Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A Poem in Honor of St. Michael

An ancient Celtic poem in praise of Michael the Archangel

Thou Michael the victorious,
I make my circuit under thy shield,
Thou Michael of the white steed,
And of the bright brilliant blades,
Conqueror of the dragon,
Be thou at my back,
Thou ranger of the heavens,
Thou warrior of the King of all,
O Michael the victorious,
My pride and my guide
O Michael the victorious,
The glory of mine eye.

I make my circuit
In the fellowship of my saint,
On the machair, on the meadow,
On the cold heathery hill;
Though I should travel oceans
And the hard globe of the world
No harm can e’er befall me
‘Neath the shelter of thy shield;
O Michael the victorious,
Jewel of my heart,
O Michael the victorious,
God’s shepherd thou art.

Be the sacred Three of Glory
Aye at peace with me,
With my horses, with my cattle,
With my woolly sheep in flocks.
With the crops growing in the field
Or ripening in the sheaf,
On the machiar, on the moor,
In cole, in heap, or stack,.
Every thing on high or low,
Every furnishing and flock,
Belong to the holy Triune of glory,
And to Michael the victorious

Feast of Michael and All Angels

Today is the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel and all Angels, or Michaelmas.
The feast is popular again, probably due to the rise of angelology in New Age circles over the past twenty years or so. An entire industry has sprung up over for a while  around the subject of angels, producing music and books odd websites. Some people's interest and devotion to angels has replaced any interest and devotion to God, which is, of course, idolatrous, but this is not the first time in history that angel worship has been popular. It was also common during the first two centuries of Christianity, especially in Phrygia, Greece, and Palestine, and St. Paul mentions angel worship in his letter to the Christians in Colossus. The introductory lecture by the Rev. Dr. L. William Countryman in New Testament when I was at C.D.S.P. left an impression on my entire class. Professor Countryman shocked us all with the idea that the Epistle to Jude was about sex with angels! So, let’s talk about angels.
The English word 'angel' comes from the Greek word 'angelous' which means 'messenger.'
Angels are God's messengers, and that is the purpose they serve throughout most of the Old Testament. However, Zoroastrian influence during the time of the Babylonian exile changed the concept of angels from messengers of God to powerful supernatural beings who were either on the side of God or on the side of Satan; it introduced a dualistic element to the understanding of angels. By the year 160 B.C., the Essenes, who lived in the desert of Qumran, had created an entire Host or Army of angels who served God, wile the Demons, or Angels of Darkness served Satan. With this idea of an angelic army came the idea of different choirs of angels, different divisions who served different purposes. These groups originally were divided as Archangels, Cherubim, Seraphim, Watchers, and Angels. By the sixth century of the Christian Era, the mystical theologian Psuedo-Dionysius developed an hierarchy of "Heavenly Beings" which he received from his “sacred-initiator.” According to Psuedo-Dionysius, there are three three-fold hierarchies of Heavenly Beings: the first hierarchy, which are the beings which surround God the Father, are the "Holy Thrones and Orders said to possess many eyes and wings, also called Seraphim and Cherubim." The word "Seraphim" means "Fire-makers" in Hebrew, and Psuedo-Dionysius says that this means they are "Carriers of Warmth." The word "Cherubim" means "Out-pourers of Wisdom" in Hebrew, and Psuedo-Dionysius writes that the Seraphim and Cherubim are most like God in these ways. The second hierarchy consists of Authorities, Dominions, and Powers. This group works between the first hierarchy and the third hierarchy. The third and final hierarchy, according to Psuedo-Dionysius, consists of Principalities, Archangels, and Angels, with only Archangels and Angles dealing with human beings.

Human interaction with angels is described throughout the Old Testament, beginning with a Cherub with a flaming sword guarding the gate to Paradise. Abraham's angel visitations, and Jacob's vision of angels ascending and descending from a ladder between heaven and earth is another example. Moses dealt with angels such as Michael in the Wilderness, and the Day of Atonement liturgy described in the book of Leviticus describes the action of the High Priest placing the sins of the community on a goat and releasing the goat to Azazel, a fallen angel of the desert. By the time of the Book of Daniel and the prophet Isaiah's vision of heaven, angels were no longer simply God's messengers, they became supernatural beings with much power, who praised God in front of the throne or fought in God's army. Angels were also terrifying creatures; their presence was so frightening  that the first words they usually say to humans are "Fear not!" This also may be because they tend to simply appear out of nowhere; I don’t know of any stories where one was watching angels wing their way towards them with a message; they just appear and say “Fear not!” Artists over the centuries, especially during the Renaissance, tended to portray angels as androgynous blonds with wings, and they tend to portray Cherubim as fat little baby angels. But Cherubim are not fat baby angels, they are terrifying creatures; they are described as having the head of a man, the body of a lion, and wings! And Seraphim are huge, fiery, snake-like creatures, not blond guys with wings. Isaiah's description of heaven tells of Seraphim flying above God's throne, and the Seraphim are described as having six wings: two to cover their face, two to cover their feet, (which is a euphemism for genitals), and two with which to fly. They fly above God's throne chanting "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts." A Seraph picked up a hot coal from the altar of incense and put it on Isaiah's lips to purify them. In the New Testament, the Archangel Gabriel gave Mary  the message that she would become Theotokos, the God bearer. An angel also brought a message to Zechariah and silenced him. In fact, angels tend to appear throughout Luke's gospel  and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles. Angels appear in Mark's gospel, but only to minister to Jesus while he iwas in the wilderness, after his encounter with Satan, and they appear in Matthew's gospel in dreams to warn of trouble to the baby Jesus.

As mentioned earlier, during the first and second centuries and during the time of Jesus, angels were very popular, as popular as they are in our day, and there were those who worshipped them and wanted to enlist them in giving them power over others. these beliefs were poplar among some Gnostic groups, and they developed amazing cosmologies in which angels were featured. The Essenes'  teachings also added to these ideas. Remember the fourth verse of Genesis, Chapter 6, about the Nephilim, (which means 'fallen ones' in Hebrew) who were the children of human women and angel fathers and were "the giants and heroes of old?" Well, some Gnostic groups took that passage and decided that it meant that they could attain certain mystic knowledge through sexual relations with angels! St. Paul seems to think that angels are attracted to a woman's long hair, and suggested that they keep their heads covered in church. But St. Paul also believed that humans were more important to God than were the angels and he said that humans would judge angels. Some people believe that Satan is a Fallen Angel,  and they tell the story of Lucifer, the Morning Star, trying to put his throne higher than God's and starting a war in heaven. Have you read that story in the Bible? No, you haven't because it is not in the Bible.
When John Milton wrote the book Paradise Lost, he used some verses from Isaiah chapter 14:

How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, Son of Dawn! How you are cut
down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart,
"I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God . . .
I will make myself like the Most High.

Bu these verses are about a Babylonian king who was called the Day Star. It is interesting how something written by Milton became theological truth to many. When we read the book of Job, Satan is a part of God's Court,so perhaps he is some kind of angel.

Today's feast is named after St. Michael the Archangel. Michael is the head of the Heavenly Host, the Five-star General of God's Angelic Army. Michael is also the protector of Israel, Protector of the Chosen People. Psuedo-Dionysius claimed that every nation is actually directed and protected by one of the archangels, and that Michael is the leader of the Jewish nation; he did not name the other Archangels and their respective nations. According to tradition, Michael is supposed to protect Christians from the devil at the time of death. This probably comes from the mention of Michael arguing with Satan for the soul of Moses, which is mentioned in the Epistle of Jude and comes from the Book of the Secrets of Enoch, an apocalyptic book written in 160 B.C. There was a cult which venerated Michael the Archangel in Phrygia (a regular hot-bed of heresey!), and they believed he had the power to heal, so many hot springs in Greece and Turkey are dedicated to him. Michael's place in the heavenly court is next to the altar of incense, and when incense is blessed for use in our liturgy, the priest usually says the following prayer:

By the intercession of Blessed Michael the Archangel, who stands 
at the right hand of the altar of incense, and of all the Saints, may 
the Lord bless this incense, and accept it as a pure oblation, through
Jesus Christ our Lord.

The name Mikael, or Michael in English, means "who is like God?" in Hebrew, and this has led to some weird ideas about Michael the Archangel. Charles Taze Russel, the man who started the Jehovah's Witnesses taught that Jesus was actual Michael come to earth, and there are New Agers who "channel" Michael. These beliefs and teachings, as well as much of the angelology going on nowadays is actually idolatrous. Angels are God's messengers, and they are God's servants. Their only purpose, the only reason they were created, is to do God's will. They have no say in the matter, and they just do what they are told. Humans, however, are created in God's image, and we have been given free will, and that puts us in a different place than the angels. When you die, you won't get some wings and a harp and sit on a cloud as a new angel, no matter what image popular movies leave you. Angels probably don't spend their time fighting demons and keeping you out of trouble. Angels are God's messengers and they deliver God's messages. We are not to worship angels, we are not to try to control angels, and we are not to try to 'channel' angels or anything else. Since we have free will, it’s best if we choose to do God's will, it’s best if we choose to help bring about God's reign, it’s best if we choose to love one another as Christ loves us, and it’s best if we choose to serve God. We don't need to worry about Guardian Angels, or whether angels are real or not; what we need to worry about is how we treat each other, about how we treat those who are the least among us. We need to worry about helping others learn of the Good News of forgiveness of sins and that God loves everyone  and want relationship with everyone. We need to tend to the sick, to pray for each other, and to love each other.  Then we can join with the angels in heaven and sing God's praises, because we will be doing God's will, just as the angels do.

Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Feast of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo

Yeah, yeah, I know he's not that popular nowadays, but I likes him, so here's my regular St. Augustin sermon.

There was a time when I didn’t like Augustine; I just knew him as the “inventor of the concept of original sin” so I figured he was really just a harsh man, but the more I studied his writings the more I was convinced that he was a compassionate man and one of the greatest of the early theologians. I was able to make connections between events in his own life and in mine, and this helped change my original impression of the man.

Augustine was born in the year 354 in the city of Thagaste in North Africa. His father was a pagan but his mother, Monnica, was a devout Christian. Her tenacity regarding her faith resulted in the eventual baptism of her husband, although most folks doubted it would ever happen. Monnica made sure that Augustine had a Christian education although it didn’t seem to take during his youth and young adulthood. He attended the University at Carthage, where he studied rhetoric and considered becoming a lawyer, but he soon became more interested in literary pursuits. While in Carthage, he pretty much abandoned any Christian faith he may have had and he took a mistress, to whom he was faithful for fifteen years; they had a son together. He was a bit of a truth seeker, investigating various philosophies and the different religious disciplines popular in that era; he even cast horoscopes for a while. His experience with astrology led to his later denouncement of the so-called science. At the age of nineteen he joined the Manichees, a religion formed around the teachings of Mani, a third-century Persian who called himself “The Apostle of Jesus Christ.” Mani taught a dualistic form of Christianity which he claimed to have received in direct revelation from God. Peter Brown, in his biography of Augustine, writes of this group: The Manichees were a small sect with a sinister reputation. They were illegal; later, they would be savagely persecuted. They had the aura of a secret society: in foreign cities, Manichees would lodge only with members of their own sect; their leaders would travel around a network of ‘cells’ scattered all over the Roman world. Pagans regarded them with horror, orthodox Christians with fear and hatred. They were the Bolsheviks of the fourth century... Augustine was a hearer of the Manichees, a member of the outer circle. The Manichees required a celibate and vegetarian lifestyle, and Augustine wasn’t quite ready to give up his mistress (I don’t know how he felt about meat), but as a hearer he could subscribe to their teachings without giving up everything just yet. The Manichees lived harsh lives, and this is often attractive to young, spiritually inclined persons. I spent some three years in a cult which I joined at the age of nineteen, and I was attracted to the group’s fierce spirituality, which seemed so much more authentic than the faith of my parents, and I think that Augustine was very much influenced in the same way. But there was a point when the teachings of Mani no longer appealed to him; he became disillusioned when he met one of the great Manichean teachers, Faustus. Faustus was unable to answer Augustine’s questions about the faith. When Augustine finally finished his courses at University, he left the Manichees and Carthage, and moved to Rome to teach. But he was so disgusted with the actions and attitudes of his students, whom he considered dishonest, that he left Rome and moved to Milan to be the Teacher of Rhetoric for the city. Now during his time in Carthage his mother Monnica never stopped praying that he would become a Christian. While in Milan he fell under the influence of Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. Ambrose was a great preacher and orator, and Augustine enjoyed listening to him. Over time, the teachings of Ambrose began to take hold in Augustine, and one day, in a garden in Milan, Augustine, wrestling with the idea of giving up his present life and having that change of mind and heart which is repentance, sat under a fig tree, crying and wondering what to do. He heard the voice of a child from a nearby house chanting: “Pick up and read; pick up and read.” He picked up his friend’s Bible, opened it at random and read Romans 13:13-14: Let us live honorably in the day, not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts. Augustine wrote about this event: I neither wished nor needed to read further. At once, with the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled. And at that moment Augustine’s life changed. He was later baptized, and brought much joy to his mother’s heart. But he had many difficult decisions to make regarding the mother of his son, his teaching position, and his life in general. He left his position as Teacher of Rhetoric in Milan, and began to write essays on Christianity and philosophy and became a bit of a star in Christian circles.

Upon the death of his mother, he returned to Thagaste to take over the family estate. He and some friends decided to live lives of monastic discipline and start a monastery. Augustine went to the city of Hippo to see a friend and invite him to become part of their monastic community. The friend and Augustine attended services at the bishop's church; the bishop was preparing to retire and was speaking of the needs of the Church. The people in the church saw Augustine and grabbed him and wanted to make him Bishop, very much like what happened to Ambrose in Milan so many years before. The bishop, Valerius, managed to get Augustine to agree to become a priest in Hippo, and many witnesses thought that when Augustine burst into tears, he was sad because he wanted to be a bishop rather than a priest, but the truth was that Augustine didn’t want ordained ministry of any kind. He agreed to be a priest because he believed that this was God’s will, but it was not part of his desire.

There were two churches in North Africa in those days: the Catholic Church (not Roman Catholic) and the Party of Donatus, or the Donatists. During the Diocletian persecution the clergy were given a decision of whether to turn over the scriptures to the police and recant their faith or be executed. Some clergy gave up the scriptures and denounced their faith, but repented at the end of the persecution and returned to their churches. The Donatists believed that the sacraments administered by such clergy were not valid, since they had turned their backs on Christ and his Church. The Catholic church had reaccepted such clergy upon their repentance, but the Donatists refused them and fought with the Catholics. In many cities (much like today but unheard of in those days) there were two bishops: a Catholic bishop and a Donatist bishop, and the churches would fight and take over each other’s buildings, turning over the altars and trashing the place. Augustine preached against the Donatists, and when he became Bishop of Hippo he fought against them fiercely. Augustine taught that the bread and wine were a sacrament, not because of the worthiness of the priest, but because of an act of grace by God. The Donatists were harsh and unforgiving, but Augustine taught that God forgives all who repent, so the clergy who repented were still valid priests. Augustine became known as a great fighter of heresy. He waged war against the Donatists, the Manichees, and the Pelagians, because he desired that “no one be led astray.” Augustine wrote many volumes against the Donatist, the Manichees, and the Pelagians, and he also wrote many volumes on the scriptures and the Christian life. We could go on and on talking about his writings and many have, but we’ll move on to his final days. Augustine was a man who loved his books and his library. He spent the last three years of his life living in his library, editing and rewriting and organizing his papers. This library contained two-hundred thirty-two little books which made up ninety-three of his own works, not to mention many letters and copies of his sermons, which had been taken down by the stenographers of his admirers. He set about rezeroing his many works and produced Retractiones, a catalogue of titles, arranged in chronological order, with a brief note of the content of the work, along with Augustine’s comments. May of the remarks are self-criticisms, but quite often they were also attempts to explain himself. At the same time that he was organizing this library, he was also involved in a debate by correspondence with Bishop Julian of Eclanum, a defender of Pelagius. Augustine would spend his nights reorganizing his works and writing comments, and his days dictating letters and fighting with Julian. He was depressed to see the decline of Rome and its civilization and the military attacks of the Vandals which threatened Roman Africa. The Vandals were Christians, but Arian Christians, another group of heretics destroying the world in which Augustine lived.

In August of the year 430, Augustine came down with a fever. He knew he would die, and he wanted to die alone. His first biographer, Possidius, described Augustine’s attitude: He had told his followers that even praiseworthy Christians and bishops, though baptized, should still not leave this life without having performed due and exacting penance. This is what he did with his own last illness: for he had ordered the four psalms of David that deal with penance to be copied out. From his sickbed he could see these sheets of paper every day, hanging on his walls, and would read them, crying constantly and deeply. And, lest his attention be distracted from this in any way, almost ten days before his death, he asked us that none should come in to see him, except at those hours when the doctors would come to examine him or his meals were brought. This was duly observed: and so he had all that stretch of time to pray...

Augustine died and was buried on August 28, 430. A year later Hippo was evacuated and partially burnt, but his library escaped the destruction, and that is why we know so much about him today. His experience in rhetoric and logic, and his studies as a Neo-Platonist, along with his powerful intellect, made him a most worthy adversary of Greek philosophy, and his many written works are still studied by theologians today. His two books The Confessions and The City of God are considered classics. Yet I think it his understanding of God’s love and grace, and his desire that no one be led astray that made Augustine the mighty warrior for Christ that he was. The faith which Augustine received and defended was strengthened by his gifts, and we, the Body of Christ, are very much blessed because of his great faith. The Manichees, the Donatists, and the Pelagians all believed that humans had the power to live perfect lives or that humans could stop the work of the Holy Spirit, but Augustine taught us that “man is but a little piece of God’s creation” and that God so loved this piece of creation that God would forgive us all our sins. Augustine believed strongly in God’s grace and love. May we, too, experience God’s love and grace.

Lord God, the light of the minds that know you, the life of the souls that love you, and the strength of the hearts that serve you: Help us, following the example of your servant Augustine of Hippo, so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Feast of St. Bartholomew, Apostle

Almighty and everlasting God, who gave to your apostle Bartholomew grace truly to believe and to preach your Word: Grant that your Church may love what he believed and preach what he taught; 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. Bartholomew, Apostle. Of course, we don't know much about Bartholomew; actually, we really don't know anything. He is listed in the synoptics, but not the gospel attributed to John, while Nathaniel is mentioned in John's list but not in the lists in the synoptics, so some scholars think they may be the same person. Bartholomew name or person does not appear in The Acts of the Apostles. According to Eusebius' History of the Church, when Pantaenus was doing missionary work in India he was shown a copy of Matthew's Gospel in Hebrew which tradition stated was a gift from the Apostle Bartholomew. There are traditions which teach that Bartholomew preached in Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Armenia, Lycoania, and Phrygia.

Jerome and Bede both mention a Gospel of St. Bartholomew, but no copies exist in our day.

There is a tradition that Bartholomew was martyred in Armenia, flayed alive and crucified upside down for having converted Polymius, King of Armenia. However, according to the text The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew, he was beaten with rods and then beheaded.

The Martrydom of St. Bartholomew really doesn't concentrate on the martyrdom, but tells a fantastic story of Bartholomew's battle with the demons behind the idols in "India." The definition of "India" in those days was a bit more broad than that of our day: it bordered on Ethiopia, Media, and the actual subcontinent of India. Bartholomew was in "India" (probably Armenia) where there was an idol to the god Astaruth. People would bring their sick to the Temple of Astaruth and sacrifice to the idol, and the sick person would appear to be healed physically, but would actually become "more diseased in soul." When our man Bart showed up in town, Astaruth stopped healing folks. People didn't know what to do, but they went to another town to a Temple to the god Becher, and the priests asked Becher what was going on. Becher said, and I quote: "From the day and hour that the true God, who dwells in the heavens, sent his apostle Bartholomew into the regions here, your god Astaruth is held fast by chains of fire, and can no longer either speak or breathe." The priests asked, "Who is Bartholomew?" and Becher responded, "He is the friend of the Almighty God, and has just come into these parts, that he may take away all the worship of the idols in the name of his God." The priests said, "Really? What's he look like? We need to find this guy!" Becher gave the following description: "He has black hair, a shaggy head, a fair skin, large eyes, beautiful nostrils, his ears hidden by the hair of his head, with a yellow beard, a few grey hairs, of middle height, and neither tall nor stunted, but middling, clothed with a white undercloak bordered with purple, and upon his shoulders a very white cloak; and his clothes have been worn twenty-six years, but neither are they dirty, nor have they waxed old. Seven times a day he bends the knee to the Lord, and seven times a night does he pray to God. His voice is like the sound of a strong trumpet; there go along with him angels of God, who allow him neither to be weary, nor to hunger, nor to thirst; his face, and his soul, and his heart are always glad and rejoicing; he foresees everything, he knows and speaks every tongue of every nation. And behold now, as soon as you ask me, and I answer you about him, behold, he knows; for the angels of the Lord tell him; and if you wish to seek him, if he is willing he will appear to you; but if he shall not be willing, you will not be able to find him. I entreat you, therefore, if you shall find him, entreat him not to come here, lest his angels do to me as they have done to my brother Astaruth." After that, Becher held his peace.

The priests headed into the streets to find Bartholomew, looking into the faces of each person going by to see if they matched Becher's description (how many guys with black, shaggy hair and a blonde beard could there be in that town?). They found him when a person possessed by a demon shouted out, "Apostle of the Lord, Bartholomew, your prayers are burning me up!" Our man Bart said, "Hold your peace and come out of him!" and the man, who had been possessed for many years, was freed. Polymius, the king of Armenia, just happened to be standing across the street when this all happened, and, having a daughter possessed by a demon, he wanted Bart's help. His daughter was chained in a dungeon, because she was tearing the skin off her limbs and biting everyone who came near. Bart came and cast out her demon, and she was whole. The king was so happy that he loaded camels with gold and silver and precious stones and pearls and clothing for Bartholomew (who left the palace immediately after the exorcism), but they couldn't find Bart and brought everything back to the palace. Early the next morning, as the sun was rising, Bartholomew appeared in the king's bedchamber and said, "Why did you look for me all day with all that gold and stuff? Those gifts are appropriate for those who seek earthly things, but the only thing that interests me is the gospel." He then preached the Good News to the king. He also explained to the king what was going on in Astaruth's temple, and that an angel of the Lord Jesus Christ was keeping the demon Astaruth in fiery chains. The king and Bart agreed to go to the temple that morning while the priests were sacrificing to see Bartholomew take care of Astaruth. When they arrived at the temple, the priests were sacrificing, when all of the sudden a voice came out of the idol, screaming: "Refrain, you wretched ones, from sacrificing to me, lest ye suffer worse for my sake; because I am bound in fiery chains, and kept in subjection by an angel of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whom the Jews crucified: for, being afraid of him, they condemned him to death. And he put to death Death himself, our king, and he bound our prince in chains of fire; and on the third day, having conquered death and the devil, rose in glory, and gave the sign of the cross to his apostles, and sent them out into the four quarters of the world; and one of them is here just now, who has bound me, and keeps me in subjection. I implore you, therefore, supplicate him on my account, that he may set me free to go into other habitations." Bartholomew then said to the demon, "Confess, unclean demon, who is it that has injured all those that are lying here from heavy diseases?" The demon said, "The devil, our ruler, he who is bound, he sends us against men, that, having first injured their bodies, we may thus also make an assault upon their souls when they sacrifice to us. For then we have complete power over them, when they believe in us and sacrifice to us. And when, on account of the mischief done to them, we retire, we appear curing them, and are worshipped by them as gods; but in truth we are demons, and the servants of him who was crucified, the Son of the virgin, have bound us. For from that day on which the Apostle Bartholomew came I am punished, kept bound in chains of fire. And for this reason I speak, because he has commanded me. At the same time, I dare not utter more when the apostle is present, neither I nor our rulers." Bart said to him, "Why don't you save all who come to you?" and the demon answered, "When we injure their bodies, unless we first injure their souls, we do not let their bodies go." Bart asked, "How do you injure their souls?" and the demon answered, "When they believe that we are gods, and sacrifice to us, God withdraws from those who sacrifice, and we do not take away the sufferings of their bodies, but retire into their souls." Bartholomew then turned to everyone in the temple and said, "Behold, the god whom you thought to cure you, does the more mischief to your souls and bodies. Hear even now your Maker who dwells in the heavens, and do not believe in lifeless stones and stocks. And if you wish that I should pray for you, and that all these may receive health, take down this idol, and break it to pieces; and when you have done this, I will sanctify this temple in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; and having baptized all of you who are in it in the baptism of the Lord, and sanctified you, I will save all." The king gave orders to the people and they all returned to the temple with ropes and crowbars but were unable to pull the idol down. Then our man Bart had them take the ropes off the idol. Facing the idol, he said, "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, come out of this idol, and go into a desert place, where neither winged creature utters a cry, nor voice of man has ever been heard." At that, the idol rose off of its foundations and crashed to the ground, breaking into little pieces. At the same hour all the idols in the temples bell to the ground and were broken into pieces. And all witnessing this miracle cried out: "He alone is God Almighty, whom Bartholomew the apostle proclaims!!" Then Bartholomew raised his hands to heaven and prayed a long prayer which I will not quote here, but rest assured that it was full of good gospel imagery. All responded "Amen!!" and suddenly there appeared an angel of the Lord, shining brighter that the sun, winged, and four other angels holding up the four corners of the temple. And with his finger the angel sealed the temple and the people and said, "Thus says the Lord who has sent me, As you have all been purified from all your infirmity, so also this temple shall be purified from all uncleanness, and from the demons dwelling in it, whom the apostle of God has ordered to go into a desert place; for so has God commanded me, that I may manifest Him to you. And when you behold Him, fear nothing; but when I make the sign of the cross, so also do ye with your finger seal your faces, and these evil things will flee from you." He then showed them the demon and cast him away. Then the angels disappeared. The king, the queen, their two sons and all the people were all baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and King Polymius even laid aside his diadem to follow Bartholomew and the way of Christ.

Polymius' elder brother was Astreges, king of the Greeks, and when he learned what had happened to the temples, and that all the people had converted AND that Polymius had put aside his diadem, well, he was less than pleased and sent an army to find Bartholomew and bring him in chains to his presence. When Bartholomew was brought to the court, the following conversation took place: The king says to him: "Are you he who has perverted my brother from the gods?" To whom the apostle answered: "I have not perverted him, but have converted him to God." The king says to him: "Are you he who caused our gods to be broken in pieces?" The apostle says to him: "I gave power to the demons who were in them, and they broke in pieces the dumb and senseless idols, that all men might believe in God Almighty, who dwells in the heavens." The king says to him: "As you have made my brother deny his gods, and believe in your God, so I also will make you reject your God and believe in my gods." The apostle says to him: "If I have bound and kept in subjection the god which your brother worshipped, and at my order the idols were broken in pieces, if you also are able to do the same to my God, you can persuade me also to sacrifice to your gods; but if you can do nothing to my God, I will break all your gods in pieces; but believe in my God." The king was then informed that his god, Baldad, and all the other idols, had fallen down and broken into pieces. Hearing this news, the king rent his garment, and then ordered Bartholomew to be scourged and beheaded. Twelve thousand people who had been converted by Bartholomew's witness came and took his body and laid it in the royal tomb of the king of Armenia. When Astreges heard of this, he ordered that the remains be thrown into the sea, but the faithful moved his remains to the island of Liparis.

Here is how the account ends: And it came to pass on the thirtieth day after the apostle was carried away, that the king Astreges was overpowered by a demon and miserably strangled; and all the priests were strangled by demons, and perished on account of their rising against the apostle, and thus died by an evil fate.

And there was great fear and trembling, and all came to the Lord, and were baptized by the presbyters who had been ordained by the holy apostle Bartholomew. And according to the commandment of the apostle, all the clergy of the people made King Polymius bishop; and in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ he received the grace of healing, and began to do signs. And he remained in the bishopric twenty years; and having prospered in all things, and governed the church well, and guided it in right opinions, he fell asleep in peace, and went to the Lord: to whom be glory and strength for ever and ever. Amen.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

The Feast of St. Independence Day

Hey kids! It's that time of year again!
St. Independence Day was born on July 4, 1776, in the city of Philadelphia in the British colony of Pennsylvania, or "Penn's Woods," and then again on January 14, 1784, in the city of Philadelphia in the state of Pennsylvania in the newly-formed United States of America.

Also known as "Uncle Sam," St. Independence Day had the amazing power of causing men to enlist in the U.S. military merely by pointing at them. His charism of salesmanship enabled him to sell hot dogs, baseball, beer, and Grateful Dead records.

At the age of 18, young Mr. Day, who had an almost unnatural hankering for apples, wandered about the countryside of the new nation, carrying apple seeds from his home state of Pennsylvania. He created nurseries in the wilderness so that his land-stealing countrymen would have sustenance as they cheated the indigenous people of their ancestral homelands. He negotiated disputes between pioneer settlers and shared his religious beliefs with anyone unlucky enough to get him started on the subject. He wore ragged clothing and a pot on his head, an image which became very popular with young people in the late 1960's and early 1970's, who, in homage to St. Independence Day, called themselves "pot heads." He also cut down many trees as possible in the areas of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, with the help of his Big Blue Ox, Babe. After his flirtation with the exciting and ruggedly manly world of the Lumberjack, he rode a tornado down to Pecos, Texas, spending a few years as a cowboy, using a cougar for a horse and harnessing the Rio Grande to water his ranch. He gave up the cowboy life to become a steel-drivin' man. During the early years of the Twenty-first century, he was waterboarded and tortured by members of the Bush administration and chased by remote controlled drones by the Obama administration, but has managed, barely, to survive.

St. Independence Day's contributions to theology are, firstly, the concept that God created the United States of America as a Christian nation to spread the gospel, first throughout the central continent of North America by the means of Manifest Destiny, and then throughout the world as a side-effect of imperial wars, and secondly, the Prosperity Gospel in which God rains cash, cars, and big houses upon those who roll on the floor and swing from the drapes in a spittle-flecked ecstatic state while proof-texting Bible verses. Amazingly, this theology is quite popular amongst those living in dire poverty in parts of the Developing World.

The Feast of St. Independence Day is celebrated by watching parades, blowing things up, and eating as many hot dogs as possible within a two-minute period.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The Martyrs of Lyons

Grant, O Lord, that we who keep the feast of the holy martyrs Blandina and her companions may be rooted and grounded in love of you, and may endure the sufferings of this life for the glory that shall be revealed in us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

In the year 177 a persecution began in the Gallic cities of Vienne and Lyons. These two cities were missionary centers in Gaul and attracted Christians from Greece and Asia. The bishop in Lyons was Pothinus, an elderly man of great faith. Christians were being excluded from the social life of Vienne and Lyons and pagan mobs would throw stones and insults at them when they were seen in the market place or at the public baths. Because the Christian Eucharist was not open to outsiders, many stories spread about what went on in these gatherings. Stories spread that Christians were eating the flesh and drinking the blood of babies, who they had rolled in flour before killing them. Another story was that they would hold meals with dogs tied to candle sticks (probably large menorahs). According to the stories floating about town, at one point in the meal, the celebrant would throw some meat to the dogs, who would them lunge for the meat and pull down the menorahs, extinguishing them and in the resulting darkness, an orgy would take place, complete with incestuous acts. These stories made people think that Christians were a threat to the morals of the community so they encouraged their persecution. Really, no one wants incestuous cannibals in the neighborhood! After a while, Christians were banned from any public place in Lyons. If people saw Christians in a public place, they would curse them, beat them, drag them along the ground, stone them and imprison them. When they confessed Christ they were locked up in the Gaol and awaited the governor’s arrival.

This was very difficult for the Christians; some were strong but others just couldn’t take the pressure and would recant. There were others who were willing to be witnesses, to be martyrs for Christ. One day a group was brought before the governor: Sanctus, a deacon from Vienne; Maturus, a recently baptized Christian; Attalus, who had always been a pillar and support of the Church in his native Perganum; and Blandina, a female slave, who turned out to be the strongest of the group. When brought before the governor and accused, she said, “I am a Christian: we do nothing to be ashamed of.” Sanctus the deacon was a strong person, too. His torturers had hoped that they would be able to force him to say something improper; they would demand his name, race, an birthplace, or whether he was a slave or free, and to every question he replied: “I am a Christian.” When they ran out of ideas, they pressed red-hot copper plates against the most sensitive parts of his body. He stood strong, refusing to give in to them. His body was one huge bruise, but he still stood firm. After a few days they put him on the rack, hoping that this would break him. But instead of collapsing and giving in, Sanctus’ body became erect and straight and recovered its former appearance. One woman, Biblis had denied Christ, but was still tortured. While she was on the rack she came to her senses, coming out of a deep sleep and realizing that she was in danger of eternal punishment in hell. She said to the slanderers, “How could children be eaten by people who are not even allowed to eat the blood of brute beasts?” She joined the ranks of the martyrs. The bishop Ponthinus was over ninety years old and, of course, quite weak physically; he suffered problems with his breathing. He was brought to the governor before the entire populace of the city, with the crowd jeering and shouting at him. The governor asked him, “Who is the Christians’ God?” Ponthius answered, “If you are a fit person you will know!” He was dragged among the crowd, who rained blows upon his body and others throwing whatever they could find at him. They threw the barely breathing bishop into a dungeon, where he died two days later. Instead of scaring the others, his death inspired them to embrace the crown of martyrdom. Marturus, Sanctus, Attalus and Blandina were taken into the amphitheatre to face the wild beasts. There, in front of everyone, Maturus and Sanctus were taken through all manner of punishments, as if this was their first day in the arena. They ran the gauntlet of whips; they were mauled by the beasts; they endured every torment that the frenzied mob of the arena demanded. They were placed in iron chairs and their flesh roasted until people were suffocating from the stench, yet they heard nothing from Sanctus other than “I am a Christian.” Sanctus and Maturus finally expired, but Blandina was hung on a post and exposed as food for the wild beasts let into the arena. She looked to the others as if she was hanging on a cross, and her prayers and encouragement to the others inspired the others, who, in their agony, saw their Lord and Savior crucified for them, reminding them that anyone who suffered for the glory of Christ has fellowship forever with the living God. Since the beasts hadn’t eaten her yet, she was taken down from the pole and returned to the gaol for another day. Attalus had to walk about the arena wearing a placard which read This is Attalus the Christian while the crowd heaped its fury upon him. However, the governor learned that Attalus was a Roman citizen, and so he returned him to the gaol while awaiting instructions from Caesar. The witness of Blandina and Attalus inspired those who, in an earlier bout of weakness had denied Christ, returned and stood before the governor confessing their faith in Christ. Alexander, a doctor from Phrygia who had lived in Gaul for many years, returned to confess before the governor. The crowd was furious that someone who had recanted would now confess Christ, and they screamed at him. The governor made him come forward and asked who he was. Alexander answered, “A Christian.” This angered the governor and he was condemned to the beasts. The next day he was taken into the arena with Attalus. Once again, they endured the entire gauntlet of punishments. They died that day. Alexander didn’t make a sound, not even a groan, but communed with God in his heart. When Attalus was placed in the iron chair, he finally cried out while the smell of roasting flesh rose from his body, “Look! Eating men is what you are doing! We neither eat men nor indulge in any malpractices.” They asked him what name God answered to and he replied, “God hasn’t a name like a person.”

To top everything off, Blandina was returned to the arena with Ponticus, a youth of about fifteen years. They were forced to watch Attalus and Alexander being tortured and were constantly told to renounce the Lord, but they stood firm. Of course, this enraged the crowd, and the two were subject to all the tortures which Alexander and Attalus had suffered, and after each horror were commanded to recant, but they held firm. The crowd noticed that Blandina was encouraging Ponticus, and he bravely endured every punishment until he finally gave his spirit back to God. According to Irenaeus’ account, Last of all, like a noble mother who had encouraged her children and sent them before her in triumph to the King, blessed Blandina herself passed through all the ordeals of all her children and hastened to rejoin them, rejoicing and exulting at her departure as if invited to a wedding supper, not thrown to the beasts. Blandina suffered the whips, then the beasts, then the griddle, and then was finally dropped into a basket and thrown to a bull. She was tossed all over the arena, but was totally indifferent to it all; she was communing with Christ and preparing to be with Him. She, too, finally was sacrificed, and the crowd said that they had never known a woman suffer so much for so long.

One might think that this was enough for the crowd, but one would be wrong. Even though the martyrs were now all dead, they still vented their rage on their lifeless bodies. Those who had died in prison, such as Bishop Ponthius, bodies were thrown to the dogs, and the corpses watched day and night so that none of the Christians could take the bodies and bury them properly. Then they took the remains and burned them. Other bodies were left exposed to the elements, the heads removed from the torsos. These, too, were watched and a proper burial denied. After six days of being exposed to every kind of insult and to the open sky, the bodies were finally burnt to ashes and swept into the river, denying any burial. They did this because they thought that, by destroying the bodies, they would defeat God and rob the dead of their rebirth; ”in order that they may have no hope of resurrection, the belief that has led them to bring into this country a new foreign cult and treat torture with contempt, going willingly and cheerfully to their death. now let’s see if they’ll rise again, and if their god can help them and save them from our hands.” Bishop Eusebius, in his History of the Church, writes “So much may profitably be said about the affection of those blessed ones for their brothers who had fallen from grace, in view of the inhuman and merciless attitude of those who later behaved so harshly towards the members of Christ’s body.” Sanctus, Attalus, Alexander, Ponticus, Bishop Ponthius, Blandina and the others were true Christian soldiers, because they fought against the forces of evil which wanted to destroy the followers of Christ. Remember their witness next time you hear someone claiming persecution because they can’t pray at a High School football game or teach Bible stories in a Public School.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Feast of St. Mark, Evangelist

Almighty God, by the hand of Mark the evangelist you have given to your Church the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God: We thank you for this witness, and pray that we may be firmly grounded in its truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings, who publishes peace, who brings forth good tidings of good, who published salvation, who says to Zion, "Your God reigns!"

Mark the Evangelist brought good tidings which continue to change lives. In the NRSV the
ευανγγελιον Μαρκον opens "The beginning of the Good News of Jesus, Christ, the Son of God" while other English language versions use the English word "Gospel" in place of "Good News." From this beginning all other stories of Jesus' life were called Gospels. The gospel attributed to Mark is the earliest of the canonical gospels.

As is usually the case with these early saints, especially the Apostles and Evangelists, we know very little about St. Mark. According to St. Paul's letters and the earliest accounts taken from the bishops Papias, Hippolytus, and Eusebius, John Mark was the cousin of Barnabas. He actually set out with Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey but tuned back for some reason. Paul was so upset with Mark's leaving that he wouldn't let him accompany them on another journey, and the disagreement became so sharp that Barnabas left Paul to go with his cousin Mark. The breach between Mark and Paul was healed later, and Mark spent some time with Paul in Rome, where he also spent time with Peter (another person who aggravated Paul). According to tradition, Peter's recollections of his life with Jesus were the basis for Mark's gospel. There is another tradition that Mark was the young man who lost his sheet at Jesus' arrest and ran off naked.

According to tradition, St. Peter sent Mark from Rome to preach the Good News in the areas around the Adriatic. Every where he went he established Christian communities which became churches. St. Peter then consecrated Mark a bishop and sent him to Egypt. After spending some time visiting the coastal cities of Pentapolis, preaching and baptizing and setting up churches, the Holy Spirit led Mark to the city of Alexandria, a very intellectual city, a city with the largest library in the Greco-Roman world. He started several churches in Alexandria and established a catechetical school. This school produced folks like Clement, Dionysius, and Gregory the Wonderworker. My hero, Origen, taught at that school. Many in authority were unhappy with the spread of Christianity in that city, and set out to murder Mark. He heard about the plot and ordained Anianus bishop, then took-off for Pentapolis again. He strengthened the churches he started there and then traveled throughout Northern Africa, bringing the Good News of forgiveness of sins and the coming of the Reign of God to remote parts of Libya and Ammonicia.

The gospel attributed to Mark is my favorite gospel. Many people are very fond of the mysticism of the Gospel of John, or they love Luke's gospel with its angel visitations, or Matthew's use of Hebrew scripture and exegesis, but I love Mark, and not because it's the shortest gospel! Mark gets right to the point: "This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus, Christ, the Son of God." He starts with John the Baptizer preparing the way of the Lord, he moves on to Jesus' baptism and the start of his ministry. In just a few verses he has Jesus calling disciples and healing the sick, casting out demons and proclaiming the coming of the Reign of God. Mark doesn't need angel visitations to prove that Jesus has a divine nature, and he doesn't need the visit of the Magi to prove that Jesus is a king; for Mark, Jesus is both human and divine because he is the Messiah. Jesus performs miracles of healing throughout Mark's story. Jesus turns everything upside down in Mark's gospel but whenever someone realizes Jesus' true nature, he tells them to keep quiet; this is called the "Marcan Secret." Even though Jesus' miracles showed that he was the Messiah, no one was to say it aloud because Jesus' arrest, death and resurrection would prove that he was the Messiah. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus heals the sick as a sign of the Reign of God, he casts out demons as a sign of the Reign of God, he eats and drinks with sinners and outcasts and proclaims forgiveness of sins as a sign of the Reign of God. Jesus defeats death and rises from the dead as a sign of the Reign of God.

Seeing the Resurrected Christ transformed the lives of the disciples, the life of James, Jesus' brother, and the lives of all who saw him. The witness of these people and the story they told transformed the lives of all who heard it and believed. If Mark was the guy who lost his sheet, he was one of Jesus' early followers and he may have been one of the five hundred who saw the Resurrected Christ at one time. We know that his life was transformed and that he was willing to travel to the Adriatic and Northern Africa to tell the story of Jesus. Mark's life was changed by the Resurrected Christ and he, with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote an account which allows people to meet the Resurrected Jesus to this day. Mark's witness, though his gospel, continues to help transform lives, and his account even helped inspire Matthew and Luke, so the glad tidings he brought were passed on to others through the works of the other Evangelists. Mark wasn't writing an historical document as we in our era understand history; he was writing the Good News of Jesus, Christ, the Son of God. He was writing an account of salvation, not an historically accurate, day-by-day reporting of the life and activities of Jesus. St. Mark was telling the people of his time and in the times to come the story of how God intervened in history, how the Creator of the universe decided to come among the creation and bring it hope, renewal, and the defeat of death. Mark wanted to tell the story of how God became a human being, lived and laughed and loved and suffered among us, ultimately suffering death as a common criminal, yet rose again and changed the lives of those who believed.

Here is an account of the martyrdom of St. Mark, adapted from the Menology of St. Dimitri of Rostov:
"The approaching celebration of Pascha coincided that year with the festival of the pagan god Serapis, drawing scores of idol-worshippers to the city. As St. Mark was celebrating the divine service, a mob of pagans broke into the church and seized their prey. The holy Apostle was bound with a rope and dragged through the streets of the city, as his captors shouted mockingly, 'We're taking the ox to the stall!' He was thrown into prison, his body lacerated by the sharp stones over which he had been mercilessly dragged. That night an angel strengthened him for his final trial. 'Slave of God, Mark, thy name is written in heaven in the Book of Life. Thou hast been numbered among the holy apostles, and thou wilt be remembered unto ages of ages. Thou wilt rejoice with the powers on high, and on earth thy precious relics will be preserved.' Then the Lord Himself appeared and said to the Saint: 'Peace to thee, Mark, My evangelist.'

In the morning the Saint, a rope tied around his neck, was again led through the streets like some dumb beast, accompanied by a great crowd of jeering pagans. Utterly spent, the meek sufferer eventually collapsed and his soul, released from its earthly tabernacle, ascended to heaven. The pagans, not content with having killed the Saint, wanted to destroy also his lifeless body, but they had scarcely lit the bonfire that was to have consumed the body before there was a mammoth thunderclap; the earth shook and the sky loosed a storm of hailstones. The fire was quenched and the pagans dispersed, allowing the Christians to come and collect the sacred remains of their martyred bishop and father in the Faith. These they placed in a stone coffin in the place where they gathered for common prayer."

As Christians, we still meet the Resurrected Christ, and the Resurrected Christ still transforms lives. And we are able to do this because God the Holy Spirit inspired this young Jew, John Mark, to write down the remembrances of St. Peter. Because Mark wrote down the story of the women's visit to the tomb, because he wrote down the stories of Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons and proclaiming the Good News, people are open their lives being transformed by the Resurrected Christ. Mark was a martyr, a witness, and the gospel which bears his name has witnessed to people throughout the centuries.

From Rome St. Mark was sent by St. Peter to preach the Gospel in those regions bordering the Adriatic.  His ministry was fruitful; everywhere churches were established. St. Peter then appointed Mark bishop and sent him to Egypt.

After sojourning for a time in the coastal cities of Pentapolis, and bringing many there out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of faith, the Evangelist was led by the Holy Spirit to sail east to Alexandria.  As he reached the city gates, one of his sandals broke.  A cobbler, in trying to fix it, punctured his hand with his awl.  St. Mark made a paste of some earth mixed with his spittle and applied it to the bleeding wound with the words, "In the name of Jesus Christ Who lives forever, be thou whole!"  Immediately the blood stanched and the wound closed. The grateful cobbler insisted on inviting St. Mark to his home, where he questioned him closely: "Who are you and what is your business, and who is this Jesus Christ?"  St. Mark proceeded to expound the gospel, which so impressed the cobbler that he and his household asked straightway to be baptized. The Apostle took this as an auspicious sign, and he was not mistaken.

There in Alexandria St. Mark established a catechetical school which produced many great apologists for the Faith: Clement, Dionysius (of Alexandria), Gregory the Wonderworker, and others.

The pagan leaders, infuriated by the progressive spread of Christianity in their domain, conspired to kill St. Mark.   On learning of their evil resolve, the Apostle ordained Anianus bishop and fled to Pentapolis.  He strengthened the Church he had established there earlier and brought the Gospel to more remote parts of Libya and to Ammonicia.

Returning to Egypt, St. Mark continued his apostolic labors, rejoicing in spirit at the abundant harvest of souls.   At last, however, the pagan leaders, bitterly resenting his authority, found opportunity to kill him.

The approaching celebration of Pascha coincided that year with the festival of the pagan god Serapis, drawing scores of idol-worshippers to the city.  As St. Mark was celebrating the divine service, a mob of pagans broke into the church and seized their prey.   The holy Apostle was bound with a rope and dragged through the streets of the city, as his captors shouted mockingly, "We're taking the ox to the stall!"  He was thrown into prison, his body lacerated by the sharp stones over which he had been mercilessly dragged.  That night an angel strengthened him for his final trial. "Slave of God, Mark, thy name is written in heaven in the Book of Life.  Thou hast been numbered among the holy apostles, and thou wilt be remembered unto ages of ages.  Thou wilt rejoice with the powers on high, and on earth thy precious relics will be preserved." Then the Lord Himself appeared and said to the Saint: "Peace to thee, Mark, My evangelist."

In the morning the Saint, a rope tied around his neck, was again led through the streets like some dumb beast, accompanied by a great crowd of jeering pagans.  Utterly spent, the meek sufferer eventually collapsed and his soul, released from its earthly tabernacle, ascended to heaven.  The pagans, not content with having killed the Saint, wanted to destroy also his lifeless body, but they had scarcely lit the bonfire that was to have consumed the body before there was a mammoth thunderclap; the earth shook and the sky loosed a storm of hailstones.  The fire was quenched and the pagans dispersed, allowing the Christians to come and collect the sacred remains of their martyred bishop and father in the Faith.  These they placed in a stone coffin in the place where they gathered for common prayer.  Later, in the ninth century, Islamic incursions caused the relics to be transferred to Venice, where they are preserved to this day in the magnificent basilica dedicated to this holy Apostle and Evangelist. Compiled from The Lives of the Holy Apostles (from the Menology of St. Dimitri of Rostov), Holy Apostles Convent; the Life of St. Mark by Nun Barbara in Pravoslavnaya Zhizn, Jordanville; and The Prologue of Ochrid by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, Lazarica Press.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Feast of George, Martyr

Today is the feast of St. George, martyr. George, along with Christopher, was one of the fourteen "Auxiliary" or "Helper Saints", those saints whose prayers were most effective on behalf of humanity. George is the patron saint of several countries, including England, Canada, Ethiopia, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Palestine, and Portugal. At one time there was some doubt about his existence but most historians believe he did exist, although the stories about him are obviously apocryphal. What we do know is that he was born the late third century to a Christian family in Cappadocia. His father was an officer in the Roman army and his mother was from Lydda, a city in Palestine. George's father died when he was very young and he returned with his mother to Lydda where he received his education. He followed in his father's footsteps and became a Roman soldier. He was a good soldier and rapidly rose through the ranks. By his late twenties he gained the rank of Tribunus or Tribune (an elected office), and then Comes, or Count (Companion of the Emperor). He earned the rank Comes while stationed in Nicomedia as a member of the personal guard of the Emperor Diocletian. In the year 303, Diocletian initiated a persecution of Christians throughout the Roman empire, a persecution which was continued by Galerius during his own reign as Emperor (305-311 C.E.). Diocletian's decree stated that those who denied Christ would receive royal honors while those who
refused to deny Christ would be executed. When Comes George received these orders, he "came out" as a Christian, even mocking those who were deluded enough to worship idols. George's refusal to follow orders and his criticism of the royal decree enraged Diocletian, who ordered George's arrest, torture, and execution. After being whipped and tortured on a wheel of swords, George was decapitated on April 23, 303 C.E. Tradition states that the Empress Alexandra and a pagan priest, Athanasius, both witnessed George's martyrdom and were converted by his example, which resulted in their martyrdom, too. George's body was eventually returned to Lydda where his tomb became a place of pilgrimage
and many miracles were attributed to his relics. He was canonized by Pope Gelasius I in 494. The Crusaders returned to Europe with the story of St. George and the Dragon. As far as I can tell, the original references to St. George and dragons have their roots in the Passion of St. George, in which the main antagonist, the governor Dadianus, is also referred to as "the dragon" and "the evil dragon of the abyss" several times in the story. The story of St. George was elaborated in The Golden Legend a collection of the lives of the saints from the Medieval era which is not historically accurate but full of great stories. I'm going to re-tell the story of St. George's martyrdom according to The Passion of St. George. WARNING: LONG STORY FOLLOWS!

Long ago, the governors of the world began a persecution against the Church. They arrested many priests and bishops and dragged them to the altars of idols and tried to force them to offer sacrifice to devils. The governor Dadianus, who had acquired dominion over the four corners of the earth, sent a decree throughout the world stating: "A rumor has come to my ears that He to whom Mary gave birth is the God who alone is to be worshipped and that Apollo and Poseidon and Hermes and Astarte and Zeus and Uranus and Herakles and Scamandros and all the other gods are not to be worshipped at all, only this Jesus. Therefore I call all the governors of the world to come to me to learn the decision of my power in this matter. We will be putting this rumor to rest!" So the seventy governors of the world and their entourages came before Dadianus. Dadianus demanded that all the instruments of the torture chamber be brought before the governors: the brazen bed, the bone smashing choppers, the iron rods, the wheels with knives fixed to them, the wooden horses, the iron gloves, the wooden gloves, the tongue-slitting knives, the tools for pulling out teeth, the iron bone-borers, the sharp saws, and all other implements of Cruel Torture (they forgot the Water Boards). And Dadianus swore an oath, saying: "Anyone who refuses to worship the gods will be tortured and killed. I will break in the towers of their hearts, I will smash their heads, I will cut out their brains with sharp knives, I will saw off their shin bones, I will tear open their bodies and I will cut their limbs from their bodies." This frightened everyone, of course, and even those who had considered becoming martyrs had second thoughts, and a whole three years went by without anyone daring to say "I am a Christian."

A young tribune from Cappadocia named George had come to the city to be made a count, but when he saw the governors worshipping idols he decided to become a soldier for Jesus the Christ and resigned his commission, sold all he had and gave the proceeds to the poor, and then came before the governors and said "I will only worship the One God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!" Dadianus said, "Everyone must sacrifice to Apollo, the saviour of the world, and to the gods, or they will be punished. Who are you and where do you come from?" George said, "The chief name I bear is 'Christian,' I am a Cappadocian by birth and was a soldier in a famous company. I performed my duties as tribune satisfactorily in Palestine. Who are the gods you would force me to worship, O king?" Dadianus replied, "Apollo and Poseidon." George responded, "I will speak for the righteous ones and against your dead gods, not for your sake, O Evil Dragon, or for the sake of your fellow governors, but for the sake of all the people here present who need to hear the truth. Whom would you have me honor, O king; Peter, the chosen one of the Apostles, or Apollo, who corrupts the whole world? Elijah the Tishbite who was an angel on the earth and was taken up to the gates of heaven, or Scamandros the sorcerer who led people astray and committed adultery with Demeter? Tell me, O king, to which of these would you give judgment: Samuel, who prayed to God and obeyed his commandments, or to Poseidon the destroyer of the ships of the sea? Shall I honor Antaeus and Herakles, or the martyrs and prophets who wear crowns? Would you give judgment to Jezebel the slayer of prophets, or to Mary the Virgin Mother of my Lord, Jesus, Christ? Be ashamed, O king, for the things which you worship are not gods but deaf idols!"

Well, this was not what Dadianus wanted to hear, and, true to his word, he demanded that George be arrested. He commanded that George be hung on the wooden horse and tortured until his "bowels flowed out upon the ground." Then the soldiers laid him out and beat him with leather whips until the flesh of his body was torn in shreds, then they sprinkled salt upon his wounds. THEN they excoriated his body with hair sacks until his blood ran like water, but George was patient under these sufferings.

That night the Lord appeared to George and said, "Be strong and of good cheer, beloved George, for I will give you the strength to bear all these sufferings. I have made you lord over these seventy governors, and what ever you say shall happen to them. Look: you will die three times and I will raise you up again, but after the fourth time I myself will come upon a cloud and take you away to a place I have prepared for you. So be strong and do not be afraid for I am with you." Then Jesus embraced George and he and the angels returned to heaven.

The next morning Dadianus demanded that George be brought before him. George was singing "O God make speed to save us; O Lord make haste to help us!" He looked at the governor and said, "Governor, my Lord, Jesus Christ, and I have come before you and your stone Apollo." The soldiers didn't like his attitude and grabbed George, whipped him with leather straps and threw him back into prison. Dadianus could see that he had a challenge on his hands, so he put out a call for a sorcerer strong enough to fight George. A sorcerer named Athanasius came and answered the call and said, "O king, live forever! There is nothing I am not able to do!" As proof, he had an ox brought before him. He whispered a few words into the ears of the ox, and the ox was split in two! Scales were brought in and the parts of the ox weighed, and they were exactly equal in weight. Dadianus called for George and said, "George, you must vanquish Athanasius or he will vanquish you. You must kill him or he will kill you." George said to Athanasius, "Hurry brother, and do what ever you plan to do to me, because I see grace drawing near to you." Athanasius had an interesting technique: he took a cup, washed his face over it,
invoked the names of demons over the cup and handed it to George to drink. George drank from the cup and nothing happened. Athanasius said to Dadianus, "Let me try again, and if I fail, I will become a Christian." He took another cup, washed his face over it, and invoked the name of demons even more evil than the first, gave the cup to George, who drank it without anything evil taking place (well, it probably didn't taste very good). Athanasius said, "George, you have the cross of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came into the world to save sinners; have mercy on my soul and give me the seal of Christ." When Dadianus heard that, he had Athanasius taken out and martyred, and threw George back in prison. This would become a pattern for the next few days.

The next morning George was brought before Dadianus. The governor had a huge wheel equipped with sharp nails and stakes. The upper part of it was like the edge of a knife while the bottom part was like a sharp two-edged sword. George looked at the wheel and thought, "Well, I'm not coming out of this alive!" Then he thought, "George, why did you let that fear enter your mind? Remember what Jesus said, that he is with you!" He looked up towards heaven and prayed one of those long prayers which are actually sermons for which the saints in these stories are famous. As soon as he finished his prayer and said "amen!" the soldiers threw him on the wheel, which went straight to work and broke his body into ten pieces. Dadianus turned to the governors and said, "Remember, guys, there is no god other than our gods: Apollo and Hermes and Zeus and Athene and Scamandros and Hephaistos and Herakles and Poseidon, from whose hands kings receive power. Where is the God of George? Where is this Jesus? Why hasn't he come and delivered him from my hands?" And he commanded that George's bones be taken outside of the city and thrown into a dry pit so that the Christians couldn't find them and build a martyrium over the spot, therefore attaching the guilt of the murder on the governors' hands. It was time for dinner and the seventy governors all gathered to eat. While they were in the banquet hall there was a great earthquake and the sky became dark and storms were on the sea. The archangel Michael blew his trumpet, and the Lord Jesus appeared on his Chariot of Cherubim and stood at the edge of the pit. Jesus sent Michael down into the pit, where Michael reassembled George's body. Jesus took George by the hand and filled him with life. He then embraced George and returned to heaven with his holy angels.
George went straight to the banquet hall and stood before the governors. "Do you know who I am?" he asked. Dadianus said, "I don't know. Who are you, then?" He responded, "I am George whom you had slain yesterday because you despise my God, the God who could destroy you in a moment!" Dadianus looked at George and said, "You aren't George; you are his ghost or shade or something." But general Anatolius, who knew George, said, "This really is George, who has risen from the dead!" He and his entire company, some three thousand and nine men,
(and one woman from the multitude) were converted and believed in Christ. Of course, they did not make any points Dadianus, who had them all martyred. Then, angry that his dinner had been disturbed and that he had been shamed with George returning from the dead, he had George tied to an iron bed, poured molten lead down his throat, drove sixty nails into his head into the bed. THEN he had a great stone chiseled out to fit over his head, fastened it with lead, and rolled him from a high place, which severed his bones one from another. George bore these tortures with fortitude. Dadianus had the soldiers remove the stone, hang George upside down with a large stone tied to him, and then had a huge fire lit under him. THEN they threw him into a bronze bull full of nails which revolved and crushed his body but didn't kill him. The evening's dinner theatre being finished, George was tossed back into prison while Dadianus decided what to do next.

That night Jesus and the angels appeared once again to George. Jesus reminded George that he had already died once and that Jesus had raised him, and that he was to die two more times and Jesus would raise him two more times, but the fourth time Jesus would come and take him to the place he made for him. He told George that the governors would torture him for seven years, but to be strong and of good cheer. Then he and the angels returned to heaven. George, of course, was inspired by the Lord's visit.

The next morning George was brought before the governors again. A governor named Magnentius said, "George my boy, we governors need a sign which will prove that your God is the true God" (I guess George's resurrection wasn't enough!). He continued, "If you are able to do what we ask, we will all believe and become Christians." George asked what he wanted him to do. Magnentius said, "You see we have seventy thrones here, all with wooden legs; some made of the wood of fruit trees and others from trees with leaves. If you can cause the legs to bud, those from fruit trees with fruit and the others with leaves, we will believe you."
So George got down on his knees and prayed one of those long prayers for which he was getting known. When he said "Amen," the chair legs began to bear fruit and leaves. Magnentius, being a jerk, said, "Herakles is a great god! He can manifest his power in dry wood!" George said, "How can you compare this blind and dumb idol Herakles with the God who made the heavens and the earth, who created all that exists and could destroy you in a moment?" Then Dadianus appeared and said, "Okay George, I've got it worked out; I know how I will destroy you!" And he had George sawed in two with a great saw(!). Well, George died instantly. Then, being the extremist he was, Dadianus had George's body thrown into a cauldron full of hot, molten lead, pitch, bitumen, and animal fat and had it all heated to a high heat until it all melted together, including George's body. Then he had his soldiers break the cauldron into pieces and the pieces taken outside the city and buried
so that the Christians couldn't find any remains and build a martyrium. While the soldiers were walking away there was a great trembling in the air and an earthquake and Jesus and the angels came down from heaven and stood over the place where the cauldron was buried. Jesus said to the angel Zalathiel "Bring up the cauldron." Zalathiel laid the cauldron pieces on the ground and Jesus said, "O George, my chosen one, arise! For I am he that raised up Lazarus from the dead, and now I command you to arise and come forth from the cauldron and stand upon your feet, for I am the Lord your God!" And immediately George arose as if he had suffered no pain at all, and Jesus said, "George, be strong and of good cheer. There will be great joy in heaven because of your contest. Remember, I am with you. You're going to die two more times!" And Jesus and the angels returned to heaven.

George headed back to town and went about the city teaching about Jesus, and he even performed quite a few miracles, which we can discuss another time, as this is going on and on. Of course, once Dadianus heard George was alive again AND that he was teaching and performing miracles, he had George arrested and flogged without mercy until his flesh was in pieces AND had a fire lit under him AND placed vessels of fire on his head and THEN hung him over iron pots of fire until he died. THEN he had his attendants take what was left of George's body to Mount Siris where the birds would devour his flesh. As the attendants were walking down from the mountain, there was thunder and lightening and the whole mountain shook, and Jesus and the holy angels came on a cloud, and Jesus said, "O excellent and chosen one, rise up from where you lie!" George rose up, dusted himself off, and chased after the attendants saying, "Hey, wait for me and I'll go back with you!" When the attendants saw George coming up behind them, they were astounded and fell to their knees and asked for forgiveness and for the seal of Christ. George baptized them all, and when they came before the governor they all said, "We are Christians!" to which Dadianus responded by having them all tortured and killed. Once again, Dadianus had George arrested. George decided to trick Dadianus and the governors, and he told them that, after being killed three times and tortured for the past seven years, he would finally do what they wanted.
They said, "We want you to worship Apollo and Herakles." George said, "Okay, I will." Dadianus was overjoyed and kissed George and brought him back to the palace and introduced George to his wife, Alexandra, the Queen. Then he went off and left the two alone (?!?). George spent time talking with her and converted her. Then George asked to be taken to the idol of Apollo. He challenged the demon which inhabited the idol. The demon made the idol get up off its pedestal and walk down the steps to confront George. They had a bit of a theological tiff, and then George stamped the ground with his foot and the abyss opened up and the idol and demon were cast into the pit.

When Dadianus heard that George had converted the Queen, and had destroyed the idol of Apollo, he had George condemned to death once again (novel idea!). George came rejoicing to site of his impending execution. The seventy governors and their entourages were gathered there to watch. George said to the soldiers who were holding him, "Brothers, let me pray for the seventy governors who have tortured me for the past seven years." George looked into heaven and said, "O God, who sent fire from heaven to Elijah to devour the prophets of Baal, I pray that you will send the same fire and devour these governors and those around them that none will be left alive. Thine is the glory for ever and ever, Amen." And fire came from heaven and burned up the seventy governors AND all their armies and attendants, the entire entourage, some five thousand people! Then George prayed that his name would heal all those inflicted by unclean spirits. When he was finished with his prayer, the Lord Jesus and the holy angels appeared to him and said, "Come up now into heaven and rest yourself in the dwelling which I have prepared for you in the kingdom of my Father. O excellent George, I will fulfill every thing which you have requested and many other things even greater than these." Then George said to the executioners, "Come and do what you have been commanded to do" and he stretched out his neck and they chopped off his head, and water and milk flowed forth (which is pretty weird!). And Jesus took George's soul and embraced it and took it up to heaven.

So, there you go! That's the story of the Passion of St. George, somewhat abbreviated, as you don't have all day to be reading blogs!

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