Today is another sacred day: The Visitation, where Mary, “great with child” visited her elderly relative, Elizabeth, also miraculously pregnant.
Together they noted their hope and expectation that their children would change the world.
This hope and expectation is felt by every parent, I think.
But on this convergence of holy days and extraordinary days, where a beautiful visitation is met with the reality that many parents fear for their babies when they go off to school, we must call to mind this hope and expectation again.
I hope that my boys will know and fight for the truth that Black Lives Matter. I hope that they will never fall victim to unmitigated gun culture, and will never get used to the sight of hand guns and machine guns carried in public and will stay away when they see them.
I hope that my children, and the children of those I love, will honor the lives of those who have died because of our addiction to violence.
I hope that my children, and indeed my own self, who give our lives to public service will never abuse that service.
And I hope that we will one day mourn our dead the way some mourn the loss of our supposed “rights” and economic structures.
That has yet to happen. That has yet to happen.
Beloved: we are all just visiting this life. Let us do all the good we can, while we can.
Today the church remembers a young teen with a calling: Saint Joan of Arc, Fierce Warrior and Visionary.
Saint Joan was born in Northern France to a peasant family in 1412, when Britain controlled most of France.
In 1428 Saint Joan traveled to Vaucouleurs to see would-be King Charles. She was rejected twice from his audience, but the third time is the charm. She revealed that she had received a vision from Saint Michael and Saint Margaret to fight for France’s independence.
At 17 years of age she entered the war to great prestige, and upon her arrival at the battle of Orleans, the city’s siege ended within days. She went on to fight valiantly and bravely in a series of other campaigns and in 1453 The Hundred Years War was ended in a French victory, (though some cities remained under British control) with French morale bolstered by stories of the young warrior.
King Charles was coronated with Saint Joan by his side.
Joan continued her campaign for a unified France, she joined an assault on occupied Paris. The attempt failed and Joan was wounded.
In 1430 Joan assembled an army of volunteers to continue fighting for France, and she was captured by Burgundians. In captivity a pro-English bishop put her on heresy trials and, once convicted, she was burned at the stake on this day in 1431 at the age of 19.
About a decade after her death her trial was overturned by Pope Callixtus III, and she is now considered a national symbol for the French people. And though she was only officially canonized in 1920, she has long been venerated by the faithful seeking an inspiring story of a young person’s ability to influence global events.
Saint Joan of Arc is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that the young are powerful and should be given the opportunity to act on it.
Today the church honors 17th Century hymn writer and “Luther of the Slavs” Juraj Tranovsky.
Tranovsky is heralded as the creator of Slovak hymnody. He studied at Wittenburg in 1607, and became a wandering educator, taking posts throughout Bohemia and Moravia.
Tranovsky was ordained in 1616, but soon toleration for Lutheranism in Bohemia came to an end, and he was imprisoned in 1624. The next year a plague came upon the world, and the following famine killed three of his children and caused the scattering of half of his congregation.
He was eventually called to a church in Liptov, Slovakia, and served there until his death in 1636 after a long illness. He was 46 years old.
He was a lover of poetry and a composer of many hymns, composing them in both Czech and Latin. His hymnal, the Cithara Sanctorum (Lyre of the Saints) appeared in 1636, and is the basis of Slovak Lutheran Hymnody to this day.
It is often forgotten that the Slovak tradition within Lutheranism continues even today, and has offered a great wealth of hymns, doctrinal distillations, and translations of important documents to the Lutheran movement throughout the ages.
We still sing, in the ELCA, one of his hymns to this day, ELW 602, “Your Heart, O God, is Grieved.”
In the midst of this pandemic, and in the shadow of the killing of Uvalde and Buffalo, the words of the first stanza speak something to me today.
“O God, Father in heaven, have mercy upon us. Your heart, O God, is grieved, we know, by every evil, every woe; upon your cross your forsaken Son our death is laid, and peace is won.”
-historical notes from Pfatteicher’s “New Book of Festivals & Commemorations”
Today the church remembers a theologian who was probably a little too smart for his own (and our) good: Saint John Calvin, Renewer and Reformer.
Calvin was a serious child, and would grow up to be a very serious adult. He had a logical mind, and was not prone to swings of emotion (like Luther), but rather relied on formulas to make sense of the world, for better or for worse. He was well read, and devoured Augustine and books on grammar and rhetoric. At the age of 19 he had already earned a masters degree.
Calvin studied law at first, like many who would go on to serve the church (looking at you Luther), and as his father had recently been excommunicated over some legal issues, Calvin’s love of theology stayed strong but his relationship with the church was frayed.
After his father died, Calvin officially broke with the Roman church and joined the Reformation movement in 1533. He left France, settled in Basel, and began publishing theological works in earnest. Institutes of Christian Religion was put in print in March of 1536, and he eventually found himself in Geneva, organizing the Reformation movement there. He developed a theocratic organizational schematic for the church there, but was eventually invited to leave Geneva when his formulaic approach came into conflict with the popular Zwinglian practices adopted by many of the patrons of the city.
Calvin found himself under the care of another famous player in the Reformation, Martin Bucer, and stayed in Strasbourg for a time. There he married Idelette de Bure and had a son, adding to her two children from a previous marriage. Idelette died 1549, and Calvin cared for his new, young family as a widower.
Geneva came calling again when a pro-Calvin faction of Protestantism took political power. Calvin once again returned to that city, and under the new constitution developed the four-fold ministries of the Calvinist church: pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons.
Calvin continued on in Geneva, often taking in religious dissidents from other places in Europe, and died on this day in 1542. He was a powerful preacher and prolific writer, and his strict and unbending theological ideas remain in place today (though some of the bend a bit these days).
St. Calvin is a mixed bag for me. Though he certainly pushed theological thought and hastened the needed reformation of the church, his ideas could be extreme and simplistic in their rigidity, especially around election and atonement. He didn’t leave much space for beauty and mystery, and uber-Calvinist strains of Christianity often lead the way in bulldozing other ideas that fall outside of familiar doctrinal formulas.
That all being said, he is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that while we do need some formulas for understanding metaphysics, art and beauty can’t be trampled in the process or else we lose our ability to stand in awe at the ineffable.
-historical bits gleaned from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations
-icon written by dinosareforever and can be purchased at redbubble(dot)com.
Today the church remembers a goofball saint whose brilliance was often wrapped in a joke: St. Philip Neri, Jokester, Vegetarian, and Confessor of the Church.
St. Philip Neri was born in a post-Renaissance world ripe with schism. The Reformation began while he was an infant, and the church landscape was changing rapidly in his formative years.
As he entered his late teens he abandoned dreams of going into business, and instead moved to Rome to study Theology and Philosophy, diving deeply into the spiritual life. The waters he found there, though, were not to his liking, and though he enjoyed his studies he decided not to become ordained at that time.
Instead, St. Philip became what most of the church is: an invested layperson with a keen spiritual life.
St. Philip’s problem, though, was that everyone liked him, and his popularity was making it harder and harder for him to turn down ordination. This was especially true as the Council of Trent in the mid-1500’s was starting to re-imagine what the Roman church would look like (and people wanted St. Philip Neri to be a part of that shaping).
St. Philip was eventually ordained and became what too few pastors were (and, maybe, are?): an outstanding preacher and confessor. He used image and metaphor and allusion to tie together disparate parts of the faith into lovely and meaningful sermons.
And, he was funny!
His two favorite books were the New Testament and a joke book. Seriously.
He founded The Oratory, a group of priests living together, that included amongst their rituals of Mass, prayer, and fasting, times to “just chat” and compose hymns and speeches together. While this looked suspicious to many in the church, it was eventually accepted as a movement that embodied the ideals of the faith.
St. Philip Neri was also known as a lover of animals, and is often depicted in icon form holding his pet dog, a Maltese. He was an advocate for vegetarianism, and would often free captured birds he found in the market or on the street…and then the birds tended to follow him around. He went so far in his defense of all living things, that he wouldn’t even swat away flies, but constantly left the windows open so that they could escape.
St. Philip Neri died on this day in 1595 while he was hearing Confessions. He was quickly beatified, and is still held in high regard across the church catholic for his keen intellect and his gaiety.
As an example of his fun nature, he one time told a woman with a propensity for gossip that, as penance, she had to throw a bag of feathers in the air and pick up every one. She protested, saying it would be impossible. “Ah,” St. Philip said, “you see, that’s exactly what it’s like with gossip. Once you let those words out, you cannot gather them back in!”
St. Philip Neri is a reminder to me, and should be for the whole church, that we don’t have to take ourselves too seriously. After all, it’s just life, folks…
-historical bits gleaned from Knoenig-Bricker’s 365 Saints
-icon written by Br Robert Lentz and can be purchased at Trinitystores.com
Today the church celebrates one of our calendar-contingent feast days: The Feast of the Ascension.
Or, in German, Himmelfahrt (which is much more fun to say).
In Norwegian it’s Himmelfartsdag (even more fun to say).
But, I digress…
The Feast of the Ascension follows the Biblical pattern of 40, and finds itself a square 40 days after Easter. That Biblical pattern of 40 is meant to be a touchstone for those who pay attention.
40 days and 40 nights of the floating ark. 40 years of wandering for Israel. 40 days of temptation in the desert for Jesus.
This is not coincidence, Beloved, but rather a repeating tracer by Biblical writers to say, in a concise way, that 40 is “when you’re at your wit’s end” and you can’t take anymore.
When it comes to the Ascension, though, it’s flipped. The Biblical account notes that Jesus appeared to the disciples, and a few random folx, for 40 days and then exited stage left. It’s kind of like the Divine has “had enough.”
Because if Jesus had stuck around, the disciples never would have. We love to get attached to things and then depend on them for the hard lifting, right?
If Jesus had stuck around, the church would never learn to lean on one another (I mean…they’re still struggling to do that 2000 years later, right?).
Just like birds are kicking the chicks out of the nest in these May days, saying, “You’re made for this!” the Ascension is a way to explain that Jesus isn’t showing up in the same way anymore.
So you, Beloved, have to.
In fact: you’re made for this.
-art by Bagong Kussudiardja (Indonesian, 1928–2004), Ascension, 1983
Today the Church remembers an 8th Century Saint who lived an uneventful life (which is what makes him interesting): St. Bede the Venerable, Monk, Priest, and Scholar.
St. Bede, known as “the father of English history,” was born in the late 7th Century near Durham, England. At the age of seven his parents dropped him off at the new monastery in Wearmouth to be educated, and he quickly grew in both learning and stature as being intellectual and wise (a combo that don’t always run in tandem).
He was ordained a Deacon at the age of nineteen, and became a priest at the age of thirty.
St. Bede devoted his life to scholarly pursuits, and could often be found in the monastic library. It is thought that he was the most learned person in Western Europe, and dabbled in history, grammar, metrics, understanding time (still an abstract topic!), and, predictably, the Scriptures.
He wrote An Ecclesiastical History of the English People (in Latin) which remains a primary text for understanding the 6th, 7th, and 8th Centuries of Anglo-Saxon culture and the ascendency of Christianity on the island.
St. Bede received the title of “Venerable” in accordance with the practice of the time as awarding that title to anyone who proved themselves as knowledgeable and holy. For him the title seemed to stick more than others in history.
St. Bede the Venerable died on Ascension Day in the year 735 A.D. while he was in the middle of dictating an English translation of John’s Gospel.
St. Bede is a reminder for me, and should be for everyone, that your life doesn’t need to be remarkable to be remembered.
-historical bits from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations
-icon written by Mull Monastery Icons (in it you can see St. Bede leaning close to the scriptures to listen for God’s voice)
Today the church remembers a Deacon of the faithful, Alcuin, Abbot of Tours.
Alcuin was a companion of Charlemagne, and founded organized learning in France. He was known as a monk, teacher, author, but primarily as one who practiced Word and Service in the world.
After being called as a deacon he became the head of the York school. In that service, he visited Rome and the Frankish court, and was convinced by Charlemagne to stay in the court and help to revive education in the Frankish territories.
He eventually left the court and became the Abbot of St. Martin’s at Tours, and is buried there still today.
In a day where the church was expanding, he was instrumental in incorporating Gelasian and Roman sacramentary practices together, allowing the church budding in Gaul to see parts of themselves in the practices of the church.
The Alcuin Club, a group dedicated to the study of Christian liturgy, continues his work.
He is a reminder that education has always been a focus of the faith, and that anti-intellectualism is incompatible with those who seek after the Truth that we claim God is.
Honoring, training, and listening to teachers is a part of our call, especially in times of crisis.
He is also a reminder for the faithful that some are called to practice the faith in ways other than just sacramental ministry. Although Alcuin never consecrated an element, he certainly influenced sacramental practice and the liturgy. The voices of pastors and priests are not the only voices to be heard.
Today the church honors an oft-forgotten saint, but one with a funny story: 10th Century Saint Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Saint Dunstan is largely regarded as the person behind introducing the Benedictine Rule to Britain. After the Viking raids had largely decimated the churches and demoralized the clergy to the point of disrepair, he brought back the Rule of St. Benedict to the Island (as he had previously been exiled to Belgium for criticizing King Edward’s conduct) at the invitation of King Edgar in 957, and slowly but surely began the rebuilding process.
He retrained the clergy, re-established the liturgy, and with the protection of King Edgar, began movements among the people to free them from indentured servitude, the landlord system of organization, and provide for better education for lay people and clergy alike.
But that’s not the funny story.
Dunstan was said to have been a keen metal worker, and was rumored to have cast bells and built organs in his time as a priest. One day while working in his foundry, the devil apparently showed up in the form of a townsperson. Dunstan saw through the ruse, though, and as he was attending to his work, he turned around, clasped the nose of the devil with the metal tongs he was working with, and tweaked it until the demon ran off.
This is why, in iconography, Dunstan is often depicted holding tongs.
He is a welcome reminder for the church, and all of us, that initial defeats will not, in the end, define our lives. After all, how many people have been fired from their job, forced out of work, been the victim of office politics, or spoken up and paid the consequences for right action, and yet remain resiliant and continue to make a difference? Dunstan’s exile to Belgium was political, but he stuck to his convictions, his Rule of St. Benedict, and eventually returned to change the lives, hearts, and situation of many.
He is also a reminder that, if you get the chance to tweak evil’s nose, don’t hesitate.
Today the church remembers the 12th Century Saint: Erik IX Jedvardsson, King and Martyr.
St. Erik (you may call him King) ruled over a great bit of what is now Sweden, and is remembered as an advocate for the faith throughout Scandinavia. He became the subject of quite a bit of legend and lore, outgrowing his brief moment in history to live on in perpetuity.
St. Erik had, in his royal and religious zeal, the idea that the Finns needed both a ruler and a new way of being in the world. He and St. Henry (Jan 19th) set out to do so, with St. Henry becoming the de facto founder of the Finnish church through that quest of 1155.
Though St. Erik was obviously ambitious, he was known more-so for being just and kind, especially to those who called him king. He instituted salutary laws and, in response to his faith, ordinances that meant to help the poor, the sick, and the infirm, creating an ancient version of the “social safety-net,” almost unheard of for the day.
The lore around St. Erik’s martyrdom is legion, most of them having him fall at the hands of a pagan Danish prince. A prominent story goes that, as St. Erik was celebrating the Feast of the Ascension, he got word that a Danish army was nearby intending to kill him. Not wanting to abandon the service mid-Mass, he is noted as saying, “We’ll finish the Eucharist and then keep the feast elsewhere.” The Danish army was not on the same timetable and, before Mass was over, rushed the church and beheaded the goodly king.
Or, so the story goes.
Though many saints compete for the hearts of the Swedes, St. Erik came to be chief amongst them. Along with St. Henry of Finland and St. Olaf of Norway, he stands as one of the iconic symbols of not just the faith of the land, but the people there.
St. Erik is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that ambition does not always mean abuse of power. He was ambitious, yes, but he used his power to watch over the last and the least.
Let those with ears to hear, hear.
-historical bits from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations