Today’s Kalendar commemorates Saints Peter and Paul together as apostles (ones who are sent). In the first generation of missionaries after the life of Jesus, Peter and Paul stood out as the most influential, inspiring and supporting converts from Palestine and beyond, ultimately traveling to martyrdom all the way to Rome.
They were by no means perfect. Peter at first bumbled as a disciple, misunderstanding Jesus and denying Him at the time of His arrest. Paul at first persecuted the earliest followers of Jesus and in later life most likely was not a winsome dinner companion. Yet in spite of their flaws God was able to use Peter and Paul in proclaiming God’s Good News to the whole world, as they knew it then. They were well aware of their limitations. As Paul said in writing to the newly established Church in Corinth (2 Cor. 4.7) “But we have this treasure in clay jars so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” A sense of unworthiness to be “sent” goes back in our Judeo-Christian heritage all the way to Moses, who said in response to God’s call to confront the ruler of Egypt: “Since I am unskilled in speech, why would Pharaoh listen to me?” (Ex. 6.30)
You and I are not perfect either. Yet God calls us today to join our forebears in apostolic witness. Why would anyone listen to us? What could we say, or do? Our tradition very consistently shows God as a great risk-taker, entrusting to fallible humans the office of proclaiming God’s Good News by word and deed in each successive generation of new witnesses. It doesn’t matter that we are the most ordinary of recruits for mission. Even clay jars can bear God’s treasure. In fact, that’s the point. Apostles are sent forth as clay jars so that it’s clear that the treasure they carry is God’s, not their own.
God Gives Freely
This past Wednesday, June 24, was the feast of the “Nativity of Saint John the Baptist”. That we celebrate his birth may seem surprising or obscure or irrelevant. Upon closure pondering, however, we realize that we witness the gratuitous loving action of God. John was called—completely unaware, of course!—and filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb. Wait a minute: Jesus had not yet come, and does not Jesus, along with the Father, give the Holy Spirit?!? Well, God gives freely and unconditionally and with generosity beyond measure.
I share with you with a meditation full of awe for this feast day from the early Church, by Saint Maximus of Turin († 5th century), the first Bishop of Turin, Italy, and an outstanding biblical scholar and preacher.
The Wonders of Saint John the Baptist
In praise of the holy and most blessed John the Baptist, whose birthday we celebrate today, I do not know what is the most important thing that we should preach—that he was wonderfully born or more wonderfully slain. For he was born as a prophecy and murdered for truth; by his birth he announced the coming of the Savior and by his death he condemned the incest of Herod. For this holy and righteous man, who was born in an uncommon way as the result of a promise, merited from God that he should depart this world by an uncommon death, that he should lay aside his body, which he had received as a gift from the Lord, by confessing the Lord. Therefore John did everything by the will of God, since he was born and died for the sake of God’s work….
This too seems unworthy to pass over in silence in praise of John—that, not yet born, already he prophesies and, while still in the enclosure of his mother’s womb, confesses the coming of Christ with movements of joy since he could not do so with his voice. For Elizabeth says to holy Mary: As soon as you greeted me, the child in my womb exulted for joy. John exults, then, before he is born, and before his eyes can see what the world looks like he can recognize the Lord of the world with his spirit. In this regard I think that the prophetic phrase is apropos which says: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you came forth from the womb I sanctified you. Thus we ought not to marvel that, after he was put in prison by Herod, from his confinement he continued to announce Christ to his disciples, when even confined in the womb he preached the same Lord by his movements.
Did Paul fail?
St. Paul, author of the letter to Romans in this Sunday’s liturgy, may have felt that he was a failure. Once a Pharisee, a group charged with repression of Jewish Christians, who threatened certain legal traditions of Judaism, Paul was a “zealous” persecutor of Jewish Christians – until his conversion. Then, his journey began.
He traveled many, many miles (as mentioned in last Thursday’s Reflection) to preach the Gospel. At that time, there were about 74 sects of Judaism and countless cults and pagan gods. Scripture tells us that Paul was chased from Ephesus by silversmiths who made their living by selling silver statues of the pagan god Diana.
Paul believed in parousia – that Christ Jesus would return in his lifetime. (Some scholars believe that the Gospels were written to preserve the teachings of Jesus as those who knew him personally began to die out.) Hopes of parousia faded away. After fourteen years of traveling and preaching, he was finally imprisoned in Rome, where he wrote his last two letters, to the Philippians and to Philemon. Paul died in Rome.
Paul may have felt that his life’s work was in vain.
Yet, centuries later, Paul was hailed. John Donne, English poet, scholar, soldier and priest, called him “thunder.” Martin Luther wrote that he had “betrothed himself to Galatians; it is my wife.” Sigmund Freud, a noted atheist, said that “Paul stands alone in history.”
Persistence. Faith. Love of Christ Jesus. Paul’s love of Jesus Christ survived and eventually thrived. Thanks be to God.
A bold and wild witness
Today’s collect for the Nativity of St. John the Baptist mentions his wondrous birth as recounted in Luke’s Gospel. It then summons us to follow his teaching and example. The Church thinks very highly of John the Baptist. Jesus does also. He says of his cousin that nobody is naturally greater than him.
But Jesus goes on to say that John’s greatness is exceeded by the least in the kingdom of heaven. What can we make of this?
In Richard Rohr’s phrase, John was a first half of life person. He condemned social evils at great cost to himself. He was harsh and accurate in doing so. Part of John’s greatness was that he pointed beyond himself. He was a bold and wild
witness to the light.
Jesus takes us further. God’s kingdom is not a matter of getting everything right. It is the realm where forgiveness and mercy prevail, where sinners do not get what they deserve, but experience a transformation they cannot deserve.
John paves the highway; Jesus is the destination.
We honor John best when we allow him to point us to Jesus.
The Kalendar for today commemorates the first of the English saints, named Alban. He was a Roman Briton who was martyred there sometime in the third or very early fourth century. Alban, although not a Christian, concealed in his home a Christian priest who was being sought by the authorities. Alban was so impressed by the piety of his guest that he became a convert to Christianity. When Roman soldiers came to his home to arrest the priest, Alban wrapped himself in the man’s cloak and told the soldiers that he was one they sought. Alban’s arrest and trial allowed the priest to escape.
There are not many other details in Alban’s story, and various accounts of his life differ. We know that his courage and self-giving love were widely admired soon after his death. Many churches were named for him, not only in England but on the Continent. What we can say today is that in our present times of danger and fear Alban’s example stands for us as a model of love that risks everything for the well being of others—God’s self-giving love shared with others through the faith and commitment of a convert.
Blessed Alban, pray with us and for us as we confront fear and danger in and around us today. Lend us your courage to make right choices now, choosing on behalf of others, as you did so long ago.
No Time to Waste
The Psalmist cries out:
O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!
Some of you have heard me share (more than once!) what was so imprinted on me in seminary: “Haste characterizes love”. In other words, when you know that your end is to love, there is no time to waste. Lovers do not dilly-dally. They are about the urgent business of loving.
The Swiss philosopher and poet, Henri Frédéric Amiel (+1881), says this beautifully:
Life is short and we do not have much time
to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us.
O, be swift to love! Make haste to be kind.
Indeed, “Christ’s love compels us...” (2 Corinthians 5:14)
Our Gospel for this Sunday is from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, a book we’ll be reading a lot during this Ordinary Time.
Who was Paul? He was certainly a traveler. In his 14 years or so of ministry, he probably traveled about 10,000 miles. That’s like you and I walking or boating from here to Los Angeles (and a little beyond) three times.
During his travels, he wrote letters to churches of exiles he visited in major urban areas: Corinth, Ephesus, Thessalonica. Many answered questions the congregations had asked. We have Paul’s letters (and others probably written by his disciples). But we don’t have the congregations’ letters. Imagine what questions those congregations were asking! What could have caused him to reply, “You foolish, foolish Galatians”? (Galatians 3: 1)
Paul was probably short, bow-legged and bald. He had a disability. (II Corinthians 12:7). Modern scholars think the disability was probably diabetes or epilepsy.
And he was a convert. He started life as Saul, child of well-to-do Roman parents, educated by the rabbi Gamaliel. And he was a prosecutor – or a persecutor – of those in the early church. (Acts 8:1).
Then came the road to Damascus, about AD36. The story of his conversion is powerful – and echoed in our time by Mother Teresa’s story of her conversion.
That completely changed his life. Traveling and writing before the Gospels were created, he was educated enough and fearless enough to keep the troubled exile congregations in line.
Paul may have been, as retired theology professor Wayne Meeks has written, the first urban Christian. And he may well have kept Christianity alive, by expanding it beyond the border of Judea. Thanks be to God.
Father’s Day is almost here, a time when we consider our relationship with our father or avoid doing so. Our father may be known to us or unknown, living or dead, emotionally distant or readily accessible. We must take stock, perhaps for his sake, certainly for our own.
Here are questions worth our attention.
Did I experience support from my father? What form did it take? What healthy memories do I have? (If your father is still alive, ask these questions also in the present tense.)
You may recall your father’s flaws. You may be need to forgive him. Or that may not be possible yet.
Some additional questions.
If the relationship was troubled, how can I address the wound that is left? How can doing so make me better able to relate to my own children or anyone that I mentor?
Because no human father is perfect, many of us feel a deep father hunger. You are far from alone in this regard.
Father’s Day is a time to celebrate the imperfect goodness of countless fathers and also recognize that God is the one father who never disappoints us.
The Gift of Hope
We all have the gift of hope, of divine hope, sometimes called the theological virtue of hope.
This gift comes with grace. It is to be distinguished from optimism. Hope is divine. Optimism is human, psychological. “The proper and principal object of hope is eternal happiness”
Until we fully enter eternal happiness, however, we journey the complex, sometimes dark, roads of this world and life. As we journey, hope enables us to lean on God Who is light (and Who wants nothing more than to share His happiness). Hope, therefore, is “being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness”
Quote attributed to Desmond Tutu, retired Archbishop of Cape Town
The Feast of Corpus Christi
Today is the Feast of Corpus Christi. The legend is that it grew out of a devout nun’s dream. Juliana of Liege, who revered Christ and the Eucharist for forty years, dreamed a vision of the moon with one dark spot. To her, that represented the lack of a feast in the church calendar honoring the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. She petitioned her Bishop, who granted her request in 1246.
Our friend Thomas Acquinas introduced it as a Feast in the West, in 1264. His beautiful Pange Lingua was composed specifically for services of the Feast. (The hymn’s last two verses are the familiar Tantum Ergo.) Though it was abolished in the English Reformation, it was later re-introduced, and is celebrated in many Anglo-Catholic parishes today. It’s always on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday.
Corpus Christi is also the name for a series of “mystery” plays common in medieval England. These plays were Christian education, portraying Bible scenes to populations that were largely illiterate. Some are still performed to this day, notably in York, England.
As the name implies, it is a celebration of the Body and Blood of Christ. Its liturgy is solely focused on “The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.” Maundy Thursday also celebrates the Eucharist, but is better known and appreciated for the washing of feet on that day.
As with so many church observances these days, we can’t be together for liturgy, music and processing the monstrance. But, as with Spiritual Communion, we can worship in our hearts, “the bread that comes down from heaven.” (John 6: 58) Readings for Corpus Christi are Deuteronomy 8:2-3, Revelation 19:1-2a, 4-9 and John 6: 47-58.
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is a retired priest of the Diocese of Washington