A number of martyrs have been remembered in our liturgy recently. Last week, August 10th, we remembered Lawrence the Deacon, one of the most important martyrs of the early church. The day before, August 9, we remembered Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein, who died in the concentration camp at Auschwitz on that day in 1942.
Today we remember Maximillian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan priest, who also died in Auschwitz about a year before her, August 14, 1941.
Peter Brown, an historian of early Christianity, says it wasn’t the bravery of Christian martyrs that impressed the Romans. The Romans were a macho people; war was in their blood. They prided themselves on dying bravely.
What the Romans marveled at was how Christian martyrs approached death. They had other values. They saw themselves as citizens of another world, who followed Jesus Christ in how they lived. They believed in his promise of everlasting life.
Lawrence the deacon, for example, could have escaped Roman persecution, but he wouldn’t abandon the poor in his care. Jesus said take care of the poor.
Centuries later, Maximillian Kolbe was a priest who wouldn’t abandon the vocation God gave him.
Before World War II, Kolbe was active as a Franciscan priest, promoting devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. He ran a large, successful Franciscan printing enterprise in Warsaw.
In 1939, after invading Poland, the Nazi arrested him and a number of other Franciscans and imprisoned them for some months. They ransacked their printing place, probably hoping to intimidate them. Then, they left them go.
Instead of being intimidated, Kolbe began to house refugees from the Nazis, some of them Jews. That got him into trouble, so he was arrested again, on February 14th, 1941, and sent to Auschwitz to do hard labor.
Concentration camps like Auschwitz where Maximillian Kolbe and Sr.Teresa Benedicta died are the nearest thing to Calvary in modern times. More than 1500 of them were spread mostly through German occupied territories in Europe. Twenty million people died in the camps in the Second World War, 6 million were Jews. 1.3 million people went to Auschwitz; 1,1 million died there.
Five months after Kolbe entered Auschwitz, in July 1941, a prisoner from his barracks escaped. In reprisal, the Nazis took 10 men from the barracks to put them to death by starvation. One of them cried out that he had a wife and children who would never see him again. Father Kolbe stepped forward and offered to take the man’s place.
He was the last of the ten men to die of starvation and an injection of carbolic acid two weeks later, on August 14, 1941.
Many stories of Kolbe’s ministry among the prisoners in Auschwitz were told after his death when Auschwitz was liberated. He was canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 19, 1983, who called him “Patron Saint of Our Difficult Age.”
He was a sign of God’s love in a place where God seemed absent.
Maximillian Kolbe’s death on the vigil of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven has been seen as a further sign. God’s hand reached into the dark horror of Calvary to save his Son. God reached out to Mary to bring her, body and soul, to heaven. God reached into Auschwitz and other camps of horror to bring suffering human beings to glory and peace.
In September 2015 world leaders at the United Nations agreed to work for 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The goals aim to “eliminate poverty, fight inequality and tackle climate change, while ensuring no one is left behind. They recognize that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that build economic growth and address a range of social needs including education, health, social protection, and job opportunities, while also tackling climate change and environmental protection.” https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/development-agenda/
Cities have become an important focus for Sustainable Development, because today more than half the world’s population lives in cities and that number is expected to reach two-thirds by the year 2060. In cities “the battle for sustainability will be won or lost,” one UN expert remarked. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2018/07/un-forum-spotlights-cities-struggle-sustainability-will-won-lost/
The 11th goal of Sustainable Development is “making cities safe, inclusive, resilient and sustainable by 2030. Sustainability differs from city to city, but quality of life means among other things, adequate housing, work and employment, clean water and air, access to public transportation.
Mayors throughout the United States have recognized the important role that cities can play in achieving the SDGs. Last year, 2018, New York City is the first city to issue a report on its progress towards sustainability. https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/international/downloads/pdf/NYC_VLR_2018_FINAL.pdf
Governments, civil society and the private sector are all called upon to contribute to the realization of these goals. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2016/05/mobilizing-citizens-of-the-world-to-achieve-the-2030-agenda/
At a time when countries are building walls and thinking only of themselves, why not think big? What can we do? Our church, at least here in the US doesn’t seem active enough.
We may think morning prayer is a few mumbled words or the Sign of the Cross quickly made, but morning prayer is meant to be an important part of our experience as we wake from darkness and sleep.
“Let there be light and there was light; and God said it was good.” (Genesis 1, 3-4) Light was the first thing God made. True Light, which enlightens everyone, came into our world, John’s gospel says. ( John 1, 9)
I sit on the porch for a few minutes in the early morning and watch the sun come through the tall trees lining our garden to the east. In winter it takes awhile. In summer, the sparrows and the doves and sometimes a pair of cardinals gather at the bird feeder to begin the day. Before I do a thing, the world gradually is bathed in light and comes awake.
Before I do a thing.
Morning prayer is a Genesis Prayer, an assurance we shouldn’t miss. Light comes to our world today, True Light, as it was from the beginning. Darkness is a sign of the world that’s chaotic. The psalms and hymns of morning prayer say light comes, and we pray our eyes be open to see.
The images in morning prayer are important. In the beginning God created a garden, a symbol of the world ordered and in harmony, beautiful and fruitful. God is the great Gardener, a king enthroned over creation, and all is God’s garden, the morning psalms say.
“Shout to the Lord all the earth, ring out your joy…Let the sea and all within it thunder praise, the world and all its peoples. Let the rivers clap their hands, and the hills ring out their joy. Rejoice at the presence of the Lord, for he comes to rule the earth.” (Psalm 98, Wednesday Morning 111)
The world, however chaotic it seems, is cared for by the One who made it.
Sometimes God is a Shepherd, a Great Shepherd bestriding the world: “Here comes with power the Lord God…Like a shepherd he feeds his flock, in his arms he gathers his lambs, carrying them in his bosom and leading the ewes with care.” (Isaiah 40, Thursday Morning 111)
Sometimes we’re asked to see the world as a city, God’s holy city. “On the holy mountain is his city, cherished by the Lord…a holy city.” (Psalm 87 Thursday Morning III) We’re asked to see our world as holy, yet still to be built.
“Sing a new song to the Lord; sing to the Lord, all the earth; sing to the Lord and bless his name.” we’re told as we begin the day. (Psalm 96. Monday Morning, 111)
“Serve the Lord with gladness, come into his presence singing for joy.”
We need Christians like St. Justin, the 2nd century philosopher, we remember today. “We need to make our teaching known,” he said. Still true in our day.
In Justin’s time, philosophers were the mentors and teachers of Roman society and were welcomed in the forum and private homes of the Roman world. St. Paul addressed them in Athens with limited success.
Born in Nablus in Palestine of Greek parents, Justin studied all the philosophers of his time in Alexandria, Athens and Ephesus. It may have been in Ephesus around the year 130 that he encountered Christianity when, walking along the seashore, he met an old man who told him the human heart could never be satisfied by Plato but “the prophets alone announced the truth.”
“After telling me these and other things…he went away and I never saw him again, but a flame kindled in my soul, filling me with love for the prophets and the friends of Christ. I thought about his words and became a philosopher..” (Dialogue 8)
Justin was influenced, not only by Christian teaching, but also by the example of Christians he met:
“I liked Plato’s teaching at first and enjoyed hearing evil spoken about Christians, but then I saw they had no fear of death or other things that horrify, and I realized they were not vicious or pleasure-loving at all.” (Apology 2,12)
Justin championed Christianity as a philosopher as Christians were increasingly being attacked by society. Donning a philosopher’s cloak he taught and wrote in Rome about the year 150 AD. He was a new kind of Christian, a Christian philosopher engaging Roman society on its own terms. He gave Christianity a Roman face and voice.
Justin defended Christians against the charge they were atheists and enemies of the Roman state. Christians were good citizens, he wrote, who pray for Rome, though they don’t worship in temples, who had no statues of gods or who did not participate in the religious rites of the state. Justin’s writings give us a unique picture of 2nd century Christianity and early Christian worship.
In his “Dialogue with Trypho, the Jew” Justin offered the traditional Christian defense of Christianity to a Jew antagonistic to the new religion. The Jewish prophets predicted the coming, the death and resurrection of Jesus, Justin argues.
In the documents of Vatican ii, Justin is recognized as an early example of Christian ecumenism. (Evangelium Nuntiandi 53) Through the Word of God all things came to be, he said. The Word became flesh in Jesus Christ, but Justin linked the biblical Word to the Logos of the philosophers. “Seeds of the Word” were scattered throughout the world, Justin claimed. Every human being possesses in his mind a seed of the Word, and so besides the prophets of the Old Testament, pagan philosophers like Heraclitus, Socrates and Musonius lead us to Jesus Christ, Justin said. (Apology 1,46)
A prolific writer and teacher, Justin was an early Christian intellectual using his talents to promote his faith, Unfortunately only three of his writings come down to us. Other Christian intellectuals followed him, using the tools of philosophy, to dialogue with the Greco-Roman world.
Finally, rivals in Rome pressed charges against Justin as an enemy of the state and he was brought before a Roman judge along with six companions. Sentenced to death, they were beheaded probably in the year 165 AD. The official court record of their trial still survives.
We celebrate Easter through the month of May. The Risen Lord stays with his church on her pilgrim way and walks with her step by step. Jesus is with us; he won’t leave us orphans. He gives us his gifts.
One of his gifts is Mary, his Mother. We honor her this month and ask her to guide us into the mysteries of Jesus, her Son. She knew him better than any of his creatures. I have been out in our Mary Garden these last few days visiting her.
In the Acts of the Apostles, our primary scriptural source for knowing how the church developed, Luke describes that development mainly through the missionary journeys of Peter and Paul. But let’s not forget Mary, a key figure in that development. She’s “embedded” in the story of Jesus’ life and in the development of the church. I like that word to describe her–”embedded.”
After Jesus ascends into heaven, forty days after his resurrection, a group of his followers, whom we already know from Luke’s gospel, go back to the upper room in Jerusalem. Luke describes them:
“Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they entered the city they went to the upper room where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”
As he says earlier in his gospel, Luke depends on eyewitnesses who not only have seen and heard what Jesus said and did, but also are given prophetic gifts for preaching and teaching in the church. They tell us Jesus rose from the dead but, inspired by the Holy Spirit, they also tell us what that mystery means for the world.
Luke’s eyewitnesses are the eleven apostles, paired up two by two as Jesus told them for preaching the gospel. There are also women, like Mary Magdalen, followers of Jesus during his ministry and important witnesses of his resurrection. And finally Mary, the mother of Jesus, and his brothers, his relations, who knew him from the beginning.
Mary, who kept all these things in her heart, is the chief eyewitness.