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The Apostle Paul was planning to visit Iconium in central Turkey. When he arrived, the people wrote a description of him: “At length they saw a man coming (namely Paul), of a small stature with meeting eyebrows, bald [or shaved] head, bow-legged, strongly built, hollow-eyed, with a large crooked nose; he was full of grace, for sometimes he appeared as a man, sometimes he had the countenance of an angel.” (Source) That description appears in a second century text: The Acts of Paul and Thecla. It is described by an early commentator as “religious romance,” but not a romance between a man and a woman as we understand it, but a shared romance of sharing the Gospel.
Thecla, while Paul was visiting Iconium, sat for three days in her windowsill, without eating or drinking, and listened to Paul teach on chastity and purity. Following that teaching, she swore off marriage, ended her engagement, and pledged to follow Paul as helper. Her fiancé, not at all pleased with this decision, brought charges against her. She had made an agreement to marry, and getting married and having children is what women were for. Not only was her choice to remain unmarried against the will of her fiancé and family, it was also against the will of the state: can’t have women going off with this funny ideas of not producing children. Her sentence: to be burned at the stake. She was tied up, the fire was set, and… there was a great flood of rain. She escaped her death sentence and went to Antioch with Paul.
I’m guessing she was better looking than him, because once there, she caught the attention of a city official who desired her, but she rebuffed him as well, which sent him into fits and he also called for her death. This time, she was set in the arena with wild beasts—twice. The first time, the lioness that was sent in to kill her only licked her feet. The second time, the lioness protected Thecla by killing another lion and a bear and then laid down at Thecla’s feet. In the end, the text reports that the Apostle Paul sent Thecla back to Iconium to do two things: preach and baptize, which is perhaps the reason why the Acts of Paul and Thecla do not appear in the canon of scripture or even the apocrypha, and why it was condemned by Tertullian, who writing on baptism and Paul stated, “For how credible would it seem, that he who has not permitted a woman even to learn with over-boldness, should give a female [Thecla] the power of teaching and of baptizing!” (Source)
Thecla’s feast day was Monday, and the canticle that was appointed was The First Song of Isaiah:
Surely, it is God who saves me; *
I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, *
and he will be my Savior.
And then there was our Psalm today:
Because you have made the Lord your refuge, *
and the Most High your habitation,
There shall no evil happen to you, *
neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.
For he shall give his angels charge over you, *
to keep you in all your ways.
They shall bear you in their hands, *
lest you dash your foot against a stone.
As I read Thecla’s story, I considered that canticle and the Psalm and remembered the words Joshua said to the people, “It is the Lord your God who fights for you, just as he promised you.”
So many times, when we come up against an adversary, whether it be someone or something in the world, our own inner ‘demons,’ or events such as sickness or hardships, we can believe that we are in it alone, but if we remember Thecla, then we remember that our God is one who douses the flames and turns back the wild beast. The Lord our God is one who gives his angels charge over us, that our souls and eternal lives will always be saved.
The next time you face trouble, remember Thecla, who even in the face of death, stood and did battle, and through the Lord, overcame her adversary.