St. George the Martyr
Preaching on the saints can be, at times, a real challenge. This is especially true with some of the early saints, including some of the apostles, about whom we know very little, and what we do know, is largely legend. Does the preacher simply stick to the texts, or do they focus on the legend? The problem with dismissing the legend out of hand is that many of the legends have within them shards of historical truth, and if they don’t, the legends are so archetypal, they still contain truth, and those archetypal legends have the power to shape and influence lives.
This is especially true of St. George, whom we remember today. What can be said about him, or at least about his feast historically, is that his feast was being kept as early as the mid fifth century. The legend of George and the dragon can’t be traced back earlier than the twelfth century. It is thought he died a martyr in the early years of the fourth century, during the persecution of Diocletian. He may have been a soldier, which gave rise to him being recognized as the patron saint of soldiers in twelfth century. As patron saint of soldiers, the Crusades were fought under his banner, which is how, ultimately, devotion to George was carried back to England, where in 1347 he was declared the patron saint.
After Jesus’ crucifixion, his followers shared their memories of him, trying to make sense of what he had predicted. That is often the case as we look back on life, the “ah-hah” experience that comes when we remember and understand someone or something from a new perspective: “Oh, I get it. That’s what he meant when he said such-and-such.” “Oh, that’s what was going on then. I can see it now.”
- Jesus had earlier predicted that when he arrived in Jerusalem he would be killed, not crowned. Most of his followers had not understood him at the time.
- That after his crucifixion he would regain life, be resurrected. When they first heard it, most of his followers had missed what he was saying.
- That he would then return to his “father” – he would leave them, but not leave them without comfort or power. God’s Spirit would come to be with them. When they first heard it, most of his followers could not make sense of that.
- That his followers would take up their own cross and suffer. They had not missed that, because of what had been happening for decades. The Roman Empire had found Jesus’ followers seditious and treasonous; they were like sheep to be slaughtered.[i]
Our first lesson, from Saint Peter’s second letter to the church, was written around year 65, more than a generation after Jesus had finally left them, had ascended. One last promise that Jesus had spoken, his followers clung to: that he would return to earth, that he would come again in their lifetime, so they understood.[ii] They had lived with that hope. But Jesus’ return had not happened, and there was every imaginable explanation why. Peter is writing here about the meantime, in a very mean time, how then shall we live in the absence of Jesus’ return? “What sort of persons ought we to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness?” He answers his own question. Peter’s words still pertain.
- Peter writes that we are waiting on the Lord, but it’s actually the Lord waiting on them.” Why? For our repentance: to realign ourselves to life on Jesus’ terms and to change our ways: to repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.
- And then Peter calls his readers to “lead lives of holiness and godliness, at peace,” he says, “without spot or blemish… and not carried away, such we they lose their own stability.”
Lent is upon us tomorrow. The forty days of Lent remind us of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. For Jesus, those forty days were not a time when he would confront the misaligned political and economic powers that surrounded him, about which he was well apprised. Rather, those forty days were a time to re-align himself to why God had given him life: to claim the right purpose, the right power, the right voice God had given him. There he was in the desert to be purged of anything in the world that tempted him to stray from his reason for being.
And for us, Lent will give us forty days for the purgation of our own souls, where we may have colluded with the very powers we condemn. The focus of Lent can create space anew for the light, and life, and love to Jesus to teem in us and through us to our desperately broken world. Lent is to help us.
[i] Romans 8:36.
[ii] See Matthew 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32. See also Acts 1:11.
Feast of the Holy Innocents
King Herod was scared of a baby. King Herod was so scared of a baby, that he ordered the massacre of every child under the age of two in Bethlehem just to try to kill that one baby. Thanks be to God, baby Jesus escaped the wrath of Herod. Today, the feast of the Holy Innocents, we remember all those babies who did not escape the wrath of Herod. All those babies who were killed due to one man’s fear.
The slaughter of babies is not a pleasant subject, especially during the Twelve Days of Christmas. The Christian church has been observing the feast of the Holy Innocents for over fifteen hundred years. That’s a long time. Clearly something important is going on here. Some lesson that needs to be relearned yearly, again and again over the course of centuries.
Consider what parts of the story are timeless. What is just as true now as it was then? Certainly the evil ordered by Herod to slaughter babies is timeless. It is just as evil to us now as it was then. It was an evil fueled by fear, anger, and power. Three poisons with timeless potency.
Dear Brothers, as this season in the world continues to unfold, I think there is no hyperbole in saying we live during an apocalyptic moment. No, not the end of the world (though, surely the end of a world), but an apocalypse in the purest sense: an unveiling or uncovering. Apo, to take away; kalypto, veil; apokalyptein, to remove the veil. Innumerable dimensions of a great global illusion now appear uncovered, revealing arrangements born of what proves to be an unsustainable way of life. For some, this period of epidemic is seen as a mere annoyance, an interruption; the sooner we return to the way things were, the sooner we can get on with our own projects, plans, and dreams of infinite growth and material security. For others, however, the apocalypsis of this season reveals the inevitable result of a way of life inherently at odds with the limits of nature and the poverty of our humanity. Now, with the kalypto plainly removed, we find ourselves confronted with urgent realities, larger than coronavirus, larger than individual or national dreams; realities as sharp as life and death. Realities that ask us to change our minds—that is, repent.
Today we remember St Mark the Evangelist, whom tradition remembers as John Mark, a disciple of St Peter. Mark, whoever he was, writes to a community in the very midst of apocalypse. His is the first gospel we have in any written form, and we find it permeated with the literary cues of apocalyptic language. The narrative is urgent and fast-paced as Mark seeks to uncover something for his hearers. Indeed, one of the most frequent words in this gospel is immediately. It not only moves quickly, but also seems mysteriously to imitate the confusing velocity with which the reign of God began its invasion of the world through that most unique and mysterious uncovering: Christ crucified.
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.”
Rachel refused. She refused to be consoled. Wailing and weeping bitterly, she refused to be consoled.
And, yet, the very next line in Jeremiah has the Lord saying “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;” “there is hope in your future.” Don’t cry, God says, don’t be sad, it’s OK. My immediate reaction on reading that was, “Are you kidding me?”
I’ve imagined Rachel’s response, and let’s just say I’ll refrain from sharing it in polite company. What I can say, is that a perfectly natural reaction would be for her sadness to blossom into anger, even a righteous rage. How dare God offer any kind of consolation in the depth of her anguish. How dare God say anything at all. Where was God when children were being mercilessly slaughtered? How could God allow that to happen?
I was listening to public radio yesterday and learned of a new book written primarily for women – but with application for us all, I would imagine. It’s called Overwhelmed. The title struck me as particularly appropriate for the times in which we are living. Many of us find ourselves overwhelmed by the pace of life, by the expectations placed on us by our families or our work places, by the culture in which we live or by the demands of technology. We feel overwhelmed at times by the political tensions that are so evident right now in our country, or by the threats of enemies abroad. We worry about gun violence, climate change, and economic stability. Life can sometimes feel overwhelming and the temptation to desperation or despair very real. Perhaps you are even now in such a place, uncertain about your future or our future as a nation and a world.
Where do people of faith find hope in times of trouble? Where do they turn in times of duress, when their world has been turned upside-down, when their expectations have been shattered, when even their beliefs and assumptions have been called into question? A look at today’s gospel lesson may help.
Feast of Sts. Simon and Jude, Apostles
Today the church remembers that, in the words of W. H. Auden,
Without arms or charm of culture,
Persons of no importance
From an unimportant Province,
They did as the Spirit bid,
Went forth into a joyless world
Of swords and rhetoric
To bring it joy.
Today the church remembers the apostles Simon and Jude. Scripture tells us little about these two figures, but the church has maintained a handful of robust traditions about them. From Scripture we know of Simon only that he was one of the disciples, called “the Zealot.” Whether this means he was a member of one of the various first century sectarian movements who bore the title “zealots,” or simply a person of great zeal for the gospel, we cannot be sure (though, I suspect the latter is more likely).
John tells us of Jude’s presence at the Last Supper. The Epistle of Jude, according to one school, may be the work of the disciple Jude, the brother of James the Greater. He is often attributed the surname Thaddeus to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot.
So what do you make of the story we’ve just read from the Gospel of Luke? Do you believe in ‘demons’ or ‘unclean spirits’ that ‘possess’ people and cause physical and mental illness? Do you believe that these ‘demons’ can be ‘cast out’ and that Jesus had power over them, as this story testifies? Or do you suspect that this story so heavily reflects first-century beliefs about human behavior and illness that it has little relevance to us who live in the modern era? Is it difficult for you to make sense of “Jesus, the exorcist”?
Our ability to hear, to comprehend and to profit from accounts like this one from Luke’s gospel is certainly shaped by our modern context. On the one hand, we are enlightened people, with access to vast amounts of information about human psychology, human behavior, and human illnesses that simply did not exist in Jesus’ day. So we might naturally be skeptical about first-century assumptions about demons and demon-possession. It’s likely that we could come up with a number of other plausible explanations for what might have happened that day in the synagogue at Capernaum that would make more sense to our modern minds.
This is one horrific story – so senseless, so tragic. It recounts the death of a devoted servant of God who played a vital role in salvation history. His death is no martyrdom. This is not Stephen, who after testifying to God’s faithfulness lifts his eyes to the heavens and beholds Jesus, as the stones batter his body and end his life. No, this death is brought about by a drunken, lustful ruler who allows himself to be seduced by the sensuous dancing of his teenage daughter and tricked by his cunning wife into making a foolish promise that he must then carry out just to save face in the company of his equally-besotted guests. This is a silent beheading, without witnesses or testimony, of a man of God who had been imprisoned for his bold witness to the truth.
The “king” was Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who had married a Nabataean princess but then discarded her in order to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias. The dishonored princess fled in humiliation back to her father, which led to a military conflict in which Herod was roundly defeated and embarrassed by the Nabataean king and his forces. Nevertheless, Herod married Herodias, and no one except John the Baptist had the courage and moral fortitude to point out how wrong it was. No one except John made any attempt to hold this king accountable for his lies and deceptions, and for his evil actions. No one else had the courage to speak the truth to him. They were all afraid.
In our worship, we speak of the glorious company of apostles, the noble fellowship of prophets, and the white-robed army of martyrs.1We speak of the angelic hosts.2 We might use language such as, “the Church militant,” or, “the Church triumphant.” Our founder, Fr. Benson, once had a conversation with a stranger while out in the city. When he described his life as a member of a religious community, she exclaimed, “Oh, you must have found so much peace!” Fr. Benson replied, “No, madam, I’ve found a war.”
This language resonates with me, because it gives expression to a truth of my own life with God. I experience God as peace, as rest, as calm, as love. But this is not passivity, and my own proclivity to sin, the corruption of my own human nature, fights viciously to dethrone God from my heart. In my life, and especially my prayer, I often must fight back, asking God not only for the gifts of calm, rest, and silence, but also for the gifts of strength, vigor, and power, to aid me in the war over my spirit.