Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Poem to Archangel Michael

An ancient Celtic poem in praise of Michael the Archangel

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

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

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

Feast of the Archangel Michael and All Angels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 21, 2012

Feast of St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist

We thank you, heavenly Father, for the witness of your apostle and evangelist Matthew to the Gospel of your Son our Savior; and we pray that, after his example, we may with ready wills and hearts obey the calling of our Lord to follow him; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Matthew was an Apostle and Evangelist, as was John, and tradition states that he was also a martyr. Matthew's name appears in all four lists of the Twelve, so we can safely assume that he really was in that group, although he is also known as Levi. He was a Galilean, although Eusebius claims that Matthew was Syrian. Tradition states that Matthew preached to the Hebrews, and the Church Father Papias wrote that Matthew had written a collection of the sayings of Jesus in Aramaic. This collection of sayings in Aramaic may have been the basis for the gospel which bears his name.

Now, usually we don't really know much about the Apostles, they left no autobiographies for historians to use. What we know about Matthew comes from the gospels. He was a publican, a tax collector, an occupation despised by most Jews. Tax collectors were seen as collaborators with the Roman government, as extortionists who took money from their own people to help further the cause of the Roman oppressors and to line their own pockets. Most people hated tax collectors and saw them as traitors, and many of the most devout refused to marry into a family which had a tax collector in it. One can see the disgust for tax collectors in some of the passages we hear from the New Testament. Even Jesus used the name as a disparaging term; he said that when Christians have a dispute they are to try to work it out alone, and if that didn't work they were to bring a witness and try to work it out, and if that didn't settle things the offending person was to be treated like a Pagan or a Tax Collector. Since he was a tax collector Matthew was obviously not the kind of person anyone wanted to be seen with, yet when Jesus passed by his office, which was probably a stand like a kiosko, Jesus looked at Matthew sitting there and said, "Follow me." And Matthew dropped everything and followed Jesus. Jesus and the disciples came to Matthew's house for dinner, and many of Matthew's fellow tax collectors and friends came and joined Jesus and the disciples at table. Since Matthew was a social outcast, we can assume that his friends were, too, and the gospel calls them "sinners." When the Pharisees saw this group of outcasts sitting together, eating and talking and drinking wine and having a good time, they asked one of the disciples "What kind of example is this from your teacher, acting cozy with crooks and riffraff?" And when Jesus heard their question, he said, "Who needs a doctor, the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this scripture means: 'I'm after mercy, not religion.' I'm here to invite outsiders, the sinners, not to coddle insiders!" I think that we all forget this at times, that we are all sinners and that Jesus came for sinners, not for those who are already perfect. The truth is, none of us are perfect, we are all sinners, we have all missed the mark, and Jesus came for all of us .So Jesus called Matthew, a tax collector and outcast, to follow him, and Matthew dropped everything and said "yes" to Jesus' call. In a way it's good that Matthew was already an outcast because becoming one of the Twelve, one of Jesus' followers, was going to keep him in that category.

As I said earlier, tradition states that Matthew was the apostle to the Hebrews, and that he wrote a collection of the sayings of Jesus. Scholars are not really sure whether the Apostle Matthew actually wrote the gospel attributed to him; it may bear his name because it contains his collection of sayings. One of the main characteristics of Matthew's gospel is the fullness with which it records the Lord's teaching; it has a special interest in the relation of the Gospel to Jewish Law, the Torah, with its stress upon Christianity being the New Torah. It also emphasizes the special commission given to Peter, and it contains the stories of the Resurrection appearances in Galilee. The Greek of Matthew's gospel is much more elegant than the Greek of Mark, and it also translates well into other languages. Because of this, it is the gospel most suitable for public reading, and for this reason it is probably the best known of the four gospels.

As is often the case with stories about the Apostles, there is some disagreement as to the rest of Matthew's life. There is a tradition that Matthew left Palestine to travel and preach, and that he wrote his gospel so that a witness would continue in his stead. The Roman Martyrology states that St. Matthew was martyred in Ethiopia, while the Hieronymianum, the martyrology of Asia Minor and Greece says that he was martyred in Persia in the town of Tarrium out on the Persian Gulf. Another tradition states that he suffered martyrdom in Pontus, and the town of Salerno in Italy claimed to have his relics.

The Martyrdom of St. Matthew

There is an apocryphal Acts and Martyrdom of St. Matthew, most probably of Gnostic origin, and it claims that Matthew was martyred in “Myrna,” wherever that is. I will tell you the story of St. Matthew’s martyrdom according to this text.

St. Matthew was on a mountain, resting, when he had a vision of the Christ Child and had a discussion with him about the fate of King Herod (“He dwells, indeed, in Hades; and there has been prepared for him fire unquenchable, Gehenna without end, bubbling mire, worm that sleeps not, because he cut off three thousand infants, wishing to slay the child Jesus, the ancient of the ages; but of all these ages I am father”). The child then instructs Matthew to go down the mountain to Myrna, the city of the man-eaters, and plant a rod next to the church Matthew and Andrew had founded. So, Matthew agrees to do so, and while entering the town he meets Fulvana, the wife of the king, and her son Fulvanus and his wife, Erva. All three of them were possessed by unclean spirits and cried out, “Who has brought you here again, Matthew? or who has given you the rod for our destruction? for we see also the child Jesus, the Son of God, who is with you. Do not go then, O Matthew, to plant the rod for the food, and for the transformation of the man-eaters: for I have found what I shall do to you. For since you drove me out of this city, and prevent me from fulfilling my wishes among the man-eaters, behold, I will raise up against you the king of this city, and he will burn you alive.” Matthew laid his hands on their heads and the demons were evicted and the people were made whole, and they followed him. Matthew went on into town and planted the rod as instructed and all manner of miracles took place, which we won’t get into here.

Now the king, Fulvanus, was happy when he learned that his wife and son and daughter-in-law had been delivered of their demons, but then he became jealous when he noticed that they were devoted to Matthew. His family had spent the night in the church with Matthew and the local bishop, Plato, and were baptized by Matthew. This increased Fulvanus’ jealousy and he decided to execute Matthew. It didn’t help that the demon Matthew had cast out of Queen Fulvana had taken on the form of a soldier and told Fulvanus that Matthew was a stranger and a sorcerer and a former tax collector, and was made an apostle by a person who was crucified, so why would you want your wife and son and daughter-in-law listening to the likes of him? The king agreed; he had no choice but to kill Matthew. Meanwhile, the Christ Child warned Matthew that the king’s men would be coming to get him. The king sent four soldiers after Matthew and Plato, but when they arrived at the church they heard voices but couldn’t see anyone, so they went back to the king to report that no one was there. This really made the king angry, so he sent ten more soldiers, who were man-eaters, and told them, “Sneak into the church and tear Matthew and Plato into pieces and eat them.” When the soldiers got to the church, they saw Matthew and Plato and the Lord Jesus, who was in the form of a beautiful boy holding a torch, which he used to burn their eyes! The soldiers ran back to the palace speechless. The king was really angry now, and he tried to get some advice on how to take Matthew from the demon/soldier, but the demon/soldier admitted that he, the demon, couldn’t do anything as God was protecting Matthew.

Now the story gets really strange: the king finds Matthew at the church and is struck blind. He cries out to Matthew to heal him, because God has decided that he wants Matthew in heaven now, and the king is to bury his body in their city as a testimony of salvation! So Fulvanus is healed and his sight is returned and he grabs Matthew by the hand and drags him to the seashore where executions take place. The king told the executioners that he heard that the God of Matthew saves those who believe in him from death by fire, but they’ll get around it by following his orders. He had them nail Matthew to the ground and cover him with paper smeared with dolphin’s oil and then cover him with brimstone and asphalt and pitch AND brushwood, and then light it all on fire. And if any of the Christians get in the way, they were to suffer the same fate. The executioners followed the king’s orders but when they put the fire to the highly flammable pile it turned to dew, and all the people watching cried out with one voice: “The only God is the Christians', who assists Matthew, in whom also we have believed: the only God is the Christians', who preserves His own apostle in the fire.” So the king had coals of fire taken from the furnace to be piled on Matthew. He also had idols of gold and silver brought to surround Matthew, to keep him from bewitching the fire. The entire pile was re-ignited, and Matthew looked up into heaven and prayed: “O God the Father, O Lord Jesus Christ, deliver me, and burn down their gods which they worship; and let the fire also pursue the king even to his palace, but not to his destruction, for perhaps he will repent and be converted.” When the king saw the flames rise higher and higher, he said, “Has your magic been of any help to you, Matthew? Can your Jesus help you now?” All of the sudden all the fire left Matthew and surrounded the idols instead. The fire melted the idols of gold and silver and also burned several soldiers to death. The king shouted “Woe is me! I should have used idols of stone, which don’t melt down!” The fire then took on the shape of a dragon and chased the king all over the place but wouldn’t let him find safety in the palace. Fulvanus ran back to Matthew and said, “I beseech you, whoever you are, O man, whether magician or sorcerer or god, or angel of God, whom so great a pyre has not touched, remove from me this dreadful and fiery dragon; forget the evil I have done, as also when you made me receive my sight.” Matthew forgave Fulvanus and actually called off the dragon, which disappeared, as did the flames. Matthew then looked up to heaven and prayed in Hebrew, commending his soul to the Lord and said, “Peace to you!” And, having glorified the Lord, he completed his martyrdom. Fulvanus took the body of Matthew and placed it on a golden bed. While they were bringing the bed back to the palace, all saw Matthew rise up to heaven, led by the beautiful boy, and twelve men in shining garments and wearing gold crowns met him. Everyone saw the beautiful boy crown Matthew, and in a flash of lightening all disappeared into heaven. And just when you thought the story couldn’t get any stranger, the king decided to put Matthew’s body in an iron coffin and throw it into the deepest part of the sea. Bishop Plato and others went to the church where they kept a vigil throughout the night. The next morning they came out of the church and saw Matthew standing on the water some seven furlongs from shore, accompanied by two men in shining garments and the beautiful boy. The king saw all this and ran out of the palace to the bishop and confessed in front of the bishop and priests and deacons that he believed in the True God, and in Jesus Christ, and asked to be baptized and given communion. After communion, Matthew appeared before them all. He told Fulvanus and his son that their names would be changed to Matthew, and that Fulvana’s named would be changed to Sophia, and Erva, the daughter-in-law’s name would be changed to Synesis. Then Matthew appointed the king a presbyter, and his son a deacon, and the queen a presbytress, and the daughter-in-law a deaconess. Then he blessed them and vanished. And they all went and destroyed all the idols and everyone in the kingdom became Christians. And King Matthew was given the gift of healing. And I’m exhausted after telling this story, as you probably are after reading it!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Feast of Hildegard von Bingen, Theologian and Composer

God of all times and seasons: Give us grace that we, after the example of your servant Hildegard, may both know and make known the joy and jubilation of being part of your creation, and show forth your glory not only with our lips but in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This is an adapted version of a sermon I gave on the Feast of Hildegard von Bingen several years ago

Today is the Feast of Hildegard von Bingen, an unusual person, especially for a woman of the twelfth century. In an era when few women wrote she produced major theological works and visionary writings. At a time when few women were accorded any respect she was consulted by and advised bishops, popes, and kings. She used the curative powers of natural objects for healing, and wrote treatises about natural history and the medicinal uses of plants, animals, trees and stones. She is the first composer whose biography is known. She founded a vibrant convent, where her musical plays were performed.She was one of the most amazing persons of her time.

She was born in the year 1098 to Mathilda and Hildebert Stein. They were a wealthy and noble family and Hildebert was a professional soldier under the Count of Spanheim. Hildegard was their tenth child, and, as was the custom of that time, she became a “tithe;” her parents dedicated her to God. She learned to chant and sing in Latin at an early age, although her family didn’t teach her to read or write. At the age of three she had visions of luminous objects but she soon realized that this made her different from those around her, so she hid this gift for many years. There is a story about a conversation she had with her nurse. They were looking at a cow which was heavy with child, and Hildegard described the unborn calf as "white... marked with different colored spots on its forehead, feet and back." The nurse, amazed with the detail of the young child's account, told Hildegard's mother, who later rewarded her daughter with the calf, whose appearance Hildegard had accurately predicted. When Hildegard was eight years old, it was time for her parents to honor their tithe. They brought her to a woman named Jutta for her religious education. Jutta was also a woman of noble birth who had dedicated her self to God. But instead of entering a convent and becoming a nun, she took a much more harsh route; she became an anchoress. These were women who led an ascetic life, cut off from the world in a small room attached to a church with a small window so that they could observe the Mass. Food was passed to the anchoress through this window, and refuse from the cell was passed through it, too. An anchoress would spend her time in prayer, contemplation, or solitary handwork such as stitching and embroidering. Since an anchoress was dead to the world, she would receive the Last Rites from the bishop before entering her cell. The ceremony was a complete burial rite including the anchoress lying on a bier. The only difference between Jutta’s cell and that of most anchoresses was that hers had a door, a door by which Hildegard and about a dozen other young women entered to live their religious lives, all attracted by Jutta’s fame in her later years. Even though Jutta was supposed to be in charge of Hildegard’s education, it was very rudimentary and Hildegard was plagued by feelings of inadequacy in regards to her education. She learn to read the Psalter in Latin, and while the grammatical intricacies of the language escaped her, she had an intuitive feel for the intricacies of the language itself, and she wrote sentences with meanings on multiple levels which are still a challenge to students of her writings. When Hildegard was 38 years of age, Jutta died, and Hildegard was made Abbess of the small convent which had grown around Jutta’s anchorage.

During all these years Hildegard continued to experience visions, but she only shared these visions with Jutta and a monk named Vomar, who became her lifelong secretary. In one of her writings she describes a vision she had at the age of 42, in which she was told to write down her visions. She was uncomfortable about this, and sought approval from the Church before she would publish them. Hildegard was living during a time when those with outlandish visions and preaching strange doctrines could attract a large following. She was against schismatics and especially the Cathars (a twelfth century version of Gnosticism) so she wanted her visions to be sanctioned by the Church. She wrote to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whom we heard about last month, and he brought her visions and writings to the attention of Pope Eugenius, who encouraged her to finish her writings. With the pope’s approval, her writings and fame began to spread through Germany and Christendom. She wrote several plays and much music. She also wrote about natural science. Her scientific views were derived from the ancient Greek cosmology of the four elements-fire, air, water, and earth- with their complementary qualities of heat, dryness, moisture, and cold, and the corresponding four humours in the body-choler (yellow bile), blood, phlegm, and melancholy (black bile). Human constitution was based on the preponderance of one or two of the humours. Indeed, we still use words "choleric", "sanguine", "phlegmatic" and "melancholy" to describe personalities. Sickness upset the delicate balance of the humours, and only consuming the right plant or animal which had that quality you were missing, could restore the healthy balance to the body. That is why in giving descriptions of plants, trees, birds, animals, stones, Hildegard is mostly concerned in describing that object's quality and giving its medicinal use. Thus, "Reyan (tansy) is hot and a little damp and is good against all superfluous flowing humours and whoever suffers from catarrh and has a cough, let him eat tansy. It will bind humors so that they do not overflow, and thus will lessen."

I mentioned earlier that at the age of three Hildegard had visions of luminous objects. Nowadays we can recognize these as symptoms of one who suffers from migraine headaches.It is now generally agreed that Hildegard suffered from migraine, and that her visions were a result of this condition. The way she describes her visions, the precursors, to visions, to debilitating after-effects, point to classic symptoms of migraine sufferers. Although a number of visual hallucinations may occur, the more common ones described are the "scotomata" which often follow perceptions of phosphenes in the visual field. Scintillating scotomata are also associated with areas of total blindness in the visual field, something Hildegard might have been describing when she spoke of points of intense light, and also the "extinguished stars." Migraine attacks are usually followed by sickness, paralysis, blindness -all reported by Hildegard, and when they pass, by a period of rebound and feeling better than before, a euphoria also described by her. Also, writes Oliver Sachs, the noted neurologist, “Among the strangest and most intense symptoms of migraine aura, and the most difficult of description and analysis, are the occurrences of feelings of sudden familiarity and certitude... or its opposite. Such states are experienced, momentarily and occasionally,by everyone; their occurrence in migraine auras is marked by their overwhelming intensity and relatively long duration.” It is a tribute to the remarkable spirit and the intellectual powers of this woman that she was able to turn a debilitating illness into the word of God, and create so much with it.

In the last year of her life Hildegard had to undergo a very severe trial. In the cemetery adjoining her convent a young man was buried who had once been under excommunication. The ecclesiastical authorities of Mainz demanded that she have the body removed. She did not consider herself bound to obey since the young man had received the last sacraments and was therefore supposed to have been reconciled to the Church. Sentence of interdict was placed on her convent by the chapter of Mainz,
and the sentence was confirmed by the bishop, Christian (V) Buch, then in Italy. After much worry and correspondence she succeeded in having the interdict removed. She died a holy death on September 17, 1179, and was buried in the church of Rupertsberg.

Hildegard was an amazing person. She was able to take the disability of migraine and use it as a means of experiencing God. She was able to move above her limited education and become a theologian and visionary. She was the advisor of Bishops, Popes, and Kings. Her visionary writings are an inspriation to this day, and her music can bring one closer to God and to a mystical experience similar to her own. She was able to travel and preach, an experience which other women of her age were denied, and her example has lasted almost one thousand years. So, let us rejoice for the example of Hildegard, woman of Bingen, Theologian, Composer of sacred music, Visionary, and advisor of Bishops and Kings. May we all learn to use our own gifts to the Glory of God.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Today's feast commemorates the exposition of the (supposed) True Cross at Jerusalem in the year 629 by the Emperor Heraclius. He had just recovered the True Cross from the Persians, who had captured it in 614. The exposition actually happened in the spring, but our celebration of September 14 is the result of confusing this incident with an earlier commemoration kept in Jerusalem on this date: the dedication of Constantine's basilica of the Holy Sepulcher (which had been destroyed by the Persians in 614). So, in a way, this is a feast in honor of an event and in honor of an object, the True Cross.

The idea that the True Cross still existed was important to many people over the centuries, and many people searched for this relic. The Emperor Constantine's mother, St. Helena, went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and, amazingly, almost three hundred years after the crucifixion, discovered the True Cross. It is a powerful and attractive relic, and pieces of the True Cross were popular souvenirs in the Holy Land for centuries. From what I understand, if all the pieces of the True Cross were assembled together, we would have a giant cross, probably big enough for Oral Robert's 900 foot Jesus. And some people are still finding the True Cross. I have always been interested in the way religion is portrayed in supermarket tabloids; in fact, I wrote a paper on Tabloid Eschatology when I was in seminary. This all started when the Lovely Mona bought me a copy of the (late lamented) Weekly World News which had a fascinating article on the cover. The True Cross had been discovered in Jerusalem! Those who found it knew it was the True Cross not because a bishop had told them so, and not because it was emanating healing rays from the wood. No, they used science to determine its authenticity. The scientists compared the DNA from the blood stains on the wood of the cross with the DNA from the blood stains on the Shroud of Turin! AND THEY MATCHED!!! However, I have yet to hear of this discovery from any Theological Review or even BAR.

In reality, a cross is a terrible thing. It is a means of execution, it is a device of death, and a device for a slow and painful death. Yet this device for executing criminals has become an object of art, a piece of jewelry. It is also a symbol of victory. The procession in many churches is led by a bejeweled cross, and many of us wear highly ornate crosses around our necks. How could this terrible object become a thing of beauty? In the gospel attributed to John, Jesus, in conversation with the Twelve, told them that the Son of Man would be glorified when he was lifted up from the earth and drew all people to himself. It can be difficult to understand how allowing oneself to be executed can glorify God, but I think it is explained well in the hymn found in the letter of Paul to the Christians in Philippi. Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. He took on the form of a slave, he was born in human likeness. God because a human being and lived among us and did human things, such as being born, going to school, eating and drinking with people like us, eating and drinking with sinners like us. God became human and did human things, even the human act of dying. But he didn't take an easy death; Jesus allowed himself to be executed and died a terrible, painful death on a cross. He was humble and obedient to the point of death on a cross. Jesus said that there is no greater love than to give one's life for one's friends, and Jesus gave his life for all. There are times in our lives when we experience pain and suffering, in fact, some people experience pain and suffering daily, and it can be hard to believe that anyone, including God, can understand this pain. But God, as a human being, did experience pain and suffering, just as so many of us do. It was at that dark moment of suffering, that dark moment of loneliness, of darkness, that God, as one of us, experienced the pain and suffering of humanity. It was then that God's love for humanity was fully expressed. God suffered pain and death, even death upon a cross, to show love for all of humanity. This great love, expressed through death on a cross, is what makes this Holy Cross, this device of execution, something of great beauty, a symbol of salvation, a symbol of victory. That is why this Holy Cross is a symbol of the greatest love there is.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Feast of Cyprian, Bishop and Martyr of Carthage

Thascius Cyprianus was born in the year 200 in the city of Carthage in North Africa, in the country we now call Tunisia. Carthage is located on the coast and was a major metropolis and port, and had a sizable Christian population when Cyprian was born. He was born to a prominent Pagan family and he had all the advantages of the well-born; he attended the best schools, he went on to University and was a master Orator. He had a good career as a teacher of philosophy and rhetoric. He also lived a rather hedonistic lifestyle but he gained no satisfaction from his wealth and pleasures. He began to study the writings of Tertullian, an early Father of the Church and fellow North African. Tertullian's writings convinced Cyprian of the truth of Christianity. However, he didn't think that he was strong enough to live a Christian life; he was worried that he would fall off the path, and he was worried that once baptism washed away his sins he would be condemned if he sinned after baptism, so like many people in those days he was holding off baptism until absolutely necessary. But when God decides to call someone, it can be difficult to avoid God's will, and circumstances will make it inevitable that one will finally have to make that decision to follow God's way or one's own way. In Cyprian's case, he took on a roommate, a priest named Caecilius. Caecilius was a very old priest and a very good influence on Cyprian, and he convinced Cyprian of God's grace so that Cyprian became a catechumen; he decided to be baptized after all. Just before he died, Caecilus asked Cyprian to take care of his wife and children. While studying to be baptized, Cyprian decided to observe chastity and poverty and he sold all his property, even his gardens at Carthage, and then he gave the money to the poor. He was baptized at the Easter Vigil on April 18, 246. People were so impressed by the change in his life as a result of his conversion that two years later, when the bishop died, they were clamoring to make Cyprian the new bishop of Carthage. At first he declined, but the people continued to press for him, so ha accepted the office and was quickly passed through the orders of deacon and priest. There were five priests who objected to his election and they remained his enemies throughout his episcopate.

Cyprian was elected to the episcopacy during a time of peace; there had been no persecutions for a while, and many Christians had become rather lax in their faith. Some had fallen back into Pagan ways, many were participating in the local amusements such as attending the horse races and gambling. Cyprian, however, exhorted his flock to remember their high calling, and reminded them to live Christ-like lives. He examined all candidates for Holy Orders carefully and demanded that they all be thoroughly prepared for their offices. He wanted to build strong Christians but the situation would not be remedied over night, and a year later when the Decian persecution broke out many of the weaker Christians, both lay and ordained, renounced the faith. The bishop of Rome, Pope Fabian, was martyred and the Christians of Carthage did not want their beloved bishop to meet the same fate so they urged him to go into hiding. While in hiding he continued to serve his flock by writing letters, encouraging them to turn to prayer as their weapon, urging his priests to give strength to the weak. He also sold his possessions to help the poor. And while he was worried about the weaker Christians who renounced their faith out of fear of execution, he was also worried about the Confessors, those who confessed Christ and were tortured but not martyred, because he was worried that they may suffer from spiritual pride. He wrote: Now more than ever they must fear being caught in the devil's nets, for he would fain attack the strong, desiring to avenge himself on those who brought him defeat by their confession. Once the persecution ended, the Church had to deal with the problem of lapsed Christians who wanted to return to the faith. Some priests were accepting anyone who wanted to return without reservation, but Cyprian believed that that attitude was too lenient. He wanted to reaccept them, but only after suitable penance. He also warned against being too severe, as was the priest Novatian, who claimed that any who recanted could never be readmitted to the altar rail. Novatian and his followers continued to divide the Church for a long time, and Donatist controversy continued even into the time of St. Augustine. Upon the death of Decius in 251, Cyprian returned to Carthage. He worked at reuniting the Church and held many councils. Just as peace was returning to the Church in Carthage, a terrible plague broke out, threatening the community. Many pagans claimed the plague was a punishment from the gods because the Christians had led so many to give up the worship of the local gods. People were so terrified of the plague that they left the dead in the streets and refused to care for the sick. Cyprian assembled the Christians and reminded them that the Lord commanded us to love our neighbor and to repay evil with good; he recalled the example of Jesus the Christ, who, while hanging on the cross, prayed for his enemies. His words so inspired the Christians that they took upon themselves to care for the sick and the dead. Rich and poor, laity and clergy, all took part in this virtuous work: some looked after the sick, some helped financially, and some took suffering people into their homes. The Confessors, who not long before had been tortured by the government and still bore the marks on their bodies, daily exposed themselves to danger in order to help their enemies. Such examples of self-sacrifice and love for one's neighbor amazed the pagans and many were converted.

In that same year (251) the Emperor Callus renewed persecution of the Christians. Cyprian expected the same terrible events to happen as last time so he worked to strengthen the Christians so that they would stand fast. In his treatise "On Morality" he wrote: [Martyrdom] is a baptism greater in grace, more lofty ini power, more precious in honor--a baptism wherein angels baptize--a baptism in which God and His Christ exult--a baptism after which no one sins anymore--a baptism which completes the increase of our faith--a baptism which, as we withdraw from the world, immediately associates us with God. This time he decided to stay in Carthage. After Gallus died, Valerian became Emperor. At first he was sympathetic to the Christians and left them alone. There were several years of peace, and Cyprian wrote several treatises on pastoral concerns: On the Advantage of Patience; On Works and Alms; On Jealousy and Envy; and On Virginity. But the peace was not to last; a member of the court, Macrian, convinced Valerian that the Christians were dangerous rivals and their loyalty to the Church threatened the Empire. The Valerian Persecution was directed towards the clergy and many deacons, priests and even the Bishop of Rome were martyred. In the year 257, Bishop Cyprian was exiled to Curibis. While he was there he had a vision that he would be executed in a year. The next year, 258, he heard of the execution of the Bishop of Rome, Pope Sixtus, who was executed with four of his deacons in the catacombs, and later his deacon Laurence was put on the gridiron. Cyprian was returned to Carthage. Great numbers of his people, on hearing that he was seized, went from Carthage to the place where he was held prisoner, and they watched all night outside of the house in fear that their bishop might be executed or carried off into exile without their knowledge. The next morning, Cyprian was led to the place of judgment, which was a little way from the governor's palace. He was warm from the walk under a burning sun, and, as he was waiting for the governor's arrival, a soldier of the guard who had once been a Christian kindly offered him a change of clothes. "Why," said the bishop, "should we trouble ourselves to remedy evils which will probably come to an end today?" The governor arrived and took his seat and required Cyprian to sacrifice to the gods. He refused and the governor said, "You really should consider your safety." Cyprian responded, "In so righteous a cause there is no need of consideration." The governor sentenced him to execution by beheading and Cyprian exclaimed, "Praise be to God!" A cry arose from the Christians who were watching the trial: "Let us go and be beheaded with him!" Cyprian was then led by soldiers to the place of execution. Many of the Christians climbed up into the trees which surrounded the area so that they might see their bishop's martyrdom. After praying, he took off his upper clothing, gave some money to the executioner, and then tied a blindfold over his own eyes. Two of his friends then bound his hands and the Christians placed cloths and handkerchiefs around him so that they could catch some of his blood. An in this way, St. Cyprian, on September 14, 258, became the first African bishop to win the crown of martyrdom. Valerian's attempts to stop the message of the gospel were in vain. The Church had been purified and strengthened by the persecution under Decius, so that there were now very few who fell away for fear of death. The faith was spread by the banished bishops, and as Tertullian, the writer whose works brought Cyprian to the faith state, "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." Cyprian's faithful witness helped the Church grow in North Africa and throughout the Roman world. Just about fifty years later, the Emperor Constantine would have a vision before his battle at the Milvian Bridge, and his victory would lead to his issuing of the Edict of Toleration which ended the persecutions and soon the faith for which Cyprian died would become the faith of the Empire.

Almighty God, who gave to your servant Cyprian 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.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Feast of the Nativity of our Most Holy Lady the Θεοτοκoς

What is this sound of feasting that we hear?
Joachim and Anna mystically keep festival.
“O Adam and Eve,” they cry, “rejoice with us today:
For if by your transgressions you closed the gates of Paradise to those of old,
We have now been given a glorious fruit,
Mary the Child of God
Who opens its entrance to us all.”

Thy nativity, O Θεοτοκoς,
Has brought joy to all the world:
For from thee has shone fourth
The Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God.
He has loosed us from the curse and given the blessing:
He has vanquished death, and bestowed on us eternal life.

By thy holy nativity, O most pure Virgin,
Joachim and Anna were set free from the reproach of childlessness,
And Adam and Eve from the corruption of death.
Delivered from the guilt of sin,
Thy people keep the feast and sing:
“The barren woman bears the Θεοτοκoς,
the Sustainer of our life.”

Be renewed, O Adam, and be magnified, O Eve;
You prophets, dance with the apostles and the righteous;
Let there be common joy in the world
among angels and mortals
For the Θεοτοκoς is born today of
righteous Joachim and Anna.

I See You!

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