Roses of Martyrdom - C. M. Cresswell

St. Genes the Actor

"Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in."

Our LORD JESUS CHRIST tells us of the great wedding feast, of the invited guests who refused to come, and how the highways and hedges were searched that the house might be filled. So the "noble army of martyrs "has been sometimes recruited. Not all, like the blessed St. Polycarp, have been able to say, "for eighty-five years I have served my LORD." Some have been suddenly called to this great honour, and, as men in their ignorance might say, even unprepared. For the world does not know what blessed preparation, unperceived even by themselves, while they lived here, these holy ones received. Some few have even been called when unbaptized—for martyrdom itself confers the Baptism of blood.

One might not expect to find a fool's cap and bells among the emblems of these blessed ones! The palm, the lily, the Book of the Gospels, the cruel instruments of their passion and triumph, these seem fitting; not so the other. But a fool's cap and bells are the emblems of one of the holy martyrs, and they may be seen here in England, in a church at Coombe-in-Teignhead, in Devonshire. They belong to an actor who was called most wonderfully to the crown of martyrdom.

August 25, 303, was a very great day in the theatre at Rome, and, in spite of the heat, scarcely mitigated by the awning overhead, people had been pouring into their seats from an early hour, content to wait long for that afternoon's spectacle. Talk, laughter, and eager expectation, rippled round the theatre. Was not the divine Augustus, the Emperor Diocletian himself to be there in person, to see this latest representation of the clever comedian Genes? Word, too, had spread abroad as to what this representation was to be—a fine subject, indeed! A burlesque of those obstinate Christians who defied the Augustus and were everywhere paying the penalty under death and torture. Some one had heard that Genes had Christian relatives, and so had been able to study, at first hand, all their absurdities. No doubt he had hit upon the very thing that would most raise laughter and mockery against them.

The theatre had been carefully prepared for the Emperor. The royal seat was richly hung, roses and bay-leaves garlanded the columns and balustrades, braziers flamed brightly and incense smoked on the altars in the orchestra and before the fine statue of the goddess Venus, standing high and rose-wreathed on a pedestal to the left of the stage. Presently, amidst a blare of trumpets, the Emperor Diocletian entered with his lictors and soldiers, and the white-robed nobles, privileged to bear him company. The hum of conversation ceased for a minute, as all eyes turned to look at him while he and his courtiers were seated. Then it continued more gaily than ever, until a signal was given and the curtain rose. Roars of delighted laughter broke from the audience. In the centre of the stage, on a bed, lay their favourite, Genes, his handsome limbs muffled in bandages and his handsome face contorted into a most woe-begone countenance. He appeared to be sick to death, and was loudly groaning. Other actors stood round, among them the clown, who, however, as all knew, would not be so funny as Genes himself. The play began.

"I am dying, and my conscience afflicts me unendurably," moaned the actor, with the most ludicrous face, "I feel heavy and oppressed, and I fain would be light and relieved."

"Well, my good man," replied his comrades, "what can we do to help you?" One of them added, "How can we make you light if you are heavy? Do you think we are carpenters, and can plane you down?"

Here the audience laughed again, but they had eyes and ears for little else on the stage save the ridiculous figure tossing in the bed.

"Only one thing can help me," groaned Genes, "I desire to die a Christian."

"What! You desire to become a Christian! Well, who would have believed that?"

As Genes groaned the louder and rolled from side to side, the clown testified in pantomime to the audience the extreme undesirability of being a Christian in those days of the scourge, the rack, and the lions. When people had ceased laughing, Genes was allowed to get out his answer: "That, in the great last day, I may take refuge in GOD, and be found in Him."

All this mockery sounds, and was, most horribly blasphemous. But wait and see how wonderfully He Who sent into the highways and hedges for His wedding guests was working, amid this heathen company, before the heathen audience, in the soul of him who scorned Him.

"Well, then," continued one of the actors, "if there is no other way to help you, go, Caius, and call in a Christian priest."

Amidst the shouts of the onlookers, now entirely delighted with the performance, on strutted a man, dressed as a Christian priest. With a great show of commiseration, and many sanctimonious grimaces, he sat down by the bed, took Genes's hand, and said—" My son, why hast thou sent for me?"

Genes turned to him. Into his acting he seemed now to have infused a serious earnestness. "I wish," said he, "to receive the favour of CHRIST, that I might be reborn in Him, and set free from the miseries of my iniquities."

At a sign from the priest, on staggered some men carrying a huge tub of water, which they placed in the centre of the stage. With much horse-play, Genes, still absurdly serious, was dragged out of bed.

They led him to the tub. His gravity was perfect, although the actors themselves could scarcely restrain their mirth, and even the sham priest wore a broad grin on his face. Genes was plunged in the tub, and the ceremony of Baptism, correct in every detail (for had he not been at great pains to ascertain from his Christian relatives the rites attendant on this Sacrament?) was performed at length by the priest, while the theatre fairly rocked with merriment, and the Emperor himself had forgotten his dignity and was laughing as heartily as the rest. When Genes was taken out again, and clothed in the white robe, given in those days to the newly-baptized, they all yelled still louder.

Saint Genesarius


Never was there such a man! His mimicry was beyond words, his acting perfect to the life.

"Look at him now!" they gasp to one another, breathless, as they stamp their applause. He stands silent, motionless, changed, his face humbly bowed to the ground. Then he lifts his eyes heavenwards, and he stretches his arms upwards in an infinite yearning, as if forgetful of himself, his fellows, the Emperor, the theatre, the applauding, laughing audience; and his face is that of one who has looked on GOD.

As the newly-baptized stood silent in the wonder and freshness of the grace just given him, from both sides Roman soldiers rushed up to seize him and to bring him before the Emperor to be sentenced. All this had been arranged beforehand, as an additional touch of nature, and the audience received it with amazing delight.

Only—had Genes forgotten himself, or was he bent on improvising some further buffoonery, that had only that moment dawned on his brilliant mind? Instead of yielding mildly to his captors, as the average Christian did, he shook them off, and, running to the left-hand of the stage, threw down the statue of Venus from the pedestal, and stood on it himself.

In a moment, the applause had died out in curiosity, and there were even a few murmurs of disapproval as the Venus rolled on the ground with a broken arm, for this seemed to be carrying things too far. But Genes motioned to them all to be silent, and, turning to the Emperor, addressed him thus:

"Listen to me, sire, and all you present, wise men and people of Rome. I have hated the name of Christian so much that I have ever insulted those who died for it; and I have diligently studied the mysteries of the Faith that I might be able to mock them in your presence, as you have seen to-day.

"But, sire, as I lay on yonder bed, the realities of death, and the remembrance of my many sins began to grow on me, and a black cloud of despair fell over me. I was dipped in the water of regeneration, and when in the mockery of the play, I accepted CHRIST with my lips, then I accepted Him for ever in my heart. While you all shouted and thought that I still acted, the darkness melted away, and I beheld above me a band of radiant angels, who held in their hands an open book wherein all my black sins had been written, but which had now become as white as snow, while they bade me acknowledge His mercy, Who, of His love, gave me, in very truth, what I had purposed to feign in mockery. Then"—his voice grew low and tender—" meseemed, in a flash, I saw CHRIST the LORD. So, here, before you all, who laughed at my acting, I confess in earnest that CHRIST is Very GODand Very Man, my Light, my Salvation, my Eternal Joy, the King of kings and LORD of lords, in Whom alone do I put my trust."

Dead silence fell upon the audience, and they knew not what to think; for, as they watched the actor's glowing face, they read in it something that was far from mimicry. But Diocletian frowned angrily, and motioned to the soldiers to seize Genes, and drag him from the pedestal. He yielded readily enough now, and was led before the Emperor.

"You may carry a jest too far," said Diocletian sternly, "so now, in time, beware. We will overlook the broken Venus, for you act well, and the piece was good. Still, we have had enough of this. Go behind the stage, and get ready to act something else."

"Sire," answered Genes looking up, "1 speak the truth. I mean what I say. I am a Christian."

"Then I can be in earnest, too," cried the Emperor; "let Genes the Christian be beaten with rods till he repents of his folly."

The lictors hurried down into the orchestra. Genes was seized and bound. They stripped the white tunic of Baptism from his shoulders, and beat him till his blood flowed on the marble pavement. Calmly he bore it all. The audience, sitting in stolid silence, scarcely able to believe their eyes, watched this burlesque that had turned thus suddenly into completest reality.

The patience of the Emperor was exhausted before that of the martyr.

"Take him away to the prefect," said Diocletian in disgust, "he has more means at his control than I have here, to force this lunatic back to his senses"; and he turned to leave the theatre.

His departure was the signal for the loosing of all tongues. Amid a perfect babel, those nearest the exits, who had only waited till the Emperor had left, rushed out to see Genes, surrounded by a gesticulating mob of soldiers, lictors, musicians, and his fellow-actors, led away to the judgement-hall. The news flew abroad quickly to Christian and pagan. "Genes, the actor, has suddenly gone mad! He confessed himself a Christian in the middle of the performance!" "Genes, the comedian, who mocked our LORD, is being led out, believing on Him, to die a glorious martyr for His Name!"

The audience to see him suffer was as great as the audience had been to see him act, and a great deal more excited. A breathless interest pervaded the whole place. Plautianus, the prefect, used persuasion, arguments, threats, and even offered bribery. At last, at his wit's end, he ordered Genes to be stretched on the rack.

So the tormentors bound Genes, by wrists and ankles, to the bed of torture, and cruelly racked the handsome limbs on whose antics the Roman populace had been wont to gaze in delight. The popular young actor, the privileged favourite of both high and low throughout the whole city, who had known little of pain in his gay and careless life, endured the torture in silence, while his face enkindled with as divine a love as ever shone on the countenance of priest or deacon consecrated to the Saviour's service. And no word could they force from his lips, save,—

"I am a Christian. There is no GOD save the Eternal, the Almighty, the Three in One, and One in Three, Whom I adore."

At last, seeing all was in vain, Plautianus ordered him to be loosened from the rack, and his head to be struck off

The actor-soldier of CHRIST bowed his head with the utmost gladness. Only two or three hours ago he, who now bent before the stroke of death, had stooped, laughing and jesting, to bind the comedian's buskins on his feet, little thinking that he was going to his last performance. Oh, marvellous power of the Crucified, with arms stretched wide in love at the portals of eternal life, compelling His chosen to come in!

From the stage where he had mocked, and from the judgement-hall where he had so nobly borne witness to the truth, Genes the actor passed up to those golden gates, and through them to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. He, indeed, was called most wonderfully, and as far as our poor human understanding can see, incomprehensibly, from the "highways and hedges "of unbelief and ridicule, to a throne at that Divine Banquet; cleansed with the Baptism of blood; and clothed, as to his wedding garment, with the refulgent, crimson robe of martyrdom.