Today, September 23, the Episcopal Church remembers Thecla of Iconium. Ever heard of her?
I hadn’t, either, until I started taking Greek in seminary. Our teacher gave us a passage to translate, and I found myself looking up the Greek word for seal (the ones with flippers) in my lexicon. Seals! And they were ravenous!
According to tradition, Thecla was a disciple of Paul. She was incredibly popular, especially with women, in the early church. Her story is told in the second century text, Acts of Paul and Thecla. If it sounds like the title of an adventure story, that’s because it was (remember, ravenous seals). The story goes that when Thecla heard Paul preaching the gospel, she abandoned her plans to marry and followed Paul instead. Her devotion to the Gospel was not particularly well received, and she was condemned to burn at the stake. But – ! – her life was saved by a miraculous thunderstorm! Drama!
And it doesn’t stop there. Thecla was then thrown to the beasts at a local arena. (Think gladiator arena, but minus the dude in armor. There are other accounts of early Christians being sent to the arena because of their piety during this time, though scholars differ on how much and for how long early Christians were persecuted before Constantine made it the religion of the state. It depended on where they were and who was in power.) She was protected by a fierce lioness (very cool) but, afraid it was her last chance to be baptized, she threw herself into a pool of ravenous seals and baptized herself while the seals were struck dead by lightening. WHAT?! As you can imagine, Greek class was derailed by our delight with the story’s outcome. Thecla was released by the governor and she continued to preach the gospel on her travels.
Acts of Paul and Thecla is very much the adventure story it sounds like: it contains many tropes of ancient fiction and is written in the same style of non-Christian stories. While much of it may be apocryphal, Christians in late antiquity believed that there was a real woman behind the story. She pops up in art and literature from Gaul to Palestine and people named their babies after her. Tertullian, a second and early third century Christian writer from Carthage, wrote that early Christian women used Thecla as an example to defend women’s freedom to teach and baptize.
Remembering Thecla today, I wonder what your seal pits are? A funny way to phrase the question, but I mean it seriously. What are you willing to stand up for, to which you will stay true, despite great risk? Where is God in it? Does it make you free? Thecla was called to spread the Good News, even though she was a woman and persecuted for her religion. Although it made her a target and left her vulnerable, God’s call also made her free. And her life (or at least stories about it) served as an example to countless other Christians, especially women who sought freedom.
As a closing prayer, here is the collect for Thecla.
God of liberating power, who called Thecla to proclaim the gospel and did not permit any obstacle or peril to inhibit her: Empower courageous evangelists among us, that men and women everywhere may know the freedom that you offer us in Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
PS If you want more Thecla, check out her entry in Lesser Feasts and Fasts (you’ll see much of the same information I offered today and the collect, plus the assigned scripture texts for her feast). Or, if you’re curious, you can check out a translation of Acts of Paul and Thecla. PBS has an English translation that’s (probably) from the early 18th century: