Friday, July 21, 2017

July 21 - Victor of Marseilles, Martyr, Opponent of Idolatry

Victor was raised as many Roman military officers might have been. He showed great promise as a soldier of the empire. He was well known for his bravery and intelligence. He had the right pedigree—a noble background that assured him advancement and power within the imperial system. He was well-equipped for imperial success. Indeed, one would imagine that a man like Victor would have too much to lose to abandon an empire and imperial success for a crucified Lord.

And, yet, Victor—who served the empire—refused to offer sacrifice to the gods and values of Rome. Instead, Victor called the imperial gods what they were: idols. His opponents seized this opportunity and denounced him before the empire. Mighty Victor the intended role model of so many Roman citizens was brought before two prefects, Asterius and Eutychius, who recognized that such a notable man should instead appear before the emperor. And, so, Victor was brought before Emperor Maximian and given a chance to repent of his verbal sin against the empire—they asked him to deny the truth he had seen and proclaimed. They asked him to lie and become an idolater.

Surely, Victor knew the eventual cost of his truth-telling and, yet, he endured Maximian’s tortures. He was severely beaten and, still, would not deny the charge of idolatry. They put him on the rack and tortured him slowly in hopes that his resolve would crack and he would escape pain into the arms of poisonous agreement. They underestimated Victor's commitment. They drug him through the streets hoping, still, that humiliation and abuse would shake loose Victor’s conviction and “bring him to his senses.” Victor accepted their abuse and would not take part in their blindness—the one who had seen could not simply un-see like they were demanding of him.

Maximian threw him into prison under a guard of three soldiers thinking that isolation, abuse and brokenness would have the desired effect if left to simmer and stew. While in prison, Victor ministered to his guards and the three of them were converted. Longinus, Alexander and Felician were liberated from the imperial lie and brought into the Kingdom of God that day.

When Maximian heard this he had the three converts brought before him and beheaded. He had to stop the hemorrhaging while he still had a chance. Still, Victor would not participate in the imperial lie. Maximian was becoming enraged and confused at Victor’s actions. Maximian could not understand how Victor could take such abuse and, yet, still be reaching out in mercy to his abusers. Maximian could not understand how the Kingdom of God’s values differed from the Empire’s. Maximian didn’t understand the process of conversion—- all he understood was self-deception and a bland hope for security through domination. So, Maximian ordered Victor to the temple of Jupiter—perhaps hoping that the grandeur of the temple would change Victor’s mind. Maximian hoped to woo Victor back to the comfortable lies of the Empire.

As Victor stood before the statue of Jupiter he was expected to burn incense to Jupiter and the Empire. Everybody held their breath as every eye was on Victor. As they watched, Victor kicked the statue of Jupiter and it fell over. In one defiant and powerful act, Victor reinforced what he had been saying all along: the gods and values of Rome are dead and useless. He was immediately seized by the shocked mob and Maximian ordered the offending foot cut off. After his foot was cut off, Maximian ordered the beaten and bloody Victor to be crushed to death by a millstone. And, so, Victor of Marseilles was martyred for refusing to believe and preach the imperial lie. St. Victor died for the Kingdom of God in opposition to the damning self-deception of the imperial machine.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

July 20 - Elijah, Truth-Teller


In our world, there is no shortage of people who claim an intimate relationship with God and an innate sense of God's desires and will. Very often it seems that you don't even need to ask to receive advice from somebody about what God wants--specifically--for you to do. Regrettably, many of these people take the Lord's name in vain by granting divine authorship to personal opinion. For those who speak with power and certainty the story of Elijah can be unnerving--in a good way. For Elijah was a truth-teller and a man who knew the life-giving intimacy of the Lord God Almighty.

Elijah was born nearly 2900 years ago. He is noted as a prophet but we must be clear not to call him a fortune-teller but, rather, a truth-teller. After all, there is no room within the faith of Moishe, Eliyahu, and Yeshua for sorcery and idle predictions of the future--the future is in Adonai's hands and not a matter of concern. Instead, Adonai (God) spoke with Elijah and told him about the evil acts of the King and Queen of Israel (Ahab and Jezebel). They had forgotten Adonai and begun worshiping idols of Baal because they thought it would bring them good rain and crops. The people had tried to make life for themselves not knowing that any life they could make for themselves wouldn't stand the test of time. In a haphazard pursuit of life, they had chosen a bland mockery of life because it was easy instead of pursuing life more abundant in Adonai.

Adonai sent Elijah to teach a lesson about life to those who had abandoned it intentionally or ignorantly. Elijah came before them and told them the truth God had given to him: a drought was coming because of the rejection of Adonai. The cheap security and supposed power of Baal was being called into question by Elijah's prophecy. If the people had chosen predictability and a god they could control over life/Adonai, then they should know what they were choosing: death. And, so, in a very visceral and symbolic way the water was withdrawn from those who had withdrawn themselves from Adonai.

As the flower wilts when removed from the soil and its life-giving moisture, so also go those created by Adonai when removed from God—the ground of their being—and the spiritual sustenance of Adonai—King of the Universe. This truth, however, was missed by those who refused to see it. Instead of accepting their own complicity in their disconnection from Adonai, they blamed Elijah and, so, Elijah fled for his life. While fleeing from those who claimed to be the people of God, Elijah was provided for first by unclean birds and, then, by a poor widow. It is of no little importance that the prophet of Adonai was cared for not by the people who claimed such intimacy with God but, rather, by the least equipped and least likely of the world. For, you see, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does not dwell only in a temple built with mortal hands—an idea that we must all relearn repeatedly.

Elijah would go on to do many other things including raise the widow's son from the dead, provide for her and her family, contest with the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel, flee again from the wrath of Ahab and Jezebel, hear the “still small voice” of Adonai, be assumed into the presence of Adonai on a chariot of fire, and be present for the transfiguration of Jesus the Christ. Elijah was, truly, a prophet who spoke powerful truth about the nature of our lives and connection to the Lord God Almighty. His story speaks volumes about what intimacy with God looks like: life-giving as in the raising of the widow's son,sustaining as in the provision of oil and flour for the widow's family,among the unclean as in the ministrations of the ravens to Elijah,gentle, humble, and personal as in the still-small-voice,concerned with the weak and powerless as in Elijah's community with the widow, empowered but prayerful as in the contest with the priests of Baal, dependent as in Elijah's constant need for intimacy and affirmation from Adonai, and transfiguringElijah reminds us all what it looks like to tell the truth in a powerful way. Elijah reminds us all of the life-sustaining-and-redeeming power of the still-small-voice of the Lord God Almighty.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

July 19 - Macrina the Younger, Devoted Sister


Some have argued that the basic unit of Christianity is not the individual but, rather, the family unit. If this is the case, then one of the great families in Christian tradition must be St. Macrina's family. St. Macrina the Younger's grandmother was St. Macrina the elder. Her brother's include St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Basil the Great, and St. Peter of Sebaste (all three were bishops at some point). Macrina's parents were St. Basil the Elder and St. Emmelia. In such a canonized family it seems that young daughter Macrina could be overlooked or overshadowed--brothers Gregory and Basil were, after all, two of the three Cappadocian fathers who went on to be great champions of orthodoxy and significant influences for Christian theology. And, yet, Macrina was not a bit player to be overlooked or mentioned in passing but, rather, was inspiration and encouragement to all who met her and fell within the sound of her teachings.

Young Macrina was lucky enough to receive an incredible education which included memorizing large sections of the scriptures that her family was devoted to. She memorized the entirety of the Psalter and was formed and informed by the great stories of the scripture. Her intelligence was remarked upon by her well-educated brothers and her beauty was well-known by many. It is easy to say that Macrina had many advantages. However, unlike many she did not take these things for granted. Rather, she understood her gifts as not her own but given for the use of the Kingdom.

She was betrothed to a young man of considerable reputation and whom she, apparently, loved but this young man died after the betrothal and before the wedding. For the sake of fidelity, Macrina considered herself already a wife--of a man hidden in Christ with God--and took no other husband. Instead, she remained committed to taking care of her family as they--one by one--died.

When Basil the Great had returned from receiving a wonderful education in Athens, it was Macrina who grounded him in faith and in opposition to the ivory towers of academia. Clearly, learning was highly valued in their family and, yet, Macrina grasped that education is not saving and Christianity is not a religion of redemption through knowledge or intelligence. And, so, Macrina became a spiritual center for the great Cappadocian fathers: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus. Though they would fight and debate and champion orthodoxy, Macrina reminded them of the spiritual and essential nature of the faith. Though the Cappadocians may be well-known there is no doubt that they owed more than we can articulate to Macrina.

Basil and Gregory would remark following her death that she seemed to grasp innately and essentially at what it meant to be a servant and follower of Jesus. Her love for and devotion to her family helped to link them together even as the ravages of disease and time whittled them away. From her deathbed she consoled brother Gregory about death and redemption. As Gregory suffered grief for Basil and Macrina so closely together it was Macrina who comforted him with her prayers and teachings.

There is much to be said for the great mentor of such great teachers (Gregory would go on to write a biography of Macrina to share her life with others as she had shared it with him) but there is, perhaps, more to be said for a sister devoted to love and compassion for her family and her brothers and sisters in humanity. In this way, Macrina is not solely the devoted sister of Gregory, Peter, and Basil but, also, the devoted sister of all of us--constantly calling us back to a spiritual reality she experienced so clearly.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

July 18 - The Great Burning of Rome


Nearly 2,000 years ago on this day someone started a small fire. But, a fire never consents to remain small and, so, it began to ravage the homes of many Romans near the Circus Maximus. Regrettably, these houses were close together and made of wood and cloth. Soon, the "great city of Rome" was set alight and burning with abandon. Even in our day--nearly 2 millenniums later--fires are terrifying forces of destruction that can become unquenchable if left unchecked. Consider the wildfires that plague the American west consuming fuel and producing nothing more than ash and death. This great fire was left unchecked and the burning continued.

The fire burned for an entire week. Those who stood in its way were made to cower and flee or to be consumed and feed the horrific onslaught. There was little room to run given that of the fourteen districts of Rome, four were consumed entirely and seven more were crippled. Devastation had taken residence in great Rome. Rome! So many powers and principalities had quaked before it and acquiesced to its commands and demands. So many had bought into the gospel of "Pax Romana" that declared protection and security to be more valuable than free will and community. The great flames offered no quarter or peace to mighty Rome and, tragically, many lives were lost.

Where, then, did the fire come from? Some say Nero set it because of insanity--that the Pax Romana had prepared those who gave their lives to it to execute atrocity for insanity. Some say Nero set it because he wanted to remove the poor from around the Circus Maximus and rebuild it in a new and beautiful fashion--that the greed and lust of one man burned up the least of Rome. Some say Nero was nowhere near Rome when it happened and, instead, rushed back to fight the flames of an unquenchable destroyer--that bad things happen in this world and the flames of chance consume even those dear to us: Christian or Roman. Nero said it was the Christians. And the words of the Emperor are the gospel of the empire.

Nero, feeling the pain of accusation from the people he likely tried to save, shifted blame away from himself and toward another group. Tacitus writes, "Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace." Christians were known as incestuous (even wife and husband called each other brother and sister) atheist (having denied the Roman Gods) cannibals (met at night and ate the body and blood of their leader). They were an easy target for the flames of Nero's vengeance. These people who refused to deny their Lord--Jesus Christ--were gathered together and punished for the great fire that stripped Rome of its greatest value: protection and security. They were commended to the flames of sacrifice to appease the quailing hearts of an empire that had realized--all too suddenly--that it could bring the "Pax Romana" but not peace.

And, so, Christians were crucified like their Lord. They were wrapped in animal skins and mauled by animals. They were wrapped in flammable garments and set ablaze to provide light for Nero and the people of Rome. They did not fight back. They did not deny their faith. Instead, they stepped forward and into the flames that had mastered Rome. They died in a different way that would be apparent to all who saw. While Nero capitalized on the loss and rebuilt Rome and a "golden palace," more Christians died--for some most certainly died in the fire--with the words of their Lord on their lips: "Father, forgive them for they don't know what they're doing."

They were right; Rome was fleeing from death in a panic and Christians proclaimed a different gospel with a different set of values: There is no peace in domination and control--there is only peace in love. The Empire cannot and does not want to save you. And, so, the flames of vengeance and retribution found no fuel and were suffocated. Yet, another fire was fueled: the fire of the Christian witness and the good news of redemption for all people.