Seán O’Conaill: How the BBC’s ‘Colosseum’ Explains the Creed

After decades of indecision on adult catechesis and faith development Irish bishops could do worse than watch – and arrange for every parish in Ireland to watch –  the BBC series ‘Colosseum’.

Begun in the first Christian century as the Roman empire was approaching its widest extent, the purpose of this largest of all Roman amphitheatres was to enthral and placate the Roman populace with endless bloody spectacle. Vespasian and his imperial successors built and developed it to consolidate their hold on that unruly city of one million people, the largest that the world was to see until the emergence of London in the 1800s, in the wake of an industrial revolution.

Dramatically centred on the stories of individuals named by Roman writers of the time, ‘Colosseum’ uses actors to impersonate emperors, architects, poets and gladiators (including even one free Roman woman) and the hugely important medical pioneer, Galen.

And yet, half-way through the series, the narrator assures us that it was Christian martyrs, such as Ignatius of Antioch, who undermined the glorification of combat-to-the-death in that arena, beginning in the early second century.

St Ignatius turns up in the fifth episode – as ‘The Martyr’. Arrested for annoying the Roman gods, Bishop Ignatius welcomed the fact that he was on his way to the very centre of Roman power for public execution. This was an opportunity to broadcast the Christian message, to consolidate the structure of the early church and to undermine what he saw as a dangerous Christian heresy of the time.

This was ‘Docetism’, the gnostic belief that Jesus had only the appearance of being a mere human of blood and tissue. Instead, Jesus had been a pure spirit, a ‘ghost’: only this could explain the story of his Resurrection – this was the Docetic rumour.

‘Then why am I in chains?’ asks Ignatius in one of his letters, written on that journey. Seven of these  are extant – offering dramatic insight into the unitive purpose and role of these earliest bishops.

It was to his brother bishops and the nearby Christian communities that these were written, c. 108 CE – giving us an irreplaceable glimpse of the developing early church near the zenith of Roman power, in the generations immediately following that of the original apostles.

“Stop your ears therefore,” writes Ignatius to the Christians of Tralles (now Aydin in Turkey), “when anyone speaks to you that stands apart from Jesus Christ, from David’s scion and Mary’s Son, who was really born and ate and drank, really persecuted by Pontius Pilate, really crucified and died while heaven and earth and the underworld looked on; who also really rose from the dead, since His Father raised Him up, His Father, who will likewise raise us also who believe in Him through Jesus Christ, apart from whom we have no real life.”

So the Christian Creed was not, as some mistakenly argue, the creation of the imperial Christian church, post-Constantine (313 CE). The central Creedal affirmations – of the humanity and divinity, and crucifixion and death and resurrection, of Jesus of Nazareth – and of God as a Trinity – were the core beliefs of the Christian martyrs of the early church.

Such passages, read in the spirit of Ignatius’ joyful defiance, also overturn the most depressing implication of the theory of the crucifixion that St Anselm of Canterbury (1098) has burdened us with – that Jesus submitted to that torture primarily to ’satisfy’ the ‘honour’ and ‘justice’ of the Father God of Israel.

The spirit of his letters tells us that for Ignatius Jesus had suffered crucifixion to assure him and his brother bishops of his own imperishability in his imminent ‘fight with beasts’.  It gave him the strength to suffer the worst that Rome could do.

Just as the experience of Jesus’s resurrection had convinced the apostles that the judgement of Rome had been overthrown, Ignatius was equally convinced of his own inevitable vindication. The Creedal formula that we recite was, for Ignatius, a passport through the Colosseum’s basement darkness and tumult: it annihilated his fear of an excruciating death.

The grounding logic of the Colosseum was the logic of ‘shame-or-be-shamed’ – founded on the Roman view of death itself as essentially shameful – the gateway to a dismal underworld. This was also the dynamic of the expanding empire, and the iron rule that had underlain the rivalries of warlords that dissolved the old Roman Republic. Rome was victorious because it had the support of its immortal warrior Gods – which now included Julius Caesar and his adopted son Augustus, divinised by the Roman Senate. The favour of these Gods was always proven by victory in arms – and this was the only possible world. Victorious might, re-enacted in the Colosseum, was also, always, right.

For Ignatius, as for Paul, the truth was utterly different. Goodness might not triumph in arms but it would triumph nevertheless – this was the meaning of the Gospel narrative. And this, in the BBC’s ‘Colosseum’, was the message that Ignatius preached at the end, as that tiered multitude looked on.

Why is it that weekly we Irish Catholics stand to recite the Creed as a dull routine, with no more interest or animation than if it was a theorem of Euclid, or Amazon’s terms and conditions? In a society racked by addiction, depression and fear for the future, how has it happened that the story that Ignatius broadcast on his way to Rome – judging by our flat way of reciting it – has no restorative and life-giving meaning for ourselves, in either version?

And how come that even yet we adults don’t convene, as a matter of routine, to consider that question?

The answer surely lies in what was to happen to the Creed of Ignatius under ‘Christendom’, the long alliance of church and state after 313 CE. When it became the professed truth of a covetous political establishment – an establishment that could also resort, at a whim, to arms – the Creed gradually lost almost all of its promise as a prediction of a new and utterly different world ‘at hand’.

It became instead the necessary assent of a dutiful people to an unjust status quo in times of peace, or, at other times, an excuse for crusades or pogroms or the burning of heretics. Gradually teased apart into separate and always equally compulsory dogmas it gradually lost its central original meaning – as a hero narrative more daring  than that of Hercules or David – centred on an unarmed man who had challenged, by faith and peaceful teaching, the utter brutality of the empire into which he had been born.

Eventually and tragically the Creed was to become by the 1800s the target of disbelieving derision and the likely model for the ‘six impossible things before breakfast’ of Lewis Carroll’s White Queen in ‘Through the Looking Glass’.

That the Gospel, and the Creed, are in essence a counter-narrative to the story of the original Caesars should be obvious today. Glorifying the most naked personal ambition – the need to be another Alexander the Great – the story of Julius Caesar especially has inspired grandiose tyrants even in the modern era, including Napoleon I, ‘Kaiser’ Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler – culminating in Vladimir Putin today.

That some of them, including Putin, have claimed a Christian rationale for their actions is also down to Christendom – and to Constantine’s claim in 312 CE of divine Christian approval of his ambition, in his claimed vision of the cross, accompanied by the instruction ‘In this sign, conquer’.

The Vatican II declaration that ‘the truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth’, is implicitly a rejection of that Constantinian claim (Dignitatis Humanae 1 , 1965). In the wake of the world’s scandalisation by European Christian imperialism it is surely time that rejection became explicit. Christendom was a long and tragic experiment in associating the Gospel with state power and covetous kings – an experiment that blinded the church to covetousness, unbalanced its moralism and tilled the soil of the West, and the world, century after century, for atheism.

It was Christendom that gave to postmodernism the persuasive argument that all religion is necessarily violent and that all creeds – the Christian creed included – are therefore not only false but dangerous.

And Christendom was also the nursery of the corporate pride of the Catholic college of bishops, the pride that prevented them from warning Catholic parents in the modern era that ordination did not prevent some men from violating children.

It wasn’t only nineteen centuries of history that separated men like Bishop Bernard Law of Boston and Bishop Ignatius of Antioch. It was the empowerment of the church from the fourth century that convinced the bishops of the twentieth century that loss of reputation was something that must never happen to themselves, the bestowers of priestly ordination.

For Ignatius it obviously didn’t matter what the Romans thought of him. All such thinking was certain to pass away: that is what it was to ‘overcome the world’, as Jesus had done. He was proved right  – and the church of the west can renew itself even yet if it studies that early church context and learns from the mistakes of Christendom, to recover the full meaning of the Creed as it was understood by its earliest compilers. 

Not only was Christendom never the Kingdom of God as preached by Jesus, it made the Creed the prisoner of a theology that implied the self-absorption of the Christian God and justified the world as it was – the world that was heading inexorably for World War I and the triumph of relativism – and could not teach effectively of a peaceful kingdom that is always at hand for those who fully accept it.

Why is it that in 2023 we in Ireland have still to be called to rejoice that Christendom is over – to recover the full meaning of the Sunday truths that gave life and defiance to Ignatius of Antioch, and birth to the church?

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  1. Frank Gregg says:

    I live in a vacuum of Christian teaching and even of discussion.
    Were one to be initiated I would be a listener for quite a while, knowing fully all the circumstances surrounding the abdication of the Sermon on the Mount, by hierarchical nominated and consecrated priesthood.

    This saddens me sorely, because all references to our faith dysfunction lie under the threat of the crozier since 313 A.D. I am 79 and unwell, but if someone of my limited eschatology is so painfully aware of this continuing “ heresy”, as exercised by our ruling hierarchy, some of whom I met unsuccessfully in Abbey St. and another I have personal experience of – we are in dire need.
    But Hope is our reliance on the Lord through the Holy Spirit – men in dresses offer no comfort to me or to many.
    The dresses are not the issue – the occupants are.

    1. Joe O'Leary says:

      Frank Gregg, the Christian tradition is an overwhelming cornucopia of spiritual and intellectual treasures. Irish Catholics need to rediscover it and stop obsessing about their declining clergy. Why not form a Bible study group, or join one online? Or any group studying the Fathers, the medieval saints and scholars, the mystics of the counter-reformation in France and Spain, the deep theology of Luther or Calvin, the efforts of Schleiermacher, Newman, Barth, Rahner, Schillebeeckx to address the travails of the modern world? Looking for some such groups, I stumbled on this:

  2. Sean O’Conaill says:

    #2 “Irish Catholics need to … stop obsessing about their declining clergy.”

    We’re on a synodal pathway here Joe. As a good Christian Frank is simply reaching out to the marginalised in hope that even yet those who are still marginalising themselves could join it. Are you saying that our surviving clergy are beyond redemption – i.e. beyond losing their fear of not being in charge any more? Where’s your spirit of mission?

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