Saturday, March 28, 2015

March 28 - Maria Skobtsova, Martyr, Twice Divorced, "Righteous Among the Nations"

The woman who would eventually be known as Mother Maria or Maria Skobtsova was born in Latvia and named Elizaveta Pilenko. Elizaveta's family was considered "upper class" in Latvia in the year of 1891. When she was a teenager, tragedy visited her family in the death of her father. She was crushed at this loss and began to doubt the faith she had been taught as a child. Soon, she was an avid proponent of atheism because of a hurt that viciously denied the presence of a loving God. Shortly after the death of her father and Elizaveta's faith, the family moved to St. Petersburg in Russia to hopefully leave behind bad memories and start a new and hopeful life. When she was a almost twenty-years-old--and nearly seven years before the Bolshevik Revolution--she married a man named Dimitri Kuzmin-Karaviev. He was a Bolshevik and heavily involved in the intellectual and revolutionary circles of Russia at the time. The marriage didn't last long (ending approximately three years after it started) but Elizaveta became involved with poetry and literature because of it and gave birth to one child named Gaiana. She began writing her own poetry and this talent would serve to sustain and inspire her for years to come. More than that, though, it helped effect her conversion to the Faith of the Christians. She began writing about the crucifixion and death of Jesus because of its dramatic cultural importance. As she wrote and contemplated that terrible and wonderful moment, she felt her faith rekindled. When she considered that God has not simply left us alone in our suffering but had joined with us in all of it--even the lamenting--she converted.

Following the Bolshevik revolutio in 1917, she became deputy mayor of a small town in Southern Russia. When the imperial army came to take the town back, the mayor fled and Elizaveta became mayor. She was arrested for being a Bolshevik and put on trial but her judge was a teacher she had studied under in years past by the name of Daniel Skobtsova. She was acquited with Daniel's help and they soon fell in love and married. They were forced to flee because of political complications. First they fled to Georgia where she gave birth to a son named Yuri. Second, they fled to Yugoslavia where she gave birth to a daughter named Anastasia. Finally they fled to Paris and found a place to call home for a little while.Elizaveta began studying theology and the faith that now gripped her but this was interrupted when Anastasia died from influenza. Elizaveta's daughter Gaiana was sent to boarding school and the marriage between Elizaveta and Daniel soon broke into pieces. Daniel left Paris with Yuri and Elizaveta further devoted herself to ministry among the poor and outcast. She had now been divorced twice but she eventually agreed to become a nun--at the urging of her bishop--on the condition that she did not want to be isolated from the people she was learning to love. It was she took her vows that Elizaveta became Maria.

Maria's home became a convent of sorts but mostly it was a house for refugees and the poor. She served meals, she provided beds, and she listened to stories of heartbreak and tragedy--in the part of Paris she lived in there were plenty of stories and not nearly enough meals or beds. The Nazis eventually occupied Paris and began rounding up Jews, outcasts, and dissidents to send them to concentration camps. Maria waged a war of mercy against the Nazi efforts to destroy. She convinced sanitation workers to do something revolutionary--they would carry garbage cans out of the city once Jewish children had been secreted in them. This worked for some time but soon her home also became a hiding place for Jews and others the Nazis wanted dead. She and her priest offered baptismal certificates to Jewish children and families so that they could wear the cloak of Jesus even if they were not his disciple--they offered mercy wrapped up in deception. Eventually, Maria was arrested and sent to the concentration camp at Ravensbruck, Germany. There, she again served as minister to outcasts and those in need. Finally, on Good Friday in 1945, she felt called to lay down her life for another. She was inspired by memory of that terrible and wonderful when Jesus laid down his life for us. She took the place of a Jewish woman on the way to the gas chamber and died that day only a little while before the camp was liberated.

Friday, March 27, 2015

March 27 - Eckhart von Hochheim, Theologian, Dominican, Mystic

Eckhart von Hochheim--more commonly known now as Meister Eckhart--was unusual for his time but this isn't apparent from his childhood or his education. He was born in Germany in the year 1260. His family was wealthy and considered to be of "noble" blood. Yet, we know very little else about his family. He attended the University of Paris and was raised as a Christian. After receiving some of his extensive education he joined the Dominican Order and committed himself to a life of preaching and teaching. He continued to study and receive academic validation and support from his brothers and sisters in the Faith. Eventually, he was named as a lecturer and teacher of theology in more than one institution. As far as this goes, it seems that he was absolutely typical for an educated man with an affluent background in the 13th and 14th centuries. But, as his name got around and more people were exposed to what he had to say, the commentary became focused on how unusual his sermons were.

Though he wrote in the ecclesial Latin of the day when functioning as a minister, he preached in the native German language of the people. He was unafraid to use their dialect and their words to make his preaching especially relevant to his audience. By casting his words in familiar tones and phrases, he was able to pierce through the silent indifference of many in his audiences. As for the subject of his sermons he seemed to be almost specifically concerned with one particular topic. He wrote, "When I preach, I usually speak of detachment and say that a man should be empty of self and all things; and secondly, that he should be reconstructed in the simple good that God is..." This kind of mystical theology made some of his contemporaries nervous. It was a turbulent time in the life of the Church with the Pope living in France and the continued skirmishes between the Dominicans and Franciscans.So, when his preaching stood out it gathered attention from people who were already on edge and looking for heretics and schismatists.

Eckhart once wrote that "if the only prayer you ever prayed was 'thank you,' it would suffice." This upset people who stood to gain by dictating prayers and processes for encountering God. To boil Faith down to gratitude was unacceptable for Eckhart's opponents. He is reported as insisting: "All God wants of man is a peaceful heart." For those who wanted more than simply peaceful hearts, this was outright heresy even if they wouldn't take the time to consider what Eckhart really meant. He once advised people to "Do exactly what you would do if you felt most secure" because of the power of God's grace and mercy but this made those in power--and those who had bought into the idea of earning grace--uncomfortably. He further drew his opponents' wrath with his contention: "The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of your life."

Eventually, he was accused of heresy and no matter how many people continued to vouch for him he eventually had to face his accusers. They accused him of heresy and he denied it but finally he agreed to make a conditional statement that disproves all allegations of heresy. He insisted that he didn't think he was wrong but that if he was then he enthusiastically renounced anything he might have erred on in speech or written word. This open and eager admission means that he was not a heretic even if he erred because heresy is an act of the will and not the intellect. He had only about a month after his trial to continue in ministry before dying but he did so as a teacher and preacher of unusual truths in unusual ways. He died secure in the grace that had been given to him by God and died preaching unusual grace to a people trained not to believe it.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

March 26 - Larissa and Companions, Martyrs, Victims of Gothic Persecution, Burned Alive

The Gothic king Athanaric despised the Christians within the territories that he called his own.This was at the same time that Christians were despised and persecuted in Roman territories, as well. In this case, the enemy of Athanaric's enemy was not his friend. He was admittedly surprised with the incredible speed at which Christianity grew within his people--it seemed that the faith the Christians professed was infectious and subtle in its transmission. The Christian faith was able to grip hearts and bring peace when Athanaric found he could only command and threaten.Further, Athanaric was well aware that his military goals could be compromised by split loyalties among his people. So, he devised a plan to eliminate these split loyalties and draw his people together around a god he could easily control and manipulate.

The Gothic Christians met for their worship in tents in the countryside. They weren't meeting in secret but they were meeting far enough away from those with power to make an attack relatively implausible.Yet, they were gathering attention from non-Christians and conversions were happening at a quicker and quicker pace. As they met in their tents they would tell stories of brothers and sisters who had been arrested under some pretense and executed without a trial or with only the illusion of a trial. They spoke to each other prophetically about how it seemed that Athanaric and his people were less concerned with justice than they were with the execution of power and control. Yet, even as their numbers were being thinned by Imperial calculation, they continued to meet and converts continued to stream to the tents and ask how they, too, might becomes a disciple of the Risen Lord.

Under Athanaric's command a stone statue of one of his preferred deities--an idol--was loaded onto a chariot and accompanied to the meetings of the Christians with a compliment of soldiers. When they arrived at each tent--each place of worship--they drew their swords and interrupted the Christian worship. They demanded that the Christians come out and worship what the Goths deemed worthy of adoration. Some would indubitably come out and prostrate themselves before Gothic power but others remained in the tent--even going so far as to continue worshiping and ignoring the demands of their oppressors. The soldiers lit their torches and gave the Christians one more chance. When they were at Larissa's tent she continued to ignore their demands because her allegiance was to a Kingdom not of this world.So, the soldiers lit the tents on fire and refused to let anybody escape who would not worship the Gothic powers. Larissa led her brothers and sisters in singing a hymn as the fire consumed them and made them martyrs. As they were dying, a non-Christian man shrieked out his confession of faith while sprinting to the tent. Before any of the soldiers could stop him, he leaped into the flames and joined the smoky worship service. He had become a Christian only moments before his death but he was numbered with the 308 faithful Christian brothers and sisters who died because of Athanaric's calculated evil.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

March 25 - Dismas, Guilty Criminal, Victim of Capital Punishment, Good

When Jesus was crucified he was not crucified alone. In fact, he received Rome's great humiliation between two people that Rome esteemed equally well: Dismas and Gestas. Dismas and Gestas had committed an offense against Rome that Rome refused to tolerate--they had suggested that Rome was less than holy and may have even gone so far as to try to incite rebellion. When they all came to the place that is called "the Skull", they crucified Jesus there with Dismas and Gestas--Gestas on his left side and Dismas on his right. Rome had lifted the three men up and "exalted" them so that they might mock them even in death. Crucifixion was Rome's cruel way of punishing those who "got above their station." In Rome's eyes what they were doing was poetically appropriate: they were lifting up people who had tried to lift themselves up above Rome.

After the soldiers had finished the task of abusing and stripping the men they took their clothing and cast lots for it. Jesus had offered forgiveness for those who were present for this atrocity but it seems that few understood how a crucified man could offer forgiveness to his captors--they didn't get it. A great crowd watched the men as they slowly died and one of the more vocal members of the crowd had the gall to cry out, "He's done so much for other people, right? Well, let him save himself if he really is the Messiah!" Jesus offered no response except silent love and yet more forgiveness. All the while, Dismas and Gestas looked on and began to realize they were playing minor parts in this spectacle but that their parts would be sufficient enough to result in their own deaths, as well. Over Jesus' head was a piece of wood inscribed with a sentence: "This one is the King of the Jews!" Oh how they must have laughed at that clever joke to see a naked and bleeding man proclaimed king even as he died at the hands of Rome.

Finally, Gestas could take no more and turned to Jesus and cried, "So they say you're the Messiah, right? So save yourself and us! Do something besides forgive these Roman pigs." At Gestas' words, though, Dismas could put up with the mockery and abuse no longer.

He yelled back, "What's the matter with you? Don't you fear God? Or have you forgotten that you're part of this crucifixion, too? We deserve what we're getting--we've earned every bit of it. But, this man doesn't deserve it. He doesn't deserve any of this but he handles it better than either of us." He shook his head at how much Gestas was missing the point. "Jesus," he cried, "remember me when your Kingdom finally comes." In that moment, redemption was born in the heart of Dismas as he recognized his own brokenness and the imminent advent of Jesus' kingdom. Whereas the powers had missed it and even his fellow criminal Gestas had missed it,Dismas got it. In that moment, he placed his entire trust and faith in a fellow victim of Rome's method of winning hearts and souls.

Jesus turned to him and pronounced sweet words when he said, "I tell you the truth when i say today you will be with me in Paradise." Soon, all three of the men became victims of coldly calculated death. Jesus would rise again having overcome both sin and death and Dismas would find rest in God through Christ.