Friday, June 29, 2012

Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles and Martyrs

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.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Feast of Cyril of Alexandria, Bishop

Today is the Feast of Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria. I'll be honest from the start: I do not like Cyril of Alexandria. I think he was an arrogant jerk, but a genius when it came to explaining Trinitarian theology. Also, this is not going to be a scholarly article; it's a blog post, and full of Padre Mickey's opinions. You have been warned.

Cyril was of an Alexandrian family, and his uncle, Theophilus, was Partriarch of Alexandria. Cyril accompanied Uncle Theo to Constantinople for the Synod of the Oak, at which St. John Chrysostom was deposed as Partriarch of Constantinople, in a sham Synod run by Alexandrians in their constant battle against the theology of Antioch. While both groups agreed that Christ had two natures, the Alexandrians tended to emphasize the divinity of Christ, while the Antiocheans emphasized Christ's humanity. Both groups showed their Christian Love by making life miserable for each other's clergy. Alexandria had considered themselves Second to Rome in importance, and were very unhappy when Constantinople was named equal to Rome, and they tended to make a big stink anytime someone from Antioch became Partriarch of Constantinople (John Chrysostom's fate being a good example).

Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria

Theophilus died on October 15, 412, and Cyril was consecrated Patriarch on Oct. 18. He immediately went to war (and I MEAN war!) against the Novatians, the Neoplatonists, and the prefect Orestes. He ran the Jews out of Alexandria, and, while not personally responsible for the death of Hypatia, his followers were very much involved (Hypatia was a well-respected neo-Platonist teacher and philosopher. A mob, led by a lector named Peter, pulled her from her carriage, dragged her to a church and tore her flesh with potsherds until she died). In those days not everyone was inclined towards civil, scholarly debate; monks would come from the hills equipped with fuller's clubs to help drive home the theological point of their favorite bishop, and this was not limited to Alexandria, although the Alexandrians were ready to riot at the drop of a hat. The Prefect of Egypt, Orestes, was unhappy with Cyril and the expulsion of the Jews from Alexandria and expressed this fact. 500 monks from Nitria came to Alexandria to defend Cyril. One monk, Ammonius, threw a rock at Orestes which hit him in the head and left a wound. Orestes had Ammonius tortured to death, and Cyril treated his remains as the relics of a martyr. Rioting Alexandrians killed the prefect Callistus in the year 422. Cyril had a lot of power and he loved to wield it.

In the 428 Nestorius, an Antiochean priest known for his preaching, was appointed Patriarch of Constantinople by the emperor Theodosius II. On the way to Constantinople Nestorius visited with bishop Theodore, who advised Nestorius to be careful, be moderate, and respect the opinions of others. Unfortunately, Nestorius ignored this advice. At his consecration in April, 428, he shouted "Give me, O Emperor, the earth purged from heretics, and I will give you heaven!" He immediately went after the Arians, closing their only chapel and running them out of the city. However, it wasn't long before Nestorius himself was accused of heresy.

Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople

The people in Constantinople used a title for the Blessed Virgin which was popular in that city: Theotokus, or "God-bearer." This was not a title that was used in Antioch, but there were also people in Constantinople who questioned the use of the title. Nestorius decided to mediate the dispute and said things which wouldn't have raised an eyebrow back in Antioch, but really set-off his enemies, especially the Patriarch of Alexandria when he heard about it. Nestorius said, When I came here, I found a dispute among the members of the church, some of whom were calling the Blessed Virgin Mother of God (Theotokus), while others were calling her Mother of man. Gathering both parties together, I suggested that she should be called Mother of Christ (Kristotokus), a term which represented both God and man, as it is used in the gospels. This was just the opening Cyril was looking for; he was still angry that Constantinople was considered equal to Rome, and he didn't like Antioch. On Easter Sunday, 429, he publicly denounced Nestorius for heresy. He ignored the actual words of Nestorius and accused him of denying the deity of Christ. Nestorius' reaction was arrogant and he made some sloppy answers to Cyril's accusations, which was not a good idea as Cyril was a master at organizing support and destroying his enemies. Anathemas flew between Alexandria and Antioch, and finally the Third Ecumenical Council was called to meet at Ephesus in the year 431. It took a long time to travel in those days and not everyone arrived on time. The Patriarch of Antioch (a supporter of Nestorius) and his bishops were late, and instead of asking the Council to wait for their arrival, Cyril, who had brought fifty of his own bishops to the Council, opened the Council anyway. The imperial commissioner and about seventy other bishops protested this display of arrogance but were ignored. This was the most violent Ecumenical Council. Nestorius refused to attend, for fear of his life and guards were placed around the house in which he was staying to protect him. In the Bazaar of Heraclides described the atmosphere of the Council of Ephesus: They acted . . . as if it was a war they were conducting, and the followers of the Egyptian (Cyril) . . . went about in the city girt and armed with clubs . . . with the yells of barbarians, snorting fiercely . . . raging with extravagant arrogance against those whom they knew to be opposed to their doings, carrying bells about the city and lighting fires . . . They blocked up the streets so that everyone was obliged to flee and hide, while they acted as masters of the situation, lying about, drunk and besotted and shouting obscenities . . . Since John of Antioch and his bishops had yet to arrive, Cyril pushed through a vote and, 200 to 0, Nestorius was excommunicated. John and his bishops arrived too late; he declared the result illegal and held a counter-council which voted to excommunicate Cyril. These events threatened to tear apart of the unity of the Byzanine empire, so Theodosius II decided to accept the deposition of both patriarchs as a means of defusing the situation. Cyril and Nestorius were both arrested and imprisoned. Cyril bribed his way back into power with a gift to the grand chamberlain, the emperor's adviser; the gift consisted of fourteen oriental rugs, eight couches, six tablecloths, four tapestries, four ivory benches, six leather benches, and six ostriches. This "gift" put the Patriarchate of Alexandria some $3,000,000.00 in debt. Nestorius, who could be just as much of a jerk as Cyril, accepted the verdict of the emperor and went into exile, quietly protesting the injustice he experienced.

Cyril is not considered a saint because of the way he dealt with those with whom he disagreed; he was sainted because of abilities as a theologian. He was able to take the teachings of Athanasius, the Cappadocians, combined with classical Greek teachings on the Trinity, and create a systematic form of the Alexandrian theological tradition. While his writing style isn't exactly elegant, it is, according to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church: precise in exposition, accurate in thought, and skilled in reasoning. I've been reading Cyril's On The Unity Of Christ, translated by John Anthony McGuckin, and, while I can't stand Cyril the person, I love reading Cyril the theologian.

I've been thinking lately about the similarities between Nestorius' situation and Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's situation. Nestorius' comment regarding Kristotokus wouldn't have raised an eyebrow back in Antioch, and Bishop Katarine's comment "We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box" certainly wouldn't raise eyebrows in the dioceses of Nevada or Oregon or California or at CDSP, but her enemies, much like Cyril, were simply waiting for a phrase they could use against her. Cyril took Nestorius' comments and twisted them and used them against him, just as the folks in the Network and GAFCON use Katharine's words against her. But we can make sure that the truth is up there for all to see right away, unlike poor Nestorius, whose words weren't really studied until long after his death.

So, I don't like Cyril, but I think he is another example of the fact that God uses whomsoever God wants to use to bring about the Reign of God. Cyril wasn't the first bishop to behave in a less than Christian manner, and he won't be the last to do so, God is willing to use a jerk like me to help bring about God's reign. All we can do is be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit and answer "yes" to God's call.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Feast of St. Alban, First Martyr in Britain

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.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Feast of Bernard Mizeki, Martyr

Almighty and everlasting God, who kindled the flame of your love in the heart of your holy martyr Bernard Mizeki: Grant to us, your humble servants, a like faith and power of love, that we who rejoice in his triumph may profit by his example; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Mamiyeri Mitseka Gwambe was born in Inhambane, in Portuguese East Africa, which we now call Mozambique, in the year 1861. When he was twelve years old he decided to go into exile with some of his older cousins. They moved to Cape Town, South Africa. He worked as a laborer for ten years, working for white settlers, commuting to his home in the slums. Many of his neighbors used alcohol to treat their despair, which actually made things much worse, and he decided not to drink. This was one of the many ways in which he was different than his neighbors, along with his desire for education.

When he was about 20 years old, he enrolled in an Anglican night school run by the Cowley Fathers and administered by Baroness Paula Dorothea von Blomberg of Germany. He was a dedicated student with a gift for languages, and he learned English, High Dutch, French, and eight African languages. He was soon working as a translator, translating the Bible into indigenous African languages. He became a Christian and was baptized at St. Philip's Mission on Sir Lowry Road in Cape Town on March 7, 1886, with the Baroness serving as his godmother. He took on the name Bernard Mizeki at baptism. He worked as a houseboy at St. Bolumba's Hostel, a residential home for African men, and it was here that his talents in evangelism appeared. A few months later he was sent to Zonnebloem College where he was trained as a catechist.

In 1891, the Rt. Rev. George William Knight-Bruce, former Anglican Bishop of Bloemfontien was appointed missionary bishop of the new Diocese of Mashonaland. He needed volunteers who spoke the language to help with this pioneer missionary work, and Bernard Mizeki answered "yes" to this call. He travelled with the bishop into what was then called Rhodesia, but we now call Zimbabwe, a place which appears in the news quite often. Bernard served as the bishop's personal assistant and interpreter. Bernard eventually settled near the place where the chief of the vaNhowe people, Mungati, kept his cattle. He continued to travel to the city of Salisbury (now Harare) to work translating the Bible and Prayer Book liturgies into the seShona language. Mungati gave Bernard some land and he built his hut there. He built himself some furniture but then decided that he wanted to live as simply as his neighbors, so he took all his furniture and burned it. Bernard's daily routine involved prayer with his neighbors as a means of getting to know them, working in his garden, and studying local languages. He opened a school and opened his house so that his students could live with him. He later moved the school and mission station (with Mungati's permission) to a plateau near a grove of trees which supposedly housed the ancestral spirits of the Mashona poeple. The station prospered and the number of converts grew. Bernard respected the local religious beliefs, and, noticing that the Shona Spirit religion was monotheistic, he made connections between Christianity and the local religion, which increased his respect among the people. He was also respected by the Government official Llewellyn Meredith and a lay missionary, Douglas Pelly, although this connection to the white colonial government was not helpful to Bernard and probably had a part in his martyrdom.

Not everyone respected or liked Bernard Mizeki. The local witch-doctors saw him as a threat to their way of life, and Mchemwa, Mungati's son, despised Bernard. Bernard married Mutwa, granddaughter of Mungati and Mchemwa's niece, but this family tie did not help his relationship with Mchemwa. Although Bernard respected some aspects of the local religion, he didn't believe in the superstitious aspects, and he cut down some of the trees in the sacred grove, and carved crosses on some of the other trees. This angered the local witch-doctors, and they combined forces with Mchemwa. Mchemwa ordered Bernard's death, and one of the local religious leaders warned the Christians to stay away from the morning service on June 14. However, they all returned that evening. The Mashona rebellion was taking place, and Bernard was warned to flee, because Mchemwa had accused him of working as an agent of European imperialism. Bernard refused to leave, choosing to obey what he believed was his bishop's order to stay and work with the people there. On the evening of June 18, 1896, his enemies knocked on his door, dragged him outside, stabbed him with a spear, and left him for dead. His wife found him nearby, wounded but alive. He told Mutwa to flee, but she went to find him food and blankets to care for him. She saw a brilliant white light, which was seen by others as well. The light was shining all over the hillside where he lay dying. Witnesses claimed to have heard a great noise, like many wings of great birds. When Mutwa returned to where she had left Bernard, his body was gone. Mchemwa had taken his body and buried it in a secret place. He and his men then destroyed the mission station, leaving nothing but mud floors. Months later, Mutwa gave birth to their daughter and named her Masiwa, which means "fatherless one." At baptism her name became Bernadina.

Mchemwa and the witch-doctors thought that they had successfully ended Bernard Mizeki's ministry with the destruction of the mission station and his martyrdom. English missionaries had been working in the area for thirty years without even one baptism, but one month after Bernard's martyrdom, John Kupya, one of Bernard's students, was baptized, followed by Mutwa and many others. The hill on which Mungati’s kraal was located is now dominated by a large concrete cross.
The church is established in Zimbabwe and the place of Bernard's martyrdom is a site of pilgrimage in Africa, where large groups of people, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Protestants, come to pray and remember him on June 18, St. Bernard's Day. Next to his shrine stands Bernard Mizeki College. There are more than twenty memorials dedicated to Bernard Mizeki in South Africa alone, including many churches, and the altar in St. Cyprian’s Church in Langa, South Africa, is inscribed Bernard Mizeki si tandaza: Bernard Mizeki pray for us.

Bernard Mizeki was not afraid of those who would kill the body and he was willing to stand up and acknowledge Christ before others, even though his witness led to his death. His bravery, his faithfulness to the people whose lives were entrusted to his care, and his love for the Good News makes him an example of one who is a Witness, a martyr, a saint. May we all have the faith and courage of Bernard Mizeki.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Feast of Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea

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

Basil was born in the year 329, just a few years after the first Ecumenical Council held in Nicea from which came (eventually) the Nicene Creed. This is important because Basil would become one of the great defenders of orthodoxy against the Arian Heresy. His family was wealthy, well educated, and very devout Christians. His father was a lawyer and he was so devout that some people thought he was able to perform miracles. Basil's grandparents were converts and disciples of Gregory Thaumaturgus, the Wonder-worker, a disciple of Origen. They spent seven years in the woods of Pontus hiding during the Decian persecution, and their estate at Annesi on the Iris river had a chapel to forty martyrs. It must have been quite a household, for this family produced two bishops and the head of the first convent, and all three are considered saints by the Church.
Basil received a classical Greek education. He started in Caesarea, then studied under Libanius in Antioch, and, feeling restless, spent some time studying in Constantinople. Finally, he entered the University of Athens, studying under the best teachers of his time. He spent five years studying history, geometry, astronomy, poetics, and the classics. Athens was where he met his life-long friend Gregory of Nazianzus, another Cappadocian Father and future bishop. Another classmate was the future emperor, Julian. He returned to Cappadocia, having graduated from the best university in the world at that time, and took the seat of Rhetoric at the University of Caesarea. He enjoyed the academic life and oratory, and his sister, Macrina, accused him of being “puffed up beyond all measure with the pride of oratory” and complained that he thought he was better than anyone in town. He was always quoting the classics at her and showed absolutely no interest in following the Christian traditions of the family. Macrina was already preaching renunciation to the family, but Basil wasn't buying any of that! Then tragedy struck his family; his brother, Naucratius, who was the most handsome of the children, the most athletic, and the best scholar, and mom's favorite child, died suddenly. He was living at the family estate at Annesi, and had gone out fishing with a servant, and was brought home dead. Basil was overwhelmed by this event; he gave up his chair at the University and came to sit at his sister’s feet and learn of renunciation. Macrina was the source of solace in the family. She comforted her mother and brothers, and soon changed things around the house, having the slaves treated as equals and started talking about closing the house and moving to one of the other estates to found a religious community for women. This was the first monastery and the first monks were women, not men! Inspired by his sister’s example, Basil went to Egypt where he studied with the Anchorites. The Anchorites were hermits who lived lives of strict asceticism, living in the desert in caves and holes and little huts. They lived in communities but had no leader and tended to suffer from spiritual pride, believing that they were holier than everyone else. Basil spent a few months visiting Anchorites in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia, but he decided that the life of an Anchorite was undisciplined and lacking in humility. When Basil returned to Cappadocia, he was fired-up and wanted to start a community for men similar to the community for women Macrina had started at Annesi. He decided to found his community in Ibora, across the Iris river and facing Annesi. He invited his friend Gregory to come join him. His description of the place and the life they would live there sounds more like a great camping adventure than the monastic life: There is a high mountain very thickly wooded, watered toward the north with cool and transparent streams. Below the mountain lies a plain, richly watered by the mountain streams, skirted by a tremendous growth of trees thick enough to form a fence; and so, as you see, we live on an island more beautiful than the island of Calypso, which Homer thought to be the most beautiful on earth. Indeed, this is truly an island, enclosed on all sides and the earth dips away at the frontiers of the island; and the river, which flows from a mountain precipice, runs along one side, and is impassable as a wall; while the mountain, extending itself behind, and meeting the hollows in a crescent, stops up the path at its roots. There is but one pass, and I am the master of it. Gregory thought the place was cold and dark and full of thorns and he hated the little hut that he and Basil stayed in, and he hated the poor food; he and Basil almost broke their teeth on the homemade bread. Gregory left, but Basil was now convinced that the life of renunciation was the life for him. Taking his sister’s group as a model, he decided that it was better for monks to live under a rule of discipline: when and how much one should eat, rules deciding when and how often monks should pray, even rules on how many blankets one could have on one's bed. He developed the “Rule of Basil” which is still the model for monasteries of the Eastern Church. According to Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil wanted to take the best from his sister's system and the Anchorite system, "so that the contemplative life might not be cut off from society, nor the active life be uninfluenced by contemplation."

In 359, Basil became a lector in the church, and five years later, Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, against Basil's will, had him ordained a presbyter. As a presbyter he dealt with the minor duties of the episcopate. Basil and Bishop Eusebius were both stubborn, opinionated guys, and there were many arguments. At one point Basil had enough; he left Caesarea and returned to Ibora. When Valens, an Arian, became emperor, Eusebius, being one of the few orthodox bishops around, needed Basil's help and he was recalled to Caesarea. It was a difficult time for Caesarea; in the year 368 there were hailstorms, then floods, then earthquakes, and all of this was followed by a terrible drought. The peasants lost their crops and starvation hit the area. Basil, a rich young man, saw starvation for the first time and the plight of the poor and hungry touched him deeply. He sold the property he had inherited and gave the money to the hungry. He went around Caesarea to all the rich people he knew and demanded that they collect money and bread and give it to the poor. He told them, "There would be neither rich or poor if everyone, after taking from his wealth enough for his personal needs gave to others what they lacked." (Let those with ears, hear!) But the rich were more selfish than he ever expected, and if you read his homilies from that time, they often have a protest against wealth. He loved the poor, and to them he wrote: "since you have nothing, lend what you have to God." He realized the truth (a truth that I myself have seen many times) that there is often more human charity and warmth among the poor than anywhere else.

Two years later Eusebius died, and, with an Arian Emperor in Constantinople and an Arian Patriarch at Hagia Sophia, two bishops fighting for the throne in Antioch and Rome far away and out of touch, Basil saw no choice but to become a Bishop. Nothing would stop him and he would be victorious against all enemies. Bishop Gregory Nazianzus, father of his dear friend, recognized that there was no alternative, and arranged in his old age to be carried to Caesarea in order to take part in the election. Gregory won the election by a narrow margin, and the Bishop of Nazianzus consecrated Basil with his own hands. Athanasius wrote from Alexandria that every diocese should have a bishop like Basil. Basil was now Bishop of Caesarea, Metropolitan of Cappadocia, and Exarch of Pontus. As bishop he fought the Arians constantly and required all his clergy to be orthodox. When the Emperor tried to reduce his power by cutting his See of Cappadocia, Basil forced his brother Gregory to become bishop of Nyssa, and, upon his father's death, his dear friend Gregory as bishop of Nanzianzus. His fight for orthodoxy prevailed, and the Nicene faith was affirmed at the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 381.

Basil was also considered a great Liturgist, and the Liturgy of St. Basil is used in the Eastern Church for special occasions when the Liturgy of St. John Chrysotom is not used. It seems proper to me that we celebrate the feast of Basil the Great a little after the Feast of Pentecost, the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit, as the third person of the Trinity was very important to Basil. In his treatise On the Holy Spirit, Basil stated that both scripture and the faith of the Church requires that the same honor, glory and worship is to be paid to the Holy Spirit as to the Father and the Son. There was a traditional formula for liturgical prayer at that time which used the words: “Glory to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit,” but Basil wrote that we should say: “Glory to the Father with the Son together with the Holy Spirit.” Of course, now we deal with the issue by saying "Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit" which works quite well. Basil was devoted to, and recognized, the importance of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. Basil was also devoted to the poor, and this was illustrated in his will. When Basil died, he willed to the city of Caesarea a complete new town, built on his estate, with housing and a staff, a church for the poor, and a hospice for travelers. Basil was serious about the faith and he was also serious about the monastic life, that is why he developed his rule. But his concern for the poor also showed how seriously he took the commands of our Lord Jesus to care for the poor.

Let me share a story about Basil told by Robert Payne: One day when the saintly Ephraem Syrus was wandering through Cappadocia, he heard a voice saying: "Rise, Ephraem, and feed upon intellect." "Where shall I find it, Lord?" he asked. "Go toward My church, and there thou shalt find a royal vase full of the nourishment that is good for thee." He entered the church and saw a priest standing at the alar, a tall man with stooping shoulders; on one of those shoulders a snow-white dove sat, whispering in Basil's ear.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Trinity Sunday

Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And his disciples answered and said, "Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead; others say Elias, or other of the old prophets." And Jesus answered and said, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered and said, "You are the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member of the Trinity being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably with and interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple." And Jesus answering, said, "What?"
Nicked from someone on the HOB/HOD list serve last year

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Feast of Blandina and her Companions, the Martyrs at Lyons

Grant, O Lord, that we who keep the feast of the holy martyrs Blandina and her companions may be rooted and grounded in love of you, and may endure the sufferings of this life for the glory that shall be revealed in us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

In the year 177 a persecution began in the Gallic cities of Vienne and Lyons. These two cities were missionary centers in Gaul and attracted Christians from Greece and Asia. The bishop in Lyons was Pothinus, an elderly man of great faith. Christians were being excluded from the social life of Vienne and Lyons and pagan mobs would throw stones and insults at them when they were seen in the market place or at the public baths. Because the Christian Eucharist was not open to outsiders, many stories spread about what went on in these gatherings. Stories spread that Christians were eating the flesh and drinking the blood of babies, who they had rolled in flour before killing them. Another story was that they would hold meals with dogs tied to candle sticks (probably large menorahs). According to the stories floating about town, at one point in the meal, the celebrant would throw some meat to the dogs, who would them lunge for the meat and pull down the menorahs, extinguishing them and in the resulting darkness, an orgy would take place, complete with incestuous acts. These stories made people think that Christians were a threat to the morals of the community so they encouraged their persecution. Really, no one wants incestuous cannibals in the neighborhood! After a while, Christians were banned from any public place in Lyons. If people saw Christians in a public place, they would curse them, beat them, drag them along the ground, stone them and imprison them. When they confessed Christ they were locked up in the Gaol and awaited the governor’s arrival.

This was very difficult for the Christians; some were strong but others just couldn’t take the pressure and would recant. There were others who were willing to be witnesses, to be martyrs for Christ. One day a group was brought before the governor: Sanctus, a deacon from Vienne; Maturus, a recently baptized Christian; Attalus, who had always been a pillar and support of the Church in his native Perganum; and Blandina, a female slave, who turned out to be the strongest of the group. When brought before the governor and accused, she said, “I am a Christian: we do nothing to be ashamed of.” Sanctus the deacon was a strong person, too. His torturers had hoped that they would be able to force him to say something improper; they would demand his name, race, an birthplace, or whether he was a slave or free, and to every question he replied: “I am a Christian.” When they ran out of ideas, they pressed red-hot copper plates against the most sensitive parts of his body. He stood strong, refusing to give in to them. His body was one huge bruise, but he still stood firm. After a few days they put him on the rack, hoping that this would break him. But instead of collapsing and giving in, Sanctus’ body became erect and straight and recovered its former appearance. One woman, Biblis had denied Christ, but was still tortured. While she was on the rack she came to her senses, coming out of a deep sleep and realizing that she was in danger of eternal punishment in hell. She said to the slanderers, “How could children be eaten by people who are not even allowed to eat the blood of brute beasts?” She joined the ranks of the martyrs. The bishop Ponthinus was over ninety years old and, of course, quite weak physically; he suffered problems with his breathing. He was brought to the governor before the entire populace of the city, with the crowd jeering and shouting at him. The governor asked him, “Who is the Christians’ God?” Ponthius answered, “If you are a fit person you will know!” He was dragged among the crowd, who rained blows upon his body and others throwing whatever they could find at him. They threw the barely breathing bishop into a dungeon, where he died two days later. Instead of scaring the others, his death inspired them to embrace the crown of martyrdom. Marturus, Sanctus, Attalus and Blandina were taken into the amphitheatre to face the wild beasts. There, in front of everyone, Maturus and Sanctus were taken through all manner of punishments, as if this was their first day in the arena. They ran the gauntlet of whips; they were mauled by the beasts; they endured every torment that the frenzied mob of the arena demanded. They were placed in iron chairs and their flesh roasted until people were suffocating from the stench, yet they heard nothing from Sanctus other than “I am a Christian.” Sanctus and Maturus finally expired, but Blandina was hung on a post and exposed as food for the wild beasts let into the arena. She looked to the others as if she was hanging on a cross, and her prayers and encouragement to the others inspired the others, who, in their agony, saw their Lord and Savior crucified for them, reminding them that anyone who suffered for the glory of Christ has fellowship forever with the living God. Since the beasts hadn’t eaten her yet, she was taken down from the pole and returned to the gaol for another day. Attalus had to walk about the arena wearing a placard which read This is Attalus the Christian while the crowd heaped its fury upon him. However, the governor learned that Attalus was a Roman citizen, and so he returned him to the gaol while awaiting instructions from Caesar. The witness of Blandina and Attalus inspired those who, in an earlier bout of weakness had denied Christ, returned and stood before the governor confessing their faith in Christ. Alexander, a doctor from Phrygia who had lived in Gaul for many years, returned to confess before the governor. The crowd was furious that someone who had recanted would now confess Christ, and they screamed at him. The governor made him come forward and asked who he was. Alexander answered, “A Christian.” This angered the governor and he was condemned to the beasts. The next day he was taken into the arena with Attalus. Once again, they endured the entire gauntlet of punishments. They died that day. Alexander didn’t make a sound, not even a groan, but communed with God in his heart. When Attalus was placed in the iron chair, he finally cried out while the smell of roasting flesh rose from his body, “Look! Eating men is what you are doing! We neither eat men nor indulge in any malpractices.” They asked him what name God answered to and he replied, “God hasn’t a name like a person.”

To top everything off, Blandina was returned to the arena with Ponticus, a youth of about fifteen years. They were forced to watch Attalus and Alexander being tortured and were constantly told to renounce the Lord, but they stood firm. Of course, this enraged the crowd, and the two were subject to all the tortures which Alexander and Attalus had suffered, and after each horror were commanded to recant, but they held firm. The crowd noticed that Blandina was encouraging Ponticus, and he bravely endured every punishment until he finally gave his spirit back to God. According to Irenaeus’ account, Last of all, like a noble mother who had encouraged her children and sent them before her in triumph to the King, blessed Blandina herself passed through all the ordeals of all her children and hastened to rejoin them, rejoicing and exulting at her departure as if invited to a wedding supper, not thrown to the beasts. Blandina suffered the whips, then the beasts, then the griddle, and then was finally dropped into a basket and thrown to a bull. She was tossed all over the arena, but was totally indifferent to it all; she was communing with Christ and preparing to be with Him. She, too, finally was sacrificed, and the crowd said that they had never known a woman suffer so much for so long.

One might think that this was enough for the crowd, but one would be wrong. Even though the martyrs were now all dead, they still vented their rage on their lifeless bodies. Those who had died in prison, such as Bishop Ponthius, bodies were thrown to the dogs, and the corpses watched day and night so that none of the Christians could take the bodies and bury them properly. Then they took the remains and burned them. Other bodies were left exposed to the elements, the heads removed from the torsos. These, too, were watched and a proper burial denied. After six days of being exposed to every kind of insult and to the open sky, the bodies were finally burnt to ashes and swept into the river, denying any burial. They did this because they thought that, by destroying the bodies, they would defeat God and rob the dead of their rebirth; ”in order that they may have no hope of resurrection, the belief that has led them to bring into this country a new foreign cult and treat torture with contempt, going willingly and cheerfully to their death. now let’s see if they’ll rise again, and if their god can help them and save them from our hands.” Bishop Eusebius, in his History of the Church, writes “So much may profitably be said about the affection of those blessed ones for their brothers who had fallen from grace, in view of the inhuman and merciless attitude of those who later behaved so harshly towards the members of Christ’s body.” Sanctus, Attalus, Alexander, Ponticus, Bishop Ponthius, Blandina and the others were true Christian soldiers, because they fought against the forces of evil which wanted to destroy the followers of Christ. Remember their witness next time you hear someone claiming persecution because they can’t pray at a High School football game or teach Bible stories in a Public School.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Feast of Justin, Martyr at Rome

Almighty and everlasting God, you found your martyr Justin wandering from teacher to teacher, seeking the true God, and you revealed to him the sublime wisdom of your eternal Word: Grant that all who seek you, or a deeper knowledge of you, may find and be found by you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Justin was born to a Greek-speaking Roman family around the year 114 in Samaria, near Shechem, close to Jacob's Well. He was a seeker, studying different philosophies, searching for God. He first went to Ephesus to study. His first tutor was a Stoic, which was the most popular philosophy at that time. He went from that tutor to an Aristotelian teacher, followed by a Pythagorean, and then a Psatonist. and was a follower of Socrates and Plato. Justin's mind was always working and this made him restless, so he liked to take long walks along the beach so that he would be uninterrupted in his reflections. Once, while walking along a beach in Ephesus, he met a man who began to talk to him about Christianity. Justin was already impressed by the moral life lived by Christians and by their bravery in persecution. While talking with this man Justin says, "Straight away a flame was kindled in my soul and a love for the prophets and those who are friends of Christ possessed me." He became a Christian as a result of this encounter, and he began to preach the gospel and Christianity as the only "safe and profitable philosophy." However, he didn't believe that his conversion required him to abandon his philosophical questioning or to renounce all that he had gleaned from Platonism. He took to wearing a philosopher's robe. He moved to Rome in the year 150 and started a school of Christian philosophy which had many students. He also began to write and produced three books: First Apology, Second Apology, and Dialogue with Trypho. The First and Second Apologies of Justin are philosophical defenses of Christianity. Dialogue With Trypho is also an apology, and is written in the style of a conversation. The Apologies are defenses of Christianity against the Greek charges of irrationality and the Roman charge that Christians are atheists. Dialogue with Trypho is a defense of Christianity against the Jewish accusation that the Christians distorted the Hebrew scriptures. Here is a passage from Justin's First Apology: You call us Christians "atheists." We confess that we are atheists in so far as the gods of this world are concerned, but not in respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness, moderation, and all other virtues, who is entirely pure. It is this God, and the Son (who came forth from God and taught us these things, and about the host of other good angels who follow and are made to be like him), and the prophetic Spirit whom we worship and adore. When you hear that we are looking for a kingdom, you rashly suppose that we mean something merely human. But we are speaking of a kingdom with God, as must be clear from our confession before you when you bring us to trial, though we know that death is the penalty for such a confession. For if we looked for a human kingdom we would deny our Christ in order to save our lives, and would try to remain in hiding in order to obtain the things we look for. But since we do not place our hopes on the present world, we are not troubled by being put to death, and we know we will have to die one day in any case.

Justin taught that Christianity was the completion of all philosophy and that the philosophies of Plato and Socrates were merely small glimpses of what was to come. He taught that other religions, especially the various mystery cults which spread throughout the Roman Empire were demonic distortions of the truth proclaimed in the Good News of Jesus. Such teaching, of course, did not make him very popular with other philosophical teachers in Rome. Justin accused one teacher, Crescens, of the Cynic school of philosophy, of ignorance and immorality. Crescens was less than happy with this accusation and decided to take care of Justin and get rid of a philosophical rival. Crescens brought legal charges against Justin, and Justin and six of his pupils were arrested and brought before the prefect Rusticus. Rusticus gave them the opportunity to renounce their faith and live, if they would only offer sacrifice (incense) to the emperor. They all declined this offer. Rusticus asked Justin, "Do you suppose, then, that you will ascend into heaven and receive some recompense?" To which Justin replied, "I do not suppose it, but I know and am fully persuaded of it." Rusticus gave them all another chance to renounce their faith, to which Justin said, "No right-thinking person falls away from piety to impiety." Rusticus said, "Unless you obey you will be mercilessly punished." Justin said, "Through prayer we can be saved on account of our Lord, Jesus Christ, even when we have been punished, because this shall become to us salvation . . ." The others, Justin's students, said, "Do what you will, for we are Christians and do not sacrifice to idols." So Justin and his six students were taken out and scourged and then beheaded. Rusticus and others may have believed that this would put an end to things, but, as Tertullian said, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." Although thousands of Christians would die terrible deaths just like Justin and his students, the martyrs would win in the end. By the year 313 the Roman Empire was becoming Christian, and the government which once took property away from Christians returned it and also gave them new lands and buildings. The government which once killed Christians for not offering incense to the emperor now built new churches like Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, where incense was now offered to the Triune God. The martyrs did not die in vain, and their witness shows us that God can help us endure anything.

I See You!

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