Monday, March 27, 2017

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.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

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.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

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.

Friday, March 24, 2017

March 24 - Oscar Romero, Martyr, Friend of the Poor, Enemy of the State

Oscar Romero spent most of his free time around the Church when he was a little boy. Sure, he was active among his friends and did all the things that little Salvadoran boys did but when he had a stretch of free time you were likely to find him down at one of the local church buildings. He had been raised in a Christian family--son to Santos Romero and Guadalupe de Jésus Galdámez--and received a limited education. His limited education was not because of lack of intelligence or priorities but because of a relative lack of need for education within El Salvador in the early twentieth century. Oscar's school, for example, only offered three years of education for its students. After that, a student would need to receive private tutoring if they were going to received further education.So, for the Salvadorans it was better to learn a skill or a trade than to receive an education and so Oscar learned carpentry from his father. Oscar showed some talent at carpentry but it did not prove to be the calling that was first and foremost upon his life. He did have receive private tutoring but academia was also not his primary calling. Instead, he became a priest in 1942and answered to a calling that had been brewing in his young mind on those lazy afternoons when he was likely to be found around the Church and its ministers.

Oscar's ordination took place in Rome and he stayed a little while longer to continue his studies in theology. In 1943, however, things were becoming increasingly tense on the geopolitical scale and Oscar was summoned to return to El Salvador. When he finally made it home--he was held and detained occasionally because of his presence in Mussolini's Italy during World War II--he began to serve the Church as best he knew how. Eventually, this entailed becoming bishop and even archbishop in El Salvador. His appointment to these positions of power was not always well received because he was not fully invested in the liberation theology that was so popular in El Salvador at the time. Further, he seemed to have no Marxist leanings and Marxism was becoming more and more popular with the less politically conservative members of the priesthood in Latin America. Everything changed, though, when Oscar's friend Rutilio Grande was assassinated for advocating for the poor and politically undesirable.

Oscar had been a friend of the poor for years but not the extent of Rutilio. With the deafening thunder of the machine guns that made a martyr of Rutilio, Oscar was awakened to the incredible struggle that was already going on in El Salvador. He would later explain that Rutilio's death impressed upon him that Rutilio's cause had been good and just. In other words, the martyrdom of Rutilio Grande convinced Oscar Romero that the poor and disenfranchised were worth dying for. As archbishop, he was called to shepherd the People of God and care for its ministers. When Oscar realized that both were being killed, he said,"When the church hearts the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises." He wrote letters to Jimmy Carter--the President of the United States of America--asking that the United States stop sending money to the Salvadoran government because of the injustice that was being perpetrated with those funds. As he further invested himself in the life of the people he began to be questioned about why he would agree to do this since it likely meant he was signing his own death warrant. He responded, "I am bound, as a pastor, by divine command to give my life for those whom I love, and that is all Salvadorans, even those who are going to kill me."

In 1980, he was officiating the Mass at a chapel and knew he was woefully under protected according to the security expectations of world leaders. Yet, he understood his calling to be a matter of commitment regardless of danger or potential cost. Just a few days before, he had told a reporter what it was he wanted to say to any who might be planning on killing him: "You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish." As he lifted the bread during the Eucharist the doors at the back of the chapel were flung open and gunfire was heard. A single bullet hit Oscar in the heart as he lifted the bread above his head and spoke of a God who loved the world--the poor and the rich, the powerful and the hopeless--enough to die for it. He had been executed by one of the governing body's death squads. At his funeral, they threw bombs into the crowd--numbering nearly 250,000--and snipers fired into the panicked masses. The struggle was not over but Oscar had played his part well and with passion. He died a martyr and drew the attention of world leaders who began to suspect that something wasn't right in El Salvador. He purchased this attention with his blood.