Friday, July 31, 2009

Ignatius of Loyola: The Crooked Legged Warrior Who Became a Saint

I snapped the picture of the altar of St. Ignatius of Loyola (on the right) in the Church of the Gesù in Rome in September, 1998. To be honest, I wasn't much interested in the good Jesuit, Ignatius. My interest was on the altar and relic in the chapel directly opposite, that of St. Francis Xavier. It was to this altar and before this relic that the mother of the founder of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, St. Gaspar del Bufalo, brought him. At a year and a half, in 1787, Gaspar contracted a disease which threatened to blind him. Annunziata del Bufalo, who with her husband, Antonio, lived and worked in the Palazzo Altieri, adjacent to the Gesù, prayed to St. Francis Xavier, and to all appearances something miraculous happened and Gaspar's condition cleared up.

In the course of my studies with the Missionaries of the Precious Blood later, we became nominally familiar with Ignacio López de Loyola, a.k.a. St. Ignatius of Loyola, with his role as founder of the so-called "storm-troopers of the Vatican", the Jesuits, and with his famed Spiritual Exercises. The latter, though I've studied them briefly, but have never "done" them, generally leave me somewhat cold. Typical reaction, probably, for an ENFJ! A number of my colleagues have done the Spiritual Exercises and have good things to report. Nevertheless, I remain stuck in my Benedictine/Cistercian mode. To each his own, I guess.

The link between the Jesuits and service to the Pope may have had its origin in a vision which Ignatius apparently experienced around 1538. While praying in a little rural chapel, Ignatius saw a radiant Jesus carrying the cross, with the Father beside him. The Father said to the Son: “I wish you to take this man for your servant.” Jesus then said to Ignatius, “My will is that you should serve us.” Since the Holy Father is considered the "Vicar of Christ", it's logical that Ignatius and his new Society of Jesus would become loyal supporters. Indeed, through the centuries, the Jesuits have made a truly monumental contribution to the Church through their scholarly, educational and spiritual ministries.

Only today did I become aware of the artist responsible for the altar of St. Ignatius in the Gesù: well, more accurately, one of the artists. Andrea Pozzo (b. 1642,Trento, Italy - d. 31 August 1709,Vienna) -- on the left above -- was an Jesuit brother, Baroque painter and architect, decorator, stage designer, and art theoretician. He was best known for his grandiose frescoes using an illusionistic technique called quadratura, in which architecture and fancy are intermixed. His masterpiece is the nave ceiling of the Church of Sant'Ignazio in Rome.

In 1695 he was given the prestigious commission, after winning a competition against Sebastiano Cipriani and Giovanni Battista Origone, for an altar in the St. Ignatius chapel in the left transept of the Church of the Gesù in Rome. This grandiose altar above the tomb of the saint, built with rare marbles and precious metals, shows the Trinity (I also got a picture of that, but it came out blurry), while four lapis lazuli columns (these are now copies) enclose the colossal statue of the saint by Pierre Legros. The altar was the coordinated work of more than 100 sculptors and craftsmen, among them, besides Pierre Legros, Bernardino Ludovisi, Il Lorenzone and Jean-Baptiste Théodon. Andrea Pozzo also designed the altar in the Chapel of St Francesco Borgia in the same church.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Living Between the Lines

In the Gospel of St. Luke we read that our Lord came to Martha’s house and while she set about at once to prepare his meal, her sister did nothing but sit at his feet. She was so intent upon listening to him that she paid no attention to what Martha was doing. Now certainly Martha’s chores were holy and important…But Mary…was totally absorbed in the highest wisdom of God concealed in the obscurity of [Jesus’s] humanity.

Mary turned to Jesus with all the love of her heart, unmoved by what she saw or heard spoken and done about her…Why? Because it is the best and holiest part of the contemplative life possible to mortals and she would not relinquish it for anything on earth. Even when Martha complained to Jesus about her, scolding him for not bidding her to get up and help with the work, Mary remained there quite still and untroubled, showing not the least resentment against Martha for her grumbling. But this is not surprising really, for she was utterly absorbed in another work, all unknown to Martha, and she did not have time to notice her sister or defend herself.

My friend, do you see that this whole incident concerning Jesus and the two sisters was intended as a lesson for active and contemplative persons of the Church in every age? Mary represents the contemplative life and all contemplative persons ought to model their lives on hers. Martha represents the active life and all active persons should take her as their guide.” (William Johnston, tr. & ed., The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling, Doubleday, New York: 1973)

In 2005 I led a retreat for the Affiliates of the Order of Julian of Norwich, entitled "Living Between the Lines: Reconciling the Martha & Mary in Ourselves as OJN Affiliates in the Midst of our Day-to-Day Challenges". The gist of the retreat was to help folks following a rule of life, however formally or informally that may be designed, to live that life faithfully, learning to "read between the lines", learning to distill from the printed page of a rule the essence and spirit which lies behind the words.

As I see it, two elements figure into this process: 1) learning how to balance our contemplative and active be-ing in accordance with God’s will, and 2) maintaining this balance in the midst of the real-time and challenging environment in which we find ourselves: family, parish, workplace, community, nation, world. The more proficient we become, by God’s mercy and grace, in these two endeavors, the more deeply we’ll be living our simple rule which is none other than a life of Love.

Two touchstones may help guide reflections on this a bit. One is a passage from Luke’s Gospel, and the other is a contemporary novel, entitled The Monk Downstairs, by Timothy Farrington (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002).

The Scripture passage is one well-known, but I suspect readers may be less familiar with the novel, although seven years ago it was a best-seller. It’s the story of Rebecca Martin, a divorcee and a single mother with an apartment to rent,
and a sense that she has used up her illusions. In her words: “...I’m thirty-eight years old, and I’ve got a daughter learning to read and a job I don’t quite like. I don’t need violin music...” The new tenant in her in-law apartment is Michael Christopher, who happens to be “on the lam”, so to speak, after twenty years in a monastery, and is smack dab in the middle of a dark night of the soul. Which causes Rebecca to suspect that she’s not as thoroughly disillusioned as she’d thought.

Rebecca’s daughter’s name is, coincidentally, Mary Martha. She’s delighted with the new arrival, as is Rebecca’s mother, Phoebe. Phoebe is a rollicking widow making a new life for herself among the spiritual eccentrics, hippies, really, of the coastal California town of Bolinas.

Rebecca’s friend, Bonnie, urges her to “hook up” with Michael, but Rebecca feels that neither Bonnie, nor Phoebe, nor Mary Martha can understand how complicated and dangerous the business of love actually is for her.

Over the course of the novel, Rebecca’s friendship with the ex-monk, Michael, begins gradually to develop toward something deeper. In the process Michael wrestles with demons of despair, of yearning for a life of prayer, while
adjusting to the need for living in the world, in his case flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s. Rebecca struggles with her own temptation to hope. But it’s not until she’s brought up short by some realities of life and death that she begins to
glimpse the real mystery of love, and the unfathomable depths of faith. It’s a story about one woman’s spirit, as well as of her relationships, and of the power and possibilities of love. I encourage you to give it a read.

The Scripture passage from Luke 10:38-42 relates:
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Lk 10:38-42)

In the novel, Michael, in a letter to his periodic “antagonist”, Brother James, who is still in the monastery, comments on the Martha/Mary passage: ...Meister Eckhart goes so far as to insist that Martha is the spiritually mature sister, that Mary in fact needs to get up off her butt, and that Jesus’ words to Martha are not chiding at all but rather reassuring: that Mary too will eventually mature sufficiently to let go of the intoxication of his simple presence for
the true spiritual work of an activity rooted in God’s love. was easy for me to feel righteous in my obstinacy, for years on end, when the rewards of contemplation were vivid and all activity seemed like a kind of distraction. Ruusbroec castigates the ‘natural emptiness’ of certain mystics of his time, their tendency to rest in a silence that is merely avoidance. But who is to say, at any given moment in a soul’s journey? By their fruits ye shall know them...but fruits ripen slowly, especially the fruits of silence. Push too hard along Martha’s busy path and you may wake one day to find that you don’t believe in anything
anymore. Your own dry will has made every effort arbitrary. Abide too stubbornly in Mary’s quiet and you risk morbidity, mere inertness, a nothingnessas arbitrary and willed as the nothingness of Martha’s driven and empty activity...

But it was not until I passed into the desert country of my own dark night, when the joy of contemplation withered into emptiness and dread, that the conflict reached its crisis for me. It was no longer a question of balancing Martha’s claims against Mary’s; the seed of love at the root of both the active and the contemplative life seemed to have died in me...I had simply lost my way.

These are the baffling ways of God. Abbot Hackley now is dying, and finding his joy in the prayer of quiet presence; ...And I have fallen in love with Martha and bent my will to serve her at last...” (pp. 218-219)

The novel, Luke's Scripture story, and our lives are totally enmeshed in relationships. With that in mind I throw out to you some questions: food for thought, grist for the mill, fuel on the fire of your spiritual life:

+ At this point in my life what are my relationships like: with God? with others? with myself?
+What is it right now which particularly preoccupies me and demands my spiritual attention and energy?
+ How committed am I, really, to truth and honesty about who I am, humanly and spiritually?
+ Where or to whom do I go to draw strength for coping with my day-to-day living?
+ To what kind of ongoing conversion/transformation/redemption am I being call, especially in my relationships?
+ How do I feel about the "Martha" and "Mary" in me?

I couldn't help but end the retreat in 2005 without giving some hint about how things turned out in the novel, and I can't help but do it here also! The novel ends with Rebecca, Mary Martha, and Michael, hopeful yet still unsure of their future, attending the wedding of their friends, Bonnie and Bob, at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco. As they’re leaving, Mary Martha spots the labyrinth in the outdoor courtyard and, of course, has to walk it, or rather “run” it! While Mike sits by on a bench Rebecca catches a glimpse of him as she walks the labyrinth. He looks “wonderfully placid”: "...Rebecca gave him a smile and made her next turn, and her next, and for a moment she was filled with a sudden quiet joy. There was nothing ahead of her but the cathedral, its upper reaches drenched in sunset gold, and the plum trees in the evening hush, waiting for spring. There was nothing ahead of her but all the steps to be taken."

And for each of us, too, there’s “nothing ahead but all the steps to be taken”, faithfully and with love continuing to “live between the lines”, with St. Benedict’s words in his famous Rule sounding in our ears:

...Whoever you may be, then, in your eagerness to reach your
Father’s home in heaven, fulfill with Christ’s help this small
Rule, which is only a beginning; and then at last you will arrive,
with God’s help, at those lofty heights of teaching and virtue
which we have mentioned above...” (RB, 73)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Royal Fool

“Comfortable congregations prefer to hear tame sermons about mustard seeds and lilies of the valleys rather than be disturbed by the genuinely human behavior of David and his court.” (Rolf Jacobson. “Preaching the David Story”, Word & World)

The opening words of the reading from 2 Samuel today reminded me of a saying I once heard that “
In the spring of the year a young man’s heart turns to love, or to what the young lady’s been thinking about all year round.” Actually, “in the spring of the year” isn’t what the Hebrew text says. The meaning is “at the turning of the year”, when kings went to battle. That David is taking his afternoon nap, while his generals are out on the battle-line is, in itself, a telling fact in the story. Sauntering about on his roof, David, now in his young manhood, must’ve cast a virile figure because even as a young sheepherder the Scripture writer in 1 Samuel 16 couldn’t help but noting: “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” Makes you wonder if the writer wasn’t a woman! At any rate, David can’t help but notice below in the courtyard of an adjacent villa the beautiful and probably naked body of a woman, who is bathing there, in fact, ritually purifying herself, the Scripture says, after her period. David dispatches an underling to get a profile on the woman who turns out to be Bathsheba, wife of one of his top 37 warriors, Uriah the Hittite, and granddaughter of his royal counselor, Ahithopel. David wastes no time: the Scripture notes that “he sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her.” A very human situation. Husband is off at war. Woman is lonely. A studly king summons her, simply because he can. She doesn’t or can’t resist. And the rest is history.

Time passes, and Bathsheba sends the “oh-oh” message to David that she’s pregnant. No question who the father is.

As political figures in our recent experience, caught up in sexual scandals, have done, thinking they’re invincible, so too David plays “
the fool”, in the words of Psalm 14, for that is really what sin is: the folly of selfishness. He figures he can spin the truth of the situation so as to veil his culpability. In a very unusual gesture he summons Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, direct from the battlefield on the pretext of seeing how Commander Joab and the army were faring. Uriah, undoubtedly, thought he was being tested for some reason. David suggests that Uriah kick back, go down home, and “wash your feet”: a familiar Jewish euphemism for having sexual intercourse with his wife. Uriah, military man that he was, resists even the king’s suggestion and sleeps on David’s doorstep with all the servants, because disciplined soldiers abstained from that sort of thing while on duty. David is informed the next day and questions Uriah who protests his loyalty to the king and to God: “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the [other soldiers] are camping in the open field...As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.” So, David moves to Plan B and invites Uriah to dinner the next evening and gets him drunk so that surely now he’ll go down and sleep with his wife. But no luck: Uriah again beds down on the porch with the servants.

David is now desperate, and taking his foolishness to the next extreme -- which is really what sin is -- he writes an order for Joab, having the gall to send it by Uriah’s own hand, since he certainly trusted Uriah’s complete loyalty by now, instructing Joab to put Uriah on the frontline in the thick of combat, and then to draw back so that Uriah will most certainly be killed. “
The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’...all are corrupt and commit abominable acts...every one has proved faithless...[they] eat up my people like bread and do not call upon the Lord...” David has, in a sense, eaten up Bathsheba, then Uriah, “like bread”. David isn’t filled with the bread, that is, the wisdom of God, but with his own self-seeking power. Today’s reading ends here, but there’s much more to the story.

16As Joab was besieging the city, he assigned Uriah to the place where he knew there were valiant warriors. 17The men of the city came out and fought with Joab; and some of the servants of David among the people fell. Uriah the Hittite was killed as well. 18Then Joab sent and told David all the news about the fighting; 19and he instructed the messenger, ‘When you have finished telling the king all the news about the fighting, 20then, if the king’s anger rises, and if he says to you, “Why did you go so near the city to fight? Did you not know that they would shoot from the wall? 21Who killed Abimelech son of Jerubbaal?* Did not a woman throw an upper millstone on him from the wall, so that he died at Thebez? Why did you go so near the wall?” then you shall say, “Your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead too.” ’

22 So the messenger went, and came and told David all that Joab had sent him to tell...25David said to the messenger, ‘Thus you shall say to Joab, “Do not let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and now another; press your attack on the city, and overthrow it.” And encourage him.’

26 When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 27When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.

“But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, 12 1and the Lord sent Nathan to David...

Nathan the prophet will confront David in no uncertain terms, though David at first tries to bamboozle Nathan with his coverup. Nathan puts David’s sin right up in his ruddy face and in front of his beautiful eyes. And there will be consequences, even though David has a “come-to-Jesus” moment and admits and laments his sin. Nevertheless, as Nathan asks: “Why have you despised the word of the Lord?...Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house...Thus says the Lord, ‘I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house...’” The son of David and Bathsheba later becomes very ill and dies. David is bereft. Bathsheba conceives again and bears Solomon, who is destined to be a great, mostly faithful king. Another son, Amnon, commits incest with his sister, David’s daughter, Tamar who ends up, “a desolate woman”, according to Scripture, living with their brother, Absalom. Absalom bides his time for two years, then does Amnon in in an ambush, then goes on the run for several years. David at length forgives him, but the ingrate Absalom, playing the fool very much like his father, usurps the throne, driving David out of Jerusalem. Upon the advice of Ahithopel, grandfather of Bathsheba and royal counselor mentioned above, and who has now turned on David, Absalom, in an ultimate “dis” of his father, David, goes “in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel”.

David then goes on the run from all of Absalom’s supporters, whom he manages to elude. Ahithopel, having been outsmarted, goes home, sets his affairs in order, and ingloriously hangs himself. David sends three army groups to pursue Absalom, who’s again on the run, but with very public and specific orders not to harm Absalom when they arrest him. Absalom, in his hasty retreat, gets his coif caught in the branches of an oak tree and is, so to speak, left hanging! Joab. David’s commander, in a wanton violation of David’s order, not only hurries to do Absalom in, but thrusts three spears into Absalom’s heart, while ten of Joab’s young warriors surround Absalom and deliver the coup de grace. And so the utter foolishness of sin and the display of misguided human power multiplies, and David’s misery along with it, proving once again that “God is in the company of the righteous...[the wicked’s] aim is to confound the plans of the afflicted, but the Lord is their refuge...

What a stark contrast all this is to the example of Jesus in the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel. The point of this section of John’s Gospel is to counsel hearers and readers to abide in the word. At the Last Supper Jesus had taught the disciples: “If you remain/abide in my will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” John is saying that this is what’s possible for us. In fact, he structures his Gospel so that rereading it over and over is important in order to get the point.

In today’s Gospel selection John recounts two major events, both so important to the early Christian community that they’re repeated in all four Gospel accounts: the story of the feeding of the 5000 and the incident of Jesus walking on the water. In the first the feeding takes place in the context of Passover; in fact, John refers to it three times. John’s version of the story has Jesus himself distributing the bread and fish to the people. In verse 35, Jesus will state very clearly: “I am the bread of life.” Jesus’ words and actions are inseparable, for he himself is the nourishing and sustaining Word which is the bread of life for all.

In the incident which follows this feeding sign, John differs from Mark’s story of the boat in the storm which we had several Sundays ago. Here Jesus isn’t in the boat with the disciples, and though the sea is rough and a wind is blowing, there’s not the desperation of Mark’s version. Here Jesus is “revealed” by appearing, walking on the water towards them. They’re “terrified” of that, true, but all Jesus has to say is “Here I am; don’t be afraid.” For John “I am” verbalizes the very name of God. It describes who Jesus is: the power of God acting, to bless and multiply bread and fish, the power of God acting, to accompany and comfort people safely through life’s storms, and to allay their fears.

St. Paul well knew the foolishness and consequences of relying on one’s own selfish power, as exemplified in the story of David and his family. In Paul’s letters to the Corinthian Christians, he eloquently teaches them and us who is really the Lord of all life. Paul says: “...We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word...we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord...But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us...

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Talkin' 'bout my girl...

"The baby was due to arrive around July 24. We’d been referred, perhaps by Jack Petuskey or the Glenns, to a fine obstetrician, Dr. Philip Maguire. Mary’s father and stepmother came from California to be with us the week before and the week after Nicole was born. Mary entered St. Anthony’s Hospital around noon on July 24, and Dr. Maguire induced labor. I worked two straight shifts that day, then came back to be with Mary for the duration. She suffered through 20 1/2 long and painful hours of labor. Exhausted and frustrated, she was finally given a saddle-block anesthetic and at 8:37 AM on July 25 our beautiful Nicole Marie, all 7 lbs., 12 oz., and 20 1/2 inches of her, came screaming and kicking into the world. Needless to say, Mary was overwhelmed at getting her girl, and my joy and gratitude was boundless. Hospital policy didn’t permit fathers to be in the delivery room in those days, so I was left to wait patiently in the waiting room.

St. Paul’s text in Romans 8, about a woman’s travail being turned to joy, occupied my thoughts during those long hours. At length, the nurse came to announce the joyous news of Nicole’s birth, and later brought her out for me to hold for the first time. I’ll never forget that incredible moment. As Nicole rested peacefully, almost nonchalantly, in my arms, I offered a prayer of thanksgiving for this gift, committing her to God’s care, knowing that she wasn’t ours to hold onto forever, but to be offered for whatever purpose God had in mind.

My very first impressions of Nicole, as I recall, were: 1) cheeks and 2) bowed legs (like her father’s)! Because of the difficulties of the long labor and the baby’s position, Dr. Maguire had to use forceps to deliver her. For a day or so the marks of the forceps were visible on her face. But that cleared up quickly; the only other concern was a slight bit of jaundice for a couple of days, which also cleared up soon. Nicole was a beautiful and extremely photogenic baby, and in the next few months proved to be happy and well-adjusted, sleeping through the night. In fact, I don’t remember that Nicole cried much beyond the times that she was teething or that she’d take a hard tumble...." (Recollections, 1970-July, 1986)

Well, my "baby" has now successfully weathered 39 years of life and in the process has gladdened us all by giving us her own "baby", Meeghan Grace, now 12. Travail has been turned into joy many times over.

Happy Birthday, Colie, and blessings and prayers for many more years!

James: Apostle & Martyr

James was clearly a VIP among the followers of Jesus. He was one of the first four chosen to be part of the company of Jesus. A fisherman by trade, he didn't hestitate to answer the call to be a fisher of people. James is always part of the inner clique close at hand for key events, e.g., the healing of Peter's mother-in-law, the reviving of Jairus' daughter, the Transfiguration, accompanying Jesus, and promptly falling asleep, in Gethsemane garden. On the darker side, Mark comments that Jesus nicknamed James and his brother, John, "Sons of Thunder", so there was undoubtedly some "history" there. (I've always pictured them as hell-bent motorcyclists in my fantasy movie!) And he and John, at least in Mark's version, also had the gall to ask Jesus for favored treatment: two reserved box seats, one on each side, in Jesus' glory, for which they incurred the anger and disgust of their fellow apostles! And, like most of the others except John, James was nowhere to be found at the Crucifixion, though his mother was there along with Mary Magdalene and Salome.

James did, however, distinguish himself by giving his life for his Master, and, in fact, was the first to do so. Luke notes in Acts 12:1-2: "About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword..."

That's pretty much all we know about James, despite the long-standing tradition about his Spanish connection and his shrine at Compostela, one of the greatest pilgrimage destinations through the centuries. Hundreds of churches are named after St. James in England, though he was never near the British Isles, and he's the patron of both Nicaragua and Guatemala, though, again, he never had the pleasure of visiting those countries. Amazing how one rather insignificant Middle Eastern soul can make such a global difference. I once read about a metropolitan area with a 200,00+ population where a proposal to build a new library was defeated by only 10 votes! A lot of folks thought the proposal would easily pass, so they stayed home. Those who voted against it were probably wondering if theirs was the deciding ballot. It happens.

You and I can make a difference despite our seemingly ordinary and insigificant lives. Jesus calls us, as he called James and the other apostles, to be faithful, not necessarily successful, though that's desirable and wonderful if it happens. Peter learned at one point not to consider ordinary things as "common". And the exhortation of Hebrews reminds us: "Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares."

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Little Green Book

Commenting on The Imitation of Christ [a 14th century work by Thomas à Kempis], the famous Monsignor Ronald Knox (who read a chapter every day) wrote: “...if a man tells you that he is fond of The Imitation, view him with sudden suspicion; he is either a dabbler—or a saint.” Well, I don't at all consider myself a dabbler or a saint by any stretch of the imagination! But my extreme fondness through the years of the Imitation dates back to 1950 or 1951 when my mother bought me a little green hardcover book from the Catholic Supply store in downtown Dayton, OH for my 13th or 14th birthday. The title was embossed in simple gold letters: The Imitation of Christ. I have no idea how my mother learned about it or what motivated her to buy it for me. But her serendipity purchase of my first spiritual book, other than the Bible, profoundly impacted my spiritual development for the years to come. When I entered Brunnerdale Seminary, staffed by the Precious Blood Fathers and Brothers, in 1951 the little green book came with me and was used for meditation and prayer many, many times, along with the work of another "Thomas", Thomas Merton, the Seeds of Contemplation. Both accompanied me through the time I left the priesthood in 1968. Regrettably, in a careless gesture of divesting myself of some of my "baggage" in a later move, the little green book was left behind. That being in the late '60's, I probably had become enamored of a much more liberal distaste for some of the "old stuff", a position I recanted, so to speak, in later years when I grew more mature in God's wisdom and grace! I've often pined for the little green book, wondering into whose possession it may have passed, hoping and praying that his/her life may have been enriched as much or more than mine. As Providence arranged it, the illustrated copy of the Imitation, published by the Confraternity of the Precious Blood in 1954, which I purchased for my mother and which was among her belongings after her death in 2003, passed on to me. I still have it and refer to it from time to time, along with a newer edition , in "plain English", by William C. Creasy and published by Ave Maria Press in 2004.

For a thorough account of Thomas Hemerken's life, I suggest consulting Fr. John Julian's new book: Stars in a Dark World.

I'd have to say that my favorite sections of The Imitation of Christ are: Book 1: Useful Reminders for the Spiritual Life, Chapters 1 "Of the Imitation of Christ"; 4 "Of Thinking Before You Act; 7 "Of Avoiding Empty Hope and Self-Praise; 11 "Of Finding Peace and Making Spiritual Progress; 16 "Of Putting Up with Others' Faults; 20 "Of the Love of Solitude and Silence; 21 "Of Heartfelt Remorse; 23 "Of Thinking about Death; Book 2: Suggestions Drawing One toward the Inner Life, Chapters 2 "Of Placing Your Life in God's Hands; 3 "Of the Good and Peaceful Person"; 7 "Of Loving Jesus above All Else"; 10 "Of Gratitude for God's Grace"; 12 "Of the Royal Road of the Holy Cross"; Book 3: Of Innter Comfort, Chapters 2 "That Truth Speaks Quietly to the Heart"; 4 "That We Should Live in God's Presence in Truth and Humility"; 6 "Of the Proof of a True Lover"; 10 "Of How Good It Is to Serve God"; 15 "Of What We Are to Do and Say About Our Desires"; 19 "Of Bearing Injuries and the Proof of True Patience"; 21 "That We Should Rest in God above All Else"; 25 "Of True Peace of Heart"; 37 "Of Gaining a Free Heart through Total Self-Surrender"; Book 4: The Book on the Sacrament, Chapters 2 "What Great Goodness and Love God Shows to Us in This Sacrament"; 5 "The Dignity of the Sacrament and of the Priesthood"; 9 "That We Ought to Offer Ourselves and All That is Ours to God, and That We Ought to Pray for All Others"; 13 "That a Devout Soul Should Wish Wholeheartedly to Be United with Christ in the Sacrament".

In the nearly 60 years since I was introduced to Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ, God's grace has led me to realize that Thomas pretty much summarized what he had to say in the opening lines of my little green book:

" 'Anyone who follows me shall not walk in darkness,'
says the Lord. These are the words of Christ, and by them we are reminded
that we must imitate his life and his ways if we are to be truly enlightened and set free
from the darkness of our own hearts. Let it be the most important thing we do, then,
to reflect on the life of Jesus Christ.

Christ's teaching surpasses all the teachings of the saints, and the person who has his spirit
will find hidden nourishment in his words.
Yet, many people, even after hearing scripture read so often, lack a deep longing for it,
for they do not have the spirit of Christ.
Anyone who wishes to understand Christ's words and to savor them fully
should strive to become like him in every way...

...This is the highest wisdom: to see the world as it truly is, fallen and fleeting;
to love the world not for its own sake, but for God's;
and to direct all your effort toward achieving the kingdom of heaven."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Much Misidentified Woman

This painting by the great El Greco represents an appropriately subtle traditional depiction of Mary Magdalene, a saint whom we know from Scripture, yet about whom we factually know little.

Fr. John Julian, in his Stars in a Dark World, puts the question of Mary Magdalene into proper perspective: "If one were to see any Renaissance painting of an attractive female saint, with long, loose hair, carrying a small canister or jar, there could be no doubt at all that the person represented was intended to be Saint Mary Magdalene. The person actually shown is the unnamed penitent woman who came to Jesus while he was lying at supper in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50) [or Simon the leper (Mark 14:3-9)] and washed his feet with her tears and anointed them with ointment from a jar, and to whom he said 'Your sins are forgiven.' In the very earliest traditions, this woman (who is never named) was identified with Mary Magdalen—very likely because two verses after this story in Luke’s Gospel, Mary Magdalen is mentioned as one of 'a number of women who had been set free from evil spirits and infirmities'. The 'immorality' of the penitent woman is almost universally understood to be sexual in nature, that is, that she had been a prostitute. [Ed. note: I have read elsewhere that the word used means 'outlaw', someone who doesn't conform to all the rules. That would have had tremendous repercussions, given that she was a woman!]

For many centuries in the Western traditions, Mary of Bethany (the sister of Martha and Lazarus) and Mary Magdalene and the Penitent Woman and the Woman taken in adultery have all been identified as one and the same person. However, in the Eastern Church they have always been differentiated and have had separate feast days, and contemporary scholarship has finally put the lie to that over-simplified identification—although it remains remotely possible that Magdalene and the Penitent woman could have been the same person. (The identification of these various women as the same one was so strong that in the 16th century, Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples suggested that Mary Magdalen was a different person from Mary of Bethany and the Penitent Woman and was excommunicated for his effrontery!)"

Indeed, according to Harvard theologian Karen King, Mary Magdalene was a prominent disciple and leader of one wing of the early Christian movement that promoted women's leadership. Pope Gregory the Great made a speech in 591 A.D. where he seemed to combine the actions of the three women mentioned in the New Testament, and also identified an unnamed woman as Mary Magdalene. He stated that she was a prostitute. This erroneous view was not corrected until 1969 when the Vatican issued a quiet retraction.

What is very clear from the Gospels is that Mary Magdalen was a central figure in the life of Jesus—far more central than the Church has been willing to accept in past years. Luke tells us that she was among the women who followed Jesus and “provided for [him] out of their own resources”. The original Greek is more direct: it says these women 'supported him out of their own possessions.' These women apparently literally paid Jesus’s way and provided
financial backing for him during his public ministry!" (Fr. John Julian)

Mary's name of "Apostle to the Apostles" comes from her ascription as the first witness to the empty tomb who then shared the good news with Jesus' other close disciples. In the earliest extant Biblical accounts now available, Mary of Magdala is described as a Galilean disciple, a witness to both the crucifixion and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth's resurrected body. Luke 8:2-3 adds to Mary's persona by alluding to her having had seven demons cast out of her, which some have taken to signify a perfected status within the movement. Together with other female followers, Mary accompanied Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem, and witnessed the Crucifixion. Mary remained at the cross until the body was taken down and laid in a tomb. In the early dawn, when the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene (with other women) came to the sepulchre with spices to anoint the body. They found the sepulchre empty and were informed of Jesus' resurrection.

According to the Gospel of John, she was the first witness of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus. At first she did not recognize him. When he said her name, she recognised him and cried, "Rabboni." She wanted to embrace him, but he forbade her: "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God'". This is the last mention in the canonical Gospels of Mary Magdalene, who now returned to Jerusalem. She is probably included in the group of women who joined the Apostles in the Upper Room in Jerusalem after Jesus' ascension.

She is considered by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican/Episcopal churches to be Saint Mary Magdalene, with a feast day of July 22. She is also commemorated by the Lutheran Church with a festival on the same day. The Orthodox Church commemorates her on the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers which is the second Sunday after Pascha (Easter).

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Hope When There is No Hope

The great question is whether our hope in God makes it worthwhile to contribute what we have to offer at any given moment, even if we feel quite sure it will not be enough. Hope is a central Christian virtue. The
alternative, much of the time, is passive defeatism. Hope is the expectation that the goodwill we have experienced from God in the past is not
exhausted, that God will continue to work with us even under the most difficult of circumstances. Such a hope makes it possible for us to act,too...” (L. William Countryman, Scripture professor at Church Divinity School of the Pacific)

We acknowledge in the opening prayer this morning [Pentecost 7-Proper 11] that God “
know[s] our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking...”, and we prayed that God might “mercifully give us”, through the worthiness of Jesus, “those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask...” If our prayer is honest, then you and I can surely identify with and relate to those sheep, of whom Jeremiah speaks in the first reading [Jeremiah 23:1-6]: destroyed and scattered and unattended; with those “called ‘the uncircumcision’”, those aliens and strangers “having no hope and without God” of whom Paul speaks in the Epistle [Ephesians 2:11-22]; and with the crowd coming to Jesus who “were like sheep without a shepherd” [Mark 6:30-34; 53-56]. Perhaps we feel this way at this particular time in our country, when we’re all feeling the pinch of a receding economy, and when so many others, perhaps among our own family or friends -- the poor, the homeless, the disabled, those without health care -- are losing the few meager safety nets upon which they rely. We may feel it particularly at this time in the Episcopal Church as we, over the past two weeks, have witnessed and prayerfully supported our bishops, clergy, and lay deputies, at the General Convention in Anaheim, as they grappled with the huge challenges and realities of change in our society and in the Church.

The question which the Scriptures today pose for you and me is this: aware of and acknowledging all of this, are you and I willing to trust God when called to respond to these needs with hope, peace, justice and righteousness, and the selfless compassion of Jesus?

Mark, whose Gospel we’ve been following for several Sundays, continues to remind us through his stories that the opposite of faith isn’t unbelief, but
fear. Over and over in these stories Jesus counsels us to not be afraid, to take the risk of hope, and to do that primarily by reaching out beyond ourselves to minister to others. “ are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into...a dwelling place for God.”

What better teaching example for this could we have than Mark’s Gospel reading for today? Jesus had sent his disciples out by two’s to missionize the surrounding villages. They had done so, and Mark notes that it’d been rather successful. The apostles return and gather about Jesus, excitedly sharing “
all that they had done and taught.” Jesus, always one to keep priorities straight, listened attentively, then said “Come away [now] to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” You and I can’t minister to others effectively unless we take time off: to rest, to pray, to keep things in proper perspective. Mark adds, as if to justify Jesus’ proposal, “...For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat...

So off they go, in a boat, to a deserted place. Or so they think.

As so many of us have experienced, I suspect, especially parish clergy, just when you’re about to have some alone time, someone recognizes you, sees where you’re going and beats you there ahead of time, always with some need in hand. Jesus and the apostles are no exception. Jesus comes ashore, Mark tells us, to find not only a crowd , but a “great crowd”, waiting: “like sheep without a shepherd”. And Jesus “had compassion for them,... and began to teach them many things.” [The RCL reading stops here, but Mark goes on to tell the story of the feeding of the 5000, responsibility for which Jesus handed off to -- guess who?? -- his disciples. Mutual ministry is Jesus’ customary way of doing things!]

Notice several things: Jesus and the apostles had plans -- to kick back and rest. But those plans were interrupted, both here on the shore and later in Gennesaret, by a crowd of needy, ailing, spiritually and physically hungry, men, women and, undoubtedly, children. In every instance, Jesus set aside his own preferences in favor of others‘ immediate needs: “
...he had compassion for them...” He and the apostles didn’t even have at hand all the things they needed to address these needs. “All we have are five loaves of bread and two fish.” Yet Jesus wasn’t about to leave these folks hopeless or despairing.

In the first reading, Jeremiah speaks of the hope God gives the people in God’s promise of “
a righteous Branch” of David who will reign as king and deal wisely, and administer justice and righteousness. Scripture scholar Matthew Skinner says: “ talk about the righteousness of God is to indicate God’s commitments to deliver and preserve God’s people. Righteousness summarizes all of God’s salvific activity...the Lord’s unswerving commitment to ensure the welfare of God’s people.” That is always Jesus’ priority agenda, and ours as his followers: to take care of those who need it -- even if it disrupts our plans, even if the timing isn’t the best, even if, at first, we can’t imagine how we’ll go about filling all those needs.

I’ve been trying to live through this very thing on a very personal level since two weeks ago Tuesday. In mid-December this past year, my son, Andrew, had a recurrence of brainstem encephalitis, with which he’d been afflicted nine years ago and from which he’d undergone an almost two year recovery process. He was hospitalized from mid-December to the end of February in Florida, where he almost died a couple times, and again for two weeks at UCSF Hospital where, through the goodness and assistance of friends, we had transferred him. After being released in March, he was essentially confined to a wheelchair, had serious breathing problems, some memory deficit, periodic seizures, etc. Because of the illness he had to give up his apartment and many of his possessions in Florida, his car was repossessed, and through all this he has not had any health care insurance. No insurance company will touch him because of his previous illness, when he was fully insured, but incurred over a half-million dollars worth of bills. From March to May he was relatively stable, but then suffered a relapse and was hospitalized all of June, then released for four days, then back in for four days.

Two weeks ago Tuesday, I happened to visit him at the hospital in Sacramento, aware that he could be discharged soon, presumably to a skilled nursing facility temporarily. While I was there a discharge team of a social worker, physician and therapist unexpectedly marched in and asked Andrew what his “discharge plan” was. Having tried, without success, for days to get someone to come and discuss this with him, he had to acknowledge that he had no plan. The alternatives, then, it was explained, were 1) family, which wasn’t feasible in the long term; 2) a half-way house at $500-1000/week; or 3) an “
intermediate care center sponsored by the Salvation Army”. When I asked what the latter was, the response was: “a shelter where he’ll have a cot and a pillow”. I don’t often get really angry, but I confess to God and to you that I was really angry! I helped Andrew pack and brought him straight to my home in Cotati.

Was it scary to make that decision? Yes. Was I afraid of the outcome? Most definitely. Was it inconvenient? Yes. Did I have any inkling how I was going to manage it? No, and I still don’t except from day to day. But one phrase kept rolling around in my mind and heart: from the Epistle for Sunday, Pentecost 5, just two days before this, a passage from 2 Corinthians 12: “
My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” And that has carried me through this week, and, I’m convinced, will carry us into the unknown future weeks. And we have made it so far. And Andrew has shown consistent signs of improvement. And we learned yesterday that he has been approved for SSI, and possibly SSDI, which would help immensely. And we continue on by God’s grace and compassion and righteousness and hope. When God calls you and me to care for the other, even if it isn’t timely, or disrupts our convenience, or challenges our ingenuity and resourcefulness, God’s presence and grace is sufficient for us, for God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.

I leave you with a few other words from Fr. Countryman, whom I quoted at the beginning: “
...We do not have to resolve all the problems or produce the perfect solution. What is important is to offer what we have in the hope that God will make use of it to do more than we ourselves could imagine. Christians should not be living as if there were no hope in this world. We should find ourselves at the rash edge of expectation, if necessary, rather than submerged in despair.

Perhaps it is still possible to retrieve the vision of 'one new humanity' in
[the reading from] Ephesians—at least for a little while here in the place and time that we inhabit. Perhaps it is still possible to build highways for returning exiles, to renew human communities riven by conflict, to step beyond ancient ways of defining one another—but not unless we try, in whatever fumbling and inadequate yet hopeful way we can offer.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

St. Swithun of Winchester

Winchester Cathedral

St. Swithun, 800-862
(Photo: Nina Aldin Thune)

Prior to coming into the Episcopal Church I don't believe I'd ever heard of St. Swithun. It sounds like a contrived name, and I probably heard it as it's often used: to describe a theoretical typical parish somewhere, as in "St. Swithun's in the Swamp". I find myself wondering if Swithun, a real person, disliked his first name as much as I do mine.

Swithun of Winchester, however, was very real and lived a full (for those days), interesting life mostly in or about the city of Winchester. He studied at the monastic school at Old Minster, Winchester, and went on in early youth to take vows, received the tonsure and eventually was ordained a priest. He also became Provost of the Old Minster school.

He served as chaplain and chancellor to King Egbert of Wessex. Egbert, whose unification of the kingdom was similar to that attributed to the legendary King Arthur, was the monarch to whom we owe the name "England" and the name of its citizens, "Englishmen". He could really be thought of as the first true king of England. When Egbert died in 839, he was succeeded by his son, Ethelwulf, who'd been a student of Swithun. Ethelwulf had been ordained subdeacon, not expecting to succeed to the throne, but when he did become king, he was dispensed from Orders and married. Lucky for England and the rest of the world, for his son was Alfred the Great. In 852 Ethelwulf chose Swithun as bishop of Winchester, and Swithun was consecrated by Archbishop Ceolnoth of Canterbury.

Sadly, we don't know a whole lot about Swithun, since details of his life weren't recorded. We do know that as bishop he built and repaired many churches. He always travelled on foot with his clerks and always at night, in order to avoid public notice. Swithun presided at the major Synod of Mycel which decreed that the king would give a tithe of all his land holdings in England to the Church, exempt from all taxes, in return for the Church’s agreement to pray for the king’s soul every Wednesday. The synod also extended to the whole kingdom, the Peter’s Pence collection, which helped finance the papacy.

Where there's a saint, there's usually a legend! Swithun apparently built a fine stone bridge over the river in Winchester. A poor woman, who was crossing the bridge with her apron full of eggs, was put upon by a thug who smashed all of her eggs. Bishop Swithun, who just happened to be passing by, saw what had happened and stopped to bless the woman’s eggs which,
mirabile dictu, all became whole again.

Swithun died on July 2, 862. He had asked to be buried in the ordinary cathedral cemetery, rather than in an ornate tomb in the cathedral. He preferred a place “
where my grave might be trodden on by those who passed by and the rain might fall upon it”. (Since the Danes had by then devastated the cathedral, Swithun may have had little choice!) Nevertheless, he got his wish and was buried in an ordinary grave, covered with a grave stone, just outside door of the old cathedral. In ensuing years his relics, including his head shrine, were translated and retranslated three or four times. For being such a little-known saint, St. Swithun has some 28 ancient churches dedicated in his honor throughout England.

Since there was a huge downpour on the day his remains were first relocated, it was said that rain was a sign of St. Swithun’s objection to the translation. The tradition, memorialized in a verse, quickly grew that if it rained on St. Swithun’s day, it would rain for forty more days:

Saint Swithun’s Day if ye do rain,
For forty days it will remain.
Saint Swithun’s day, an ye be faire,
For forty days ‘twill rain nae maire.

Out here in California, we were wishing that it'd been pouring this St. Swithun's morning, because we, in our third year of drought, could sure use at least 40 days of rain! But no luck. It was beautiful, sunny, and cool this morning, so for at least a month or so down the line "'twill rain nae maire"!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Case of John the Baptizer: "Good, Unpopular News"

There's a great piece for July 6 on Theolog [], which I highly recommend, by Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber who serves House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, CO. It's entitled: "Good, unpopular news". It will give you a succinct idea of what the Gospel for today's liturgy [Mark 6:14-29] means.

Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great and Malthace, and along with his full brother Archelaus and his half-brother Philip, was educated in Rome. Antipas wasn’t Herod's first choice of heir; only later did Herod revise his will. During his fatal illness in 4 BC, Herod had yet another change of heart about the succession: making the elder brother Archelaus king of Judea, Idumea and Samaria, while Antipas would rule Galilee and Perea with the lesser title of tetrarch. Philip would receive what is now the Golan Heights, southern Syria, Trachonitis and Hauran. Since the plans had to be ratified by Augustus, the three heirs travelled to Rome to make their claims. In the end, Augustus confirmed Archelaus as ethnarch rather than king, and Antipas as tetrarch.

Early in his reign, Antipas had married the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea. While staying in Rome with his half-brother Herod Philip, he fell in love with his host's wife Herodias, granddaughter of Herod the Great and Mariamne I. Antipas and Herodias agreed to divorce their previous spouses in order to marry each other. Relations between Antipas and King Aretas understandably soured and in time preparations began for war. Today’s Gospel reading exposes the kind of human values which are opposed to the way of God’s reign. It begins with Herod Antipas in a state of fear and anxiety: Jesus’ fame had begun to spread, reports about demons being cast out and of others cured after he anointed them. Rumors were flying that John the Baptizer had returned from the dead. There were other speculations that Jesus was a prophet, in the style of the great Jeremiah or Ezekiel. Herod’s paranoia kicks into overdrive as he whispers to himself, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

Verses 17-29 are a flashback to the time when John, the wildman desert preacher, had begun a ministry of preaching and baptism by the Jordan River, which marked the western edge of Antipas' territory of Perea. John had pushed the envelope too far by publicly castigating the tetrarch for his unlawful bedding of Herodias, former wife of Herod’s brother, Philip. That was cause enough for Antipas to imprison John in Machaerus. The Jewish writer Josephus also suspects that John's public influence, and later that of Jesus, made Antipas fearful of rebellion.

Herodias didn’t take kindly at all to John’s criticism. Zara’s comment in 17th century playwright William Congreve’s The Mourning Bride was never more true:
Heav'n has no rage,
like love to hatred turn'd,
nor hell a fury,
like a woman scorn'd.

Herodias was seething, and looking for every opportunity to have this religious meddler executed.

The major obstacle in Herodias’ way was Antipas’ fear -- fear of the Baptizer -- coupled with his curious unexplainable respect. John fascinated Antipas; he could sense that John was righteous and holy, and so he protected him by keeping him safely locked in the prison. John also frustrated Antipas, though he was drawn to what John had to say.

Living, as Antipas and his family and and friends did, -- and as we sometimes do -- in fear and with irresponsible disregard for the deeper, more basic needs of the spirit, oftentimes trips us up through serendipity circumstances. Once caught up in them, people act in unpredictable ways, often with dire consequences.

Antipas, celebrating his birthday, gave a lavish banquet to which he invited all the big-wigs of Galilee: courtiers, officers, leaders, anyone who was anybody. The wine, of course, flowed freely. Usually table wine was diluted with
water: two to four parts to one part of wine. A stronger mixture was half and half, and if early drunkenness was the preference, wine was served straight. People ate reclining on couches, with food served from a table in the middle of the room, brought by slaves who attended to one’s every need. After dinner more wine was served, whether for political, philosophical, or social discussion, or to accompany games or entertainment by dancers. Female companionship might be provided by the Greek equivalent of geishas: hetairai, as they were called. One commentator notes: “Again, the percentage of the wine had something to do with the intimacy of the entertainment.

We don’t know who instigated it (although my bet is on Herodias), but Herodias‘ daughter, Salome, was chosen as the evening’s designated dancer, probably and sadly a young girl not much older than the daughter of Jairus (in the Gospel two weeks ago). To have an aristocratic daughter dance before a roomful of men flies in the face of many cultural standards of that day. Mark modestly observes: “
...she pleased Herod and his guests...”. Indeed, she must have, because Antipas, no doubt well into his “cups” by now, makes a vainglorious and irresponsible promise in order to impress his colleagues: he’ll give Salome anything she wants, anything at all -- even up to half of his kingdom! The girl, almost surely prompted ahead of time by Herodias, checks with her mother and asks “What should I ask for?” To which Herodias, probably with a vindictive sneer, spits out “The head of John the Baptizer.” Mark says that the girl “immediately...rushed back” to Antipas and relayed her wish, John’s head, adding a further detail: “at once...on a platter”. John the Baptizer is to become a sort of "final course" for the meal. Mark presents an image of fear, hatred, depravity and lack of control run utterly amok: in individuals, including a child; in families; in Antipas’ political domain.

Antipas is stunned, then sobered, then, realizing the full impact of what has taken place, is grieved. The repentance which is called for seems simply impossible to such a culture’s self-absorbed, corrupt and prideful will. Mark says, “
...out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her...” He immediately sends a soldier with the order to bring John’s head. And it was done, on a platter, “and [he] gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.” Such is the corrosive, destructive power of systemic, familial, cultural, and political sin. Placed as it is between Jesus’ sending his disciples out in humble ministry with a call to repentance, and his receiving them back, gathered around him, telling all that they’d done and taught, this passage provides a reminder of the resistance which awaits those who would embrace the foolishness of the cross.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. The evangelist Luke later tells us that a group of Pharisees warned Jesus that, because of the stir he was making among the polticial powers that be, Antipas was plotting his death also. By this time Jesus would have had a pretty good idea of the character of Antipas and his family. Not one given to name-calling, Jesus denounces the tetrarch with a kind of surprising reference: "
that fox", and declares that he, Jesus, will not fall victim to such a plot because "it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem". Luke also credits Antipas with a role in Jesus' eventual trial in Jerusalem. He says that Pilate, on learning that Jesus was a Galilean and therefore under Herod Antipas' jurisdiction, sent him to Antipas, who was also in Jerusalem at the time. Initially, Antipas was pleased to see Jesus. Always one ready for the spectacular and the outrageous, he hoped to satisfy his lust for novelty by seeing Jesus perform a miracle. Jesus, however, remains silent in the face of questioning, and Antipas mocks him and sends him back to Pilate, improving, according to Luke, relations between Pilate and Antipas despite their earlier enmity.

About three years after Jesus died, in 36 CE, the conflict with Aretas of Nabatea, caused by Antipas' divorce and the rulers' disagreement over territory, developed into open war. Antipas' army suffered a devastating defeat, and Antipas was forced to appeal to Emperor Tiberius for help. When the emperor ordered Lucius Vitellius, governor of Syria, to
march against Aretas. Vitellius obediently mobilized two legions, sending them on a detour around Judea while he joined Antipas in attending a festival at Jerusalem.

Antipas' fall from power was eventually due to Emperor Caligula and to Antipas’ own nephew, Agrippa, brother of Herodias. When Agrippa fell into debt and despite his connections with the imperial family, Herodias persuaded Antipas to provide for him, but the two men quarrelled and Agrippa departed. After Agrippa was heard expressing to his friend Caligula his eagerness for Tiberius to die and leave room for Caligula to succeed him, he was imprisoned. When Caligula finally became emperor in 37 CE, he not only released his friend, Agrippa, but granted him rule of Philip's former tetrarchy (slightly extended), with the title of king.

Josephus relates that Herodias, jealous at Agrippa's success, persuaded Antipas to ask Caligula for the title of king for himself. However, Agrippa simultaneously presented the emperor with a list of charges against the tetrarch. Caligula decided to credit the allegations of conspiracy, and in the summer of 39 AD, Antipas' money and territory were turned over to Agrippa, while he himself was exiled. Herodias chose to join her husband in exile, where Antipas died. Among the followers of Jesus and members of the early Christian movement mentioned in the New Testament are Joanna, the wife of one of Antipas' stewards, and Manaen, a "foster-brother" or "companion" of Antipas Presumably, these were sources for early Christian knowledge of Antipas and his court.

Antipas has even appeared in a large number of more recent contemporary representations of the passion of Jesus – often, as in the films Jesus Christ Superstar and The Passion of the Christ, being portrayed as effeminate. In Longfellow's view, however, he wasn’t effeminate so much as rash, ineffective, and when backed into a corner by his furious ex-father-in-law, willing to do anything to save himself.

If we take anything away from this rather lengthy portrayal of Herod Antipas and those surrounding him, it might be the dramatic contrast between him and them and John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth and his followers. In the words of Nadia Bolz-Weber above, “There’ s just not a huge market for the message ‘Jesus bids you come and die’...” An echo of Jesus in the Scriptures: “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me...For those who lose their life for my sake will find it...” Paul picks up the theme in 1 Corinthians: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

That power of God and its benefits Paul outlines in the Epistle: Jesus’ followers are “blessed” with every imaginable spiritual blessing: chosen in Christ, adopted as children, redeemed through Christ’s blood, forgiven their sins, lavished with grace upon grace. To such is given wisdom, insight, and understanding of “the mystery of [God’s] will” as we see it lived out in Jesus’ words and actions. To such is given “an inheritance”, the “seal of the promised Holy Spirit” of Love, which gives us hope to endure beyond the cross as we devote our lives to living “for the praise of his glory.