Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Feast of the Ascension

Hey, guys, it's kinda crowded up here!

In Which Padre Mickey Rambles On And On About The Ascension

Ascension Day is an interesting event to celebrate, and I will admit that this is a feast which carries some complications for a scientific minded, late twentieth-early twenty-first century North American like myself. We have a different understanding of the universe than did the original audience of the story of the Ascension. Many people in that part of the world believed in what we call a three tiered universe: there was the underworld, then our world, then the heavens. They believed that the ground separated the underworld and this world, and that something similar to a large curtain separated this world from the heavens. This curtain had little holes in it, and God’s glory shone through those holes, and that is what we call the stars. In a three tiered universe, certain beings were capable of moving between the three worlds. Greek mythology was full of stories of heroes who visited the underworld, and in our Nicene Creed we say that Jesus "descended into hell." The Church also teaches that he "ascended into heaven." The story of the Ascension appears in the three synoptic gospels, and in the second part of Luke’s work, the Acts of the Apostles. In John’s gospel the Ascension happens of the day of Resurrection and apparently there were no witnesses to the event. Now, when you read Luke’s two versions of this event, and the versions in the other gospels, for that matter, one is led to believe that Jesus floated up in the sky until he got to heaven. In a three tiered universe such a thing is possible, as one simply passes through that curtain which separates the two worlds and one will be at the Throne of the Father in no time. We, however, live in a different time; most of us remember the trips to the moon made by the astronauts of the 1970’s. We live in a time in which the sky is filled with satellites which make it possible for us to communicate with the other side of the planet in seconds. We live in a time when we have seen photographs of the planet taken from outer space. We live in the time of the Hubbell Telescope which has enabled us to see far across "the vast expanse of interstellar space." This knowledge of the universe, and this perspective of the universe, makes it difficult for many of us to think of Jesus as floating up to heaven; I imagine him rising up and up and up and up past the moon, past the asteroid belt, past Jupiter and the large planets, past our solar system, past the galaxies; I guess he would just keep rising and rising forever!!! But fortunately, that is not what Ascension Day is about. If the Ascension is not about Jesus floating up to heaven, what is it about? It has to do with several theological points, it has to do with the theology of the Holy Trinity. The Ascension is the moment when Jesus, the Son, the Redeemer, the Second Person of the Trinity, came into the presence of the Father, the Creator, the First Person of the Trinity. This is the moment when the Son came into the presence of the Father because he had accomplished the task given to him by the Creator. The theology of the Ascension has been an important part of Jesus’ story from the very beginning of the Church. It has always been an important part of the Christology of the Church. The theology of the Ascension has been an important aspect of Christology from the earliest days of the Church for several reasons. The first reason is that the Ascension represents the culmination of the earthly mission of Jesus. His death and resurrection could not have their full effect until Jesus ascended to the presence of the Father, to whom he presented his finished work of atonement. We teach that Jesus had two natures, that he was fully human and fully divine, and it was at this moment that the humanity of Jesus was taken up to God and glorified. This aspect of the Ascension, this aspect of the Resurrection, was very important to the early Christians, and St. Paul speaks of it several times in his letters to the Christians around the Mediterranean. The Ascension is also important because it tells us that the earthly body of Jesus is no longer present within time and space. The earthly body of Jesus now belongs to the Son of God in eternity, that is why the stories have him floating up into the heavens, so that there was no question of Jesus’ body being left behind, otherwise people might say that he wasn’t resurrected, he was revived somehow and then died later. Some people actually do make such a claim; there is a tomb in Japan and a tomb in Pakistan which are supposed to hold the body of Jesus.

The Resurrected and Ascended Jesus is not present to us in the way he was present to the disciples. We now seek the presence of Jesus within our gathering, because he told us that when two or three are gathered in his name, he is in our midst. We now seek his presence in the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, where he is present in the sharing of the bread and wine. We now seek his presence in the faces of the poor, in the faces of those we meet and in the faces of those we love. The Ascension is a theological event, not what we would consider an historical event.

Another important aspect of the Ascension is that the Son had to come into the presence of the Father so that the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, could be sent to us. Jesus promised that after he ascended to the Father, he would send the Comforter, the Advocate, but the Holy Spirit could not come to do its work among us until the Son had ascended to the Father. And because the Holy Spirit has come among us, we are now able to do what Jesus has commanded us to do. The Holy Spirit helps us to love one another as Christ loves us, to love the Lord with all our heart and soul and mind, and to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the prisoner and welcome the stranger. So instead of celebrating Jesus floating up to heaven, let us prepare for the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Feast of Monica, Mother of Augustine

It's Padre Mickey's St. Monnica sermon



O Lord, through spiritual discipline you strengthened your servant Monnica to persevere in offering her love and prayers and tears for the conversion of her husband and of Augustine their son: Deepen our devotion, we pray, and use us in accordance with your will to bring others, even our own kindred, to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Today is the feast of St. Monnica, an African Christian woman of the fourth century. She was the mother of St. Augustine, the great African Bishop, theologian, and heretic fighter. Her story is a good one, about a mother's love for her son, of her faith in God and her trust that her wild boy would return to the Lord. When St. Augustine first published his autobiographical Confessions the story he told of Monnica's faithfulness has been considered an inspiring tale of God's faithfulness in answering the prayer of his children.

Monnica was born in the year 332 in Tagaste, North Africa, in the area we now call the nation of Algeria. She was born into a reasonably well-off Christian family. She was known for having a strong will, and there is a story from her childhood which illustrates this will. She was sometimes sent down to the cellar to draw wine for the family, and fell into the habit of taking secret sips. Pretty soon she was sneaking more than sips, she was taking deep, long, drinks of wine while in the cellar. One day a family slave who had been spying on the little girl denounced her as a drunk, as a wine-bibber, and Monnica, covered with shame, stopped drinking any wine. (I have no idea if there were 12 steps up from the cellar). Not long after this episode she was baptized, and from all accounts lived a life of virtue from then on. Once Monnica reached marriageable age her parents arranged a marriage with a pagan named Patricius. Patricius had a violent temper and was also known to be a "man of dissolute habits." He did not approve of Monnica's faith, and his mother joined his in mocking her for praying and especially for giving alms and caring for the poor. She kept the traditions of the African church which were considered superstitious by many; she kept the Sabbath, or Saturday, as the Lord's Day, and she visited the graves of martyrs with food and drink. These activities drover her husband and mother-in-law crazy! It was not a happy marriage nor, with Patricius' temper, a happy household, but due to Monnica's patience and sweet disposition Patricius did begin to come around and eventually to revere and respect her. Monnica was not the only woman in such a situation, and many of the other women of Tagaste in similar situations held her in reverence and respected her words.

Monnica gave birth to three children: Augustine, the eldest, a second son named Navigius, and a daughter, Perpetua. Because of Patricius' disapproval of her faith, Monnica was unable to have her children baptized as babies, and she was distraught and frightened when young Augustine fell ill. She begged Patricius to let her have Augustine baptized, and he agreed, but then withdrew his consent when Augustine survived the illness. After this all of Monnica's anxiety seemed to rest upon Augustine, but her patience paid off when Patricius was baptized a year later. Of Monnica's three children, Augustine was the trouble maker. Navigius seems to have been an exemplary son, and Perpetua became a religious. Augustine, the most intelligent of the three, was sent to Carthage to become educated and to become a man of culture. Augustine enjoyed studying and was a good student, although he also admitted that he was somewhat lazy, but he also spent a lot of time carousing and drinking and even took a mistress or concubine. At the age of nineteen, much to his mother's horror, he rejected the Christianity of his mother and embraced Manichaeism, a group which historian Peter Brown called "the Bolsheviks of the fourth century." He returned home for some holiday break and, like college students have done for centuries, spent his time upsetting his parents espousing his new-found ideas (he probably brought a semester's worth of dirty laundry with him, too). Monnica became so upset at Augustine's defense of the teachings of Mani that one night she evicted him from the table (Go sit in the car, Auggie!). He was not welcome at home after that until Monnica had a vision which changed her mind. One day as she was weeping over his behavior, a figure appeared and asked her the cause of her grief. She told the stranger about her problem child; the mysterious figure told her to dry her tears, then she heard the words, "Your son is with you." Monnica told Augustine this story, and he replied that since it was her faith which kept them apart, she should give up Christianity. Quickly she retorted, "He did not say I was with you: he said that you were with me." Augustine was impressed by the quick answer and never forgot it. It was another nine years before Augustine would be converted, but Monnica did not lose faith. She continually fasted, prayed, and wept on his behalf. She implored the local bishop for help in winning him over, and he counseled her to be patient, saying, "God's time will come." Monnica persisted in begging him for his help, and the bishop said: "Go now, I beg you; it is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish."

When Augustine was twenty-nine years of age, he decided to move to Rome with his "wife" and son. Monnica was against the move, mostly because she thought he would never be converted if he lived in Rome, but she followed him and his family to the seaport and was planning to go to Rome with them. Once Augustine realized that she was planning to come with them, he told her that he wasn't leaving that day; he was waiting until the winds were right so that a friend of his could sail with them. He talked Monnica into spending the night in a shrine dedicated to St. Cyprian, and, that evening, while she was praying for him, he and his family set sail for Rome. Of course, Monnica was very upset the next morning when she learned that Augustine had given her the slip, but she didn't let it stop her, and she set sail on the next ship for Rome. The ship she took was caught in a storm, and the passengers were sure that they would die at sea, but Monnica's serene confidence in God and God's mercy cheered the passengers and they arrived in Rome safely. Once Monnica arrived in Rome she learned that Augustine had settled in Milan. While in Milan he came under the influence of Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, and had given up Manichaeism, but he wasn't a Christian yet. He had been experiencing major doubts, especially after spending time with Faustus, one of the shining lights of the Manichees, whom Augustine found less than inspiring. Monnica became a good friend of Ambrose, and, just as had been the case in Africa, she was foremost among women in her charity and her devotion to God. Bishop Ambrose was able to persuade her to give up some of the practices of the African church, especially that of visiting the graves of martyrs with food and wine. Under the influence of Ambrose, and in answer to Monnica's prayer, but most of all because of the grace of God, Augustine was converted and was baptized by Ambrose at the church of St. John the Baptist in Milan at the Easter Vigil of the year 387. Upon his conversion, he decided to end his relationship with his mistress, and Monnica was hoping to find an "appropriate" wife for Augustine, but upon the return of his mistress to Africa, he informed Monnica that he would adopt the celibate life and would devote himself to God's service.

Augustine had formed a small group of friends who were planning to adopt the religious life, and he and his mother and his friends decided to return to Tagaste. They spent some time at the seaport in Ostia, preparing to continue across the waters to Africa, when Monnica took ill. When Augustine and his brother realized that she would probably die, they were worried about burying her far from home. Augustine writes: I heard afterwards, too, that at the time we were at Ostia, with a maternal confidence she one day, when I was absent, was speaking with certain of my friends on the contemning of this life, and the blessing of death; and when they—amazed at the courage which You had given to her, a woman—asked her whether she did not dread leaving her body at such a distance from her own city, she replied, "Nothing is far to God; nor need I fear lest He should be ignorant at the end of the world of the place whence He is to raise me up." On the ninth day, then, of her sickness, the fifty-sixth year of her age, and the thirty-third of mine, was that religious and devout soul set free from the body.

One of the propers for today has this passage from John's Gospel, in which Jesus said, "You will grieve but your grief will turn to joy. A woman suffers pain when she gives birth because the time has come. When her child is born, in her joy she no longer remembers her labor because a human being has come into the world. . . I swear to God, if you ask the Father for anything using my name, he will grant it to you."
Monnica loved the Lord and she loved her children, and she especially loved Augustine and prayed for him. She prayed that he would give up his wild ways and return to the Lord. She did not desert her son but continued praying for him and the Lord answered her prayers. Monnica was happy because her son had accepted the Lord, but we can all be happy because the Christian Church received a great Doctor of the Church, a great Saint of Africa whose faith influences us to this day. Monnica's faithfulness gave the Church the blessing of Augustine, and the blessing of her faithful witness.
And that is why we remember her today.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

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.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Gregory the Illuminator, Apostle to Armenia



Almighty God, whose will it is to be glorified in your saints, and who raised up your servant Gregory the Illuminator to be a light in the world, and to preach the Gospel to the people of Armenia: Shine, we pray, in our hearts, that we also in our generation may show forth your praise, who called us out of darkness into your marvelous light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


According to the fifth century History of St. Gregory and the Conversion of Armenia attributed to Agathangelos, Gregory was the son of Anak, who assassinated King Khosrov of Armenia. Khosrov's son, Drtad, was taken to the Greek Territory and raised by Count Licinius. Anak was killed by the princes of Armenia in revenge for the death of Khosrov. The infant Gregory was smuggled to Cappadocia and raised by a Christian family in Caesarea. As a young adult, Gregory hired himself to Drtad as a servant but didn't let Drtad know his parentage. Drtad hated Christians, and when he heard that Gregory was a Christian, he threatened Gregory with all many of tortures and even imprisonment. When Drtad became King of Armenia, he kept Gregory on as his servant. Drtad was a Pagan, and he venerated the goddess Anahid, and he wanted Gregory to do so, too. Agathangelos writes: "He ordered Gregory to venerate her statue, and when Gregory refused Drtad asked him: 'You have served me well these many years. Why in this one matter do you refuse to do my will?' Gregory answered: 'You speak truly. I have served you as God commands us to serve our earthly lords. But He alone is the creator of angels and men, of heaven and earth. We can worship only Him.'

Drtad frowned and said: 'By saying this you render all your service to me completely worthless. I shall punish rather than reward you as I had planned. It will be prison and bondage for you unless you honor the goddess Anahid.' Gregory replied: 'My service to you is not worthless; God values it as He promised always to value our efforts for Him. It is He I seek to please. And if you punish me, I rejoice, for my lord Christ suffered affliction and death, and I will gladly follow Him into death so that I can be with Him in everlasting life. You speak of Anahit, and perhaps demons did once bedazzle men into building temples for them and worshipping them. But I will not worship lifeless objects of stone. We must worship the One who lives and gives life.'"

Drtad asked Gregory to tell him more about the living God, and Gregory "explained that Christ is the Lord of creation and the true light for those in the darkness of idolatry. He exhorted the king to use his intelligence and put away the mulishly stupid devotion to mere images." Drtad didn't like being called "mulish" and responded: "You have insulted the gods and insulted me by calling me stupid for worshipping them. You had the audacity to speak to me as if you were my equal. You said I was stupid as a mule; now you shall feel the burden of such words."

Then the torture begins! Agathangelos writes: he ordered Gregory to be bound and strung up, with a muzzle over his mouth and a heavy block of salt hung on his back. After a week of this torture Gregory was brought before the kin, who said: "Now like a mule you have carried a load. But worse things can happen to you if you further insult our deities." Gregory, however, had not been subdued by his suffering. He told the king that he did not mind tortures, and that only those who worship idols need fear the Lord's wrath. So Drtad tortured him further, hanging him by one foot for seven days. But Gregory passed the time in prayer.

Drtad kept torturing Gregory, and Gregory wouldn't recant. Finally, someone told Drtad that Gregory was the son of Anak, his father's assassin. That was the final straw for Drtad and he had Gregory thrown into a pit for the rest of his life. Gregory lived in this pit for some thirteen years! Drtad continued to persecute the Christians of Armenia. He fell in love with a young nun, Hripsime, and wanted to marry her, but she, being married to Christ, refused. So, after pleading and trying to seduce her, fell back on his usual practice and had her tortured and beaten until death. According to Agathangelos: "King Drtad was not an introspective man, and after a week of grieving over Hripsime's death, he had to have some strenuous activity. He arranged to go hunting, and when the hounds and nets and traps and beaters were all ready, he climbed into his chariot to leave the city for the plain where he loved to hunt. Suddenly, Drtad fell from the chariot, as if struck down by a demon. He began to rave and grunt, like an animal. As their king was crazed, so all the people suddenly seemed to be, and there was chaos and ruin throughout the city and from the highest to the lowest of the king's household."
The Pit

Only one person could solve this problem and he was in a pit. Actually, most people figured Gregory was dead, but they checked anyway. They called, "Gregory, if you're down there, let us know!" They felt a tug on the rope and pulled him up out of the pit. They cleaned him up and brought him to the king. The king knelt before Gregory and asked for forgiveness. Gregory pulled Drtad to his feet and said, "I am a just a man like you. The One who has had mercy on you is your creator, the Lord and Creator of all things." Drtad and his entire family and court were converted but since Gregory was not a priest he could not baptize them. Gregory went throughout Armenia destroying temples and setting up crosses and educating the people about the True God. He then returned to Caesarea to be ordained so that he could serve as pastor to the Armenians. Upon Gregory's return, the entire royal court went down to the Euphrates river and were baptized, 150,000 new Christians! Gregory went throughout the country and baptized multitudes. And that is how Armenia became the first Christian nation.

Gregory eventually went to live the life of a hermit in the wilderness, living in a cave. He died around the year 332.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Feast of St. Joseph


As is usually the situation with the members of Jesus' family, we know very little about Joseph. The gospel texts tell us that he was a carpenter, that he was a descendant of David the king, and we know that he had to go to Bethlehem for the census. We know that he was betrothed to Mary and wasn't too sure about things when he learned that she was with child, and we also know that he was still around when Jesus was twelve years old. Everything else is a guess and is usually something someone made up for a theological or dogmatic reason.

One thing we know about Joseph is that he was obedient; even when he had his doubts about the marriage and his young bride, when angels would appear to him in his dreams and give him instructions, he would follow them. He married Mary even though she was pregnant, and he took his young wife and baby son to Egypt when instructed by an angel in order to save them from the wrath of Herod. We know that Joseph was a devout Jew and that he brought his family to Jerusalem to sacrifice at the Temple. These are the only stories we have from the Bible. But many traditions sprang up involving Joseph over the centuries. There is a tradition that Joseph was an elderly man when he wed Mary. This tradition was probably invented as a means of preventing some from thinking that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus. If Joseph was an elderly man then he probably had lost all interest in sex by the time he and Mary were wed, so he couldn't possibly be Jesus' biological father; plus Mary could remain ever-virgin! There is another tradition that Joseph was a widower and that his marriage to the Blessed Virgin Mary was his second marriage. This idea may have been developed as a means of explaining all those brothers and sisters of Jesus; if Mary was ever-virgin, those other kids must be step-children. Personally, I don't accept those stories; I thin that Joseph was probably in his twenties when he married Mary, and I think that they had at least four sons together and several daughters, too. He isn't mentioned in the texts after the visit of Jesus to his home town because he was no longer important to the story. The Gospels are not histories in the same sense as a book about the building of the Canal is a history; the purpose of the Gospels is to tell the Good News and they are theological documents serving a theological purpose, not an accurate history as we modern people expect in a historic document.

Today's Gospel reading gives us the only story from a canonical source on the childhood of Jesus. There are several non-canonical sources on his childhood and we call them infancy gospels. This story from Luke's gospel is the only story as such in the Bible. In this story Jesus is very precocious, telling his family that he must be about his Father's business. When I head this story as a child, I always liked it because the child Jesus showed-up all the adults, but as a father I have a lot of sympathy for Joseph and Mary, as I know what it is like to raise a precocious child. Raising precocious children can be difficult, but imagine how difficult it must have been to raise the Incarnation! In this story Joseph and Mary noticed that Jesus was missing, they've gone all the way back to Jerusalem to find him sitting in the Temple teaching the Scribes and Pharisees and Teachers, and he doesn't even feel bad about worrying his parents. When his mother scolds him, he says, "Why were you searching for me? Don't you know that I must be in my Father's house?" In the infancy gospels little Jesus turns children who make fun of him into goats and he even raises a child from the dead to clear himself from the accusation that he had pushed the boy off a tower. Raising little Jesus must have been quite a task! Actually, I think that Jesus was probably more like all the other children in the neighborhood; I doubt that he was turning other children into goats and I'm sure he didn't spend his time doing magic tricks. He probably helped his father and learned about carpentry, and he probably helped his mother take care of his younger brothers and sisters. I'm sure that the family of Joseph and Mary and Jesus and his siblings was as normal as all the other families living in Nazareth, a rather typical Galilean family.

Joseph is very important because he gave Jesus and James and Judas and the other children the fatherly influence that they needed to grow up to be the adults God wanted them to be. Joseph must have been a good, loving father, because the image of the father in Jesus' teachings is that of a loving, caring person. There are many people in the world who do not have good fathers; their fathers are uncaring and abusive, and this affects a person's perception of a father and it makes the name "Father" for God a problem, because when these people hear the word "father," they experience fear or loathing. But Jesus understood the word "father" to be a positive word. For Jesus the image of a father is that of a loving, caring, welcoming person and I'm sure that this image had a lot to do with his experience of his earthly father, Joseph.

Joseph was willing to take Mary as his wife even though her condition could bring scandal upon his name. Joseph was willing to pick-up and head for Egypt for a few years in order to protect his wife and infant son. He returned to Galilee, to Nazareth, and there he raised a family and worked as a carpenter and was a model of fatherhood for Jesus and his brothers and sisters. Joseph is a model of dedication and obedience; obedience to God and dedication to his family, and that is why we honor his memory today.

O God, who from the family of your servant David raised up Joseph to be the guardian of your incarnate Son and the spouse of his virgin mother: Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life and his obedience to your commands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Feast of Patrick, Missionary and Bishop



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.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Feast of Perpetua and her Companions, Martyrs at Carthage

O God the King of saints, you strengthened your servants Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions to make a good confession, staunchly resisting, for the cause of Christ, the claims of human affection, and encouraging one another in their time of trial: Grant that we who cherish their blessed memory may share their pure and steadfast faith, and win with them the palm of victory; 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 Saint Perpetua and her companions, Felicitas, Revocatus, Secundulus, Saturninus, and Saturas. They all lived in the city of Carthage, in North Africa, during the late second-early third century. Vibia Perpetua was a young, relatively well-off young widow with an infant. Felicitas and Revocatus were her slaves, but these three, with Secundulus and Saturninus, were catechumens, people studying in preparation for baptism, under the care of the priest Saturas. In those days people who wanted to be baptized had to study for three years. They were also watched closely during that period to make sure that they were sincere about their desire to become Christians, that they had begun to live a moral life, and to make sure that they were not sent to spy upon and betray the Christians to the government. Once a person had finished their three years in the catechumenate, they were baptized at the Easter Vigil.

In the year 202, the Emperor Septimius Severus decreed that there would be no more conversions to Christianity and that everyone must sacrifice to the divinity of the emperor. This required a person to take a little incense and drop it into the sacrificial fire in front of the government priests. Since Christians only believe in the divinity of Christ, they could not and would not participate. Perpetua and her companions were all arrested and put into prison. The conditions in these prisons were terrible and the only way one was fed was if family or friends brought the prisoner food. Visiting prisoners was a very important aspect of being a Christian in those days; Jesus said that when we visit prisoners in his name, we are visiting him, and this was taken seriously by the Christians of that era. Many Christians were being arrested because of their faith, and this had been happening since the earliest days; St. Paul, St. Peter, and almost all of the apostles had spent some time in prison, and St. John was even exiled on the island of Patmos for a while. Not only the leaders of the Church were imprisoned; people like Perpetua, a nursing mother, were locked in filthy cells with shackles on their ankles simply for desiring to be baptized. The martyrs and confessors went to prison willingly rather than betray their faith. in the Letter to the Hebrews, we read: “Recall the former days when you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated... For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised.” These people were spiritual athletes, and they endured these terrible trials for the sake of their faith.

When Perpetua was brought before the Proconsul, she refused to sacrifice to the Emperor and she refused to deny Christ. Her father came and begged her to think of what she was doing; he begged her to think of her little baby, to think of her family name. Here she was, a well-born woman, spending her time with slaves and others. Here she was, a nursing mother, imprisoned with her baby. Here she was, bringing great shame upon her family; all she had to do was offer a little incense to the divinity of the Emperor and denounce this “Christ” and his followers and everything would be all right. But Perpetua would not turn against Christ and the Christian faith. She stood before the Proconsul and her father and said, “I am a Christian.” The Proconsul finally let her father take the baby home with him, and Perpetua was returned to the dungeon. Perpetua and her companions were Montanists, a group who believed strongly in the direction of the Holy Spirit and were given to visions and prophecy. Perpetua experienced several dreams and visions in prison. She dreamed that she climbed a ladder to heaven, to a garden in which she saw those who were martyred before her. She had a vision in which her brother, who had died of cancer, appeared to her healthy and drinking of the water of life; and she also dreamed that she was a warrior, that she became a man and fought the Devil, defeating him to enter heaven. After that last dream, she awoke understanding that she was to fight in the arena, not with the wild beasts, but with the Devil himself.

On the day of March 7, 202, Perpetua and Felicitas, Revocatus, Secundulus, Saturninus, and Saturas, encouraging one another to be brave before whatever pain they may suffer and before whatever awaited them, were led to the arena. There, wild beasts were unlashed upon them: a leopard, a wild boar, a bear, and even a wild steer attacked and mangled them. The steer tossed Perpetua and Felicitas about with its sharp horns but although they were bruised and dishevelled, they held up. Perpetua didn’t even know that she was being tossed about; like so many martyrs, she was in a state of spiritual ecstasy and she cried to the others: “Stand fast in the faith and love of one another. And do not let what we suffer be a stumbling block to you.” Eventually her five companions were killed by the beasts, but Perpetua was still alive. The animals were tired, the crowd’s bloodlust was sated, yet she was still alive. A soldier with a sword was sent to finish her off, but he was inept and unsure and his first blow merely pierced her throat between the bones, leaving her alive. She shrieked with pain, and then took the blade with her hands and guided the sword into her heart. The report of her martyrdom ends: “Perhaps so great a woman, feared by the unclean spirit, could not have been killed unless she so willed it.”

The memory of Perpetua was very important to the Christians in Carthage, and to all the Christians in Africa. The story of her martyrdom infused the African Church with much vigor and it was one of the strongest and most enthusiastic of all the churches in the first five centuries.

In the reading we heard from Matthew’s gospel this morning, Jesus warned the Twleve of the trials to come, but these trials were also experienced, not just by the Twelve, but by regular people like you and I. Jesus said, “They will deliver you up to the tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.” The martyrs of the first three centuries and in the centuries to come all experienced these things. Jesus also warned: “Many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.” This was the experience of the Early Church and it is also the experience of Christians today. We need to be aware fo false teachings like the Prosperity Gospel and we need to be aware of those who create dissent and schism instead of unity and love. Jesus also said, “Those who endure to the end will be saved. And this gospel will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations.” Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions endured to the end, and in just over one hundred years after their deaths, the Emperor Constantine declared tolerance for Christianity and the persecutions in the empire ended. With the backing of the Roman Empire, the Gospel of the Christ spread throughout what they considered the world, and then continued to spread, day after day, year after year, century after century, until it spread even to the Americas, to this isthmus, a world of which Perpetua, Constantine, and the Apostles had no idea even existed. And now, some eighteen hundred years later, we sit here in a church in Parque Lefevre in the Republic of Panamá, hearing the story of the bravery of Perpetua and her companions, sharing the bread and wine as the Christians of her time did, coming together to pray and sing and heal, just as they did. The faithful witness of the martyrs, of people like Perpetua and the others, have made it possible for us to hear the Good News, have made it possible for us to learn of salvation, have made it possible for us to have eternal life. May we all share the bravery and faithfulness of Perpetua, Felicitas, Revocatus, Secundulus, Saturninus, Saturas, and all the martyrs.

I See You!

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