Category Archives: Saints

Recalling the Story

Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

Readings

In the Epistle reading for today, the Apostle recalls the opening of his Gospel. “What was from the beginning….” What was from the beginning? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) The Word, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, this is what John writes about as he goes on to say, “We have heard, we have seen, and touched.”

In other words, that whole “Immanuel, God with us” stuff that Isaiah foretold? It really happened. God was with us. We saw him, we heard him, we touched him. And now we proclaim it to you, so that you might have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

Note that he did not say, “So that you may have fellowship with him,” but rather, “So that you may have fellowship with us.” The implication is that if we have fellowship with the Apostles, we will have fellowship with the Father and the Son. But it is only because of their testimony and their authority that we have that fellowship. If the Apostles had not also been witnesses, testifying about what they had heard and seen, none of us would know anything about Christ. If we lost John, we would lose a Gospel, three Epistles, and the Revelation. He is the largest author in the New Testament after Luke and Paul.

That is one of the lessons we can take from the Apostles and Evangelists: we also need to be witnesses. We need to hand on what has been entrusted to us and we need to testify to what God has done for us as individuals.

It is important for us to share our stories for two reasons. First, because it is encouraging for others to see how the Holy Spirit has worked on, in, and through people they can relate to. It is great to know that Moses parted the Red Sea and enabled Israel’s escape from Egypt. It is something else to hear how your friend managed a tough job with no other prospects, thanks to prayer and the support of others.

Second, it is good for us to share our story because in our sharing, we are reminded of God’s work in our own life. We see his guidance and provision for us. As we reflect on our life, we see how the seemingly random twists and turns are actually a road leading to a destination.

Sharing your faith journey, even if it is only with yourself, can renew your faith and give you strength to carry on. In marriage counseling, I usually ask the couple how they met. Ideally, it helps take them back to a happy time in their relationship and generates a little positive momentum for the session. Reviewing the ways God has led, wooed, and grown us can do much the same for our relationship with him.

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Bittersweet

Feast of St. Stephen

Readings

It has always seemed a bit jarring that the feast commemorating the martyrdom of Saint Stephen falls the day after Christmas. I understand the Feast of the Holy Innocents on the 28th because their deaths are a part of the story of the birth of our Lord.

There is also, however, a connection between Stephen’s death and our Lord, as the Gospel today clearly foretells. Jesus knew that mankind reacts poorly to selfless love and justice. What he faced, his followers would often face as well.

It is our inability to countenance the perfectly just that condemns us as sinful. We recoil from perfect love because it reveals our imperfections. Our only recourse is to accept the gift of perfect love, even though to do so means we, too, risk being rejected and expelled.

Christmas has this mix within it. It is not just a baby born of a virgin to save the world. That blessed event happened amidst livestock because even on the first night, Jesus and his parents were rejected. They were in Bethlehem and not in Nazareth because they were under subjection. They fled to Egypt because they were hunted.

Even our experience of Christmas as a holiday with family and friends is not all pure joy. Over the years, it becomes a mixture of pleasant and painful memories. We smile as we remember the year we received a Galactic Battle Cruiser (or whatever gift really excited you as a seven year-old.) But the memory of Christmases past also reminds us of those whom we no longer see around the tree or table. We remember Christmases deployed. We may even remember the Christmas our dog bit us. On the face.

But just as we persist in celebrating the birth of Christ each year, despite the mixed memories it brings, we also hold our faith in Christ. To believe we have a Savior is to acknowledge that we are sinners. To hope in eternal life is to admit that we are moving toward death. To celebrate the feasts, we must also submit to the fasts.

God is shockingly cavalier about our happiness. He is willing to bat it aside and trample upon it in what feels like an instant. We find this objectionable and we rail against it like spoiled children who have the object of our momentary fascination taken away by a parent. We fail to see, just as the child, that our momentary placation is not the ultimate goal. Just as good parents seek not to endlessly entertain their children, but to raise them into adults themselves, so God desires to raise us to the level of sanctity and holiness of the Saints and, ultimately, his Son.

Stephen was brought before the council because his life and his teachings were above reproach. He was known for his sanctity by the early church. His willing death and Christlike prayer in the midst of it are a high example for us as well.

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Playing Our Part

Friday, Second Week of Advent

Readings

John the Baptist is what you expect of a prophet. Quirky. Eccentric. Weird. He lived in the dessert, ate locust and honey, and dressed in camel-hair. Not unlike Elijah. He said what needed to be said and it got him in trouble.

Jesus was not the Messiah people expected. They expected someone with military might, political prowess, and ethical excellence. What they got was a homeless miracle worker who hung out with the wrong crowd.

However, this was not the only side of Jesus. He was not one-dimensional. The same Jesus who miraculously made 180 gallons of wine for a wedding reception also spent 40 days in prayer and fasting. He went to banquets hosted by tax collectors and he spent nights alone in prayer in solitary places. He challenged the Pharisees and Scribes, calling them snakes and whitewashed tombs, and he spoke words of tenderness and healing.

Jesus calls out those listening in today’s Gospel for being too timid. You don’t want to mourn; you don’t want to dance. You don’t think you need the repentance that John preached and you don’t celebrate that the bridegroom has arrived.

G. K. Chesterton commented once that God tends to send us the kind of saints we need in each age, and that often involves someone who goes against the prevailing currents. If we consider Jesus as a saint for a moment — and why shouldn’t we? — we see him in contrast to the religious leaders of his day.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were concerned about preserving their status and the power they had. They cultivated their images and protected their turf. These are not things shepherds of God’s flock are called to do. Jesus threw all of that out the window, as did John before him.

John, as we mentioned, was an extreme ascetic and powerful critic. Jesus, on the other hand, healed the masses and taught them. He mingled and ate with ordinary people. He called common men to be his disciples. He gave an example that was sorely needed then, one we need to be reminded of in every generation.

Just as Isaiah relayed, “I, the Lord, your God, teach you what is for your good, and lead you on in the way you should go.” This is why not only our Lord, but all his saints through the ages, are so important as examples for us. We are able to see the myriad ways that the love of God and neighbor have been lived out. Not all of us are going to be a John the Baptist. That’s good; we need the whole body. Just as Paul was fond of reminding his readers, we are a body made up of many parts. The body works best when all the parts are fulfilling their design. We each have a part.

May we each learn to live the design, the charism, the vocation, that we have been created for and called to, without regard for the world’s accolades or criticisms.

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Ambrose and Sainthood

Thursday, First Week of Advent

Memorial of St. Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Readings

St. Ambrose is notable in church history. His influence is felt to today. When we say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans,” we quote him. The context was his discussion of liturgical and devotional practices, which were quite varied in his time.

Reading without moving one’s lips was also first recorded in history, by St. Augustine in his Confessions, as something Ambrose did. At the time and for centuries following, people read out loud even when alone.

Like any good bishop, Ambrose sought to uphold and teach the faith in the face of heresy and apathy. He wrote influential works. He baptized people, including St. Augustine in Milan.

But we remember St. Ambrose primarily because he has “saint” in front of his name. A saint is someone whom the Church has recognized as having outstanding virtue and faith. Someone worthy of emulation. There have been plenty of bishops who have not been so honored. There have been other great teachers who have not been so honored. St. Ambrose is part of an elite group. Currently, there are only 36 Doctors of the Church. All of them saints.

It is unlikely any of us will ever be listed among the Doctors of the Church. We, statistically speaking, will also never be declared saints by the Church. However, we are given a clear path to sainthood by our Lord.

To be a doctor, you must be brilliant. To be a bishop, you have to fulfill certain requirements. To be a saint, all you have to do is follow Jesus’ advice in the Gospel reading.

To slightly paraphrase our Lord, “If you want to enter the Kingdom of heaven, do the will of my Father in heaven.”

We don’t act without faith. We have to believe that our Father has a will for us and that it is worth doing. Then we must act on it. Then, and only then, can we expect to be granted admittance into God’s presence.

As we look at the lives of the saints throughout history, we see that same pattern. Faith leading to action, leading to approval by God. From Abraham to Ambrose to Aquinas and beyond, there is no exception to this pattern. They all were given different challenges and different tasks. But by having the faith to act, they prevailed and were acclaimed as saints.

But how do I know the will of God? That is a good question and there are two answers, because God has a general will for all of us as well as a specific will for each of us as individuals. If we don’t obey the general, we don’t stand much chance of  figuring out the specific.

God’s general will is this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” If we seriously pursue that, his specific will has a way of becoming evident.

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Blessed Eyes

Tuesday, The First Week of Advent

Readings

“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see,” Jesus told his disciples in today’s Gospel. What, precisely, were they seeing?

If we look at the larger context, this exchange occurs as the seventy men Jesus sent out are returning and recounting their successes. We could say that this is a test-run of the plan to have 12 ordinary guys be the founders of the Church. They seem able to get on okay with nothing but the Holy Spirit.

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Luke 10:17-20

Jesus is rejoicing that the prophecies we read in Isaiah — prophecies he read — are coming to fruition. Something is afoot. The rebellion is expanding. The powers of darkness are being driven back by this rag-tag group of disciples.

And blessed are their eyes, because they are witnessing it first hand. This is what angels, prophets, and kings longed to see. What a generation in captivity in Babylon longed for. What those around them were praying would come to pass. It was actually happening.

God was made flesh and dwelt among them.

The Holy Spirit was active, more active than anyone had seen in years.

What an awesome time to be alive.

It is easy to get historical envy. Wouldn’t it have been cool to live back then, to see Peter and the apostles with Jesus? Wouldn’t it have been awesome to be in the upper room? To hear Paul preach, to witness the church growing? To be able to seek out a Desert Father? To hear Augustine or Chrysostom preach? We could go on and on, right up to the present day.

And that is precisely my point.

Our eyes, too, are blessed, because they are also seeing what the prophets and kings of old longed to see fulfilled.

But our day? Well, our day is full of trouble and tension, distraction and apathy. It’s really not that inspiring of a time. That has always been the case.

Yet the Holy Spirit still infuses the Church. Individual believers still pray, worship, and serve to the glory of God. Saints are still being made; evil is still being fought.

The way is still stony, uphill, and lined with danger. God is still using ordinary people like you and me, just like he used Peter and Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew,
Thomas, Matthew, James, Jude, Simon, and Judas.

“But I’m no Peter!” you may exclaim. And neither are you a Judas, so take heart. Your eyes are blessed as well. Open them to see God working before, around, and in you. Your name may also be written in heaven.

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I Met a Saint Today

The first few verses of the twelfth chapter of Hebrews has long held a special place for me. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” is the opening phrase. What does it mean to be surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses?

I had a thought the other day as I was completing a “wellness assessment” for work. The survey asked if I had people I felt I could turn to in need, if I felt I had enough friends, that sort of thing. I realized that I do; I have a multitude I can turn to anytime I want.

The Church has long held there are three categories of the faithful: the church militant, the church expectant, and the church victorious. The church militant is us, the faithful still “fighting the good fight”. The church expectant are those who have died and are awaiting glorification. And the church victorious are those who have already been glorified.

The amazing thing is, as we say when we confess our faith, we have communion with the whole Church — the communion of saints. What does that mean? It means that because we share one head — Christ — we are one body. Death does not remove us from the Body of Christ.

That means I am surrounded by people I can turn to, both physically living and dead. And I feel like I am meeting new people all the time. I was just telling my wife yesterday that I “met” a new saint. In this case, it was Saint Vincent of Lérins. He was a fifth century monk and writer of whom not a lot is known, but he wrote a work call the Commonitorium, which has been frequently translated and preserved through the ages.

The quote that caught my eye and led me to this particular saint was this:

“Yet teach still the same truths which you have learned,
so that though you speak after a new fashion,
what you speak may not be new.”

Commonitorium, Chapter 22

Good advice, and another way to state Jude verse three, “Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”

Our duty is not to be innovators of the faith, but transmitters. I am glad there is a cloud of witnesses so that I don’t have to make things up, but I can largely see what the saints before me have believed and taught. If I can but faithfully echo what they have passed on, I will have been faithful in my duties as a minister of the Gospel.

So I continue to read, study, and pray as I enjoy my ever-widening circle of fellow members of the Body of Christ. I look forward to the day when we can worship God side-by-side in a the great multitude in Heaven. Maybe we’ll get to chat. Or maybe it won’t matter, because we’ll finally be face-to-face with God.

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Aspiration

all-saints

In the training I mentioned in a recent post, we also had to answer the question, “Who or what do you pretend to be?” Though our natural inclination as adults is to consider pretending to be a sin against the twenty-first century virtue authenticity, this is not always the case. Yes, there are times of “fake it ’til you make it,” but even these aren’t necessarily being inauthentic as much as acknowledging that some days we just don’t feel as energized about whatever roles we play.

If we only did what we truly felt like doing day in and day out, I would probably spend most days in bed eating cookies. Not a very healthy or productive lifestyle. Having enough discipline to do what we ought even when we don’t feel like it is a mark of maturity.

In the training, we discussed this phenomenon briefly: “Why is it that pretending is viewed negatively for adults?” We don’t deflate our 5 year old when he is running around pretending to be Superman. “What do you think you’re doing? You’re not a superhero; you’re a child! Get a grip!” On the contrary, imagination is the world of a child. Whether they are their favorite major league baseball player while at little league practice or a daring spaceship pilot as they ride their bike around the neighborhood, imagination and imitation are part and parcel of their day.

It is the imitation part of imagination that has special merit for us as adults. I picked up on this toward the end of the exercise of answering, “Who or what do you pretend to be?” I said, “Norm Abram, in my garage some weekends.” Norm is the long-time host of “The New Yankee Workshop” on PBS. He makes furniture mostly, and never (at least on camera) makes a mistake. I have learned things watching his show over the years, though I am nowhere near his level of skill when it comes to woodworking.

But Norm is not the only person I attempt to emulate. Augustine of Hippo, John Chrysostom, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Merton, Michael Casey, and Dallas Willard are all Christians who I have tried to emulate either in writing or in speaking. I also try to emulate their practice as well. Am I pretending to be them? It depends on your definition of pretend.

I don’t dress up like any of them or try to speak in Latin or Greek as some of them did. I haven’t joined a monastery or become a college professor. But I do try to imitate them in sanctity, intellectual rigor, insight, and clarity.

That is what All Saints Day is about — being reminded of those who have gone before us who inspire us and whom we seek to imitate in some way. Not every saint speaks to every person. We each have different temperaments, vocations, and settings. But it is helpful to have some we can look to. We should have some from whom we can learn through their attempts to follow Christ, just as others will someday learn from us.

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