Sometimes it Still Feels Like 1963

Today the church remembers with sadness and indignation a group of young saints martyred on the altar of racism and white supremacy: Saints Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair.

These young women, all under the age of fifteen, were killed when Robert Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Cash, and Thomas Blanton stuck dynamite under the steps of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on this day in 1963. As Sunday School was beginning, the bomb went off and they were martyred while walking to learn about the Prince of Peace, himself a man of color.

In that blast, twenty others were injured.

The courts found Chambliss, Cherry, Cash, and Blanton not guilty of murder, but fined them $100 and gave them six months in jail because they illegally possessed dynamite, making a laughing stock of not only the legal system, but of every Alabama courthouse emblazoned with “In God We Trust.”

Ten years later, in 1973, the case was retried for this bombing, and they did eventually receive a life sentence. Regardless, Saint Addie Mae, Saint Carole, Saint Cynthia, and Saint Denise would not get a second chance at life, no matter how many years pass.

The public funeral for these saints was attended by 8,000 mourners, but no public officials in Alabama thought fit to have their face seen there.

These young saints are a reminder for me, and should be for all humanity, that we are not so many years removed from this tragedy to take for granted that people are safe regardless of their race.

If you drive from Raleigh to Asheville you pass by two Confederate battle flags the size of Buicks on route 40. They are lit up at night as a reminder for every driver on that stretch of land that bombs are liable to be found under every staircase when in the hands of racist, hateful people.

Indeed, sometimes it still feels like 1963.

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

On Fanciful but True Stories

Today both the Eastern and Western Church gather together to honor one feast day known by many names but with one central focus: The Holy Cross of Christ, September 14th.

Sometimes called “The Exaltation of the Cross,” “The Triumph of the Cross,” or simply “Holy Cross Day,” this feast day honors a symbol not a saint…though, in fairness, all saints are symbols.

The particular perspective this feast day nods to is the one found most forcefully in the Gospel of John where the cross is seen both as human humiliation and the gate of Jesus’ glory. Early on the Church endeavored to reclaim the cross as a sign of God’s “alien work,” as our own Blessed Martin Luther called it, and today marks the reclamation on the calendar. Yet, as a symbol, the cross was rarely used in Christianity, as followers seemed to prefer the fish that you see on so many bumpers.

In the 4th Century, however, Constantine formalized the use of the cross as both a symbol of the faith and a symbol of victory…for better and for worse.

This feast day supposedly marks the day when emperor Constantine was building basilicas in Jerusalem, and upon excavating the site for one of them, “discovers” the cross of Christ. The cross was broken into pieces, and purported relics of it can be found from Iowa to Iona.

First celebrated in the 7th Century, this odd feast day continues to be popular, and even finds itself marking the names of several churches to this day. Just Google “Holy Cross” and you’ll find a slew of churches from across denominations, though Lutherans and Catholics seem particularly keen on the name, probably for very different reasons. Luther’s “theology of the cross” (which chaffs at much of what passes for Christian theology these days) remains central to the Lutheran lens on life, seeing the cross as both hinge and key to Divine work and salvation.

Many in the Protestant tradition prefer empty crosses as a sign of God’s victory over death. Many Orthodox and Roman adherents prefer a cross with a corpus, emphasizing the passion and sacrifice. Lutherans tend to split the difference, having images of either…we do love our “both/and,” don’t we?

Lore has it that Eve’s son Seth was barred entrance to the Garden of Eden, but that the angel guarding paradise gave Seth a seed from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Seth goes and plants this seed where he buries his father, Adam, and it just so happens to be at Golgotha. The tree that grows from this seed is then used to hew out the cross on which Jesus died.

Yes…it’s a fanciful story, known as the Legend of the Rood. But even in this story we see the earnest hope for the cross embedded in the Christian narrative: that all things can be redeemed in time and used for good, by God.

A symbol of both suffering and self-giving love, of victory and violence, of heartbreak and hope, the cross continues to be at the center of the faith for many. Yet, there’s no need to seek out a relic to find a piece of it.

Dig around your past. Dig inside your heart. Excavate your inner temple and find those broken things in you which, somehow, continue to have and give you life, by God.

Find those times where you were shown grace upon grace and an undeserved second (and third and fourth) chance.

Find those pieces of your soul that leap and resonate with the idea that everything, every thing, is in the redemption process somehow.

Do that searching, and I bet you’ll find a piece of that cross buried in there…

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

-icon written by the good folx at Monastery Icons

Nobody’s Business but the Turks…

In the second half of the 4th Century the world was blessed with a preacher still unsurpassed in eloquence, and today is his feast day: St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople.

St. Chrysostom (which literally means “golden-mouthed”) was born in Antioch and trained under the famous philosopher Libanius, who named him “brilliant,” and the biblical scholar Diodorus. Though Libanius wanted him to become a lawyer, John chose the more-secure-but-less-lucrative route of ministry, and was baptized at the Easter Vigil in ca 368 at the age of 18.

He lived as a hermit for a while, contemplating the life of a, well, contemplative, but was finally ordained into the priesthood and served the Bishop of Antioch, Flavian.

He became famous for his sermons as he preached with the “scriptures in one hand and the headlines in the other,” to borrow a popular phrase. His sermons were thematic and contemporary, addressing topics like social justice, the equality of women in society, his opposition to slavery, and emphasizing the role of laypeople in worship and the church.

He even did a whole series on “toppling statues” as the people of Antioch had rioted and destroyed some statues of the emperor. How’s that for timely?

In 398 St. Chrysostom was chosen (surprisingly) to become Bishop of Constantinople (or is it Istanbul?). This was an important and consequential post in the Church. He won people’s affections for his simplicity, honesty, clarity, and eloquent sermons. Unfortunately, these qualities also caused many people to despise him…if he were around today he’d have gotten many emails. He refused to play political games, and had no problem ousting clergy and Deacons for murder, adultery, and the like.

In 403 the empress and Theophilus of Alexandria conspired to take down this popular and principled prelate at a conference called the Synod of the Oak. There they condemned St. Chrysostom on false charges of heresy and he was officially banished from the city.

The people were outraged and riotous and, coincidentally, the empress herself had a personal tragedy. These events were taken by religious leaders as “signs from God” that they had made a mistake, and they brought St. Chrysostom out of exile. But, because he wouldn’t admit any wrongdoing, they prevented him from taking his seat in the cathedral. Still, John had enormous pull, and on the Easter Vigil, 3,000 converts came to the Baths of Constantine for baptism that year, which amounted to a riot itself. Soldiers broke up the service, and some were killed.

Unable to control the people with this golden-tongued popular prophet around, John was once again exiled, this time to Armenia. He continued to write, however, and was able to be enormously influential even in exile as he corresponded with friends back in Constantinople.

Pope Innocent I finally was prompted to get involved and, following the people’s lead, supported his Bishop. He condemned the Synod of the Oak as illegal, and when he sent papal envoys to Constantinople to investigate the ordeal, his envoy was treated poorly, some were even jailed, and sent back to Rome.

Now Pope Innocent was furious.

As retaliation for the Pope’s intrusion into his matters, the emperor had St. Chrysostom further exiled, and moved to an even more remote location. Having been given orders to vacate Armenia and move to isolated Pityus, John took up this cross on foot, bareheaded, and began the journey that would be his last.

He died at Comana in Pontus, never reaching Pityus. In his last breath he said, “Glory to God for all things.”

His grave is in the choir chapel at St. Peter’s Basilica. He is still remembered as the most eloquent preacher the church has ever produced, and his Christmas sermon is still preached by many faithful clergy every year.

St. Chrysostom is a reminder for me, and for the church, of a few things:

First, a sermon isn’t worth its salt if it doesn’t say something that connects God’s promises to the headlines of the day.

And, secondly, that every good pastor/prophet who does the above will have enemies. Sometimes, unfortunately, those enemies are close to home.

Indeed, it has always been so.

But the work continues, Beloved.

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

-They Might Be Giants references are yours truly’s

The First Identified Victim

As dusk descends on 9/11, a saint deserving to be held is brought to my mind: Saint Mychal Judge, Saint of 9/11 and Chaplain of Engine Co/1 and Ladder Co/24.

Saint Mychal was not the first victim of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, but he was the first identified victim: “Victim 0001.” He served as New York City Fire Department’s chaplain. A Franciscan friar and priest, Saint Mychal was known for going above and beyond for the women and men he cared for. He often made hospital visits. He was at most every funeral.

And he went to fires, keeping his radio nearby, which is how he heard about the World Trade Center attacks.

While others fled the scene, Saint Mychal rushed toward it in his priestly garb, following the steps of his fellow fire fighters. He immediately started administering last rites to those who were critically wounded, and when he saw his company rush into the North Tower he ran toward it, too, despite the evacuation order.

Outside that North Tower he helped people escape and, while standing there praying, was killed by flying debris as the South Tower fell.

Saint Mychal was more than just NYFD’s chaplain, though, he was also a gay priest (out to his friends) who openly counseled those suffering from AIDs in the 1980’s, performed funerals for AIDs victims when other shunned them, who admitted quite honestly his struggles with alcohol, and who showed up to New York City’s first gay-inclusive Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in his friar’s garb, taking interviews for the media despite the Archbishop’s warning against it.

Saint Mychal is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that the true work is to walk with the people, especially when their lives are on the line, even as the world falls down around them.

-historical bits taken from Illes’ Daily Magic

-icon written by Br. Robert Lentz and can be purchased at Trinityicons.com

The Saint of Slaves

Today the church honors a 17th Century pioneer in equality and human dignity, St. Peter Claver, Jesuit, Servant and Reformer.

St. Claver was born in Spain, became a Jesuit priest, and was sent to Columbia and the mission fields of the new world. There he came under the wing of Fr. Alonso de Sandoval, a fellow Jesuit who was dedicating his life to the well being of the slaves being brought in massive numbers to work the Colombian fields and mines.

St. Claver worked on behalf of the slaves from the minute they were forced from their boats in the inhumane slave trade. Their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being became his primary concern, and he felt he needed to live among them to serve them, taking a stand with them against the inhumane practices of the powerful.

He argued through the means available to him that slaves, once baptized, should be freed, an argument that seems nonsensical and colonialist to our ears, but which was probably his best means of persuasion at the time. Fellow Christians, he thought, deserved the rights all Christians deserve.

He was known for following up with slaves after their work days in the mines and fields, and faced great hatred and opposition from slave owners and the rich elite who knew his care threatened their control.

St. Claver also found himself in the jails and work camps, often coming alongside those being tortured during the Inquisition. Though Fr. Claver was sympathetic to the Inquisition’s goal, he felt that everyone left imprisoned and alone deserved a friend and advocate. In his work in the hospitals he was known for showing no racial partiality in his care for patients, which to us sounds like “not enough,” but in the 17th Century was “far too much” for the powerful padding their pockets on the backs of cheap human labor.

Often stubborn and difficult to work with, Fr. Claver had many admirers for his guts, but few friends. At the end of his life he became paralyzed and was left in a small room, neglected for four years until his death.

Ironically, in his time of need he was not offered the same care that he had offered others.

St. Claver is often called the “Saint of the Slaves,” not only because he cared so much for them, but also because he argued passionately for their legal rights.

Certainly we can say that he did not do enough. But contextually, he was a unique voice of opposition and action…a combination that was rare in the 17th Century.

He is a reminder to the church, and to me, that words without actions are just noise in a world drowning in a cacophony of noise.

Social media posts and generalized outrage are no strategy for world change, Beloved.

We must find ourselves living in and with our neighbor, advocating with them, not just for them. We must find ourselves utilizing our power to preach both to and against the powerful.

And we don’t do so as some sort of insurance policy, believing that someone will one day do the same for any of us…they may not.

We do so because it’s the right thing to do, by God.

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

On Remembering Birthdays

Just about a month after they honored her feast day, the church brings Mary back into focus, honoring her again today with The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The church only honors the birthdays of three people in the church calendar: Jesus, John the Baptizer, and Mary. And for each of these, the dates are chosen to reflect the seasonal calendar as a helpful tool in the rhythm of life.

Jesus’ birthday is put near the Winter Solstice, close to the pagan feast honoring “The Undying Sun,” when daylight was almost-but-never-fully gone. The people would use the sun, at a premium in those December days, as a reminder of the “resurrected son” of God who would never fail, despite all appearances.

John the Baptizer’s natal day was then placed six months out from that, coinciding not only with the story of the Visitation, but also with the Summer Solstice. That placement echoed John’s words “I must decrease so that he might increase.” From then on the sun begins to decrease until Christmas.

Mary’s natal day, September 8th, seems to be the odd duck in the lot, except for the fact that it falls in that “in-between” time of the year. September is a season that ushers in change, a bridge between the heat of summer and the breeze of Autumn. Perhaps that is one of the ways Mary is known best: as the change agent from what was to what will be.

It is also thought that September 8th was chosen because it was the day that St. Anne’s Church was completed in Jerusalem, sometime in the 5th Century. Lore has it that Mary’s mother was named Anne. The location of the church is supposedly the site where Mary was born. At the dedication of the construction it was said that angels could be heard singing to proclaim the day as her birth day. As early as the year 500, it appears from hymns and writings that the day was accepted as her natal day by the church in the East, and came to be accepted by the church in the West.

Despite the fact that there is a whole church erected on the supposed (though quite unfounded) site of her birth, and despite the fact that much lore has crept up around Mary, it’s worth recalling that she was, on the day of her birth, as much of an unknown as you or I, and in the eyes of the world was unremarkable.

Perhaps even a “nobody,” especially in the time and place of her birth.

Everyday similar “nobody’s” are born in this time and place, cast aside by public opinion, insurance corporations that don’t want to pay birthing fees, and social norms that judge not only how children are born, but when and to whom.

And yet she came to be the Theotokos. The “God-bearer.”

And I just have to wonder what the world would be like if we saw every child, every “nobody” in the eyes of the world, as a God-bearer. As a change-agent. As a conduit for the in-breaking of Divine action.

…bet we’d remember more birthdays.

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

-icon by artist Jenn Casselberry

Holiday/Holy Day

Today’s feast day is a great example of how cultures adapt ancient feasts and tweak them to make meaning.

Today the church remembers The Black Madonna of Regla, a feast honored in homes around the world, but which is especially important for our Cuban sisters and brothers (though similar feasts are held in Spain and the Philippines).

The Black Madonna of Regla is an extension of tomorrow’s feast day, the Nativity of Saint Mary, but honors a particular carving of the Madonna from North Africa out of dark wood. The carving was supposedly commissioned by Saint Augustine himself!

When Spain pillaged North Africa (modern day Algeria), they took the statue and placed it in Chipiona, Spain. When the Moors went on their own conquest in Spain, the statue was hidden in a well, and forgotten about for hundreds of years, only to reappear after a vision was given to the church describing its location.

When Spain came brandishing their swords to the Caribbean, they found an ancient feast at this time of year to the goddess of the sea and “mother to us all,” Yemaya. Venerated in Santeria, a blend of many ancient religions, Yemaya is the black goddess dressed in blue who birthed life through the sea, and thus birthed everything. This goddess draped in blue looked, to those Conquistadors, like the Virgin Mary depicted in this ancient African statue so popular in Spain. Thus the festival for Yemaya was adopted as the Feast of the Black Virgin of Regla, because the Christianized celebration was instituted in Regla, Havanna, Cuba.

As with most holidays/holy days coopted by the church, ancient practices of the old remain blended into the new. The Black Madonna, clad in blue with sequins (mirroring the sparkles of the sea) is paraded through the town. The people give thanks for this “Mother of All” and celebrate life. The water of the ocean, like amniotic fluid, is used to symbolize the divine birthing of all life.

For those of a more Christian bent, the Madonna is honored and the life celebrated on this day is the life made whole in the person of the Christ, “Firstborn of All Creation” (Colossians 1:15).

For those who follow Santeria and the more indigenous religions, the woman dressed in blue is Yemaya, who births all life (especially to those who live on an island).

For some, she is both…and that is perfectly fine by them. Clear-cut distinctions in these kinds of matters are important only to people with too much time on their hands and too much at stake with either claim.

By the way, if you think this is unusual, this coopting of feasts and festivals by the church to tweak a practice, know that most of the highest, holiest days of the church are examples of this very thing. Christmas is a cooption, hence why trees of more pagan practices appear in Christian sanctuaries. Candlemas, in February, is a cooption of the Celtic festival of Imbolc. Easter, even, is in some ways a cooption as the very name is derived from the pagan “Goddess of Spring,” Eostre. This is why bunnies sit alongside empty tombs.

This happens. No need to hide it.

The Black Madonna of Regla is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes the Divine is more prism than photograph, with many facets depending where you look…or whose eyes do the looking.

The Deep Truth of Fantasy

Today I would lobby hard that the church remember one of its premier contemporary storytellers: Madeleine L’Engle, Writer, Dreamer, and Master of Imagination.

Born in New York City in late 1918, Madeleine L’Engle Camp (she would eventually drop the Camp) was born to a pianist mother and a writer father, and took up her own writing discipline at the young age of eight. She was known as an awkward and shy child, and did poorly in school mostly due to her inability to assimilate. Because of her poor marks, her parents moved her around from school to school (and even physically moved, themselves) in an attempt to find the right fit for their family. Due to her social dis-ease, Madeleine found her home within the pages of the books that brought her comfort and friendship.

Madeleine graduated from Smith College and moved back to New York City to live as a writer and stage performer. She published her first two novels there, married actor Hugh Franklin, and birthed their first child, Josephine. Desiring a change of pace, the young family moved to Connecticut and became merchants of a small general store there as their family grew to add a son Bion and an adopted daughter, Maria.

It should be noted that even though she was writing this whole time, Madeleine had very little success getting her work published.

Because money was tight, the family moved back to New York City in 1959 so that Hugh could resume his acting career, and by 1960 L’Engle had finally finished what would become her seminal work: A Wrinkle in Time.

It was rejected by 30 publishers before finally being picked up.

I’ll say that again for those in the back who fear that their work is no good: A Wrinkle in Time was rejected 30 times before being published. It would go on to win the Newberry Medal for Junior Fiction in 1962.

Madeleine would continue to give herself away for those she loved even after having attained international literary success. She taught at a local school, volunteered at a local library, and was very active in her Episcopalian parish where she not only served with the community but also accepted a few writer-in-residence opportunities. All the while she continued to write for audiences young and old, both in fiction and memoir form, tantalizing the imagination of so many in this world.

L’Engle understood that fantasy is the language we use to tell truths that are just too hard or deep to understand through common symbolism. Fantasy is not an escape from , but an invitation deeply into, the heart of reality.

Children get this. Adults…not so much.

Madeleine was a convinced Christo-centric Universalist, claiming that no God could “punish people forever.” She said she could not do that as a parent, nor wish it upon her children, so how could a loving God do so with their own creation?

After a lifetime of writing, speaking, and creating for humanity, Madeleine L’Engle slowly slowed her pace and died on this day in 2007. She remains a beloved author by so many and an ever-present voice of challenge to humanity. In a world obsessed with “did it actually happen?” L’Engle reminds us that a much more important and interesting question is, “It doesn’t matter if it happened, does it happen?”

Madeleine L’Engle is a reminder for me, and should be for the church (and indeed the whole world), that fantasy tells deep truths, and perhaps religion would do well to not only acknowledge that fact, but lean into a bit.

Let those with ears to hear, hear.

-historical bits gleaned from public sources

-icon written by Jenny Kroik

Blessed Doubting Teresa

Today the church remembers a woman who had a small frame but was a giant in the life of so many around the world: Saint Mother Teresa, Servant, Renewer of Society, and Woman full of Existential Doubt.

Born Gonxha Agnes Bjoaxhiu in Skopje, Albania in the year 1910, this slight saint was raised in the faith by her mother, as her father died when she was just eight. In September of 1928 Gonxha left home intending to become a missionary and entered the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ireland. Being only eighteen at the time, she changed her name to Sister Mary Teresa after St. Therese of Lisieux, and prepared to head to India that December.

In January of 1929 Saint Teresa arrived in Calcutta and began her formal ministry with the people she would eventually identify with.  In 1937 she made her final vows and was given the title “Mother,” an homage to not only her status within the ecclesial body of the church, but also as a testament to her outlook: tender, heart-felt, and courageously fierce when it came to the care of her people.

It is no exaggeration to say that many of us were the children of Mother Teresa.

On September 10th (it’s really amazing how many of the events of her life happened in September until we realize that this month is really a month of transitions in all creation) in the year 1946 she received a nudge from the Holy Spirit that a religious community should be formed in Calcutta, dedicated to serving the lowest caste of the societal system there. 

In August of 1948 she officially received permission to found the Missionaries of Charity, with their white a blue bordered garb as a tell-tale sign of their work.

By 1950 her movement to serve the poorest of the poor in the world had spread from Calcutta to Venezuela, Rome, Tanzanie, and eventually to every continent throughout the known world. She truly inspired a movement that can be called world-changing.

In 1979 she was honored with the Nobel Prize for Peace and gained larger international fame.  What is less-known about Saint Teresa, our common Mother, is that she was plagued by doubt and existential questions.  Even as she gained fame as a woman of faith her private life was one of wrestling with the God she professed and the destitute poverty she witnessed.  Only after her death did we all realize the deep struggle she faced daily to profess a God of love when so many in the world went without.  

In this way, she truly is the Mother of so many of us.

In 1997, having served Calcutta for so many years, Mother Teresa died.  She was given a state funeral in India and buried in the motherhouse there at the Sisters of Charity.  She remains both an inspiration and an honest participant in both the service that Christ calls us to and the questions surrounding the idea of a benevolent God when there is so much hurt and pain and sorrow in the world.

Saint Mother Teresa is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that no amount of faith can shield us from the honest questions that come when we’re proximity of those who go without in this world.

Honestly, anyone without questions has not examined their faith…and this saint is a reminder of that.

Let those with ears to hear, hear.

-historical bits gleaned from Pfatteicher’s _New Book of Festivals & Commemorations_

Don’t Count Out the Underdog

Today I would lobby hard that we remember St. Freddie of the Mercury, Reformer and Musician.

Freddie (birth name Furrohk), was born in Zanzibar (modern day Tanzania) to Parsi-Indian parents. During the Zanzibar Revolution, Furrohk’s family fled and settled in Middlesex, England.

In 1970 he formed the rock band Queen and became the unlikeliest of frontmen. With an amazing four-octave range, which is almost unheard of, Freddie’s stage persona was as lively as his personal life, despite his intense shyness when not on stage. He interacted with his audience. He craved the spotlight while performing, but had few people he considered true friends. And despite having a serious overbite, never sought dental intervention for fear it would ruin his voice.

Mercury wrote 10 of Queen’s 17 greatest hits. His ambiguous and fluid sexuality caused many tabloids to stir with rumors. In a day when anything but heterosexuality was seen as deviant, he kept people guessing. He was diagnosed with AIDs in 1987, and confirmed he had the disease the day before his death in 1991. He was 45 years old. His birthday, September 5th, is still revered by rock enthusiasts and activists alike.

Mercury is a reminder to the world that the underdog in life should never be underestimated nor counted out. He challenged contemporary tropes relating to masculinity and what it means to be a rock star, and with a unique voice changed the way we think about both.

He was born to sing, and he did what he was born to do…may we all be so fortunate.