Tuesday, March 25, 2014
Today is the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord, the commemoration of the visit of the Archangel Gabriel to a young Jewish girl in Palestine some two thousand years ago. This feast has been celebrated since the fifth century, and it is one of the few feasts which are important enough that the fast of Lent is actually suspended for the day. Some see this feast as Mariological, that is, that it has to do primarily with the Blessed Virgin, but I see it as Christological, I believe that it has more to do with the Christ, the Incarnation.
The reading we heard this morning from the Hebrew scriptures is a very interesting reading, as it can be understood on two levels, and both have to do with prophecy. We can read the meaning of this text in its original historical situation which is described in the second Book of Kings. The nation of Syria had entered into an alliance with the northern kingdom of Israel against the southern kingdom of Judah, of which Ahaz was king. Both Syria and Israel had laid siege to the city of Jerusalem. The prophet Isaiah offered Ahaz a sign that everything would eventually work out and be successful, but Ahaz refused the sign, probably because he didn't want Isaiah's advice. Isaiah was a prophet who always spoke the word given to him by God' he didn't care whether Ahaz wanted to hear it or not. The sign Isaiah gave Ahaz was: A young woman will conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel. In this context, it is probable that the young woman was the wife of Ahaz, and the son to be born is Hezekiah, the future king of Judah. The sign, then, concerned the continuation of the dynasty of David, a sign that God was still with God's people.
The second meaning is that of Matthew and is the meaning which we, as Christians, recognize. We read this as a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah, and we see the young woman as Mary, and the son as Jesus. When the author of Matthew's gospel quoted Isaiah's prophecy, he was not using the actual Hebrew text but using a translation we call the Septuagint which is a translation from the original Hebrew into Greek, which is the language of the Christian scriptures or New Testament. In the Septuagint the word for young woman was translated as παρθενους, which means "virgin." Now, it's quite probable that Isaiah was only thinking of the immediate future when he made his prediction to Ahaz, but since he as a prophet, and the Spirit of God was upon him, the Holy Spirit was speaking through him and this prophecy did have to do with the birth of Hezekiah but also had to do with the birth of the Incarnation. The genealogies of both Matthew and Luke serve to tell us that the birth of Jesus was also a continuation of the Davidic dynasty, and Jesus truly was Emmanuel, "God with us." The Holy Spirit, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, was giving hope to Ahaz and hope to the entire world.
The reading from the Gospel of Luke is the story of the Annunciation, and it is a story that we usually only hear during Advent, and people outside of the Liturgical tradition only think of this story during Christmas. The Bible contains several annunciation stories: there are annunciation stories about the birth of Isaac, about the birth of Samson, the birth of Samuel, and, of course, the birth of John the Baptizer. The purpose of an annunciation story is to acquaint the reader or those listening to the story with the role that the person about to be born will play in salvation history. The purpose is to give us a foreshadowing, in a way, of what will happen, of how important this person's life will be; it is not to serve as an accurate historical narrative. In the other annunciation stories I mentioned, the situation was that a child was to be born to a couple who were either barren and unable to have children, or, in the case of Abram and Sara, a couple who were well past child-bearing age, so the angel was announcing a miraculous birth. But the situation in today's story is quite different: this annunciation is to a young woman of child-bearing age, but she is a woman without a husband, which, as we all know, does not prevent one from having a child. The emphasis in this story is not on a miraculous birth, but on the creative act of the Holy Spirit in bringing about the conception in the womb of this young girl so that the Incarnation, God in Flesh, could come and live among us, so that Emmanuel, God-with-us, could be born in a simple stable with beasts of burden. The Archangel Gabriel came to this young, frightened girl, and informed her that she had been chosen above all others to be the Θεοτοκυς, the God-bearer. Gabriel told her that she would become pregnant, that she would have a son, that his name would be Jesus, and that he would be called Holy and the Son of God. When Mary asked how this could be since she did not have a husband, Gabriel explained the process to her, and also told her that although this may sound strange, her cousin Elizabeth was with child because with God nothing is impossible. And Mary, the one we call Blessed above all women, said, "You see before you the Lord's servant; let it happen to me as you have said." And with her agreement, and with her obedience to God's will, the salvation of the world was able to take place. It is said that "God made us without us, God redeemed us without us, but God cannot save us without us." Mary represented all of humanity when she said "yes" to God's plan, and we have been saved because a human being allowed God to dwell in her womb for nine months.
Mary answered "yes" to God's call, just as Abraham had answered "yes" to God's call. When Abraham answered God's call, he became the father of a mighty nation, the nation of Israel. When Mary answered God's call, she became the mother of the faithful, of God's people, the Λαος, the People of God' she became the mother of the New Israel. Her response to Gabriel, "You see before you the Lord's servant; let it happen to me as you have said," expresses the same faith as that expressed in the prayer her son, Jesus, taught us to say: Your will be done on earth as in heaven. The Annunciation is an event outside of history, because it is the direct intervention of God in human affairs, it is the actual insertion of God into human affairs, because God took on a human body and lived and laughed and ate and drank and slept and woke and experienced all the joys and trials which make up this life, this human existence.
The Feast of the Annunciation takes place on March 25th because it is supposed to be exactly nine months before the birth of Jesus. You mothers know that it is actually quite rare that someone is born exactly nine months after conception; some babies are early and some are late, and it is quite probable that Jesus was not born on December 25. St. Clement of Alexandria was sure that Jesus was born on May 20. But I think that it is appropriate that the Feast of the Annunciation is celebrated during Lent, because the Lenten season points towards the purpose of the Incarnation: to live as one of us, to be arrested and executed, to be buried and then on the third day be resurrected so that death would be conquered, that humanity would be redeemed and given the gift of eternal life. Lent points us towards the arrest, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and the Annunciation points us towards the birth by which the Incarnation came to live among us.
Today we celebrate the Archangel's message to a young girl. Today we celebrate the young girl's obedience to God's will. Today we celebrate the life which told us of the Good News of forgiveness of sins and the coming of God's Reign.
Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever Amen.
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
As is usually the situation with the members of Jesus' family, we know very little about Joseph. The gospel texts tell us that he was a carpenter, that he was a descendant of David the king, and we know that he had to go to Bethlehem for the census. We know that he was betrothed to Mary and wasn't too sure about things when he learned that she was with child, and we also know that he was still around when Jesus was twelve years old. Everything else is a guess and is usually something someone made up for a theological or dogmatic reason.
One thing we know about Joseph is that he was obedient; even when he had his doubts about the marriage and his young bride, when angels would appear to him in his dreams and give him instructions, he would follow them. He married Mary even though she was pregnant, and he took his young wife and baby son to Egypt when instructed by an angel in order to save them from the wrath of Herod. We know that Joseph was a devout Jew and that he brought his family to Jerusalem to sacrifice at the Temple. These are the only stories we have from the Bible. But many traditions sprang up involving Joseph over the centuries. There is a tradition that Joseph was an elderly man when he wed Mary. This tradition was probably invented as a means of preventing some from thinking that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus. If Joseph was an elderly man then he probably had lost all interest in sex by the time he and Mary were wed, so he couldn't possibly be Jesus' biological father; plus Mary could remain ever-virgin! There is another tradition that Joseph was a widower and that his marriage to the Blessed Virgin Mary was his second marriage. This idea may have been developed as a means of explaining all those brothers and sisters of Jesus; if Mary was ever-virgin, those other kids must be step-children. Personally, I don't accept those stories; I thin that Joseph was probably in his twenties when he married Mary, and I think that they had at least four sons together and several daughters, too. He isn't mentioned in the texts after the visit of Jesus to his home town because he was no longer important to the story. The Gospels are not histories in the same sense as a book about the building of the Canal is a history; the purpose of the Gospels is to tell the Good News and they are theological documents serving a theological purpose, not an accurate history as we modern people expect in a historic document.
Today's Gospel reading gives us the only story from a canonical source on the childhood of Jesus. There are several non-canonical sources on his childhood and we call them infancy gospels. This story from Luke's gospel is the only story as such in the Bible. In this story Jesus is very precocious, telling his family that he must be about his Father's business. When I head this story as a child, I always liked it because the child Jesus showed-up all the adults, but as a father I have a lot of sympathy for Joseph and Mary, as I know what it is like to raise a precocious child. Raising precocious children can be difficult, but imagine how difficult it must have been to raise the Incarnation! In this story Joseph and Mary noticed that Jesus was missing, they've gone all the way back to Jerusalem to find him sitting in the Temple teaching the Scribes and Pharisees and Teachers, and he doesn't even feel bad about worrying his parents. When his mother scolds him, he says, "Why were you searching for me? Don't you know that I must be in my Father's house?" In the infancy gospels little Jesus turns children who make fun of him into goats and he even raises a child from the dead to clear himself from the accusation that he had pushed the boy off a tower. Raising little Jesus must have been quite a task! Actually, I think that Jesus was probably more like all the other children in the neighborhood; I doubt that he was turning other children into goats and I'm sure he didn't spend his time doing magic tricks. He probably helped his father and learned about carpentry, and he probably helped his mother take care of his younger brothers and sisters. I'm sure that the family of Joseph and Mary and Jesus and his siblings was as normal as all the other families living in Nazareth, a rather typical Galilean family.
Joseph is very important because he gave Jesus and James and Judas and the other children the fatherly influence that they needed to grow up to be the adults God wanted them to be. Joseph must have been a good, loving father, because the image of the father in Jesus' teachings is that of a loving, caring person. There are many people in the world who do not have good fathers; their fathers are uncaring and abusive, and this affects a person's perception of a father and it makes the name "Father" for God a problem, because when these people hear the word "father," they experience fear or loathing. But Jesus understood the word "father" to be a positive word. For Jesus the image of a father is that of a loving, caring, welcoming person and I'm sure that this image had a lot to do with his experience of his earthly father, Joseph.
Joseph was willing to take Mary as his wife even though her condition could bring scandal upon his name. Joseph was willing to pick-up and head for Egypt for a few years in order to protect his wife and infant son. He returned to Galilee, to Nazareth, and there he raised a family and worked as a carpenter and was a model of fatherhood for Jesus and his brothers and sisters. Joseph is a model of dedication and obedience; obedience to God and dedication to his family, and that is why we honor his memory today.
O God, who from the family of your servant David raised up Joseph to be the guardian of your incarnate Son and the spouse of his virgin mother: Give us grace to imitate his uprightness of life and his obedience to your commands; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Monday, March 17, 2014
Almighty God, in your providence you chose your servant Patrick to be the apostle of the Irish people, to bring those who were wandering in darkness and error to the true light and knowledge of you: Grant us so to walk in that light that we may come at last to the light of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Today is the Feast of St. Patrick, which is a huge celebration in the U.S.A., with parades and speeches and people wearing green and, from what I remember from elementary school, lots of pinching. I think the celebration of St. Patrick's Day has more to do with the pride of those of Irish heritage in the land of their ancestors than with the actual St. Patrick; leprechauns and green beer and getting plastered have nothing to do with the saint, and such celebrations do not take place in Ireland. Today we are going to remember Patrick as a missionary and bishop, and as the man who helped spread Christianity throughout Ireland.
Patrick did not bring Christianity to Ireland; there were Christians in Ireland in the fourth century, probably as a result of contact between the British, who had first heard the Gospel with the arrival of missionaries in the second century. The Celtic Church was different from the Roman Church; they kept a different date for Easter and their spirituality was different than that of the Western or Roman church.
Patricus was probably born in the year 390 in Britain. Patrick's family were Christians; his grandfather was a priest and his father was a deacon. His father, Calpornius, was also an important official in the Roman imperial government in Britain. Yet even though he came from a Christian family, Patrick, like many young people, didn't really concern himself with the faith or with his education. He regretted his lack of education for the rest of his life. When he was sixteen years of age, his village, Bannavem Taburniae, was raided by Irish pirates or slave-raiders, and he and many other people were captured and taken away. Here is how he tells the story in his Confession: I was then about sixteen years of age. I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people---and deservedly so, because we turned away from God and did not keep His commandments, and did not obey our priests, who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought over us the wrath of his anger and scattered us among many nations, even unto the utmost part of the earth, where now my littleness is placed among strangers.
And there the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection, and mercy on my youth and ignorance, and watched over me before I knew Him, and before I was able to distinguish between good and evil, and guarded me, and comforted me as would a father his son.
Patrick was forced to work as a shepherd, and he spent a lot of his time in repentance and prayer. He also had a vision which told him that he would return home: But after I came to Ireland---everyday I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed---the love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountains; and I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me---as now I see, because the spirit within me was then fervent. And there one night I heard in my sleep a voice saying to me: "It is well that you fast, soon you will go to your own country." And again, after a short while, I heard a voice saying to me: "See, your ship is ready." And it was not near, but at a distance of perhaps two hundred miles, and I had never been there, nor did I know a living soul there; and then I took to flight, and I left the man whith whom I had stayed for six years. And I went in the strength of God who directed my way to my good, and I feared nothing until I came to that ship.
When he first came and asked the captain for work on the ship, the captain was angry and said, "There is no room and it is no use for you to ask to go along with us." Patrick, discouraged, turned away and started walking down the path. He was praying that God would guide him safely back to his hut, but before he even ended his prayer he heard a sailor calling: "Come, hurry, we shall take you on in good faith; make friends with us in whatever way you like." Patrick thanked God and hoped to bring them all to Christ, as they were all Pagans. Three days later they arrived on the coast of Britain. They left the boat and began traveling by foot. Patrick writes: . . . for twenty-eight days we traveled through deserted country. And they lacked food, and hunger overcame them; and the next day the captain said to me, "Tell me, Christian, you say that your God is great and all-powerful; why, then, do you not pray for us? As you can see, we are suffering from hunger; it is unlikely indeed that we shall ever see a human being again." I said to them full of confidence: "Be truly converted with all your heart to the Lord my God, because nothing is impossible for Him, that this day He may send you food on your way until you be satisfied; for He has abundance everywhere." And, with the help of God, so it came to pass: suddenly a herd of pigs appeared on the road before our eyes, and they killed many of them; and there they stopped for two nights and fully recovered their strength, and their hounds received their fill for many of them had grown weak and were half-dead along the way. And from that day they had plenty of food.
That night Patrick had a dream that Satan was holding him down, and he called out to God and was saved from Satan's grasp, and he realized from that moment on that the Spirit of God would speak and work through him. He eventually left this gang and returned to his family. He also as educated as a Christian and took on Holy Orders, being ordained deacon, priest, and eventually, bishop. All during this time back home he had visions calling him back to the land of his captivity: And there I saw in the night the vision of a man, whose name was Victoricus, coming as it were from Ireland, with countless letters. And he gave me one of them, and I read the opening words of the letter, which were "The voice of the Irish;" and as I read the beginning of the letter I thought that at the same moment I heard their voice---they were those beside the Wood of Covlut, with is near the Western Sea---and thus did they cry out as with one mouth: "We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more." And I was quite broken in heart, and could read no further, and so I woke up. Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord gave to them according to their cry. And another night---whether within me or beside me, I know not, God knows---they called me most unmistakably with words which I heard but could not understand, except that at the end of the prayer He spoke thus: "He that has laid down His life for thee, it is He that speaketh in thee;" and so I awoke full of joy.
Patrick decided to answer this call and return to Ireland, but he was opposed by other bishops and he also suffered a serious illness. Patrick decided that this was for his own good and that he was being purged by the Lord. He finally returned to Ireland in the year 432, arriving not far from the area where he had been a shepherd. He set-up a church in Armagh, which served as his head-quarters, and he traveled throughout Ireland, preaching and baptizing. He usually preached to the chiefs of clans and with their conversion the entire tribe would convert. He also Christianized the old religion, building churches over former Druid holy sites, carving crosses on druidic pillars, and putting sacred wells and springs under the protection of Christian Saints. His conversion of the three High Kings of Ireland put Ireland on the road to becoming a Christian nation. He educated the sons of the chiefs and kings, he established monasteries throughout the land, he ordained clergy and he instituted monks and nuns. The monasteries of Ireland became incredible powerhouses of education and spirituality. He stayed in Ireland for the rest of his life, and probably died around the year 461. We don't know the date of his death, but the celebration of March 17 dates to the seventh century. I doubt that he chased the snakes from Ireland, or that he used shamrocks to explain the concept of the Trinity, and most of the other miracles attributed to him were invented over the centuries. We do know that he was a faithful bishop and loved the people of Ireland.
I will close with the ending paragraphs of Patrick's Confession: Wherfore may God never permit it to happen to me that I should lose His people with He purchases in the utmost parts of the world. I pray to God to give me perseverance and to deign that I be a faithful witness to Him to the end of my life for my God.
And if ever I have done any good for my God whom I love, I beg Him to grant me that I may shed my blood with those exiles and captives for His name, even though I should be denied a grave, or my body be woefully torn to pieces limb by limb by hounds or wild beasts, or the fowls of the air devour it. I am firmly convinced that if this should happen to me, I would have gained my soul together with my body, because on that day without doubt we shall rise in the brightness of the sun, that is, in the glory of Christ jesus our Redeemer, as sons of the living God and joint heirs with Christ, to be made conformable to His image; for of Him, and by Him, and in Him we shall reign.
For His sun which we see rises daily for us because He commands so, but it will never reign, nor will its splendor last; what is more, those wretches who adore it will be miserably punished. Not so we, who believe in, and worship, the True Sun---Christ---who will never perish, nor will he who doeth His will; but he will abide for ever as Christ abideth for ever, who reigns with God the Father Almighty and the Holy Spirit before time, and now, and in all eternity.
Behold, again and again would I set forth the words of my confession. I testify in truth and in joy of heart before God and His holy angels that I never had any reason except the Gospel and its promises why I should ever return to the people from whom once before I barely escaped.
I pray those who believe and fear God, whosoever deigns to look at or receive this writing which Patrick, a sinner, unlearned, has composed in Ireland, that no one should ever say that it was my ignorance if I did or showed forth anything however small according to God's good pleasure; but let this be your conclusion and let it so be thought, that---as is the perfect truth---it was the gift of God. This is my confession before I die.
Patrick was creative in his evangelism, he understood that incorporating what was familiar would do much more to further the message of the Gospel rather than trying to force the Irish into some concept of The Faith Once Delivered. He understood the importance of education and the intellect in Christianity. He was faithful to God and faithful to the Irish. He is an example of a missionary who loved and served the people to whom he had been sent. And that is why we remember him today.