Polycarp–I love that name–was one of the first martyrs after the New Testament period. He was born in A.D. 69 and was burned at the stake for his faith in Jesus Christ in A.D. 155. He was the bishop of Smyrna, one of the churches that Jesus had the Apostle John write to in the book of Revelation. Polycarp was a disciple of the beloved apostle. When the bishop of Smyrna was 86 years old he was arrested for being a Christian. Because of his advanced age the Roman proconsul took pity on him and offered him the opportunity to declare that “Caesar is Lord.” The only thing that he had to do was pinch a little incense before Caesar’s statue into the fire, all would be forgiven and he could go on living.
The martyr declared: “Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Polycarp refused the offer. He was tied to the stake in order to be burned. The fire would not catch, so he was stabbed in the heart and then the fire took over.
Just pinch the incense! For Polycarp and many other Christians during the age of imperialism that was their option, pinch the incense to Caesar or die. Imperialism for that generation became Islamism for seventh-century Christians in North Africa and eighth-century Christians in Spain. For them it was convert, pay a heavy tax or die. This scenario has been repeated in other centuries to other generations of Christians. Pinch the incense to the Shogunate in 17th century Japan. Pinch the incense to Fascism in 20th century Third Reich Germany. And in the same century pinch the incense to Communism in the Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China, Eastern Europe, North Korea and Cuba. And now in the 21st century Islamism in the Middle East and other places has forced many Christians, especially in Iraq and Syria, to pinch the incense or die.
Are we immune in the West, especially in the United States? For the most part we tell ourselves that we are. There is a common narrative that any issues Christians might experience are probably self-inflicted, that we don’t experience anything compared to what Christ-followers endure in other parts of the world. Granted we don’t see the atrocities that our fellow Christians undergo in other places happening here, but is there another -ism that could call for us to “pinch the incense”? I would suggest that the issue that we are already encountering and that will only intensify is the prevailing ideology of our culture, “secular humanism.”
It’s one thing when you can identify the -ism that is out to get you; you can stand together and take a stand for Christ. But what happens when the aforementioned -ism has already penetrated many aspects of the Christian world: the institutions of higher learning, the mindset of the people (the recent referendum to legalize abortion in Ireland), even some leaders of the Church who operate more like CEOs or even Mafia bosses, the average person in the pew who has been lulled to sleep by the “fluffy” sermons that fail to call them to real repentance and accountability to God?
Last Sunday a priest in my former diocese preached a message that declared that the Bible can’t be understood in any literal sense, even when Jesus talked about eating his Body and drinking his Blood in John 6. God forbid that we take St. Paul literally in Ephesians 5 when he talks about the relationship of Christ and the Church and the relationship between husband and wife. Everything is culture-laden, so we have seek how it speaks to our culture. Unfortunately, the priest didn’t lull anyone to sleep, but filled their minds with everything but the truth of Sacred Scripture. He had pinched the incense and the unwitting congregation pinched it right along with him.
In what ways are you tempted to pinch the incense?