In 2009, the Episcopal Church established May 13 as the feast of Frances Perkins. She was the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet, and was arguably the most influential cabinet secretary ever. As Franklin Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary throughout his presidency (1932-45), she became the driving force behind many New Deal programs that remain the foundation of the American social safety net. A devout Anglo-Catholic, she spent a day every month in retreat at an Episcopal convent during her Washington years. While considering the offer to serve as Labor Secretary, Perkins consulted Bishop Charles Gilbert of the Diocese of New York. He wrote to her in part, “Men will think only of the great distinction that comes with the high office to which you go. They will be quite unmindful of the fact that there would be no distinction in that office did it not carry with it a crushing burden or responsibility. But, if it is a job to which God has assigned you, what man thinks is of no consequence.” Frances Perkins took up the cross offered to her and followed Jesus.
The whole season of Easter is a time for reflection on Baptism. In the ancient Church adult converts were baptized at the Easter Vigil and then given daily instruction by the local bishop during the following fifty days. Before Baptism the converts were taught salvation history from the Hebrew scriptures—only after Baptism were they taught from the New Testament. This underscored the importance of Baptism as entry into new life. In addition the converts’ memories of the Baptismal liturgy recalled vivid experience in a rite of passage. In darkness they had removed all their old clothes, been immersed in water, and raised up as the sun rose, to be dried off and dressed in new clothes—a white tunic we call an alb. After that they were anointed with oil and shared for the first time in the community’s thanksgiving meal. They not only received the bread and wine that we still share today. They were also given a drink from a cup of milk and honey, since through their Baptism and full participation in the Eucharist they had entered the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey.
Many of us, baptized as infants, do not have vivid sensory memories that we can revisit as we reflect on the significance of our own Baptism. But all of us can make direct contact with Baptism’s meanings by tasting milk and honey. Here’s a simple recipe: To one cup of milk add three tablespoons of honey and a pinch of salt. Mix thoroughly in a blender or food processor. Or mix by hand, in that case using milk at room temperature. Chill and serve—a quarter cup per person. (Extend the amounts as needed.) As you sip the milk and honey say a brief prayer of thanks for your Baptism.
Milk and honey is wonderfully sweet, and tasting it—as a form of gustatory prayer—is a vivid experience. It reminds us that in spite of all the troubles we face now we have indeed been delivered out of slavery to sin and death and from wanderings in the wilderness. In Baptism and Eucharist, freed from Egypt as members of the New Israel, we have entered the Promised Land.
Milk and honey is wonderfully sweet. Try it. You’ll like it.
Jonathan Sacks tells this story about Itzhak Perlman.
Born in 1945, Perlman contracted polio when he was four years old. Since then, he has had to wear metal braces on his legs. He walks with crutches. Over the years, Perlman became one of the most celebrated violinists of our time. He has performed all over the world.
At one concert, Itzhak Perlman came out on stage to play a violin concerto. He lay down his crutches, placed the violin under his chin, and began to tune the instrument. A crack sounded forth, audible to many in the audience. One of the strings had snapped. Rather than sending for a new string, Perlman signaled for the orchestra conductor to begin and then went on to play the concerto using the three remaining strings on his violin. Once the concerto was over, the audience rose up in applause and called on Perlman to speak. What he said was this: “Our task is to make music with what remains.”
Our Church Kalendar today commemorates Monica, the 4th century woman from what is now Algeria, who was the mother of St. Augustine. She was a Christian, but her husband and mother-in-law were pagans and her son Augustine had become a Manichean—a new religion competing with Christianity. Monica prayed for their conversions, providing for them a personal example of faithful devotion to God and care for the poor. Eventually their conversions happened but not overnight—in Augustine’s case he was not baptized until age 31. Her husband and mother-in-law had been baptized sooner.
Given what we know about our own family relationships we can infer that Monica’s longing for the conversion of her husband, mother-in-law, and son and her endurance in persuasion was not a matter of complaining, nagging, and whining. She must have been patient, although not passively so, much less passively aggressive (“Never mind, I’ll just sit in the dark.”). It would have been a kindly patience, infused with hope. St Paul says in his letter to the Romans (5:4) “suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope.” As the years went by Monica never gave up hope. She was sustained and transformed by its continuing. In time even her mother-in-law became a Christian—and we can call that a miracle!
As we live now in times of suffering, with no quick resolution in sight, Monica’s example of perseverance in hope speaks directly to us and our situation. “Blessed Monica, pray with us and for us now, that we may join you in active and resilient patience—in hope that never gives up.”
Even her mother-in-law? . . . wow.
Freshman year of college, I had a very powerful conversion experience, a born-again experience. It changed my life—forever. Jesus, in his great mercy, found me in my great moment of need.
One evening, I prayed an act of surrender, with faith the size of a mustard seed, and the next day I awoke filled with a mysterious peace and certainty that I was loved.
The fellow through whom this occurred, Dan, with whom I have lost touch, went on to become a pastor in the Christian Missionary & Alliance church, a denomination founded in 1887 by a Presbyterian minister, that today counts six million members worldwide.
Dan had me memorize a Bible verse that still sits prominently in my mind, a fitting verse for today:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
and He will make your paths straight.
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is a retired priest of the Diocese of Washington