On January 1, 404 AD, thousands of spectators crowed into the Roman Coliseum itching to see a good fight—a fight to the death, that is. While the bloodthirsty fans took their seats in the stadium, dozens of Roman gladiators steeled themselves for the afternoon battle.
This was a kill or be killed contest.
Wearing colorful body armor, the gladiators marched around the perimeter of the battlefield. They raised their weapons of choice—a war chain, a three-pronged trident spear, a dagger, a net or lasso—to the cheers of the throng. After completing this customary display of strength, the gladiators stopped and stood in the presence of the emperor.
As innumerable warriors before them had done, these combatants shouted, Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant!—“Hail, Caesar, those about to die salute thee!” Here’s what happened next, according to 16th century author John Foxe in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs:
The combats now began again; the gladiators with nets tried to entangle those with swords, and when they succeeded mercilessly stabbed their antagonists to death with the three-pronged spear. When a gladiator had wounded his adversary, and had him lying helpless at his feet, he looked up at the eager faces of the spectators, and cried out, Hoc habet! “He has it!” and awaited the pleasure of the audience to kill or spare.
Pause there for a moment. If you’re like me, you might read this bit of history with a degree of disbelief. Did tens of thousands of people actually entertain themselves for an afternoon watching humans slaughter humans? Not only did that happen, but notice how the crowd reacted if a wounded warrior was reluctant to die. John Foxe writes:
If the fatal signal of “thumbs down” was given, the conquered was to be slain; and if he showed any reluctance to present his neck for the death blow, there was a scornful shout from the galleries, Recipe ferrum! “Receive the steel!”
This particular day, Telemachus, a monk who journeyed from the countryside to encourage the churches in Rome, caught wind of the fights. Unfamiliar with such things, Telemachus went to the coliseum. What he witnessed broke his heart.
Stunned by the display of barbarism which so many jaded souls had accepted as the status quo, motivated by his love for life and the knowledge that all men are made in the image of God, Telemachus did the unthinkable: He jumped from the stands onto the field and placed himself between two gladiators.
Clad only in a hermit’s robe, armed only with a passion for God, Telemachus challenged the gladiators to cease their shedding of blood and the taking of life. The crowd and the gladiators were so enraged by his meddling in their “games”, Telemachus was slain on the spot—and then pelted with stones hurled by the audience.
History records that Telemachus’ death wasn’t in vain. There was something about witnessing the murder of this holy man that sent shockwaves through the auditorium; God used the zeal and courage of one man to change the course of history. How? The Romans abandoned their gladiator games from that day forward.
When I first learned about this bit of history, I was struck by the fact that, when it comes to the sanctity of life, our culture is really not that different from the Roman culture. For their part, they became jaded to the taking of life and turned death into a spectator sport.
While I’m not suggesting we’ve turned abortion into a sport, I’m afraid we’ve been sitting on the sidelines while more than a million babies a year have died.
I think we can do better than that, don’t you?
That’s certainly a big part of what we hope to accomplish with the Super Bowl ad this Sunday. I’d like to think the Tebow’s story might shake us from our complacency and change our attitude toward life. Or, at the very least, get us talking once again about how we might preserve and celebrate life.
I’m pleased to report that we’re already seeing signs of this dialogue taking place before the ad has aired. On Tuesday of this week, Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins wrote,
“I’m pro-choice, and Tebow clearly is not. But based on what I’ve heard in the past week, I’ll take his side against the group-think, elitism and condescension of the ‘National Organization of Fewer and Fewer Women All The Time.’”
“Here’s what we do need a lot more of: Tebows. Collegians who are selfless enough to choose not to spend summers poolside, but travel to impoverished countries to dispense medical care to children, as Tebow has every summer of his career.”
Sally gets it. There’s something to celebrate here in the story of this remarkable young man and the choice his mother made to give him life. Now, let’s pray that millions more on Super Bowl Sunday get the message, too.