Saturday, December 28, 2013

Feast 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.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Feast of St. 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.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Feast of St. Stephen, Proto-martyr


We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at
your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.




We don't have much information on St. Stephen, the Protomartyr. All the information we have comes from chapters 6 and 7 of the Acts of the Apostles, the second volume of the work attributed to St. Luke. One of the first disputes in the early Church involved the assistance programs for needy widows, and this dispute fell along the lines of language, as the Greek-speaking members of the community in Jerusalem complained that their widows were being ignored in favor of the widows of the Aramaic speakers. The apostles were fed-up with the dispute and realized that they couldn't go out and preach the Good News and take care of administrative and financial matters, so they told the community to select seven persons from the group, persons who were respected and of sound judgement and filled with the Holy Spirit. Seven men were selected, and among them was Stephen.

Stephen was quite a preacher. His sermons brought folks to repentance and to seek baptism, but his sermons could also really anger those in authority. One day he went too far and was stoned by a mob who had become enraged by his sermon. I guess they didn't like being called "stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, forever opposing the Holy Spirit." They dragged him outside of the city and stoned him, leaving their coats with one Saul, who approved of their killing him. Stephen didn't hold their anger against them, saying, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" just as he died. I guess that's one reason not to call people names when preaching.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Feast of St. Thomas, Apostle and Martyr


Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.



Today is the feast of my favorite apostle, Thomas. I was ordained a priest on his Feast Day (well, it fell on a Sunday that year so I was priested the next day, Dec. 22. Tomorrow is the fifteenth anniversary of my priesting.) and that was no accident. I think that he is the coolest apostle. Peter used to say anything that popped into his head; James and John, the Thunder Boys (thanks, Robbin!) were in the Inner Circle with Peter; Simon was either a Freedom Fighter or a Terrorist, depending upon your point of view; Andrew was the First Called and served as a liaison between Jesus and the other disciples; Matthew's gospel insured his fame, and the rest (and especially Mathias) were so boring that we don't know anything about them except that their names appear on lists. But Thomas, well, Thomas was kind of modern, in my opinion. He needed some proof before he was going to believe something. When Jesus appeared to the others in the Upper Room while Thomas was away, he didn't accept their story. He said he would believe when he touched Jesus' wounds. I've always thought that Thomas was treated unfairly by the Church, with them calling him "Doubting Thomas." He didn't really doubt; he didn't say "You guys are lying! I don't believe a word!" He just wanted some proof before he accepted the story. He spent a lot of time with those guys so I expect he knew them pretty well. Maybe he thought that they were inclined to jump to conclusions without thinking things through; we know Peter had that tendency. Maybe they used to play tricks on him. While the others were all locked away in the Upper Room, Thomas was away. I don't know what he was doing, but he certainly wasn't hiding in fear of the authorities. When Jesus appeared to those present in the Upper Room, they didn't recognize him until he showed them his wounds. Then they rejoiced. When Thomas showed up, they told him what happened and he delivered his famous line. A week later, Jesus appeared while Thomas was present. This time Jesus showed Thomas his wounds and even had Thomas touch them. What did Thomas say? Did he say, "I don't know, this all seems a bit strange"? Did he say, "Yuck! Why did you have me touch your wounds?" Did he say, "Are you really Jesus or is this some kind of sick joke?" No. He said, "My Master! My God!" Those don't sound like the words of a Doubter, of a Sceptic. No, those are the words of one who recognizes who Jesus is, those are the words of one who truly believes. Thomas was a good and faithful person; the fact that he wasn't cowering behind locked doors with the others says something about his character. It was Thomas who was willing to follow Jesus to Judea when Jesus wanted to see his friend Lazarus. The others were worried that Jesus' enemies would try to kill him. Thomas said, "Let us also go, that we may die with him." It was Thomas who, in John's version of the Last Supper, interrupts Jesus for some clarification, to ask: "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" It isn't that Thomas didn't want to believe, he just wanted to believe for the right reasons, he didn't want to simply "jump on the bandwagon." I think that it is important to remember that nome of the others believed that Jesus was resurrected until Jesus showed them his wounds; they just saw Jesus before Thomas, it doesn't make them any better or more faithful.

I love the Acts of Thomas and that wild story about Thomas' time in India, even though I'm sure it's a bunch of hooey, especially since Jesus sells Thomas to a slave trader so that Thomas would be a slave to the Raja of Malabar. I like the idea that Thomas went to India and started the Church there, but I doubt the veracity of most of those stories. However, I love the story in the Acts of Thomas (and can’t help but tell it) in which the Raja orders Thomas to build him the greatest and most beautiful palace in the world. Thomas tells the Raja that a building of such magnitude will be very expensive but the Raja really wants this building and gives Thomas lots of gold, which Thomas promptly takes and gives to the poor. When Thomas ran out of money, he asked the Raja for more, and the Raja gave him more, which he continued to distribute to the poor. When the Raja learned of what was going on, he called Thomas before him and demanded an accounting. Thomas told the Raja that he was building him a spectacular palace in heaven, and through mystic means of which we have no information, was able to show the Raja his palace in a vision. The Raja was so impressed that he converted to Christianity. A great story and another example of Thomas’ character.

I think that the example of Thomas is an important and worthy example to Christians, because he didn't just accept things without looking in to them. We all know people who think that blind faith is important, but blind faith, a faith which is not based upon reason, will lead one into trouble. Way too many false Christs have led people astray because their followers refused to question, because they were afraid of their doubts. During my wayward youth, I spent some four years in a psuedo-Hindu meditation cult with a guru. We were told "never leave room for doubt in your mind" and "never question the purity of the master," but the "master" was a fraud and needed to be questioned! A true Master does not need to tell his followers not to doubt, because he does not see doubt as a threat to faith, but as a normal part of the spiritual process. Thomas wasn't hard to convince; when Jesus appeared to him and showed him his wounds, Thomas didn't debate with Jesus, he said "My Master! My God!" Peter and the Beloved Disciple didn't believe the women when they returned from the empty tomb and said that they had seen the Lord, and none of the disciples believed until Jesus showed them his wounds. God gave us large brains capable of reason and thought, and God expects us to use these brains even in spiritual matters. Questioning and study are all part of loving God with all our minds. Thomas and the women and the others all believed because they saw the Resurrected Jesus. The believed because they saw the and touched the nail marks. They believed because the Resurrected Jesus appeared in their midst and talked with them. Jesus said that we who believe without seeing are blessed, and Christians throughout the centuries and millennia have held on to the promise of that blessing, because we have no choice, really. We have believed without seeing. But I must admit, if I was given the choice of being blessed in that manner or actually seeing the risen Christ and touching the nail marks and putting my hand in his side, I would exchange places with Thomas in a heart beat!
This post was visited by the Alter Guild

Friday, December 13, 2013

Feast of Lucy, Martyr in Sicily




It's my annual Santa Lucia post!
As is usually the case, we don't have what we would consider accurate information regarding the life of Lucy. According to tradition, she was martyred in the year 304, which would mean that she was born in the late third century. She was born in Syracuse, in Sicily, to wealthy parents. Her father died when she was very young, and her mother, a Christian, raised her in the faith. Lucy had decided to dedicate herself to God at an early age, and she decided to dedicate herself to virginity and not to marry. Her mother didn't know about Lucy's plans and, as a good mother of that era, had arranged a marriage for her with a young man of Syracuse. Lucy's mother, Eutychia, had suffered from a hemorrhage for four years, and nothing the doctors did helped her. One day Eutychia and Lucy were in Catana, a town about fifty miles from Syracuse. They were attending Mass at the shrine of St. Agatha, when they heard the reading of the woman with a hemorrhage who was healed when she touched Jesus' garment. Lucy said to her mother, "If you believe this story from the gospel, and you believe that St. Agatha is with Christ, since she suffered in his name, I believe that you will be healed when you touch her tomb." After the service they went to the tomb and prayed. While they were prostrated in prayer Lucy fell asleep and had a dream in which she saw St. Agatha among a host of angels, beautifully dressed and bedecked with jewels. Agatha said to Lucy, "My sister Lucy, true virgin of God, why do you ask me for what you yourself could grant? Your holy faith has helped your mother: look! She is entirely healed through Christ; and even as this town is made famous by me through Christ's favor, so shall Syracuse be made famous by you, because you prepared yourself for Christ, in your pure virginity, as a pure habitation." Lucy woke up, trembling from her vision, and said to her mother, "You have been totally healed. Now, by the same one who healed you with prayers, I beg of you, please, don't ever arrange a marriage for me or expect me to have any children. I ask that the money you would have given me for my dowery be given to me to keep me in my chastity and be given to the poor. I will not marry; I belong to Christ." Her mother said, "You know that we are rich and that I have been a good steward of your father's property. I have even invested and increased his wealth. Why don't you wait until I die. Then you will inherit everything and can do with it as you will." But Lucy said, "Look, mother, you can't take the wealth with you, and whatever you give away at death for the Lord's sake is exactly because you can't take it with you. Why don't you just give it away now and receive God's blessing?" After the visit to Catana, Lucy was always talking her mother into giving away the family fortune. Well, the young man to whom Eutychia had betrothed Lucy, Pashasius, heard about this and was quite upset. He came to talk to Lucy and set her straight. Pashasius was a Pagan, and he tried to get Lucy to follow the local civil religion. This was during the era of the Diocletian Persecution, and it was very dangerous time to be a Christian. He wanted Lucy to sacrifice to the local gods; (St. Ælfric, who wrote a version of the story of St. Lucy, said that Pashasius wanted Lucy to sacrifice to devils!) but Lucy responded, "A pure offering is this, and acceptable to God, that one should visit widows, comfort exiles, and help orphan children. I have spent the past three years making these offerings to the Living God, and now I only want to offer myself to God, living as a virgin." This upset Pashasius, and the two of them argued for a while, until he, being a jerk, threatened her with a beating if she didn't be quiet. Lucy said, "The words of the Living God cannot be suppressed or put to silence." He responded, "What, are you God?" Lucy said, "I am the Almighty's handmaid and because of this I speak God's words, since he says in his gospel, 'It is not you who speak there, but the Holy Spirit speaks in you.'" Pashasius said, "Really! Does the Holy Spirit live in you?" Lucy said, "The Apostle Paul promised those who preserve their chastity that they will be God's temple and the habitation of the Holy Spirit." This made Pashasius so angry that he said, "I'm going to have you dragged down to the house of prostitution, where you will lose your virginity and the Holy Spirit will flee from you!" Lucy said, "You can pollute my body but it won't affect my soul because I am being forced against my will. If you were to lift my hand to your idol and make an offer against my will, I would still be guiltless in the eyes of the true God, because God judges according to the will and knows everything. If now, against my will, you cause me to be polluted, a double purity will be gloriously given to me. You cannot bend my will to your purpose; whatever you do to my body, that cannot happen to me." Pashasius was crazy with anger now, and, being a stupid jerk, he was determined to put her in the brothel. He called his friends and they tried to pick her up put couldn't move her. Now, according to the story, she was a not a large person, but when they tried to pick her up the Holy Spirit held her fast to the ground; she stood as firm as a mountain. Pashasius called over some sorcerers, hoping that they could use their magic to break her and the hold of the Holy Spirit, but they failed. He finally had a yoke of several oxen harnessed to her, but even the oxen were unable to move Lucy. He asked her, "Why can't a thousand men move you,
as small and weak as you are?" Lucy said, "Even if ten thousand men tried to move me, they would all hear the Holy Spirit saying, 'A thousand shall fall beside you and then a thousand at your right hand, but no evil will approach you.'" So now Pashasius, being the biggest jerk in all of Syracuse, had a pyre built around her, and they put pitch and oil on it and lit it to burn her to death. Lucy stood in the center of the fire and said, "The Lord has spoken to me through prayer and has promised me that this fire will have no power over me, and as a result all the faithful will lose any fear of torture." This drove him even crazier and so, proving that he was a jerk and that she was correct not to marry such an a**hole, he decided to kill her with his sword. Pashasius stabbed Lucy and as her bowels were spilled on the ground, she predicted that Diocletian and Maximian would be deposed, the persecutions would end, and the Church would know peace. So there! While she spoke, Pashasius was arrested and brought to Rome where he was eventually beheaded. The priests came and administered the holy sacrament to Lucy as she laid on the ground, and she passed to glory as they said, "amen."
St. Lucy was a popular saint in the Early Church because even though she was weak, small, and young, she was able to standup for what she believed and refused to bow to the pressures of society. She was willing to die rather than go against her faith. Her strength and faithfulness made her a model for those who could still remember the Diocletian persecutions, and she was a model for those who wanted to live lives of chastity. That is why we remember her today.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Feast of the Immaculate Conception and Día de las Madres en Panamá


Queen of peace, pray for us!
Our gaze is directed toward you in great fear, to you do we turn with ever-more insistent faith in these times marked by many uncertainties and fears for the present and future of our planet.
Together we lift our confident and sorrowful petition to you, the first fruit of humanity redeemed by Christ, finally freed from the slavery of evil and sin: hear the cry of the pain of victims of war and so many forms of violence that bloody the earth. Clear away the darkness of sorrow and worry, of hate and vengeance. Open up our minds and hearts to faith and forgiveness!

Mother of mercy and hope: Help every human being of every race and culture to find and embrace Jesus, who came to earth in the mystery of Christmas to give us 'His' peace.
Mary, Queen of peace, give us Christ, true peace in the world!


Today is Mother's Day in Panama and it is a big deal, a national holiday. Everything is closed, except for the 24 hour Grocery Stores. Everyone has the day off!.

Panamanians celebrate Mothers' Day on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and the Costa Ricans celebrate Mothers' Day on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. In Central America, the Blessed Mother and our blessed mothers get to celebrate on the same days.

¡Feliz Día de las Madres! Happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Feast of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan

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


Ambrose was born in the year 337 to a Christian family. His father, Aurelius, was Prefect of Gaul, governing all of Britain, France, Spain,Portugal, part of Germany, and the islands of Sardinia, Corsica, and Sicily. His father’s palace was in Trier, Germany, but his mother had a palace in Rome. Ambrose spent part of the year in Germany and part in Rome. According to his biographer, Paulinus, the pope and other important bishops used to visit his mother’s palace regularly. One day the ladies of the house were kissing the hands of the bishops, and young Ambrose, holding out his hand, mocked them and said, “You should do the same for me since I am going to be a bishop.” He was very close to his siblings, Marcellina and Satyrus. When his sister Marcellina took a vow of virginity, he did the same, and both Ambrose and Satyrus followed in their father’s footsteps, studying literature, law, and rhetoric in Rome and they both served as barristers in the Court of the Praetorian Prefect of Italy. They were both appointed Prefects.

Ambrose was appointed Prefect of the province of Aemilia-Liguria in Upper Italy, with its headquarters in Milan. Ambrose was a good administrator and a popular governor. In the year 374, Auxentius, the bishop of Milan, died. The Church in Milan was divided between those who were loyal to the Nicene Creed and those who supported the ideas of Arius. The Nicene and Arian parties of the Church in Milan prepared to fight for their particular candidates to be elected bishop. We’ve talked before about how the people of that era would actually fight and come to blows over theology and dogma, and the situation in Milan threatened to turn violent. Ambrose, the prefect, went to the basilica in Milan to try to prevent an uproar. He spoke to those gathered at the basilica and he didn’t take sides in the dispute. Suddenly someone shouted “Ambrose for bishop!” The cry was taken up by others and Ambrose was elected bishop. He was not interested in the position, plus, he wasn’t even a baptized Christian, let alone clergy! He pushed his way out of the cathedral and headed back to his palace. He figured that if he proved himself to be as cruel and evil as the Emperor Valentinian. He ordered some prisoners to be tortured, figuring that this would convince the people that they had made a mistake in their choice, but the crowed followed him around Milan, saying, “Your sin be on us!” He invited Women of Loose Virtue to his palace, yet the crowd still shouted “Your sin be on us!” Then he told them that he was going to retire from the world and become a hermit, but no one was buying it. Finally, he decided to make a break for it and snuck out the side door of the palace late one night to escape. It was a moonless night and he took the wrong road and got lost. In the morning he discovered his mistake; he was entering Milan through the Roman gate. This time he was kept under “Palace Arrest;” a guard kept watch while a messenger was sent to Valentinian, explaining what was going on and requesting an imperial seal on the people’s decision. Valentinan probably had his reasons for getting Ambrose out of the position of Prefect, and so he sent a fast courier to give the Christians of Milan his assent to Ambrose’s episcopacy. However, Ambrose had made another break for it and was hiding at his friend, Leontius’ country house. The Pope got involved and ordered that anyone harboring Ambrose must, under pain of severe punishment, give him up immediately (which was the Christian thing to do, of course!). That was too much for Leontius, who turned his good buddy Ambrose in to the authorities. Ambrose was arrested and led back to Milan under armed guard.

Ambrose’ elevation to bishop took place over six days. First, he was baptized, then moved through the minor orders: appointed to doorkeeper one day; the next day appointed Lector; the following day appointed to the office of exorcist; the next day he became a subdeacon. On the last three days he was ordained deacon, priest, and finally, bishop. No one had ever risen through the ranks so quickly!


Ambrose was very interested in relics, and one of the first acts of his episcopacy was to write Bishop Basil of Caesarea to request that the remains of St. Dionysius be brought to the cathedral in Milan. Basil agreed, and sent along a letter with the relics which called Ambrose a man of noble birth, of high office, of lofty character, of astonishing eloquence. Ambrose also searched for relics in Milan, checking the martyrologies and it is claimed that he discovered the relics of saints Gervasius and Protasius, who had been martyred by Nero, and also saint Nazarius, as well as saints Agricola and Vitalis, whose remains he discovered on a visit to Bologna.

Ambrose cared for the poor. In order to insure that the poor were cared for, he often sold the churches gold-plated vessels. When the Arians accused him of sacrilege for these actions, he responded, “which do you consider more valuable, church vessels or living souls?” He lived simply and fasted often as a means of saving money for the diocese. He had already given away his own inheritance to help the poor, and he couldn’t understand why wealthy Christians didn’t do the same. When his brother Satyrus died without leaving a will, Ambrose and his sister Marcellina inherited the fortune. They sold all of it and used the proceeds to help the poor. Satyrus’ death put Ambrose into a depression, which he decided to cure through work and study. He wasn’t much of a reader before, but after Satyrus death he began to study and read and write. Because he could read and write Greek, which was unusual for those in the West at that time, he was able to study the Christian scriptures in their original language, as well as the writings of Philo, Origen, Athanasius, and Basil of Caesarea. His rhetorical skills enabled him to be a great preacher, and his preaching and theological discussions helped bring about the conversion of Augustine of Hippo. Ambrose was a great theologian, and he was also a poet and composer of music. In fact, five hymns in the 1940 Hymnal and eleven hymns in the 1982 Hymnal are attributed to him.

Ambrose had a full, active, and fulfilling episcopacy. He interacted with popes and emperors and never stopped caring for the poor. The winter of the year 396 was a difficult winter for him, as he was slowly dying. He had many secretaries who stayed next to his bed as he whispered his commentaries and letters and sermons. His chief secretary and biographer, Paulinus wrote that one day he saw a flame shaped like a small shield covering Ambrose’s head. Ambrose then sucked the flame down into his mouth and his face became dead white for a few minutes. Everyone in Italy was praying for Ambrose’s recovery; even the Regent, Stilicho, had issued an imperial order which read Ambrose must recover. The Regent said, “When Ambrose dies we shall see the ruin of Italy.” When Ambrose heard this, he said, “I have not so lived among you as to be ashamed to live on’ but I am not afraid to die, for our Lord is good.” A few days before he died he said that he saw Jesus coming to get him, sitting by his bedside. He lay with his arms stretched out in the form of a cross and prayed for several days. He died the day before Easter on April 4, 397, at the age of 58. He was bishop of Milan for twenty-three years and four months.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Feast of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra

Almighty God, in your love you gave your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness both on land and sea: Grant, we pray, that your Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

St. Nicholas is one of the most popular saints on the calendar; he is honored by the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and even Reformed Protestant churches. He is the person upon whom the Santa Claus myth story is based. As is usually the case, we don't have a lot of good historical information on Nicholas. We know he lived in Asia Minor in the late Third/early Fourth century. We know that he was Bishop of Myra, and we know that he died on December 6, 342. Other than those facts, all the stories about Nicholas are based upon church tradition and legends and some of them may not have even happened, but they are good stories, full of dreams and miracles.

According to tradition, Nicholas was born in the town of Patar in Lycia, in what we now call the nation of Turkey. He was orphaned at an early age and had to live with his uncle in a monastery. His late parents were wealthy and left him a good inheritance, but he gave most of it away to the poor and needy since he was living in a monastery and didn't really need any of it. He wanted to be a monk like us uncle, but one night he had a dream in which Jesus gave him a jeweled copy of the four gospels, and he took this dream as a sign that he was to become a priest, and he did so at the age of 17 (I guess the Commission on Ministry had different age requirements in those days). He was a very generous person and there are many stories about his generosity. Once he met a man in great need, and the man had decided to sell a carpet which was very dear to him and his wife. Father Nicholas bought the carpet from the man at a ridiculously high price, and then gave the carpet to the man's wife as a gift. The most famous story is that of a poor man with three daughters. He had no money to provide them with dowries and was worried that they would never be married and would probably face slavery as a result of their poverty. Nicholas tossed a bag of gold coins into the eldest daughter's window one night, and she was soon married. A while later, he tossed a bag of gold coins into the second daughter's window and she, too, was soon married. When it came time to provide a dowry for the third daughter, Nicholas came to toss a bag of gold coins into her window but it was closed, so he tossed it down the chimney, and the bag of coins fell into her shoes (and she, too, was soon married). This legend is the basis of the tradition in some countries of St. Nicholas putting chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil in children's shoes. It's also the basis of the story of Santa Claus coming down the chimney with gifts for good boys and girls on Christmas Eve.

There is a tradition that Nicholas made a pilgrimage to Egypt, to visit the great Library in Alexandria, and continued on to the Holy Land, to Palestine. There is a story that on the way home the ship he was on was caught in a fierce storm an d the three sailors piloting the ship were sure that they were going to die. Father Nicholas came on deck and prayed and stilled the storm. For this reason he became known as the Patron Saint of Sailors. The ship stopped in the city of Myra. The bishop of Myra had died and there was a lot of disagreement about who should be the next bishop. The clergy and people of Myra had started a period of prayer and fasting trying to find a solution to their problem. An angel appeared to several priests in a dream and told them that they were to make a stranger, named Nicholas, the new bishop, and that he would be the first to arrive for morning prayers the next day. That same night, Father Nicholas had a dream of a mitre being placed on his head. The next morning he went to the church for morning prayers and was the first person there. He was proclaimed bishop and the mitre was placed upon his head! He was a good choice for bishop because of his concern for the poor and needy, and his love of children, and his piety and zeal for the gospel. Miracles were attributed to him, and he was nick-named the Wonder Worker. He was also a man of great courage, and he suffered arrest and torture during the persecution of Diocletian and his regent, Maximan, around the years 303 to 311. It is said that Bishop Nicholas continued to preach and teach even while in chains. When Constantine became emperor in 313 and later issued the Edict of Toleration, Christianity became tolerated (and actually favored) by the Empire and people like Nicholas were released from prison. There is an ancient tradition that Nicholas saved the lives of three soldiers who were imprisoned by appearing to the Emperor in his dreams and interceding in their behalf. Just before Constantine became emperor, the Arian Controversy was in full flower in the Church, creating great dissension and schism. The Emperor Constantine called all the bishops of the Church to Nicea in 325 to settle this dispute. Tradition states that Bishop Nicholas of Myra attended the Council and even slapped Arius in the face, but Nicholas' name does not appear on any of the lists, so this incident and Nicholas' attendance at the Council is in doubt. Nevertheless, Arianism never took hold in Myra, so the faithful teaching of Nicholas must have prevented the heresy in that city.

Nicholas died on December 6, 342, and this day is now a feast day. During the Middle Ages it was a popular practice to elect a boy to be bishop who reigned from December 6th to December 28th, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. On that day (the 28th) the "boy bishop" had to preach a sermon in church. It also became popular to give gifts on Nicholas' feast day in honor of his own generosity, especially to children. In Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, this tradition replaced the ancient yuletide celebration of Woden. After the Protestant Reformation, St. Nicholas became known as Pere Noel in France, Father Christmas in England,Kriskindl in Germany, Grandfather Frost in Russia, and Sinterklaas in Holland. The mispronunciation of Sinterklaas in the United States resulted in the name Santa Claus.

It's easy to to understand how the example of the kind and generous man who truly lived the Christian life could become a symbol of love and generosity during the seasons of Advent and Christmas, the time in which we remember God's own gift to the world, the gift of Jesus the Messiah. St. Nicholas' love and compassion for the poor, the needy, and for children is an example of how we should live our lives throughout the entire year, not just at Christmas. The stories of St. Nicholas are not stories about Christmas but are stories of a man who was working to bring about the Reign of God, a man who helped the less fortunate, just as Jesus commanded. That is why he became one of the most popular saints in Christendom and why we remember him today.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Feast of Clement of Alexandria

O Lord, you called your servant Clement of Alexandria from the errors of ancient philosophy that he might learn and teach the saving Gospel of Christ: Turn your Church from the conceits of worldly wisdom and, by the Spirit of truth, guide it into all truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Clement of Alexandria was most probably a citizen of Athens and was born around the year 150 C.E. As is usually the case with saints from the earliest centuries, we don't know much about his early life; we know that he was a convert to Christianity and that he did not come from a Christian home. We do know that he was a "wandering scholar," a student of philosophy and that he studied with many different Christian teachers. Clement wrote that one was in Greece. . . the next was in Magna Graecia. . . others in the East and in this region (Egypt) one was an Assyrian, the other a Palestinian, a Hebrew by descent. Alexandria was the center of knowledge in the Greek world; it had an incredible library which was famous throughout the Graeco-Roman world. Alexandria was the center of many different philosophical schools and was becoming a center for Christian teaching, too. Clement eventually took over the catechetical school in Alexandria from his predecessor, Pantaenus, who left Alexandria never to return. Clement's aim was for the school to be a means of converting educated Alexandrian Greeks to Christianity. Clement believed that Christianity was the end to which all philosophy had been moving. He was very much influenced by Judaism, and he also found Greek philosophy to be full of wisdom (boy, that would get him in trouble nowadays!). He admitted that there were coincidences between Christian truth and the beliefs of the Greek philosophers. He said that even though these philosophers hit on the truth accidentally, it was because God had revealed himself to them, too. God's wisdom was not confined to the Hebrews and no race was deprived of the opportunity of apprehending God, so philosophy must be God-given. He believed that Plato prepared the way for the Greeks to accept the Christian faith. Philosophy shared with the Torah "In making the way for him who is perfected in Christ."

Clement was a prolific writer and his school began to attract many students. His followers included the father of Origen, and Origen himself became a student of Clement and eventually became the master of the school in Alexandria. Clement was one of three Fathers of the Church, along with Hippolytus of Rome and Tertullian of Carthage, writing against the various heresies of their time. This was the time in which various Gnostic schools were making their gains. Hippolytus wrote the text Refutation of All Heresies in which he analyzed each heresy and showed how each could be traced to a different Greek philosophical school, and therefore rejected. Tertullian had a background in law, and he used his skills in his book On Prescription Against Heretics to prove that the heretics had no right to use the Christian scriptures because they were usurpers and latecomers whose sects had come into being long after the Church was formed. Clement's contribution to the debate was to show that Platonism and scripture could be combined to demonstrate not dualism but the harmony and goodness of the universe. Clement believed that the institutions of society, such as marriage, were good in themselves. Many Gnostic groups taught that sin was a defect of nature and that the things of this world, in fact, all matter, were evil and prevented one from experiencing God. Clement taught that sin was not the result of a defect in nature, but a defect of will. He taught that wealth in itself was not evil since it could be used for the good of the community, which was the opposite of Tertullian's teaching that wealth was sin. The various Gnostic groups taught that there was a secret gnosis, or knowledge, which only certain people were able to understand, and that only those with this gnosis would be saved. Gnostics believed that the world was evil and that the world of spirit was superior. They wanted salvation from the world instead of the salvation of the world. Clement agreed that a gnosis, or spiritual understanding, was the chief element of Christianity, but he believed that this gnosis was there in the faith of the Church. Clement had great respect for the intellect and for scholarship, and he had a lot of problems with some Alexandrian Christians. There were a group of Christians in Alexandria who had no use at all for philosophy or philosophical Christians. They were anti-intellectual and suspicious of educated Christians (sound familiar?) Clement came to dislike these people who called themselves orthodox. He wrote: The so-called orthodox are like beasts that work out of fear. They do good works without knowing what they are doing. They are as scared of Greek philosophy as they are of actor's masks, fearing it would lead them astray. They are dumb animals that have to be driven by fear. Clement said that one would not get anywhere if one tried to tell educated Greek catechumens that the Greek poets were inspired by the devil: The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, and anyone who seeks to help catechumens, especially if they are Greeks, must not shrink from scholarly study. Clement's combination of Platonism and Christianity was continued by Origen, and their understanding of the transcendence of the Creator was the root of the Alexandrian school's emphasis on the divinity of Christ, which became the basis of the theological battles between the Patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch.
By the year 200 Clement had built up a flourishing community of well-educated Alexandrians, secure in their faith and willing to defend themselves against the arguments of the pagans and some Gnostics. A savage persecution broke out in Alexandria in the year 202; Clement wrote of "roastings, impalings and beheadings" taking place in Alexandria at that time. Origen's father was martyred in the persecution, and Origen, a young teenager, so wanted to wear the crown of martyrdom that his mother had to hide his clothes to keep him in the house, safe! Clement left Alexandria during the persecution, traveling through Syria to Cappadocia. His name does appear on the early martyrologies, and he may have been martyred on December 5, 202, possibly in Antioch.

Clement also wrote hymns, and the Hymnal 1940 contains translations of two of his hymns: #81 "Sunset to Sunrise Changes Now" and #362 "Master of Eager Youth." He also wrote several apologies. Clement was able to make the faith attractive to the intellectuals of his time, and so he could be considered the patron saint of intellectual Christians. He demonstrated that Christianity could be an optimistic and rational creed that made the highest demands of human morality, while requiring acceptance of the rule of the Church and its essential articles of faith.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Feast of St. Andrew, the First Called


Almighty God, who gave such grace to your apostle Andrew that he readily obeyed the call of your Son Jesus Christ, and brought his brother with him: Give us, who are called by your holy Word, grace to follow him without delay, and to bring those near to us into his gracious presence; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

As is usually the case with first century saints and especially with the Apostles, we don’t know much about Andrew. There are twelve passages in the New Testament which mention Andrew’s name. The passages from the synoptic gospels are two about Jesus calling Andrew and his brother Simon Peter, three which are what we may call the List of the Twelve, one which mentions Jesus entering Andrew and Peter’s home (to heal Peter’s mother-in-law so that she could make lunch), and one passage in which Andrew is with a few members of the Twelve who ask Jesus about the eschaton. But the Gospel of John contains four references to Andrew, and he plays a different role than that in the synoptics. He is the first person Jesus called to follow him; there is a reference to the city of Bethsaida being the city of Andrew and Peter; Andrew brings the little boy with the loaves and fishes to Jesus at that famous lunch, and Andrew also serves as an intermediary between Jesus and some Greeks who asked Philip to let them see Jesus to ask him some questions. The final biblical reference to Andrew is in the Acts of the Apostles where he is listed as one of those in the Upper Room. Eusebius’ only refers to Andrew as being assigned the area of Scythia for his missionary work. I read the Acts of Andrew, which is a book which was denounced by the Church Fathers (and by Eusebius), but tells some wild stories about Andrew. I’ve used some stories from the Acts of Andrew for this post, especially the description of Andrew’s martyrdom.

As I stated in the paragraph above, the Gospel of John claims that Andrew was at first a disciple of John the Baptizer. When John the Baptizer pointed out Jesus as the Christ, Andrew and another of John’s followers both became His disciples. Andrew took his brother, Simon, later to be called Peter, to meet Jesus. He is called the Protokletos (the First Called) in the Orthodox Church because he was the first Apostle to be summoned by Jesus into His service. In the accounts in the synoptic gospels, Andrew and his brother Peter made their living as fishermen on the Sea of Galilee and both dropped their nets and followed Jesus when he called them. Both men became Apostles, and while Peter, who was martyred in Rome, symbolically came to represent the Church of the West, Andrew, whose relics were transferred to Constantinople, likewise came to represent the Church of the East.

According to the traditions of the Church of the East, Andrew began his missionary activity in the Provinces of Bithynia and Pontus on the southern shores of the Black Sea. He then to the city of Byzantium and founded a church there, ordaining the first Bishop of Byzantium, Stachys, who was one of the 70 disciples Jesus sent out to heal the sick and proclaim the Good News. The Apostles began their missionary work after Pentecost. Andrew went to several cities and countries to teach, including Byzantium, Thrace, Russia, Epiros, and Peloponnese. In Amisos, he converted the Jews in the temple, baptized them, healed their sick, built a church, and left a priest for them (I don’t know if he was a priest who had been traveling with Andrew or a local person. Historically, there weren’t any priests in the Church yet). In Bithynia, he taught, healed their sick, and drove away the wild beasts that bothered the people. His prayers destroyed the pagan temples, and those who resisted his words became possessed and gnawed at their bodies until Andrew healed them. Many of the stories about Andrew seem to deal with demon possession. According to the Acts of Andrew, he visited the City of Patras during one of his several missionary journeys to Greece. Through his preaching and the miracles of healing he performed in the name of Jesus, many persons were converted to Christianity. Among those healed was Maximilla, the wife of the Roman Proconsul, Aegeates. Seeing this miracle of healing, Stratoklis, the highly intellectual brother of the Proconsul, also became a Christian, and Andrew consecrated and enthroned him as the first Bishop of Patras. As a prophet, he foretold of the greatness of Kiev as a city and a stronghold of Christianity. In Sinope, he prayed for the imprisoned Apostle Matthias, and his chains fell from him and the cell door opened. This angered the people and they beat Andrew, breaking his teeth, cutting his fingers, and left him for dead in a dung heap. While Andrew was lying in the dung heap Jesus appeared to him and healed him, telling him to be of good cheer. When the people saw him up and around with all his teeth and fingers the next day, they were amazed and they converted. Another time, he raised a woman's only son from the dead. All this activity made the people of Patras and Sinope and Kiev love him, but it did not endear him to those in power, of course. According to the Acts of Andrew, the conversions to the Christian Faith by members of his own family infuriated the Proconsul Aegeates, and he decided, with the urging of his pagan advisors, to crucify Andrew. The crucifixion was carried out on an X-shaped cross with the body of the Apostle upside down so that he saw neither the earth nor his executioners, but only the sky, which he “glorified as the heaven in which he would meet his Lord.” Aegeates had him tied to the cross in this manner so that he would live longer and suffer more. According to the account in the Acts of Andrew, the Apostle went to the cross “and spake unto it as unto a living creature, with a loud voice (and in Elizabethan english!): Hail, O cross, yea be glad indeed! Well know I that thou shalt henceforth be at rest, thou that hast for a long time been wearied, being set up and awaiting me. I come unto thee whom I know to belong to me. I come unto thee that hast yearned after me. I know thy mystery, for the which thou art set up: for thou art planted in the world to establish the things that are unstable: and the one part of thee stretcheth up toward heaven that thou mayest signify the heavenly word: and another part of thee is spread out to the right hand and the left that it may put to flight the envious and adverse power of the evil one, and gather into one the things that are scattered abroad: And another part of thee is planted in the earth, and securely set in the depth, that thou mayest join the things that are in the earth and that are under the earth unto the heavenly things. O cross, device of the salvation of the Most High! O cross, trophy of the victory of Christ over the enemies! O cross, planted upon the earth and having thy fruit in the heavens! O name of the cross, filled with all things. Well done, O cross, that hast bound down the circumference of the world! Well done, O shape of understanding that hast shaped the shapeless! Well done, O unseen chastisement that sorely chastisest the substance of the knowledge that hath many gods, and drivest out from among mankind him that devised it! Well done, thou that didst clothe thyself with the Lord, and didst bear the thief as a fruit, and didst call the apostle to repentance, and didst not refuse to accept us! But how long delay I, speaking thus, and embrace not the cross, that by the cross I may be made alive, and by the cross win the common death of all and depart out of life? Come hither ye ministers of joy unto me, ye servants of Aegeates: accomplish the desire of us both, and bind the lamb unto the wood of suffering, the man unto the maker, the soul unto the Saviour.

Twenty thousand of the faithful stood by and mourned. Even then, Andrew taught them and exhorted them to endure temporary sufferings for the kingdom of heaven. Out of fear of the people, Aegeates came to remove Andrew from the cross. Andrew, however, told Aegeates that there was still a chance for Aegeates to become a Christian, but that he (Andrew) had already seen Jesus waiting for him and he would not allow himself to be removed from the cross. Many tried to undo the knots, but their hands all became numb. Suddenly, a heavenly light illumined Andrew for about a half hour. When it left, Andrew had given up his spirit. His body was tenderly removed from the cross by Bishop Stratoklis and Maximilla, and buried with all of the honor befitting the Apostle. Soon countless numbers of Christians made their way to Patras to pay reverence to the grave of Andrew, and when Aegeates realized that the man he had put to death was truly a holy man of God a demon fell upon him and tormented him so powerfully that he committed suicide (In many of these non-canonical books, the one who had someone martyred would commit suicide or explode or fall dead for no reason, as a way of avenging the death of the martyr).

The actual historical record tells us that in the month of March in the year 357 the Emperor Constantine (son of Constantine The Great) ordered that the body of Saint Andrew be removed from Patras and be reinterred in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. This was a church built by Constantine the Great, and he had wanted to have the relics or remains of all twelve apostles interred in this church along with his own body. This is because the Christians of that era believed that there was great spiritual power contained in the bones of the Apostles and other martyrs, and to have the relic of an apostle or martyr in the altar made the church a center of great spiritual power. St. Andrew’s bones were returned to the very city which had first heard the Good News from Andrew’s own lips, and with all the pomp and honor and liturgical magnificence of the Byzantine Empire, they were laid in the Great Church of Christ at Constantinople. There is a tradition that some of his relics were taken to Scotland. The skull of Andrew was kept in Patras until the year 1460 when Thomas Paleologos, the last ruler of the Morea, brought the skull to Rome. In 1967, under the orders of Pope Paul, the skull was returned to Patras. He is the Patron Saint of Fishermen and the Patron Saint of Russia, Scotland, and Romania. So, today let us remember and celebrate the ministry and example of Saint Andrew, who continues to call on all Christians to tell others just what he told his brother Simon Peter: “We have found the Messiah!”

Friday, November 22, 2013

Feast of St. Cecilia, Martyr

Today is the feast of St. Cecilia, a young woman who was martyred in Rome around the year 230. She is the patron saint of musicians because, according to the Acts of Cecilia, she heard heavenly music on her way to her wedding. She was one of the most venerated martyrs of the Ancient Church and her feast has been celebrated in the Roman Church since the fourth century. The Acts of Cecilia was written in the fifth century, and its text was the basis for the version in the Golden Legend, a collection of the lives of saints written in the thirteenth century. What follows is my retelling of the story of Cecilia according to the version of the tale in the Golden Legend.

St. Cecilia was born of noble Roman lineage. Her parents were Christians and Cecilia was baptized as a baby. She “fostered and nourished the faith of Christ from the time she lay in her cradle,” she kept the gospel in her heart and said prayers day and night. At an early age she dedicated herself to remain a virgin. Her parents arranged a marriage with a young man named Valerian even though he was not a Christian. When the day of her wedding came, she heard heavenly music and sang in her soul, “O Lord, I pray that my heart and body may remain pure so that I may not be confused or perplexed.” That night, when she and Valerian retired to the Wedding Chamber, she said, “My sweet, beloved husband. I have a secret to tell you. Promise that you will tell no one what I am about to share with you.” Valerian was curious and promised to tell no one. Cecilia said, “I have an angel that loves me and protects my body whether I am asleep or awake. I have dedicated myself to be a virgin for the glory of God, and I am afraid that if you try to take my virginity the angel will kill you. But if you promise to love me only in a holy and pure manner, he will love you as I love you and will protect you, too.” Well, as one might expect, this wasn’t exactly what Valerian wanted to hear on his wedding night, and he said, “If you want me to believe this, I will have to see this angel. And if it turns out that there is no angel and that you love someone else, I swear that I will kill both you and your lover with my own sword!” Cecilia said, “If you believe and are baptized, you will see the angel.” She then told Valerian to to the Via Appia, three miles outside of Rome. There he would see the Bishop of Rome, Pope Urban, working with the poor and the sick. Valerian was to tell the pope what Cecilia said and listen to the pope, and if he believed what Pope Urban said, be baptized. Valerian followed instructions, and Pope Urban was happy to talk with him and baptize him. Pope Urban said, "One God, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of all, above all, and in us all, everywhere. Do you believe this?” Valerian responded, “There is nothing truer under heaven!” and was baptized. Then he returned to Cecilia and the Wedding Chamber. When he entered the Wedding Chamber he saw Cecilia talking with an angel. The angel had two crowns of roses and lilies. He gave one to Cecilia and one to Valerian and said, “Keep these crowns with a pure and undefiled body for I have brought them from Paradise and they will never fade or lose their scent or wither. They can only be seen by those who live chaste and pure lives. And because you listened and followed Cecilia’s wise counsel, what ever you wish shall be granted to you, Valerian.” Valerian told the angel, “There is no one in this world more dear to me than my brother, and I want him to know the truth of the gospel, too.” The angel replied, “Your petition pleases our Lord, and you both will come to him by the palm of martyrdom.” A few days later, Tyburtius, Valerian’s brother, came to visit the newlyweds. He was amazed because he smelled roses and lilies but didn’t see any in the room. Valerian told him that he and Cecilia had crowns of flowers which he couldn’t see, but if he believed he would see them, and he then preached the gospel to his brother. Tyburtius was converted that day and baptized by Pope Urban. After that he saw angels everyday and was constantly blessed by God.
Almachius, provost of Rome, was persecuting Christians and many were being executed for refusing to offer incense to the image of Jupiter. Valerian and Tyburtius were burying the martyrs and giving their goods to the poor. Word of their activities spread throughout the city, and Almachius had them called before him and ordered them to sacrifice to the image of Jupiter. They refused and were condemned to be beheaded. They were taken four miles outside of the city and beheaded, and Cecilia took their bodies and buried them. The man who arrested them, Maximus, was converted by their preaching. He went home and preached to his household and friends, and they, too were converted. Cecilia came to his house with priests and all were baptized. When Almachius heard that Maximus had converted and was baptized, he had Maximus beaten with whips with lead tips until he died. Cecilia took Maximus’ body and buried it with Valerian and Tyburtius. When Almachius heard of Cecilia’s activities, he had her arrested, too. She was brought to court, where she preached to the judges and lawyers. She converted them all to the faith, and they were crying to think that such a beautiful young woman should be condemned to death. She said to them, “Oh you good young men, I will not lose my youth, but change it into something more valuable, like changing clay into gold or a dirty place into a beautiful, clean palace. God will reward a hundred fold for one small gift of life. Do you believe what I have said?” They all answered, “We believe Christ to be very God and you are his servant.” Then Pope Urban was called and four hundred people were baptized that day! Almachius had Cecilia brought before him and questioned her, but she showed him no respect at all. He said, “Do you realize what power I have?” She replied, “Your power is nothing to fear, it is like a bladder full of wind which disappears when pricked with a needle and never meant anything to anyone.” He said, “I have the power to have you executed. Now sacrifice to Jupiter.” She refused, of course, and was condemned to death. Cecilia was taken home and condemned to be suffocated in her bath; the heat was turned up to its highest level, and should have suffocated her, but when the soldiers came in hoping to find her lifeless body, the room was cool and comfortable and she was quite alive. Almachius then ordered that she be beheaded in her bathroom. The executioner struck her neck three times with his sword but was unable to behead her. He left her there in her own blood, half alive and half dead, for three days. She continued to preach and made arrangements that all her goods go to the poor. She sent many people to Pope Urban to be baptized, saying, “ I asked God to let me live three more days so that I could commend these souls to you and ask that my house be used as a church.” Then she died and Pope Urban and the deacons took her body and buried her among the bishops and consecrated her house to be used as a church.

Sometimes it is difficult to prove that some of the martyrs of the Early Church actually existed, they are often simply a name on a martyrology, or list of martyrs. Cecilia Valerian, and Tyburtius’ names all appear in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum of Rome. It appears that her house actually was made into a church; records show that the building known as the church of St. Cecilia belonged to Gens Caecilia (Cecilia’s Family) and was donated to the church in Rome. So although the story from The Golden Legend contains elements which are difficult to believe, especially that a heterosexual man would agree to a marriage like that of Cecilia and Valerian, and while the angel seems more like a genie than a divine messenger, there is a good chance that there really was a Cecilia, Valerian, and Tyburtius. St. Cecilia was a young woman totally dedicated to Christ and the Church. The threat of death did not stop her from doing the work of the gospel, and even with her dying breath she gave all she had to the Lord. That is why she was held in such high esteem by Christians from the fifth century through the Middle Ages and that is why we remember her and her witness today.

Lord of mercy, be close to those who call upon you, with Saint Cecilia to help us hear and answer our prayers. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Monday, November 4, 2013

All Saints' Sunday at All Saints'/Cristo Rey

Sunday we celebrated our patronal festival together with our sister congregation of Cristo Rey with a bilingual service at 9:30 am. Since Saturday was All Souls Day or Día de los Muertos, we also remembered those who had passed over to be with the Lord. Following the service we all processed to the Memorial Garden where we blessed a plaque in honor of our brother Felipe Reyes, who was murdered earlier this year.

 After the service we celebrated in the manner we all love: we had lunch! It was a delicious lunch with so much food. Everyone had a wonderful time, and here are the photos to prove it.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Feast of All Saints

All Saints Day is the day on which we remember the martyrs, those who died for their faith, those who refused to sacrifice to the emperor and were thrown to the beasts and gladiators in the arena. Others were tied to stakes and burned while others died deaths too terrible to mention here in God's house. In the earliest days of the Church, martyrs were remembered on the day of their martyrdom; the faithful would gather at the grave of the martyr and would pray and sing hymns. But by the time of the final persecutions towards the end of the fourth century, there were too many martyrs to commemorate on the day of their deaths plus many that had died and whose names had not been recorded. The Christians in Rome were remembering the martyrs, known and unknown, on a special day by the year 373. All Saints Day was celebrated on May 13 for many centuries, but Pope Greogory III ded icated a new church on November 1 and declared that day All Saints Day. In the year 836 Pope Gregory IV declared a universal observance of All Saints on that day and that has been the date ever since.

We remember the martyrs because their example of bravery and standing for their faith helped the church to grow and also helped defeat those who persecuted the Church. The very first Christian martyr was the Deacon Stephen. James of Jerusalem, the brother of Jesus, was martyred by an angry mob. Later persecutions were committed by the Roman authorities and they were much more cruel than the stonings by the Jews. When we read the accounts of the martyrdoms of Perpetua and Felicitatus, of the martyrs of Lyon, of Bishop Polycarp, and the hundreds of martyrs in the “History of the Church” by Bishop Eusebius, we learn that their brave example changed the opinion of people against the persecutors and in favor of the Christians. When the people of the Roman empire saw the martyrs face death willingly and refusing to give in to their torturers, they began to wonder what gave them such courage and many people were converted to Christ. Even though the martyrs were brave, that was not the case for all Christians. Imagine how frightened you would be if you knew that because you are a member of San Cristóbal, you could be arrested and torn apart by lions and bears in an arena where everyone in Parque Lefevre and Rio Abajo would watch you die. Some people are brave, but many of us are not always so full of courage! The Apostle John discussed this in his vision of the Final Days. John had been exiled to Patmos, a small island, because he had been preaching in Edessa. John wanted to warn Christians of the persecution to come and he wanted to help them face it bravely. He warned the Christians that fierce persecutions would take place, but if they remained faithful, they would be rewarded with eternal life in the City of Light, the City of God. They would all stand before the throne of the Lamb where they would serve him day and night within his temple. The image of the Temple was important because the book of the Apocalypse was probably written after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. To serve God in the Temple was an image which gave people hope. John saw 144,000 people from every tribe of Israel standing before the throne, but then he saw “a great multitude that no man could number, from every nation and tribe and people and tongue, standing before the throne, clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands, crying out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” John was told that these people were the ones who had come through the great tribulation. They had washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb. As their reward they serve God in the Temple, but also, they have been rewarded because “the One who sits upon the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” They were also promised that their deaths would be avenged by God. This vision gave people hope, it reminded them that God loved them and that they would not suffer in vain or die in vain. Because they knew God loved them and that they would have every tear wiped away, they were able to face their trials with courage and this courage inspired others to turn to Christ and receive eternal life. John was fortunate enough to leave Patmos, and he returned to Edessa and later died an old man, in Ephesus.

Most of us are very fortunate; Christianity is not illegal where we live and we probably won't have to face persecution. We probably won't be threatened with death for gathering at our churches every Sunday to share the bread and wine, but people are being martyred for the faith in parts of Africa and in Pakistan and in Iraq. Christians have been killed in the past fifty years in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and even Panama by governments hostile to their dedication to the teachings of Jesus. We need to continue to pray for the Christians around the world who are living under persecution.

The lectionary designates a reading of the Beatitudes on All Saints Day, either the version from Matthew’s or Luke’s gospels. The Beatitudes bestow a blessing for who one is or for what one does. Many of us have been poor at some time in our lives. Jesus said that the poor or poor in spirit have the kingdom of heaven. We a have mourned at some time, and there are people mourning right now, but you are blessed because you shall be comforted. You who are meek are blessed and will inherit the earth. You who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those of you who love God with your whole mind, you are blessed and will be satisfied. You who are merciful are blessed for you shall obtain mercy. You who are pure in heart are blessed and shall see God. Those of you who are peacemakers, who work to end strife at home, at work, in your community and in the world are blessed and will be called the children of God. There are special blessings for the martyrs, for the persecuted. You who are persecuted for righteousness sake, you will have the kingdom of heaven, just as will the poor. And all of us are blessed when people revile us and persecute us and utter all kinds of evil against us falsely on account of Christ. Those who are martyrs, those who are persecuted, rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven. All of us here are either poor, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, or peacemakers. Some of you may fall under several blessings, and some may even be suffering persecution. Know that you are blessed, that you are loved by God. Know that your reward is great in heaven. Know that you are saints, and that, one day, you, too, will stand before the throne of the Lamb and will shout with the other heroes of the faith, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Feast of St. James, Brother of our Lord, Bishop of Jerusalem, and Martyr


Grant, O God, that, following the example of your servant James the Just, brother of our Lord, your Church may give itself continually to prayer and to the reconciliation of all who are at variance and enmity; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Icon written by Tobias Stanislas Haller, BSG, friend of Padre Mickey's Dance Party
Let’s talk about siblings; not everyone has brothers and sisters, but if you do, I have a question: Did you always get along with your brothers and sisters? If your family is like most families, I would say 'probably not.' Usually there is some sibling rivalry in a family and there can be some competition between the children; competition for the attention of the parents, competition in the area of school work, competition in sports and winning awards. I am the eldest of four children, and the birth order is boy-girl-boy-girl, and there is eighteen months between my sister Melanie and I and eighteen months between Melanie and Jim and then four years between Jim and Marcella. Melanie and I are close in age and close in interests and close in abilities. We are both musicians, we both work in churches, and we have similar tastes in art, literature, music and politics. We are both rather competitive and always have been so. When I was trying to learn my multiplication tables, Melanie was right there paying attention and actually learning them. That's just normal sibling rivalry. Maybe your relationship with your siblings is similar, and maybe they think that you overshadow them or you thing that they overshadow you. I think that this is pretty normal in sibling relationships. But imagine having a brother who calls himself "the Son of Man," who wanders around the country, attracting crowds, healing the sick, bringing sight to the blind, preaching forgiveness of sins and proclaiming the coming of the Reign of God. Talk about overshadowing! How do you compete with someone like that?

Today is the Feast of St. James of Jerusalem, the brother of our Lord, Jesus Christ. James was one of Jesus' four brothers, but we don't know about birth order; some traditions each that the brothers and sisters mentioned in the gospels were Joseph's children from a previous marriage or that they were actually Jesus' cousins. These are good explanations for those who believe that Mary was "ever virgin." Personally, it seems more probable to me that Joseph and Mary had a normal marriage and produced several children. From what we read in the gospels, it seems that Jesus and his family didn't really get along that well; do your remember the story of Mary sending his brothers after him because the family was worried that he was crazy? Did Jesus say to his brothers, "Tell Mom I'll be there once I'm finished talking with these folks"? No, he said, "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? Everyone who works for the Reign of God is my mother and sister and brother." That answer wouldn't have gone over well with my mother! We don't know what James told his mother back home about what Jesus was doing; we don't know if he told her that Jesus was alright and that he was only doing the will of God. We know that Jesus wasn't well received back home because everyone knew him, but we don't know if his brothers and sisters were part of the unreceptive group. We do know that James was an important leader in the Early Church along with Peter, and we know from Paul's writings and from the Acts of the Apostles that James was the head of the Church in Jerusalem. It was James whom Paul visited when in Jerusalem, and it was James who, after hearing of Paul's mission to the Gentiles decided that the Gentiles would not have to adhere to the Mosiac covenant and be circumcised but adhere to the Noachian covenant, avoiding sexual promiscuity, not eating food sacrificed to idols, and not eating meat from animals which had been strangled, or meat which still had blood in it. We also know that James was one of those to whom Jesus appeared after the Resurrection.
According to Clement of Alexandria, as quoted by Bishop Eusebius, the first historian of the Church, James was the first bishop of Jerusalem. James was a very important figure to the Jewish Christians and his importance is reflected in chapter 12 of the Gospel of Thomas, an early gospel which was not accepted by the Church. It is a collection of sayings of Jesus, and chapter 12 reads: The disciples said to Jesus, "We know that you are going to leave us. Who will be our leader?" Jesus said to them, "No matter where you are, you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being."

According to the Jewish party in the Early Church, James represented Israel, and this is reflected in that passage. James was called the Just or Righteous because of his strict adherence to the Torah. According to Clement of Alexandria, James was: Holy from birth; he drank no wine or intoxicating liquor and ate no animal food; no razor came near his head; he did not smear himself with oil and took no baths. He alone was permitted to enter the Holy Place (Holy of Holies in the Temple), for his garments were not of wool but of linen. He used to enter the Sanctuary alone, and was often found on his knees beseeching forgiveness for the people, so that his knees grew hard like a camel's from his continually bending them in worship of God and beseeching forgiveness for the people. Because of his unsurpassable righteousness he was called the Righteous and bulwark of the People. If it is true that he entered the Holy of Holies, then James was a High Priest of the Temple, which was an important position within the community, both Jewish and Christian (It would also mean that he did take baths, as a ritual bath on the part of the priest is an aspect of the Yom Kippur liturgy). According to Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century, James was well respected by Jews and Christians because of his righteousness. Some traditions, especially those of the Ebionites, a first-century Jewish-Christian sect, taught that James performed miracles just like Jesus.
I mentioned earlier that the family of Jesus wasn't always supportive of his ministry; we know from scripture that they worried that he might have been a bit crazy, and his brothers were sent by their mother to bring him home. Was James one of the brothers sent to fetch Jesus? Did he think that his brother was behaving strangely by wandering all over Galilee healing and preaching? We don't know what James thought at the time but we do know that he came to accept his brother as Lord. According ot St. Paul, Jesus appeared to James after the Resurrection, and if James had harbored any doubts about his brother's ministry, rest assured that they were swept away by this appearance! The experience was so life-changing that, although James remained a strict follower of the Torah, he also became the leader of the Church in Jerusalem, the first Church. James, just like his brother, was a strong defender and supporter of the poor, as was the Jerusalem Church. The name Ebionites, can be translated to mean "the poor." Paul collected donations for the poor, and these funds were sent back to James and the Church in Jerusalem.

Jesus was executed with the support of the religious authorities of Jerusalem, and according to both Josephus and Clement, as quoted by Eusebius in Historia Ecclesiastica, James, the brother of Jesus, was also murdered as a result of pressure from the religious authorities. According to Eusebius, James' example and his righteous life had convinced others, even members of the ruling class, that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, and the Scribes and Pharisees were afraid that all the people would accept Jesus as Lord. So, at the Feast of the Passover during the year 62, the Scribes and Pharisees asked James to stand on the Temple parapet so that everyone could see and hear him tell the facts about Jesus, since, as the Scribes and Pharisees said, "the people have gone astray after Jesus." James stood on the parapet, and the Scribes and Pharisees shouted to him: "Righteous One, whose word we are all obliged to accept, the people are going astray after Jesus who was crucified; so tell us, what is meant by 'the door of Jesus?'" And James answered in a loud voice, "Why do you question me about the Son of Man? I tell you, He is sitting in heaven at the right hand of the Great Power, and He will come on the clouds of heaven." And many people believed, and began to shout, "Hosannah to the Son of David!" So now the Scribes and Pharisees were worried and thought, "we really made a mistake putting him up there. We better throw him down so that they will be frightened and not believe him." So they began to shout, "Oh no! Even the Righteous One has gone astray!" and someone pushed James off the parapet and he fell down to the ground. Then they said, "Let us stone James the Righteous" because he was still alive after his fall. While the stones rained upon him, James got to his knees and prayed aloud: "I beseech thee, Lord God and Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing." While the stones were falling like rain upon James, the descendants of Rechab, a priestly family, shouted, "Stop! What are you doing? The Righteous One is praying for you!" Then one of the mob took a fuller's club, which was used to beat out the clothes, and brought it down on James' head, and James died a martyr's death. According to Eusebius’ version of the story, James was buried on the spot, by the Sanctuary, until the destruction of the Temple. According to this account, some believed that the siege of Vespasian and the Jewish War, which culminated in the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, were the vengeance of God for the murder of James.

Icon written by Tobias Stanislas Haller, BSG, friend of Padre Mickey's Dance Party
Back in 2002 there was quite a stir caused by an announcement by Hershel Shanks of the Biblical Archeological Review that an ossory, or bone box, had been discovered which was dated to the first century and bore the inscription Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui diYeshua which translates as James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus, in Aramaic. After years of accusations that the inscription is not authentic opinion has changed and, according to the July/August 2012 issue of BAR, it is now considered authentic. This is quite a find!

The word 'martyr' means 'witness,' and James was a witness. He witnessed his brother's ministry, and he was a witness of an appearance of the Resurrected Jesus. His life was a witness to the people of Jerusalem; his strict adherence to the Torah was proof of his righteousness, but he was also able to understand that the Law was not for all, and he realized that the Law would be a burden for the Gentile converts. He understood that to work for the Reign of God meant to speak for, defend, and support the poor, and he did this as Bishop of Jerusalem. He was the brother of Jesus, and as family, probably knew Jesus better than most; even though, at one time, he may have shared the doubts of his family about his brother's sanity, he did believe, and was blessed with a post-Resurrection appearance. He believed his brother's message about the coming of the Reign of God, and he was faithful to this message unto death. The lives of the saints are examples to us all, and the deaths of the martyrs made the church grow. Tertullian, an African leader of the Church in the second century said, "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." James was a bishop, an Apostle, and a Martyr, and he is an example to all of us. Today we celebrate his life and his death. May we keep the memory of James and of all the saints and martyrs as important examples always.