Like a Fine Wine

Today the church honors a Saint whose work was like a fine wine taking time to develop: St. Ansgar, Bishop of Hamburg and Apostle of the North.

9th Century St. Ansgar was, on the face of his work, not very accomplished. In all of his missionary zeal he was only able to establish two churches on the border of Denmark and appoint one priest in Sweden.

But the small seeds that St. Ansgar scattered across the frozen north eventually took root, settling and snuggling in with the Viking and Celtic practices found there.

At the beginning of the 9th Century the church was seeing Scandinavia as the next frontier for the faith. A few prominent nobles had embraced Christianity, including King Harald (cool spelling of that name, no?) of Denmark who sought to regain his throne from a pagan usurper. In response to some of these hospitable events, the church began sending missionaries to the Viking lands. The seafaring people they met there were hearty and quite sophisticated in their own way, and though they tolerated (sometimes) these missionaries, they mostly saw them as useful for creating trading markets.

Still, the message these missionaries carried did take hold, especially amongst the slaves that had been brought north who were eager to hear the stories of their childhood faith offering hope in a weary land.

In 829 AD a group of these merchants asked Emperor Louis the Pious (who’d want to be remembered like that?) to send a Christian mission to Sweden to help establish a regular trading route, and Ansgar was chosen.

Ansgar and his small party set out and were attacked by Vikings who took all of their possessions and money. Arriving at their destination penniless, King Bjorn (the local prelate) gave them food, shelter, and allowed them to preach their Gospel. Though they had few converts, King Bjorn’s bailiff took the faith to heart and, with his own capital, erected the first church in Sweden.

In 831 St. Ansgar was appointed Archbishop of Hamburg, seeing that as a good place from which to continue sending missions to the north. St. Ansgar was blessed with an organizational mind (probably an Enneagram One) and was able to create community systems to preach and gather small pockets of apocalyptic people together to practice the faith.

In 845 Vikings saw Hamburg as a growing site of wealth and organization and decided they wanted in on the action, so they pillaged it and burned it to the ground. Undeterred, St. Ansgar continued to rebuild after the destruction of the city, patiently working and restoring those missional pathways throughout Denmark and Sweden. He worked at this until his death in 865 AD.

St. Ansgar is now roundly regarded as a Patron Saint of Scandinavia having tilled the soil and planted seeds that, true to the agrarian reality of the frigid north, took a while to take root. He is usually depicted in a fur collar and holding a mini-church, a nod to his life’s work.

St. Ansgar is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes you don’t see the fruits of your labor, but you stick at it, by God.

-historical bits gleaned from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

The Light Daily Grows

Today the church honors The Presentation of Jesus, a minor feast day that mentions two major saints of the faith: St. Simeon and St. Anna, Elders and Prophets.

Yes, we don’t know much about these saints (noted at the end of Luke 2) except to say that their patience and wisdom is instructive for a humanity that too easily leans toward immediacy and easy answers.

They hold up the Christ child in all his potential, declaring Jesus a special one. Imagine what could happen if we lifted up all children this way, not just those born in privilege.

It could change the world. It has before.

Christians bless candles today, making the metaphorical shift that the Christ is also the light of the world.

The Celts, more practical, would haul out new candles today because it is the midpoint between the solstice and the equinox, and the early winter candles are now spent as we are in the belly of the snow season.

But light daily grows, Beloved.

Anna and Simeon knew this.

St. Simeon and St. Anna are a reminder for me, and should be for all of the church, that all who are fortunate become old, but not all become elders.

Becoming an elder takes time, intention, patience, and a wisdom that comes from trusting promises in the face of scoffers and opposition.

Woman of Wisdom

Today the church remembers a Celtic Saint (which makes her close to my heart): Saint Brigid (commonly called St.Bride in Scotland), Abbess and Protector of Ireland.

Sometimes called “the Mary of the Gael,” not much historically verifiable is known about St. Brigid’s early life, though legend and lore abound. On the island of Ireland she is revered as much as St. Patrick in most places, and her story is a mix of Christian and pre-Christian wonder. The daughter of a druid who had a vision from the Divine that his offspring would protect and change Ireland, St. Brigid was said to have been born at sunrise while her mother was walking over a threshold (a point of significance for the ancient Celts, because it meant that she was neither “in nor out” when St. Brigid arrived).

St. Brigid would live into this “neither here nor there” nature throughout her life. She was a peace-loving monastic, but also a fierce warrior. She was both wise and approachable. She was both Christian and pagan in her outlook.

She was known as a strong, happy, and compassionate woman who started a community of women at Kildare in the late 5th-early 6th Century. St. Brigid was said to be wise, and was sought out in life by many for counsel, and admired in death by poets, story-tellers and song-writers who used her as inspiration, many quite fanciful.

Lore has it that it was St. Brigid who spread out her green mantle over all of Ireland to make shine like an emerald.

In Ireland today more than a few rivers bear her name.

In addition to being a wise spiritual leader and community builder. St. Brigid was said to have been the protector of the land, officially the guardian of the pagan king Torc Triath of what is now West Tipperary. In a time when Ireland was a destination for all seafaring people, the need for protection was great. St. Brigid was an accomplished warrior. In ancient Celtic culture women were seen not only as capable leaders, but in many areas superior.

St. Brigid died in the early 6th Century, and her following grew to the point that her relics were prized possessions that had to be continually moved and hidden from invading marauders who sought to steal them as a trophy.

The most remarkable thing about St. Brigid, though, is not her historical self, but the part she now plays in Celtic Christianity. St. Brigid’s day comes in the “dead months” (marbh mhios) of winter when humanity in the northern hemisphere finds itself “Imbolc” or “in the belly” of winter. Her feast day is a reminder for the Celtic Christians that winter doesn’t last forever, and though you now might see only shadows, the sun is growing stronger every day, by God.

This reminder of St. Brigid, woman of wisdom and strength, works for the winter of the seasons, and in all the metaphorical winters of your life, Beloved.

St. Brigid is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, at least three things:

First: live in such a way that people write wonderful stories about your wisdom and strength.

Secondly: the intermingling of Christian and non-Christian sensibilities has helped the faith to develop, and this can be seen in no better place than in Celtic Christianity.

Finally: though we must live with winter, it never lasts forever.

Let those with ears to hear, hear.

-historical bits gleaned from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals and Commemorations

-Celtic lore found from stories of my ancestors as well as Freeman’s Kindling the Celtic Spirit

-icon written by Larry at IconWriterArtist on Etsy

A Choice

Today the church remembers a saint who, though she could have easily lived in luxury, chose a different way: Marcella of Rome, Widow and Model of Generosity.

St. Marcella grew up with everything someone in the 5th Century might want. Her family was powerful and prominent. She married young, and married wealthy. She lacked nothing.

But shortly after her marriage her husband unexpectedly died. Quickly on the heels of his death, another suitor, Cerealis, cousin of Caesar himself, proposed to her.

She said, “Bye, boy,” and rebuffed his advances.

Seeing this as an opportunity for a different kind of life, she converted her mansion into a communal house for other women interested in living a charitable life. In this converted home/convent, she and other noblewomen used their wealth to help the poor and destitute. It was from this home, too, that she taught other young women in the ways of intentional poverty (chosen, not forced), most notably her favorite pupil Principia.

St. Marcella was known to have said, “I prefer to store my money in the stomachs of the needy than hide it in a purse.”

We know about her and her life through the letters of the prolific St. Jerome, who wrote to Principia. St. Jerome even notes that he learned much about God and the scriptures directly from St. Marcella, making her an early (though under-the-radar) teacher of the church.

In 410 Rome was invaded by the Goths. They stormed St. Marcella’s mansion and, when they had ransacked the place and found she had (as she had told them) given all her wealth away, they tortured and beat her.

Not long after this abuse, St. Marcella died, purportedly in the arms of her dear Principia.

St. Marcella is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that there is, indeed, a choice to make when it comes to how we live in this world.

-historical bits from Clairborne and Wilson-Hartgrove’s, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals

-icon hangs at Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Brookline, MA.

More Christian than Most Cross-Wearers…

Today the church remembers a martyr who called God by a different name: Gandhi, Peace Activist and Spiritual Leader.

Though one could certainly write a tome on Gandhi’s life (and many have been written!), I do not have enough knowledge of his background to do it justice. What I do know is he threw off the shackles of privilege and, though not a perfect person by any means (he fell into the trappings of the systems around him at times), he adopted a way of life that advocated for the liberation of his people from colonial rule.

He became a political leader. He became a spiritual leader. And he became a world teacher, showing us all how peaceful, nonviolent resistance can move mountains.

On this day in 1948 he was assassinated on his way to prayer (as most religious revolutionaries are…it’s usually on their way to prayer). Though the assassin took the actor, the production continues even today, and many in the quest for justice name Gandhi as an inspiration in nonviolent civil disobedience.

Gandhi is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that nonviolent disobedience, though costly, can change the world. And, don’t we regularly hear something about losing one’s life to gain it?

Gandhi knew something about that. Perhaps he was more Christian than many who wear crosses in that regard…

-icon written by Br. Lentz (purchase at trinitystores.com)

The Flower

Today the church begins to set its collective eyes toward Candlemas (February 2nd), which comes on the heels of St. Brigid’s Day (February 1st).

On the wheel of the Celtic year, spring begins in February. They call it “Imbolc” which means “in the belly,” a sign that we’re in the belly of the cold time and emerging into warmer climes. It’s not over, but it’s beginning to change.

To mark this change they looked toward nature and the animals, seeing if they’d emerge from their dens or remain dormant. In America we call this “Groundhog’s Day,” but it all began with the Celts.

It was also the season where they’d haul out their new candles, as the old ones were spent, and would bless them for new service. These new candles would last longer, possibly the rest of the year. The church coopted this practice and Christianized it into Candlemas.

But we’re not there yet.

So, to prepare for St. Brigid’s Day/Candlemas, the ancient church honored St. Brigid’s cook at Kildare: St. Blath, Patron Saint of Cooks, Cafeteria Workers, and Volunteer Food Servers.

St. Blath, also known as St. Flora (because “Blath” in Gaelic means “Flower”) was St. Brigid’s convent cook. While we don’t know much about her, she was rumored to be a tireless worker, faithful in good times and in bad times, knowing that full bellies helped bolster spirits.

Which, I think we can agree, is a universal truth with all animals, especially humans.

St. Blath’s work takes on new and urgent meaning when we imagine that those early 6th Century sisters at Kildare, having taken a vow of poverty, would regularly give away their food to the poor. St. Blath was constantly prepping and serving, then, not only the sisters, but also those to whom they offered their meals.

It was said of St. Blath that her bread and bacon were the best in the land, a high honor if you know anything about Celtic culture.

Saint Blath died in the year 523AD, but her legacy of service lives on.

St. Blath is a reminder to me, and should be for the whole church, that it does no good to have faithful people if their other needs, especially their stomachs, aren’t attended.

Let those with ears to hear, hear.

-historical bits from Illes Daily Magic.

-icon written by Katherine Sanders

The Dumb Ox

“The pursuit of wisdom is more perfect than all human pursuits, more noble, more useful, more full of joy.”

Today the church remembers a seminal intellectual in the Christian movement: Saint Thomas Aquinas, Teacher and Bane of all Theo 101 Students.

St. Thomas Aquinas was a firm believer that a Christian must first and foremost be a student of knowledge. We have, unfortunately, forgotten this tenet in these later years of Christianity, often replacing literalisim with learning, but there is yet hope for us still, right?

As a young13th Century scholar, Saint Thomas lived in a world where Aristotle was gaining ground in the schola, and the big tug of war between Aristotle and Plato once again surfaced in the world. The reaction was polarizing: some thought Aristotelian philosophy trumped Christian teaching, while others shunned Aristotle as a heretic, digging more firmly into an anti-intellectual existence.

St. Thomas thought this was a false dichotomy. The academy and the steeple could not only co-exist, but could meaningfully mingle (and marry!) with intention.

St. Thomas was a Dominican, the “Order of Preachers.” Words were his medium, and he used them well (at least in writing). His family was not keen on him going into this itinerant, poor, preaching order, and they forced him to come back and live with them in Italy…which backfired.

Thomas eventually sloughed off the shackles of his family, and went to Cologne, where he studied under Albert the Great. He was shy by nature (he even got the name “Dumb Ox,” a play on his reluctance for public speaking, as he was far from intellectually impaired!), and though the politics of his day plagued both his order and their societal acceptance, he was eventually embraced in both the academy and by the jealous bishops, both who were envious of his intellect.

He initially taught theology in Paris and became close friends with St. Louis IX and St. Bonaventure, a triumvirate of the faith. Eventually, after Bonaventure’s death, St. Thomas returned to Italy and began writing in earnest. Hymns, theological treatises, and his wonderful tome took shape though, it is worth noting, every historian believes his handwriting to be severely lacking.

When Thomas returned to Paris in 1269 the ugly old head of controversy once again emerged, this time between Augustinian theology and Aristotelian philosophy. The church dug in its heels, which gave St. Thomas quite a headache. He decided to leave the turmoil of Paris and go to Naples, where he taught the remainder of his life.

After the St. Nicholas Day Mass in 1273, St. Thomas Aquinas never picked up his quill again. For some unknown reason, he believed that he would be unable to move the needle on such entrenched, polarized viewpoints, and he fell into ill health. He died in 1274.

In life he was known as “The Dumb Ox,” but in death we remember him as “The Angelic Doctor.”

St. Thomas sought to integrate lived existence with theological teaching, marrying experience with the life of the mind. He sought to embrace knowledge while retaining the mystery of existence, and is a reminder to me, and should be for the whole church, that knowledge is not evil, but willful ignorance is.

Let those with ears to hear, hear.

-massive historical props to Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations as well as to my Theology and Philosophy professors at Valparaiso University

-icon written by Gabian Spirit

The Lifeblood

Today the church remembers the valiant and instrumental work of three early-church saints, a yin to the yang of yesterday’s offering: St. Lydia, St. Dorcas, and St. Phoebe, Deacons and Entrepreneurs.

St. Lydia was a European industrialist, a maker of purple-dyed goods which, in the ancient world, required quite a bit of capital. After her baptism she invited Paul and his fellow travelers to stay in her house, which was an instrumental blessing for them, as they didn’t have to earn their support while in her care. St. Paul was known to have a special affection for the church at Philippi, the community founded around Lydia’s hospitality.

St. Dorcas or Tabitha (her name means “gazelle” which is a far cry from the English use of that name, right?) was from Joppa who worked hard for the poor. Her devotion for helping the poor was known and respected by all, and when Peter brought her back to life it was at the urging of those who knew her good work. Dorcas has the distinction of having the feminine form of “disciple” applied solely to her in Acts of Apostles.

St. Phoebe (whose name means “radiance”) was a Deaconess at the church in Cenchreae near Corinth. She was Paul’s patron in many ways, and her example led to the regular order of Deaconesses founded in the 3rd and 4th Centuries. Paul commends her to the church in Rome, suggesting that she was an integral aid who went to assist and advise struggling communities.

St. Lydia, St. Dorcas, and St. Phoebe are the folks who make up the offering difference at the end of the fiscal year by virtue of their generosity and ability. They are the visitation ministers who assist the dying over Jordan, the carpenter who creates an art installation in the Narthex, and the folks who organize the food drive that feeds thousands. They are the ministers who, in their unassumingly powerful ways, make ministry happen day in, and day out in a parish.

They are a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that women have been integral, foundational to the movement, and are the pumping lifeblood of the church today despite the reluctance of many to fully accept that fact.

-historical pieces gleaned from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

Behind the Scenes

Today is the feast day of my name sake, St. Timothy, who shares it with his companions St. Titus and St. Silas, Compatriots of Paul and Behind the Scenes Apostles.

These three Saints are remembered the day after the Conversion of Paul is honored as a reminder for the church that community counts, not just one lone-wolf Rockstar. In a world of celebrity, Timothy, Titus, and Silas are less entourage and more worker bees of the church in its infancy. St. Paul notes he could not have done his work without them, and they, for their part, are kind of like the dedication page of his ministry.

What do we know about these saints? Very little. Timothy accompanied Paul on his second missionary journey (recounted in the letters to the church at Thessaloniki), and was apparently one of Paul’s first converts on his visit to Lystra. Timothy, by virtue of his name, was born to a Greek father, but his mother Eunice and grandmother Lois are remembered as early Christians and get a worthy shoutout by St. Paul in 2 Timothy.

Timothy had the distinction of being acceptable to both Jewish and Greek Christians, something that Paul used for missional advantage. These apostles were kind of like preludes for church visits: they prepared the church for Paul to arrive.

St. Timothy delivered the letter of 1 Corinthians to the church at Corinth.

St. Titus delivered Paul’s second letter to that church (though, honestly, the ordering is messed up in the scriptures, and there appears to have been another letter somewhere in there that is lost to history). Titus, too, was born to Gentile parents, perhaps in Antioch, and was apparently eventually charged with starting a church on Crete. Tradition says he went on to become the first Bishop there, of Gortyna, and died at the age of 93.

St. Silas (or Silvanus) was a leader of the church in Jerusalem. He replaces John Mark on Paul’s second missionary journey when John Mark and Barnabas set out on their own. Silas was one of the first Christian missionaries to venture into Europe. Some contend that Silas was the one who delivered the letter of 1 Peter, and maybe was even the actual author of that letter (or at least a redactor of it). Legend has it that he became the Bishop of Corinth and died in Macedonia.

These three saints are like the crew that sets up the Fellowship Hall. They are the kitchen team, prepping and serving the meal. They are the tech team, splicing the video and overlaying the audio. They are the ones who hear the small confessions of the faithful as they labor together mowing the church lawn or planting the church flowers.

They are a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that the community may be brought together by some Rockstar, but they are built and kept together by the prelude saints who make it all happen, weekly.

-historical bits gleaned from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

-icons by various writers in the Orthodox tradition

Keep Working for the Poor

Today the church honors not a saint, but rather an event: The Conversion of Saint Paul.

This conversion story is thrice told (I just wanted to use the word “thrice”) in the Scriptures, and Paul also references it three times in his letters. This repetition actually makes it one of the most oft-repeated events in the stories of the early church.

Paul, a zealous persecutor of Christians in ancient Palestine, is struck by a blinding vision and, reportedly, the voice of God, which leads him to become a follower of Christ.

This event may be the most influential event for the early church because Paul’s active conversion work (and theology) spread like wildfire throughout the ancient world, especially amongst Gentile communities.

It’s worth noting that this Feast Day also marks the end of the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.” It is not an accident that the “Week of Prayer” starts with the Confession of St. Peter and ends with the Conversion of St. Paul, as the two of them did not get along at all. They had different ideas of what the faith should be and do, who should be included in the circle of believers, and yes, it appears they even had different working theologies (of which, I would argue, St. Paul’s ideas won out, for better or for worse).

The one thing they did agree on? To continue working on behalf of the poor.

The church longed for these two pillars of the faith to be reconciled so much that they put them on the same feast day, believing that if they couldn’t be friends in life, they would be companions in death.

The conversion of St. Paul is honestly a feast day I struggle with, mostly due to a long history of colonialism and forced conversions winding through the church’s past. Yet, there is something honest about the fact that Paul, on his own, had an experience with the Divine that made a shift in him, and that can be a force for good, by God.

Christian unity feels a bit like a dream most days. This feast day isn’t even celebrated in the Eastern Church. But, perhaps if we all had a conversion we all might just agree to do that one thing that Paul and Peter agreed on: work on behalf of the poor.

For that to be the case, a lot of the church will have to be converted in the process…

-historical pieces from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

-icon written by He Qi