At Easter, local businessman looks to antiques for meaning

Apr. 20, 2014 @ 05:02 AM

In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a cathedral in Germany that held thousands of relics. He was protesting the materialism and corruption of the Catholic Church at the time, as well as its theology, and his actions started the Protestant Reformation.

About five centuries years later, Luther's thinking persuaded Howard Fleming to convert from Catholicism to become a Baptist. But the Sanford antique dealer didn't lose his own love for religious relics when he converted. He even has several on display in his downtown store, A Few Nice Things, for customers and window-shoppers to enjoy.

For Easter, Fleming supplemented his display with a cross draped in a thorny crown and purple sash — the items supposedly worn by Jesus when Pontius Pilate presented him to an angry crowd prior to his crucifixion, a scene depicted in a painting also hanging in the display.

His relics are of far less dubious nature than that German cathedral's collection, which claimed to have milk from the Virgin Mary, straw from the manger Jesus was born in and other items which pilgrims paid to visit in exchange for divine favor. Fleming sought out his collection, on the other hand, for its historical value and not connections to any particular Biblical figure or event.

A colorful, hand-drawn page from an illuminated manuscript made by Italian monks, circa 1200, tells part of one of the Gospels. A long scroll from the Torah containing the books of Chronicles and Kings, circa 1600, was hand-written in Hebrew by Russian scribes so well it looks printed. And the crowning piece, a full Bible written in both Greek and Latin, was printed in 1599 when the Western printing press wasn't even 150 years old.

Fleming said the point is to show off the long evolution of the teachings of Christianity — from its roots in Judaism, read by rabbis on scrolls, to hand-written decorative Bibles available to few, to the mass-produced Bibles that allowed religious knowledge to spread.

"And hopefully we inspire people to think more about the religious history behind out holidays," Fleming said, noting that he also puts up a similar themed display around Christmas.

A customer and friend, Barbara Comer, said she thinks more people should visit the store even if only for the educational value of seeing the artifacts.

"This needs to be shown," she said. "This needs to be out there for people to go by. ... Right here in downtown Sanford are these rare, ancient tidbits."

Fleming said he has indeed noticed more people stopping in since the manuscripts went up in the window, and he's always happy to talk about history, religion or a combination of the two.

"I think any time you get people asking questions, they get more deeply interested in who we are," he said.

For Fleming, history is a way of answering those questions by building a more personal connection with the past, and with religion.

He has a Roman coin from the time of Augustus and marvels that it was circulating around the empire at the same time Jesus was preaching. And the 1599 Bible transports him back to the time when Luther's radical ideas were sweeping Europe thanks to the printing press. Fleming compared it to that era's social media.

"It allowed his views to be disseminated all over Europe," he said. "It's like now, you have Twitter and Facebook which let you go global and even started revolutions."

The global world has also led to more intermingling of the faiths. Fleming said he didn't just decide he preferred Protestantism over Catholicism. He went to a high school where most kids were Jewish, he said, and has also studied Islam. He's been exposed to the major religions but always felt closest to Christianity, he said — and especially one verse that is all about the message of Easter, John 3:16.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life."