Perhaps you have never heard of Callistus, Benignus, or Afra. These disciples of Jesus lived a long time ago; as in “second and third century A.D.” long ago. I propose that we rediscover their stories and the stories of other disciples like them. Callistus, Benignus, and Afra took on the care and responsibility of children that were literally thrown away because they were unwanted.
In the ancient world, the absolute value of life was not a given. Children could be seen as a burden on limited resources or viewed as cursed or weak if they were born with deformities. Long before the concepts of natural selection or eugenics, the notion of survival of the fittest was entrenched in civilizations that feared death and worshiped power.
The Jewish and Christian value of life often cut against the grain of ancient society. In early Christian teachings, abandonment of infants and children was condemned. Yet, the value of life was so strong for a people who believe in eternal life, that they often went one step further and took the “throwaway children” into their homes and raised them. This not only saved their lives, but it also protected them from those who would sell abandoned children as slaves and prostitutes.
Afra, who lived during the last part of the third century, was a prostitute before she was converted and began her new life as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Afra not only saved the lives of unwanted children, but she organized others to help. Many of the children that Afra and her fellows saved were the children of criminals, slaves, and prostitutes. Afra was not praised for her work. The local authorities condemned what she was doing; she was persecuted and martyred. Her only crime was assigning value to the life of innocents.
In the early part of the third century, Callistus of Rome, who was raised as a slave and later imprisoned, served Christ after his release from slavery and prison. Callistus organized what would be known as the “Life Watches” in which disciples of Jesus would be vigilant to rescue abandoned children and place them into the care of other disciples.
Afra and Callistus were followers of “the one who is life itself.” They preserved the lives of multitudes who might have otherwise died. Perhaps an infant or child who may have been your ancestor. Let us remember the stories of Afra, Callistus, and others like them. We need their inspiration because even today, centuries later, the absolute value of life is not always a given.