Category: Feasts and Seasons

All Souls Day is celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church on the day after All Saints Day. Historically it has been viewed as remembering the faithful departed who yet have time to serve in Purgatory, and are on their way to future heavenly blessedness. Observance tends to focus on family members. In Anglican churches, it is an extension of All Saints Day, merely remembering the faithful departed.

Lord God,
you are the glory of believers
and the life of the just.
Your son redeemed us
by dying and rising to life again.
Since our departed brothers and sisters
believed in the mystery of our resurrection,
let them share the joys and blessings
of the life to come.

(You can find this prayer in the context of “The Office for the Dead” here).

About 100 years before Martin Luther, a Czech scholar was burned at the stake, by Church authorities who had initially promised him safe passage (they later reneged on this on the theory that it is okay to lie to heretics). The year was 1415, and the Council of Konstanz was in session, dealing with numerous grave issues that had arisen and were threatening to weaken the authority of the Church (including multiple popes–not just two, but three different claimants to the title and office of “Pope”). For more on this Council, see our prior article on Konstanz). During the Council at Konstanz, John Wycliffe was condemned posthumously for his teachings, and Hus was put on trial. His death galvanized a host of followers, particularly in Bohemia (modern day Czechoslovakia), who formed a movement that foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation.

Jan Hus was born in about 1369 in Husinec, Bohemia. It is said that he decided to become a priest in order to lift himself out of poverty. He went to the Imperial city of Prague for his studies, obtaining a Master of Arts degree in 1396. He was ordained a priest in 1400. He continued to teach at the arts faculty and was named dean of the arts faculty in 1401. In 1402 Hus was chosen by the Czech masters of Charles College to be preacher of Bethlehem Chapel, a large and popular church. This role included supervision of two residential student colleges in connection with the chapel, where he served for the next decade.

He became a critic of the corruptions of the clergy, and an enthusiastic supporter of the teachings of John Wycliffe, whose works he translated into the Czech language. In the following years he was thrust into the forefront of the reform movement in Prague, and was supported by King Wenceslaus (of the Christmas song fame), who was jockeying to become Holy Roman Emperor. In 1409, the king maneuvered to give the Czech faction the decisive power at the University of Prague. Consequently, the bulk of the German faculty left and Hus was put into the role of Rector of the University of Prague. (The departing scholars included the founders of the University of Leipzig, which opened its doors in 1409).

Not long afterward Hus’ archbishop excommunicated him, not so much for heresy but for disobedience, in essence for supporting a different papal claimant than did the archbishop. Hus remained popular in Prague, supported by King Wenceslaus, and was free to teach and preach as before. Eventually the archbishop was forced to flee Prague, dying en route to Hungary in 1411.

In a foreshadowing of Martin Luther’s conflict with Tetzel, Hus became incensed over the sale of indulgences–the offering for sale of the Church’s purported power to grant forgiveness and shorten the time one’s relatives spent in purgatory. When the antipope John XXIII began pushing indulgences in order to wage war against his rivals, Hus was furious:

The pope was acting in mere self-interest, and Huss could no longer justify the pope’s moral authority. He leaned even more heavily on the Bible, which he proclaimed the final authority for the church. Huss further argued that the Czech people were being exploited by the pope’s indulgences, which was a not-so-veiled attack on the Bohemian king, who earned a cut of the indulgence proceeds. With this he lost the support of his king. (from Christianity Today).

The conflict boiled on, and Hus was excommunicated by the Roman authorities for disobeying a summons to appear in Rome. This time, the excommunication was enforced, and the entire city of Prague came under an interdict so long as Hus was permitted to preach. In 1412, to spare the residents of Prague, he left the city, retiring to the countryside where he wrote a number of treatises.

In 1415 Hus went to Konstanz hoping for a hearing before the great Council. Instead he was arrested and put on trial, where he was asked merely to recant. He refused, saying, “I appeal to Jesus Christ, the only judge who is almighty and completely just. In his hands I plead my cause, not on the basis of false witnesses and erring councils, but on truth and justice.”

After his death, open rebellion broke out in Bohemia and Moravia, and for a time the “Hussites” dominated. Over the next 20 years a coalition of Hussites and others defeated three armies sent to reclaim the region in what is known as the “Hussite wars”.

The Hussites did not directly lead to the more successful Protestant Reformation, but can be seen as an important predecessor that had similar aims. As the Christianity Today article notes:
Huss would become a hero to Luther and many other Reformers, for Huss preached key Reformation themes (like hostility to indulgences) a century before Luther drew up his 95 Theses. But the Reformers also looked to Huss’s life, in particular, his steadfast commitment in the face of the church’s cunning brutality.

Luther remarked upon reviewing the writings of Hus: “I was overwhelmed with astonishment. I could not understand for what cause they had burnt so great a man, who explained the Scriptures with so much gravity and skill.”

Eventually the Bohemian Reformation was crushed in 1620, and every inhabitant forced to become Roman Catholic by the victorious King Ferdinand II. Remnants of the Hussites diffused into Lutheranism or exist today as a number of small denominations, including the Moravian Church. Although Czechoslovakia is now mostly a secular nation, Hus remains very popular there; He was voted the greatest hero of the Czech nation in a 2015 survey by Czech Radio. His stature has risen a bit even in the Roman Catholic Church, which issued a kind of apology through a speech by pope John Paul II in 1999.

For further reading:

A prayer attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, whose feast day is celebrated today:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen

Let’s turn our attention now from sinner to saint. On this day many churches observe the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, called in England “Michaelmas”. In Christian tradition Michael is the chief of the angels–spiritual beings who act as messengers and agents of God. Michael is especially associated with spiritual warfare and defense against the invisible forces of darkness.

Prayer (Anglican):
O EVERLASTING God, who hast ordained and constituted the services of Angels and men in a wonderful order: Mercifully grant that, as thy holy Angels alway do thee service in heaven, so by thy appointment they may succour and defend us on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Prayer (Roman Catholic, short version):
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle, be our protection against the malice and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls. Amen.

Further reading:
Historic UK
English Book of Common Prayer Online.
Tradition in Action (additional prayers from the Roman Catholic tradition).

September 14 marks an interesting and ancient feast in the Church, “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross” or “Holy Cross Day.” The day is observed in some fashion by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Lutherans. Red vestments are traditionally worn on Holy Cross Day.

The history behind this is fascinating, as it marks a time when Christianity was becoming ascendant within the Roman Empire. The story displays also something of the shift toward what we might identify as a medieval mindset within the faith. After all, this is a tale of magic, of a questing empress, and the veneration of relics that are thought to provide divine protection.

The empress in question is Helena (also known as Saint Helena in some circles), a woman of obscure birth who became the wife of Constantius, one of the co-emperors of the Roman Empire; Though he divorced her, their only son was Constantine I, destined to become the supreme ruler in the year 306. She never remarried, but remained close with her son. She was a devout Christian, and did much to promote Christianity within a Roman Empire that had previously tried to squash it.

The emperor Constantine appointed his mother Helena as “Augusta Imperatrix” and authorized her to go on a quest to the Holy Land to investigate Christian sites. She tore down pagan shrines which had been deliberately placed at Christian sites by an earlier emperor, and she began the building of magnificent churches at the sites of Jesus’ birth and at the Mount of Olives.

While in Jerusalem, she is said to have found the “true cross” upon which Jesus was executed. According to legend the cross of Jesus had been buried in a cistern, along with crosses of the other two prisoners executed with him. She supposedly also recovered the nails and a part of the sign that had hung above his head (a wooden plaque inscribed with Jesus Nazaranus Rex Iudaeorum). The “true Cross” was identified among the three based on observation of its healing powers.

The subsequent tale of the cross could fill a large book. Much of it was carried to Constantinople, and part of it went to Rome, where it is kept to this day at the Basilica Santa Croce. The portion left in Jerusalem was stolen in 614 by the Persian emperor Khosrau II, and returned after his defeat by Byzantine emperor Heraclitus. In the 12th century, when the Crusaders reconquered Jerusalem, it came into the possession of Arnulf Malecorne, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who carried it aloft during battles. It was later captured by Saladin and lost to history.

Tiny fragments of the “true cross” were prized among the faithful; they became popular as amulets for kings and nobles to wear as a sign of faith and for personal protection, and for churches to keep as relics. The proliferation of relics accelerated at sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1124. Bits of the “true cross” can be found across the globe, from Greece’s Mount Athos to Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, to Shaftesbury, England to Galveston, Texas. By the 16th century, Protestant reformer John Calvin remarked, “…if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it.”

Saint Ambrose, in his funeral oration for Theodosius, recounted the legend surrounding the discovery of the true cross, and said this of Helena: “she worshiped not the wood, but the King, him who hung upon the cross.”

May we do the same.

For more information:
As of the time of this writing, Wikipedia has a long and interesting article about the True Cross. More details about these stories are also available online at Catholic Education Resource Center, and at New Advent.

In consideration of Labor Day, I am reminded of the old hymn “Come Labor On” (Ora Labora). The hymn tune was composed by T. Tertius Noble (1867 – 1953). Below is a recording of the late Gerre Hancock (1934-2012) giving a farewell improvisation on this hymn in 2004, as he was retiring from his post as organist and choirmaster at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York City. The performance was recorded by Dr. Alan van Poznak, and posted to YouTube by a YouTube community member named “contratromba858”. The words to the hymn are below.

Come, labor on.
Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain,
while all around us waves the golden grain?
And to each servant does the Master say,
“Go work today.”

Come, labor on.
The enemy is watching night and day,
to sow the tares, to snatch the seed away;
while we in sleep our duty have forgot,
he slumbered not.

Come, labor on.
Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear!
No arm so weak but may do service here:
by feeblest agents may our God fulfill
his righteous will.

Come, labor on.
Claim the high calling angels cannot share–
to young and old the Gospel gladness bear;
redeem the time; its hours too swiftly fly.
The night draws nigh.

Come, labor on.
No time for rest, till glows the western sky,
till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,
and a glad sound comes with the setting sun.
“Servants, well done.”

In honor of the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin:

Saint Mary in stained glass, at St Mary’s Church, County Cork, Ireland; by A F Borcher, 2012; used in accordance with Creative Commons 3.0 license.

Summer is blazing away here, with temperatures rising perilously close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. On these kinds of days, a certain listlessness sets in. We have terms that reflect this, such as “summer doldrums”. “Doldrums” is borrowed directly from a nautical term describing a windless area in which sailing vessels flounder and languish.

In the stock market, trading volumes drop as investors heed the old adage “Sell in May and go away”. School is out, leaving just a skeleton crew of secretaries and teachers doing inventory; The vast empty parking lots are almost spooky reminders of the activities that will resume again in just a few weeks.

In many churches, a seasonal ebb is also noted. The pews are emptier. The choir is gone for the summer. The A-team of church leaders (the senior pastor / rector / bishop / head priest / etc) are often away on vacation, leaving church business and Sunday services in the hands of their assistants.

However, this is not the whole story. There is another way to view summer. Summer is also a time of refreshment. Beads of condensation slide delightfully down the smooth glassy curves of a piña colada, or of an icy lemonade. Pools and beaches are great places to cool off and splash around. Pigs grunt and artisans sell woven goods at summer fairs. Vacation trips allow us to travel the cities and markets of the world, or to marvel at the natural wonders of rivers, oceans, mountains and canyons.

There you have it: Two ways of looking at a season–one positive and one negative. This brings me to a point about the power of perception. I have in memory a title of a book I read in the 1990s. Unfortunately the title is about all I remember, because it was so awesome: The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, by Thomas Moore.

For all its otherworldliness and dedication to the things of God, Christianity is much about reenchanting this life with a new perspective.

Enjoy your summer. May it be for you a time of refreshment

Alfred Nobel was startled in 1888 to see his own obituary in the papers. His brother’s death had been mistakenly attributed to him. A French paper boldly proclaimed “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead”). It is thought that a sense of shame about his role in inventing dynamite led Nobel to establish the famous prizes that bear his name.

Originally called “Nobel’s Blasting Powder”, the inventor had reached back into the Greek language for a word that would forever after be associated with the immense power of his explosive: “δύναμις” or “dynamis”. It is the root behind the words “dynamo” and “dynamic”.

This same word is used in the Bible to describe the amazing power from on high that became available to the disciples of Jesus after his departure. Jesus had told them, “But you will receive power [dynamis] when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

About ten days later, the disciples were in an upper room in Jerusalem during the feast of Pentecost, when suddenly that dynamism exploded upon them. As described in Acts 2:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
(Acts 2:2-12).

From that moment in a Jerusalem street, two thousand years ago, the church was suddenly born in a cataclysm–an explosion–of spiritual power that has propelled the “Good News” of Jesus through space and time, right down to us. The temporal powers that had tried to crush Jesus just weeks before this moment, were unsuccessful in stopping the new movement. They were no match for the “dynamis” of the Holy Spirit.

(Photo credit: “Boom goes the dynamite” by Aaron Merrell, at FLICKR, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons 2.0).

(Quotations are from the Holy Bible, New International Version).

The Ascension of Jesus, celebrated today as a major feast day in many churches, remains a deep mystery that both amazes and confounds us to this day.

According to the last verses of book of Luke: And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.

I remember a movie portrayal of Jesus beaming down at his disciples as he rises into a clear blue sky. Though I otherwise liked the movie, I thought this bit of celluloid really looked kind of cheesy.

We are left to wonder, what really happened? Was this just a final flourish as Jesus left our plane of existence? Did Jesus really fly up like Superman? Did he perhaps disapparate in a puff of smoke like those “death eater” wizards in Harry Potter movies? Did he shimmer and fade out like a Star Trek character in a transporter beam? Did he go into orbit around earth and then zip on out into space?

The world’s first human in space, Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union, is reported to have announced in 1961 that when he went into space, he looked around, and didn’t see God up there. (More on this in a minute).

I happened to run across a blog post on Patheos, by Butler University’s Chair of New Testament Language and Literature, James McGrath, which showed some hilarious (if irreverent) pictures of Jesus in a space suit. I take his photos and his accompanying article–somewhat derisive in tone– to be a warning against too simplistic and literal a reading of this (or any) passage. The author states:

Ascension day is a perfect day to draw attention to the fact that literalism is not only problematic, but impossible. Even if someone insists on maintaining the literal truth of the claim in Acts that Jesus literally went up into heaven, they cannot maintain the worldview of the first century Christians which provided the context for the affirmation. They knew nothing of light-years, distant galaxies or interstellar space without oxygen. And it is not possible, through some act of either will or faith, to forget absolutely everything that has been learned since then and believe as they did. Even those who willingly choose to disbelieve modern science are making a choice that the first Christians did not have, and thus accept dogmatically what early Christians naively assumed because they knew no better.”

Now, I would presume that most Christians, including those early ones who witnessed this event, understood this occasion to be something different than space travel, or moving from one spot inside the universe to another. It was not translation through space but the exaltation of Christ that was the main point emphasized in the earliest Christian writings. As St. Paul gushed:

Therefore also God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).

Famed author C. S. Lewis wittily rebutted the comment attributed to Gagarin:

Looking for God — or Heaven — by exploring space is like reading or seeing all Shakespeare’s plays in the hope you will find Shakespeare as one of the characters or Stratford as one of the places. Shakespeare is in one sense present at every moment in every play. But he is never present in the same way as Falstaff or Lady Macbeth, nor is he diffused through the play like a gas.
If there were an idiot who thought plays exist on their own, without an author, our belief in Shakespeare would not be much affected by his saying, quite truly, that he had studied all the plays and never found Shakespeare in them.
(“The Seeing Eye”, in C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967).

Tim Keller, the famed pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has further commented on this:

“C. S. Lewis wrote that if there is a God, we certainly don’t relate to him as people on the first floor of a building relate to people on the second floor. We relate to him the way Hamlet relates to Shakespeare. We (characters) might be able to know quite a lot about the playwright, but only to the degree that the author chooses to put information about himself in the play.
“In the Christian view, however, we believe that God did even more than simply give us information. … God, as it were, looked into the world he had made and saw our lostness and had pity on his people. And so he wrote himself into human history as its main character (John 3: 16). The second person in the Trinity, the Son of God, came into the world as a man, Jesus Christ.”
(Tim Keller, online at monergism.com).

Jesus isn’t any longer on the set (this world), nor is he in the rafters of the theater, nor is he next door quaffing a pint in the pub with the other actors. Nor is he anywhere floating around in outer space. He is outside the script, outside the story–outside the universe. He conquered death, took a bow, and exited. He is not a cosmonaut but the very author of the cosmos.

Epilogue:
Back to Yuri Gagarin. His friend Valentin Petrov has been interviewed as saying that Gagarin was in fact a devoted Christian at a time when it was dangerous to be such. The quote referenced above is from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev:

It was most certainly not Gagarin who said this, but Khrushchev! This was connected with a plenary session of the Central Committee addressing the question of anti-religious propaganda. Khrushchev then set the task for all Party and Komsomol [Young Communists] organizations to boost such propaganda. He said: “Why are you clinging to God? Here Gagarin flew into space and didn’t see God.” However, some time later these words began to be portrayed in a different light. They were cited in reference not to Khrushchev, but to Gagarin, who was beloved by the people. Such a phrase spoken by him would be of great significance. Khrushchev wasn’t especially trusted, they said, but Gagarin would certainly be. But nothing was ever said by Gagarin about this, nor could he have uttered such things.

(photo credit: Fabrice de Nola, 1996. Yuri Gagarin, oil on canvas, cm 40 x 40).