A Brief Interlude Before We Can Continue
Timothy’s foggy breath trails behind his quick steps as he inhales cold, fresh, night air for the first time in weeks. Never mind that the overflowing sewers of Rome fill the air with a constant stench. Never mind that the wheeled traffic congesting the streets leaves behind a sea of waste from the oxen and mules. Never mind that the smoke of the tenements and the sweat of the crowds and the fumes of a thousand flickering torches lighting the Latin evening stings his eyes and burns his lungs. Compared to the prison, the air is fresh. And it’s free. Timothy never expected to be free again. He takes in deep breaths in spite of the cosmopolitan odors and walks in the crowded night nearly drunk with disbelief. Disbelief that he’s still alive. Disbelief that he’s free. Disbelief…and overwhelming sorrow… that Paul is dead.
“He’s free now, too. Paul is free, ” Timothy says to himself, mortified as he stares around him at the endless crowd of mindless Romans. In a sane world this crowd would be in mourning. A good man had died for no reason other than the strength of his convictions and in a sane world everyone would stop their mediocre affairs and weep over the death of such a true and godly man. But in a sane world no one would get their head chopped off for believing in Jesus. In a sane world emperors wouldn’t force subjects to worship them. Timothy knew he was far from a sane world. He left sanity the day he entered the prison with Paul.
Roman prison was more of a system than a place. Except for the hole that Timothy had just come out of, prison was sometimes no more than house arrest for wealthy citizens accused of anything other than a capital offense. If they behaved, they stayed in their home until their trial. Paul had managed to do this for two years the first time he came to Rome. Only one soldier was assigned to guard him and he was allowed to meet with the happy brothers who had traveled all the way to the Three Taverns to escort him into Rome and to continue visiting with him for two years while he preached boldly and without interference.
Poor people who broke the law seldom went to jail either. They were swiftly executed regardless of the offense. There was little expense to the state that way. Crucifixion was a favored form of execution, as was death by spectacle in the games; but usually strangulation, faster and cheaper, was a more common way to eliminate unwanted law breakers. Almost all of them were ultimately dumped into the Tiber river.
Half of the population of the empire was made up of slaves. If a slave was found to have committed a crime they were often detained in large villas outside of town. Only the unruly prisoners would be shackled and if they did not repent quickly they, too, would soon be floating in the Tiber river. Those who were compliant would be free to work at the villa until they were released again to their proper owners.
So actual jails in Rome were few and their main purpose was to hold those who had been specially condemned to die. Called “carcer”, these incarcerated unfortunates had no future in this world. They were usually Roman citizens of little financial means, pitiful souls who most often died at the strong hands of a bored, psychopathic jailer if they were unable to bribe their captors.
At the foot of the Capitoline Hill was the prison where Paul waited to die. Down a flight of steep stone stairs, not far from the beautiful marble columns of the Forum, a hole had been cut long ago in the thick rock floor. Down through that hole, beneath that floor, a small stone room awaits. Built by order of the sixth king of Rome hundreds of years before Nero, the small room was the prison. That dungeon was barely six foot high, only thirty feet long and hardly twenty-two feet wide. No consideration was given for how many men were already languishing in the hold before a condemned soul was dropped through the hole and into the pit. Filthy, dark and reeking, men awaiting the death sentence often starved to death before their execution could be carried out. Their bodies might sometimes be displayed briefly on the steps leading down to the prison; for citizens on their way to the Forum to see. That was Rome’s way of advertising that crime does not pay.
After his fourth and final missionary journey, Paul returned to the same rented house outside the city where he’d lived for two years during his first appeal to Nero. But this time no brothers came to meet him. Almost as soon as he arrived the Roman police arrested him and brought him before the court. He stood alone with no one speaking in his defense but was again allowed to return on his own recognizance to his rented house until his case could be decided. Back at his temporary home, he found that an old friend had caught up with him. The good doctor who had traveled the world by his side, proclaiming the story of Jesus, would not forsake him. Seized by coughing fits, Luke had jeopardized his own health to travel for weeks to be with Paul. Now they were alone in the suburbs of Rome as winter set in. The cold cut through Paul’s scarred body all the way to the bones and loneliness bullied him relentlessly. He quickly wrote Timothy, “ Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.”
The letter found Timothy. Then Timothy found Mark.
“He wants you. He said you are helpful to him in his ministry”
Mark wiped tears from his eyes all the way from Judea to Rome and even as he walked into the small rented house where Paul and Luke were waiting, try as he might, he could not hold back his emotions. But then, just as soon as he embraced the old apostle, Paul grabbed him by the shoulders and looked him square in the eyes.
“There’s work to be done, my son. Are you ready?”
“Whatever you say.”
“We have brothers hiding in this city. Go find them. Set their hearts on fire again for the Lord. Tell them the gospel like you’ve heard Peter preach it. And when you find a safe home to stay in, begin writing down all the things you’ve remembered.” And taking the parchments from Timothy he handed them to Mark. “Use these and write down everything you can. Fan the flame with your preaching and your writings.”
They only spent that one evening together. Timothy wrapped Paul in the cloak he had brought, but as they slept Paul took it off his frail, broken shoulders and covered Luke. Then he sat by the fire, smiling for the first time since he’d come back to Rome. Mark left early in the morning before daybreak to do as Paul had instructed him. One time, long ago, he had left Paul and it had been his lifelong shame. Now he was leaving Paul and it was his glory.
Only a few days later the court sent the guards again to bring in Paul. Luke and Timothy were arrested with him, though only Paul had charges levied against him. A lesser official was given the duty to inform Paul that by order of the emperor he was being condemned to die for sedition and heresy. He was ordered to be held in the prison at Capitoline Hill until his execution. He would not be starved or strangled or go to the games, however. He was given special treatment as a Roman citizen; he would be beheaded privately. Nero wasn’t oblivious to the fact that for every Christian executed publicly more converts were made among the spectators.
The three disciples were dropped harshly down the hole into the small stone room with almost one hundred other dying prisoners crammed into the cold space. Human waste came up over their feet in some parts of the room and men who were barely alive stood on the bodies of those already dead. The hole is covered and the three sink into darkness. Timothy shivers in the cold and is pressed on every side by countless bodies struggling to survive in this pit. But before his teeth even begin to chatter he hears them. Old raspy, voices barely in tune but singing none the less, “Kurios Theos Pantokrator!” He hears those old preachers singing that song, the song that they had sung together many times before. From one town to the next, from one country to another; in this language or that one…in different tongues but always the same praise over and over in every nation: Lord God Almighty, I will sing to you. Now here in this squalor, amid despair, a death sentence over their heads, those two old disciples sang like children and Timothy joined their glorious, croaking hearts and sang with all his might.
“It’s freezing down here, take my tunic.” Their cloaks had been stripped from them and Timothy began to wrap Paul with the only garment he had left. Barely able to see him, Timothy was still aware that no sooner had he placed the flimsy cloth on Paul’s shoulders, Paul had slipped it off and covered Luke. Timothy couldn’t see Luke in the darkness either, but when Luke’s singing stopped, Luke’s coughing began.
Luke never came out of the pit. The friend who would not leave Paul’s side in life was the first of the two to pass through death.
So it was that Timothy the Timid, Timothy the Weak Stomached; Timothy, Paul’s son in the faith…Timothy who began as a young acolyte and grew into a trusted companion, was the only Christian eye witness to the beheading of Saul of Tarsus.
Paul looks at him one last time before he lowers his head to the Executioner’s block. “We’re all just souls trapped in a little dust, son. I’ve fought a good fight, I’ve finished my course…”, and while Paul says these words, his eyes never leaving Timothy’s, Timothy joins in with him, word for word in unison repeating the very same words that Paul has preached, written and lived by for over thirty years. Now reciting together they’re almost singing,”…I’ve kept the faith. So now there is a crown of righteousness waiting for me, and not for me only but for all who love His appearing…”
Timothy can’t be sure if he’s laughing or crying. Paul smiles and nods at him,”Kurios Theos Pantokrator.”
Then, rapidly, confidently… without any assistance… in one sudden motion, Paul lays down his head. The blade raises quickly, pauses high over head as the executioner takes practiced aim. And then the blade drops. Swift is the horror; Paul’s head falls from his body and his body falls to the ground. Timothy never takes his eyes off Paul. Preparing his heart to lay down his own head, Timothy is stunned when the guards rush him back to the hole. He’s dropped back into the darkness and believes that this is where he’ll end his last pitiful days. He tries to resign himself to the fact that he is going to starve to death in this darkness. But before the day ends the hole opens again and his name is called. He goes over to the opening with fear and dread. He can’t make himself sing boldly. He’s alone. “Why couldn’t I have just been butchered this morning with my teacher? Oh Lord, oh Lord…” and they pull him out of the hole.
“You’re free to go.”
And just like that he’s thrown into the cold Roman night. He escaped his own execution only because Nero wanted someone to spread the word among the “sect” that Paul was dead, and how he died, and that the same fate would eventually befall all who did not abandon the religion of the Carpenter.
He staggers into the crowded street. He’s now among the insane crowd that should be mourning.
He hears his name being called and at first he thinks the guards are calling him back. “Of course,” he thinks, ” there’s been a mistake. They’ll bring me back in and finish what they started.”
“Brother, over here.”
And then he sees him. Mark is running towards him and quickly wraps him with a cloak. “Praise God, you are alive. I have somewhere to take you for the night. But just for tonight. We leave tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? Where are we going?”
“We’re going to Jerusalem. We’re going home.”