Two Inseparable Friends
THE example of two Christians who lived in the second century will help us to perceive the value of a truly Christian friendship. One was called Epipodius, the other Alexander. They had been close friends since childhood. Epipodius was born in Lyon. Alexander was of Greek origin. But they had grown up together, studied together, and known, loved and served our Lord Jesus Christ together. Their relatives were among the most powerful people in the Empire; but the two friends had resolved to live their lives in poverty, chastity, and devotion to relieving all the misery of their fellow-men. They had therefore refused to marry or to accept the fine positions offered to them.
In 177, in the reign of Marcus Aurelius, persecution flared up again. In Lyon, such a great slaughter of Christians was carried out that the waters of the Rhone were colored with their blood. Epipodius and Alexander, in order to keep the precepts of Jesus Christ, first hid in a town near Lyon, at the house of a good Christian widow. They lived there unknown for some time. But finally they were discovered and arrested just as they were about to escape through a narrow passage. In his hurried flight, Epipodius even lost one of his shoes, which the saintly widow picked up and kept as a rich treasure, and indeed, God used it to work several miracles.
After spending three days in prison, Epipodius and Alexander were brought before the tribunal of the governor. They were asked their names, and they replied that they were Christians. This brave affirmation of their faith made all the people filling the hall seethe with anger. The governor, renowned for his cruelty, told them that they would not defy the majesty of the gods and the regulations of the emperors with impunity. He reminded them of the crosses that had been set up, the animals that had been satiated with Christians, the racks, the blades reddened in the fire, and stakes that had devoured everything to the bones. "And after so much torture," he exclaimed furiously, "the odious name of this Christ still resounds in our ears in front of the sacred images of the Caesar! Separate them! Withdraw Alexander, who seems to be stronger, and submit Epipodius to torture."
However, before having him tortured, he tried to take him by kindness. He said to Epipodius with false compassion: "It is a great pity that such a likeable young man should perish in such a bad cause. I know that you have piety; but do you take us for impious people? Have we not gods that all the world worships with us? Gods to whom the princes governing us are the first to pay homage? These gods are not strict. They have to be honored with feasts, concerts and dances. They command us to live joyfully and to seek the pleasures of the flesh, delicious wines, spectacles in which the beauty of the body is presented in all its seduction, while you Christians worship a man nailed to a cross who speaks of temperance, penitence and fasts, and even advises chastity! What, then, can you expect from a God who is not able to defend his life against the least of men? Renounce your grim, wild religion, and enjoy all the pleasures that your youth promises you!"
"The grace of my Master Jesus Christ," replied Epipodius quietly, "will not allow me to be deceived by the poisoned sweet-ness of your words. Your compassion is for me only one of cruelty. The tiny life that you offer me soon ends in death and leads to hell. The death that you threaten me with is the triumphant door leading to eternal life. You must understand, with a little logic, that my choice is made. And then, this God whom we worship, this sovereign Lord of the universe, this Jesus who has suffered the torture of the cross—know that after being raised from the dead he ascended to Heaven; he has opened the way to it for us. He has prepared a splendid place for us. Are the shadows that cover your spirit so dense that they prevent you from seeing that in a man there are two substances, a soul and a body? With us, the soul commands and the body obeys. These pleasures which you extol to me intoxicate the body, but give death to the soul. That is why we take the side of our soul against our body, preserving it from the vices that defile it. As for you, do not boast so much of your piety towards the gods, for the first and greatest of all is your belly. You sacrifice to it the most noble part of yourselves by living like beasts, and await only an end similar to theirs: a frightening reality will make your illusions fall. As for us, in exchange for time, your tortures give us eternity, and in exchange for a miserable life, happiness that will never end."
The enraged governor immediately ordered that this eloquent mouth which had just covered him with shame should be closed. The executioners broke the Christian's jaw. His blood flowed freely, but the martyr did not cease repeating in a loud voice that Jesus Christ is the only God, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, that it was just that he give back his soul, created and redeemed by him.
Carried away by his fury, the governor had Epipodius stretched on the rack and torn with iron nails. The people themselves, mixing with the executioners, gave howls and picked up rocks to stone the martyr. But the governor had him killed with a sword stroke, so as to quiet the sedition and not allow "the majesty of justice" to be violated.
Two days later, Alexander was taken to the tribunal. "Thanks to the immortal gods," said the governor, "you are almost the last one remaining of the miserable followers of Christ. Your companion in impiety is dead. Think of yourself, and come and thank the gods who have preserved your life."
"I owe recognition only to God," replied Alexander. "You think to frighten me by reminding me of the tortures of the martyrs, but you only increase the desire that I have to follow them. Those blessed souls, that you have chased from their bodies by means of torture, have not perished: they live in heaven. The Sacred Name that you believe you have extinguished in rivers of blood, is more resplendent than ever. The religion that you are trying to overthrow is unshakable. It is God who has laid its foundations. The pure and holy life of Christians protects it, their death enlarges and affirms it. It is the same God who made Heaven; he is Maser on earth; he reigns through his justice in hell. The souls that you believe you have destroyed have in Heaven a Kingdom that awaits them, while you will go to the everlasting fire with your gods, who are devils. By killing my very dear brother, you have ensured his happiness, and I am dying of impatience to share with him that eternal felicity. What are you waiting for? I am a Christian."
Immediately the martyr was stretched out and all his limbs extended. The executioners who hit him with all their strength became tired, and they had to be relieved several times. Alexander remained firm and fearless, asking for help only from God.
"Are you still alive?" asked the governor finally.
"Yes," replied the martyr, your gods are only images of Satan. But the God whom I worship is all-powerful and eternal. He will give me the strength to affirm my faith until my last breath."
"Fix him to the cross," shouted the governor. They did so, but almost immediately he expired; for the flagellation had been so cruel that his entrails showed through his ribs, which were denuded of flesh. The Christians managed to take away the bodies of the two martyrs and bury them together.
In the 6th century the relics of St. Epipodius and St. Alexander were placed together with those of St. Irenaeus, under the altar of St. John's Cathedral in Lyon.
Everlasting Happiness and Joy
For 18 centuries these two souls have enjoyed, and for ever and ever will enjoy, infinite happiness, always new; there is nothing lacking to their perfect joy. There, nothing can displease them, but everything that can be pleasant for them. In this world, we see God only through his creatures, through dust, as in a mirror (1 Cor. 13, 12). In heaven, detached from the shadows, we shall see this happiness, so sought after, so desired, face to face, as he is (1 Jn. 3, 2). We shall see God, infinite kindness, infinite beauty, infinite knowledge, infinite love; to express the infinite Reality, all the words on earth are but as a few ashes on our lips of stone.
Let us ask the saints to put a little of their joy into our hearts, while we wait to join them for ever, in the heavenly Jerusalem, the glorious city of God, where the elect praise him for ever and ever.