Feast of St. Martin of Tours
St. Martin of Tours, whom we remember today, was almost universally unpopular among his fellow bishops. But the reasons for this unpopularity are also the reasons we remember his life and witness in the Church. He was strongly opposed to the suppression of heresy through the use of military intimidation or violence. Tragically, such suppression had become common by that point in the history of the early Church. Martin was also called to the monastic life, and refused to compromise this commitment after becoming bishop. The monastic movement in the Western Church was still new enough that this way of life must have made Martin seem even more eccentric and uncooperative with clerical business as usual. Finally, he lacked a formal Latin education and was not a member of the ruling class, having been trained from an early age as a soldier.
St. Martin is most frequently represented in sacred art wearing the military uniform of a soldier, seated on horseback, cutting his red cloak in half with his sword and giving one half to a poorly clad beggar. It is a deeply archetypal image of compassion. We have seen so many images in children’s books, in movies, or in video games, of warriors on horseback committing acts of violent subjugation, slaying dragons or evil knights or foreign invaders. Even those who do so in the service of rescuing a helpless victim are seen slaying or beheading or trampling in the fulfillment of their virtuous mission. St. Martin inhabits this mythic genre, but with a crucial twist that confronts all that what we have been conditioned to see or expect in a warrior. St. Martin believed that spiritual warfare called for spiritual weapons. Foremost among these was his sacrificial generosity.
Isaiah 45:1-7 & Matthew 22:15-22
We sing to God:
You alone are the Holy One.
You alone are the Lord.
You alone are the Most High.
And God sings to us:
What’s your experience with demons? Demons appear on practically every page of the Gospel. Sooner or later, every conscientious follower of the Gospel of Christ must arrive at his or her own interpretive conclusions about these demons, a personal demonology, if we are to engage in any life-giving and meaningful way with these ancient texts, their ancient authors and their first-century worldview.
This reflection accompanies the Brothers’ 2018 Lenten series, “Meeting Jesus in the Gospel of John”. Learn more and subscribe here.
He came to center our senses in himself.
In his work On the Incarnation, the church father Athanasius wrote these words about Jesus, to describe one aspect of his cosmic purpose and mission: “He came to center our senses in himself.” It’s a simple and memorable phrase, with a pleasing, rhythmic consonance in English. I first encountered it in a library in my mid-twenties, while writing a paper for a graduate course. At first, it was simply the bright, felicitous thread that connected many conceptual beads into a strand that hung together. But I walked around repeating it over and over. I couldn’t get it out of my head. Nor did I want to. My fingers caressed the beads, as it were, and the thread held. It held much more than I imagined. The words haunted me for days and whispered me to sleep at night. Whatever was happening, this was not about the theology that I thought I knew. God (?!) was apparently happening to me, and in the smoldering depths of my heart.
It armed me with the nerve I needed – a firm resolve with a trembling underbelly – to trundle into the snow on a Sunday morning in Advent of 2007, to find a seat in the back of a monastic chapel. I had come, vulnerably, to center my senses on him. I needed his body, his blood. To find a center for senses flung, dispersed throughout the wide world and home-sick for their Maker. As the moment I’d been waiting for got closer, I got more and more nervous. I thought about how I could make my exit without anyone noticing. But then, as the bread and wine were lifted high, I heard the words from behind the altar:
Behold what you are; may we become what we receive.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers were some of the earliest Christians to take up the monastic life. Among their recorded Sayings we find the following anecdote: A monk was told that his father had died. “Do not blaspheme,” he said to the messenger. “My Father cannot die.”[i] This reply, so seemingly hard and uncaring, is meant to shock our ears and awaken our spiritual curiosity. A relative bond – that between an earthly son and his now deceased father – is set in dramatic relief against an ultimate and indissoluble bond – the relationship between a child of God and his heavenly Father. The desert hermit to whom these words are attributed lived a rare and radical vocation, pursuing a way of life totally organized around this ultimate and indissoluble relationship. As a prophet of ultimate truth, his reply to the messenger jumps the tracks of conventional language, but his words do not negate the factuality of the messenger’s statement. Nor do they preclude feelings of loss or grief on the part of the monk. His reply, rather, holds those human realities in their proper, relative perspective – as small when compared to the greatness, the goodness, and the ultimacy of God.
In this evening’s passage from Luke, we encounter Jesus as the teller of Ultimate Truth in the midst of a world whose unquestioned logic, traditions, priorities and values are often myopically relative: concerned with things “passing away” rather than those “that shall endure.”[ii] This short passage centers around the primacy of one’s family of origin and its power to determine a person’s ultimate loyalties and alliances in Jesus’s time. Jesus has just finished a lengthy discourse including both public teaching to the crowds and a private teaching to his disciples on the purpose of parables. It is a lengthy exposition of ultimate truths. Jesus is then told that his mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see him. This appearance of Jesus’ family at the edge of a crowd and at the conclusion of a teaching discourse is an event recounted in Matthew and Mark as well.
Feast of the Holy Cross
The cross is everywhere. The geometric figure of a horizontal and vertical line intersecting one another is an archetypal form, noticed in nature and reproduced by hand by most humans in most cultures. But I am referring only to the cross we know best, in all its stylistic and material variety. Picture in your mind’s eye simply two or three of the probably hundreds of crosses you have seen in your life. I immediately think of the plain wooden cross above the pulpit in the Baptist church of my childhood, the garish crucifix that hung over the temperamental photocopier in the Roman Catholic high school where I taught theology, and a simple brass cross with a tree in the center, a gift from my mom when I told her I might want to become a monk. In flea markets, Bible outlets, laser light shows, ancient catacombs, and war memorials; as two sticks tied together on the corrugated aluminum walls of a shack in Jamaica or Colombia or India or Louisiana; as a gilded masterpiece commissioned by royalty and venerated by pilgrims in Rome or Jerusalem or Canterbury; in polished mahogany, in precious stones, in welded scrap metal, in glow-in-the-dark plastic: the cross is everywhere.
“Because he is bound to me in love, therefore I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my Name.” (Psalm 91:14)
Many nights, if I am awake enough by the time the Compline bell rings, if my attention has not been too blunted by the heavy-laden hours of the day and the familiarity of daily repetition, this verse from Psalm 91 finds its way into my heart and brings me peace.
As a high school actor I was initiated into the fundamentals of method acting. Later in life, that experience was put to the test when I myself began teaching high school and was unexpectedly asked to direct student theater. The method actor asks the classic question, “What’s my motivation?” The director of method acting takes pains to encourage exercises in emotional intelligence, body-mind awareness, improvisation and character exploration. Only later, once the actors are finding their voices, tapping their emotional core, working as an ensemble, and embracing the full expressive range of their bodies does the director get down to work on stagecraft: who will move where and when, how lighting and costuming and props will augment and frame the actors, communicate themes, and offer a creative vision. Without that preparatory inner work, a high school play can be a cruel form of torture for an audience. A young, inexperienced or insensitive actor will seek to convey mature adult emotions by aiming to use his voice and body to manufacture a dramatic or impactful impression upon his audience. The effort almost always falls flat because the actor hasn’t done the work of engaging that emotion — or its nearest analogue — in his own life, letting the words and actions flow from that hidden spring. On the other hand, the most gratifying and miraculous moments in a high school play are those in which we glimpse a young actor’s unselfconscious humanity: the embodied expression of her personhood taking shape behind and beneath the memorized lines and tentative gestures. Here and there, true feeling flashes forth and art takes flesh before our eyes. She has become the character because she is becoming herself. This is the fruit of the actor’s inner work.
Wisdom 7:7-14 &John 8:25-32
Feast of St. Gregory of Nazianzus
When I read and reflect upon our SSJE Rule, I am still often caught off guard at how core theological tenets of Christian faith are so vividly applied to the pressing realities of everyday human existence. For example, I return again and again to these words in our chapter on “The Witness of Life in Community”:
Our human vocation to live in communion and mutuality is rooted in our creation in God’s image and likeness. The very being of God is community; the Father, Son, and Spirit are One in reciprocal self-giving and love. The mystery of God as Trinity is one that only those living in personal communion can understand by experience. Through our common life we can begin to grasp that there is a transcendent unity that allows mutual affirmation of our distinctness as persons. Through prayer, we can see that this flows from the Triune life of God.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.”
This one phrase from John’s Gospel encapsulates the essential sprit of what we call the Paschal Mystery – Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection to New Life. On this Tuesday evening in Holy Week, these words are also something like a “preview of coming attractions,” awakening our hopes and grounding our intentions as we prepare for the single, liturgical arc of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and the Great Vigil of Easter.
We believe that our sincere and wholehearted participation in this liturgical drama is one of the central means by which we participate in the saving work of Christ. This is the unfolding drama of how, in his own particular life and flesh, Jesus underwent the human experiences of suffering and death and was, in defiance of all expectation, raised from death by the One he called Father. As a liturgical tradition, we do not simply re-enact or reminisce about very significant events that happened long ago in ancient Palestine. No. To see what we are doing as pious commemoration would be to keep the Crucified at a safe distance in the historical past, separate from ourselves. Rather, the unboundaried space opened to us as the assembled body of Christ invites us truly to enter the sacred, inner dynamic of the events by which we have been claimed and marked as His own forever. On a personal level, this week invites us into a more intimate, transformative encounter with the mystery of our own suffering, death, and resurrection. Each of us has undergone, and will yet undergo, countless passions, deaths, and resurrections – in churches, yes, but also in hospitals and office buildings, by bedsides and firesides, under the open sky and around kitchen tables. Though these experiences are potential fountainheads of meaning through our union with Christ, many of them go unnamed as such and so their graces remain unrealized. In the chapter from our own Rule entitled “Holy Death,” we receive this reminder: “Week by week, we are to accept every experience which requires us to let go as an opportunity for Christ to bring us through death into life.” This is the paschal mystery writ small, in lowercase letters, across the individual history of every child of God. The small mystery enclosed within one’s own skin is grounded afresh in the Great Mystery of Christ’s Body by reading our small print alongside the bold, capital letters of this week’s unitive liturgical action.