young student from Stagira ventured to put up his hand and ask Professor Plato whether there weren’t some difficulties involved in the theory of the forms.

What would one not give to have been in Rome on the Christmas morning of 800, when like the lightning that come out of the East and passes even to the West, the Pope translated the empire to the brows of Charlemagne, and then, as if awed by the boldness of his own deed, threw himself to the ground before the monarch of the world?

Or perhaps one would choose to have been present three centuries later when another pope preached the first Crusade in the heart of France; or when the French knights whose faith and imaginations he had kindled scaled the walls of Jerusalem? Or on into the very heart of the middle ages, dining at the same table with St Louis and St Thomas Aquinas, seeing the friar bring down his fist upon the table with a bang, and the king, amused, called for pen and paper to be brought him?

What a scene, too, in Augsburg, when Cajetan met Luther! Will there ever again be so perfect an encounter of reason and anti-reason? Some good Protestant who plays the game might like to have been a spectator when Friar Martin nailed his theses to the castle door. Alas, it seems it never happened. Or again, some bold republican might wish to have been in Paris on an August night in ’92 to hear the tocsin sound and watch Danton set to work; or even to have shivered by the guillotine a few months later when a blameless king knelt beneath the blade, and an Irish priest murmured holy words into his ear: Fils de Saint Louis, montez au Ciel!

Turning back to peaceful England, how I should like to have sat in a church in Oxford in the 1830’s and listened to the silvery voice reading the sermon from the pulpit of St Mary’s, as the shadows began to lengthen down the High; but even more to have heard Newman himself afterward talking with Keble and Pusey and Ward and Froude, late into the night; yes, and to have joined in too.

Yet if I must make my choice, I think I must settle upon the Council of Nicaea. To have been there when the 318 came in, so many of them noble and saintly confessors; brethren of the martyrs; men who had come through the Great Persecution and washed their robes therein. To have seen Constantine the Great enter, and kiss their scarred and mutilated limbs, expiating thus the crimes of his forebears, and refusing to sit until they had first sat down. Then to have heard the debates, as bishop after bishop bore witness to the truth handed down from the apostles, of the true divinity of the Son. To have seen St Alexander of Alexandria, or St Nicholas of Myra, and, combining the freshness of youth with the gravity of age, the deacon Athanasius. And the men sent from the west, from the throne of Peter, presiding over the discussions by undisputed right.

To have beheld the Eusebii, also; seen faithless Nicomedia confuted, and ambiguous Caesarea disconcerted. And the poor Novatian bishop silenced by the emperor’s wisdom:

For aiming at ecclesiastical harmony, he summoned to the council Acesius also, a bishop of the sect of Novatians. Now, when the declaration of faith had been written out and subscribed by the Synod, the emperor asked Acesius whether he would also agree to this creed to the settlement of the day on which Easter should be observed. He replied, ‘The Synod has determined nothing new, my prince: for thus heretofore, even from the beginning, from the times of the apostles, I traditionally received the definition of the faith, and the time of the celebration of Easter.’ When, therefore, the emperor further asked him, ‘For what reason then do you separate yourself from communion with the rest of the Church?’, he related what had taken place during the persecution under Decius; and referred to the rigidness of that austere canon which declares, that it is not right persons who after  baptism have committed a sin, which the sacred Scriptures denominate ‘a sin unto death’ to be considered worthy of participation in the sacraments: that they should indeed be exhorted to repentance, but were not to expect remission from the priest, but from God, who is able and has authority to forgive sins. When Acesius had thus spoken, the emperor said to him, ‘Place a ladder, Acesius, and climb alone into heaven.’

Then to have heard the great Symbol recited by all save a wretched few, and to have watched as they processed into the basilica, to sing some liturgy even more ancient than those of St Basil or St Chrysostom; for these men were not yet born. Yes, I should be glad to have seen those things.

 

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