Wednesday, February 10, 2016

February 10 - Ash Wednesday

Every journey begins with a single step and those who would make a long journey would be wise to prepare for the trip mentally and physically. We have celebrated the advent of our Lord and his birth. In that time, we welcome our Lord with open arms but in the deep parts of our minds we already knew that he was headed along a path of suffering toward glorious death at our own hands. We've traveled alongside as Jesus has shared with us the words of life and taken step after step toward the cross. We've rounded a corner and in the distance we can see that dark day and its deadly intentions. We've known it was coming but now we cannot deny its immediacy.

As we prepare to journey with Jesus through the desert that leads to Golgotha, we must take time to prepare for what it will cost both us and our Lord. We know that Easter will followshortly in the devastation of that fated day because Jesus has come to offer life more abundant and not even death and sin will prevail over him. But, we cannot see that day from here. So, we must take time to prepare for the journey.

On this day, Christians all over the world will gather together to take their first step in the season of Lent that anticipated Good Friday and places its hope in Easter. It is in this time that we invest ourselves in hope for we need strength for the journey. It is as this time that we take time to repent and lay aside the burdens that will wear us down as we seek resurrection. So, we take a sign upon our head--a cross made of last year's palm ashes--to remind us that the beginning of this journey toward death and resurrection begins with repentance. May this cross remind us that it is from the dust that we were made and it is to the dust that we return.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

February 9 - Apollonia, Martyr, Virgin, Woman of Prayer

Apollonia was a virgin not because she had no desires for or hated men but because she had chosen to remain celibate so that she might more fully devote herself to her Lord Jesus. Those who married took upon themselves vows before God to care for and honor another person--they took upon themselves another obligation. These vows held sway and often kept married Christians from living in the same sacrificing and devoted way that their celibate brothers and sisters were able to. Apollonia's devotion was highly respected in the Church in Alexandria but was beginning to be a cause for disfavor among the non-Christians in the city. Decius had barely taken power but the people knew he was no friend of the Christians and so they had no fear that he would outlaw their abuse and murder. Further, the thousand year anniversary of the beginning of the Roman empire was taking place. Further still, one of the non-Christian poets had predicted a great calamity within the walls of Alexandria because of the presence of Christians within. With all of these circumstances swirling together in one perfect storm, it came as no surprise when many of the non-Christians joined together as one mob to exact their own brand of justice upon the Christians.

The people of Alexandria got an early start to the Decian persecutions. They seized two well-known Christians and tortured them to the thrill of the gathered crowd. When they grew tired of the couple, they killed them. They burned down the homes of suspected Christians and brutally mugged and stripped any reported Christians they met in the streets. The mob went so far as to kick down the door of the home of a prominent and wealthy Christian so that they might loot and pillage the home. Apollonia was not only celibate but was also a deaconess--all of this conspired to make her a perfect target. They took her to an open place and held her down. They began by pounding her face and mouth with clubs and fists with the special purpose of breaking or knocking out her teeth. When this savagery proved too humane, they retrieved a pair of tongs and began slowly and painfully removing her teeth one by one.

The pain was incredible but she endured it without returning evil for their evil. Even though they were torturing her to the best of their abilities, she noticed that they had built up a pile of kindling and logs upon which they planned to burn her alive. They had already started the fire and it was roaring by the time they dragged her before it. Their plan was to throw the faithful woman upon the flames and then rejoice in her agonizing death. As they approached, they gave her an ultimatum: deny her faith or burn to death. She asked one request from a bleeding mouth: "Please give me just a moment to pray about it." Perhaps they thought it would be another great occasion to mock her or perhaps they felt she was beginning to cave to their abuse and would renounce her faith after prayer. They released their hold on her for a moment and she leaped into the flames without a scream. She died an eager martyr who could not even consider denying the faith that had gripped her all those years.

Monday, February 8, 2016

February 8 - Paul Miki and Companions, Martyrs

Paul had been called to preach a Gospel that the world found foolish yet was truer than any story ever told. Paul had been charged to tell the grand story of how God had created humans in God's own image but humanity had turned its back upon God. In the stunning climax, God became human to redeem those whom God loved even as they continued to reject God. For being a preacher and a storyteller, he was regarded as an oddity in Japan at first. Eventually, though, this surprise turned to hatred as those who came to power had no room in their world for a man like Paul who had turned his back upon his nation in their estimation. By swearing their allegiance to God, Paul and his fellow Christians threatened the power that the ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi--known as Taikosama--held.

Ironically, the rulers an leaders of Japan had initially been the ones who welcomed Christian missionaries to Japanese shores. They had welcomed them gladly because they knew that Western powers endorsed the Christian churches and they suspected that this would increase trade possibilities. Further, the rulers had grown somewhat uncomfortable with the Buddhist monks who would not do as they told them to do and felt that an influx of Christianity could limit the power of the monks. Yet, as Christianity grew in both Japan and the Philippines, they became aware that it demanded more and more allegiance from its members than they were comfortable with their citizens giving away. Further, it seemed that the politically savvy among the western powers knew better how to manipulate the Christian churches to gain power in foreign locations.Soon, Christianity was banned in Japan and those who swore allegiance to Jesus were executed for it. Ministers and vocal Christians were martyred and persecuted. Paul and his companions were twenty-six of the victims.

They were arrested and charged with being Christians. They refused to deny their faith and so they were gathered in chains and sentenced to march to Nagasaki while singing a hymn--for all six hundred miles. It took nearly thirty days for the soon-to-be-martyrs to arrive in Nagasaki and they greeted the day that they arrived with renewed singing and rejoicing. They were brought before twenty-six crosses and they met them with joy. One of the twenty-six, a man named Gonsalo, rushed forward unaware of how tragic this experience was supposed to be and pointed at a nearby cross, "Is this one mine?" he asked hopefully. Taken aback, nobody responded to him at first but eventually one of the soldiers indicated which cross was his. He knelt down and embraced it with tears in his eyes. Slowly, they were affixed to their crosses while they sang hymns and joked with each other. Paul was so short that when bound to the cross his feet could not reach the support and so they were forced to bind him to the cross by tying him under his arms and across his chest. One soldier stepped on Paul's chest as he tightened the knot and a minister among them complained at the brutality but Paul insisted that it was okay because the man was just doing his job.

Once the crosses were raised Paul began preaching to the awestruck crowd. They had come to see the power of the Japanese rulers and had found willing martyrs proclaiming life even as they slipped into death. The soldiers were amazed and some were converted. The crowds listened to Paul as he preached and proclaimed his own forgiveness of the people and the powers who persecuted and executed the Body of Christ. All twenty-six of them died as the powers of Japan tried to prove their dominance. All they had proven was that despite their own political machinations, the Kingdom of God had arrived in Japan and could not be turned back.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

February 7 - Helder Camara, Priest, Bishop, Friend of the Poor

Helder was the eleventh of thirteen children born in Northeastern Brazil to a middle class family with roots in the Roman Catholic church. Much to the pain of Helder and his family, five of his brothers and sisters died from the flu epidemic that swept through Brazil claiming souls in 1905 (four years before Helder was born). Even as a child, he showed an interest in the priesthood. His priests and family would often remark to him that they felt something special about him and would ask him if he knew what it meant to be a priest. One of his priests even went so far as to tell him that to be a priest was forever and it meant he would never be his own and would always be pouring himself out for others. This didn't deter young Helder and he continued holding mock masses in his home on an alter he built out of boxes and playthings.

As he grew, he followed God's willing and ended up studying to become a priest. It wasn't especially uncommon for young Brazilian boys in Northeastern Brazil to become priests since it was a region that placed a high value upon the priesthood. But it was surprising that Helder was ordained at the age of twenty-two. He had to receive special dispensation to be ordained prior to the age of twenty-four but it was given and he took his vows. This new avowed state was a good fit for Helder and he spent his time as a minister of a church but, also, as an advocate for the poor.Like many Brazilian priests of the time he was heavily invested in liberation theology and social justice ministries. Eventually, he became bishop and then archbishop and this allowed him to set the tone and pace for ministry within Brazil. Even when he had taken on the political roles of an archbishop he still did not fail to advocate for the poor.

Helder is perhaps best remembered for a quote that summed up his professional life: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." For his work as a friend of the poor he was nominated for a Nobel peace prize and received the Pacem in Terris award. Though he was not poor, he became associated with the slums. Though he was not oppressed, he became associated with the weak and disenfranchised. Being a priest was a forever commitment and Helder lived into it. When he was vilified and slandered he reminded himself that he had been called not to a profession but to a way of life and part of that way of life was a devotion to pouring himself out for the least of his brothers and sisters. Helder died in 1999.