Saturday, August 10, 2019

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


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!

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

The Feast of the Transfiguration


The story of the Transfiguration appears in the three synoptic gospels and it is also mentioned in the second letter of Peter. The event takes place about a week after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One. It takes place during a time of transition: the Galilean ministry of Jesus has come to an end, and he is preparing his disciples for the journey to Jerusalem and the events that will take place there. Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him to the top of a mountain to pray. They must have been very tired, because while they were praying Peter, James and John fell asleep. They awoke to find Jesus’ face and clothing radiating a brilliant white and Jesus was standing with two men. Jesus and these men were discussing his journey to Jerusalem and what would happen there, the fulfillment of his destiny in Jerusalem. Peter, James, and John knew that Jesus was talking to Moses and Elijah, but how they knew this I do not understand. Peter said that it was good to be there and offered to build huts for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Just as he made his offer a cloud settled over them. Then a voice said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Suddenly they saw Jesus standing alone, and they were silent, which is the proper response to such an event.

The disciples knew Jesus as a human being, but this experience must have changed Peter, James, and John’s perception of who Jesus is. They now knew that he was human and divine. At times we forget that the man Jesus had two natures. Sometimes we need a divine Jesus who transcends everything, while other times we need a human Jesus who knows exactly what life in this world with all its joy and sadness, love and pain, is really like.


The Transfiguration was a transcendent, spiritual experience for those who witnessed it. To be alone with Jesus and praying with him, only to see him manifest his glory must have touched the very core of their souls, and they responded with silence. The Psalmist wrote: “Be still and know that I am God” and they were silent in the presence of holiness and divinity. They, just like Moses, experienced God as light and time must have stood still for them; there was nothing but that eternal moment. If you remember the rest of Luke’s account, when they all joined the others at the bottom of the mountain there was a boy with a demon and all manner of trouble was breaking out. They went from the silence and holiness to the noise of everyday life.

I think it is important for us to experience the quiet, holy moments, but as Christians we must be right there in the world dealing with all the problems and craziness which fill this world. I think that God chooses certain people to experience moments of great holiness like the Transfiguration, but not everyone experiences God in that manner. For some reason we do not know, Jesus chose Peter, James, and John to experience the Transfiguration with out the other disciples. It was not because they were better than the others; James and John tried to get ahead of the others and asked to sit on the right and left of Jesus in his kingdom, and Peter deserted and denied Jesus when Jesus needed him the most. God grants some people mystical experiences and while some people seek these experiences all their lives, they never see God as light or have a transcendent moment. Perhaps some people are more inclined towards mysticism, while others are more inclined to experience God in others. God is so large, God is so vast, that we can not even conceive of all the different ways God speaks and interacts with us, and no one way is superior to another. God interacts with us in the way most appropriate to us. Jesus was transfigured in the presence of Peter, James, and John, but Jesus came to save everyone, and he appeared to all the disciples after his resurrection. We need to stay open to every experience God has for us and we need to be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit so that God can work through us. Transcendent experiences are good, but so is experiencing Jesus in those all around us. What is most important is that we love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and that we love our neighbors as ourselves.

O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Feast of St. James the Greater, Apostle

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According to tradition, James travelled, as did the rest of the Apostles, and he is supposed to have gone all the way to Spain to preach the Good News of forgiveness of sins and the coming of the Reign of God, but this claim doesn’t really hold up to historical scrutiny. This claim has been around since the seventh century, and the Spanish claim that his body was transferred to Santiago de Campostela, and, since the Middle Ages, Santiago has been a popular saint in España.

The mother of the Thunder Boys asked that they sit on Jesus’ right and left, and they both said that they would drink of the same cup as Jesus, which was a reference to his suffering and death. We know that James did drink of the same cup as Jesus; James was one of the first of the Twelve to be martyred. He was put to death by Herod, according to the account in the Acts of the Apostles, and when Herod saw that this pleased the enemies of The Way, he also had Peter arrested. These actions continued the persecutions which started with the martyrdom of the Deacon Stephen. James was very much like his brother, John; they were both hot-headed and zealous, but they were willing to do anything for their Lord, and they were both important in starting that community which would become the Church. James drank of the same cup as his Lord, even though he had no guarantee that he would sit on the right or left of his Lord in the Kingdom, and, like all the martyrs, he was a witness of the power of God. I think that James the Great is another example of God working through people we would least expect to be God’s instrument. Here was a fisherman, possibly uneducated, who said “yes” to god’s call and whose life is now an example to us all. He witnessed miracles, he saw the transfigured Christ with Moses and Elijah, he saw the daughter of Jarius brought back from the gates of death, yet he still slept while Jesus prayed in the garden, and he disappeared with the others once Jesus was arrested. Yet, the miracle of the Resurrection and the baptism of the Holy Spirit gave him the strength to travel and preach the Good News, whether he went to Spain or not. And he finally had the strength to die as a witness for his Lord.

The saints are models for us all. We don’t consider them intercessors, we don’t pray to them, but we look a their lives as examples for us of what can happen when one allows the Holy Spirit to work through us. James did serve the Twelve, and for that reason we call him The great. May the life of St. James the Great help us remember that if we are to be first in the Reign of God, we are to be servants to all.

Apendix Here's what our pal Jacobus de Voragine, author of the Legende Aurea (you remember him from the St. Mary of Magdala post the other day) wrote about the translation fo the body of the Apostle James, Son of Zebedee, to Campostela in Spain:

...after the apostle's death, his disciples, in fear of the Jews, placed his body in a boat at night, embarked with him, although the boat had neither rudder not steersman, and set sail, trusting to the providence of God to determine the place of his burial. And the angels guided the boat to the shores of Galicia in Spain, where there was a queen whose name was Lupa, a name which means she-wolf, and which she well deserved by her life.

The disciples laid the body of the apostle on a great stone, which immediately softened as if it were wax, and shaped itself into a sarcophagus fitted to his body. The disciples went to Queen Lupa and said to her: "Our Lord Jesus Christ sends thee the body of His disciple, that thou mayest welcome in death him whom thou wouldst not welcome alive!" And they narrated to her the miracle whereby they had come thither without a rudder nor a steersman, and besought her to appoint a place for the burial of the saint.

Then, as John Beleth relates, she guilefully sent them to the king of Spain, a most cruel man, with the pretext of seeking his permission for the saint's burial; and the king arrested them and threw them into prison. But in the night, when he had gone to rest, an angel opened the prison doors and set them free. As soon as he learned this, the king sent soldiers in pursuit of them; but just as these soldiers were crossing a bridge, the bridge collapsed and the soldiers were drowned. At this report, the king feared for himself and his people, and repented. He sent other men to search for James's disciples, and to say to them that if they would return, he would refuse them nothing that they asked. They therefore went back, and converted the whole city to the faith of Christ. Then they returned to Lupa, to make known to her the kings's assent. The queen was sore distraught at these tidings, and answered: "I have oxen in a mountain place. Take them and yoke them, and carry your master's body whither you will, and build him a tomb!" All this she said in wolfish cunning, for she knew that the oxen were really untamed and savage bulls, and thus she thought that they could not be yoked or harnessed, or if they were harnessed, they would run away, and destroy the car and throw the body to the ground, and kill the disciples.

But no guile avails against God. The disciples, unaware of the queen's ruse, went up into the mountain, where first they encountered a dragon which belched fire; but they held a cross before him, and he was cloven asunder. Then they made the sign of the cross over the bulls, and they became as meek as lambs, allowed themselves to be yoked, and although no man guide them, they drew the saint's body, with the stone in which it was laid, straight into the middle of the queen's palace. Seeing this, the queen was dismayed, believed in Christ, transformed her palace into a church of Saint James, and endowed it munificently. And she passed the rest of her life in doing good works.

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.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Feast of St. Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles

Almighty God, whose blessed Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of body and of mind, and called her to be a witness of his resurrection: Mercifully grant that by your grace we may be healed from all our infirmities and know you in the power of his unending life; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Today is the Feast of Mary of Magdala, the Apostle to the Apostles, a saint whose memory has been much maligned over the millennia by misogynist clergy like Pope Gregory the Great.

Mary of Magdala has become a popular Biblical figure once again, due to the popularity of the piece of junk I should've written and made a million on novel The DaVinci Code. She was a popular figure in the early days of Christianity, too, for different reasons, and some Gnostic groups claimed that she was the leader of the Church rather than James or Peter. We do know that she was one of the women who followed Jesus. According to Luke’s Gospel: And it so happened soon afterward that he traveled through towns and villages, preaching and announcing the good news of God’s imperial rule. The twelve were with him, and also some women whom he had cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary the one from Magdala, from whom seven demons had taken their leave...

For some reason, possibly misogynist or because he felt threatened by the ministry of women, Pope Gregory the Great identified Mary Magdala as the "reformed sinner" or former prostitute in a sermon, and this image has remained in popular imagination. Some mistake her for Mary of Bethany and she has been identified with the woman who washed and anointed Jesus’ feet, but that is not what the scriptures say. According to the scriptures she was healed by Jesus and followed him; she was at the foot of the cross (according to the gospel attributed to John), and she was one of the first to see the empty tomb and the Resurrected Jesus. The story of her weeping at the tomb, her accusations to the one she thinks is the gardener, and then her sheer joy at the realization that she is talking to Jesus is one of the most touching and inspiring of the Resurrection stories.

A heretical-Gnostic understanding of Mary’s place among the Twelve is an important aspect of The DaVinci Code, and it is based on the non-canonical Gospel of Philip, as well as the terrible Life of Mary Magdalen in the Legenda Aurea, a thirteenth-century document by Jacopo di Voragine. According to the Legenda Aurea, Mary was named after a fortress, Magdalum. She and her siblings, Lazarus and Martha, were or noble birth, the children of Syrus and Eucharia. The family was very wealthy, and their riches were distributed amongst their three children: Mary owned the Castle Magdalum, Lazarus received a part of Jerusalem, and Martha received the village of Bethany. Mary became a woman of the streets (?!), Lazarus a knight (!?), and Martha took care of the the possessions of both Mary and Lazarus "with great prudence." So, Mary, whose love of wealth and pleasure had led her to lead a most dissolute life and be known as "a sinner," wandered into Simon the Leper's house while Jesus was visiting and preaching. She walked up to Jesus, washed his feet with her tears, dried them with her hair and anointed them. Simon protested, Jesus defended her action and forgave her sins. After the Lord was crucified, resurrected, and ascended to heaven, Mary traveled with St. Maximus, under the orders of St. Peter. She and Lazarus and Martha and Maximus traveled as missionaries for a while. Eventually Mary decided to retire to the Forest: Mary Magdalene desired meditation and went into the forest wilderness where she lived incognito for thirty years in a place prepared for her by the hands of angels. In this place there were neither fountains nor trees nor grass. This indicates that our Lord did not want to sustain her with earthly food but with heavenly nourishment. Every day she was led to the heavens by the angels—seven times for the seven hours of prayer—and with her own ears she heard the chants of the heavenly hosts. And every day she was taken back to earth with this sweet nourishment so that she never needed earthly food. After thirty years of living on "spiritual nourishment", she died and was buried in Aix, in Southern France, by Bishop Maximus.

There are several verses in the Gospel of Philip which claim that Mary Magdala was the mate of Jesus, that they were man and wife, and that they were also united spirits and had to marry for some cosmic reason. That Jesus and Mary were married is also the basis of a book titled Holy Blood, Holy Grail which was on the New York Time’s Best Seller list a few years ago, along with The DaVinci Code. The authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, ("historians" who chucked the historic method out the window for this book) claim that after the crucifixion, Mary Magdala, pregnant with Jesus’ child, left Palestine for Gaul, and that the royal family of France are the descendants of Jesus. Now, I don’t have any problem with the idea that Jesus may have been married, and I have no problem with the idea that he could have been married to Mary of Magdala; I have no theological opposition to the idea, but the idea that the Royal Family of France, or the Royal Family of any country is descended from Jesus is something with which I have a lot of trouble! I don't believe that the Emperor of Japan is descended from the Sun Goddess, either.

There is a non-canonical book called the Gospel of Mary, and it claims that Mary Magdala was a leader of the early church, and I’m sure that she was a leader, but I don’t think that Jesus loved her more than the others, as is claimed in that gospel. Mary of Magdala is regarded as the equal of an Apostle in the Eastern Church, and I think that this makes sense as she was the first person to witness the Resurrected Jesus. As far as the DaVinci Code’s claim that she was the “personification of the Divine Feminine” in the earliest days of Christianity, I must disagree, as the Divine Feminine is manifested in Sofia, or Wisdom, also a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

Here is a poem about Our Mary of Magdala written by Christine Schenk, CSJ.

Mary of Magdala
What say you, Magdalen?
Fellow traveler, Jesus' friend,
Courageous companion
Who accompanies
Death's bitter-shroud end.
No prostitute you,
A Woman Jew
And Apostle.
Denigrated, despised
by jealousy, fear, and more.
Betrayed by your brothers,
whose spin control
requires you go from
WomanWitness to Whore.
And besides, it would still be alright.
(Unlike many a man-creature,
you well understand the
odd God ways of the Teacher).
Did you blame yourself, my sister,
for their failure to comprehend
All of Love's bold claims
for
Newborn Jesus-Way ?
Mary, WomanWitness, WomanFriend,
What have you to say?
Only

"Rabbo'ni!"

Christ comes again.
Amen, Alleluia, Amen.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

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 30, 2019

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.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Feast of Gregory of Nazianzus


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

Today we remember Gregory of Nazianzus, Bishop and Theologian. He was one of the Cappadocians, three men who were very important in the battles between the Arians and the catholics. Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, and his brother, Gregory of Nyssa, all preached and wrote against the Arians and helped develop the orthodox understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity and the place of the Second Person in the Holy Trinity.

Cappadocia is an area in the nation we now call Turkey. Gregory was born in the town of Nazianzus, an obscure little place in the southwest of Cappadocia, a place which Gregory called “dull and unpleasant with few inhabitants.” Gregory’s father was a priest with a sect called the Hypsistarians, a group which reserved their worship for “the Highest.” This sect was heavily influenced by Zorastrianism, and the Hypsistarians kept symbols of light and fire on their altars. Gregory’s father was called an “illumined priest.” Gregory’s mother, Nonna, was a Christian, and spent many hours praying for her husband’s conversion. Apparently, the Hypsistarians used the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, because one night Gregory’s father dreamed that he was singing the first verse of the 122nd psalm: “I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord.” This dream urged him towards conversion to orthodoxy. What is strange is that this Hypsistarian became the bishop of Nazianzus. He was a relatively wealthy man of noble birth, owning much land. He built a church and was known for his generosity and gentleness. Nonna used to spend a lot of time in front of the altar of the church, gazing and praying, and when Gregory was born she dedicated him to God, much like Hannah dedicating Samuel to the Lord at Shiloh.

Gregory had a mystic, religious bent from an early age. He had a dream one night of two women who appeared at his bedside. They were dressed in white robes with veils which did not hide the brightness of their eyes. They told Gregory that they were Purity and Chastity, companions of Jesus, and that he should join his spirit with theirs, and then they vanished. This dream affected him very much and renewed his dedication to God. He decided early in life to become a man of letters, in fact, he had dreams of becoming a great Christian Orator. At the age of 13 he went to Caesarea to study, and it was there that he met his life-long friend, Basil. Gregory excelled in rhetoric and went on to study in Alexandria, Egypt, the city where Anthanasius was Patriarch. Alexandria was an intellectual center of the Greco-Roman world, and it was also one of the nerve-centers of Christianity. But Gregory’s desire to be a writer led him to leave Alexandria for Athens. On the way to Greece, the ship he was on was caught in a storm and almost lost off the coast of the island of Cyprus. The storm lasted for twenty-two days, and when they ran out of fresh water on board, most people on the ship were sure that they were done for! Those were the days when many people waited until they were near death to be baptized, as they were worried about committing sins after baptism, and Gregory, at the age of 17, was no exception. The storm had him terrified that he might die without being baptized, and in the midst of the storm he tore off his clothes and threw himself on the deck of the ship, weeping and promising that, if their lives were spared, he would devote himself to God. He prayed that God would give him “the gift of spiritual water from the deadly waves.” Soon a Phoenician ship came to them and supplied them with water and food, and the storm finally ended. Gregory studied in Athens for fourteen years, and his friend Basil joined him there. Another friend and classmate was Julian, the emperor-to-be. At that time Julian was a Christian, but by the time he became emperor he had converted to Paganism, partly due to his disgust with the politics of many Christians in the court of Constantinople. Gregory, Basil, and Julian would engage in debates with students from all over the Greco-Roman world, establishing the rhetorical power of the Cappadocians. At the age of thirty, Gregory left Athens for Constantinople, to visit his brother Caesarius. The brothers decided to return home to Nazianzus to visit their parents, who were getting quite old. Gregory decided to remain in Nazianzus and care for the folks. He seemed to lack any ambition; all he wanted to do was to read his books. He had already taken a vow of chastity, and now he added a vow of poverty. He slept on the ground, wore rough clothes, and ate only bread and salt and drank only water. He spent half the night in prayer and meditation, and spent his days supervising his dad’s estate, complaining about managing the slaves. He was a poor overseer because his heart was not in it. He and Basil kept up a correspondence, and Basil invited Gregory to join him in a monastery he was forming. He and Basil lived as monks for two years, and then Gregory returned once again to Nazianzus to continue his studies and writing. It was the year 361 and Gregory had returned to a town torn by the fights between the Arians and the catholics. Those with long memories remembered the Hypsistarian past of Gregory’s father, who was now bishop of Nazianzus, and they claimed that he had departed from the True Faith™. Gregory returned home to find a mob of monks ready to kill his father! He made a speech defending his father, which brought peace to the town. If a person was to become a priest in those days, they didn’t go before the Commission on Ministry or the Standing Committee, and they didn’t discuss their “call” with various groups. The people were the Commission on Ministry, and they grabbed whomever they thought should be a priest, dragged them before the bishop and had them ordained. That Christmas, the people of Nazianzus grabbed Gregory, dragged him before the bishop (his father), and demanded that he be ordained. Gregory was not prepared for this event; he had no desire to be a priest. He felt unworthy to be a priest. On the Feast of the Epiphany, he fled to his friend Basil in Ibora, where he stayed until Easter of that year. Basil convinced him that ordination was God’s will, and he returned to Nazianzus, where he delivered a stirring sermon on “the Despair of Being a Priest.” For Gregory, being a priest was serious business; he believed that a priest “must be cleansed before cleaning others; himself become wise that he might make others wise; become light before he can give light; draw near to God before drawing others near.” Gregory decided to submit to God’s will and work in Nazianzus. In the year 370 Basil became bishop of Caesarea. He wanted to move quickly against the Arians; he appointed his brother Gregory bishop of Nyssa, and ordered his friend Gregory to become bishop of Sasima, a little town twenty-four miles from Nazianzus. Gregory hated Sasima, and described it as “a detestable little place without water or grass or any signs of civilization. Here is nothing but dust, noise, screams, groans, petty official, chains and instruments of torture, and the population consists entirely of commercial travelers and strangers.” This appointment and the arguments between Basil and Gregory brought their friendship to the breaking point. Gregory decided to stay in Sasima only as long as he could do some good. He eventually returned to Nazianzus and served as Bishop Coadjutor to his father. He suffered two great blows not long after his return to his home town; both his sister and his brother died, one after the other. Then the new emperor took Nazianzus off the list of official cities and decided to level the town and build something else in its place. Gregory had to face down the troops, who were finally called off. Then his father died, and soon after, his mother Nonna. Then, making matters even worse, Basil, Bishop of Caesarea, died, and Gregory was devastated, since he had not repaired their broken friendship. Gregory retired from the world, working quietly on his fathers estate. Once again, he had no direction, no ambition, no desire to do anything. Nowadays we recognize symptoms of depression. He described himself as “a dead leaf floating in the stream.” Bout out of that dark night of the soul came a revived Gregory. He moved to Constantinople once again and began delivering sermons, which were well-received. The churches of Constantinople were filled with Arian clergy, but Gregory’s anti-Arian sermons were what the people wanted to hear. They proclaimed to the new emperor, Theodosius, that Gregory should be Patriarch of Constantinople, and the emperor agreed, appointing Gregory Patriarch of the capitol city of the Roman Empire. He only held the position for a few months; one of the canons passed at Nicea, a canon designed to defeat ambitious bishops, stated that the bishop of one See could not be transferred as bishop of another See. The emperor had forgotten about this canon, but Gregory’s enemies had not, and they worked to have him deposed. Before leaving Constantinople, Gregory wrote his great work on the Trinity, The Oratorio.
Gregory left Constantinople and returned once again to Nazianzus, where he remained, writing his treatises. He remained on his father’s estate, but at times he would retire to a cave in the hills, where he would pray and mediate and sleep on a piece of sackcloth, befriending the animals who would visit the cave. In the year 389, when he was around 60 years old, Gregory died on his father’s estate. Except for a few small bequests, he left everything to the poor.

Gregory received the titles the Divine and the Theologian in the Eastern Church. He was a person who bowed to God’s will for his life, whether it was to become a priest or a bishop against his will or to defend the faith against he powerful Arians. He gave up the ecclesiastical throne of Constantinople, even though he really believed he was called to be their bishop, because he respected the laws of the Church, something I wish more of the current bishops on all sides would consider. And because he was willing to submit to God’s will instead of his own, he made a difference in the world, and that is why we remember him to this day.

I See You!

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