Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Feast of St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople


O God, you gave your servant John Chrysostom grace eloquently to proclaim your righteousness in the great congregation, and fearlessly to bear reproach for the honor of your Name: Mercifully grant to all bishops and pastors such excellence
in preaching, and faithfulness in ministering your Word, that your people may be partakers with them of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


John was born in Antioch in the year 347 to an illustrious Greek family. His father was a pagan and was the General in charge of the Eastern army. He died shortly after John's birth. His mother, Anthusa, was a Christian whose "piety was unexcelled among the women of Antioch." An older sister completed the family. John was educated on the family's estate and had the finest teachers. He was fortunate to be raised a Christian in a town where half the population was Christian. John did attend university in Athens for a short while, but most of his education was in Antioch. He studied rhetoric under the great Neoplatonist philosopher Libanius, a man who was violently opposed to Christianity. John was one of Libanius' best students, and Libanius wanted John to succeed him as head of the philosophical school "had not the Christians stolen him." John had met a monk, Diodorus, who lived in a monastery in the mountains, and John was very much interested in the monastic life. At the age of eighteen John suddenly turned against the teachings of Libanius. He decided to put aside all "this debauchery of learning" and become a monk. He was baptized by Meletius the Confessor, Patriarch of Antioch, but Bishop Meletius refused to allow John to live as a monk. He spent three years as an acolyte for the Patriarch's palace, and he later served as a Lector. Finally, after several years, the Bishop relented and John headed for the hills. He went to live with Hesychius, a Syrian monk whose name means quietness, and they spent their time in quiet meditation. They followed the Pachomian Rule, a very austere way of life. John retired to a cave, denied himself sleep, constantly read the Bible and spent two years without lying down because he believed that "a Christian must be watchful." He didn't have the physical constitution for such a life; his stomach shriveled up, his kidneys were damaged by the cold, and his digestion was permanently impaired. He realized that he could not doctor himself, so he came down from the mountain, went into Antioch and presented himself to the bishop, who sent him to the doctor and then assigned him to the office of "attendant upon the altar." Six years later Meletius died and Flavian became Patriarch of Antioch. John was ordained a priest and he began to develop this style of preaching. The people of Antioch, including the Christians, enjoyed the Theatre and horse racing, and they also had a great love of luxury. They were just a bit hedonistic. John preached against the past vices of the Antiocheans, he preached against their addiction to wealth, their love of the theatre, and their sensual enjoyments. When the people of Antioch, in reaction to a tax, rioted and destroyed statues of the Emperor (which resulted in the Imperial Army taking over the city and executing those involved), John preached for seven days in order to keep the peace. These sermons were written down and published as On The Statues and they are a great example of his preaching style. Due to his preaching and the pleading of Bishop Flavian, Antioch was spared destruction by the Emperor. John's preaching was loved by the Christians of Antioch, and he was called Chrysostom which means Golden Mouth. It is said that he would become angry because people would begin to cheer in the middle of his sermons! John was very happy to serve God and the people of God as a priest in Antioch.

This was a strange period in the Roman Empire. Constantine had moved the capitol from Rome to his new city of Constantinople earlier in the century, and the Patriarchate of Constantinople became an important See. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Bishop Nectarius, was a very loose-living, corrupt person, and he spent his sixteen years as Patriarch gaining wealth and indulging in gluttony, drunkenness, and the accumulation of power. Emperor Theodosius had a certain advisor named Eutropius, a eunuch, whom he had sent to visit the monks in Egypt, where Eutropius heard of John. Bishop Nectarius and Eutropius decided that the next Patriarch of Constantinople would be the priest John of Antioch and not Theophilus of Alexandria (these were the days when there was no love lost between Antioch and Alexandria). For some reason, these two corrupt persons chose the very person who would work hard to clean-up Constantinople and put everyone back on the correct path; I guess the Holy Spirit influences whomsoever the Spirit wants to influence and this is another example of how God uses people, even corrupt people, to bring about God's plan. Eutropius figured that John would probably refuse the offer, and that, even if he did accept, the people of Antioch would not let him go, so he used his political power to get John to Constantinople. Eutropius sent a letter to Asterius, the Governor of Syria, ordering him to put John out of the city secretly and take him under a strong escort to Constantinople. He suggested that he have John meet him at one of the martyr chapels just outside of the city's walls, and that is exactly what Asterius did. John thought he was going to a pastoral evening with the Governor; he rode out of the Roman gate at Antioch, never to return. As soon as he got outside of the gate, soldiers pounced on him, and he was tossed into an imperial carriage and spirited off to Constantinople. There a lots of stories about men being grabbed by crowds and dragged to the bishop for ordination, but John is one of the few of which I've heard who was grabbed by the army and dragged to the capitol to be ordained a bishop!

A Patriarch may only be consecrated by another Patriarch, and Theophilus of Alexandria was in Constantinople at the time, but he refused to consecrate John, since he'd had his eye on this particular Episcopal Throne. Eutropius brought out a sheet of paper containing charges so damaging against Theophilus that the Patriarch's face turned white! Eutropius said, "You will consecrate him, or face trial on the charges listed here." So, on February 26, 398, John of Antioch was enthroned as Patriarch of Constantinople. The man who fought against luxury and despised kings now lived in a luxurious palace close to the Emperor's palace. Now the priest of Antioch who preached against love of wealth was standing before ornate golden altars and wearing silk vestments. Of course, as soon as he became Patriarch, he began to a campaign to sweep the Church in Constantinople clean of corruption. He took all the fancy furniture and silver-plated items of the bishop's place, along with the marble columns purchased for the Church of Anastasia, and sold them, using the money to build a hospital. He reformed the lives of the clergy; he learned that they were in the habit of living with widows and consecrated virgins, women who had dedicated themselves to lives of celibacy in the Church. John called the "spiritual sisters" in, harangued them for the evil they had caused and then called in the priests and told them that they were a blight on the Church. Within three months the "spiritual sisters" and clergy were up in arms against their bishop. He told the wealthy to stop making donations to the priests and to give their alms to those who were worthy and in need. The priests, who feared a loss of income, began a campaign of rumours against their new bishop. Since he lived quietly and alone, in austerity, they whispered that he spent his days in orgies, stuffing himself with fine food, and the rumours spread all over the city, until one day when John showed himself half-naked, with his rib bones showing through his half-starved and ravaged flesh, but his austerities simply angered the luxury-loving priests of Constantinople. He examined the church accounting books and ordered the bishops to list their expenditures. He preached against horse racing and theatre and he ridiculed the wealth of the city. He refused invitations to parties and he never hosted any official dinners. He spoke out against the sensuality of the city, against its dancing girls and their indecent songs. He spoke out against ostentatious wealth, asking why must people have houses with doors of ivory and ceilings inlaid with gold? Why must a nobleman have ten or twenty mansions while others lived in hovels? He was pretty much preaching the same line which made him popular back home in Antioch. He ridiculed the clergy for their frailties and the rich for their hedonism, and he must have known that one day they would all turn against him!

At first, the Empress, Eudoxia, supported John's campaign and she sent magnificent gifts to the churches and the poor. But later, for some reason, she felt that all of John's talk of reform was talk against her. She eventually became one of John's many enemies in the city. John's greatest and most vindictive enemy was Theophilus, the Patriarch of Alexandria, the man who, under threat, had ordained him bishop. He hated John because John was from Antioch; he hated John because he was made Patriarch of Constantinople when Theophilus was sure that he had that position in the bag. He hated John because of his austerities, of his monastic-style of life. Theophilus had spent part of his youth in the desert, and he had been dedicated to Origenistic mysticism, named after the great Church Father Origen of Alexandria, one of the first theologians to understand the use of analogy in scripture. But he suddenly turned against Origen and the communities of monks living in the Egyptian desert. He attacked the four Tall Brothers, monks of the desert whose ascetic life-style had brought the Romans to a love of monasticism. Theophilus excommunicated the Tall Brothers and banished them from his See. He sent armed ruffians and Ethiopian slaves to attack their mountain refuges. The four monks escaped to Constantinople where they put themselves at the mercy of John, Patriarch of Constantinople. John gave them a place to sleep but no other aid. He was an Antiochian and had no love for Alexandrian mysticism. He wrote a letter to Theophilus, begging him to receive back his flock, especially before they could file indictments against him. Theophilus answered that the fate of the monks was not his affair; he could not be put on trail in Constantinople, he could only be tried by his peers, the bishops of Alexandria. The monks asked the Empress Eudoxia for help, and she issued an imperial edict ordering Theophilus to come to Constantinople. He arrived in Constantinople in August of the year 403, laden with gifts for the Empress. John invited him to stay at the episcopal palace, but Thoephilus accepted a suite at the Imperial palace at Pera instead. He spent three weeks in Pera, giving banquets for the clergy and nobility, and holding conferences with the defrocked priests. Two deacons, whom John had expelled for murder and fornication, spent long hours with the Patriarch of Alexandria. One of them presented him with a long list of crimes committed by John: He accused Chrysostom of selling church property, leaving the church without saying his prayers, illegally deposing bishops in Asia, striking a man in the face, holding private audiences with women, dining on gargantuan feasts, and robing and disrobing at the bishop's throne. The were a total of 29 charges and none of them were true. The fate of the four Tall Brothers was now forgotten; now Theophilus and his group simply wanted to destroy John Chrysostom.

Theophilus called a Synod at the Palace of the Oak Tree, and there he sat, along with thirty-six bishops in judgment of John. Twenty-nine of these bishops were from Alexandria and had no authority in Constantinople, but they did have the protection of the Emperor, through Eudoxia. Another eight charges were added to the original twenty-nine, including a charge that John had called the Empress a Jezebel. This wasn't true, although he had once said that the clergy of Constantinople were like the priests who ate at Jezebel's table. The Synod passed a resolution depriving Chrysostom of all his offices. The Emperor ratified the decree, banishing John on the false charges of immorality and high treason. With just a word, John could have brought a mob into the streets to defend him, but that was not his way, and he gave a farewell sermon and slipped out of town. The next day an earthquake struck Constantinople, shaking the Imperial Palace and the Empress' bedchamber. She was terrified and wrote a letter begging John to return and that he would be restored to the Episcopal Throne. He refused to enter the Cathedral of Hagia Sofia, saying that he could only be restored to power by the Synod which had dethroned him. Theophilus and his Synod, however, were no where to be found; they had run out of the city right after deposing Chrysostom. A new Synod of sixty bishops met, and all the proceedings of the Synod of the Oak Tree were annulled. However, only two months later, Chrysostom managed to upset the Royal Family once again. Eudoxia had a silver statue of herself erected just across from the entrance of Hagia Sofia, and Chrysostom was enraged, comparing her to Herodias demanding the head of John the Baptist. This time Eudoxia was not frightened by earthquakes, and she acted immediately. That Christmas neither the Empress nor the Emperor took communion in the Cathedral, and the Emperor issued an edict stripping Chrysostom of his position and powers. This time John refused to obey, saying I have received the Church from God our Saviour for the care of the salvation of the people. I cannot desert it unless you thrust me out by force; only then can I plead your authority in defending myself against the charge that I have deserted my post.

On Easter Sunday, April 16, 404, the Emperor ordered 400 archers to scatter the Christians who accepted Chrysostom as their Patriarch. They polluted the churches, plundered the church treasures, and drove the catechumens half-naked into the streets. They tried to kill Chrysostom twice, and he stayed in the Episcopal Palace for two months. Finally, realizing that the lives of the faithful were in danger, he obeyed the Emperor's order and left Constantinople. He told the Christians of Constantinople to obey their new bishop, and he was escorted by army troops into a live in exile. He spent three years being moved to the farthest borders of the Empire, treated horribly by the troops who escorted him. Finally, on September 7, 407, in Comana, John of Antioch, Patriarch of Constantinople, the Golden Mouth, who defied emperors and loved God, died. The news spread like wildfire, and his burial was attended by monks, consecrated virgins, and ascetics from Armenia, Pontus, Cilicia, and Syria. His body remained at the shrine in Comana for thirty years, until, at the beginning of the year 438, the relics were solemnly removed to Constantinople, where the people gathered in close-packed boats lit with torches at the mouth of the river to see his relics arrive. His remains were deposited in the Church of the Apostles, with those of emperors and patriarch, and a new Emperor laid his head on the box which carried John's remain, imploring forgiveness before God for the wrongs committed by his mother and father. And so, John Chrysostom returned to the city from which he had been expelled.

Like all the saints, John Chrysostom was human and had his failings; he was very anti-Semitic and some of his writings can be disturbing for that reason. But we are very fortunate that his sermons were transcribed by his deacons as he was delivering them and they survive to this day. His farewell sermon to the people of Constantinople is an amazing document.

I think one of the treasures of the Book of Common Prayer is this prayer attributed to St. John Chrysostom: Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Feast of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Feast of St. Bartholomew, Apostle and Martyr

Almighty and everlasting God, who gave to your apostle Bartholomew grace truly to believe and to preach your Word: Grant that your Church may love what he believed and preach what he taught; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos


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

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


The Dormition of the Theotokus

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

Isaiah's coals of wonder sealed the lips

Of Seraph, Principality and Power,

Of all the nine angelic fellowships.

The archangels, those sheer intelligences,

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

So must our fancy dower them with senses, 

Make them incarnate in a metaphor.

There was silence in heaven as Mary entered in, 

For even Gabriel had not foreseen

The glory of a soul immune from sin

Throned in the body of the angels' Queen.

Blessed be God and Mary in whose womb

Was woven God's incredible disguise. 

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

Bright from death's slumber she arose, the flush 

Of a chaste joy illumining her cheeks;

Among the motherless in heaven there was a hush

To hear the way a mother laughs and speaks.

Eye had not seen, nor ear of angel heard, 

Nor heart conceived - until Our Lady's death - 

What God for those that love Him had prepared

When heaven's synonym was Nazareth!

Her beauty opened slowly like a flower, 

Beauty to them eternally bequeathed.

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

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


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

Memories of the Assumption
They bore her in a reverent group

To a holy place,

Left her body in the earth -

Her body, "full of grace".

But Thomas, tardy, slow of foot,

Absent when she died, 

Spent with sorrow, craved to see 

Her of the Crucified.

There was a swift intake of breath,

A hurried silent prayer:

Startled they opened the new-made tomb

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


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

The Assumption  

No painter ever caught the magic other going--

This was a matter of an inward growing,

Simple and imperceptible as thought.

It was no pageant wrought

Of sounding splendor, welter of gold bars

Of molten day, mad stars,

Flurry of quick angels' winging,

Bursts of their laughter ringing
In wild bliss.

The simple fact is this:

Love conquered at long last.

Her eager soul fled fast

With a great gladness like a song

Unto to her Spouse above,

And her pure flesh would not be parted long

For sheer love.
by Joachim Smet O.Carm


Raffaello. The Coronation of the Virgin

Saturday, July 22, 2017

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.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

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, June 29, 2017

Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles and Martrys

My sermon about Peter and Paul


Today we celebrate the lives of two Saints, two Saints who were quite different from each other, two Saints who were very important to the fledgling Church, two Saints who were Apostles and Martyrs, two Saints who gave their all for their Lord. They are examples of two people who took up their cross and decided that Jesus was more important than their families. They came from different backgrounds, they had different methods of evangelism, and they didn’t always get along very well, but they were so important to the emerging Christian faith.

Simon Peter was a fisherman, a large, burly, solid guy who was nicknamed Cephas, which is Aramaic for Peter, or “Rocky.” He was inclined to open his mouth without thinking, and he would often say things which would come back on him. He was a down-to-earth person, not really given to mystic visions. Although he certainly received his share of visions he didn’t always understand what was going on; when he witnessed the Transfiguration of Christ, he wanted to build little huts for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah and he didn’t seem to really understand that Jesus was revealing his divinity. If the Twelve were the Inner Circle of Jesus’s disciples, Peter was in the “Inner Inner Circle;” he was present at all the events in which Jesus had just a few special persons with him. Peter was the one who confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the Promised One, and he claimed that he would follow Jesus anywhere. When Jesus was being arrested by the soldiers, Peter pulled out his sword and lopped off a servant’s ear, but not too long later he denied Christ three times; at the moment when Jesus really needed him, he, like the rest of the Twelve, was no where to be found. But Peter was the first of the men to see the empty tomb, and he was commanded by the Resurrected Christ to “feed my lambs.” When the Holy Spirit descended on Pentecost, Peter was the one to speak to the crowd. He became the leader of the Apostles, the leader of the Twelve, but he was not the leader of the Church; Jesus’ brother James was the leader of the Church in Jerusalem, but Peter was a leader of the Church. He may have been the bishop of the Church in Rome, but the Church in Jerusalem was considered THE Church in those days. Rome didn’t become such an influential and important Church until the third century. Peter was the greatest miracle worker of the Apostles, he was involved in many healing miracles. Jesus told Peter that “someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not want to go,” and Peter went to a lot of places that he didn’t want to go; I’m sure he didn’t want to be the one on the roof seeing a sheet full of un-clean animals being lowered and told “Kill and eat!” and I’m sure he didn’t want to be the one to feel Paul’s wrath regarding circumcision and other Jewish practices which were part of the earliest Church. I’m not sure that he particularly enjoyed being caught in the middle between Paul and his fights with the Hebrew faction of the Church But he willingly went to his martyrdom, crucified head down in the Colosseum in Rome according to tradition, and he was the Rock on which the Church was established, tradition stating that he started the church in Rome and was even the first Bishop of Rome.

Saint Paul was quite a different person than Peter; he was an educated man, a Pharisee educated by the great Rabbi Gamaliel, and a Roman citizen. He was not one of the Twelve, in fact, he persecuted the Twelve, as Saul he witnessed and may have even been the ring-leader at the stoning of Stephen the Deacon, but he became one of the greatest of the Apostles. He was very much given to mystic experiences, in fact, his conversion on the Damascus Road is the result of a vision of the Resurrected Christ, and he remained blinded for several days as a result of this vision. Paul also claimed to have visited some “higher heavens,” and he articulated many of the more mystical aspects of Christology. Paul was a persistent persecutor of the Church by his own admission, but once converted, once he “saw the light,” he was one of the most ardent devotees of Jesus, he traveled the so-called “known world” and brought the Good News to the Gentiles. He was chased out of town, he was arrested, and he would preach to anyone who would listen. He founded churches throughout the Greco-Roman world, and he may have traveled as far as Spain on his missionary journeys. He would fight with the Hebrew faction of the Church, and he always seemed to think that Peter was easily led by whatever faction he happened to be with at the time, but even though he was not always in good stead with the Home Office back in Jerusalem, he gladly raised money for the poor and the Jerusalem Church. He was a prolific letter writer, (just imagine what HE would have done with e-mail) and his letters, even when chiding, were so beloved by the churches that they were shared with the rest of the faithful, and Paul’s epistles became the very first Christian scriptures, before any gospels were written and before the letters attributed to John and Peter. Tradition tells us that Paul, like Peter, was martyred in Rome, and that he was be-headed. The relics of Peter and Paul became powerful symbols of the Church in Rome, and they were moved from their original resting places to a catacomb in Rome where a basilica was later erected over their remains. Paul’s teaching on grace, on salvation, and on the resurrection of the dead formed the earliest theology of the Church, and it is not too far off the mark to call him the founder of Christianity.

These two mighty Men of God are proof that God can work through anybody. The fact that someone like Simon Peter, a brash, thick-headed fisherman, inclined to say what ever popped into his mind with out thinking, and a well educated but irritable Pharisee, a persecutor of the Church and later its great champion, could both help spread the Good News of the forgiveness of sins and the coming of the Reign of God, that these two extremes could allow the Holy Spirit to work through them and help spread the message of Christ throughout the world is proof that God can work through each one of us here as long as we are willing to answer “yes” to God’s call. Jesus stood on a beach and asked Peter to follow him, later, the Resurrected Jesus stood on a beach and asked Peter to feed his sheep. Peter said “yes” both times. Jesus appeared to Saul in a blinding light and called him to end his persecutions. Saul answered yes to Jesus’ call and became Paul, a great missionary and the first theologian. Very few of us have such experiences, but Jesus calls all of us to follow him. Jesus calls each one of us to follow him, to care for the hungry and the sick and the poor and the prisoner and the stranger. Jesus calls each of us to love one another, and Jesus calls all of us to serve each other as we serve God. God worked through men like Peter and Paul, and God can work through each one of us; all we must do is answer “yes” to God’s call and then allow the Holy Spirit to move and work through us. May we all take the examples of Peter and Paul, and answer “yes.”


Almighty God, whose blessed apostles Peter and Paul glorified you by their martyrdom: Grant that your Church, instructed by their teaching and example, and knit together in unity by your Spirit, may ever stand firm upon the one foundation, which is Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Feast of St. Alban, First English Martyr



Almighty God, by whose grace and power your holy martyr Alban triumphed over suffering and was faithful even to death: Grant us, who now remember him in thanksgiving, to be so faithful in our witness to you in this world, that we may receive with him the crown of life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Today is the feast of St. Alban, the first martyr of Britain. As usual, we don't really know very much about Alban, and there is some disagreement between sources about what we do know. Some believe that Alban was a Roman born in England, while others believe that he was a Roman soldier stationed in England. He lived in Verulamium, a town which is now called St. Alban's, in Hertfordshire, which is about twenty miles northeast of London. He was a pagan, and probably not really aware of Christianity. However, a persecution of Christians in Briton had broken out. Tradition, and the Venerable Bede, early historian of the Church in England, teach that is was the Diocletian persecution of the year 305, but now scholars believe that this was the persecution during the reign of Septimus Severus, around the year 209. One day during the persecution, a Christian priest who was fleeing from his persecutors sought refuge at Alban's house. Alban sheltered him for several days. He heard the priest's story and was moved by his humility and piety. Alban was so influenced by the priest's prayers and teaching that he became a Christian and was baptized by the priest. A few days later the army discovered the priest at Alban's house. They came to take the priest away, but Alban changed clothing with the priest so that the priest could escape, and Alban was brought before the judge. (According to tradition, the priest met his martyrdom a few days later when he was captured and stoned to death).

The Christians of those days believed that the Roman gods were actually demons, so the Venerable Bede's account of the martyrdom of Alban has the judge "offering sacrifice to devils," which possibly means that he was offering incense to the Roman gods and most probably to the emperor. When the judge saw Alban, he was furious that Alban, a Roman, would put himself in such danger by trading places with a priest. He ordered the soldiers to drag Alban before the altar and said, "Since you have chosen to conceal a sacrilegious rebel rather than surrender him to my soldiers to pay the well-deserved penalty for his blasphemy against our gods, you shall undergo all the torture due to him if you dear to abandon the practice of our religion!" But Alban, who now freely confessed himself a Christian refused to obey this order. The judge demanded, "What is your family and race?" Alban answered, "How does my family concern you? If you wish to know the truth about my religion, know that I am a Christian and carry out Christian rites." The judge demanded to know his name. He answered the judge: "My parents named me Alban, and I worship and adore the living and true God who created all things." This really angered the judge, who said, "If you want to enjoy eternal life, sacrifice at once to the great gods." Alban responded, "You are offering these sacrifices to devils who cannot help their supplicants, nor answer their prayers and vows. On the contrary, whosoever offers sacrifice to idols is doomed to the pains of hell." This response, of course, did not help matters at all. The judge ordered Alban to be flogged, but when he noticed that no torture would break Alban or make him renounce Christ, the judge ordered Alban's immediate decapitation.

Alban was to be decapitated on a hill top. Many people came out to witness the decapitation, in fact, there were so many people there that the soldiers and Alban could not get across the bridge since all the people filled the bridge and prevented their passing. Alban walked up to the banks of the river, and since he desired a speedy martyrdom, raised his eyes to heaven and said a prayer. The water dried up and they were able to walk on dry land. When the executioner saw this miracle,
he was so moved that he ran to meet Alban at the place of execution. He threw down his sword and fell at Alban's feet, begging that he might be thought worthy to die with the martyr if he could not die in his place. The other executioners were unsure of what to do, and were reluctant to pick up the sword. Alban continued to the top of the hill, where, being thirsty, he asked God for some water. Immediately a spring bubbled up at his feet, a sign to all present that it was the martyr's prayer
that dried up the river and now produced a perennial spring. At the same time, the river began to flow again. One of the other executioners picked up the sword and struck the fatal blow and beheaded Alban. According to Bede, "the man whose impious hands struck off that pious head was not permitted to boast of his deed, for as the martyr's head fell, the executioner's eyes dropped out on the ground." Bede also writes: "The soldier who had been moved by divine intuition to refuse to slay God's confessor was beheaded at the same time as Alban. And although he had not received the purification of baptism, there was no doubt that he was cleansed by the shedding of his own blood, and rendered fit to enter the kingdom of heaven. Astonished by these many strange miracles the judge called a halt to the persecution, and whereas he had formerly fought to crush devotion to Christ, he now began to honor the death of his saints." Bede says that a church worthy of Alban's martyrdom was built on the spot and that many sick folks were healed there and that frequent miracles occur there. Since Alban was martyred on a hill, churches which bear his name are located on hills, just like St. Alban's in Paraíso.

Alban was only a Christian for a few days but he felt so strongly about his devotion to Christ that he was willing to suffer death on Christ's behalf. He was willing to take the place of the priest and face the tortures and punishments reserved for the Christians of that time. His witness brought about the conversion of both his executioner and the judge who sentenced him to death. His witness most probably helped spread Christianity throughout Britain and the British Isles. We are all called to serve Christ but we aren't all called to the same ministries. We aren't all called to celibacy, we aren't all called to poverty, and, thank God, we are not all called to martyrdom. All of us are called to work for the coming of the Kingdom of God and we are all called to tend the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner and welcome the stranger. We are all called to love one another as Christ loves us, and we are all called to proclaim the love of God for all, and to tell others of God's forgiveness and unconditional love for all of humanity. Alban's life is a powerful example of how devotion to Christ can make someone so completely selfless that they are willing to die for others. Jesus said that a true friend is willing to die for a friend, and just as Alban was willing to die in the place of the priest, Jesus was willing to die for all of us. Jesus calls all of us to such lives of selflessness, even through he does not call all of us to face a martyr's death. May the lives and witness of the martyrs continue to inspire the Church and may we all acknowledge Jesus before the world.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary


Father in heaven, by your grace the virgin mother of your incarnate Son was blessed in bearing him, but still more blessed in keeping your word: Grant us who honor the exaltation of her lowliness to follow the example of her devotion to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."

And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Feast of the Ascension

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

In Which Padre Mickey Rambles On And On About The Ascension

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Feast of St. Mark, Evangelist


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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