Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (The Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary)

¡Feliz Día de Madres a todos mis amigas en Costa Rica!
I don't believe in a three-tiered universe, and I don't believe in the literal interpretations of the Ascension. I don't believe in the Assumption; I prefer the term "the dormition." However, I have no problem at all with honoring the Theotokus (my Nestorian tendencies aside). Instead of writing a hagiography today, I'll share some poems and paintings I've found in the intertubes.

O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


The Dormition of the Theotokus

Mary's Assumption
There was silence in heaven, as if for half an hour-

Isaiah's coals of wonder sealed the lips

Of Seraph, Principality and Power,

Of all the nine angelic fellowships.

The archangels, those sheer intelligences,

Were silent, with their eyes on heaven's door.

So must our fancy dower them with senses, 

Make them incarnate in a metaphor.

There was silence in heaven as Mary entered in, 

For even Gabriel had not foreseen

The glory of a soul immune from sin

Throned in the body of the angels' Queen.

Blessed be God and Mary in whose womb

Was woven God's incredible disguise. 

She gave Our Lord His Body.
In the tomb 
He gave her hers again and bade her rise.

Bright from death's slumber she arose, the flush 

Of a chaste joy illumining her cheeks;

Among the motherless in heaven there was a hush

To hear the way a mother laughs and speaks.

Eye had not seen, nor ear of angel heard, 

Nor heart conceived - until Our Lady's death - 

What God for those that love Him had prepared

When heaven's synonym was Nazareth!

Her beauty opened slowly like a flower, 

Beauty to them eternally bequeathed.

There was silence in heaven; as if for half an hour

No angel breathed.
Alfred Barrett (1906-1985) 
Lentfoehr, Therese, editor. I Sing of a Maiden. New York: Macmillan Company, 1947.


Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) The Assumption of the Virgin

Memories of the Assumption
They bore her in a reverent group

To a holy place,

Left her body in the earth -

Her body, "full of grace".

But Thomas, tardy, slow of foot,

Absent when she died, 

Spent with sorrow, craved to see 

Her of the Crucified.

There was a swift intake of breath,

A hurried silent prayer:

Startled they opened the new-made tomb

To find but lilies there.
Sr. M. Angeline 
Robert, Cyril. Our Lady's Praise in Poetry. Poughkeepsie, NY: Marist Press, 1944.


Bartolome Murillo (1618-1682). Assumption of the Virgin.

The Assumption  

No painter ever caught the magic other going--

This was a matter of an inward growing,

Simple and imperceptible as thought.

It was no pageant wrought

Of sounding splendor, welter of gold bars

Of molten day, mad stars,

Flurry of quick angels' winging,

Bursts of their laughter ringing
In wild bliss.

The simple fact is this:

Love conquered at long last.

Her eager soul fled fast

With a great gladness like a song

Unto to her Spouse above,

And her pure flesh would not be parted long

For sheer love.
by Joachim Smet O.Carm


Raffaello. The Coronation of the Virgin

Friday, August 10, 2018

Feast of Laurence, Deacon, Martyr, and Patron Saint of Smart Alecks


Almighty God, you called your deacon Laurence to serve you with deeds of love, and gave him the crown of martyrdom: Grant that we, following his example, may fulfill your commandments by defending and supporting the poor, and by loving you with all our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

St. Laurence was one of the most popular saints of the Early Church and his popularity has lasted even to the present day. His tomb was a place of pilgrimage for the fourth century on, and the Emperor Constantine erected a chapel over the grave of Laurence; it is now the site of the church of St. Laurence-outside-the-Walls in Rome. What I like about St. Laurence was that he was a bit of a smart-aleck; when you read his story you will learn that he was not one to be overwhelmed with respect for the authority of the Roman Empire.

Laurence was one of seven Deacons in the Church in Rome; their Bishop was Pope Sixtus II, who was also martyred and is considered a saint. Deacon Laurence was in charge of the material goods of the Church, and he was also a kind of Church Archivist; he had a list of all the members of the church in Rome. In the year 258, during the reign of the Emperor Valerian, a persecution broke out in Rome. This persecution was directed primarily towards the clergy and the laity of the upper classes. All properties used by the Church were confiscated, and Christian assemblies were forbidden. On August 4, 258, Pope Sixtus and six of his deacons were apprehended in the catacombs. The catacombs were underground burial places, very much like caves, all connected by tunnels which extended for hundreds of miles, where the Christians buried their dead. They would also hold prayers for the dead in the catacombs and would celebrate the Eucharist in the catacombs on the anniversary of the death of a martyr. Pope Sixtus and six deacons were arrested and taken off to be executed. According to an account by St. Ambrose, the fourth century Bishop of Milan, when Laurence saw his bishop being taken away by the police, he followed him and called out to him, saying, "Father, where are you going without your son? Holy Priest, where are you hurrying to without your Deacon? You have never offered sacrifice without an attendant. Are you displeased with me, my Father? Have you found me unworthy? Prove, then, whether you have chosen a fitting servant. To him to whom you have trusted the distribution of the Savior's blood, to him whom you have granted fellowship in the partaking of the Sacraments, why do you refuse this person a part in your death?" Pope Sixtus replied, "I am not leaving you or forsaking you. Greater struggles yet await you. We old men have to undergo an easier fight; a more glorious triumph over the Tyrant awaits you, young man. Don't cry; after three days you will follow me." Pope Sixtus II and four deacons were martyred in the catacombs.

The Prefect of Rome had heard that the Church in Rome had a huge treasure hidden away and he wanted it to pay his soldiers. He ordered Laurence to bring the treasure of the Church to him. Laurence told him that it would take three days to gather the treasure together, and the Prefect gave him that much time. Laurence went throughout the city, gathering up the poor, the crippled, the blind, the widows and orphans that the Church supported. Three days later Laurence assembled them all in front of the palace of the Prefect, and then called him out "to see the wondrous riches of our God." When the Prefect saw the poor and ill before him, he was not amused. He ordered that Laurence be executed. A huge grill was prepared over a slow coal fire so that the execution would be slow and painful. Laurence was tied to the grill and put over the fire. As is often the case with the martyrs, his love for Christ filled him with strength and he lasted a long time; in fact, at one point he said, "Turn me over; I'm done on this side!" Just before he died, he said, "It's cooked enough now." He then prayed that the city of Rome would be converted and that the message of Christ would spread throughout the world. He perfected his martyrdom on August 10, 258.

One of the earliest documents commemorating the martyrdom of St. Laurence is the Hymn in Honor of the Passion of the Blessed Martyr Laurence composed in the year 405 by Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, a Christian from Spain. However, the account by St. Ambrose of Milan is earlier and is part of a treatise he wrote in the year 391 entitled On the Duties of the Clergy. but Prudentius' account is more complete. Let me share some of it with you:
First of the seven ministers, who nearest to the altar stand,
Levite in holy orders high and eminent above the rest.
He guarded well the sacred rites and kept in trust with faithful keys
The precious treasure of the Church, dispensing riches vowed to God.

The comes the section on Sixtus:
The Pontiff Sixtus, from the cross, on which he hung saw at its foot
His deacon Laurence weeping sore, and these prophetic words he spoke:
"Let tears of sorrow cease to flow at my departure from this life;
My brother, I but lead the way, and you will follow in three days."

Here are the stanzas about Laurence and the Prefect:
"Our church is very rich," he said, "I must confess that it has wealth;
Our treasuries are filled with gold not found elsewhere in all the world."
He hastens through the city streets, and in three days he gathers up
The poor and sick, a mighty throng of all in need of kindly alms.
He sought in every public square the needy who were wont to be
Fed from the stores of Mother Church and he as steward knew them well.

The Prefect deigns to follow him; the sacred portal soon they reach,
Where stands a ghastly multitude of poor drawn up in grim array.
The air is rent with cries for alms; the Prefect shudders in dismay,
And turns on Laurence glaring eyes, with threats of dreadful punishment.
"These poor of ours are sick and lame, but beautiful and whole within.
They bare with them a spirit fair and free from taint and misery.

These humble paupers you despise and look upon as vile outcasts,
Their ulcerous limbs will lay aside and put on bodies incorrupt.
When freed at last from tainted flesh their souls, from chains of earth released,
Will shine resplendent with new life in their celestial fatherland.
Not foul and shabby or infirm as now they seem to scornful eyes,
But fair, in radiant vesture clad, with crowns of gold upon their heads."


As I said earlier, the Prefect was not amused by Laurence's little joke and ordered that Laurence be executed:
Thus spoke the Prefect, at his nod forthwith the executioner
Stripped off the holy martyr's robes and laid him bound upon the pyre.


Prudentius says that the martyr's face was luminous and that it shone a glorious light that was only noticed by the baptized.
The poet then presents the final moments of the life of St. Laurence:
When slow, consuming heat had seared the flesh of Laurence for a space,
He calmly from his gridiron made this terse proposal to the judge:
"Pray turn my body, on one side already broiled sufficiently,
And see how well your Vulcan's fire has wrought its cruel punishment."


The Prefect bade him to be turned. Then Laurence spoke: "I am well baked,
And whether better cooked or raw, make trial by a taste of me."
He said these words in way of jest; Then rising shining eyes to heaven
And sighing deeply, thus he prayed with pity for unholy Rome.

Thus ended Laurence's fervent prayer, thus ended, too, his earthly life:
With these last words his eager soul escaped with joy from carnal chains.
Some noble Romans, who were led by his amazing fortitude
To faith in Christ, then bore away the hero's body from the scene.


In his second letter to the Christians in Corinth, St. Paul said, "The point is this: those who sow sparingly will also reap sparingly, and those who sow bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do as they have made up their minds to do..." Laurence made up his mind to serve Christ, to care for the sick, the poor, the hungry, and the naked, and he saw them not as the needy, but as the treasure of the Church. He did sow bountifully, and his witness unto death made a profound impression on many in Rome. His prayer for the conversion of Rome was answered when, in a mere seventy or so years after his martyrdom, the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Toleration and began to show favor upon the Church and the persecutions, at least in Rome, ended. May we all have the eyes of St. Laurence and see the poor as the "wondrous treasure of our God."

St. Laurence, Super Hero!

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Feast of St. Christopher, Martyr

According to the official calendar, today is the feast of St. James the Apostle, brother of John and member of the Inner Circle of the Twelve. However, I was once the Rector of Parroquia San Cristóbal, the Parish of St. Christopher, and today is also the feast of St. Christopher, martyr. When I first came to San Cristóbal, I figured that we were named after a non-existent saint. In the Roman tradition, St. Christopher was very tall, very strong Roman man, originally named Offero, who became a Christian and vowed to serve Jesus. He sought out a holy hermit, who told him that he could best serve Jesus by helping people cross the river, which as very swift and dangerous. Offero started carrying people across the river on his back. One day a small child came to be carried across the river. While crossing the river, Offero noticed that this passenger was heavier than anyone he had ever carried, which didn't make any sense since he was a little child. The child revealed that he was actually Jesus, the Christ, and his heaviness was due to carrying the sins of the world. Jesus then baptized Offero and named him Christopher. It's an easy story to discount.

I started wondering if there were any Greek sources regarding Saint Christopher, and I did some research. I learned that a Saint Christopher actually did exist, that he was a soldier who was martyred around the year 308 in Antioch. I even found three “Acts of St. Christopher” and read them. I no longer believe that my parish is named after a non-existent saint, we are a parish named after a fourth-century African martyr.



St. Christopher was a member of the north African tribe of the Marmaritae. He was captured by Roman forces during the emperor Diocletian's campaign against the Marmaritae in late 301/early 302 and was transported for service in a Roman garrison in or near Antioch in Syria. He was baptized by the refugee bishop Peter of Alexandria and was martyred on 9 July 308.
Bishop Peter arranged for the transport of his remains back to Marmarica in 311. The name “Christopher” means Bearer of Christ and was probably the name he took on at baptism. According to the various Acts of St. Christopher, his original name was Reprebus which is probably a corruption of the name Reprobus, which means “wicked” in Latin. So at baptism, a man called wicked became a man who bears Christ. But ‘Christopher’ may have been an honorific title, and some scholars believe that Christopher’s actual name may have been lost and that he is really identifiable with the Egyptian martyr known as St. Menas. Christopher was martyred for refusing to sacrifice to the emperor. His memory was preserved in Antioch, but his relics were transported to his homeland and that is where is original cult was located. There are icons of St. Christopher and they are not like the image on the Roman Catholic medals. The images of St. Christopher I've posted here are of a man with the head of a dog! The Greeks used to refer to those lands outside of their civilization as being inhabited by cannibals and dog-headed people, and since Christopher was from North Africa, most probably the nation we call Libya today, some must have said he came from the land of dog-headed cannibals. The authors of the Acts of St. Christopher took this reference literally, and one account carries this description: There was a certain man who, since he was a foreigner from the land of man-eaters, had a terrible appearance, a dog's head as it were. Another account describes Christopher’s encounter a woman on the street: And while he prayed, a woman came out of the city in order to go and worship the idols, and trembled at the sight of the saint. Her face dropped as she saw the the body of a man, but the head of a dog, and she ran to the city and cried out... In this account, the king calls Christopher “Dog-headed and evil troublemaker.”

According to the Acts of St. Christopher, he was taken as a soldier from his home in North Africa and ended up in the Syrian city of Antioch. A persecution was under way, and the soldier Reprebus had recently converted and become Christopher. He was protecting some Christians who were being arrested. He covered his dog-head with the sleeves of his cloak and while being beaten by the arresting officer, said, “I am possessed by Christ, I have been overcome by the Savior, and I am not able to do anything to you. However, if you exasperate my heart, you will not remain in my presence, nor will your corrupt king." The soldier ran off and told the king what had happened: "There is a certain man of terrible appearance, one who towers over most men, who appeared in sight of all the people when the edict was being published by the governor. In fact, who could explain the appearance of this apparition, except perhaps that the God of the Christians heard their prayers and sent him to help them? Unless you hurry and kill him he will turn all from the sacrifices of the gods." The king said to him, "You have a demon, and he appeared to you this way. What did you see? Speak." He replied, "I tell my lord what I saw. His head was terrifying, like that of a dog. His hair was very long, and gleamed like gold. His eyes were like the morning star, and his teeth like the tusks of a boar. Words are not sufficient to tell of his greatness. Moreover, he said the most disgraceful things against you and the gods. So when I heard such talk, I began to beat him. But he said to me, 'I am possessed by Christ, but if I were not, I would kill you and your king.' And I therefore report these things to you my lord king, that you might know that what I say about this man is true." The king said, "Is he one of our men? Why does he say such things?" The other replied, "I do not know, my lord." Then the king gave orders to his soldiers, saying, "Go and get him. If he does not agree to come with you, rip him to pieces, only bring his head to me that I might see what he was like, if it was him or another."



In the meantime, Christopher managed to convert most of the soldiers, who refused to arrest him, but he was eventually taken before the king. He refused to sacrifice to the King’s idols. The king had a great idea in which Christopher would be locked in a room with two prostitutes who would “convert him to their lusts” but instead Christopher converted them to the Lord and they went to suffer their martyrdom after insulting the king and his idols.

The story of their martyrdom is right up there with Perpetua and Felicity in the terrible tortures they endured in Christ’s name. The king was quite angry that his plan didn’t work, so he had a bronze bench placed in the town square and had Christopher nailed to the bench. Then he ordered that plenty of wood be brought, and that a great deal of olive nuts,18 measures of olive oil, and a lot of pitch be poured over the wood, that was how they fueled the fire. The wind blew the flames so that some houses caught fire, Christopher stood up in the midst of the flames and said, “I saw myself standing in the midst of a city, and saw a beautiful man whose face shone like a thousand suns. Then another man with a terrible appearance attacked him. They fought, but the man of light was victorious.” Then ten thousand people watching this said, “There is one God, he in whom saint Christopher believes. He has certainly not labored in vain. He knows the one to whom he fled. And we believe, hoping that we can save ourselves through you, Lord God." And ten thousand people believed at the same time, and cried out, saying, "Almighty God, we believe in you. Take pity on us, Our Savior, and make us your worthy servants, Christ, and do not give us wealth for your booty; but give to your servants, Lord, the bath of immortality and the garment of incorruption, because yours is the glory forever and ever, amen." The next morning Christopher and the ten thousand stood out where the fires had been and chanted psalms, attracting the king’s troops once again. Three priests appeared and baptized the newly converted, while Christopher was arrested. His hair was pulled, he was crushed with huge stones and then dragged about by his arms throughout the streets. Christopher still refused to recant, so the king commanded that he be beheaded and cremated. Christopher was taken to the site where he would be executed. Suddenly there was an earthquake, and Christopher saw the heavens open and the Lord appear. A throne was brought out and the Lord sat on the throne. Christopher said, "How, in word or thought, will I praise you, Lord, that you have deigned to reveal your glory to me your humble servant?" The Lord said to him, "You are more blessed than many, and will be called my most beloved servant, and blessed will those souls be who have merited possession of your relics. I shall heed no longer the sins of those who have approached me through your intercession. I swear by my glory to you that they shall attain paradise." Christopher replied, "If I have found favor in your sight, Lord my God, grant me the confidence to speak to you." The Lord responded, "Say what you will." The saint replied, saying, "Lord, grant my corpse this second favor, that all who possess a part of my relics will merit such grace that no evil spirit nor bodily sickness will cower them, and drive from them every evil desire. Lord my God, whether it be a city, larger area, or small locality where lies some of my relics, let not hail-shower, crop-disease or vine-sterility prevail there; but wherever my relics travel, if those regions have been harmed, grant them the grace of my presence as it were, Lord my God, so that all the inhabitants of those regions may richly receive the produce of their cultivation, and filled with your grace wholeheartedly glorify your holy name. Act thus, Lord my God." As you can see, he was really thinking ahead! And the Lord replied, "It will be as you request. I will not cause you sadness. And so you have come, ascend to your brothers. For they all wonder at you, and my army of angels desires to see you." And when he had said this, he departed, and went to the place which had been prepared and said to the executioner, "Come, son, do what has been commanded. But I adjure you, by the God who watches over earth's orb, not to judge me." And upon saying these things, he crossed himself, and bending his knees he stretched out his neck; and in this manner his head was cut off. He perfected his martyrdom on a Sunday, at the 7th hour.


Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” and while I have trouble believing that ten thousand people were converted even before he was martyred, the fact that the martyrdom of Christopher was remembered tells me that his witness was important to the Christians of Antioch. His relics were returned to his homeland, and a church was named after him in Bythinia in 452.

I always find the stories of the martyrs to be inspiring, and their steadfast faith is a model for all of us. Even though the Acts of St. Christopher are full of stories just as strange as the Roman story of Christopher, we can put away the image of a giant carrying the Christ child, but instead of replacing that image with the "dog-headed" saint, we can replace it with the story of a martyr from North Africa who stood up against his persecutors and prayed that he could still do good for humanity even after his death. This St. Christopher is one who can be a model for us.

UPDATE Last year, JCF, a Dance Party regular, commented that he had read an account which said that St. Christopher was so beautiful that everyone who looked at him was smitten or overcome with lust, so St. Christopher asked God to give him a dog's head to stop all that lustin'. I like that story.

Almighty God, who gave to your servant Christopher boldness to confess the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, and courage to die for this faith: Grant that we may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

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.

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.

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