In the Footsteps of the Apostles-Part 1
- In the town of Parur, India, in the southern state of Kerala, the polished stone floor of the old church of Kottakkavu gleams so brightly that it mirrors the crimson, pine green, and gold-upon-gold altarpiece like a reflecting pool.
Around the altarpiece, painted clouds hover in a blue sky. Small statues stand in niches backlit with brilliant aqua. On a rug near the church wall a woman in a blue sari with a purple veil covering her hair kneels motionless, elbows at her sides, hands upraised. In a larger, newer church adjacent, a shard of pale bone no bigger than a thumbnail lies in a golden reliquary. A label in English identifies the relic as belonging to St. Thomas. On this site, tradition says, Thomas founded the first Christian church in India, in A.D. 52.
In Parur and elsewhere in Kerala exotic animals and vines and mythic figures are woven into church facades and interiors: Elephants, boars, peacocks, frogs, and lions that resemble dragonsor perhaps they are dragons that resemble lionsdemonstrate the rich and decidedly non-Western flavor of these Christian places. Brightly painted icons are everywhere, of Thomas and the Virgin Mary and Jesus and St. George. Even Hindus pray to St. George, the dragon slayer, believing he may offer their children protection from cobras. At Diamper Church in Thripunithura a painted white statue of the pietàthe Virgin Mary holding the dead Jesusis backed by a pink metal sun radiating rectangular blades of light.
Kerala's Thomas Christianslike Christians elsewhere in Asia and in Africa and Latin Americahave made the faith uniquely their own, incorporating traditional art, architecture, and natural symbolism. And so a statue depicting Mary flanked by two elephants shading her head with a bower seems at home among the palms of southern India.
Thomas, or Doubting Thomas as he is commonly known, was one of the Twelve Apostles, disciples sent out after Christ's Crucifixion to spread the newborn faith. He was joined by Peter, Andrew, James the Greater, James the Lesser, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thaddaeus, Simonand Matthias, who replaced the former disciple and alleged traitor, Judas Iscariot. In time the terms "apostle" and "apostolic" (derived from the Greek apostolos, or messenger) were applied to others who spread the word. In the case of Paul, he claimed the title of apostle for himself, believing he had seen the Lord and received a spiritual commission from him. Mary Magdalene is known as the apostle to the Apostles for her role of announcing the resurrection to them. Although only two of the four EvangelistsMatthew and Johnwere among the original Apostles, Mark and Luke are considered apostolic because of the importance of their work in writing the New Testament Gospels.
In the first years after the Crucifixion, Christianity was only the seed of a new religion, lacking a developed liturgy, a method of worship, and a namethe earliest followers called it simply "the way." It was not even a formal sect of Judaism. Peter was the movement's first champion; in the Acts of the Apostles we hear of his mass conversions and miraclemakinghealing the lame, raising the deadand in an un-Christian flourish, calling down a supernatural death upon one couple who held back a portion of their donation to the community.
In its earliest days the movement was too insignificant to attract wide-scale persecution, and Christians, as they came to be called, had more friction with neighboring Jewish sects than with the Roman Empire. The faith's first martyr, according to the Bible, was St. Stephen, a young Christian leader who enraged a Jewish community by suggesting that Christ would return and destroy the Temple of Jerusalem. After he was tried for blasphemy, around the year 35, his accusers dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death while he prayed for them. The young Saulwho would soon become Paul in his celebrated conversion on the road to Damascus observed Stephen's execution, minding the cloaks of those who stoned him.
In the year 44 King Herod Agrippa I imprisoned and beheaded James the Greater, the first of the Apostles to die. In 64, when a great fire in Rome destroyed 10 of the city's 14 quarters, Emperor Nero, accused by detractors of setting the fire himself, pinned the catastrophe on the growing Christian movement and committed scores of believers to death in his private arena. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote: "An immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired." In the year 110 Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, was arrested by the Romans under Trajan, shipped to Rome, and condemned to death ad bestiasby beastsat the public games. Bloody episodes like this would recur sporadically for the next two centuries.
Tradition holds that 11 of the Twelve Apostles were martyred. Peter, Andrew, and Philip were crucified; James the Greater and Thaddaeus fell to the sword; James the Lesser was beaten to death while praying for his attackers; Bartholomew was flayed alive and then crucified; Thomas and Matthew were speared; Matthias was stoned to death; and Simon was either crucified or sawed in half. Johnthe last survivor of the Twelvelikely died peaceably, possibly in Ephesus, around the year 100.
By Andrew Todhunter
From: National Geographic Magazine