Saint Sebastian

February 20th is the feast of Saint Sebastian, a young Christian from Milan who joined the Roman army in the 4th century when foreign armies were attacking Rome’s frontiers. Like others, he entered military service to save his country from invaders.

A good soldier, Sebastian rose quickly in the ranks. Diocletian, Rome’s finest general and then its unchallenged emperor, appreciated able, brave men. Above all, he wanted loyalty; Sebastian seemed to have everything he wanted.

Yet, he was a Christian. No one knows why, but the emperor, on good terms with Christians early on in his career, suddenly turned against them. In 301 he began purging his army, ordering Christian officers demoted and Christian soldiers dishonorably discharged. The emperor lost trust in them.

Then, Diocletian began persecuting the entire Christian population of the empire. It’s not known how many Christians were killed or imprisoned or forced into hard labor in the mines; the persecution was so ferocious it was called the “Great Persecution.”

As the persecution was going on, sources place Sebastian, not yet dismissed from the army,  in Rome then under the jurisdiction of Diocletian’s co-emperor Maximian. Here he faced the dangerous situation that caused his death.

Christians were being arrested and imprisoned, and Sebastian was among the soldiers arresting and guarding them. Rather than doing a soldier’s job,  Sebastian did what a Christian should do: he saw those imprisoned as Christ in chains. The whispered words, the small kindnesses, the human face he showed to those in the harsh grip of Roman justice was his answer to the call of Jesus: “I was a prisoner, and you visited me.”

How long he aided  prisoners we don’t know, but someone informed on him. The rest of his story– a favorite of artists through the centuries– says that Sebastian was ordered shot through with arrows by expert archers who pierced all the non-fatal parts of his body so that he would die slowly and painfully from loss of blood.

He was left for dead, but he didn’t die. Instead, he was nursed back to health by a Christian woman named Irene and, once recovered, went before the authorities to denounce their treatment of Christians.

They immediately had him beaten to death.

He was buried by a Christian woman, Lucina, in her family’ crypt along the Appian Way, where an ancient basilica and catacombs now bear the soldier saint’s name.

The early church revered soldier saints like Sebastian because they helped people in danger, even giving up their lives to do it. They used their strength for others. When soldiers asked John the Baptist what they should do, he answered simply “Don’t bully people;” for the temptation of the strong is to bully the weak.

The soldier saints did more than not dominate or bully others, however; they reached out to those in the grip of the powerful. Sebastian’s great virtue was not that he endured a hail of arrows, but that he cared for frightened, chained men and women in a Roman jail–a hellish place.

Soldier saints like Sebastian recall a kind of holiness we may forget these days. They remind us that it’s a holy task to stand in harm’s way on dangerous city streets, in unpopular wars and trouble-spots throughout the world so that others can be safe. It’s holy, but dangerous, to confront injustice and corruption in powerful political or social systems and take the side of the weak.

Christianity is not a religion that shies away from evil and injustice. Like Jesus, a Christians must not be afraid to take a stand against them. We pray to the Lord, then, to send us more soldier saints.

1 Comment

Filed under Passionists, Religion, Travel

Priests and a Priestly People

Are priests a class apart, separate from the rest of humanity? The Letter to the Hebrews, our weekday reading at Mass, offers an extended reflection on the priesthood of Jesus in the light of Jewish tradition of priesthood as it was found in the temple of Jerusalem. It throws light on the meaning of priesthood today.

Jesus is our new high priest, but he did not separate himself from the rest of humanity. He became fully human to bring humanity to God in sacrifice and praise. Here’s how St.Fulgensius of Ruspe explains it:

“When we speak of Christ’s priesthood, what else do we mean than the incarnation? Through this mystery, the Son of God, though himself ever remaining God, became a priest. To him along with the Father, we offer our sacrifice. Yet, through him the sacrifice we now offer is holy, living and pleasing to God. Indeed, if Christ had not sacrificed himself for us, we could not offer any sacrifice. For it is in him that our human nature becomes a redemptive offering.

When we offer our prayers through him, our priest, we confess that Christ truly possesses the flesh of our race. Clearly the Apostle refers to this when he says: Every high priest is taken from among us. He is appointed to act on our behalf in our relationship to God; he is to offer gifts and sacrifices to God.”

A priest embraces the mystery of the Incarnation, the saint says. Like Jesus, priests should embrace humanity in its weakness. Following him, they must embrace their own times and place and not isolate themselves from the world they live in.  Otherwise, how can they bring it to God?

All who are baptized share in the priesthood of Christ. Every Sunday, we gather as a priestly people. The priestly call belongs to us all. “Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God,” we say at Mass. We’re all called to a priestly role.

Leave a comment

Filed under Religion

Healer of Withered Hearts

      The Gospel for this Wednesday, January 18th, once again reminds me of our purpose as a church, to bring the healing power of God’s love to each other and to this wounded world, as soon as possible, without delay or excuse:

     “Jesus entered the synagogue. There was a man there who had a withered hand. They watched Jesus closely to see if He would cure him on the sabbath so they might accuse Him. He said to the man with the withered hand, ‘Come up here before us.’ Then He said to the Pharisees, ‘ Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it? ‘ But they remained silent. Looking at them with anger and grieved at their hardness of heart, Jesus said to the man, ‘ Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out and his hand was restored.” (Mk 3: 1-5)

     With all eyes upon Him Jesus took the opportunity to challenge,teach, and also to heal. Once again Jesus was breaking the rules of His Jewish religion, putting His own life at risk to show us how to live in the Kingdom.

     His challenge : paraphrasing the words of Pope Francis, are we, the Church, an empty museum for “saints”, or are we called to be “a field hospital” for the wounded, the lost, the withered, the sinner? We have many rules that damn the divorced, the gay person, the addict, the non-believer. Can we begin by welcoming, in our hearts and lives, those outsiders, the errant ones, hungry for the meaning in their lives that Jesus can most certainly provide? I don’t know that Jesus will turn them away because “it’s the sabbath “, or for any other reason. Maybe neither should we.

     His lesson: the time to accept and heal is now, today, with everyone we meet. Let us truly stop and see our brothers and sisters. Let us show interest, empathy, love. Let us risk our own lives and dare to reach out to the ones who might not even trust us. Let us risk criticism or rejection for the sake of love of neighbor.

     The healing: with every little act of mercy for others, the love of Christ reaches within our own withered hearts, and heals us as it changes us. With these hearts open to Jesus, let us accept His light, to change our hardened hearts into hearts of flesh and blood, sources of love to the world.

     Our Lord gave His life for us. May we give our lives to Him, and to the healing of His people.

     Orlando Hernandez

Leave a comment

Filed under Inspiration, Motivational, spirituality

Morning Thoughts: Love Your Proud Papa

Today, This Moment, The Year of Your Lord

My Child,

I thought I should write you this morning. To put down a few words. To speak into creation my ongoing love for you.

There are times when I watch you, somewhat at a distance. I leave that space so that my watching doesn’t impede your playing. But there is really no space at all. Because by not being “right with you” I get to see you as you truly are. My “distance” allows me to see you within the full scope of your existence. And never forget, my child, not for a second, I create your existence. It is not an event of the past. I am active. Always. I am always creating you, and I am always enjoying my creation. That is why I watch.

I watch you unfold. I watch frowns and frustrations unfold into smirks and full-blown smiles. I watch you evolve and grow. I watch you transform. I watch you fight then make up. I watch you get hurt then heal. I watch you hoard then share. Of course there are many times, my dear child, always in fact, that I want to jump in and save the day, to stop the fight, the hurt, the misunderstanding before it evens begins. But I love you too much to always deny you such good food and such nutritious drink.

I will your existence moment by moment, and my will is love. I know exactly how much you need to digest in order to provide for your perfect growth. I also know when too much of one nutrient or the denial of another is not part of my overall plan.

Perhaps that is the hardest thing about being a father, knowing that your maximum freedom within the ever-expanding bounds of my love is what you most need. Such liberty leads you into the divine individuality that I ultimately will to be achieved. And it’s also what makes you most valuable to our one, united, and very common family.

True liberty is what makes you most like me.

Please enjoy my gift this new day.

That’s what I will.

Enjoy my love. Enjoy your freedom. Enjoy the play of keeping it all within bounds. For you should also know, your freedom without my love is a very dangerous game. A game that as much as it grieves me to see any of my children play, I must allow, if the freedom I gift to you is to be of any value at all.

I am always with you. And know this—and know it for sure—if at any one moment, you choose to use your liberty to call out my name, I will scoop you up before you can even utter “the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter” of my most hallowed name.

For the distance between us isn’t real at all.

It’s love. It’s everywhere. And it lasts for eternity.

I seal this with a kiss. I place it upon the palm of my hand.

I hold it out and gently blow it your way.

I love you…my dear child.

 

Always smiling at you,

.

Your Proud Papa

.


.

.

—Howard Hain

.

Leave a comment

Filed under art, Inspiration, Motivational, podcast, Religion, spirituality, Travel

Holding on to the Past

Temple

We’re reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews these days at Mass. Raymond Brown calls the work “a conundrum”  in his “Introduction to the New Testament”. Who wrote it, where and when it was written, to whom, why?  Hard to figure out.

Indications are the letter was written to Jewish-Christians or their sympathizers, perhaps in the area of Rome, after the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, who wanted to reconstruct the temple and renew worship there.  Martin Goodman’s “Rome and Jerusalem” (New York 2008)  offers an interesting picture of the Jewish (and Jewish-Christian) attempts to rebuild the temple and  revive its rites in the latter part of the 1st century.

Our letter sees Christ as superior to this Jewish past; he is its fulfillment and creates something new. Not dismissing the past, he completes it.

I wonder if we face something like this today as our world and our church face change, drastic change, and yet we hang on to the past, not knowing the future and afraid of what it will bring. But we can’t recreate what has been, something new lies before us.

The Letter to the Hebrews tells us to face the future bravely, and keep before us the One who holds the key to the future. Remember his struggle.

“Keep your eye fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith, For the sake of the joy put before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and has taken his place at the right hand of the Father. Consider how he faced such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.”

1 Comment

Filed under Religion

Anthony of Egypt

temptation anthony copy


January 17th is the feast of Anthony of Egypt, the 3rd century saint whose biography, written by St. Athanasius, inspired many early Christians, among them St. Augustine. Years ago, I visited Anthony’s native village outside Luxor in Egypt and the cave in the Valley of the Kings where he lived for a time in the desert.

Over the centuries artists like Martin Schongauer (above) portrayed vividly the temptations of Anthony. Early on,  during a Roman persecution of Christians in Alexandria,  Anthony went to the city to offer himself as a martyr, but they ignored him. He went back home, his biographer said, to the martyrdom of everyday life. There’s a martyrdom waiting each day, the saint realized, and you’re tempted there. Yet, they make you holy. Facing his temptations, prepared Anthony to be a spiritual guide for many who came to seek his advice.

Anthony abuHere’s a rewrite of Athanasius’ description of Anthony’s temptations. I think they still throw light on our own.

“Those who follow Jesus must expect temptation. Anthony experienced a range of temptations over the hundred years of his life. The devil knocked regularly on the door of his heart, assuming different faces and making different suggestions, but this shy, gentle man was not conquered.

“During the early years Christ called him, he often thought: “Have I made a mistake?” The days seemed slow and monotonous. Nothing important seemed to be happening in his life. “Am I doing anything?” Anthony wondered.

“One day, tired by his life as it was, he went out of his house and opened his arms wide and cried to heaven: “Lord, what should I do?” For a while, only silence. Then, Anthony heard someone moving behind him. He turned to his house and saw someone like himself, who got up from his bed, said his prayers, ate his meals, did his work, welcomed some people, and finally said his prayers again and went to sleep.

“Anthony realized an angel of God was answering his prayer. His temptation was to see nothing in ordinary life. Life had no meaning. So, going back to his house he began his ordinary routine again. Treasure is always there; life is holy ground.

“Other temptations beset Anthony. Sometimes he worried about his health. If he fell ill, who would care for him? He had chosen to live for God alone. But wouldn’t it be better to have a family? He gave so much to others and he kept little for himself. Wouldn’t it be better to become a rich man? Lustful thoughts sometimes filled his mind.

“Temptations swept over his soul like dust storms, causing confusion and uncertainty. But in the storms, Anthony learned another lesson: Christ was always with him.

“One restless night, Anthony was almost pulled to pieces by violent temptations. It was as if monsters and demons were flying through his room shouting and screaming, ready to kill him. Just as he was about to give up hope, a beautiful light came through the roof of his house and the demons suddenly disappeared. In the peaceful light, he saw Christ.

“Lord, where were you when I was being tried?” Anthony said.
“I was right here all the time as you struggled,” Jesus replied. “You didn’t give in because I was your helper.”

“After that ordeal, Anthony experienced peace for a while. Then, one day he heard a knock at his door. Opening it, he saw a little man grinning from ear to ear, who bowed almost to the ground before him as if he were a king.

“You are a saint, Anthony,” he said ingratiatingly. “Everyone says it. People say there’s nobody wiser or better than you on earth. So, I want to hear everything you say and know your every thought; you’re a man who’s just perfect.”

“Anthony quickly slammed the door in the little man’s face. “You’re more dangerous than any temptation I’ve had, because you want me to believe I’m God, and I’m not. You are the temptation of pride.”

“Gradually over the years, people discovered this man with so much hard earned wisdom. Soon , from everywhere people were coming to seek his advice and his prayers and his healing for themselves or someone they loved. Because he knew himself so well, Anthony seemed to know their hearts too.

“One constant message he repeated again and again to those who came to him – Never let fear overcome you, live joyfully in God’s grace. Never give up. God delivers us from temptation.”

8 Comments

Filed under Religion

Sunday Vespers: A Chip off the Old Block

pieter-bruegel-the-resurrection-of-christ-ca-1562

 

You are my rock

Upon the rock You built Your Church

At Your death the rock was split in two

They laid You lifeless in the rocky tomb

And rolled the rock to seal the light of day

I am Your rock

Upon me You build Your Church

At Your death I split in two

You lay lifeless in my lifeless tomb

My rocky heart seals the light of day

In secret to Father we do pray

Our stillness knows that He is God

No longer statues we arise

And throw aside what we once wore

Total darkness and yet we see

Clearly only one way to go

Your promise lights the way

To restore what You foretold

Same as in the beginning

God and in His image

His creation

His masterpiece

His Son and His brother

The One known as The Word and the one called man

We both enter the garden

As the rock is rolled away


.

—Howard Hain

.

* Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Resurrection of Christ”, ca. 1562

.

Leave a comment

Filed under art, Inspiration, Motivational, poetry, Religion, spirituality, Travel