Sunday, March 17, 2019

Feast of Patrick, Bishop and Missionary

Almighty God, in your providence you chose your servant Patrick to be the apostle of the Irish people, to bring those who were wandering in darkness and error to the true light and knowledge of you: Grant us so to walk in that light that we may come at last to the light of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Today is the Feast of St. Patrick, which is a huge celebration in the U.S.A., with parades and speeches and people wearing green and, from what I remember from elementary school, lots of pinching. I think the celebration of St. Patrick's Day has more to do with the pride of those of Irish heritage in the land of their ancestors than with the actual St. Patrick; leprechauns and green beer and getting plastered have nothing to do with the saint, and such celebrations do not take place in Ireland. Today we are going to remember Patrick as a missionary and bishop, and as the man who helped spread Christianity throughout Ireland.

Patrick did not bring Christianity to Ireland; there were Christians in Ireland in the fourth century, probably as a result of contact between the British, who had first heard the Gospel with the arrival of missionaries in the second century. The Celtic Church was different from the Roman Church; they kept a different date for Easter and their spirituality was different than that of the Western or Roman church.

Patricus was probably born in the year 390 in Britain. Patrick's family were Christians; his grandfather was a priest and his father was a deacon. His father, Calpornius, was also an important official in the Roman imperial government in Britain. Yet even though he came from a Christian family, Patrick, like many young people, didn't really concern himself with the faith or with his education. He regretted his lack of education for the rest of his life. When he was sixteen years of age, his village, Bannavem Taburniae, was raided by Irish pirates or slave-raiders, and he and many other people were captured and taken away. Here is how he tells the story in his Confession: I was then about sixteen years of age. I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people---and deservedly so, because we turned away from God and did not keep His commandments, and did not obey our priests, who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought over us the wrath of his anger and scattered us among many nations, even unto the utmost part of the earth, where now my littleness is placed among strangers.

And there the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection, and mercy on my youth and ignorance, and watched over me before I knew Him, and before I was able to distinguish between good and evil, and guarded me, and comforted me as would a father his son.

Patrick was forced to work as a shepherd, and he spent a lot of his time in repentance and prayer. He also had a vision which told him that he would return home: But after I came to Ireland---everyday I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed---the love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountains; and I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me---as now I see, because the spirit within me was then fervent. And there one night I heard in my sleep a voice saying to me: "It is well that you fast, soon you will go to your own country." And again, after a short while, I heard a voice saying to me: "See, your ship is ready." And it was not near, but at a distance of perhaps two hundred miles, and I had never been there, nor did I know a living soul there; and then I took to flight, and I left the man whith whom I had stayed for six years. And I went in the strength of God who directed my way to my good, and I feared nothing until I came to that ship.

When he first came and asked the captain for work on the ship, the captain was angry and said, "There is no room and it is no use for you to ask to go along with us." Patrick, discouraged, turned away and started walking down the path. He was praying that God would guide him safely back to his hut, but before he even ended his prayer he heard a sailor calling: "Come, hurry, we shall take you on in good faith; make friends with us in whatever way you like." Patrick thanked God and hoped to bring them all to Christ, as they were all Pagans. Three days later they arrived on the coast of Britain. They left the boat and began traveling by foot. Patrick writes: . . . for twenty-eight days we traveled through deserted country. And they lacked food, and hunger overcame them; and the next day the captain said to me, "Tell me, Christian, you say that your God is great and all-powerful; why, then, do you not pray for us? As you can see, we are suffering from hunger; it is unlikely indeed that we shall ever see a human being again." I said to them full of confidence: "Be truly converted with all your heart to the Lord my God, because nothing is impossible for Him, that this day He may send you food on your way until you be satisfied; for He has abundance everywhere." And, with the help of God, so it came to pass: suddenly a herd of pigs appeared on the road before our eyes, and they killed many of them; and there they stopped for two nights and fully recovered their strength, and their hounds received their fill for many of them had grown weak and were half-dead along the way. And from that day they had plenty of food.

That night Patrick had a dream that Satan was holding him down, and he called out to God and was saved from Satan's grasp, and he realized from that moment on that the Spirit of God would speak and work through him. He eventually left this gang and returned to his family. He also as educated as a Christian and took on Holy Orders, being ordained deacon, priest, and eventually, bishop. All during this time back home he had visions calling him back to the land of his captivity: And there I saw in the night the vision of a man, whose name was Victoricus, coming as it were from Ireland, with countless letters. And he gave me one of them, and I read the opening words of the letter, which were "The voice of the Irish;" and as I read the beginning of the letter I thought that at the same moment I heard their voice---they were those beside the Wood of Covlut, with is near the Western Sea---and thus did they cry out as with one mouth: "We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more." And I was quite broken in heart, and could read no further, and so I woke up. Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord gave to them according to their cry. And another night---whether within me or beside me, I know not, God knows---they called me most unmistakably with words which I heard but could not understand, except that at the end of the prayer He spoke thus: "He that has laid down His life for thee, it is He that speaketh in thee;" and so I awoke full of joy.

Patrick decided to answer this call and return to Ireland, but he was opposed by other bishops and he also suffered a serious illness. Patrick decided that this was for his own good and that he was being purged by the Lord. He finally returned to Ireland in the year 432, arriving not far from the area where he had been a shepherd. He set-up a church in Armagh, which served as his head-quarters, and he traveled throughout Ireland, preaching and baptizing. He usually preached to the chiefs of clans and with their conversion the entire tribe would convert. He also Christianized the old religion, building churches over former Druid holy sites, carving crosses on druidic pillars, and putting sacred wells and springs under the protection of Christian Saints. His conversion of the three High Kings of Ireland put Ireland on the road to becoming a Christian nation. He educated the sons of the chiefs and kings, he established monasteries throughout the land, he ordained clergy and he instituted monks and nuns. The monasteries of Ireland became incredible powerhouses of education and spirituality. He stayed in Ireland for the rest of his life, and probably died around the year 461. We don't know the date of his death, but the celebration of March 17 dates to the seventh century. I doubt that he chased the snakes from Ireland, or that he used shamrocks to explain the concept of the Trinity, and most of the other miracles attributed to him were invented over the centuries. We do know that he was a faithful bishop and loved the people of Ireland.

I will close with the ending paragraphs of Patrick's Confession: Wherfore may God never permit it to happen to me that I should lose His people with He purchases in the utmost parts of the world. I pray to God to give me perseverance and to deign that I be a faithful witness to Him to the end of my life for my God.

And if ever I have done any good for my God whom I love, I beg Him to grant me that I may shed my blood with those exiles and captives for His name, even though I should be denied a grave, or my body be woefully torn to pieces limb by limb by hounds or wild beasts, or the fowls of the air devour it. I am firmly convinced that if this should happen to me, I would have gained my soul together with my body, because on that day without doubt we shall rise in the brightness of the sun, that is, in the glory of Christ jesus our Redeemer, as sons of the living God and joint heirs with Christ, to be made conformable to His image; for of Him, and by Him, and in Him we shall reign.

For His sun which we see rises daily for us because He commands so, but it will never reign, nor will its splendor last; what is more, those wretches who adore it will be miserably punished. Not so we, who believe in, and worship, the True Sun---Christ---who will never perish, nor will he who doeth His will; but he will abide for ever as Christ abideth for ever, who reigns with God the Father Almighty and the Holy Spirit before time, and now, and in all eternity.

Behold, again and again would I set forth the words of my confession. I testify in truth and in joy of heart before God and His holy angels that I never had any reason except the Gospel and its promises why I should ever return to the people from whom once before I barely escaped.

I pray those who believe and fear God, whosoever deigns to look at or receive this writing which Patrick, a sinner, unlearned, has composed in Ireland, that no one should ever say that it was my ignorance if I did or showed forth anything however small according to God's good pleasure; but let this be your conclusion and let it so be thought, that---as is the perfect truth---it was the gift of God. This is my confession before I die.

Patrick was creative in his evangelism, he understood that incorporating what was familiar would do much more to further the message of the Gospel rather than trying to force the Irish into some concept of The Faith Once Delivered. He understood the importance of education and the intellect in Christianity. He was faithful to God and faithful to the Irish. He is an example of a missionary who loved and served the people to whom he had been sent. And that is why we remember him today.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Feast of Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa

Almighty God, you have revealed to your Church you eternal Being of glorious majesty and perfect love as one God in Trinity of Persons: Give us grace that, like your bishop Gregory of Nyssa, we may continue steadfast in the confession of this faith, and constant in our worship of you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; for you live and reign for ever and ever. Amen.

The lawyer Basil and his wife Emmelia of Cappadocia, had one heck of a family. They produced a daughter who started one of the first monastic orders, and two of their sons became bishops. Three canonized saints out of ten kids: five boys and five girls.

Gregory was overshadowed by the older kids, including Naucratius, the darling of the family. I imagine a typical conversation:
Basil and Naucratius: "Mom, tell Gregory to quit following us!"
Gregory: "I am not following them! I'm just walking in the same direction. Basil's lying, mom!"
Emmelia: Gregory, leave the boys alone. Go play with Macrina."
Gregory: "But she has cooties, mom!"
Emmelia: "No she doesn't; she's a saint compared to you three. Now go help Macrina feed the poor."

Gregory became a rhetorician like his father while Basil became Bishop of Caesarea. Gregory was happy to spend his time in contemplation and writing, but Basil had other plans for his brother. He named Gregory Bishop of Nyssa, a small, no-where town ten miles from Caesarea. Gregory had no desire to be a bishop; he didn't like being around people, he hated giving orders, and he only became bishop because Basil forced him to. Gregory, a man who experienced a lot of misery, later said that the day of his consecration was the most miserable in his entire life. Gregory was tactless, had no concept of money, and had no idea of human behavior. Three years into his episcopacy he was falsely accused of embezzling church funds and went into hiding. He returned to his See upon the death of the Emperor Valens, an Arian. As much as he resented his brother Basil, he was shocked by his death and he suffered another blow a few months later when he learned that his sister Macrina was dying. He hurried to her convent in Annesi and spent two days talking with her about death, the soul, and resurrection. She died in his arms. He wrote a wonderful description of her last days in his Vita S. Macrinae. While he was grieved and shocked by the deaths of his brother and sister, he was no longer under their shadows, and this seemed to allow him the freedom to grow as a theologian and writer. He produced his greatest works in the period after the year 379. He defended the Trinity, he defended the Nicene faith, he was a mystic, and, at the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople, he was honored as a Pillar of the Church. He and his brother Basil and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus are known as the Cappadocian Fathers.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Feast of Cyril and Methodius

Today is St. Valentine's Day, but no one is really sure who this St. Valentine was. He may have been a Roman priest martyred during the reign of the Emperor Claudius in the mid third century, or he may have been the bishop of Terni, who was taken to Rome and martyred and whose remains were returned to Terni. The feast of St. Valentinus was once on the Roman calendar but he was dropped quite a while back, and now his day is more of a "Hallmark Holiday" a holiday for selling greeting cards, flowers, and chocolates.

Today is also the Feast of Saints Cyril and Methodius, two very important saints. Cyril and Methodius were brothers and lived in Thessalonica, a town where Christians were gathering very early in the history of the Church. Methodius was born around the year 815 and his brother Constantine was born around the year 826. Constantine studied philosophy and later became a monk, taking on the name of Cyril. As a philosophy student, Cyril also studied languages and was well-versed in Hebrew, Arabic, and even the Samaritan dialect. In the year 860, Photius, the patriarch of Constantinople selected Cyril and Methodius as the first missionaries to the Slavs. He chose them not only because Cyril was good with languages, but because as children both brothers spent a lot of time around the Slavs who lived in Thessalonica; they learned the Slavic language and were fluent in that language. They were the natural choice to be missionaries to the Slavs. Their first missionary trip in 860 was to the Khazars who lived north of the Caucasus region, but it was unsuccessful and the Khazars actually ended up accepting Judaism instead of Christianity. In the year 863, Rostislav, prince of Moravia (which is the area we now call the Czech Republic), requested Christian missionaries be sent. He had one requirement: that the missionaries be able to preach to the people in their own language and must do services in Slavonic, which meant that they needed Bibles and service books in Slavonic. So, before they even left for Moravia, the brothers started translating the Bible into Slavonic. There was not actual Slavonic alphabet so they had to invent one with which they would write their translations of the Bible and prayer books. The alphabet invented by St. Cyril is called Glagolithic and his followers invented another alphabet called Cyrillic which is the alphabet used in Russia and the former Eastern Block nations to this day. They translated the Bible into the dialect they had learned as boys, a Macedonian dialect of slavonic spoken around Thessalonica, an this language is now called Church Slavonic, and it is the liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Slavonic Orthodox Churches. This is very important, because the Slavs were one of the few peoples who heard the gospel read in their own language instead of Greek or Latin, the major languages of the Church at that time. The Roman church always insisted that everything be done in Latin, but the Eastern church felt that it was important that services and readings be done in the vernacular of the people, the same concept which is accepted in the Anglican Communion. Cyril and Methodius ran into some trouble in Moravia and in Bulgaria; the Church in the West had sent German missionaries and they did not like the Greek Orthodox monks working in their area. The brothers were doing services in the language of the people while the Germans did everything in Latin; the brothers recited the Nicene Creed in its Eastern form without the filioque. In order to end German interference with the mission, Cyril asked for the protection of the Pope as he really didn't get involved in the East-West arguments and the Church was still united at that time; Cyril just wanted to continue working in Slavonic. The brothers traveled to Rome in 868 to speak to Pope Hadrian II, and he received them favorably and gave full support to their mission, allowing them to work in Slavonic, and even approved their translations of the Bible and service books. Unfortunately, Cyril died in Rome in 869, and when Methodius returned to Moravia, the Germans ignored the Pope's decision and obstructed him in every way; they even put Methodius in prison for a year!
When Methodius died in the year 885, the Germans ran his followers out of the country and even sold some of them into slavery (fine Christian people!). The Slavonic church lasted there for another two hundred years but then vanished; it seemed as if the mission of Cyril and Methodius had failed. but while their mission died in Moravia their translations moved in to Bulgaria, Serbia, and Russia, and Church Slavonic is the liturgical language of those areas. The Church grew and spread throughout that area and even lasted through fifty years of Communist oppression.

Some of the issues that Cyril and Methodius dealt with are still important today and are even important to us here in Panama. The issue of language is a very important issue here. I think that what saints Cyril and Methodius taught us is that it is important that people hear the gospel and worship in the language with which they are familiar, whether that language be English, Español, or Slavonic. When people hear the gospel in their own language the church takes root and grows. Cyril knew that it was important that the peoples of the Caucasus hear the Word in their own words and he was willing to go to those who spoke Latin to get the support he needed, because he knew that the Church is large enough to include everybody, whether they speak Español, English, Nippon-go, Hungarian, Greek or Slavonic, God hears us no matter what language we speak. What is important is that we remember that we are One Body, we are united as one body in Christ. One of the oldest Eucharistic prayers we have is in the Didache and it says "as this grain was once scattered over the hills and was brought together as one loaf of bread, so may your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom." Let us take the example of saints Cyril and Methodius to heart realizing that the Church is One Body in Christ.

Almighty and everlasting God, by the power of the Holy Spirit you moved your servant Cyril and his brother Methodius to bring the light of the Gospel to a hostile and divided people: Overcome all bitterness and strife among us by the love of Christ, and make us one united family under the banner of the Prince of Peace; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Feast of Absalom Jones, Priest

Absalom Jones was born in 1746, in rural Delaware. He was a slave born into a family of slaves. At the ages of sixteen, his entire family was split apart when his parents, his siblings, and Absalom himself were sold to different slave masters. His new master took him to the city of Philadelphia, and it was in that city, through the preaching of the Methodists, that he was converted to Christianity. He was a very intelligent person and taught himself to read using the Bible as his text book. In 1766, at the age of twenty, he married Mary King, another slave. Absalom took on extra jobs outside of his duties as a slave in order to earn money to buy her freedom, and eventually, his own. Many slave owners used their female slaves to satisfy their sexual desires and children would be born of these unions. The slave owners didn't want these children to inherit the plantation, so children born to slave women were considered slaves also, even though they were the children of the slave owner. By purchasing his wife's freedom before his own, he was ensuring that their children would be born free.

Absalom Jones attended St. George Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. St. George's was one of the few churches which had opened its doors to Blacks. He met Richard Allen there and they became close friends. They both served as licensed lay preachers, and they both shared the Gospel with the African Americans of Philadelphia, and, as a result of their evangelism, the African American population of St. George's increased. Unfortunately, the White members of the church became uncomfortable with the idea of worshiping with so many Black people and they decided that the Blacks would worship in an upstairs gallery of the church, a gallery which the black members had built. On the Sunday immediately following the completion of the gallery, the Black members of the church were rudely informed that they were no longer to worship at their regular places, but were to worship upstairs in the gallery. They were informed of this while they were praying at the altar rail! Absalom refused to move and was physically lifted from his place at the altar rail where he was praying, and carried away by the ushers (there is only one usher at San Cristóbal who could pull that off!). Jones and Allen objected to this humiliating treatment, and all the Black members of the church walked out with them, never to return. This took place in 1787. Jones and Allen formed their own religious community and named it The Free African Society. It was the first black independent organization in the newly formed United States of America. Its main purpose was to provide assistance for the economic, educational, social and spiritual needs of the African American community in Philadelphia. In 1792, the membership recognized the need for a church and they wanted to affiliate with religious denomination that would not be hostile to their presence and would receive them as an identified worshiping community. Absalom wanted to remain a Methodist, but the majority of the group was so hurt by their treatment as St. George's that they wanted nothing to do with the Methodists. Absalom Jones went and spoke with Bishop William White, the first bishop of Pennsylvania and the second Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Absalom presented the following terms of the Free African Society to Bishop White: 1. That the Free African Society be received as a body already organized; 2. That the Free African Society have control over their affairs; 3. That, if found fit, Absalom Jones be ordained as their priest. Bishop White accepted these terms in 1794 and the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church was established, becoming the first African American Episcopal Parish in the nation. On August 16, 1795, Absalom Jones was ordained a Deacon, and on September 21, 1802, he was ordained the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church. Richard Allen and another group joined with the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1795, where he served as a minister. Allen became the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, or AME, on April 11, 1816, and his friend Absalom Jones was there to participate at his ordination.

St. Thomas' African Episcopal Church started with 250 members, but in one year they doubled their membership, and it became the second largest church in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, although it was 69 years until this congregation was invited to participate in the business of Diocesan Convention with voice and vote. Absalom Jones served as the Rector of St. Thomas' and also as prophet, priest and pastor, for over twenty years. As a priest, Absalom Jones did a lot to help empower African Americans. The Rev. Samuel Magaw, rector of St. Paul's in Philadelphia, gave the sermon at the opening of St. Thomas' Church, and he preached a terrible sermon, talking about the "Pagan darkness" of the people's African roots and that they should be grateful to God that they had been brought from the "land of darkness to the land of Gospel Light." He also said that they had a debt of gratitude to their "earthly benefactors, who planned their emancipation from slavery" and in particular to the white Christians of Philadelphia who helped them. He told them to check any feelings of pride in their freedom or accomplishments, and to remember that they were the children of slaves. I guess he didn't know about Tertullian or Augustine or other African Fathers of the Church. Thanks be to God, Father Jones did not take the advice of Father Magaw; he and the people of St. Thomas were very clear about their mission to seek dignity and freedom for all people of colour. One month after the Rev. Magaw's sermon was published, the Rev. Jones composed a document entitled The Causes and Motives for Establishing St. Thomas' African Church of Philadelphia. It stated their intent to "arise out of the dust and shake themselves, and throw off that servile fear, that the habit of oppression and bondage trained them up in." The Rev. Absalom Jones and the members of the church attributed their commitment to "establish some orderly, Christian-like government" to their desire "to avoid all appearance of evil, by self-conceitedness, or an intent to promote or establish any new human device among us." They were adamant that the church be "governed by us and our successors for ever." Where the Rev. Magaw's sermon was condescending and paternal, the Rev. Jones' response was valiant and inspiring.

Absalom Jones also served Christ in the civic affairs of the city of Philadelphia. In the year 1793, the city was hit with an epidemic of Yellow Fever and many of the white citizens of the city were dying in their homes. Some were even dropping dead in the street. Others fled for the countryside, thinking that they would be safe there. This was long before the days of Dr. Gorgas; no one knew that mosquitos passed the disease to humans. They had the crazy idea that Black people were immune to the disease! Absalom Jones rallied the Black citizens of the city to help the sick and dying. These noble and unselfish men and women comforted the sick and buried the dead, sometimes at their won expense. Others paid an even higher price: they paid with their lives, succumbing to the disease after caring for the sick. Father Jones continued to work with Richard Allen on behalf of African Americans' they, along with Prince Hall of Boston, MA, and Benjamin Banneker of Washington, D.C., petitioned the House of Representatives to adopt measures that would in due course emancipate all persons held in slavery in the new nation. This was on January 2, 1800, and it was the very first formal effort on the part of Black Americans to redress their grievances to the federal government. Unfortunately, the petition was overwhelmingly defeated. Absalom Jones and Richard Allen also solicited the aid of 2,500 Black men to help defend the city of Philadelphia during the War of 1812. Absalom Jones died on February 13, 1818.

Absalom Jones understood the covenant of baptism, the promise to work for justice and righteousness, and to respect the dignity of all human beings. He was a living example of Christ's love, and he was a living example of one who stood up to oppression. We remember him today, not just because he was a Black man, not just because he was a slave, not just because he was the first African American ordained a priest in our Church, but because he lived the Christian life and was faithful to God. We remember him because he was a child of God and a person who was committed to to serve the Lord Jesus Christ. His life, as are the lives of all the Saints, is a wonderful example to us all.

Set us free, heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice and fear; that, honoring the steadfast courage of your servant Absalom Jones, we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which you have given us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Feast of the Presentation of our Lord, Jesus, Christ, or Candlemass

A Hymn of Ephrem of Syria

Praise to you, Son of the Most High, who has put on our body.

Into the holy temple Simeon carried the Christ-child and sang a lullaby to him:
"You have come, Compassionate One,
Having pity on my old age, making my bones enter
Into Sheol in peace. By you I will be raised
Out of the grave into paradise."
Anna embraced the child, she placed her mouth
upon his lips, and then the Spirit rested
upon her lips, like Isaiah
whose mouth was silent until a coal drew near
to his lips and opened his mouth.
Anna was aglow with the spirit of his mouth.
she sang him a lullaby:
"Royal Son,
Despised son, being silent, you hear;
Hidden, you see; concealed, you know;
God-man, glory to your name."

Even the barren heard and came running with their provisions.
The Magi are coming with their treasures.
The barren are coming with their provisions.
Provisions and treasures were heaped up suddenly among the poor.

The barren woman Elizabeth cried out as she was accustomed,
"Who has granted to me, blessed woman,
to see your Babe by whom heaven and earth are filled?
Blessed is your fruit
that brought forth the cluster on a barren vine."

Praise to you, Son of the Most Hight, who has put on our body.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Feast of St. Brigid (Bride) of Cille-dare

This is my St. Brigid's feast sermon

Today is the feast of St. Brigid, who is also called St. Bride. Next to St. Patrick, she is the most beloved of Irish saints. She is known as one who was generous, handsome, and brave. Born in Fauchart around the year 452, she may have actually met St. Patrick as a young girl. She was the daughter of a wealthy chief name Dubhtach and his slave Brocessa. According to the miracle-filled "Life of St. Brigid" written in the eighth century, she was baptized by three angels who also anointed her with oil. When Brigid was very young her mother was sold to a Druid, so she actually grew-up in a Druid household. She, however, was a Christian and remained true to her faith throughout her stay in that pagan household. A few years later she was returned to her father's household. She remained a slave but it seems that she had a special standing in the household. She became known for her generosity, especially her generosity with her father's possessions. Nothing was safe; she would give anything she owned away and once she ran out of things she would give away the belongings of the household. Once while watching a flock of sheep a poor young man came up to her and asked for some alms. She gave him one of the flock without question. He, however, having heard of her generosity, came back seven times that day, receiving a sheep each time. It seems that everyone in the village knew what was going on, but they were all shocked when, at the end of the day, Brigid returned with the flock and not one sheep was missing!

She was very beautiful and many young men approached her father asking for her hand, but Brigid told him that she didn't want to be married, she wanted to dedicate herself to the Lord. According to the Life of St. Brigid she prayed that God would disfigure her so that she would no longer be attractive to all the young men. While she was praying her eyeball melted (ew!), making her no longer attractive to the young men (or anyone else for that matter!). Her father was so angry at her that he decided to sell her to the King of Leinster. While her father was talking to the king, trying to set up a deal, she gave her father's sword to a poor person to sell for food. The king asked her why she gave away her father's sword, she answered, "I gave it to Christ, and if God asked me for all your wealth and the wealth of my father I would give it to the poor to please God." The king looked at her father and said,  "Your daughter is of far too much worth for me to buy and of even greater worth to be sold by you!" He sent Brigid and her father on their way. Her father finally allowed her to become a nun, and she received the veil from Bishop Macaile of Westmeath. In the year 470 she gathered seven young women with her and started a convent at at Cille-Dara, which means "Church of the Oak" in Gaelic. It is now known as Kildare. She wanted to insure that she and her nuns would always receive the blessed sacrament of holy communion, so she convinced a monk named Conlaed to be consecrated Bishop and had him and his monks bring their community to Cille-Dara. They established the first Irish double
monastery of men and women. Brigid was made Abbess of the monastery, becoming the first woman to lead both men and women religious. She also participated in policy-making decisions of the Celtic church. There are some stories that she was made a bishop but most scholars believe that this story may only reflect the fact that she exercised the jurisdictional authority that was wielded by an abbess.

As I mentioned earlier, Brigid was known for her generosity and love for the poor, and there are many stories of her generosity and miracles performed on behalf of the poor. Once she and her nuns were traveling in a carriage when they saw a poor man and his family walking along the road weighed down by their heavy burdens. Brigid stopped the carriage and gave the horses to the poor family. She and her nuns were stuck with a carriage and no horses. A captain heard of what Brigid had done and brought her two wild horses, which she immediately tamed and harnessed to the carriage. They resumed their travel when they met three lepers. Brigid stopped the carriage and this time gave the lepers the horses AND the carriage! Another time she had but one garment to give to two poor men. She tore the garment in half and it immediately became two perfectly good garments. Another story tells that she gave all the Bishop's vestments away to the poor for clothing (now that sounds like fun!). When the time came for the bishop to vest for the Mass, Brigid told him that she had given all the vestments away. Before he had time to react or answer her, a carriage appeared full of Episcopal Vestments which were even better  and more beautiful than the ones she gave away. She gave the Bishop the vestments he needed  and then gave the rest of the vestments and the carriage away to the needy. It was said that Brigid never let the poor leave her empty handed.

Brigid is also known for her great love for animals. There is a story about her taming a wolf for a local chieftain whose pet dog had been accidentally killed by a peasant. Here are two stories from The Life of St. Brigid:

Once a lone wild boar that was being hunted charged out of the forest, and in the course of its panicked flight careered into a herd of pigs that belonged to the most blessed Brigid. She noticed its presence and she blessed it. Immediately the creature lost its sense of fear and settled down quietly among the herd of pigs. See, my friends, how even the  wild beasts and animals could not resist either her bidding or her will, but served her docilely and humbly.
On another occasion the blessed Brigid felt a tenderness for some ducks that she saw swimming on the water and occasionally taking wing. She bid them fly to her, and a great flock of them flew toward her, without any fear, as if they were humans under obedience to her. She touched them with her hand and embraced them tenderly. She then released them and they flew into the sky. And as they did so she praised God the Creator of all living things, to whom all life is subject, and for the service of whom all life is gift.
From these and many other episodes that demonstrated her power, it is certain that blessed Brigid could command the affections of wild animals, cattle and the birds of the air.

Brigid died around the year 524, at Cille-dara. The cathedral in the town of Kildare were built on the foundations of her fire house. Her relics were moved to Downpatrick with those of St. Patrick during the time of the Danish invasions of the ninth century. Her cult was very popular in England and Scotland  and many churches there are named after her.

St. Brigid was the physical manifestation of the Celtic Ideals  of one who was Generous, Handsome, and Brave. She never let the poor leave empty-handed, she saw Christ in all people, and that is why we remember her today.

Everliving God, we rejoice today in the fellowship of your blessed servant Brigid, and we give you thanks for her life of devoted service. Inspire us with life and light, and give us perseverance to serve you all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I've decided to add this poem by Phyllis Mcginly, titled The Giveaway:

Saint Bridget was
A problem child.
Although a lass
Demure and mild,
And one who strove
To please her dad,
Saint Bridget drove
The family mad.
For here's the fault in Bridget lay:
She Would give everything away.

To any soul
Whose luck was out
She'd give her bowl
Of stir about;
She'd give her shawl,
Divide her purse
With one or all.
And what was worse,
When she ran out of things to give
She'd borrow from a relative.

Her father's gold,
Her grandsire's dinner,
She'd hand to cold
and hungry sinner;
Give wine, give meat,
No matter whose;
Take from her feet
The very shoes,
And when her shoes had gone to others,
Fetch forth her sister's and her mother's.

She could not quit.
She had to share;
Gave bit by bit
The silverware,
The barnyard geese,
The parlor rug,
Her little niece's christening mug,
Even her bed to those in want,
And then the mattress of her aunt.

An easy touch
For poor and lowly,
She gave so much
And grew so holy
That when she died
Of years and fame,
The countryside
Put on her name,
And still the Isles of Erin fidget
With generous girls named Bride or Bridget.

 Well, one must love her.
 In thinking of her
 There's no denial
 She must have been
 A sort of trial
 Unto her kin.
 The moral, too, seems rather quaint.
 WHO had the patience of a saint,
 From evidence presented here?
 Saint Bridget?  Or her near and dear?

Monday, January 21, 2019

Feast of St. Agnes, Martyr

Almighty and everlasting God, you choose those whom the world deems powerless to put the powerful to shame: Grant us so to cherish the memory of your youthful martyr Agnes, that we may share her pure and steadfast faith in you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Today is the feast of St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr in Rome. St. Agnes was one of the really popular saints of the early Church, right up there with Christopher and Lucy. Her story is one of those “I’ll die before I’ll ever marry” stories which were so popular back then. Her dedication to virginity and her heroism under torture was an inspiration to those suffering martyrdom in the fourth century and on. The earliest document containing the story of St. Agnes is the Depositio Martyrum from the year 354. Much of her legend comes from the writings of St. Ambrose and St. Austin, and from Prudentius’ hymn. According to St. Austin, her name in Greek signifies chaste and in Latin, lamb.

According to the story, Agnes was born to a Christian family of the Roman nobility around the year 29I. When she was I3 years old she was considered one of the most beautiful and desirable young women in the city of Rome. All the (hetro) guys wanted her and were lining up at her door, bringing gifts of great price, not just yer flowers and chocolates. However, one young man in particular was obsessed with Agnes: Procupius, the son of Symphronius, the prefect. He outdid all the other suitors with his gifts, and when he came to visit Agnes’ parents to ask for her hand, he promised them even more valuable presents. When Agnes refused his gifts and proposal of marriage, he figured that he just needed to bring even better, more precious jewels to convince the object of his desire, so he returned with even more precious and rare jewels. Our Agnes responded to Procupius and his presents (speaking in a most archaic form of English) thusly: “Begone from me, fuel of sin, nourishment of vice, food of death; begone from me, for already a lover has secured my heart; he has given me ornaments more precious than yours, and has placed his ring upon my finger as a pledge of fidelity. He is incomparably more noble than you, both in origin and dignity. He has been pleased to adorn my right hand with a priceless bracelet, and to encircle my neck with diamonds. He has set in my ears rings of peerless pearl and has girdled me with precious stones dazzling as the light of the sun in spring. My Beloved has placed his sign upon my forehead, that I may recognize no lover bat himself. He has clothed me in golden tissue and adorned me with innumerable ornaments. He has shown me countless treasures, of which he has promised me the possession, if I remain faithful to him. Could I then so wrong my first love as to accept another and abandon him to whom I am united by the most ardent affection!” Procupius couldn’t believe what he was hearing! He was the son of the prefect, for goodness sake! But our little lambykins continued: “Yes, he is far nobler, his power is greater, his aspect more charming in my sight, his love sweeter to my heart, his grace, in a word, more ravishing than anything to which he could possibly be compared. His voice like a melting harmony enchants my ears. Virgins my companions cease not to sound his praise, and such is his beauty, that the sun and the stars behold it amazed- His ministers are angels, who are eager to serve him. At his touch the sick are healed, the dead are awoke by the odor of his virtue. His resources never fail, his riches never decrease. He has already prepared a dwelling for me. I have pledged my faith, I have vowed to be entirely his. Milk and honey flow from his lips. I have felt his chaste embrace. His body was united to mine, and the blood from his stricken cheek has impressed itself on mine. But know that his mother was a virgin that he was begotten by the Father from all eternity. I can love him as I remain chaste, press him to my heart and iest jure, receive him as my Spouse and still be a virgin. And the children of this union will be brought forth without pain; their number will increase and multiply."

Instead of slapping ol’ Procupy into reality, her words simply worked him up even more, to the point that he was sick in bed, so lovesick that he couldn’t move. Once his dad’s doctors figured out what was going on, the told the prefect, who went to see Agnes and her parents, to ask, once again, for her fair hand. Agnes told the prefect that noting in the world would make her violate the fidelity she had vowed to her first love. Symphronius reminded her and her parents that, being the son of the prefect, Agnes was not going to find a better husband than Our Boy Procopius. She still refused, and, after asking around, Symphronius was overjoyed to learn that Agnes and her family were Christians. Now he really had the power! He knew that nobody, not Agnes’ parents or the other Christians or the members of Agnes’ social class would dare stand up to her in front of the tribunal. He reminded young Agnes that she and her family could lose their social standing and become slaves or even be executed. Agnes didn’t budge; she was married to Christ and would not take another. The prefect had Agnes arrested and let her cool her heels in the dungeon for the night. The next day Agnes was brought before the prefect, who reminded her that his son wanted to marry her and that she couldn’t do any better than Our Boy Procupius. Agnes responded, “I pray you injure not my Spouse by supposing that I could allow myself to be seduced from him by vain promises. My life belongs to him who has chosen me the first." Back to the dank, dark, dungeon for Agnes!

The next morning, Agnes was brought before the prefect, who, realizing that she had not changed her mind, said, “I perceive that you will not have done with your folly, nor will you lend an ear to the counsels of wisdom until your heart is torn from the Christian superstition, whose wicked arts you practice. You are then to be consecrated to the worship of the goddess Vesta, so that if you are determined to preserve your virginity, you may, at least, devote it to watching day and night at her august altars." Agnes responded, "If I have refused a union with your son, who although under the dominion of an insensate passion, is, at least, a living man, endowed with understanding, capable of seeing, feeling, and walking; who enjoys the light of day in common with the good: if, for the love of Jesus Christ, nothing has been able to persuade me to listen to him, how could I vow to serve a deaf and dumb idol, destitute of feeling and of life? How could I so outrage the supreme God as to bow my head before a vain bit of stone?” The prefect said, “Look, I know you’re just a kid, and so your blasphemies against the gods are the result of you being young and not having reached the age of reason, but really, think about what you are saying and how you are exposing yourself to the anger of the gods!” Agnes, responding in more Archaic English, said: "Set aside this pity for my youth, and think not that I wish to make use of such a plea in order to gain your indulgence. Faith resides not in the rears of time, but in the sentiments of the heart, and the all powerful God considers rather the state of our soul than the length of our life. As to your gods, whose anger you fear on my account, leave them to their rage; let them make themselves heard, let them order that they shall be venerated, and command that they shall be adored. But since you will never obtain the object of your desires. carry out your intention without delay." Symphronius responded “ENOUGH! I’m the friggin’ PREFECT!!! What is wrong with you? So, you aren’t afraid of physical pain? Well then, I know what IS important to you: your modesty. Look, for the honor of your noble family, either sacrifice to Vesta and become one of the Holy Virgins serving at her altar, or I will have you dragged to a brothel, where the horny young men of Rome will pay good money to have at you (Symphronius was so upset that he was speaking twentieth-century English)!” Agnes responded, “Not so, Christ forgets not his own; never will he abandon to destruction that modesty so precious in his sight. He is ever present to aid the pure. He will not suffer a blemish to the honor of my virginity. Over this you have no power, although you may stain your sword in my blood. I know the omnipotence of Jesus Christ my Lord; I trust in him and despise your threats, confident that I shall neither sacrifice to your idols, nor suffer any harm. For the Lord has placed his angel near me to be my protector, and the Son of the true God, whom you know not, is my rampart and my defense; he will never fail me. Your gods, on the contrary, are made of brass, fitter for fashioning utensils for the use of man. or of stone, which would better serve to pave the public way. No, the Divinity resides not in a senseless stone, but dwells in heaven; it is not brass or other metal that constitutes a God; it is sovereign power, it is omnipotence. Know then, you and all those who imitate you, that if you forsake not the worship of idols, a fate like unto theirs is reserved for you. For even as they have been molded by tire, so their adorers will burn in flames, not to be cast into form, but to be destroyed and to perish forever." To which the prefect answered, “THAT DOES IT!! STRIP HER NAKED AND DRAG HER OFF TO THE BROTHEL AND LET THE HORNY DOGS OF ROME PAY GOOD MONEY TO HAVE THEIR WAY WITH HER!!! AAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!”

Well, the thugs stripped our Agnes of her robes, but her hair, which had been unbraided to add to her shame, grew and grew and grew until it covered her nakedness. She was brought to the Agonale Circus, where people turned from looking at her. However, an angel of the Lord accompanied her and surrounded her with a brilliant light, which prevented anyone form approaching her or even seeing her. Agnes prayed, and once she finished her prayer, she opened her eyes and saw a robe of brilliant whiteness at her feet. She donned the robe, praying “Thanks be to thee, Jesus Christ, my Lord, who hast received me into the number of thy servants, and hast sent me this garment." Everyone was amazed by what was happening, except one person: the brain-damaged Procupius, who, in an incredibly stupid move, approached the Most Holy Virgin and started talkin’ dirty! But the Angel of the Lord struck him with a bolt of lightening, and he fell to the ground, blinded and half dead. One of his stupid friends, seeing this, cried out to his Less Than Intelligent Companions: “Come on, friends; come on, Romans, come on you who fear the gods! This slut has killed the son of the prefect with her sorceries!” Some of his stupid friends said, “Yeah! Let’s git ‘er!” but others said, “I don’t know; things have been gittin’ a lil’ weird ‘roun here!” Some of the people watching even said, “Hey! She’s an innocent girl! Stop it!!”

Word got back to Symphronius that Procupius had been struck blind and half dead and came running to the circus to see ‘sup? He screamed at Agnes, “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE? WHAT KIND OF WITCHCRAFT IS THIS?” To which Agnes replied, “It is the demon, whose inspirations he followed, who has received power over his life. Why have all the others, who had the same intention, escaped a similar fate? It is because they gave honor to God, who sent his angel to my rescue. This angel has clothed me with a robe of mercy, and has protected my person, offered and consecrated to Christ from the cradle. Those, who, seeing the heavenly light, gave honor to God, have been suffered to depart unharmed and uninjured. But he, who, notwithstanding this manifestation, dared to approach me, has been struck by the angel of the Lord and suffers the penalty which you behold." The prefect, thinking “why does she talk so strangely?” said, “Look; I believe you that no witchy-funny-business took place if you’ll bring him back to life!” What kind of logic is that? To which our Girl answered, "Although your faith is not worthy to obtain such a miracle from God, yet as the time has come to manifest the divine power of Jesus Christ, my Lord, let all go away that I may speak to him in prayer." Once everyone stepped back a bit, she threw herself on the body of her cruel suitor and prayed that God would restore his life. All of the sudden, Procupius opened his eyes, took a deep breath, pushed Agnes off of him, stood up and started walking around, shouting "There is but one God in heaven, on earth, in the whole universe; He is the God of the Christians! All our temples are vain all the gods adored in them are vain! And vain as themselves is the aid expected from them." Many of those watching started shouting “THAT DOES IT!!! I’M GETTIN’ SAVED! I’M GONNA BE A CHRISTIAN!!”But others, still unconvinced and joined by the priests of the Temple of Vesta and overcome by the spirit of archaic English (which appears to be a demon of some sort; pay attention, 1928 BCP worshippers!), started shouting, “Seize the sorceress! Away with the worker of enchantments, who troubles the minds of the people, and perverts their souls!"

Now, even though he appeared to promise to release Agnes if she brought his shiftless son back to life, the prefect Symphronius was afraid of the crowd and turned over the punishment of Agnes to his ambitious lieutenant, Aspasius, the task of quelling the sedition taking place. Aspasius, overcome by ambition, became incredibly violent, and, to make the priests and pagans happy, had a great fire to be lit on which he ordered Agnes to be thrown. Agnes was tossed on the fire, but it split into two huge flames, which went left and right, burning all those on either side of the fire. Agnes, standing in the middle of the lames, raised her arms in the orans position and prayed "All powerful God, alone to be adored, alone to be feared, Father of Jesus Christ, our Lord, I bless thee! Because, through thine only Son. Thou hast saved me from the threats of those impious men, and from defilement while treading the foul places of the demon. Behold now, by thy Holy Spirit, I am penetrated as with a celestial dew. The fire is arrested and dies out before me while the flames divide and turn against those who kindled them. I bless thee, Father of love, who hast given me courage to walk intrepidly towards thee even through fire. Behold! What I have believed, I now see! What I have hoped for, I possess what I have desired, I now embrace! My lips and my heart confess thee. For thee my inmost being longs. Behold, now to thee I go, the only and true God, who, with thy Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, and with the Holy Spirit, livest and reignest forever and ever. "

Since the fire didn’t work, it was decided that Agnes would be beheaded. The crowd gathered around her, some crying, some hoping for some entertaining violence (they were Romans, you know!). When the executioner appeared, Agnes, seeing this fearful sight, exclaimed: "Oh! what a happiness! It is a fierce and barbarous man who now approaches me. Draw near I prefer your terrible countenance to that of those impassioned young men who lately threatened me. See, I acknowledge it, behold the suitor whom I love. Come then! I will go myself to meet you, not restraining the ardent desire which draws me towards you. Strike behold my breast; I want your sword to penetrate even to the bottom of my heart. Spouse of Christ, it is thus that I shall escape from the darkness of earth and rise to the abode of light. Open, oh all-powerful God, open the gates of heaven, until lately closed to man! Christ Jesus draw my soul to thyself a victim first to thee by virginal consecration, now to thy Father by martyrdom's immolation!" Then she ran eagerly to the chopping block, like a bride going to her nuptials! She bowed her head to adore her Lord, Jesus Christ, and to receive that final stroke. The executioner was put off by all this, and took a few minutes to prepare himself; he knew that this act would condemn him. He finally worked up the nerve necessary and, with a single stroke, severed Agnes’ head from her body. The stroke was so clean that she felt no pain, and her soul, freed from its prison of flesh, rose towards heaven, where the angels received her on her way, marking her progress with a shining track. According to the hymnist Prudentius, that poet of the martyrs, Agnes, as she rose towards heaven, “in passing the terrestrial globe at her feet, and casts a last look upon the darkness from which she is flying. She thrills with joy, she is in wonder at the sight of the sun moving in his orbit, with the planets revolving round him. She smiles with pity in beholding the turmoil of human existence, and the rapid flight of time, which carries away with it, kings, tyrants, empires, the pageantry of wealth and honours, which swell the heart with vanity. She regards with compassion that thirst for gold and silver, which, like a raging fever, consumes mortals, and pushes them on to every species of crime. She, pitying looks down upon palaces mean abodes they seem, erected at so great a cost; upon the vanity of ‘purple and fine linen.’ She grieves, so to speak, over the hatreds, the fears, the desires, the continual dangers of earth: its sorrows so long enduring, its joys so rapid in their flight; over that dark envy, with its lighted fire-brand, which withers every hope and tarnishes all human glory; and lastly, she sorrowfully considers the dark night of Gentile superstition, which appears to her worse than all other evils. She tramples beneath her feet all these things; she triumphantly places her heel upon the head of that cruel dragon, who sullies with his venom both earth and hell. The foot of a virgin again becomes fatal to him. and plants itself upon his inflamed crest. Vanquished, humbled, he dares no longer raise his head.”

Agnes martyrdom was a powerful image to the people of Late Antiquity, and her witness brought many to decide that change of mind and heart in which one follows God’s way instead of one’s own way. And that’s why we remember St. Agnes, holy virgin and martyr of Rome, today.

I See You!

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