Dear Family and Friends,
Long ago in the days when the ruling passion of the Roman Emperor Nero was the extermination of the Christians, there lived and served him a band of soldiers known as the “Emperor’s Wrestlers.” Fine, stalwart men they were, picked from the best and the bravest of the land, recruited from the great athletes of the Roman amphitheatre. In the great amphitheatre they upheld the arms of the Emperor against all challengers. Before each contest they would stand before the Emperor’s throne. Then through the courts of Rome would ring the cry: “We, the wrestlers, wrestling for thee, 0 Emperor, to win for thee the victory and from thee, the victor’s crown!”
When the great Roman army was sent to fight in far away Gaul, no soldiers were braver or more loyal than this band of wrestlers led by their centurion Vespasian. But news reached Nero that the Christian faith, that seemed to know no bounds and which seemed to leap all barriers, had come among the wrestlers and many had accepted it.
To be a Christian meant death, even to those who served Nero best; so that this decree was straightway dispatched to the centurion Vespasian: “If there be any among the soldiers who cling to the faith of the Christian, they must die!”
The decree was received in the dead of winter. The soldiers were camped on the shore of a frozen inland lake. The winter had been hard, but the many hardships they had endured together had only served to unite them more closely. So it was with sinking heart that Vespasian, the centurion, read the Emperor’s message. Yet to a soldier there is one word supreme – and that is “duty”. Vespasian called the soldiers together and asked the question:- “Are there any among you who cling to the faith of the Christian? If so, let him step forward!” Forty wrestlers instantly stepped forward two paces, respectfully saluted, and stood at attention. Vespasian paused. He had not expected so many. “The decree has come from your Emperor,” he said, “that any who cling to the faith of the Christian must die! For the sake of your country, your comrades, your loved ones, renounce this false faith!” Not one of the forty moved. “Until sundown I shall await your answer,” said Vespasian. Sundown came. Again the question was asked, “Are there any among you who cling to the faith of the Christian? If so, let him step forward!”
Again the forty wrestlers stepped forward, and stood to attention. Vespasian pleaded with them long and earnestly without prevailing upon a single man to deny his Lord. Finally he said:- “The decree of the Emperor must be obeyed, but I am not willing that your blood be on your comrades. I am going to order that you march out upon the lake of ice and I shall leave you there to the mercy of the elements. Fires, however, will be burning on the shore, and at the largest, I, your commander, will be waiting to welcome any willing to renounce this false faith.”
The forty wrestlers were stripped and then without a word they wheeled, and falling into columns of four, marched out towards the lake of ice. As they marched they broke into chorus with the old chant of the Arena:”Forty wrestlers wrestling for Thee, 0 Christ, to win for Thee the victory and from Thee, the Victor’s crown!”
All through the long hours of the night Vespasian, the centurion, stood by his camp fire and waited, and all through the long night came back to him fainter and fainter the wrestlers’ song.
As it neared morning one figure, overcome by exposure, crept quietly towards the fire; in the extremity of his suffering he had renounced his Lord. Faintly, but clearly, from out the darkness came the song, “Thirty-nine wrestlers, wrestling for Thee, 0 Christ, to win for Thee the victory and from Thee, the Victor’s crown!”
Vespasian looked at the figure drawing close to the fire – and then out into the darkness whence came the song of faith. Once again he looked – ah! who can say? Perhaps he saw the greater light shining there in the darkness! Off came his helmet down went his shield and he sprang upon the ice, crying,- “Forty wrestlers wrestling for Thee, 0 Christ, to win for Thee the victory and from Thee, the Victor’s crown!”