Friday, December 20, 2013

The Last Day of Byzantium

By Joseph Mosse
That night the moon glowed red and none who saw it ever forgot. Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos had taken his position at the St. Romanus Gate, the weakest point in the wall. He stood tense, determined. They would last the night, they must last the night. Less than a quarter mile outside the city, the Ottomans busied themselves in the dark with their final preparations, under the direction of the young yet ruthless and charismatic Sultan, Mehmet II. At his command, cannons roared deafeningly across the entire front. Trumpets blared, drums beat and men chanted as his innumerable army advanced. Battle weary and overstretched, the meager Byzantine garrison braced itself for the final struggle. In the year of our Lord, 1453, the Siege of Constantinople, one of the most titanic conflicts in human history, had reached its climax.

Eight thousand Byzantine and Italian warriors, under the command of Constantine XI, had defended Constantinople against two hundred thousand Ottoman Turks for two months. Artillery, a terrifying military innovation, had pounded the once impregnable ramparts into dust, opening several major breaches. In response, the defenders had blocked the gaps in the wall with sturdy barricades build out of rubble, an innovation of the Italian general, Giustiniani. Desperate, yet courageous, the Byzantines held strong under repeated massive assaults by the invaders. Constantine led a reserve contingent wherever the defender’s line grew thin, often turning the tide. Faced with failure on land, Mehmet stunned everyone with a brilliant tactical move. He had a large portion of his fleet dragged overland and into the city’s harbor, bypassing the chain stretched across its mouth. This forced the defenders to man the sea wall, dangerously overextending their meager forces. But with the siege lingering and enthusiasm dwindling in camp, Mehmet knew that morale allowed only for one last assault. Not bothering to keep his plans secret, he sent a message. Whistling in the wind, an arrow zipped over the wall carrying it. There would be one day of rest then the last battle would begin.

Exhausted, the beleaguered people of Constantinople congregated in the ancient Haggia Sophia, praying urgently for deliverance. Constantine gathered his troops and gave a rousing speech, reminding them of their Greek and Roman heritage, their duty to the Orthodox faith, and their honor as men. Going from man to man individually, he asked forgiveness from each, in case he had ever offended them. Having then dismissed them to their posts, he patrolled the wall overseeing final battle preparations. Night engulfed the front as Constantine finally returned to the St. Romanus Gate. Hours drifted by, but the men got little sleep.

At one o’clock in the morning the Ottoman cannons suddenly opened fire and the army advanced against all sections of the wall, from both land and sea. Tongues of flame and flashes of gunfire illuminated the night as the defenders unleashed Greek Fire and men on both sides fired muskets. First, light irregulars charged the walls against a storm of arrows. Carrying little armor, they were no match to the Byzantines, clad in scale mail and iron helms. But when units of heavy infantry advanced, they soon pressed through several breaches. Fierce close combat ensued on and behind the wall as Byzantines, Italians and Ottomans slashed at each other with curved sabers, scimitars and large two-handed swords. Steel rang against steel, men cried in rage and anguish, smoke obscured the battle field and for four hours chaos enveloped the front. However, under the valiant leadership of Constantine XI and Guistiniani, the defense just held.

Enraged, Mehmet sent in his crack troops, the dreaded Janissary corps. Highly disciplined, expertly trained and well armed, they smashed heavily into the defense. Taking advantage of an open postern gate, they flooded behind the walls. Just then, a cross bow bolt thudded through Giustinaini’s breastplate, grievously wounding him. When the Italians saw their chief carried away, they too rushed for their ships in the harbor. With gaps opening in the defender’s line, the Janissaries redoubled their attack. Soon the Byzantine front splintered and the trapped groups were surrounded. Seeing doom at hand, Constantine tore off his royal regalia and roared, “The city has fallen, but I still live!” Drawing his saber, he charged into the fray and was never seen alive again. No one ever recognized him among the slain, and he rests now in a mass grave with his men.

Victorious, the Ottomans pillaged the city, enslaving or killing its inhabitants. Few managed to escape, whether by hiding or sailing away. Mehmet put a stop to the carnage as soon as possible. He intended to rebuild the city into his new and glorious capitol. As the sun dawned on May 29th, 1453, the last living vestige of Roman civilization died and a new age in history began.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Reflections of Isaiah and on Teaching

One of the most enjoyable things I do in Odessa is teach.  I enjoy teaching at the seminary, at various Bible studies and English clubs.  This year I have had the unique privilege to teach Old Testament Survey and New Testament Survey to high school aged kids at the school for missionary kids.  In the OT class I have just two students - my 14 year old daughter and one of her best friends.  One of the assignments I often give to write a short reflection on a key passage.  We recently covered Isaiah and I asked the girls to write a reflection on Isaiah’s call in chapter six.  I enjoyed their thoughts so much I thought I would share them with you.  (Yes, I did ask their permission).  Enjoy.


Reflection on Isaiah’s Call
Isaiah’s call is very interesting.  I can understand why it inspires many people to the mission field.  Isaiah did answer God’s question, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” with, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8, 9).  But after Isaiah agrees to go, God says that the people will “Be ever hearing, but never understanding, be ever seeing, but never perceiving … Otherwise, they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed (6:9, 10).”  Basically, Isaiah’s ministry will be completely and totally fruitless.  He will preach and preach and preach, but no one’s going to listen.  That’s not exactly too inspiring when one thinks about it.  So it’s no wonder that Isaiah asked, “For how long, O Lord?”  And the answer: “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant … and the land is utterly forsaken.”  So Isaiah will preach and preach and preach with no one listening until everything is destroyed.  It looks a little like God is calling Isaiah to an absolutely pointless ministry.  But, fortunately, God gives hope in verse 13: “But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will the stump in the land.”  So Isaiah is called to plant a seed in the land, which will eventually lead to Jesus.  But, unfortunately, Isaiah will not live to see his seed grow.

If we go back in the chapter a little, there’s another pretty impressive part.  Isaiah was in the temple when he was called.  According to his account, “the train of [God’s] robe filled the entire temple. (6:1)” Trains on clothes didn’t exist back then, so Isaiah probably just saw the hem of God’s robe.  Just the hem, because it filled the temple.  Yet he cries out, “I am ruined!  For I am a man of unclean lips … and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”  Isaiah had a sense of the angels and everything above God’s hem, but all he saw was God’s hem.  And that was enough for Isaiah to see how unworthy a sinful man like him is to see God.

Reflection on Isaiah’s Call
Isaiah’s call to prophesying was, well, depressing. As a missionary, or at least a missionary kid, his future is probably to be my future as well. I’ll tell people about God, and some will listen, but others won’t. Isaiah had this same future, except in his situation, no one would listen. His words would fall on deaf ears, and he would continue to prophecy until the destruction of Israel. I feel very sorry for poor Isaiah, finding out that he will have to prophesy for the rest of his life to blind, deaf, and mute people who won’t even listen to him in the first place He would never get to see the fruit that would come from his labors, and his prophesying would, in a way, cause the destruction of Israel, because of the effect it had on the people. When most people say they will go for God and tell the world about him, they are not thinking about all the hardships that will come from their decision, but instead are thinking about how they will be important, and looked up to by the people for doing such a wonderful job. They don’t remember that missionaries are often persecuted, frowned upon, cheated, and made to pay unfair bribes and high prices. Isaiah didn’t complain, he just listened to God and asked for more information. We read that Isaiah was struck with awe at the sight of God, and he only saw the hem of God’s robe! Yet this was enough to strike him with awe and fear. This, along with the fact that the hem of God’s robe filled the temple, is very humbling and at the same time baffling to me. I have a lot of questions about the part where the seraph flies down to Isaiah and touches his mouth with a burning piece of coal. Why doesn’t Isaiah cry out; is it because it’s a holy piece of coal that it doesn’t hurt or something? And how does the coal make him clean when the rest of us had to have Jesus die for us? Why couldn’t God have just tapped all our mouths with holy coal and made us clean? Or does the picture of the burning coal making him clean have some other meaning? Isaiah certainly confuses me, but his call to prophesy is awesome. (The awe inspiring kind) Still, disappointing. Very disappointing.