Sunday, October 28, 2012

Christianity Crosses the Tiber



Today is the 1700th anniversary of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Why is this so significant? Because this battle led to the end of Christian persecution in the Roman Empire, paving the way for Christianity to became the dominant religion of Europe. St. Constantine and his brother-in-law Maxentius were fighting for rule. The Milvian Bridge crossed the Tiber; securing the bridge would help Constantine drive Maxentius out of Rome. According to at least two contemporary accounts, on the night before the battle, Constantine had a vision to fight under the name of the Christian God. The image of the chi-rho appeared with the message “by this sign you shall conquer.” So he had his men draw the chi-rho on their shields. Constantine defeated Maxentius and then entered Rome on Oct. 29, 312, giving him control of the western half of the empire.  

In 313, Constantine (of the West) and Licinius (of the East) issued the Edict of Milan, proclaiming religious freedom in the Roman Empire. This included granting Christians full citizenship and giving back their confiscated property. Christians were allowed to openly worship. In 380, the Edict of Thessalonica established Christianity as defined by the Nicene Creed as the Rome’s only authorized religion. So in less than a century, Christianity went from a persecuted minority, to publicly condoned, to the Roman Empire’s official religion.

I think we sometimes forget how truly amazing it is that Christianity spread so far so quickly. What began as an off-shoot of Judaism on the edge of the empire became the endorsed religion of Gentiles as far apart as Britain and Egypt. Clearly, the story of Christ penetrated people's hearts, regardless of race or culture. Christianity does not promise rebellion or relief. In that way, it is not that attractive. And for the early Church, rejecting your culture's old identity and religion to adopt Christianity meant losing your family, property, and sometimes your life. Yet the faith still spread.

Constantine was declared emperor while in Eboracum (York).
It's unclear what spurred Constantine's vision, whether he already had an inclination toward Christianity or not. He had previously changed his patron Roman god from Mars to Sol Invictus, so perhaps he was willing to try any god that could help him win in battle. However his conversion came about, he did become a truly committed believer. St. Constantine presided over the Council of Nicaea, which established the creed followed by the Church today. He founded Constantinople as his new, Christian capital of the empire. Although a believer, he was not baptized until on his deathbed in 337.

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