Friday, July 31, 2009

July 31 - Joseph of Arimathea, Disciple, Citizen of the Kingdom

Joseph of Arimathea had heard the preaching of Jesus near the beginning when he had traveled through Judea. It was here that he began to hear Jesus' comments about the coming Kingdom of God. His interest was piqued and he continued to follow what Jesus was saying as he traveled. His commitment to the Sanhedrin limited how much he could be present for Jesus' teachings and, yet, he took every opportunity. When approached, Joseph denied any allegiance to this traveling preacher and messiah. He had so much to lose that he didn't think he could afford to follow Jesus openly.

Joseph was probably surprised that Jesus had been arrested. But, he probably expected it, as well, because of some of the challenging and revolutionary things that Jesus was doing and saying in pursuit of the Kingdom of God. Joseph's heart beat faster at the thought that the Kingdom of God might be thwarted by the machinations of mortals. Jesus was condemned to death and crucified by the orders of the Empire and the powers that be. In this, perhaps, Joseph saw the death of the coming Kingdom and wondered if his dreams had met an end on the cross spattered with Jesus' blood.

Out of his grief and desperation, he was moved to go to Pilate and beg for the body of Jesus. When he arrived, Pilate was unsure if Jesus was even dead yet. The centurion informed Pilate that Jesus had died and Pilate, with body to Joseph. He ran and bought fine linen and went to bury the body of Jesus in his own tomb. On his way, he met Nicodemus who brought spices to take part in the burial. It would seem that the death of Jesus had moved both of these two men with much to lose to take a frightening step and demonstrate their allegiance to this now-dead crucified man. It was Jesus' death that finally brought these two men into the Kingdom.

little regard for those who had already died at the hands of Rome, released the
Joseph was a man of great wealth and had a rock-tomb that he had recently had carved for his personal--and preferably eventual--use. They wrapped the body in linen and spice and buried it there in a hurry because of the coming Sabbath. Consider the great number of people who would have watched in surprise as this man of respect and renown traded it all in for the privilege of burying a despised and disreputable man. Though it would have surprised many, it did not surprise Joseph who traded in anything and everything to finally be a citizen of the Kingdom that he had been searching for. Joseph had finally found the door to the Kingdom in the cross and sacrifice of Jesus. Indeed, Joseph found that he couldn't afford not to give all for the Kingdom.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

July 30 - Peter of Ravenna, Chrysologus, Doctor of the Church

Peter of Ravenna, (406-450) is perhaps better known as "Peter Chrysologus." Chrysologus means, roughly, "golden worded." Peter received this title--and the title "Doctor of Homilies"-- because of his incredible gift for oratory. Though he was a clearly gifted speaker and preacher, his other contributions cannot be overlooked.

Peter was not simply a gifted speaker because of the quality, pitch, or timbre of his voice. It wasn't because of a use of vocal techniques and attention-grabbing phrases. Rather, it came from two desires worthy of emulation: a desire not to bore those who listen and a desire to explain important things in comprehensible ways. Assuredly, any speaker can make subjects of difficulty sound challenging or obtuse--in point of fact, many do so because of the boost it grants their ego--but it takes a gifted speaker to make difficult subjects comprehensible. Peter devoted his life to making the faith accessible under the assumption that if it was accessible, then it would be interesting and it it would be accessed. Peter is so well remembered, then, not because of personal talent but because of a drive to communicate important teachings with precision. For preachers, Peter should be a role-model and mentor.

Beyond his speaking, though, Peter was committed to orthodox teaching and belief and the unity of the Church in the face of temptations to split and schism. When Eutyches was condemned at the synod of Constantinople, he appealed to Peter to intervene on his behalf with the pope and, yet, Peter refused the request on grounds of promoting unity within the Church. Peter advised Eutyches to prefer unity over argumentation. In doing this, Peter hoped to offer Eutyches a way to be welcomed back into the Church he was rejecting and hoped to offer the comforting embrace of the Church to another.

Additionally, he would preach and sensibly defend orthodoxy against Arianism and Monophysitism. In these sermons, he argued for the unity of the church in mercy and love behind a united and orthodox doctrine that would nourish and form Christians throughout the world. Peter had a great love for the Church and demonstrated it in the way he defended her while inviting people in.

Perhaps the best tribute to a man like Peter of Ravenna is to share some of his especially quotable words. These words, given to him by the Spirit, inspired many and fought for unity within a fracturing and struggling Church. Peter, worthy of emulation for all preachers and Christians, should be remembered alongside his words:

"[Jesus] is the bread sown in the Virgin, leavened in the Flesh, molded in his passion, baked in the furnace of the sepulchre, placed in the churches, and set upon the altars, which daily supplies heavenly food to the faithful."

"The devil does not wish to possess a man, but to destroy him. Why? Because he does not wish, he does not dare, he does not allow the man to arrive at the Heaven from which the devil fell. Jealousy, envy, pride and anger, to name only a few capital sins, rage in Lucifer, the prince of devils."

"There are three things, my brethren, which causes faith to stand firm, devotion to remain constant and virtue to endure. They are prayer, fasting and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains and mercy receives. Prayer, mercy and fasting are one. They give life to each other."

"Brothers, let us be sinners by our own admission, so that with Christ's forgiveness we may be sinners no more."

"God receives sinners, but God does not allow those whom he receives to remain sinners. The approach of the sinner does no harm to God. God sanctifies the sinner who draws near to him. O Pharisee, Christ does not receive sins when he receives sinners, because God is the recipient not of the offense, but of the human being. So the Pharisee should not have been looking at the condition the sinners were in when they arrived, but at their condition upon their return."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

July 29 - Martha of Bethany, Unafraid to Hope

Martha had a home in Bethany near Jerusalem and it was here that Jesus often rested and visited. Her brother and sister--Lazarus and Mary--are regularly mentioned with her. Often, the story that we remember of them is when Jesus visited and Martha was busy preparing and working to provide for Jesus. Her sister, Mary, was sitting at Jesus' feet. Martha chided Mary about not helping and Jesus corrected Martha saying that Mary had chosen correctly by being present with him. It's a popular scene for sermons and stories and, yet, it is not the only place we see Martha--whom Jesus loved.

Mary and Martha had sent word to their friend Jesus that Lazarus was sick and likely to die. They expected him to come quickly because of his dying friend and provide the healing that they had seen with their own eyes. At first, their anxiety was high but their hope remained fixed on Jesus' intervention. They had seen him heal strangers so, surely, he would heal a dear friend like Lazarus. Yet, he did not come immediately. Instead, he waited and conversed with his disciples. He took the moment to teach those close to him even if it involved anxiety and pain.

As the days passed, hope dwindled and confusion reigned in the minds of those close to Jesus. Martha must have wondered why Jesus delayed. Every passing traveler must have attracted her attention even as she cared for and served her brother. Finally, Lazarus died and with him Martha's hope. They buried him, they mourned him, and they wondered what could possibly have kept Jesus. They gave up hope. They wondered if Jesus had been waylaid by bandits. They wondered if Jesus had forgotten them. Martha--whom Jesus loved--was forced to deal with the anxiety and pain of the cold grip of grief.

Finally, Jesus arrived at the entrance to their land and somebody told Martha that he had come. She left her family and friends and ran out to meet him. Mary remained with the mourners. Who can know what thoughts flew through Martha's head as she ran? When she met him, she lamented: "Lord, if you had been here, Lazarus wouldn't have died." Feeling a faint glimmer of hope that begged to be believed in but demanded to be doubted she continued, "But, even now, I know that you can do anything..." Perhaps, she was just telling him that she still loved and trusted him even if he had let her down. Perhaps, she was asking for a miracle. And yet, perhaps, she didn't really know why she was saying it except that she had faith in this Jesus whom she loved--and whom loved her. She was asking for permission to hope.

"Lazarus will rise again," he said.

Martha, not wanting to fan the flames of hope if they would only die away again, replied, "Of course... on the last day--in the great resurrection." Martha had grown used to the saccharine sweet words of the mourners and friends who comforted her with anxious phrases.They saw her hopelessness and offered sickly assurance to replace it. She thought that Jesus was offering bland support because he didn't know what else to say.

Instead, Jesus said something shocking: "I am the resurrection. I am life. Whoever trusts me will live, even though they die. Death is not the end of all things for those who trust in me--I am life itself and I shall conquer death." Having said this, he asked her, "Do you trust me?"

Martha looked into his eyes and knew that hope and trust placed in this man--Jesus--is not misplaced. She replied, "Yes, Lord, I trust you. You are the Messiah. You are the Son of God. You are what happens when life takes a body."

In the story, Jesus goes to the tomb and calls Lazarus out of death. Jesus defies the powers of the world that say that death is the end and the ultimate threat. Instead, Jesus shows that those who place their trust and hope in the incarnation of life have nothing to fear in death. Jesus defied the hope-killers by offering life even in the presence of death. Lazarus comes out of the tomb and continues to live. This is an amazing scene but it is not the only amazing scene in the text. Before Jesus raises Lazarus from out of death, Jesus resurrected Martha's hope by assuring her that death is not the end and is not insurmountable--a point he would make again through his crucifixion. Jesus gave hope back to Martha and this is, perhaps, as amazing of a miracle as the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

July 28 - Stanley Rother, Martyr, Priest, Shepherd of Guatemala

Stanley Rother experienced a life quite like that of many Midwestern Roman Catholic priests. He was born in 1935, attended seminary, and was ordained in 1968 (though he struggled with Latin enough to make this a challenge at times). He served as an associate minister at a few churches before being commissioned and called to the congregation of Santiago Atitlán in Guatemala. Stanley Rother, with his heart full of love and anxiety, left the United States of America and became shepherd of a people miles away in geography and culture.

After some time, he had mastered the language of his flock: a Mayan dialect of the Tzutuhil. He was the first to translate the scripture into Tzutuhil. More than that, he offered services in the language of his flock and became greatly endeared to them. Soon, more than 3,300 people were attending the Sunday masses. Stanley did not accomplish this with flash and programs aimed at reaching the unreached but, rather, by slowly pouring his life our for those whom he comforted, baptized, buried, married, counseled, trained, taught, and assisted. When he wasn't busy about his priestly duties, he lent a hand in a field and offered love wherever he might be. Stanley did not see his life as something that was his own to hoard but, rather, a gift that he could gleefully spend on others to ease their pain and buoy them up in their distress. In short, Stanley Rother was much loved by the Guatemalan people because he loved them much. Because of this great love, he was honored with a Tzutuhil name: Padre A'plas.

Guatemala's history is rife with violence and kidnappings. Santiago Atitlán had, for many years, been a haven from this violence and the country's political distress had not stepped across the threshold of parish for some time. However, this peace would not hold once some politically minded people had determined to escalate the violence to accomplish their destructive goals. After all, the way of violence leads only to more violence and not into the way of life and peace. Stanley diagnosed the problem as such: "The country here is in rebellion and the government is taking it out on the church...The Church seems to be the only force that is trying to do something about the situation, and therefore the government is after us."

Stanley was urged to flee and return to the United States but Stanley refused saying, "At the first signs of danger, the shepherd can't run and leave the sheep to fend for themselves." He stayed and, eventually, one of the lay leaders from the congregation was kidnapped during the day by armed men. One day, as he walked through the streets, he was accosted and informed that his name was on a list of those condemned to death by the powers. He resisted leaving but, upon the advice of his friends and parishioners, returned to Oklahoma so that his flock might not be harmed because of him.

Yet, being the shepherd that he was, he was unable to stay away from the place where he belonged and where he was, truly, home. He left the chalice his parents had gifted to him with his parents and said good-byes to his family and friends. Stanley knew well that he was likely walking back into his death. Yet, As Archbishop Salatka said, "Father Stanley Rother did not go back to Guatemala to die. He went back to help his people." He left Oklahoma near Holy Week and returned to Santiago Atitlán to celebrate the Gospel story: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. In the early morning hours of July 28th, 1981, armed men broke into rectory and seized Stanley. Apparently, they were intending to kidnap him and torture him. Stanley did not beg for his life or cry out in fear or pain but, rather, told his would-be-abductors: "Kill me here." Stanley Rother died when one of the armed men shot him in the head twice. He died where he requested and where he had returned: among the people of Guatemala.

For Stanley Rother, there was no other place he'd rather be than in Guatemala among his flock whom he cared for. The powers could not stand that this one person would dare oppose them and help the people they couldn't help. With closed fists they had tried to aid the people not knowing that it was only with a peaceful and loving open hand that aid can be given to the broken. His body was returned to Oklahoma for burial but his heart was buried where it truly belonged: Santiago Atitlán.

Monday, July 27, 2009

July 27 - St. Panteleimon, Martyr, Physician, Opponent of Death

Pantaleon (meaning "like a lion in all things") was born to a non-Christian father and Christian mother in Nicomedia in 275 CE. His mother repeatedly shared the Christian faith and way with him throughout his childhood but he fell away from his mother's beliefs and never claimed them as his own. His academic pursuits and able intellect led him to study medicine. His skill in the field was apparent from the beginning and his practice gained attention from many people--including the emperor Maximian. It was, in fact, as a physician that he was first reached by the convicting faith of his mother. Hermolaus, a physician himself, appealed to him arguing that Jesus was "the great physician" and, therefore, worthy of emulation and great consideration.

Hermolaus connected the life and viewpoint of Pantaleon to that of his childhood and his mother's teachings. For Pantaleon, this resulted not only in the changing of his name to Panteleimon (meaning "mercy for everyone") but, also, the changing of his approach to medicine. By bridging the gap between Panteleimon's childhood and his identity, Hermolaus unleashed a great healer upon not only the persecuted Christians but, also, the sick and suffering. Panteleimon truly did offer mercy for anyone and everyone. Though he was employed by Maximian he offered healing and mercy even to the poorest of the poor.

Eventually, he was denounced to the authorities and charged with being a Christian. Given Panteleimon's incredible reputation as a healer and worker of good, the emperor Maximian hoped to convince Panteleimon to renounce his faith and become an apostate--a well-rewarded and highly-regarded apostate. Panteleimon refused to deny the faith he once had cast aside and, instead, he confessed it boldly regardless of what he stood to lose in doing so.

Further, he challenged the imperial delusions to a test. He challenged Maximian's best doctors to a challenge: there was a certain paralytic who was considered unable to be healed--Panteleimon invited this man in and gave the doctors sufficient time to try all that they knew to heal the man's paralysis. Though they were esteemed in imperial eyes, the doctors failed. Panteleimon offered prayer and requested healing and the man stood up free from paralysis. Perhaps Panteleimon expected to be released or to convert Maximian but this was not to be as hatred and shame had filled the heart of Maximian. Maximian--so lost in imperial delusions and unable truly to see life--labeled this healing as trickery and sorcery. He had the healed paralytic executed in a show of savage domination and power.

As punishment for healing the paralytic and being a Christian, Maximian brought some of Panteleimon's friends--including Hermolaus--before himself and threatened them with beheading if Panteleimon would not renounce his faith. These men were martyred as Panteleimon stood strong and proclaimed that there is more to life than a heartbeat and more to death than a grave. In doing this, Maximian made a statement about life and death and made the point that the empire's power was death and the control of it. However, even as he condemned Panteleimon--instrument of life and mercy to so many and his own personal physician--to death, his power of death could not restrain the power of life held by the God of Panteleimon.

In anger and desperation for power, Maximian ordered Panteleimon beheaded to make his point concerning death and power. As Panteleimon prayed, the blade failed to cut his neck. As he finished his prayer, Panteleimon heard a voice from heaven calling him home and he lovingly permitted the soldiers to execute him. Having shown the power of life over death and God over the empire, Panteleimon was beheaded and martyred as a servant of life and opponent of the power of death in the year 303.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

July 26 - Titus Brandsma, Martyr, Priest, Opponent of Nazi Germany

Titus Brandsma was born Anno Sjoerd in the Netherlands in 1881. He was raised Roman Catholic and, eventually, became a Carmelite and priest. He was awarded the Ph.D. at Rome in 1909. He was a well-known authority on Carmelite mysticism. This principled man had the fortune of intersecting the Nazis in the Netherlands. Though it resulted in his martyrdom, it cannot be described as bad fortune because Titus knew his life was a story of the power of love in the face of death and domination--this was the only appropriate end.

Titus was the Roman Catholic adviser to the Netherlands' several dozen Roman Catholic newspapers. This was a position of importance and one which Titus was equipped to do well. Holland was invaded by the Nazis in 1940 and tensions were high. Many Roman Catholics wanted to resist the Nazi occupation but were unsure of how much or how to do so. It is, most assuredly, a black mark that those bearing the banner of Jesus Christ--a crucified Lord--would compromise with the Nazi regime in trade for limited safety and security and, yet, that is often what happened. Many were willing to fight only for the safety and security of fellow Roman Catholics and felt that the Church should solely be concerned with the protection of its members. Titus disagreed and did so vocally. For Titus, there was no compromise to be had with those who dealt in death, destruction, torture, and pain. The Church has no room to join with others who promise only "controlled evil."

Referring to Nazism as "the new paganism," it was clear that Titus opposed the treachery and tragedy of the Nazi empire. Titus resisted the Nazi oppression of all people regardless of the religion, creed, race, or sex of those who were oppressed. After all, if oppression was evil, then it didn't matter who did it. He publicly denounced and fought a German law prohibiting students of Jewish lineage from attending Roman Catholic schools. This further drew the ire of the Nazi empire. In late 1941, a Nazi edict demanded that all newspapers run Nazi propaganda. Titus Brandsma organized an effort to refuse and resist this edict. This was, apparently, the last straw for an empire that depended upon domination, control, and fear.

January 19th, 1942, was the day that Titus was arrested and seized by the Nazi death machine. Eventually, he was transferred to Dachau to be with the nearly 3,000 other clergy who were swept up by the empire that brooked no resistance. He was beaten and tortured before being transferred to a "hospital" for execution.

On July 26th, 1942--66 years ago, today--Titus Brandsma was injected with acid and murdered. Though the Nazis felt that they were punishing him for his resistance to the empire, they only spread his influence and further proved their own savagery. They killed a sickly, 61-year-old man who offered no physical resistance with a needle to make it "clean" but acid to make it vindictive--observing their methods, one wonders if there wasn't the spark of fear in their hatred of Titus. They hoped to punish him for the state of his mind that offered resistance to their "new world order" but, instead, they crowned him as a martyr for the cause of a sacrificial and loving savior who resisted evil done to any and all people.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

July 25 - St. James, Son of Zebedee, Apostle, Martyr

James the Apostle and John the Evangelist were brothers. Their father, Zebedee, was clearly a man of wealth and influence. He was a fisherman by trade and, therefore, so were James (the older) and John (the younger). Zebedee provided for them in their youth and education. Their mother, Salome, was one of Jesus' followers and would, later, be one of the women who followed after Jesus and provided for him as he engaged in ministry prior to his death.

Growing up in Galilee, their family likely knew Jesus' family and, perhaps, were even distant relatives. As they grew older they engaged in the fishing trade of their father until, one day, Jesus came alongside the Sea of Galilee and called out to the brothers on the boat and proclaimed that if they would follow him, then he would make them "fishers of people." Along with his brother, James accepted the call and became one of "the twelve disciples." He abandoned the life of affluence that his father provided for the life of a wandering disciple of an itinerant teacher. This sacrifice should not be overlooked. After all, James would follow Jesus loyally for years forsaking his own life in pursuit of the Kingdom--even if he wasn't entirely sure what it might look like.

As Jesus and his disciples approached Jerusalem for the last time, Salome ambitiously decided to take some initiative and convince Jesus of her sons' worth as leaders in the new Kingdom. Salome said to Jesus, "Jesus, I want you to tell me that my sons can be your inner circle when you finally start this Kingdom you've been talking about." Oblivious that the Kingdom had already started and they were missing it in their ambition, her sons joined in with her and placed their hope in worldly gain and power. For a moment, James bought into the lie of success through power--a new kingdom just like the other kingdoms except with himself on top. They bought into that old lie that says, "The only thing wrong with this world's kingdoms is that I'm not the one in charge." Jesus, knowing how the Kingdom worked and hoping to get it through to them asked: "Can you drink the cup I'm getting ready to drink?" In their ambition, they exclaimed, "Yes!" Jesus knew they still didn't get it and so he said to them, somewhat cryptically, "Yes, you will drink the same cup but the Kingdom is not about power like you understand it. No, it's different--it's not about domination and control. It's about love and sacrifice."

James would, later, be present at the transfiguration of Jesus at Gethsemane. James, along with Peter and John, would see their Lord and Savior conversing with Moses and Elijah. The effect of this event for James' change of outlook and character should not be underestimated. Even as James gazed upon Jesus transfigured that night, parts of James were being transfigured.

Jesus would, of course, go on to lay down his life and die for the sins of the world. He would offer forgiveness to the death-dealers surrounding him and love to those intent on being his enemies. This frightening inauguration of a new Kingdom scattered the Twelve--including James. Perhaps the words of Jesus about the cup he would drink came back to haunt James. Regardless, James would help lead the disciples and early Christians in living into the Kingdom they understood so late. He who had been given much and who had come from an affluent family would give it all up for a chance to be a part of a new and different Kingdom--the Kingdom of God.

James was the first of the Twelve to be martyred and drink from the cup from which Jesus drank. He was brought before Herod and beheaded. Though, in the true spirit of the calling Jesus had placed on his life, he spoke with the guard who escorted him and helped bring him to conversion (and his own consequent martyrdom). In the end, James did indeed drink deeply from the cup of sacrifice and love--the cup of the Kingdom.

Friday, July 24, 2009

July 24 - John Newton, Ex-Slaver and Lost Cause

John Newton was born on July 24th, 1725, to a family of affluence that had grown rich on the backs of slaves. Though his mother died young from tuberculosis, it was his father’s desire that John should become a slave master in the family business on a sugar plantation. Before this could occur, however, John was pressed into service to the empire as a naval officer. For whatever reason, John tried to desert and was punished severely: 96 lashes, humiliation in front of the whole crew, and demotion to the status of servant. John’s well-planned life that had been formed quickly by the desires of his father and the values of imperial England was falling down around him.

His pain turned him to thought of suicide but he refrained from a quick d
eath and tried to throw himself into a dark abyss one choice at a time instead. He requested to be transferred to a slave ship and made a servant of a slaver. His self-imposed punishment and exile was ended, however, when his father sent a crew to recover him. On his way back to England aboard the Greyhound, a terrible storm descended upon them. John had only just changed places with another man when the man was swept overboard and drowned. Having read Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ and in a great panic John prayed to God in desperation for grace and protection. After the terrible storm had passed, that night, he began reading the scriptures and feelings the beginning of his conversion. Whereas the promises and plans of the world had failed him and left him empty, the promises and plans of God began a process of conversion.

He would, eventually, become an Anglican priest—though not until June 17th, 1764—and experience God’s grace and formation as he continued the process of conversion from who he was into what God was making him into. Throughout John Newton’s story it is evident that his conversion was a slow and steady process that involved the persistent formation and repair of all that was broken about him. In fact, it was only after years of being a priest and continuing in relationship and conversation with other Christians that John eventually renounced the slavery that he had grown up under.

Some have criticized John Newton for dwelling in sin even as he claimed the mantle of Christian. Charges of hypocrisy are not unheard when telling the story of John Newton. Even though John later regretted his commitment to the slavery he had engaged in and supported, it cannot be simply overlooked. Yet, it only serves to strengthen the power of his story: conversion is a process that takes time whereby we are made more into the image God has for us. Though John’s continued support of slavery is distasteful for us, it must be remembered that unlike many people who struggled with the issue he did renounce it--better late than never. Also, it makes the story more real and more honest because it so closely resembles the struggles of all Christians in the process of conversion away from the world’s image and into God’s image. Perhaps this is why so many Christians have connected with his hymn “Faith's review and expectation”—you might know it as “Amazing Grace.” Perhaps, it is that Christians can sing along with John Newton confidently:
Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

July 23 - St. Phocas, Martyr, Grave-digger

Phocas had finished tending his gardens and it seemed that yet another day had slipped away into dusk while he worked busily to grow the crops that had been planted and sustained. Giving thanks to God, he watched the Christian pilgrims sneaking away under the increasingly dark cover. Under the rule of Diocletian, food was becoming increasingly difficult to find for those professing Jesus’ name and lordship. More and more Christians were coming to Phocas to receive food from his vast gardens along with the poor and oppressed that had been coming for some time. This was a blessing and, yet, there was a catch: the more he helped his brothers and sisters, the more the Empire’s gaze turned to Phocas’ home at Sinope near the Black Sea.

As is always the case for those who attract the hatred of the empire, Phocas was ordered to die by an imperial sword. For, you see, the power of the empire is ultimately rooted in the power to deprive you of your life. Diocletian sent soldiers to find and execute Phocas for his obedience to Jesus—a power besides Rome. And, so, the soldiers traveled to Sinope where they found the gates locked. Looking for a place to stay the night, they came upon the home of Phocas. They did not know what he looked like when they arrived at his home looking for him. Phocas promised to show them where they could find the man they were looking for in the morning but, first, invited them into his home for a meal and a place to sleep. He fed them, perhaps he washed their feet and he provided them with a place to sleep and recover from their travel. As they slept that night, Phocas went out and dug a grave near his garden. Praying while he dug, he prepared himself for his own martyrdom. When he had finished digging his own grave, he spent the remainder of the night in prayer.

In the morning, the thankful soldiers awoke and prepared for the day. They were appreciative of Phocas’ hospitality and kindness but were unprepared for Phocas’ confession. Phocas agreed to show them the man they were looking for and lead them out of his home. As they approached Phocas’ garden, he stood in front of the grave he had dug, turned to face them, and confessed to being the man they were looking for. The soldiers who had been tasked with killing Phocas—menace and rebel that he was—suddenly found their imperial resolve weakened. They offered to return to Diocletian and lie: “We couldn’t find him.”

Phocas knelt in the dirt, bared his neck, and refused to let the soldiers lie, sin, and risk their own lives to save his. He assured them that he was not afraid of death—a concept entirely foreign to the threats of the Empire—and, instead, eagerly anticipated his martyrdom. Having given permission to his executioners, they decapitated him and finished the burial he had started the night before.

Phocas denied the power of the Empire over him and left an indelible impression upon not only his executioners—the soldiers—but, also, all who would hear the story of the willing martyr and grave-digger. The great power of the Empire—the ability to deprive you of your life—had failed to convert Phocas and, yet, Phocas’ seemingly incomprehensible willingness to love and die converted many.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

July 22 - Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles

Mary of Magdala was found in the crowd that had turned on Jesus as He drug the cross to Golgotha. Fickle as people are, it is not especially surprising that they had turned on Jesus and now gloried in His agony and looming death. Equally unsurprising is Mary’s presence near Jesus as He walked the Via Dolorosa. After all, Jesus had cast seven demons out from Mary and began the beautiful process of conversion and redemption. Mary’s feet were planted firmly in the Kingdom and, for her, that meant walking alongside—or at least as close as possible—Jesus as He agonized in His journey. The Twelve may have fled for their lives but Mary continued to follow because of hers.

Arriving at the Cross, Mary waited with Jesus as He shed his blood and took away the sins of the World. She was present as they took the Lord God Almighty down from the Cross and buried
Him in the tomb. It is inconceivable what pain went through her as she watched Jesus slowly suffer and die. Who can tell the fear and desperation that passed through her as they carried her Lord and placed him in a tomb?

She went with the other women to the tomb on the third day and found it empty. She ran for Peter and others and told them of the emptiness that she had discovered. The emptiness of the tomb must surely have symbolized to her the emptiness of hope for the once-exorcised and now seemingly abandoned disciple of Jesus. As she stood there, weeping for herself and for her lost Lord, she sees a man approaching. In her desperation, she takes Him to be the gardener and pleads with him to tell her where Jesus has been laid. The man, Jesus, only calls out her name and casts the fear, confusion, and emptiness out of her.

She cried out, “Teacher!” and is comforted again by His presence. He commissions her, again, and gives her an important message: “Go to my people and say them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” She took this blessed charge and ran to tell them the blessed news. Mary had carried the Gospel message—Jesus has lived, died for our sins, and been raised from the dead—before any other and, thus, is well deserving of the title: Apostle to the Apostles.

Though others may overlook Mary and focus solely on the other disciples, there can be no doubt that this devoted follower of Jesus Christ was an apostle and citizen of the Kingdom of God. She was the first to hear the good news and the first to proclaim it to the world. As is the case for all conversions to the Kingdom of God, Mary was redeemed by the life, death, and teachings of Jesus Christ and made into an instrument of God’s redeeming love. Indeed, Mary—Mary who never abandoned Jesus and whom Jesus called by name—was a witness to the redeeming power of love over death and evil.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

July 21 - St. 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 king.

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—only 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.

Monday, July 20, 2009

July 20 - St. 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 transfiguring.

Elijah 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.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

July 19 - St. Macrina, 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 salvific 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.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

July 18 - The Great Burning of Rome

1945 years ago on this day a small fire was started. 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.

Friday, July 17, 2009

July 17 - Bartolome de las Casas, Priest, Bishop, Opponent of Slavery

Bartolome de las Casas was born in Seville, Spain, in 1484 and so he was only nine years old when Christopher Columbus returned to Seville to tell of the world he had discovered to the west. Columbus had gained the favor of queen Isabella and king Ferdinand II by insisting that there was another route to the East Indies that didn't involve traveling through Arabia but, instead, meant sailing west from Spain to approach the Indies from the other side. This interested the Spanish nobles because access to the East Indies, unencumbered by Italian and Arabian merchants and rulers, meant a lucrative trade in spices. In other words, the rich could get richer if Columbus was right. Columbus, of course, was wrong and had severely underestimated the circumference of the Earth but in his error he had stumbled upon the land we call the Americas. Bartolome was fascinated by the tales of a distant land and different people and so he was thrilled when Columbus brought several of their men and women off of his ship and paraded them before the curious crowds. They came in chains and did so unwillingly but this fact was overlooked by those who were enchanted with dreams of foreign riches and conquest. When Columbus returned for his second voyage, Bartolome's father and uncle went with him and Bartolome was left behind to imagine.

Bartolome's father brought him a slave to be his servant and he developed a friendly relationship with the man. When Bartolome was eighteen, he went with his father and uncle to what we now know as Hispaniola aboard the ship captained by Nicolas de Ovando. Bartolome had spent years imagining that foreign land and it had become something mythical in his own imagination. Consequently, Bartolome was horrified to see the brutality and cruelty being perpetrated against the people of the island by virtue of their different appearance and different language. The Spanish settlers were given land to which they had no legitimate claim and slaves with which to work their ill-gotten gains. Bartolome was uncomfortable with the savage approach the Spaniards were taking and, as a Dominican priest, began to wonder if this wasn't a repudiation of Jesus' way of love and mercy. Columbus was sending native peoples back to Spain as currency to repay his debts to the crown and wealthy financiers. Bartolome began to question the rightness of such barbarism. Bartolome began ministering to the native people in whatever little ways he could but it never seemed to be enough. Then, one day, Bartolome heard a Dominican priest named Antonio de Montesinos preach about the evil being committed against the people and being called "progress." Antonio's preaching--he was the first clergy member to vocally oppose the Spanish actions in the colonies--seemed to give Bartolome permission to join the fight for liberation and love.

Bartolome's first decision was to free every slave on his settlement and to renounce the land he had been gifted. Having set an example of the way of the Kingdom of God he called upon other settlers to do the same, yet they refused and Bartolome was forced to travel back to Spain to seek reform. At his impassioned request he received permission to establish a settlement at Cumana in the northern portion of the region we call Venezuela. Bartolome imagined a settlement where native people and Spaniards would co-exist and help each other to live peacefully and comfortably. The problem, though, was the tension that had already developed between the Spaniards and the native people in the region. When Bartolome left the settlement, fighting would break out and people would die. Eventually, Bartolome left the settlement after Spanish raids took most of the native people as slaves and went to the Dominican monastery in Santo Domingo. From there he began to write accounts of the brutal murders of native people by Spaniards who claimed the yoke of Christ the Crucified. He lobbied Spain for laws that would protect the people upon whom they had intruded so much already. Meanwhile, he engaged in missionary work among native tribes and led many to place their faith in Jesus even though counter-arguments abounded in the colonists with whom they were acquainted. Though it meant defending himself against treason, Bartolome returned to Spain and was able to bring about new laws that abolished Columbus' way of doling out land for support and slaves for loyalty. When Bartolome died in July of 1566 he was in Madrid but his heart still rested with the people he had learned to love in a distant and fantastic world.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

July 16 - The Carmelite Martyrs of Compiegne

Constance was only one of the sixteen women who were now facing their own imminent deaths at the hands of those who were the self-proclaimed enlightened minds of a new world order. Yet, she was the youngest and least experienced of all of the women. Constance was still in her novitiate with the Carmelite order when they had been arrested and dragged before a judge to answer charges of treason, espionage, and fanaticism. Thus, Constance was distressed that she would face death without having ever professed her vows as a nun. However, the prioress of the community--Teresa--invited Constance to profess her vows with the community as the older and more experienced women reconsecrated themselves in service to God at the foot of the guillotine. Having finally become a full member of that sacred community, Constance was more than willing to ascend the steps to the revolution's enlightened butchery, but first she knelt before her prioress and asked for permission to go and die as a martyr for their common Lord Jesus. When Teresa granted her permission, Constance stood quickly and walked confidently up the stairs while singing the hymn "Laudate Dominum omnes gentes"--"All peoples praise the Lord." Fifteen other voices joined with her as Constance set her own neck in the path of the suspended blade but the rest of the crowd remained deathly silent. Once the blade had fallen and made Constance a martyr, there were only fifteen voices left to sing the hymn.

The women had once lived peaceful lives in a cloistered community of service and devotion. They fed the poor, treated the sick, and offered love to their enemies. But, in 1792 there had been a revolution in France that overthrew the absolute monarchy and aristocracy that strongly favored Roman Catholic clergy and monastics. In the aftermath of that upheaval, the new leaders had favored a viciously anti-religious government that discounted all expressions of faith regardless of their goodness or peacefulness. They ruled by more modern ideas and according to the teachings of those thinkers we call members of "the Enlightenment." The nuns of Compiegne had not fought against the revolutionaries and had, in fact, helped to reduce oppression upon the poor and hurting but in the aftermath of the revolution their vows of allegiance to Jesus Christ meant that they were targets for elimination. At first, they were simply outlawed but they continued to meet in secret in spite of the commands of the new government. Eventually, they were arrested and tried. In accordance with the demands of Robespierre, their trial and sentencing happened in less than twenty-four hours. The charges were trumped up and they were eventually found guilty of the catch-all crime for those the revolutionaries detested: "fanaticism."

As each woman climbed the steps that led to her death and martyrdom there was one less voice singing the hymns that sustained them and spoke beautifully of the faith that motivated their actions. The crowd remained silent as they watched each woman approach their death with courage and forgive their executioners. Their song became a trio and then a duet but it had lost none of its passion. Finally, it was a solo performance by Teresa, the prioress of a community of martyrs. Teresa ascended the stairs and followed in the footsteps of Constance and all the other faithful women who had died in the last few hours. She continued the song they had shared. When Teresa finished the song, she offered forgiveness to the executioner and surrendered her neck to the guillotine with a quiet prayer. The lever was pulled and the blade, having not grown tired of carnage, rushed to kill Teresa and reunite her with her sisters in the presence of God. With the death of the last nun, the crowd remained silent and began to leave that place with doubts in their mind--who would claim such savagery as enlightened when it was covered over in the blood of sixteen innocent and loving women? As they left the place, one of the crowd observed, "Look at them and see if they do not have the air of angels! By my faith, if these women did not all go straight to Paradise, then no one is there!" As the crowd left, perhaps some went away humming the hymn the women had sung and left behind for the crowd as an inheritance of a Kingdom-not-of-this-world.