The Ancient Modern
A Forgotten Tale of the Early Church / Joshua Alan Sturgill
In my research, I came across a story preserved from the earliest days of the Christian era, but rarely remembered today. I believe there is still a local feast dedicated to the event, where men of the town compete in dragging huge stones with ropes and women prepare the same type of bread as for a baptism, though with a slightly modified recipe, and there are diving contests. Otherwise, the story is not told outside the very small region where the event occurred.
A church was to be dedicated to a group of martyrs who had suffered under Diocletian, and there was some controversy over where it should be built. A pious benefactor had given a lot of money, so the church was to be made of stone rather than wood. But there was some contention, because the choice of location had not been decided, and the benefactor had died while the materials were still being gathered.
Some said the church should be built on the hilltop where the martyrs were condemned, and some said the church should be built by the ocean inlet where the martyrs were drowned.
The hilltop faction won out, and work commenced very quickly. The church was rather large, modest in style, and very beautiful. Mosaic icons and frescoes were added when the walls were plastered, and the church was dedicated by the bishop—later glorified as a saint, and known for his spiritual wisdom and miracle-working prayers.
One week after the dedication, the presbyters (some versions say there were five, others seven) were startled by the arrival of a beautiful Child who appeared in the church at the end of the Liturgy and asked in a deep, commanding voice for a great length of rope. The appearance of the Child shocked and frightened the presbyters and they ran to the bishop to ask what should be done.
The wise bishop said, “It is the Christ Child. Give Him what He has asked for.”
But the presbyters said they didn’t have anything near the length of rope that Christ had asked for.
“Then give Him whatever you have,” replied the bishop.
The presbyters found a local rope-maker who had just woven a long piece of rope to sell, and by this time, word of the appearance of Christ had already gone around. The rope-maker was more than willing to give the rope as an offering, and it was taken to the church and handed to the Child with some apology for its inadequate length.
“I want my church to be near the sea,” said the Child when the rope had been given to Him. There was a huge crowd, of both pagans and Christians, who saw and recorded what happened next. The Child took the rope, and laid one end in front of the church, and then circled the church three times—drawing three loops of rope around the whole structure. The rope miraculously stretched long enough, and the Child took the end in His hand and the end that was in front of the church, and gave a great pull.
And the church began to move. There were screams and cries of amazement, and the people inside the church panicked and ran out through all the windows and doors. Very slowly at first, and then at a steady pace, the Child dragged the church forward. No one knew where He was going though, and there was a lot of anxiety for houses and land and livestock that might be in the way.
The church did not take anything like a direct or careful route. It broke out of the village leaving some houses in tact and some completely destroyed and some half-standing. A pagan temple crumbled as the Child walked in through its front doors and then pulled the church right through it. A dam burst when the church passed too close, and a small lake flooded several Christian farms. People were frightened. What started as a kind of excitement became a source of anxiety.
One hill, the site of a famous battle, was cut right in two and left looking like a railroad cutting. (This split hill can still be seen, and tourists are often taken to look at it.) A river’s course was shifted, a small valley filled in, a grove of sacred trees was demolished. A lot of geographic features in the region attributed to the “plowing” by the church are probably just natural. But it seems evident that something like a small cataclysm happened there.
Some versions of the legend say that the Child’s hands became covered in blood and His shoulders bruised from the strain of the ropes. Some versions say He appeared to float effortlessly over the ground. Some versions say that the “Holy, Holy, Holy” could be heard from heaven while the miracle was happening.
The dragging of the church lasted three days. And by this time, masses of people—pagans, Jews and Christians, philosophers and sophists, merchants and soldiers and probably a great number with no particular affiliation—were there to see the event. “It’s Hercules,” said the pagans. “It’s Samson,” said the Jews. Scholars were all divided in their interpretation, and the poor people didn’t care. That it was a divine Visitation was uncontested.
The Child took the church to the top of a cliff overlooking the ocean, where it stood for several centuries, and became a famous holy site. The original structure was damaged by an earthquake and reinforced sometime in the late 800’s, and a fire broke out in 1068. After the Muslim conquest, a high-ranking general tore it down because it was a place of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims alike, and he couldn’t get the support or funds to turn it into a mosque.
The foundation of the church is still there. The cornerstones do have strange grooves and markings consistent with the story of its being dragged a long way over rough ground. But archaeologists suggest that these marks were from when the church was finally demolished. Next to the original, a newer church has been built. It is very beautiful, but constructed on a much smaller scale. It is still dedicated to the original martyrs who confessed their faith in the days of Diocletian and were punished by being drowned in the ocean—right here, where their church has stood since the time of the Miracle.