Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Feast of Polycarp, Martyr and Bishop of Smyrna


O God, the maker of heaven and earth, you gave your venerable servant, the holy and gentle Polycarp, boldness to confess Jesus Christ as King and Savior, and steadfastness to die for his faith: Give us grace, following his example, to share the cup of Christ and rise to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Today is the feast of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, and martyr. Smyrna was a city in Asia Minor, in the nation we now call Turkey. Born in the year 69, Polycarp was a student of John the Apostle and Evangelist, studying under him during his time in Ephesus, after his exile on Patmos. Polycarp was one of the bishops actually consecrated in the Apostolic succession since he was ordained by an Apostle. He was a well respected bishop; when Ignatius made his journey to Rome for his own martyrdom, he wrote letters to various churches along the way, and one of the letters was addressed to Polycarp. Polycarp wrote an Epistle to the Philippians which was read by many early Christian communities, although it was not included in the canon. In this epistle he reminds the Christians in Philippi of the importance of holding on to the promises of God, of the importance of keeping the faith, and that the clergy must be self-disciplined, righteous, humane, and hard working. He was very clear that clergy must not be "in love with money" and live lives of holiness as examples to the flock. He also wrote that it was important to remember that Jesus had two nature, human and divine, in opposition to the Docetists.

The account of Polycarp's martyrdom may have been written by Irenaeus of Lyons, and it is the earliest account of a martyrdom after the story of the deacon Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles. One in the year 155 or 156, a crowd was at the stadium in Smyrna watching the spectacle of several Christians being thrown to the wild beasts. The Christians stood firm and died noble deaths, but the crowd, upset by the martyrs' heroism, broke into cries of "Down with the infidels!" and "Go find Polycarp!" When the bishop learned that the crowd wanted him, he was all for staying in the city and facing the music, but members of his church took him out of town and to a hiding place in the hills. He spent his entire time there, day and night, praying for those who were being persecuted. One day while praying, he had a vision in which his pillow ignited and burned to ashes. He went down stairs and told his companions, "I seems that I will be burnt alive." They kept moving him from one farm to another with the authorities hot on their heels. Soldiers arrested two servant boys at one location, and, under torture, they told the police where Polycarp was. When the police appeared at the farm, Polycarp surrendered rather than continue on the run. He asked the police for just a little time to pray, and, seeing that he was rather elderly and not much of a threat, they agreed. He prayed so full of God's grace that two whole hours passed before he could stop praying. Several of the police began to feel some remorse for having to arrest such a saintly old man. Polycarp was brought to the Police Commissioner, who took him into his carriage and said, "Come on, what's the harm in offering some incense and saying 'Caesar is Lord?' It will save your life!" Polycarp said, "No, I won't take your advice." Many people tried to convince him to offer incense to the honor of the Emperor but he would not budge. They finally arrived at the stadium, where the crowd was waiting for the day's entertainment and all worked up. When he walked into the stadium, a voice from the heavens said "Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man." Standing in front of the crowd, the police gave him one more chance to recant, saying, "Think of your years. Swear by the luck of the Emperor, or at least say 'Down with the infidels.'" The Governor finally said, "Take an oath and I'll let you go. Revile your Christ." Polycarp said, "I've served Him for 86 years and he had done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme and deny my King and Savior?" They threatened him with wild beasts, and he said, "Bring on the animals, because I will not trade a good way of thinking for a bad one. It might be a good idea for you, however, to switch from the wrong to the right!" Like most men in power, the Police Commissioner didn't appreciate smart-aleck answers, and he hollered "I'll have you burned with fire since you think so lightly of the beasts!" Polycarp responded "The fire you threaten me with won't burn for very long; it will eventually go out, but are you unaware of the eternal flames of judgment and eternal torment that wait for the ungodly? Come on, stop wasting time, do what ever yo are going to do!" The crowd shouted, "Polycarp has admitted to being a Christian!" (Duh! Ever notice how intelligent large crowds in stadiums are?) and started gathering wood to burn Polycarp. When the pile of combustible materials was ready, Polycarp took off his tunic and sandals and stood next to the stake. They fastened his feet with irons and were about to nail him to the stake when he said, "Let me be; He who gives me strength to endure the flames will give me strength not to flinch at the stake without your making sure of it with nails." So they tied him to the stake, instead. Polycarp looked up into heaven and prayed: "Almighty God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, you are the God of angels and power and of the whole creation, and all the generations of the righteous live in your sight. I thank you for granting me this day and hour that I might be numbered amongst the martyrs, to share the cup of your Anointed and to rise into life everlasting. May I be received this day into your presence, a sacrifice rich and acceptable, for you are the God of truth and in you is no falsehood. I praise you, I glorify you, and I bless you, through our eternal high priest in heaven, your believed Son, Jesus, Christ, by whom and with whom be glory to you and the Holy spirit, now and for all ages to come. Amen." As the "amen" soared up and the prayer ended, the men lit the fire and a great sheet of flame blazed out. It enveloped Polycarp like a ship's sail and formed a wall around him, and he was in the center of the fire, like an ingot of gold being refined in the furnace. Then everyone smelled a wonderful fragrance, not the odor of burning flesh, but of fine incense. Finally, when they realized the fire would not destroy him, two tough-guys went up and stabbed him. As they did, a dove flew out of the fire and there was such a rush of blood that the flames were extinguished! And with that, the great Bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, student of the Beloved Disciple, went to his reward, to a robe of white, standing with a palm branch in front of the throne of the Lamb, saying "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb."

Tertullian said, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." The witness of brave Christians like Polycarp has been an example to Christians for centuries. When I read of Christians in the U.S. claim that they are being persecuted because their children can't pray around a flag pole at school, or those in TEC who claim persecution because gay and lesbian Christians are being ordained, I think of someone like Polycarp, someone who knew real persecution, someone who stood up to the authorities, someone who braved the wild beasts and burning at the stake, and I think, "aren't we blessed that we don't know real persecution?" May Polycarp's witness be a model for us all.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Feast of Cyril and Methodius


Today is St. Valentine's Day, but no one is really sure who this St. Valentine was. He may have been a Roman priest martyred during the reign of the Emperor Claudius in the mid third century, or he may have been the bishop of Terni, who was taken to Rome and martyred and whose remains were returned to Terni. The feast of St. Valentinus was once on the Roman calendar but he was dropped quite a while back, and now his day is more of a "Hallmark Holiday" a holiday for selling greeting cards, flowers, and chocolates.

Today is also the Feast of Saints Cyril and Methodius, two very important saints. Cyril and Methodius were brothers and lived in Thessalonica, a town where Christians were gathering very early in the history of the Church. Methodius was born around the year 815 and his brother Constantine was born around the year 826. Constantine studied philosophy and later became a monk, taking on the name of Cyril. As a philosophy student, Cyril also studied languages and was well-versed in Hebrew, Arabic, and even the Samaritan dialect. In the year 860, Photius, the patriarch of Constantinople selected Cyril and Methodius as the first missionaries to the Slavs. He chose them not only because Cyril was good with languages, but because as children both brothers spent a lot of time around the Slavs who lived in Thessalonica; they learned the Slavic language and were fluent in that language. They were the natural choice to be missionaries to the Slavs. Their first missionary trip in 860 was to the Khazars who lived north of the Caucasus region, but it was unsuccessful and the Khazars actually ended up accepting Judaism instead of Christianity. In the year 863, Rostislav, prince of Moravia (which is the area we now call the Czech Republic), requested Christian missionaries be sent. He had one requirement: that the missionaries be able to preach to the people in their own language and must do services in Slavonic, which meant that they needed Bibles and service books in Slavonic. So, before they even left for Moravia, the brothers started translating the Bible into Slavonic. There was not actual Slavonic alphabet so they had to invent one with which they would write their translations of the Bible and prayer books. The alphabet invented by St. Cyril is called Glagolithic and his followers invented another alphabet called Cyrillic which is the alphabet used in Russia and the former Eastern Block nations to this day. They translated the Bible into the dialect they had learned as boys, a Macedonian dialect of slavonic spoken around Thessalonica, an this language is now called Church Slavonic, and it is the liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Slavonic Orthodox Churches. This is very important, because the Slavs were one of the few peoples who heard the gospel read in their own language instead of Greek or Latin, the major languages of the Church at that time. The Roman church always insisted that everything be done in Latin, but the Eastern church felt that it was important that services and readings be done in the vernacular of the people, the same concept which is accepted in the Anglican Communion. Cyril and Methodius ran into some trouble in Moravia and in Bulgaria; the Church in the West had sent German missionaries and they did not like the Greek Orthodox monks working in their area. The brothers were doing services in the language of the people while the Germans did everything in Latin; the brothers recited the Nicene Creed in its Eastern form without the filioque. In order to end German interference with the mission, Cyril asked for the protection of the Pope as he really didn't get involved in the East-West arguments and the Church was still united at that time; Cyril just wanted to continue working in Slavonic. The brothers traveled to Rome in 868 to speak to Pope Hadrian II, and he received them favorably and gave full support to their mission, allowing them to work in Slavonic, and even approved their translations of the Bible and service books. Unfortunately, Cyril died in Rome in 869, and when Methodius returned to Moravia, the Germans ignored the Pope's decision and obstructed him in every way; they even put Methodius in prison for a year!
When Methodius died in the year 885, the Germans ran his followers out of the country and even sold some of them into slavery (fine Christian people!). The Slavonic church lasted there for another two hundred years but then vanished; it seemed as if the mission of Cyril and Methodius had failed. but while their mission died in Moravia their translations moved in to Bulgaria, Serbia, and Russia, and Church Slavonic is the liturgical language of those areas. The Church grew and spread throughout that area and even lasted through fifty years of Communist oppression.

Some of the issues that Cyril and Methodius dealt with are still important today and are even important to us here in Panama. The issue of language is a very important issue here. I think that what saints Cyril and Methodius taught us is that it is important that people hear the gospel and worship in the language with which they are familiar, whether that language be English, Español, or Slavonic. When people hear the gospel in their own language the church takes root and grows. Cyril knew that it was important that the peoples of the Caucasus hear the Word in their own words and he was willing to go to those who spoke Latin to get the support he needed, because he knew that the Church is large enough to include everybody, whether they speak Español, English, Nippon-go, Hungarian, Greek or Slavonic, God hears us no matter what language we speak. What is important is that we remember that we are One Body, we are united as one body in Christ. One of the oldest Eucharistic prayers we have is in the Didache and it says "as this grain was once scattered over the hills and was brought together as one loaf of bread, so may your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom." Let us take the example of saints Cyril and Methodius to heart realizing that the Church is One Body in Christ.

Almighty and everlasting God, by the power of the Holy Spirit you moved your servant Cyril and his brother Methodius to bring the light of the Gospel to a hostile and divided people: Overcome all bitterness and strife among us by the love of Christ, and make us one united family under the banner of the Prince of Peace; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Friday, February 05, 2021

The Martyrs of Japan

 The story of the introduction of Christianity to Japan is quite different from its introduction in Europe or the Americas, because the culture of the Japanese is quite different from those of the West. There were two religions in Japan from the sixth century to the sixteenth century: Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto is the nationalist religion; it is for Japanese only and is not an evangelical faith, meaning it does not seek converts. It is animistic in nature, with different kami or spirits inhabiting trees and rocks and animals, etc. It is nationalistic in that its leader is the Emperor, who is descended from Amaterasu, the sun-goddess. Shinto has been the religion of Japan since 400 B.C.E. Buddhism was introduced from Korea in 552 C.E., and it spread rapidly. The Japanese have combined Shinto and Buddhism, creating a syncretic faith unique to Japan and the Ryukyu Islands. 

The first Christian missionaries arrived in the Japanese Islands not long after the first Westerners. Three Portuguese sailors were traveling on a Chinese junk, which was driven off its course by a storm. After drifting about for some days, it finally arrived on the shores of Tanegashima, a small island off the coast of Kyushu, the main Japanese island. The Portuguese were well accepted, and soon they set-up trade with the Japanese. One day, a Japanese named Yajiro found asylum on a Portuguese ship. Yajiro was on the run, trying to escape punishment for his crimes. The Portuguese told him that he would have to go to Malacca, India, and confess his sins to a Jesuit missionary named Francis Xavier. Yajiro did so and his encounter with Francis Xavier created a desire in the heart of the priest to witness to the Japanese people. Father Xavier arrived in Kagoshima, in the southern part of Kyushu, on August 15, 1549, and was given permission to preach by Lord Satsuma, ruler of the province. Lord Satsuma wasn’t interested in Christianity, but he did want Portuguese ships to stop in Kagoshima with their European goods, but the Portuguese passed Kagoshima for Hirado, a rival port. Francis Xavier began to preach, but the Buddhist priests complained to Lord Satsuma that he wasn’t content to merely preach but was attacking their religion. This, combined with Satsuma’s disappointment in the lack of ships visiting Kagoshima caused Lord Satsuma to issue an edict in 1550 forbidding the adoption of Christianity. The edict carried a penalty of death. More Jesuit missionaries arrived with the Portuguese traders, and they continued to preach throughout Japan, gathering converts and building churches. In forty-five years there were more than 300,000 Christians in Japan, and this was happening even though the faith was forbidden in some areas. The Jesuits continued to attach the faiths of Shintoism and Buddhism, and this created a lot of trouble for them. Hideyoshi, the emperor of Japan, was open to letting the Jesuits work throughout his island nation, but the complaints of the Shinto and Buddhist priests, plus the evil actions of Portuguese traders, created a situation in which Hideyoshi turned against Christianity and asked the Vice Provincial of the Jesuit Order the following five questions, demanding an immediate answer: 1. Why and by what authority were he and his fellow workers converting Hideyoshi’s subjects to Christianity? 2. Why had they induced their converts to overthrow Shinto and Buddhist Temples? 3. Why did they persecute the Shinto and Buddhist priests? 4. Why did the Christians and Portuguese eat animals useful to humans, such as cows and oxen? 5. Why did the Vice-Provincial allow the Portuguese merchants to buy Japanese and make slaves of them in India? The Vice-Provincial’s answers did not placate Hideyoshi and he began to wonder if the foreigners were threatening the new unity he was creating in Japan. Hideyoshi allowed the Jesuits to remain, under some restrictions. He then allowed some Franciscans to enter Japan with the distinct understanding that they would not evangelize. This did not work at all; I guess the Franciscans misunderstood the understanding. The Franciscans were soon running around preaching and building churches and fighting with the Jesuits; they even seized a Jesuit church in Nagasaki (reminds me of the Donatists and catholics of Northern Africa in the fifth century!). Hideyoshi became very angry that the Franciscans had violated their agreement and was planning to deport them. He was also planning an invasion of Korea, so he really didn’t want to bother with these troublesome missionaries. Hideyoshi spoke with the pilot of a Spanish ship that was stranded on the coast of Japan, and he had heard of their colonies around the world. He asked the pilot how the Spanish had managed to hold sway over so much of the world, and the pilot told him: “Our kings begin by sending into the countries they wish to conquer missionaries who induce the people to embrace our religion, and when they have made considerable progress, troops are sent who combine with the new Christians, and then our kings have not much trouble in accomplishing the rest.” A statement which does contain some truth, but was hardly helpful for the Christian missionaries. Hideyoshi was furious and threatened to put all missionaries to death, but some influential Japanese, some of whom were not Christians, intervened and only three Jesuits were executed, but no mercy was shown to the Franciscans. Their ears and noses were cut off, and they were led through the streets of Kyoto, Sakai, and Osaka in carts. They were sent to be crucified in Nagasaki. Terazawa Hazaburo, brother of the governor of Nagasaki, was in charge of the execution. Twenty-six crosses were on the ground at Nishizaka Hill, waiting for the condemned. They were fastened to the crosses by iron rings around their hands, feet, and neck and a rope around the waist. The sentence of death, read to the martyrs, stated As these men came from the Philippines under the guise of ambassadors, and chose to stay in Miyako preaching the Christian law, which I have severely forbidden all these years, I come to decree that they be put to death, together with the Japanese that have accepted that law. According to an account written by the Rev. Diego R. Yuki, a Japanese Jesuit priest, one of the martyrs, Paul Miki, responded: "All of you who are here, please, listen to me. I did not come from the Philippines, I am a Japanese by birth, and a brother of the Society of Jesus. I have committed no crime, and the only reason why I am put to death is that I have been teaching the doctrine of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I am very happy to die for such a cause, and see my death as a great blessing from the Lord. At this critical time, when, you can rest assured that I will not try to deceive you, I want to stress and make it unmistakably clear that man can find no way to salvation other than the Christian way." He saw Terazawa and the executioners and said to them, "The Christian law commands that we forgive our enemies and those who have wronged us. I must therefore say here that I forgive Taikosama. I would rather have all the Japanese become Christians." The executioners moved down the line, stabbing the martyrs with lances. According to Padre Yuki:  The Portuguese and the Japanese Christians attending the executions could not be kept in check any longer. Breaking through the guard, they pressed forward to the crosses and started soaking pieces of cloth in the martyrs blood gathering lumps of the earth sanctified by them, tearing up their habits and kimonos for holy relics. The guards kept on beating them. pulling them away. The blood of the wounded mixed with that of the martyrs. Order was finally established, and Terazawa positioned guards all around the hill, with strict orders not to allow anybody near the crosses. After completing his task Terazawa withdrew from the hill. Many could notice that even the tough soldier was crying. The twenty-six martyrs were: 1. ST. FRANCIS, a carpenter from Kyoto. 2. ST. COSMAS TAKEYA, a sword-maker from Owari. 3. ST. PETER SUKEJIRO, a young man from Kyoto. 4. ST. MICHAEL KOZAKI, a native of Ise, 46 yeas old and a bow maker. 5. ST. JAMES KISAI, a Jesuit lay brother, Sixty-four years of age. 6. ST. PAUL MIKI, had been born in Tsunokuni district, the son of a brave soldier, Miki Handayu. The best preacher in the country he fell silent when the executioner's blow shattered his heart. He was only thirty years of age. 7. ST PAUL IBARAKI, born in Owari, of a samurai family. 8. ST. JOHN OF GOTO, a portrait of innocence and joy, a short life of 19 yeas fully used in the service of God. 9. ST. LOUIS IBARAKI, the youngest of the group, only 12 years old. 10. ST. ANTHONY, born Nagasaki of a Chinese father and Japanese mother. 11. ST. PETER BAPTIST. Superior of the Franciscan Mission in Japan, former ambassador from Spain, a father to the poor lepers, a captain of martyrs. 12. ST. MARTIN OF THE ASCENSION, born in Guipuzcoa, Spain. He was 30 years old. 13. ST. PHILIP OF JESUS, a Mexican, 24 years old. 14. ST. GONZALO GARCIA, 40 years, born in India of a Portuguese father and an Indian mother. He is the patron saint of Bombay. 15. ST. FRANCIS BLANCO, was born in Monterey (Galacia, Spain) and came to Japan with St. Martin of the Ascension. 16. ST. FRANCIS OF ST MICHAEL, 53, born in La Parrilla (Valladolid, Spain). He died in silence, just as he had lived. 17. ST. MATTHIAS. We know nothing about his age, place of birth or date of baptism, only his name and the reason why he joined the martyrs. The soldiers were looking for another Matthias who could not be found. Our saint offered himself and the soldiers gladly accepted him. God accepted him too. 18. ST. LEO KARASUMARU, from Owaru, younger brother of St. Paul Ibaraki. A zealous catechist and a man of prayer, he was a leading figure among the lay martyrs. 19. ST. BONAVENTURE. Baptized as an infant, he soon lost his mother, and his stepmother sent him to a Buddhist monastery. One day he found out about his baptism, and came to visit the Franciscan convent in Kyoto, his place of birth, eager to have further information. here he found again his peace of soul. On his way to the cross he prayed for his father's faith and the conversion of his stepmother. 20. ST. THOMAS KOZAKI. With the rugged manners of a country boy, this fourteen year old had a beautiful heart, much like the Pearls of his native Ise. He was straightforward, unhesitant and totally committed in his service to God. 21. ST.JOACHIM SAKAKIBARA, 40 year old, a native of Osaka. A man of very strong character, he excelled for his kindness and readiness to serve, a fitting preparation for the martyrs' crown. 22. ST FRANCIS. Born in Kyoto, 48 years old. He was a physician and a zealous preacher. 23. ST THOMAS DANGI. A druggist, with an extremely violent disposition, he mellowed with God's help into a kindhearted catechist. 24. ST. JOHN KINUYA, 28 years old, from Kyoto. A silk weaver and trader, he had recently been baptized and moved his shop next to the convent. 25. ST. GABRIEL, a native of Ise, 19 years old, another young life ungrudgingly offered to God. He worked as a catechist. 26. ST. PAUL SUZUKI, 49 years old, from Owari. His cross was at the end of the row and his voice, all fire and zeal, could be heard un impeded. He was in charge of St Joseph's Hospital in Kyoto. The Christians of Japan continued to be persecuted, and Japan eventually isolated itself from the rest of the world, not to open up again until the nineteenth century. The Church existed underground in Nagasaki for over two hundred years, without bishops, priests or deacons, but under the guidance and protection of the Holy Spirit. There are now many missionaries in Japan, and there is an Anglican Church (Nippon Sei Ko Kai) which has been there since the nineteenth century, but Christianity is still a minority religion. But those who are Japanese Christians remember the tremendous witness of the 26 martyrs of Japan, whom we remember today. May we all be as faithful and brave as they. O God our Father, source of strength to all your saints, you brought the holy martyrs of Japan through the suffering of the cross to the joys of eternal life: Grant that we, encouraged by their example, may hold fast the faith we profess, even to death itself; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

The Feast of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas


A Hymn of Ephrem of Syria

Praise to you, Son of the Most High, who has put on our body.

Into the holy temple Simeon carried the Christ-child and sang a lullaby to him:
"You have come, Compassionate One,
Having pity on my old age, making my bones enter
Into Sheol in peace. By you I will be raised
Out of the grave into paradise."
Anna embraced the child, she placed her mouth
upon his lips, and then the Spirit rested
upon her lips, like Isaiah
whose mouth was silent until a coal drew near
to his lips and opened his mouth.
Anna was aglow with the spirit of his mouth.
she sang him a lullaby:
"Royal Son,
Despised son, being silent, you hear;
Hidden, you see; concealed, you know;
God-man, glory to your name."

Even the barren heard and came running with their provisions.
The Magi are coming with their treasures.
The barren are coming with their provisions.
Provisions and treasures were heaped up suddenly among the poor.

The barren woman Elizabeth cried out as she was accustomed,
"Who has granted to me, blessed woman,
to see your Babe by whom heaven and earth are filled?
Blessed is your fruit
that brought forth the cluster on a barren vine."

Praise to you, Son of the Most Hight, who has put on our body.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Happy Feast of the Epiphany, Everbuddy!


Oh Dios, que por la guía de una estrella manifestaste tu único Hijo a los pueblos de la tierra: Guía a tu presencia a los que ahora te conocemos por fe, para que veamos tu gloria cara a cara; mediante Jesucristo nuestro Señor, que vive y reina contigo y el Espíritu Santo, un solo Dios, ahora y por siempre. Amén.

Normally, I would say "Christmas is over! Take down yer tree!" But after the year we've just had, I suggest leaving your tree up until Candlemas.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Remembrance of the Holy Innocents


Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the kind of feast to which the proper response is: "ewwwww!" According to the story in Matthew's gospel, Herod ordered all the boys under two years old in Bethlehem to be slaughtered because he wanted to prevent the arrival of the Messiah. There are no accounts of this event in non-biblical literature of the time, and one would expect that such a traumatic event would appear somewhere; Flavius Josephus doesn't mention it, and he spent some time on the abuses of Herod.
Whether Herod had children massacred or not, there are still many innocents being slaughtered here in our own time. Children die of starvation all over the planet, and innocent children die in the war zones our our world, especially in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Darfur. Innocent children die of abuse and neglect in developed nations and in developing nations. Innocent children die of neglect and abuse in the United States of America, too. Innocent children die every day on the streets of our cities. Innocent children were slaughtered in the shooting in Newtown just last year. The leaders of these nations are even more guilty than Herod, because we have actual proof of these atrocities taking place in our time.
So today, let us pray and remember the innocents massacred in this day and time around the world, and let's remember who is responsible for these modern-day atrocities.
We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Feast of John, Apostle and Evangelist

This is my sermon on St. John

John, son of Zebedee and Salome and younger brother of James, grew up along the shores of the sea of Galilee. Both John and James were followers of John the Baptizer, and John and Andrew were present when John the Baptizer saw Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God!” John was probably one of the earliest disciples of Jesus. Jesus called John and James “Boanerges” which means “Sons of Thunder” and they, along with Peter, where in the Inner Circle of the disciples. These three were blessed with the experience of seeing Jesus transfigured and talking with Moses and Elijah. When the women returned to tell the disciples of the empty tomb, both Peter and John ran to check out their story and John reached the empty tomb first. It was John who recognized the Resurrected Jesus sitting on the beach when they were fishing. According to the gospel attributed to John, Jesus gave the care of his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, to John as they stood at the foot of the cross. It was either James and John or their mother who asked Jesus if they could sit at his right and left when he entered his kingdom. We have no idea if they sit on either side of Jesus, but we do know that they shared the same cup as Jesus, the cup of persecution. James died the death of a martyr, but although John died in Ephesus at a very advanced age, he did suffer persecution. Tertullian and Jerome claim that during the persecution of Domatian, John was dipped in a cauldron of boiling oil outside the Latin Gate of the city of Rome. He was unharmed and was exiled to the island of Patmos to work in the mines. It was there that he received the vision which he wrote down and is named the Apocalypse of John the Divine, or the Book of Revelation.

John was the most prolific writer of the Twelve who followed Jesus; only the Apostle Paul left us more writings. John has a gospel attributed to him, the vision of the Apocalypse is attributed to him, and three letters to the Church in Ephesus are attributed to him. According to bishop Eusebius of Cesarea, the fourth century historian, John wrote his gospel because the other three gospels did not deal with the deeds of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. Eusebius said that John’s gospel was accepted by the Church from the earliest days, as well as the first epistle attributed to him, but that the other two epistles are not accepted by everyone. There was still disagreement as to whether the Apocalypse should be accepted as scripture in the fourth century; Eusebius writes: “In regard to the Apocalypse, the opinions of most men are still divided.” As I mentioned earlier, John moved to Ephesus upon his release from Patmos, and he became a very important part of the Church in Asia. St. Jerome writes that towards the end of John’s life in Ephesus, he was so weak that he could no longer preach or even stand. His young disciples would carry him into the church and, with great difficulty, the Apostle would say: "My dear children, love one another." Some of those in the congregation once asked him why he always said the same thing, why he repeated the same words, and the Apostle answered, "Because it is the precept of the Lord, and if you comply with it, you do enough " He finally died in peace in Ephesus, at about ninety-four years of age. As far as we know, John is the only one of the Apostles who died of old age rather than receiving the crown of martyrdom.

I want to finish by relating a story about the Apostle which Eusebius credits to Clement of Alexandria. This story gives us great insight into the nature of John: "Listen to a tale, which is not a mere tale, but a narrative concerning John the apostle, which has been handed down and treasured up in memory. For when, after the tyrant's death, he returned from the isle of Patmos to Ephesus, he went away upon their invitation to the neighboring territories of the Gentiles, to appoint bishops in some places, in other places to set in order whole churches, elsewhere to choose to the ministry some one of those that were pointed out by the Spirit. When he had come to one of the cities not far away, and had consoled the brethren in other matters, he finally turned to the bishop that had been appointed, and seeing a youth of powerful physique, of pleasing appearance, and of ardent temperament, he said, 'This one I commit to thee in all earnestness in the presence of the Church and with Christ as witness.' And when the bishop had accepted the Charge and had promised all, he repeated the same injunction with an appeal to the same witnesses, and then departed for Ephesus. But the presbyter, taking home the youth committed to him, reared, kept, cherished, and finally baptized him. After this he relaxed his stricter care and watchfulness, with the idea that in putting upon him the seal of the Lord he had given him a perfect protection. But some youths of his own age, idle and dissolute, and accustomed to evil practices, corrupted him when he was thus prematurely freed from restraint. At first they enticed him by costly entertainments; then, when they went forth at night for robbery, they took him with them, and finally they demanded that he should unite with them in some greater crime. He gradually became accustomed to such practices, and on account of the positiveness of his character, leaving the right path, and taking the bit in his teeth like a hard-mouthed and powerful horse, he rushed the more violently down into the depths. And finally despairing of salvation in God, he no longer meditated what was insignificant, but having committed some great crime, since he was now lost once for all, he expected to suffer a like fate with the rest. Taking them, therefore, and forming a band of robbers, he became a bold bandit-chief, the most violent, most bloody, most cruel of them all. Time passed, and some necessity having arisen, they sent for John. But he, when he had set in order the other matters on account of which he had come, said, 'Come, O bishop, restore us the deposit which both I and Christ committed to thee, the church, over which thou presidest, being witness. But the bishop was at first confounded, thinking that he was falsely charged in regard to money which he had not received, and he could neither believe the accusation respecting what he had not, nor could he disbelieve John. But when he said, 'I demand the young man and the soul of the brother,' the old man, groaning deeply and at the same time bursting into tears, said, 'He is dead.' 'How and what kind of death?' 'He is dead to God,' he said; 'for he turned wicked and abandoned, and at last a robber. And now, instead of the church, he haunts the mountain with a band like himself.' But the Apostle rent his clothes, and beating his head with great lamentation, he said, 'A fine guard I left for a brother's soul! But let a horse be brought me, and let some one show me the way.' He rode away from the church just as he was, and coming to the place, he was taken prisoner by the robbers' outpost. He, however, neither fled nor made entreaty, but cried out, 'For this did I come; lead me to your captain.' The latter, meanwhile, was waiting, armed as he was. But when he recognized John approaching, he turned in shame to flee. But John, forgetting his age, pursued him with all his might, crying out, 'Why, my son, dost thou flee from me, thine own father, unarmed, aged? Pity me, my son; fear not; thou hast still hope of life. I will give account to Christ for thee. If need be, I will willingly endure thy death as the Lord suffered death for us. For thee will I give up my life. Stand, believe; Christ hath sent me.' And he, when he heard, first stopped and looked down; then he threw away his arms, and then trembled and wept bitterly. And when the old man approached, he embraced him, making confession with lamentations as he! was able, baptizing himself a second time with tears, and concealing only his right hand, But John, pledging himself, and assuring him on oath that he would find forgiveness with the Saviour, besought him, fell upon his knees, kissed his right hand itself as if now purified by repentance, and led him back to the church. And making intercession for him with copious prayers, and struggling together with him in continual fastings, and subduing his mind by various utterances, he did not depart, as they say, until he had restored him to the church, furnishing a great example of true repentance and a great proof of regeneration, a trophy of a visible resurrection."

John is also called the Apostle of Charity, a virtue which is very much on our minds at this time of year. I will leave you with these words from John’s first epistle, which remind us why we remember him today:"Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?"

Shed upon your Church, O Lord, the brightness of your light, that we, being illumined by the teaching of your apostle and evangelist John, may so walk in the light of your truth, that at length we may attain to the fullness of eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I See You!

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