The scholarly journal, the “International Bulletin of Mission Research,” has for more than thirty years compiled an annual table of Christian martyrs. The journal defines martyrs as “believers in Christ who have lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility.”
Martyr. The journal’s estimate: in the last 10 years, 900,000 Christians have been killed worldwide for their witness to Christ. That’s, on average, 90,000 Christians martyred each year during this past decade.[i]
The English word “martyr” comes from both Latin and Greek, the word “martyr” translated as “witness.” May we be spared shedding our blood as a martyr; nonetheless, there will be countless occasions to give “witness” to Christ. There will be more than a few opportunities for us to “lay down our life” for someone, another child of God, probably even today. The invitation may not be in an act of heroism – no shedding of blood – but more likely in a very mundane and rather hidden way.
Certain people who – as we say – absolutely “kill us,” we will have the occasion to show kindness or to forgive. We will be invited, undoubtedly, to offer the generosity of our tried patience; the withholding of our judgment; the readiness to be helpful and not hurtful, or retiring or rebuffing; the opportunity to bless and not to curse. Not everyone, we pray, will face John the Baptist’s fate; but all of us who profess Jesus as our Lord and Savior will be invited to die more than once, maybe more than once even today. To die. Jesus said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it will not bear fruit.”[ii] We’re to be fruitful. Something will need to die for us to be fruitful. Whether it be something great or something puny that we are sorely tempted to clutch at and save at all costs may need to die. It may be some image of ourselves, some impression, or decision, or resolution, or privilege, or fear, or time that we feel is our rightful possession. It’s going to get in the way of life, what Jesus calls “abundant life,” if we don’t let it go, don’t surrender it, don’t let it die.[iii] Today will probably be a “killer” in the working out of our salvation and in our claiming the “abundant life” promised by Jesus.
In the SSJE Brothers’ Rule of Life, we speak of our identification with martyrdom, not because we are monks, but because we are baptized. In our baptismal vows, we profess that we “have died with Christ and are raised with him.” Jesus promises us resurrection power. We have to die before we rise, before we can claim his resurrection power. Die, again, and again, and again, we must die.
[i] See the International Bulletin of Mission Research, 2018 study: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2396939317739833
[ii] John 12:24.
[iii] Jesus speaks of “abundant life” in John 10:10.
Thomas Aquinas, OP (1225-1274)
Wisdom of Solomon 7:7-14
Thomas Aquinas, whom we remember today, personified what Jesus called the “scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven.” Aquinas was born in 1225 and died at just under 50 years old: a Dominican scholar, theologian, philosopher, and prolific author. He had a photographic memory and mind.[i] He would sit surrounded by four scribes and he would dictate one sentence to one scribe, the next sentence to the second scribe, and so forth. He spoke four times as fast as they could write. By the time he finished the fourth sentence, he would dictate the fifth sentence to the first scribe… and on he went. In 25 years, he wrote 50 folio volumes, about 50,000 pages, the equivalent of 500 short modern books with the help of his scribes. All of this was done with quill pens.
Thomas Aquinas looked back on Moses’ encounter with God as profoundly significant. In the Book of Exodus, we read of God’s sending Moses as an emissary to the Pharaoh. Moses asks God, “Whom shall I say is sending me?” God reveals to Moses God’s own identity: “I Am Who I Am.”[ii] Aquinas said, in that disclosure, we discover the reason for created life: God is Being, the Ultimate Reality from which everything else in creation exists. Aquinas said God’s essence is to exist; we and all other creation derive our existence from God. And so the whole of creation tells God’s story. Creation reflects God’s glory, God’s beauty, God’s order, God’s meaning.
For Aquinas, God’s revelation through creation was not just in the past, nor is it just in the present. God is always more. God’s revelation is ongoing and continues into the future. We must keep our minds open to God’s ongoing revelation. There is always more. And because of this, Aquinas did not see any inconsistency or disharmony between reason and revelation. God will continue to enlighten our minds if we will only be attentive.[iii] God’s revelation, Aquinas said, “is not the denial of [reason], but the perfection of reason.” Pay attention. God always has more to reveal to us, and this will be in harmony with what God has already revealed. Pay attention to life. The greatness and the glory and the wonder of God’s essence is beyond description, because God is always more: more than we can describe, understand, and experience. God is always more.
Thomas Aquinas’ scholarly pursuits had begun at age five when he had asked a teacher, “What is God?” His teacher had no answer, and Aquinas spent the rest of his life attempting to discover the answer… “What is God?” Who could have guessed where God’s revelation would lead Thomas Aquinas in the end? A few months before he died, he had a revelation, a mystical experience of Jesus, a foretaste of heaven, and it so radically transcended the words of Aquinas’ trade. Aquinas knew he was to end his scholarly work. He stopped writing words.
Peter Kreeft, the Boston College Aquinas scholar, uses the analogy of a Zen Buddhist wisdom about words: “A finger is useful for pointing to the moon, but whoa to the fool who mistakes the finger for the moon.” Aquinas had met his maker. Aquinas stopped his intellectual work, stopped his trading on words, and gave himself over to the attraction of God’s glory. [iv] His life’s work, his Summa Theologica, would be left unfinished, which was an unanticipated but fitting conclusion to someone so committed to God’s revelation being ongoing. There would always be more, more than Aquinas could summarize. Aquinas said of himself in his latter days, “compared to what I have now seen, everything I have written looks to me like straw.” What had he seen? God. He experienced God.
You are no Thomas Aquinas. But you need not be. You are you. One of a kind. What is God’s revelation to you that is uncontestable and perhaps unexplainable? What have you come to know to be true in life: the life that fills you and the life that surrounds you? Taking inspiration from Thomas Aquinas, consider what God has revealed to you in life. Don’t deny your mind; don’t disparage your studies; don’t denigrate your rationality but claim it all at a deeper level. Don’t deify your mind. What have you come to know at the deepest level to be absolutely true about life and love, and the source of it all?
In the end Thomas Aquinas claimed his identity not as a scholar but as a child of God. At the end of his life, Aquinas said that “the soul is like an uninhabited world that comes to life only when God lays His head against us.” Do you know the delight of a child tossing a ball into the air, Aquinas asks? That delight is what God experiences whenever God looks at you, Aquinas said. Thomas Aquinas’ revered intellect was, in the end, melded by love, loving knowledge.[v]
In the early centuries of Christian monasticism, this was called “putting your head into your heart.” Put your head into your heart and abide there. Reflect on what you know for sure, child of God that you are. What has God revealed to you about life and love – your life and the life that surrounds you – which may be inexplicable, but uncontestable? That is your life’s wisdom that is greater than gold.[vi]
Blessed Thomas Aquinas, whom we remember with thanksgiving.
- [i] Biographical detail by Peter Kreeft, A Summa of the Summa: Essential Passages of Aquinas (1990).
- [ii] Exodus 3:14.
- [iii] See Ephesians 1:15-23.
- [iv] From the SSJE Rule of Life: “The Call of the Society” (Chapter One). Referring to Jesus’ statement: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:22-23)
- [v] Inspiration from The Inner Eye of Love; Mysticism and Religion, by William Johnston (1978), p. 20.
- [vi] Proverbs 3:14-24, 8:11, 16:16.
Two of Jesus’ inner ring of followers had so much in common: Peter and Judas. We know nothing about their upbringings and backgrounds. How were they raised? What did they value? What were their ambitions? Why were they attracted to follow Jesus? And why, among the multitude of his followers, did Jesus choose the two of them to be in his closest circle? Jesus was a shrewd and intuitive judge of character. What did Jesus see as so special in Peter and Judas? Were they charismatic? Were they eloquent? Were they passionate or articulate or extremely bright? Were they, like Jesus, riled by hypocrisy and injustice? Did they have a whimsical sense of humor, a hearty appetite, nerves of steel, the wisdom of a serpent, the innocence of a dove, a love for children, a certain way with the erudite or with the poor? They must have been impressive, both of them. Was Peter called “the rock” because he was stubborn or because he was strong? Maybe both. And Jesus made Judas the treasurer. Was that because Judas was so responsible, so accountable that he was entrusted with so much among those who had given up everything to follow Jesus? We don’t know. Surely Judas was a very special person, especially wonderful, to have a place so near to Jesus’ own heart. Surely Judas’ kiss of betrayal was not the first time he had expressed his closeness to Jesus.
So what happened? However similar or different they are to one another, both Peter and Judas end up in the Garden of Gethsemane, and both of them, surely to their own horror and to others’, they became betrayers. What, ultimately, is the difference between Judas, remembered for his deception, and his friend Peter, remembered for his sainthood? They had so much in common… except for one thing. Following Jesus’ crucifixion Judas was precipitous; Peter was not. Judas takes his own life; Peter is given his life back by Jesus’ in the gift of forgiveness.
In this Gospel lesson appointed for today, there is a recurring word: light. In the opening verses of the Gospel according to John, we are reminded – seven times – that God is light, “the true light that enlightens everyone.” Light is a recurring theme during Christmastide, not just in the scriptures, but in life all around us. We see festive lights strung across the streets, on lamp poles, in shop windows, and on the gables of houses here in Cambridge and in so many places across the country. In your home you may have a lighted Christmas tree and festive candles on your table or in your windowsill. Here in our chapel, our crèche is lighted; the altar is specially lighted with towering candles. This array of lights we customarily see in Christmastide has a Christian history, but not a Christian origin.
The tradition of lights this season traces its way back to the Roman Empire, which marked the “birthday of the unconquered sun” (natalis solis invicti) on December 25th. Since early days, Christians have celebrated Christmas on December 25th, probably to coincide with the winter solstice,[i] when the days again begin to lengthen and the sun rises higher in the sky.”[ii] Isaiah had prophesied about the light of the forthcoming Messiah: “The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the Lord will be your everlasting light…[iii]And so, light has figured very importantly into the Christmas story. The shepherds found their way to the manger of the Christ child by following a light in the sky. The Magi from the east also found their way to the Christ child by following stars in the night sky. In later years, the Gospel writers would remember Jesus’ saying of himself, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”[iv]
In this Gospel passage and elsewhere, Jesus speaks about our resurrection from the dead as a promise. Jesus speaks like a Pharisee. Pharisees in Jesus’ day believed in bodily resurrection in the “age to come.” That’s about hope for the future, what the church calls “the hope of heaven.” I’ll come back to that. Meanwhile, there’s something unique about Jesus’ teaching about the resurrection. Our resurrection is not just a future event; resurrection is for now. Resurrection informs or reforms how we live today. Saint Paul called it “resurrection power,” in the here and now.[i] Resurrection power. Resurrection is about hope for the future and about power for the present.
In the last 50 years or so, three novelists have captured the imagination of the English-speaking world, and beyond: C. S. Lewis in his Narnia Chronicles, J. R. R. Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, and J. K. Rowling in her Harry Potter novels. All these stories have one theme in common. Power. The exercise of power, the need for power, the source of power. Why the “power” theme has so captured the attention of young and old alike is not because people are powerless. It’s not because these tales give us an imaginary respite from being overwhelmed by the powers that be. It’s much more the opposite of that. Power is of our essence, though many people do not recognize or accept this: their own power. We have been given power.
There’s an old story told from when God was creating the world. God assigned the angel Gabriel to distribute stones and rock. Gabriel did this faithfully, flying here and there with a very large sack of stones on his back. But when Gabriel was flying over the mountains around Jerusalem, the sack broke and the entire load fell.[i] It’s a charming story. What’s for sure true is that the Holy Land is a very rocky place.
It is no surprise that rocks figure into Jesus’ teaching. In his parable of the sower, Jesus speaks about a farmer “sowing seed, some of which falls among the rocks,” because farm fields would need to be endlessly cleared of rocks. Jesus speaks metaphorically of those who walk in the daytime “will not stumble,” won’t stumble over rocks. Tombs and burial boxes – “ossuaries” – were carved out of stone, and to this day; water cisterns were chiseled into rock, and to this day. Jesus would give a new name to Simon, the designated leader among his disciples. What’s the most powerful name Jesus could bestow on Simon? Peter, which means “rock,” the rock on whom Jesus would build his church.
St. Philip, Deacon and Evangelist
In the calendar of the church we remember today one of Jesus’ early followers named Philip, traditionally referred to as a Deacon and Evangelist. Most likely this Philip is not Philip the apostle, but rather a namesake, one of seven appointed by the apostles to distribute bread and alms to the widows and the poor in Jerusalem. We hear in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Philip travels south of Jerusalem to Gaza, and en route encounters an Ethiopian who is trying to make sense of the prophecy of Isaiah. Philip was obviously prepared and ready to give witness to how Isaiah was pointing to Jesus.
The church has remembered this story about Philip; however it’s less to do with the conversion of this Ethiopian. After Jesus’ resurrection, multitudes of people were converting to Christ. The importance of this story is more about Philip. He was prepared. Jesus had talked almost endlessly about being prepared almost endlessly in his teachings and parables. “Be prepared.” “Keep awake.” “Be ready.” Be ready for an encounter that awaits you. We read in the First Letter of Peter: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.”[i] Be ready. If you claim to be Christian, why? Not why did you become a Christian, but why have you remained a Christian? What is the good news – what is it of Jesus’ “good news” – that keeps you a follower of Jesus today?
In the calendar of the church we remember the life and witness of Vincent de Paul. He was born in France in the year 1580 to a peasant family. He was bright, given educational opportunity, and, at 20 years old, was ordained in year 1600. This was a time of enormous change in western Europe. Most historians locate the late 15th/early 16th century as the beginning or at least maturing of western capitalism. Merchants, entrepreneurs, and bankers accumulated and manipulated capital in unprecedented levels. It was the best of times and the worst of times, worst certainly for the bankrupt and for the poor, who became more numerous and more destitute. History repeats itself.
Vincent, when called to hear the confession of a dying man, was shocked by the spiritual poverty of the penitent. Vincent began preaching sermons on confession, calling people to the necessity of repentance. His sermons were so persuasive that villagers stood in line to go to confession. It was not just the laity, but also his fellow clergy whom he found so poorly formed in their own ministry. He became a pioneer in the renewal of theological education, and was instrumental in establishing seminaries. He also pioneered conducting retreats for clergy. In year 1626, Vincent and three other priests vowed to live and pray together, and to devote themselves as mission priests. The founder of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Richard Meux Benson in the 1860s, patterned our own community on Vincent de Paul’s Company of Mission Priests.
In the calendar of the church, we remember today Thomas Traherne, one of the trio of great English poets and lyricists including John Donne and George Herbert. Traherne, Donne, and Herbert, each in their own way, expressed their profound awareness of the depths of God intertwined in all of creation. They articulated the Christian faith in the Middle Ages, which had a bewildering a maze of conflicting opinions about the meaning of life, not unlike today.
Traherne was born in 1637, the son of a humble shoemaker. He studied at Oxford, from where he earned three degrees, and was ordained priest in 1660. He died at age 37. Traherne’s poetry went unpublished and unknown until it was found in manuscript form in a London bookseller’s stall at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Hildegard of Bingen, Abbess of Bingen and Mystic (1098-1179)
God of all times and seasons: Give us grace that we, after the example of your servant Hildegard, may both know and make known the joy and jubilation of being part of your creation, and show forth your glory not only with our lips but in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Savior,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 43:1-2, 6-7, 9-12, 27-28
In the calendar of the church we remember today Hildegard of Bingen, born over 900 years ago in year 1098. For most of her 80+ years, she lived in an obscure hilltop monastery in the Rhineland of Germany. As a child she was drawn to the religious life, a life of silence and prayer; however a convent could also then be a place of freedom for a woman to develop her intellectual gifts and creativity and care, and she did it all. At age 38 she became abbess of her community, and she would eventually build a second convent. Her character absolutely teemed with creativity, and yet she could also be steely, determined, and, at times, overbearing. Her sisters flourished under her rather unorthodox regime.