Glance from the Stake
On Thursday morning, July 9, 1551, Claes was on his way to see Hans van Overdam at last. Claes' thoughts went back to the time when he had first met Hans working at the cheese house. Claes had been just a very young boy then, and Hans was especially kind to him. He remembered how patient Hans was in showing him how to do things. Hans, in a way, had seemed to take the place of Claes' dead father. Hans had also often talked about religious matters, but Claes was too young to understand very well.
Then, unexpectedly, there was so much excitement and uproar in Ghent about heretics. Two men were executed, and four were banished from Ghent. One of those banished was Hans van Overdam. Uncle Wouter had been very angry about the heretics. He had talked quite strongly against them and against Hans. So Claes had felt confused. That was six years ago.
As he walked along the street, Claes continued to review his relationship with Hans van Overdam. After Hans' banishment, he had missed him at the cheese house. But then Claes had gotten the idea that he would try to see Hans, and discuss religion with him. If he were a heretic, Claes would show him the truth of the Catholic faith. Claes smiled as he remembered this.
Then just a few months ago, came the execution in the Veerle Square, the first public execution of Anabaptists since Hans had disappeared. Claes had hoped he could see Hans at that execution. But he hadn't seen him. This morning he knew for sure he would see Hans. For this morning Hans was to be burned alive at the stake in the Veerle Square.
There would never be a chance to talk with Hans, but at least he could see him for a few minutes. He hurried on.
When Claes reached the open space of the square, a crowd had already gathered. A few merchants were continuing to transact business in the open stalls at the side of the square. Yet most of the crowd were watching the raised platform, ugly and black with ashes of the previous executions. Two new stakes were fixed on the scaffold. The hideous pile of wood and straw for the fire lay on one side as usual.
The two prisoners and the officials were already on the scaffold. As Claes came near, he saw one of the prisoners was Hans van Overdam. The other prisoner was Jannijn Buefkijn, some of the brethren had told Claes.
Hans looked thinner and older than Claes had remembered. Probably he had received harsh treatment during his imprisonment. But his face was calm. He seemed to smile faintly, and there was an air of triumph about him.
Claes moved nearer. Today he felt far different from the way he had felt at the other execution, the first one he had ever seen. He had also gone to that execution to try to see Hans. Claes had been so horrified by the sight of people being burned alive that he couldn't stand to stay till the end. Not even animals were treated that way!
Yet at that execution he had made contact with an Anabaptist, the weetdoener. He invited Claes to the secret meeting, where he again hoped to meet Hans. At that meeting he learned that Hans was a prisoner in the Castle of the Counts of Flanders.
But Claes had received something far better at the secret meeting. Here for the first time he heard the Gospel preached clearly. That same night he repented of his sins and put his faith in Christ. He had already begun to make restitution with his uncle and others against whom he had sinned. He was already receiving instructions in the Anabaptist Church. Many things were now clear to him.
So today's execution seemed far different from that other execution. Now Claes could understand why a man would be willing to die in this way. Now he could understand why it was necessary to go to such a length to be a Christian.
Claes' thoughts were interrupted when a voice began to ring out from the platform.
"Citizens of Ghent," Hans van Overdam was speaking. "Please remain calm. It is good that you come to see the death of the saints. But there has been too much unrest at executions. That unrest has led to violence."
The executioners were glad to hear what Hans was saying. They let him continue.
"Violence is not pleasing to God," Hans said. "The way of God is better. Jesus Christ tells us to forgive our enemies. I have an enemy, one who betrayed me, who caused my arrest, who is causing my death. His name is Andreas Willems.
"Let the name of the traitor be made known to all the brethren in the Church. Brethren, be careful. He will betray you.
"Andreas, if you are in this crowd...I forgive..." Hans' voice broke as he tried to control his feelings.
"God has given me grace that I can forgive you.
"Andreas, turn away now from your sin and your hypocrisy. Turn to God and repent. It is not too late.
"0 Lord God, forgive Andreas. For he did not know what he was doing."
In the hushed crowd a man stood looking darkly at his feet.
The executioners quickly chained the two prisoners to the stakes and piled the wood and straw around them.
From the stake, Hans van Overdam's eyes seemed to be searching through the crowd. Claes thought he was probably looking for the faces of brethren and the traitor. Claes knew there would be brethren present in the crowd, ready to encourage the prisoners and praying for their steadfastness.
Hans' eyes rested on Claes for a minute. Claes smiled and nodded his head slightly. Hans returned the nod and looked away. Claes was filled with a sense of joy. What powerful, beautiful words Hans had spoken!
The fire was kindled at both stakes and blazed up toward the two prisoners. How foolish of these monks to try to destroy the Church by killing off the brethren a few at a time, Claes thought. For every brother executed, many new converts came to take his place. The executions even seemed to attract converts to the church. He, Claes, was ready to take Hans' place. And he knew there were others who were willing to do the same.
Now the fire was all around Hans, but he held himself upright and did not flinch. Claes stayed till the end of the burning. Hans van Overdam and Jannijn Buefkijn remained faithful till the last.
At dusk Claes came back to the place of execution. The Veerle Square was almost deserted. Gone were the crowds, the monks, the officials, the noise. Claes climbed up onto the scaffold. Slowly he approached the place where the stakes had been. The officials had taken away the ashes of the martyrs.
Near the place where Hans had been chained, Claes stooped and picked up a broken link. Evidently the chain around Hans had broken. Whether it snapped from the heat of the fire or some other cause Claes did not know.
Claes felt no anger toward the officials and monks who had put Hans to death. Instead, he saw them as they really were, the slaves of false teaching and sin. They were the real prisoners. Hans was free. His spirit was free and had gone to God.
They can kill the body but not the soul, Claes thought. Some words of Scripture, which a brother had advised him to learn, came to his mind. They were: "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die."
Hans van Overdam would live forever, and the Church of God could never be destroyed! Claes put the broken link into his pocket. He walked home very slowly in the twilight.
The preceding story is based on fact. Hans, Jannijn, and the other major figures are real persons. Only Claes, his family, and Joos are added. The conversations are reconstructions of what might have been said. The facts are taken from the Martyrs Mirror and a number of other sources.
Pages 69-75 of In the Whale's Belly
© Copyright, Christian Light Publications
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