Hegesippus, a church historian from the second century, writes this about the early Church and about St James of Jerusalem, whom we remember today:
Control of the Church passed to the apostles, together with the Lord’s brother James, whom everyone from the Lord’s time till our own has called the Righteous, for there were many Jameses, but this one was holy from his birth: he drank no wine or intoxicating liquor and ate no animal food; no razor came near his head; he did not smear himself with oil, and took no baths. He alone was permitted to enter the Holy Place, for his garments were not of wool but of linen. He used to enter the Sanctuary alone, and was often found on his knees beseeching forgiveness for the people, so that his knees grew hard like a camel’s from his continually bending them in worship of God and beseeching forgiveness for the people.[i]
So this James, a brother of the Lord, was a holy man, an ascetic who was known for his deep life of prayer and for his continuous intercessions on behalf of God’s people. Oddly, the Gospels have nothing to say of him and he does not seem to have traveled with Jesus during his earthly ministry. The first thing we are told of him is that he was a witness to the Resurrection, one to whom Jesus appeared individually. And we know that he was a leader in the early Church, chosen to be the first Bishop of Jerusalem.
St. Peter & St. Paul, Apostles
St. Peter and St. Paul, whom we celebrate today, shared several things.
Both men had utterly life-changing experiences of the crucified-and-risen Jesus. This Jesus spoke to both men individually and personally. Each received a calling that only Peter and only Paul could fulfill.
Both men were tasked with stewarding the ancient traditions of their ancestors and faithfully making meaning of that stream of wisdom while at the same time living from the heart of a new awareness: that their Lord and Messiah had, in their experience, radically changed the course of that history. This new awareness was subject to misunderstanding and rejection; and so were they.
Both men were asked, repeatedly, to adapt to circumstances they could never have imagined; to adopt a new perception of how God communicated with God’s people; and to embody a new paradigm for gathering and nourishing the community of God. The limitless boundaries of this community – nothing less than the Body of Christ — took them on an odyssey far from home, spiritually and geographically.
Feast Day: Bernard Mizeki
We Brothers are familiar with the story of Bernard Mizeki, because in many ways, he’s one of our own. Unfortunately, the all too brief hagiography of him in Lesser Feasts and Fasts, doesn’t do him justice. Nor does it do justice to reason why his shrine in Zimbabwe continues to attract thousands of pilgrims each year on his feast day.
But today, I don’t want to focus on the story of his martyrdom. I want to remember a part of his story, which is less familiar: the story of his baptism.
Writing from Cape Town on 9 March 1886, Father Puller says this:
We had a very happy day on Sunday. As … the Bishop gave us leave to baptize our [African] catechumens before the … chapel was formally opened and licensed.
Accordingly, we got the building ready and held the service on Sunday Evening….
The altar with its dossal and canopy and other sanctuary hangings looked very dignified and beautiful….
Our baptismal tank holds about 400 gallons of water….
Father Shepherd has been training a choir, and we came into the chapel in procession singing “As pants the hart for cooling streams.” … The Chapel was very full of people, although we had not given public notice of the service. The choir took their places on one side of the baptismal tank, and the seven catechumens in dark blue garments reaching to their feet … on the other side. Fraulein von Blomberg, as godmother, had a place beside them. Everyone was, I think, impressed by the great seriousness and earnestness of the catechumens.
Martyrs of the 20th and 21st Centuries
1 Peter 4:12-19
As recently as 2015, the extremist group ISIS produced a video to terrify the world. Dressed and hooded in black, the militants marched a group of 21 Coptic Christians dressed in orange, prison-style jumpsuits along a beach in Libya. The horrifying scene concluded with the cruel beheading of all 21 Christians. It shocked and horrified the world to see such a brazen act of violence not only perpetrated but promulgated to a global audience. One of the men was from either Ghana or Chad, the other 20 who had been kidnapped were poor immigrants from rural Egypt who were willing to risk the instability of Libya to escape the poverty and religious persecution of their homeland.
Such are the martyrs we remember today. It was a gruesome event and without the anesthetizing gloss of centuries it stands out like a raw wound on the Body of Christ in our own time. We remember these martyrs and others of the recent century. 3 million Armenian Christians martyred in genocide during the first world war. A million Orthodox killed by the Soviet regime in the 1920’s and 30’s. Countless other hidden martyrs vanish in parts of the world to which the western media is indifferent or blocked. Among groups who track the numbers of Christian martyrs in the world there seems to be agreement that there have been more Christians killed for their faith in the second millennium of Christianity than the first. These horrors are not history, they are news.
Why remember such horrors? The memory is fresh, it almost seems unnecessary. Remembering in order to prevent horrors of martyrdom hardly seems to be working either. Remembering so as to seek out a violent death like theirs would be pathological.