Category Archives: Feasts

The Patriarch’s Easter Message


As I write this it is Tuesday of Holy Week. It is one day before we at Intercessor begin the special liturgies of Holy Week culminating in the Great Feast of the Resurrection. It has been said many times that the events we recall this Holy Week are the central aspects of the Christian faith. Without the cross and the resurrection there is in fact no Christianity. But more importantly the historic and factual crucifixion and resurrection are the key events of all of human history. It is the moment in time when God has brought all of creation unto himself. It is the fullest and complete revelation of the love, mercy, and forgiveness of God.

Several years ago, after many years of longing, I traveled to Krakow, Poland to visit the tomb of St. Stanislaw of Szczepanowski the patron Saint of Krakow. St. Stanislaw was Bishop of Krakow in the early eleventh century. He was known for preaching, spiritual wisdom, and as a leader in reforming efforts in the Church. He eventually incurred the enmity of King Bolesluas the Bold and denounced the King for cruelties and injustice. Eventually St. Stanislaw excommunicated the King and stopped a Mass in the chapel when the King entered. Boleslaus himself killed St. Stanislaw while the Bishop was saying Mass in a chapel outside the city on April 11, 1079.

Not growing up Roman Catholic, I had little knowledge of this famous saint and my interest grew in him after reading a biography of John Paul II. As many know John Paul II came to the papacy from his episcopate in Krakow. The early life of John Paul II is fascinating. Like many great men of God he was one familiar with human suffering, his own and that of others. He grew up under the Nazi regime and then served in the Church of Poland at the time of communist reign. His words of faith and hope in the Risen Christ inspired many who led the non-violent overthrow of communism in Poland. The life of St. Stanislaw had a tremendous influence on John Paul II and on the lives of many in the resistance movement to both Nazism and Communism. It was these experiences and John Paul’s faith in the Risen Christ to proclaim over and over again to the people – Be not afraid.

Of course all of must recognize the great spiritual, theological and social leadership of John Paul II. He leadership is especially important to many in the Pro Life movement. Not only did he remain steadfast in his opposition to abortion but also was a voice for the sanctity of the family. His work “The Theology of the Body” will perhaps be recorded as one of the best theological works of the 20th century. John Paul II will be remembered as one of the great spiritual leaders of the century. And, we can expect that Rome will canonize this great man from Krakow.

We arrived in Krakow in the late fall and during the first evening of our visit it snowed slightly. Our hotel was right across from the old city not far from the Cathedral and the residence of the Cardinal. Looking out the window early in the morning and gazing at the new fallen snow is a memory that I cherish. Since Krakow was not bombed during World War II many of the buildings were old. There was an operational trolley car just below our window. Across the street was a Church – an old medieval building. It was early in the morning and yet the streets were filled with people heading off to work and school (a university is nearby). We had a brief Polish breakfast and headed off to Mass. It was midweek and when we entered the Church I was shocked to discover that it was filled with worshippers. This experience occurred over and over again in every Church we entered. No matter what time of day the Churches were filled. But filled not with elderly women saying prayers, but filled with young men and women caught up in prayer or in the Eucharist. Poland unlike other nations of Europe had a faith that was alive.

The second day of our journey we traveled to Auschwitz Concentration Camp. This is a place where the Nazi’s exterminated over one million Jews –men, women, and children. It was a key center for the Nazi’s plan called the Final Solution. There are not words to describe the horror of Auschwitz. And, when one goes through the camp and views the various exhibits describing the holocaust there is a sorrow that I have never felt before in my life.

There is not a question that the Nazi Final Solution, indeed the whole holocaust, was aimed at the extermination of the Jews. Nothing should distract us from remembering this fact. Yet, there were millions of others – disabled children and adults, the elderly with dementia, gypsies, political dissents, and homosexuals who died in the extermination camps. It should be remembered that the first group to suffer or die at Auschwitz were Poles. On the day it opened there were 728 Polish prisoners. For the first two years of the camps existence, the majority of the inmates were Polish. By the time the camp was liberated the largest group to die in the camp where Jews and the second largest group were Polish. Hitler swore, “All Poles will disappear from the world.” One week before the invasion of Poland, Hitler gave these instructions, “Kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language…be merciless. Be brutal. It is necessary to proceed with maximum severity. The war is to be a war of annihilation.”

Over six million Poles -22% of the population – died in World War II. Of this group 5,384,000 died in prison, death camps, raids, executions, the obliteration of ghettoes, epidemics, starvation, overwork, or ill treatment.

The Nazi’s went after the Catholic Church in Poland, in particular, but also the Protestant community. By 1939, 80 percent of the Catholic clergy including five bishops were sent to concentration camps. In Wroclaw, 49% of the clergy were dead; in Chelmno, 47%; in Lodz, 36%; in Poznan, 31%. In the Warsaw Diocese, the future Diocese of John Paul II, 212 priests were executed. Through the Nazi Empire thousands of Bishops, Priests, and Nuns faced incarceration in Concentration Camps. In Dachau Concentration Camp of the 2,720 priests held 1,034 did not survive. Of that group the majority were Polish priests – 868.

With the so-called liberation of Poland by the Communists the persecution of Jews and Christians continued.

Such suffering had occurred in Poland. Such darkness covered the country for decades. This was not a suffering of hundreds of years ago but a suffering that happened in the lifetime of my parents and of my early life. Here I was standing in a country soaked in the blood of innocent people – Jews, Christians and others. A country where to have faith in God was a crime punishable by death. Yet it was the very Church that suffered so much under the hands of Hitler and Stalin that was to rise up and in a few short decades be free from tyranny. This country is a center of Christian renewal that gave us the spiritual giant of John Paul II.

Today around the world there are still groups of people facing horrific evil expressed in genocide. The fall of the Nazis and the Communists has not been the end of evil. We can’t forget the Killing Fields of Cambodia or the Genocide in Rwanda. Our hearts must be awakened to hear the cries of those who still face genocide in the Sudan or wholesale murder in parts of the Congo.

But the Holocaust of Nazi Germany, particularly in Poland, is a reminder that the Church is victorious because Christ conquered death, defeated Satan, and has freed us from sin. The Christian is a resurrected person. Scripture says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you walked…But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2.1-6) The fact that Jesus has been resurrected and that we who have believed in Him and come to Him in baptism have not only shared in His death but also in His resurrection. This is our hope – a hope that can allow us to sing “Alleluia” even at the grave.

What the purveyors of evil and the culture of death don’t understand is that Christianity is not a philosophy like National Socialism or Communism. What they can’t comprehend is that Christianity is about a living relationship with the Risen and victorious Christ Jesus.

This victory is experienced every time a person comes to Christ by faith. Whether it be a young drug addict or prisoner who meets Christ in a prison chapel, or a man or women who answer an “altar call in Church”, or married couple who make Jesus the center of their marriage, or a Masai warrior who turns his life to Christ, or a business man who tried to find “joy in money” but has now found the joy of the Lord – this is the victory of the Risen Christ. This is the fulfillment of the mission of Christ that all who believe in Him and call upon his name shall not perish but have eternal life beginning now. This is the testimony of the martyrs not that they would eventually see Jesus – though that be truth – but that they already knew and participated in eternal life with the Risen Christ NOW. The resurrection faith proclaims that we have been “raised…up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”

This year is the 20th anniversary of the International Communion of the Charismatic Episcopal Church. From the small beginnings at St. Michael’s Church in San Clemente we now have churches around the world – United States, Canada, Bermuda, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Philippines, DR Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Nigeria, Kenya, Sudan, Pakistan, Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, France, Belgium, Tanzania, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. Soon we will have Churches in India, Ghana, Southeast Asia, and Argentina.

Many of these Churches function with little or no resources and under terrible conditions – some under fear of persecution. Yet, we move forward because the Risen Christ is with us. No matter how dark it gets or hard it becomes we are already risen with Christ and nothing will every separate us from His love.

I pray as many as possible will find a way to come to Madrid, Spain July 10-12, 2012. We will celebrate the presence of Christ in our midst. We will hear from Archbishop Hines who for over three decades has ministered in Asia sometimes under extreme difficulty with no resources and only his faith as a weapon. We will hear from Bishop Bernard Njoroge, who was one of the authors of the Kenyan Constitution and remains a leader in the Kenya government while at the same time planting a Church in the largest slum in East Africa. And we will hear from Abp. Charles Jones who God has used in a mighty way to bring healing to thousands of people and now speaks prophetically to the nations. These are men who have one thing in common- a living relationship with the Risen Christ. We will gather and we will go to the streets of Madrid with the message of life and our young adults will lead us. The same adults that I believe will bring an end to the holocaust of abortion and euthanasia. But most importantly we will gather every day for the Eucharist where will stand in the heavenly courts in the presence of the Risen Lord Jesus and be empowered by Him and Him alone to be life for the world.

Alleluia Christ is Risen. Yes, Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death-by-death and giving life to those in the tomb.

Under His mercy,

The Most Rev. Craig W. Bates,
Patriarch, ICCEC

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The Feast of the Circumcision and What is, in Fact, in a Name

December 31st is a night of celebration around the world.  People gather together and celebrate the passing away of the old and the coming of the new.  They hope that they can learn from their mistakes of the past and improve themselves in the coming year.  And, of course, they do so while attending the Holy Eucharist that night.

Perhaps that last part was not accurate, but it really should be.  What the world refers to as New Year’s Day the Church calls the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus and that feast is a big one.  The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is a Dominical Feast, or a Feast of the Lord.  It commemorates the event depicted in the second chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel.  The Evangelist tells us, “And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called JESUS, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.” (v. 21)  Now why in the world would the Church choose to celebrate a momentous occasion like Our Lord’s circumcision on a day when everyone else is either partying or taking a nation-wide hangover day?  That is simple.

In the seventeenth chapter of the Book Genesis, the Lord God forms an eternal covenant with Abram (not Abraham—not yet—that is important).  That covenant has a sign that goes along with it.  In the case of this covenant, the Lord declares,

“As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations.  This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised;  and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.  He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant.  He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.  And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.” (vv. 9-14)

In the twelfth chapter of Leviticus, the Lord reaffirmed this instruction to Moses, mandating that every male child be circumcised on the eighth day. (12:3)  This was also the day on which children were named.  Infant mortality rates were very high in the Ancient Near East and it was common for parents to withhold naming a child until they were more comfortable that a child would survive.  Providentially, newborns begin producing Vitamin K around eight days after birth.  As such, the eighth day is the earliest time on which a circumcision would be successful since Vitamin K is required for clotting.  (Nowadays they give newborns a shot of Vitamin K right away, just in case.)

So, eight days after Christmas, what we commemorate on January 1, is more than just an ancient barbarous ritual of genital mutilation, as some have called it.  The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus or, for the less squeamish, the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus Christ is a feast with a two-fold purpose.  In the feast we recollect our ancient heritage and we celebrate that God has a plan for each and every one of us.

There is little in this world that is more inherently Jewish than circumcision.  There are some scholars who believe that the Jewish ritual of circumcision, along with the Kosher dietary laws, kept the Hebrews as a distinct people group during the Babylonian Captivity.  While other exiles inter-married and lost their cultural identity, the Jews were still a cohesive people group more than a full generation after their captivity began.  When someone asked “why do we do this?” the Jews would reply beginning with the covenant with Abram and continuing through Isaac and Jacob, through the captivity in Egypt, the Exodus and down to Moses.  It was a distinctive cultural identifier that gave them an identity amidst thousands of exiles who were rapidly losing theirs.  In his Epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul tells us that circumcision is no longer necessary for the Gentiles, yet some parents still perform this ritual today.  They do so, not to bind themselves under the Law of Moses, but rather to show their acknowledgement that the Christians are heirs to Abraham and Moses by faith, if not by flesh.  It is a sign of our cultural heritage because Our Lord and King was a Jew and He has called us all sons and daughters.

The other vital aspect of the feast has to do with the name Jesus.  Shakespeare’s Juliet once quipped, “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” (Act II, Scene ii)  Such an argument may work with a teenager in love, but, Biblically speaking, it is patently false.  Biblically speaking, a name defined a child.  It gave them definite characteristics.  A name defined who someone would be and, every now and then, the Lord would change someone’s name.  These were momentous events.  There is a big difference between Abram and Abraham.  There is a huge difference between Jacob and Israel.  There was a truly remarkable difference between a Galilean fisherman name Simon and the Apostle named Peter.  Names meant and continue to mean something.  We chose the names of our children very carefully.  They are not all Biblical names, but they are all prophetic names.  So it was with Jesus.  The name “Jesus” was surprisingly common in first century Judea.  It was a Greek form of the ancient Hebrew name Joshua.  Two thousand years ago, the Hebrew name Joshua was more properly pronounced along the lines of Yehoshua, which means “The Lord Saves.”  Jesus was also referred to as Emmanuel, meaning “The Lord with Us.”  These two names, taken either on their own or together, describe exactly who Jesus is and was.  Jesus is and was the Lord with us and he did and continues to save us to this day.  His name was perfect, just as everything about Him was perfect.  The Lord God Almighty, from before time, had a plan and Jesus, as known by that name, was a part of it.

The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is an important day in the life of the Church.  Much like the world sees it, the Church should take it as an opportunity to re-evaluate itself.  Every member ought to look at who they are and who they have been called to be.  I know that I have not fully lived up to my name or what God has called me to do.  I wager most people would say the same.  The Church is called to be different than the world.  We are the “strangers in a land not our own” which were prophesied to Abram.  (Genesis 15:13)  We are called to be different than those around us.  Maybe instead of wearing paper hats and watching crystal balls drop, we should be in Church, receiving the Most Precious Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ and hearing about the name which He received, the Name which is above all names, and how He lived up to that Name.  Maybe we should be considering our own names, what God calls us, and how we might better live up to what we have been called.

Eternal Father, who gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

 

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What Holy Innocents Commemorates

Holy Innocents is a unique day on the Christian calendar.  Usually, on a feast day, we commemorate saints whose noble deeds have been passed down either through Holy Scripture or by tradition and history.  On Holy Innocents, however, we observe an event which marked the brutal deaths of an untold number of infants and toddlers.

The day which we refer to as Holy Innocents is more fully known as the Commemoration of the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents.  Sometimes the word “slaughter” is replaced with the word “massacre.”  In either case, these are hard and cruel words which we prefer to not have to speak of in church.  We might manage to work them in a time or two during Lent and Good Friday, but we prefer to avoid them.  We certainly do not like the idea of joining “slaughter” and “massacre” with innocent children but we are remiss if we neglect this dark hour in the life of Jesus Christ.

Saint Matthew alone recounts the event.  The wise men from the East, having visited the Holy Family and presented their offerings, were warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod and thus return to their home by another passage.  Saint Joseph is likewise warned of a great danger looming for his Son and takes his wife and child and flees to Egypt.  Then, St. Matthew tells us,

Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more.” (2:16-18)

We do not know how many children were murdered by Herod’s command.  Some say that the children compose the 144,000 martyrs in the Book of the Revelation (14:3).  Others argue that such a number of male children under the age of two was impossible for a town the size of Bethlehem even including its surrounding.  The number, they argue, was realistically more along the lines of a few dozen.  Yet how much difference does that make?

A few months ago, an Orlando jury acquitted Casey Anthony in the murder of her two-year old daughter Caylee.  There was outrage throughout the nation, rightfully so.  The guilt or innocence of the child’s mother was practically beside the point.  The outrage was over the fact that a beautiful young girl had been murdered and her murderer, whoever that may be, would not see justice (at least not in this world).  Caylee Anthony, as beautiful and innocent as she was, was only one girl.  Dozens of equally beautiful and innocent young boys were murdered in Bethlehem.  As such, Herod the Great has come down through time as one of the single-most despicable beasts in the whole canon of Holy Scripture.  The Holy Innocents whom Herod murdered have come down through time as martyrs.  That, however, is a bit odd.

The word martyr typically suggests someone who dies for their faith.  A Christian police officer who dies in the line of duty, hero though he may be, normally would not be considered a martyr unless he were killed because of his Christianity.  Likewise, a woman murdered in an incident of domestic violence would not be considered a martyr, so why are these unnamed and unnumbered murdered children considered martyrs?

St. Augustine declared that these children were indeed martyrs because “they are the first buds of the Church killed by the frost of persecution; they died not only for Christ, but in his stead.” Lovely though this quote may be, it still leaves a question unanswered.  The origin of the word martyr is the word witness.  As we all know, a witness is someone who gives testimony.  Typically, a martyr testifies by their life and death to the glory of God.  To what, then, did these unnamed and unnumbered murdered children testify?

I believe that the Holy Innocents testify that, first, the enemy of our souls loves attacking children and, secondly, he channels great effort in to doing so particularly before a great move of the Lord.  Why would the enemy not love attacking children?  The death of a child both devastates and demoralizes.  I have been at funerals of great-grandparents in their seventies, eighties, and nineties and seen loved ones smiling and telling fond stories of their departed loved ones with a laugh.  I have never seen a single smile at the funeral of a child.  The death of a child rocks us to our core because we know that it is so completely wrong.  Although in some cases, it seems as though an attack from the enemy may be worse if the child survives.  We see in the recent instances of sexual abuse by clergy that those who have been victimized reject the True Faith which was vainly professed by their abuser.  They reject their loving Creator and Redeemer because their wounds were too severe.  In some cases, they even become enemies of the Cross.  That tragedy is overwhelming.  It was for this reason that Our Lord proclaimed, “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.” (St. Mark 9:42)

Both before the Exodus and at the beginning of the Incarnation, the enemy used a tyrannical king in attempt to stop a mighty move of God.  We have already seen the passage that applies to the Holy Innocents.  A parallel passage can be found in Exodus 1:15-22 where Pharaoh, in an attempt to prevent a Hebrew uprising, first ordered the midwives to kill any sons born to the Hebrews and then, failing that, ordered the Hebrew sons to be cast into the Nile.  In each case, the enemy failed.  The Hebrews did rise up under Moses, whom Pharaoh had failed to kill.  Not only did the Hebrews leave Egypt but the Egyptians suffered the Ten Plagues culminating in the death of their own firstborn sons.  With Herod the Great, the tyrant was so desperate to maintain his own power that he actually executed three of his own sons for high treason.  The Emperor Augustus was quoted as saying that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son.  At least, he continued, the Jews do not kill pigs.  Nevertheless, Herod’s reign came to a pathetic end and Jesus, whom he failed to murder, has become the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords and His Kingdom shall never end. The tyrants failed.

So what of today?  Since January 22, 1973, an estimated 50 million children have been murdered in utero by legalized abortion in America.  This number far exceeds the millions slaughtered by Hitler or Stalin, in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, or Darfur.  Comparatively, the death tolls of Herod and Pharaoh combined hardly add up to the number of children killed by abortion in any major city each week.  By some estimates and entire third of the generation that was to be born over the last thirty years never drew their first breath.  Maybe that third contained medical doctors who could have cured some form of cancer.  Maybe that third contained a lawyer who could have put Caylee Anthony’s murderer in jail.  Maybe that third contained politicians and judges who would have undone the horror of Roe v. Wade.  Pharaoh, Herod, Hitler and Stalin were tyrannical dictators who tolerated no opposition.  Standing up against them meant that your life was practically forfeit.  We do not live under such regimes.  It is we the people who make the laws by which our leaders govern and it is we the people who elect our leaders.  We know what history says of Pharaoh, Herod, Hitler and Stalin.  What will it say of us if we do not bring to an end the American Holocaust that is abortion in America?  What mighty move of God is right at our very threshold as the enemy massacres countless thousands every day?

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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St. John the Beloved: Not Like the Others

When I was a child, I remember watching the children’s television show Sesame Street. That show used to have a segment where they would put up four images and sing a song “One of these things is not like the others!” I can very easily see some clever Sunday school teacher working this segment in with the four Evangelists. Three of the Evangelists are really quite similar; then there is St. John. St. John is not like the others.

St. John is a unique witness to both the life of Christ and the earliest Church. St. John along with his brother St. James, the sons of Zebedee who were also known as the Sons of Thunder, were among Our Lord’s first Apostles being called immediately after Saints Andrew and Peter. St. John, along with Saints James and Peter, made up a unique inner circle among the Apostles. The three men in that inner circle were the only witnesses to the healing of St. Peter’s mother-in-law (St. Mark 1:29), the Great Catch of Fish (St. Luke 5:10), the raising of the daughter of Jairus (St. Mark 5:37 and St. Luke 8:51), the Transfiguration (St. Matthew 17:1; St. Mark 9:2; and St. Luke 9:28), and the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (St. Matthew 26:37; St. Mark 14:33). What is even more intriguing is that, in spite of being on of only three witnesses at all of those events, St. John chose not to recount those events in his own account of the Life of Christ. In addition to being part of Jesus’ “Inner Circle,” St. John was the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (St. John 13:23) and the “other disciple” who followed St. Peter into the courtyard of the High Priest once Jesus had been captured (St. John 18:15). Finally, unique among all of the disciples, St. John was the only Apostle present at the foot of the cross during the crucifixion, and it was to St. John that Our Lord entrusted His Blessed Mother (St. John 19:25-27).

His presence at these events give him the most unique and insightful perspective on the life, death, and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. What the other Evangelists present regarding the crucifixion, they learned from St. John. Biblical scholars will often group the first three Evangelists together and refer to them as the “Synoptic Gospels” (Greek for “with the same eyes”) since their account of the life of Christ is so similar. Everyone acknowledges that St. John has a different view of Jesus. That is not to say that any of the Evangelists portrays a wrong or inaccurate account of the life of Christ; St. John simply saw things differently. He did not have the perspective of the redeemed tax-collector, or the restored boy, or even the physician. His was the perspective of the Apostle whom Jesus loved, to whom Jesus entrusted His Blessed Mother, and who was there when He breathed His last breath. It was St. John who, in Our Lord’s teachings, heard Jesus invoke the Divine Name and identify Himself as the LORD. It was St. John who recorded Nicodemus’ late night visit to Jesus and Our Lord’s special teaching that night. One commentator noted that St. John did not include the Transfiguration in his Gospel because St. John always saw Jesus with the Glory of God upon Him. His perspective was indeed unique.

His life after the Resurrection was also unique. His brother, St. James the Apostle, died at the hands of Herod Agrippa. That led to a great dispersion and many of the Apostles ended up traveling abroad to spread the Gospel. Tradition tells us that, one by one, each of the Apostles was martyred for the faith in Christ Jesus they professed. Each one, that is, except St. John. St. John migrated north, likely passing through Antioch, before settling in Ephesus in Asia Minor. There he ran afoul of the local authorities and they decided to kill him by immersing him in a cauldron of boiling oil. Miraculously, he survived and the authorities exiled him to the island of Patmos. It was during his exile on Patmos that he received his beatific vision of Heaven which we have recorded at the Book of the Revelation. After some time, St. John was freed from exile and returned to Ephesus. Near his death, St. John composed his Epistles which were sent to the various churches in Asia Minor. In these Epistles, St. John refers to himself as “the Elder.” This makes sense considering this was likely around 96AD. If we assume that St. John as eighteen when Our Lord was crucified, the Beloved Apostle would have been born around 15AD and would have been eighty years old near the time of his death. He was quite likely the oldest man that anyone knew!

Consider what the Beloved Apostle’s life must have included. Consider the events which he experienced. He was the only apostolic witness to the death of Jesus and one of the first witnesses to His resurrection. He was there at Pentecost, encountered the converted Paul of Tarsus, and saw his own brother slaughtered in the streets of Jerusalem. He cared for the Blessed Virgin Mary, attending to her as a son would until her Blessed Son called His Holy Mother to return to Him. He received word of the death of every one of his closest friends, one after the other, dying a martyr’s death in the scattered provinces of the Roman Empire and beyond. They tried to martyr St. John and instead exiled him to some desert island. There he had the single most incredible vision of Heaven and the future ever experienced by anyone living including Daniel. Having lived out his life well beyond what anyone could have expected, having trained up the next generation of Christian leaders in Asia Minor, he composed a Gospel, three epistles, and a revelation of Heaven. Then, completely unique among the Apostles, he died peacefully and went on to again see the face of the Lord who loved him and whom he loved in return.

St. John is one of my heroes.

I would have loved to have been among Saints Polycarp and Ignatius, the Apostolic Father, leaders of the church one generation after the Apostles, who sat at the feet of St. John and heard him teach. I imagine walking with him and catching glimpses of him staring off vacantly and wondering if he were recalling the past or the future. May we, like St. John, have the grace to endure to a great and mighty age and accomplish great and mighty works in our latter years.

Shed upon your Church, O Lord, the brightness of your light; that we, being illumined by the teaching of your apostle and evangelist John, may so walk in the light of your truth, that at length we may attain to the fullness of eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

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Saint Stephen and the Mysteries to Which God Calls Us

Often at ordinations I hear bishops preach how ordinations are quite like weddings. Marriage and Ordination are both Holy Sacraments; both, more specifically, fall into the sub-category of Sacraments of Vocation. Married life and ordained ministry are states of life to which some are called and some are not. The most striking way in which marriage and ordained ministry are similar is that, when standing before that altar, you only think you know what you are getting into!

Those who are married understand that, once you have said those “I do’s,” you learn an entirely new world existed. You probably didn’t know how frustrating having a spouse who refuses to the cap on the toothpaste tube can really be or that some people really do leave the seat up after they use the bathroom.  Maybe it is that you did not realize what it would be like to raise a child, or to suddenly find yourself as a parent to twins or triplets, or to have to deal with the struggles of not being able to have children.  In any case, you thought you knew what to expect in marriage, you had a picture in your mind of what it would be like, and you were wrong. To say the least, your picture was incomplete.

Those who have been ordained know that, once you have said those “I will’s,” you learn an entirely new world existed. Maybe you found yourself celebrating the funeral of a child far too young to die. Maybe you lost dear friends because they would not accept your ministry. Maybe, for the first time in years, you were actually shocked by what you heard in confession. Maybe you found yourself desperately trying to save someone’s marriage. Maybe you found out just how devastating a church split can be. In any case, you thought you knew what to expect in your ministry, you had a picture in your mind of what it would be like, and you were wrong. To say the least, your picture was incomplete.

Yet, just because it was not the picture you had in your mind when made your wedding vows or the bishop did not mention it when you knelt before him does not mean that you are not living out your call. I have also heard it said that, “If I knew where God was going to take me when I started this, I never would have gone!” God shows us what he wants to; He gives us what we need. We almost never see “the big picture.” Just because it was not in our plan does not mean it was not in His.

Saint Stephen is a brilliant example of this.  St. Stephen, along with six of his companions, were called to be the very first deacons. They were ordained to this position through the laying on of hands for the expressed purpose of tending to the distribution of alms for the Hellenist widows in the apostolic Christian community of Jerusalem. We are not told that their responsibilities upon ordination included any Eucharistic responsibilities or counseling or building fund management or any of the multitude of issues our deacons deal with today. They were called to administer the alms for the widows. The apostles did not say, “Stephen, Philip, the rest of you, are you willing to preach the Gospel and die for what you believe?” That was not part of the picture they had in their minds.

Nevertheless, shortly after St. Stephen’s ordination, “Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:8) The fact that he performed great signs and wonders signifies two things. It means that he was doing what God (though perhaps not the elders of Jerusalem) had called him to do for how could he work signs and wonders if he were going against the Lord. It also means that he was on a collision course with the leading Jew of the city because the same issues they had with Jesus, they now are going to have with Stephen.

When St. Stephen was finally accused of blasphemy and brought before the Sanhedrin, the trial seemed like a complete repeat of what had happened to Jesus a scant few months earlier. There were false witnesses, conflicting stories, and a complete lack of condemning evidence. Then Stephen stood up—the deacon whom, you will remember, was called to make sure the widows received their alms—and gave one of the longest speeches in the Acts of the Apostles. The speech itself is fifty-two verses or almost all of the seventh chapter! The speech concludes with St. Stephen crying out:

You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.” (Acts 7: 51-53)

Maybe that was the point where he stepped out of God’s chosen path for his life, and, because of his pride, that is why he died. Oh, no, wait one minute! There is no evidence that St. Stephen displeased the Lord by his speech. In fact, Holy Scripture tells us that, as they drew up the stones to execute him, St. Stephen, still “being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” (vv. 55-56) Furthermore, Acts of the Apostles goes on to inform us that “they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.’” (vv. 59-60)

St. Stephen becomes a mirror reflection of Jesus, crying out to Heaven and beseeching “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” (St. Luke 23:34) Just as Our Lord called out to God saying “’Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit’” (St. Luke 23:46) before dying, St. Stephen says “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” before going to meet his Maker face to face. These are not the actions of someone who has stepped outside of the will of God (if such a thing really even be possible). Stephen was walking in the path which the Lord had prepared for him. Though the elders of Jerusalem had called him to administer the daily distribution to the Hellenist widows, God had something else prepared for St. Stephen. That young man, whose name means “crown,” became the first Christian to wear the glorious crown of martyrdom. As such, St. Stephen is often referred to as “the Proto-Martyr.” What the Apostles could not have imagined when they ordained this young man, God had planned since the dawn of time. Just because it was not in St. Stephen’s mind when he knelt before Saints Peter, John, and James, does not mean that it was not in the mind of God when He hovered over the formless void that would become Creation. And just because it was not in your mind when you stood before altar of God at your wedding or ordination does not mean it has not been in the mind of God since long before you were born.

May God grant us the grace to walk in the vocations to which He calls us, whether we expect them or not.

We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand: where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

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Christmas: Good Shepherds Preaching The Good Shepherd

Christmas is one of the two most joyous feasts in the whole Christian year.  It comes to us without the painful reminders of the Passion and Crucifixion we receive as we wind our way through Lent and Holy Week.  It comes to us with some of the most definitive and striking images in all of Christianity: the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph seeking shelter in Bethlehem, the newborn babe lying swaddled in a manger, angelic light shining down upon a humble manger, the three wise men bearing their gifts, and, of course, the shepherds receiving their own angelic annunciation.

When it comes to the original hilltop shepherds, the Gospel According to St. Luke tell us,

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid.  Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.  For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”
So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.”  And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.  Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child.  And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds.  But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.  Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them. (2:8-20)

The shepherds are an important part of the Christmas story, not because the manger scene needs a few more figures to flesh it out, but because they, simple shepherds, not Peter, not Paul, not Mary Magdalene, nor even wise men from the East, those lowly shepherds watching their flocks by night were the very first evangelists.  Remember: “Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child.  And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds… Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.” (vv 17-18, 20)

The shepherds went through the streets of Bethlehem and told everyone who would listen.  They did not just tell a few friends; they made it “widely known.”  Those who heard their message “marveled” at their story, which does not mean they necessarily believed the shepherds.  In fact, they quite likely believed those men had spent one too many nights watching over the flocks by themselves.  The shepherds did not concern themselves with what the locals in Bethlehem thought.  Why should they?  They had heard an Angel of the Lord proclaim the birth of the Messiah.  The angel had given them a sign: you will see a newborn baby wrapped in rags and lying in a feeding trough in a horse stall next to an inn.  Lo and behold, the angel was right!  Not only had they seen the angel’s sign with their own two eyes, they had heard the choirs of Heaven burst into song and proclaim the reconciliation of God and man was at hand.  It was not just one angel of the Lord who sang the heavenly anthem; it was “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.”  Who cares what some Bethlehem yokels thought?  They had seen the newborn Messiah; they had heard the choirs of angels sing.

But why them?  Of all of the people the angels could have picked to manifest their glory, why would they choose some poor shepherds working the third shift in the wilderness surrounding Bethlehem?  Priests, scribes, rabbis, kings, diplomats, soldiers, they all could have received this message.  Shepherds were, regrettably, not the most prestigious laborers in all Judea.  Why them?  It is altogether fitting that shepherds should be the first evangelists because the Messiah whom they proclaimed would define Himself in terms of their occupation.

While not the most esteemed occupation in all of Israel and Judah, shepherds had a long Biblical history.  Once he left Ur, Abram was a shepherd.  Jacob had won both of his wives by laboring as a shepherd.  Once Moses fled Egypt, he lived for years as a shepherd and was seeking out his own lost sheep when he first encountered the LORD.  The prophet Samuel called David to be king of Israel while he was tending his father’s flocks.  The Prophet Amos was himself a shepherd in the land of Tekoa.  Beyond these instances, the prophets frequently used the image of shepherds to refer to the leaders of Israel and Judah, both religious and royal.  The judges and King Saul were each called to “shepherd” the children of the Lord.  The twenty-third chapter of the Prophet Jeremiah contains an oracle against the shepherds of Israel who destroy the sheep of the Lord and continues to condemn false prophets.  Likewise, the thirty-fourth chapter of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel is a condemnation against the wicked shepherds of Israel that ends in a proclamation that God Himself will ultimately be the true shepherd of Israel.  And, of course, we know that Our Lord proclaimed the He was “the Good Shepherd.” (St. John 10:14)  In fact, the majority of the tenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel is Jesus fulfilling the Ezekiel’s prophecy about the Lord being the true shepherd of Israel.

The Good Shepherd was first proclaimed by a group of good shepherds.  They were good shepherds, indeed.  We can tell that because they were watching their flocks at night.  They could have been sleeping or hiding out in some cabin drinking the cold of the night away, but they were not.  They were dutifully fulfilling their rather thankless job.  Alert and mindful of the dangers their flock faced, when they heard the angelic proclamation and anthem, they forsook everything to follow after the newborn Messiah and proclaim the Good News which they had heard.

What a lesson this is for us who call ourselves pastors in these days.  We must dutifully tend to our flock while being ever alert for the dangers which beset them.  We must also be ready and willing to respond to the unexpected leading of the Holy Spirit and the angels of the Lord.  We must never cease to proclaim the Good News that has changed our lives regardless of the opinions of those who have not yet received the same Good News.  We must remember that there is a flock that looks to us as their shepherd.  In us, as their shepherd, they see and form their opinions of and relationship with The Good Shepherd.  We would all do well to review Jeremiah 23, Ezekiel 34, and St. John 10 when we reflect upon our ordinations.  May we, like these good shepherds of the Bethlehem country-side, never cease to make the wonders of Jesus Christ widely known and may we, like these humble shepherds whose lives were forever changed, never stop glorifying and praising God for all the things that we have heard and seen.

O God, who has caused this holy night to shine with the illumination of the true Light: Grant us, we beseech You, that as we have known the mystery of that Light upon earth, so may we also perfectly enjoy Him in heaven; where with You and the Holy Spirit He lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting.   Amen

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St. Nicholas: No Jolly Old Elf

With all of the holiday trappings rolling out earlier and earlier each year, it is refreshing to have at least one aspect of the “holiday season” that legitimately does come early.  December sixth is the annual commemoration of one of the most beloved saints associated with Christmas, Saint Nicholas.  Of course, St. Nicholas is probably one of the best known saints in all of Christianity.  What child does not remember this legendary account of “Old St. Nick”?

“He was dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish’d with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys was flung on his back,
And he look’d like a peddler just opening his pack:
His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh’d when I saw him in spite of myself;”

Those lines are taken from the poem commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas” which was originally titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and first published in 1823 by Clement Clarke Moore.  One critic has gone so far as to assert that this poem is “arguably the best-known verses ever written in America.”  This poem has defined St. Nicholas for the almost two hundred years since its publication and has shaped the modern conception of the festive figure.  Unfortunately, it is almost entirely false.

Unlike many saints who are more legend than history, St. Nicholas is a remarkably well-documented figure.  Nicholas was born around 270AD in the city of Patara in Asia Minor or what would today be called Turkey.  His Christian parents died while he was still and he was raised by his uncle who continued his Christian upbringing.  By 330AD Nicholas had been consecrated as the bishop of the city of Myra in Asia Minor.

Legends regarding the saint abound.  One of the most famous legends centers around a poor single father with three daughters.   Having no dowry for his daughters, the father was unable to secure a marriage for his children.  At that time, this would have meant a life of poverty and most likely prostitution or slavery.  Knowing the father’s plight, St. Nicholas came by night and, heeding our Lord’s directions to “not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” (St. Matthew 6:3) anonymously dropped three bags of gold into the father’s home.  The most likely account tells that the money was dropped into the stockings of the three daughters which had been hung out by the window to dry.  This began the tradition of St. Nicholas being a great giver of gifts.

In 325AD, one of the most momentous events in the history of the Church took place.  The newly converted Emperor Constantine was greatly distressed at the division in the Church caused by the Heretic Arius.  In order to deal with crisis, the Emperor summoned all of the bishops in the entire Church to gather together in the town of Nicaea to settle the matter.  Being a bishop at the time of the council and being especially close to the city, St. Nicholas eagerly attended the convocation hoping to end the division in the Church.  During one of the meetings, the heretic Arius was called to stand before the convened council and present a defense of his position.  During his address, Arius continued to assert that Jesus was not God, not divine, not part of the Holy Trinity, and was just a creature created by God like everyone else.  St. Nicholas was so overcome with anger at the assault on the dignity of his Lord which he was being forced to endure that finally he could stand it no more.  The saint stood up, approached the heretic Arius, and punched him right in the face!  Yes, it is true.  The “jolly old elf” decked a heretic at a council of bishop!

Not surprisingly, no one responded well to some old man hauling off and starting a brawl at such a dignified convention.  The other bishops stripped Nicholas of his episcopal regalia and threw him in prison since this was, after all, an imperial council.  According to the legends, Nicholas had a vision of Our Lord and His Blessed Mother that night.  Jesus presented St. Nicholas with the Scriptures and the Blessed Virgin Mary dressed the saint in his bishop’s robes once again.  When the jailer came to check on Nicholas in the morning, he found the saint sitting quietly in all of his episcopal regalia quietly reading the Gospel.  Upon hearing this miracle, the Emperor Constantine ordered Nicholas released and reinstated.

Later on, during the long and tedious proceedings of the Council of Nicaea, St. Nicholas, as one might expect from a gentleman practically in his seventies, dozed off during one of the sessions.  While he was asleep, the Lord granted Nicholas a vision of a ship in great distress in a terrible storm.  St. Nicholas raised his hands in intercession and prayer for the sailors and the Lord calmed the storm once more sparing the distressed sailors.  When Nicholas awoke, one of his younger colleagues, observing the saint awakening, joked with the old man saying, “So much has happened while you slept.  We have missed you, our brother.”  The saint replied, “Yes, indeed.  A ship has been saved and many sailors rescued.”  Of course, not knowing what had transpired in the saint’s vision, the younger bishop assumed that Nicholas spoke of the Church and her believers.  Based on this legend, St. Nicholas became a patron of sailors as well as children and orphans.

As the years went by and legends of St. Nicholas spread from one region to the next, Saint Nicholas became the Dutch Sinter Klaas and, ultimately, Santa Claus.  Millions of children receive gifts from “Santa” each year and dozens of movies have been made featuring a white-haired overweight old man who bears little or no resemblance to a true hero of the faith.  I encourage everyone to visit The St. Nicholas Center this week and look for ways to celebrate the feast of this incredible saint.  Every St. Nicholas day my children awake to find a small gift in our fireplace.  Usually it is a toy manger scene or some other religious toy like a Noah’s Ark.  We will put in the “VegieTales: St. Nicholas: a story of Joyful Giving” DVD and watch it repeatedly during the day.  God willing, in years to come, my children will smile knowingly when they see the jolly old elf in the red suit with white fur.  They will know that he was a man who dedicated his life to serving Jesus Christ and caring for the poor and underprivileged.  They will also know that the one thing he could never tolerate was the Lord being defamed by those who claimed to represent Him.  May we take the true saint as an model for our own life and follow the example which he has already set for us.

Almighty God, who in your love gave to your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness on land and sea: Grant, we pray, that your Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.  Amen.

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