“So you defy me, Valentine.”
The Emperor stood cloaked in his Imperial robe, confident authority radiating from his stance. There was no doubt that Claudius wore the Emperor’s crown easily. His steel grey eyes glared at me from under impressively bushy eyebrows. His guards waited silently. I did not doubt their deadly abilities.
His impressive entrance had interrupted my prayers, and so I rose stiffly to my feet. The cold dampness of this winter’s day made my old knees protest more than usual. I inclined my head to him, a brief courtesy that would ease our conversation.
“I’m afraid you left me no choice, Excellency”.
Impatience flashed through his eyes.
“There is always a choice, Bishop.” He spoke my title with a sneer. “My edict was quite clear: no marriages for men of fighting age. Rome’s strength is her army. An army of men whose loyalties are not divided, who can set their mind to their duty, not to the comforts of wife and family. Once they have done their military service to Rome, then they may marry. Not before. And yet you continue to perform the ceremonies, in secret, in defiance of the law. “ He took a step towards me, jaw clenched tightly. “In defiance of me.”
I thought of Paul then, standing in front of Felix, and took heart. Others more worthy than I had gone through the same trials and proved faithful. I prayed that I might prove the same, and that Christ who stood before Pilate would stand with me now.
“I do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men, Excellency,” I began. Speaking Paul’s words, and knowing I spoke them truly, further lightened my heart. “Indeed, we Christians are told to obey the law, and to live peaceably with all men. And so we endeavour to do. But this edict of yours is contrary to God’s law and the teachings of the Church, and so I had no choice but to obey my God, even if that meant defying you.”
“Your God commands all men to marry?” Grey eyes spoke scorn. I prayed God would give me the right words.
“No. But it is taught that it is better to marry than to engage in immorality that will only bring heartache and destruction.” I hesitated, gathering my thoughts.
A burst of rain suddenly beat against the window, and with it, the threatening storm was unleashed. I had to speak louder to be heard over the wind.
“The Church affirms that marriage and the family are the foundation of a strong and healthy society. Indeed, God has placed in our hearts the desire to share this life with another, to bear children that will carry our names and our legacies into the future. Can you not see that to deny young people their fulfillment of this desire will only lead to their resentment of the Emperor who has thwarted it? ”
I searched his eyes for some glimmer of understanding. One of the guards shifted uncomfortably. I am sure he was not used to hearing Claudius being spoken to in this manner. My boldness surprised even me, yet I felt the peace of God holding me, and the strength of Christ Jesus guarding me.
The Emperor’s eyes narrowed, and he fisted his hands on his hips.
“What I see, Bishop Valentine,” he said, disdain dripping from his words,” is a traitor to Rome. You defy me. You weaken Rome. But I am not merciless. I will give you one more chance: Will you swear to me that you will obey my edict and stop these unlawful marriages?”
The rain coming down was a counterpoint to his words. I swallowed, and sealed my fate.
“I’m sorry, Emperor. I must obey Christ. I cannot do as you ask.”
“The penalty for treason is death. Prepare yourself, Bishop. You go to meet your God tomorrow.”
And with a swirl of the Imperial robe, guards marching impassively behind, he was gone. The guard who was keeping me prisoner in my house relaxed from his rigid attention . He gave me a sympathetic look, or was I imagining it?
I sighed, and thought for a moment. Tomorrow. February 14th. The day I would see my Lord face to face.
I knelt again beside my chair and began to pray once again, beginning with a plea for forgiveness for wondering if any would remember Bishop Valentine of Rome after I was gone.
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