St. Margaret of Scotland – the Pearl of Great Price
Pearls are very beautiful. Their beauty has something to do with their unique luster. Light reflects and refracts from the translucent layers – layer upon layer of mother of pearl. The luster becomes finer as the layers become thinner and more numerous. Some people spend their lives collecting and marveling at pearls.
Today we celebrate Margaret, a 12th century queen of Scotland, who was acknowledged by the whole country as a good and deeply holy woman. She was a woman of profound prayer, who also worked tirelessly for the welfare of the poor. Many people wrote about her, and made much of the appropriateness of her name, for in both Greek and Latin, the name Margaret – Margarata – means pearl. There’s the lovely passage written at her death by Turgot, the 12th century bishop of St. Andrews: “In this virtuous woman, the fairness indicated by her name was surpassed by the exceeding beauty of her soul. She was called Margaret, that is a “pearl,” and in the sight of God she was esteemed a lovely pearl by reason of her faith and good works. She was a pearl to her husband and children, to me, to all of us, even to Christ. And because she was Christ’s she is all the more ours, now that she has left us, and is taken to the Lord.”
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.
I spent a lot of time thinking, and pondering, and reflecting this past fall. Sometimes I simply thought about the weather, or the beauty of the scenery. Sometimes my reflections were much deeper than that, as I pondered where I had come from, and where I was going, not just that day, but in my life. A lot of the time, I thought about the path, literally, that was ahead of me.
Some of you will know that this September, I spent two weeks walking the Hadrian’s Wall Path in northern England. The Hadrian’s Wall Path, as its name suggests, is one of the great long distance walking paths in Britain, following the 85 mile route of Hadrian’s Wall, from Wallsend, just east of Newcastle, to Bowness on Solway, to the west of Carlisle. As you can imagine, walking 85 miles over the course of two weeks gives you lots of opportunity to think about any number of things.
But as I said, one of the things which I thought about, a lot, was the path itself, and more generally, the nature of paths.
One day, a little boy was walking home from Sunday school, lost in thought. As he walked, he kept thinking about something the teacher had said, something that didn’t seem to make any sense. When the little boy got back to his house, he decided to visit his grandfather, whom the boy considered very wise. He found his grandfather working in the yard, pulling weeds from the garden, and, without any preamble, the little boy asked, “Grandpa, what’s hell like?”
The boy’s grandfather looked up from his work, wiping his brow with a gloved hand. “Why do you want to know,” he asked.
“Well, the teacher was talking about heaven and hell in school today, where good people and bad people go, and…. I was just wondering what hell is really like.”
His grandfather paused, and turning to face the boy, closed his eyes for a moment. “OK,” he said, opening his eyes, “it’s like this.”
“In hell, there’s this really big dinner table, and all the people in hell are sitting around it. The table is decorated with candles and flowers… it’s just amazingly beautiful. And on the table are bowls of the most delicious food you could ever imagine: and all your favorite food in the whole world is right there in front of you. Deserts, too, brownies, cakes, cookies, candy…. And, you can even eat desert first if you want. It’s the most beautiful, delicious, and amazing feast ever.”
In today’s parable, Jesus paints the picture of two people. A judge, a man with authority who does not fear God nor respect people. He won’t be ashamed. Perhaps accepting a bribe, but otherwise immoveable. A widow comes repeatedly to this judge. As we see often in scripture, widows are most vulnerable and to be cared for. In Middle Eastern culture, men represented women in court. That she is here means she has no male relative to assist her.[i] On one hand, she is weak and vulnerable. Yet she is present and persistent, not accusing, asking for justice.
In Middle Eastern culture, there is also a social code of respect such that women sometime have unusual access that men do not. Kenneth Bailey, who taught seminary for many years in Lebanon, tells of seeing a violent militia take up residence in a neighborhood. An elderly woman came regularly telling the guards to go away. They responded by politely telling her to not be upset. If a man had done so, he would have been shot.[ii]
The widow keeps coming asking for justice. The judge relents, giving her what she asks so that he is no longer bothered.
St. Ignatius of Antioch
Today in the calendar of the church, we remember the first century Syrian bishop and martyr, Ignatius of Antioch. One of the last of the so-called ‘Apostolic Fathers,’ tradition tells us that Ignatius worked alongside the apostles and their communities, such as St. Peter and St. John the Evangelist, from whom we read he received his theological formation. St. John Chrysostom tell us that Ignatius received his episcopal consecration from the hands of the apostles themselves.
Ignatius was martyred around 115 CE under the emperor Trajan. Seeking to reinforce the universality of his dominion by an act of religious conquest, Trajan decreed that Christians were to unite with their pagan neighbors in the worship of the civic gods. Persecution was threatened, and death named the penalty for any who refused participate. Sensitive to the danger, Ignatius did all in his power to thwart the advance of the imperial program, which would lead to his arrest and execution.
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.
Romans 8:22-27; Psalm 42:1-7; Matthew 5:13-16
Today in the calendar of the church we remember the sixteenth-century nun, abbess, and mystic Teresa of Avila. Born Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada to a family of partly Jewish ancestry, she lived at a time of incredible persecution of the Jews known as the Inquisition. Educated by Augustinian nuns, she began to feel called to the consecrated life and joined a Carmelite Order. She eventually became distracted by the mollified Rule of the Order and set out to found a reformed Order called the Discalced Carmelites. The word ‘discalced’ is derived from the Latin word meaning ‘without shoes.’ Throughout the course of 25 years, she traveled frequently establishing 17 convents of the reformed Order. She wrote many letters, poems, books on the religious life, as well as an autobiography: The Life of Teresa of Jesus.
While it would be easy to project a certain saintly color of piety on Teresa, her autobiography proves her to have been very unconventional for what we imagine a contemplative nun to be. She is said to have been a very passionate person, describing in her autobiography mystical visions, highly erotic in nature. She writes viscerally of one of these visions in which an angel repeatedly thrusts a golden lance into her heart: ‘I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.’ We can hear overtones of the Song of Solomon that seem to mix the essence of eros and agape, that is erotic love and Godly love. In her vision we experience her desire to be one with God.[i]
2 Timothy 2:8-15 & Luke 17:11-19
The patterns of life help us predict and control the chaos of creaturely existence. But there arises inevitably the unforeseen variable. The variable may visit in the form of a disruption in a system; as a tipping point or breaking point. Or a sudden reversal or unexpected contradiction can interrupt the flow of a familiar pattern. We witness this in all fields of human experience, from economics to meteorology to evolutionary biology to poetry. The loss of control that accompanies such variables can be truly terrifying. But there is another law of creaturely existence to bear in mind: without the unforeseen variable, genuine change cannot emerge. Without the couplet at the end of the sonnet that unlocks the poem’s meaning, the reader will remain unmoved by the galloping rhyme and meter that brought her there. For us, the Holy Spirit is this change agent. The Holy Spirit is made known within us as what theologian Karl Rahner called “an interior pressure by which we become more.” Such moments are usually the cumulative effect in our praying consciousness of many seeds of grace planted and forgotten, tended in the nourishing darkness of God. Moments of becoming unfold in real time as the fruition of a pattern, but what they point to is something altogether unpredictable. We can witness them if we have eyes to see. They break upon our hearing if we are attentive to how we listen.
The authors of scripture were well-attuned to the basic momentum of the Holy Spirit, that “interior pressure to become more” pulsing within the collective life of Christ’s new Body. They interiorized and recorded the testimony of those who had witnessed, at firsthand, the great unforeseen variable of The Resurrection. The cross and empty tomb together represented the sudden reversal by which God’s wisdom and power shone forth in the least likely, promising, or predictable ways. I want to explore the ways our Epistle and our gospel text show us this relationship between the pattern and the unforeseen variable in the shape of Christian life.
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?