Tuesday, February 23, 2021
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
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 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
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:
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.