Simonetta Carr; REFORMATION 21; July 27, 2022
Blandina – God’s Strength in Weakness
When the Roman authorities hung Blandina to a pole and exposed her to a crowd of blood-thirsty spectators, they thought they could frighten anyone who rebelled to their rules. What they didn’t know is that they were holding her up as an example that gave new strength and courage to other Christians.
The Persecution at Lyons
Contrary to popular opinion, the Romans were not in the habit of killing Christians. Many disliked them and distrusted them, particularly in the beginning, when their teachings seemed too new and strange. But only a few emperors launched a sustained program against them – most famously Diocletian, who in 303 AD started a persecution that lasted eight years.
Some violent persecutions came from crowds who looked for a reason for their calamities. This is what happened in the region of Vienne and Lyons (ancient Lugdunum), in what is now southern France.
A lively community of Christians, including Romans, Greeks, and Gauls, lived there. The famous theologian Irenaeus, who was probably born in today’s Turkey, served there as a presbyter.
By the year 176, the people of Vienne and Lyon had suffered one disaster after another – from a deadly plague to repeated raids by Germanic tribes, Many people believed the gods were taking revenge against the Christians who refused to worship them. Because of this, they kept Christians away from communal areas such as the baths and the forum, and attacked them with insults, beatings, robberies, and stoning.
In 177, this violence reached its peak as a frustrated mob brought the Christians to the magistrates. After admitting their faith in Christ, Christians were sent to prison to wait for the governor’s verdict. The local bishop, Pothinus, was imprisoned in spite of his old age and poor health, and died in prison two days later.
Slaves received the worst treatment because, by law, they were allowed to be tortured in order to obtain information. The authorities even arrested pagan slaves who worked for Christian families, as they were most willing to offer information in order to escape torture. In fact, in an effort to give the authorities what they wanted, some of them denounced practices these families had never followed, such as eating human flesh and living immoral lives.
Blandina was a Christian slave who refused to give up her faith and to give any information. Because of this, she was cruelly tortured. Her martyrdom is described in a letter which might have been written by Irenaeus and has been preserved by Eusebius of Caesarea (who wrote after Diocletian’s persecution).
Small in constitution, she was not expected to last long. Instead, we read that “was filled with such power, that those who tortured her one after the other in every way from morning till evening were wearied and tired, confessing that they had been baffled, for they had no other torture they could apply to her; and they were astonished that she remained in life.”
Blandina’s resilience was particularly impressive in contrast with her condition. Every qualifier that is used to describe her – young, frail, female slave – is meant to emphasize her weakness and consequently God’s strength. This is what the author of the letter meant when he said that through her “Christ showed that the things that to men appear mean and deformed and contemptible, are with God deemed worthy of great glory, on account of love to Him – a love which is not a mere boastful appearance, but shows itself in the power which it exercises over the life.”
Through the ordeal, Blandina kept repeating: `I am a Christian, and there is no evil done amongst us.”
The author of the letter compares Blandina to an athlete – a comparison commonly applied to martyrs. She and other young people, “like athletes who had overthrown their adversary several times, and were now contending for the crown itself, again they endured the lashes which were usual there; and they were dragged about by the wild beasts, and suffered every indignity which the maddened populace demanded in cries and exhortations proceeding from various parts of the amphitheatre.”
Of all the martyrs, however, Blandina played a unique role as she was fastened to a pole and “exposed as food to the wild beasts that were let loose against her.” By submitting her to this torture, the authorities raised her up as if she were on a cross. Most likely, they didn’t attach this meaning to the pole, but this is how Christian viewers interpreted it, “for in the combat they saw, by means of their sister, with their bodily eyes, Him who was crucified for them, that He might persuade those who trust in Him that every one that has suffered for the glory of Christ has eternal communion with the living God.” This image gave courage to the faint.
Since no beast touched her at that time, she was taken to prison and sent back to the arena later. According to the author of the letter, this happened so that “she might make the condemnation of the Crooked Serpent unquestionable, and that she might encourage the brethren. For though she was an insignificant, weak, and despised woman, yet she was clothed with the great and invincible athlete Christ.”
And encourage she did. Most evident was her influence on a 15-year old boy named Ponticus who was sent out with her to the arena on the last day of the gladiatorial shows. Ponticus was frightened. For days, he had been forced to watch the torture and violent martyrdom of other Christians. It was Blandina who encouraged him to bravely face his death. She was the last to die, “after having like a noble mother encouraged her children and sent them on before her victorious to the King.”
Her last torture, which took her to her death, saw her enclosed in a net and cast before a bull. To those who watched, it looked as though she didn’t feel anything while the bull was tossing her in the air.
Blandina continued to live on in Christian memory as one of the brave women martyrs of the early church, such as Perpetua and Felicita. During the early church, she gave hope to many Christians, with the knowledge that God would sustain them in persecution, regardless the weakness of their bodies and the violence of their enemies.
 The Letter of the Churches of Vienna and Lugdunum to the Churches of Asia and Phrygia, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/viennalyons.html
Image by arno. – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=131168. amphitheatre where Blandina was martyred.