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St. Teresa of Jesus, Virgin, Religious, Doctor of the Church

October 9, 2020

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St. Teresa of Jesus was born in Avila, Spain, on March 28, 1515, one of twelve children in a faith-filled home. At age seven she read the lives of the saints and was so inspired by the martyrs that she and her brother Rodrigo began walking south toward the Moors hoping to gain instant access to heaven. They were intercepted on their way by their uncle and returned home.

Young Teresa’s religious fervor cooled during her adolescence. She read racy novels, became preoccupied with her appearance, and used perfume. She later admitted that she was more interested in boys than religion.

St. Teresa of Jesus

“St. Teresa of Jesus.” Museum Teresa de Jesus en Alba. Alba de Tormes, Spain.

Her spiritual life got back on course when she read the letters of St. Jerome and shortly thereafter experienced the call to be a religious sister. She entered the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation in Avila in 1535 and made her first profession of vows in 1537. The next year she came down with a serious illness that persisted for two years followed by partial paralysis for another. The doctors had given up on her. She turned to prayer and recovered.

The convent in Avila was affluent and the nuns enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. It was close to town, the sisters received many guests, and they were caught up in the ways of the world. St. Teresa was a good nun during her initial years in the convent, but when she was older, she described the period as spiritually mediocre.

She went through a dramatic conversion which began in 1554. She prayed before a crucifix and later wrote, “When I looked at Christ hanging poor and naked on the Cross, I felt I could never bear to be rich.” The next year she read the Confessions of St. Augustine and resolved to dedicate the rest of her life to prayer. The same year her mystical experiences began. There were divine revelations from God. She received visions from St. Mary Magdalene and St. Augustine, both who showed her the miserable place in hell that was reserved for her. She had other moments of rapture and ecstasy. The mystical experiences went for six years until 1560.

Fearing hell for herself, she set out to save her soul, as well as the souls of her fellow Carmelites. She returned to the full observance of the Carmelite rule, a strict cloister, more prayer and contemplation, penitential practices, and rigorous austerity. There were 140 nuns in the convent. Many doubted her visions and ridiculed her. Most were content with their pleasant life and bitterly opposed her reform movement. It caused a deep rift and two divergent branches emerged within the community, the non-reformed, relaxed, or Calced Carmelites, those with shoes, and the “the Strict Observance,” the Discalced Carmelites, those without shoes.

St. Teresa founded a new convent in 1562. Thirteen other nuns joined her. She founded sixteen other convents from 1562 to 1576. In 1568 she helped St. John of the Cross found a community of Discalced Carmelites for men. She wrote three spiritual masterpieces: The Life her autobiography and a treatise on mystical prayer, The Way of Perfection on mystical theology, and The Interior Castle, a metaphorical description of the seven stages of spiritual growth.

St. Teresa died on October 4, 1582 in Alba de Tormes, Spain, at the age of 67. She was canonized a saint in 1622 and declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970. She is the patron saint of Spain and Croatia and headache sufferers. Her symbols are a book and a quill pen because of her writings and a flaming arrow in a heart because she said, “God’s love is like a lance driven into the heart.”

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The San Damiano Cross

October 2, 2020

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The Franciscan Connection. The San Damiano Cross is especially revered by the Franciscans. The original cross was located in a small, dilapidated country church in Umbria, Italy. One day in 1206 AD St. Francis of Assisi was ambling along a country road, happened upon the church, went inside, and knelt down before the cross. While he was in prayer, he saw the lips of Jesus move and he heard his voice say, “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling completely into ruin.” At first, Francis thought Jesus wanted him to repair the building itself, but over time and upon further reflection, it became apparent to him that Jesus did not want him to fix the church building, but to revive the faith of the people which was crumbling, lax, dilapidated, and in ruins. From that time forward, Francis was an animated preacher. He attracted huge crowds and he drew thousands of people back to Jesus and the gospel. He was a master builder of the Body of Christ, the Church.

The San Damiano Cross Present Location. The San Damiano Cross hung in the San Damiano Church from 1206 to 1257 AD. Then the Poor Clare Sisters moved the cross to the Basilica of St. Clare, and it has remained there until the present day where it is on display in its own chapel.

Description. The San Damiano Cross is a painted, icon-style cross. The artist is unknown. It probably was painted sometime in the Twelfth Century AD.

The Major Witnesses. There are five large figures beneath Jesus’ arms that are the major witnesses of the crucifixion. On the left side beneath Jesus’ right arm there are two figures, the Blessed Mother Mary on the outside and the Beloved Disciple on the inside; and on the right side beneath Jesus’ left arm, there are three figures, the closest, St. Mary Magdalene; Mary, the mother of James in the middle; and the centurion on the outside.

The Minor Witnesses. There are two smaller figures below the major witnesses: St. Longinus on the lower left, holding a lance, the soldier who pierced Jesus’ side (Jn 19:34); and Stephanton on the lower right, holding a reed and a sponge, the one who raised a sprig of hyssop to Jesus’ lips (Mt 27:48; Mk 15:36; Jn 19:29).

Other Noteworthy Details. There is a small face behind the centurion’s left shoulder, the “signature” of the artist; there is a tiny rooster on the lower right between Jesus’ left kneecap and ankle, the rooster that crowed when Peter denied Jesus; and in the dark box at the bottom of the cross, there are six important saints. According to one local tradition, they are Peter and Paul, Michael, John the Baptist, John the apostle, and Rufino, a local martyr. According to another legend, the saints are Peter and Paul, Michael, Damian, Rufino, Victorino, and another local martyr.

The Heavenly Welcome. At the top of the cross there is an outstretched hand, a symbol of God the Father welcoming Jesus into heaven. There are ten angels, five to the left and five to the right, all welcoming the risen Jesus to heaven. The circled figure in the middle is Jesus, gloriously triumphant, victor over sin and death, with the inscription, “Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews” (Jn 19:19).

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St. Lorenzo Ruiz and the Nagasaki Martyrs

September 25, 2020

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Between 1633 and 1637 sixteen Christians were martyred for their faith in Nagasaki, Japan. All sixteen were related to the Dominican Order in some way: nine Dominican priests, two Dominican brothers, two consecrated virgins, and three Dominican tertiaries, lay persons who belong to the Third Order of St. Dominic. They belonged to five different nationalities: nine were Japanese, four Spaniards, one Frenchman, one Italian, and one Filipino, St. Lorenzo Ruiz.

St. Lorenzo Ruiz (1600-1637), also known in English as St. Lawrence Ruiz, is named first on the list of sixteen, even though a lay person, because he is the protomartyr or the first martyr from the Philippines. He was canonized by Pope St. John Paul II in Manila on October 18, 1987 and is the patron saint of both the Philippines and the Filipino people. Numerous miracles have been attributed through his intercession and there is a widespread devotion to him among Filipinos.

St. Lorenzo Ruiz was born in Manila in 1600 to a Chinese father and a Filipino mother. His family lived in Binondo, the Chinese section of Manila. Young Lorenzo was raised in the faith by his parents, both who were Christians. He became fluent in three languages, Chinese from his father, Tagalog from his mother, and Spanish from the Dominican friars who were his schoolteachers. As a youth, he was a sacristan and altar server at his parish, and because of his close association with the Dominicans, he became a member of the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary, a society with a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother Mary and St. Dominic. They are passionate advocates for the value of the Rosary. He was married and the father of three children, two sons and one daughter.

His life took a dramatic turn for the worse when he was falsely accused of a murder. He learned that some Dominican priests were about to set sail, Spanish Fathers Antonio Gonzalez, Guillermo Courtet, and Miguel de Aozaraza; Japanese Father Vicente Shiwozuka de la Cruz; and a layman, Lazaro. He asked to join them to flee the country. He learned only after they had departed that they were headed to Japan where a severe persecution was underway under the regime of the cruel anti-Christian ruler Tokugawa Yemitsu.

Shortly after their arrival in Japan, he and the others were apprehended and forcibly transported to Nagasaki. Christians were ordered to trample upon an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the child Jesus, and if they refused, they were subjected to heartless torture. Bamboo needles were inserted under their fingernails. They were made to drink large amounts of water, made to lie on their backs, a board was placed over their stomachs, guards stomped on the boards, and water gushed through their mouths, noses, and ears.

St. Lorenzo Ruiz was called before the Japanese magistrates. They demanded that he renounce his faith. He vacillated momentarily and asked, “If I apostatize, will you spare my life?” His question was met with silence. He paused, prayed, and with amazing courage replied defiantly, “I am a Christian. I shall die for God, and for him I would give many thousands of lives. So do with me as you please.” He, Lazaro, and the three priests were hung upside down over a burning pit. After being suspended for three days, he and Lazaro died. The three priests were still alive and subsequently beheaded. All five gave their lives for Christ on September 28, 1637.

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St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: a unique four-week span

September 16, 2020

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St. Paul sets foot in Greece.

“St. Paul sets foot in Greece.” St. Nicholas Church, Kavala, Greece.

A Four-Part Sampler. Four scripture passages from Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians are featured for the second reading from the Twenty-Fifth to Twenty-Eighth Sundays of Ordinary Time in Year A. It is the only time in the three-year Lectionary cycle that there is a sequential progression of readings taken from this letter following the principle of Lectio continua, a continuous series of passages from the same book over a number of Sundays in a row.

The City of Philippi. Philippi is a city in the district of Macedonia in northern Greece several miles inland from the Aegean Sea. It is the first place in Europe that St. Paul visited on his Second Missionary Journey. St. Paul stayed in Philippi a number of months in late 48 and early 49 AD. He made the trip to Philippi by ship. He set sail from Troas in northwest Turkey, went by way of Samothrace, an island in the Aegean Sea, and arrived at Neapolis, the port city on the northern coastline (Acts 16:11). During his brief stay St. Paul preached the gospel; made his first convert, Lydia, who was baptized at the river; drove an evil spirit out of a slave girl who was possessed by a demon; was attacked by a crowd and beaten with rods, then imprisoned and miraculously released; converted the jailer; and founded a Christian community (Acts 16:12-40).

The Letter to the Philippians. This letter is one of the authentic Pauline letters, one written by Paul himself, not one of his followers using his name. After Paul had been away from one of his new communities, he would write to them to encourage, instruct, or correct them, depending upon their unique situation and the reports that he was receiving. Paul states within this letter that he was writing from prison (Phil 1:7,13,14,17), but the location and date is not known with certainty. At one time it was thought that he wrote this letter from Rome late in his life (Acts 28:16; 61 to 63 AD). Other possibilities include his imprisonments, either in Caesarea (Acts 24:27, 58-60 AD) or Corinth, but most scholars today believe Paul wrote this letter from Ephesus during a confinement in 55 AD.

Week 25A, Life is Christ (Phil 1:20-24,27). St. Paul wonders aloud whether it is better to be alive on earth enjoying the benefits of physical existence or to be dead in heaven enjoying eternity with Christ. As long as a person is alive, a person should live in a manner consistent with the gospel.

Weeks 26A, The Christ Hymn (Phil 2:1-11). St. Paul begins with an urgent plea for unity within the community (2:1-5). Then Paul includes within his letter a hymn that was sung and recited by the first generation of Christians. It was in use as early as the 40s AD and it may be the oldest piece of New Testament literature. It served as a creed and provides a list of what the first Christians believed about Jesus.

Week 27A, Calm and Peace (Phil 4:6-9). St. Paul offers solid spiritual advice. First, there is no need to be anxious about anything. Prayer and a strong relationship with God is the sure pathway to calm and peace. Paul adds an encouragement to strive for Christian ideals of truth, honor, justice, purity, beauty, generosity, and excellence. These also lead to peace.

Week 28A, Christ is our strength (Phil 4:12-14,19-20). St. Paul describes how in every circumstance, good or bad, high or low, well-fed or hungry, easy or difficult, comfortable or suffering, God supplies the grace and strength that is needed to carry on.

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The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

September 11, 2020

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“The Exaltation of the Holy Cross,” Bishop Macarius raises the True Cross on September 14, 335.

Exaltation. The feast was formerly known as the Triumph of the Cross, but it has been renamed the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. “Exaltation” means “to lift up,” and for centuries Christians have elevated crosses so they can be clearly seen and venerated by genuflection, kneeling, a profound bow, singing, dancing, and other expressions of respect and reverence.

Rich Meaning. The Cross is the primary symbol of the Christian faith. It represents Jesus himself, his suffering, his immeasurable love for us, his victory over sin and death, and our redemption. In Cruce salus. In the Cross is our salvation.

The Tree of Defeat and the Tree of Victory. The Cross represents a stunning reversal. The tree of defeat, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gn 2:17), was where the evil one conquered (Gn 3:6), sin was introduced to the world, and death arose. The tree of victory is the tree of the Cross, so that where death arose, life might again spring forth, and that the evil one who once conquered with a tree, might likewise on a tree be conquered. On this great feast and always, “We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our salvation, life, and resurrection, through whom we are saved and delivered” (Entrance Antiphon, see Gal 6:14).

Heraclius I, Byzantine Emperor, carries the True Cross into Jerusalem, March 21, 630.” St. Barbara Catholic Church, Diest, Belgium.

A Multilayered Feast. The Exaltation of the Holy Cross celebrates major historic events associated with the Cross, all which took place in Jerusalem: the triumphant return of the True Cross relic on March 21, 630; the first public veneration of the True Cross relic at the Basilica of the Anastasis on September 14, 335; and the discovery of the True Cross on September 14, 320.

A Glorious Discovery. Queen St. Helena went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 320, and it was her desire to build churches in the locations associated with the most important events in the life of Jesus and also to find the True Cross. When St. Helena arrived in Jerusalem, there was a pagan temple to the Roman goddess Venus over Calvary which her son, the Emperor Constantine, ordered destroyed. As the workers dismantled the structure and reached the foundation, they broke into a cistern which contained three crosses, one which was determined to be the True Cross. Subsequently, two churches were built, the Basilica of the Anastasis over the tomb of Jesus to honor his Resurrection and the Basilica of the Martyrium over Calvary to honor the crucifixion. Both were dedicated on September 13, 335. On September 14, 335, the True Cross was lifted by Bishop Macarius before the crowd. It was venerated with great devotion and then enshrined in the Martyrium.

A Glorious Recovery. Christendom was horrified when Jerusalem was ransacked by the Persians on May 20, 614. The Anastasis was destroyed and the True Cross stolen. The Byzantine emperor, Heraclius I (575-641), a Christian, assembled an army in 622. Historical records differ over what transpired next. One version claims that Heraclius challenged King Chosroes II of Persia to a duel or sword fight and won, while the alternate version reports that Heraclius’ troops conquered the Persian army. One way or the other, Heraclius conquered Chosroes in 628, the relic was returned in 629, and on March 21, 630, the Emperor Heraclius personally carried the True Cross relic in solemn procession into Jerusalem. Immediately a festival broke out. Some knelt in reverence. Others danced in jubilation. All rejoiced, exalting in the glorious Cross of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

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Labor Day

September 4, 2020

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There is a very spiritual side to this civic holiday. It is a blessing to have a job, to be able to put our God-given talents to good use, provide for ourselves and our families, and contribute to the betterment of society.

It is an occasion to thank God for our health, our talents and abilities, the job we have, the help that God has provided, the opportunities that have opened up for us, the work that we have been able to do, the sense of satisfaction and inner peace that have come with all that we have accomplished, the things that we have learned on the job, the partnerships we have enjoyed with our co-workers, the relationships with clients and customers, and the fruits and rewards that we have received for our labors. This weekend is a perfect time to offer God a prayer of thanks.

Holy Family

Mechelen – The neogothic sculptural group of Holy family in the workroom form 19. cent. st. Katharine church or Katharinakerk. iStock-sedmak

For those who are still working, it is a time to recommit to being industrious and hardworking, diligent and dependable, energetic and responsible – to honor God in the performance of our labors. For those who are retired, it is time to pause, look back, take stock of a lifetime of labor, and offer God praise and thanks for the journey.

It is also a time to be mindful of those who are not able to labor, those who are not able to find work, or have been laid off, or have been eliminated in restructuring, the unemployed, or for those who do not have a good job, the underpaid, or for those who have not been able to find a job that corresponds to their abilities, the underemployed. Many are going through labor woes and are suffering hard times. Let us pray for those enduring labor problems that they will be able to find meaningful jobs that pay a just wage.

There are other terrible labor problems. Many workers labor under adverse conditions. Some are required to work too long or too hard. Some jobs are extremely dangerous. Many are mistreated by their employers. Children are forced to work in some places. Many are injured on the job. Let us pray that the problems and abuses associated with labor would be eliminated.

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The Passion of Saint John the Baptist

August 28, 2020

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Beheading of Saint John the Baptist depicted in the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension, the Chapel of the Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, Israel.

Beheading of Saint John the Baptist depicted in the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension, the Chapel of the Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem, Israel.

August 29 is the memorial of The Passion of Saint John the Baptist.  It was known formerly as The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.

Annual Memorial.  This memorial in honor of the Baptist began in the Fourth Century AD at the dedication of the Church of St. John at Sebaste in Samaria, Israel, where, according to tradition, John’s skull had been buried by his disciples.  This commemoration gradually spread to the universal church, first to the East in the Fifth Century and to Rome by the Seventh Century.

The Historical Event.  The account of the Baptist’s passion is given in two of the four gospels, the original version in Mk 6:17-29, and an edited and shortened account in Mt 14:3-12.  Biblical historians believe that the beheading of John took place at Machaerus, a fort in the desert on the east side of the Dead Sea in modern-day Jordan.  It had been built by King Herod the Great as a desert hideaway, and his son, King Herod Antipas, went there occasionally.

Foreshadowing.  John the Baptist is the forerunner or precursor.  John went ahead of Jesus with his miraculous birth and his unique role as prophet, preacher, and baptizer.  These set the stage for Jesus’ own miraculous birth, as well as his baptism and his ministry as prophet and teacher.  John the Baptist’s suffering and death prefigures Jesus’ suffering and death, and the details in the account of the passion of John anticipate the Passion of Jesus.  Specific similarities include:  John spoke the truth, Jesus is truth; it was the festive occasion of a birthday, it was the festive occasion of Passover; Herodias bitterly opposed John, the religious leaders bitterly opposed Jesus; John was arrested and bound, Jesus was arrested and bound; Herod declared John innocent, Pilate declared Jesus innocent; John was held in a prison cell in Machaerus, Jesus was held in a prison cell below Caiaphas’ palace; Herod tried to please his wife, Pilate attempted to please the crowds; Herod condemned John, Pilate condemned Jesus; Roman soldiers put John to death by beheading, Roman soldiers put Jesus to death by crucifixion; John’s disciples took his body and laid it in a tomb, and Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus and laid it in a tomb.

Larger Gospel Context.  Mark carefully placed the account of the Baptist’s death between two sections on the missionary work of the first apostles.  In Mark 6:7-13 Jesus sends the Twelve out two by two, and in Mark 6:30-33 the apostles return to Jesus to report what they have done.  Mark wants to show that it requires tremendous courage to speak the truth and proclaim the gospel, and that it will lead to bitter suffering.

Gospel Preview.  The Cross is not mentioned explicitly in the Baptist’s passion account, but it is Mark’s underlying mindset.  The death of John is a preview of the death of Jesus, and for John his beheading was his cross.  Everyone who is a disciple must carry their cross.

Spiritual Applications.  The Baptist had a number of outstanding spiritual qualities.   He was a fierce advocate for truth and justice, fought hard for what is right, demonstrated his faith in a very public manner, walked in straight paths and urged others to do likewise, directed attention away from himself to Jesus, had a humble estimation of himself, and endured the suffering that came his way.  These admirable traits serve as inspiration and guidance for our spiritual lives.

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St. Bartholomew, the Apostle Jesus Saw Under a Fig Tree

August 21, 2020

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When Jesus met Bartholomew for the first time, Jesus told him, “I saw you under the fig tree” (Jn 1:48b). It is a peculiar and intriguing comment. Why would this behavior be worthy of notice or deserving of a comment? What is spiritually significant about sitting under a fig tree?

St. Bartholomew

St. Bartholomew, Apostle and Martyr.” St. Bartholomew Catholic Church, Wayzata.

A shady place is a good place to pray and study. Fig trees have many leaves and a dense canopy. It is hot in Israel much of the year. Most homes were made of stone, out in the open, not protected from the sun, and without fans or air conditioning. During the heat of the day a person could get relief in the shade. It was an ideal place to read Scripture, contemplate it in prayer, study its meaning, and apply it to daily living. “To sit under a fig tree” is a Jewish figure of speech for meditating on Scripture. It is presumed that Bartholomew spent many hours under the fig tree in prayer with Scripture, was thoroughly familiar with its entirety, both the Law and the prophets, and understood that the Messiah had been promised and was coming. When Jesus told Bartholomew that he had seen him under the fig tree, Jesus was telling him that he “caught him” reading Scripture as he was in the habit of doing.

Fig leaves are a reminder of sin. When Adam and Eve realized that the serpent had tricked them and that they had sinned, “they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” (Gn 3:7b). Fig leaves represent sin. Bartholomew went under the fig tree to reflect upon his life, bring his sins to mind, admit them to God, express his regret, apologize for them, offer repentance, and pledge to do better. When Jesus told Bartholomew that he had seen him under the fig tree, Jesus knew that he was confessing his sins to God, that he was sorry for his sins, and that his sins were forgiven (see Ps 32:5).

Fig leaves provide overhead protection. Fig leaves provide shelter from the searing rays of the sun and the pounding rain during a downpour. Similarly, the many leaves in the canopy overhead represent the protection that the Mosaic Law provides to those who stay under it and abide by it. When Jesus said that he had seen Bartholomew under the fig tree, it meant that Jesus was aware that he was well-schooled in the Law, was fully committed to following it, wished to stay under its spiritual protection, and that he was a righteous man.

We need to spend time in the shade. Bartholomew spent time under the fig tree. We do not know what he was doing for sure, but it is likely that it was quiet time spent in prayer and reflection. Bartholomew probably was following the traditional Jewish practice of reading and praying with Scripture under a fig tree. Or, he may have taken an extended amount of time to reflect about his life, particularly the sins that he had committed, been filled with remorse, sought forgiveness, and expressed his intention to live a holier life. Or, he may have been reviewing the Mosaic Law and been making a pledge to God to adhere to the Commandments more faithfully in the future. Like Bartholomew, it is good for us to reserve a block of time to be in the shade of the fig tree, to get away from people and our tasks, break away from the regular routine, sit down alone, be quiet, eliminate distractions, and spend quality time with God, not just speaking but also listening. Fig tree time can also be an excellent opportunity to read the Bible or do other spiritual reading. The options are many. The need is critical. The urgency is high. The time is now. If we sit under the fig tree, Jesus will see us, and when he does, he will be pleased.

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The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

August 14, 2020

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Each year on August 15, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Assumption, the belief that Mary was assumed, taken up body and soul to heaven, where she lives in eternal glory with her son Jesus. The prayers that are said at Mass, particularly the Preface, provide a concise statement of the major aspects of this dearly held belief.

The first sentence is, “For today the Virgin Mother of God was assumed into heaven.” “Today” seems to imply that the Assumption is happening at the present moment, when in fact it took place centuries ago. The Assumption is being remembered and honored today.

“Virgin” is a major statement about Jesus. The Holy Spirit came upon Mary, and the power of the Most High overshadowed her (Lk 1:35). It was the Holy Spirit in partnership with the Father that was the source of Jesus’ life. Jesus did not have human origins. He is divine.

“Mother of God” is another powerful statement, partly about Mary, but more importantly about Jesus. Jesus is “Son of God and Son of Mary”; he has two natures, divine and human. Mary is Theotokos, the bearer of God (Ephesus, 431 AD), and her son Jesus is not a holy man, a prophet, or an exceptional human being, but truly God, one of the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity.

“Assumed into heaven” is the belief that Mary was taken up into heaven, and in doing so, she joined elite company. The Bible names only two others who have been assumed to heaven, Elijah who went to heaven on a flaming chariot (2 Kgs 2:11), and Jesus who was taken up to heaven in a cloud (Acts 1:9). It is presumed that Moses also ascended because “no one knows the place of his burial” (Dt 34:6). Jesus and Mary were both without sin, and as Jesus was rewarded by his Father by being ascended to heaven, and Mary was rewarded by her Son by being assumed into heaven.

The Preface continues, Mary is “the beginning and image of your Church’s coming to perfection.” Mary is “the beginning,” the first disciple of Jesus, the first member of his Church. She is also the “image of your Church,” the perfect model of discipleship, the picture of virtue, loving, kind, and generous, and Christians are to follow her example.

Next, Mary is mentioned with regard to the “Church’s coming to perfection.” The members of the Church are far from perfect, but Mary was immaculately conceived, free of sin from the beginning, and she avoided all forms of sin her entire life, free from sin until the end, sinless from start to finish, “perfect.” “Coming” acknowledges that perfection is the desired outcome and that this is a lifelong journey. Every disciple individually and the Church collectively is invited to become more like Mary, to root out all forms of sin and grow in holiness.

The Preface goes on to say that Mary is “a sign of hope and comfort.” The hope is that if Mary was taken up to heaven at the end of her time on earth, that on the day of our death we will be taken up to heaven as she was. It is natural to be nervous about what will happen to us when we die, and it is a source of immense comfort to know that the glorious journey that Mary made to heaven is promised to every faith-filled believer.

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St. Sixtus II, Pope, and Companions, Martyrs

August 7, 2020

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Pope St. Sixtus II was elected to the papacy on August 30, 257, and he served as pope for less than one year, until his martyrdom on August 6, 258. For centuries, his memorial was celebrated on his death anniversary, August 6, but when the liturgical calendar was revised in 1969 it was transferred to August 7 because of the Feast of the Transfiguration. His name is familiar because it is included on the first list of martyrs in the Roman Canon or Eucharistic Prayer I. His name comes after Linus, Cletus, and Clement, and before Cornelius and Cyprian. During the early Church he was venerated as the most important martyred pope after St. Peter.

Botticelli, Sandro. Pope Sixtus II. 1480. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

Pope St. Sixtus II succeeded Pope St. Stephen I. During his short eleven months he was faced was a controversy regarding the rebaptism of heretics and schismatics who wished to join the Church. His predecessor had been in a dispute with St. Cyprian, the bishop in Carthage in North Africa, who held that the baptisms conferred by heretics or schismatics were invalid because they were not in communion with the Church, while Stephen held that they were valid. He, with the help of Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, was able to forge a reconciliation with Cyprian and the churches of North Africa and Asia Minor, by accepting both approaches.

His entire pontificate was during the reign of the Roman Emperor Valerian who ruled from 253 until 260. Initially, Valerian tolerated Christians, but he reversed his position, issued a decree that insisted that all Roman citizens, Christians included, worship Roman gods and take part in their cultic worship, and he banned the celebration of Mass or the assembly for prayer at cemeteries. With that, a savage persecution began. Pope St. Sixtus II escaped detection for a short while. Valerian made a second declaration to the Senate, more stringent than the first, that any clergy, bishops, priests, or deacons, should be hunted down and executed immediately; and that high-ranking lay Christians should be demoted, their privileges taken away, their wealth forfeited, and if they would not renounce their faith, that they should also be put to death. Christian women of status were to have their property confiscated and be exiled, while Christian common folk were to have their homes and possessions seized and be forced into slavery.

On August 6, 258, Pope St. Sixtus II was celebrating Mass, presumably in secrecy of the underground catacombs, at the cemetery of Praetextatus which is located a short distance outside of Rome. Roman soldiers stormed the cemetery, captured him while he was seated and preaching to the congregation, and immediately beheaded him by the sword along with four deacons who were with him: Sts. Januarius, Vincent, Magnus, and Stephen. Two other deacons, Sts. Agapitus and Felicissimus, were beheaded later the same day. St. Lawrence, also a deacon, was beheaded four days later. Pope St. Sixtus II was buried in the catacombs of St. Callistus, across the road from the cemetery of Praetextatus, along the Appian Way.

Pope St. Sixtus II exemplified everything that St. Cyprian recommended to those oppressed by Valerian’s persecution. He did not have his mind fixed on death but on immortality, he committed himself to the Lord in complete faith and with unflinching courage, and he made his confession of faith with joy rather than fear. As a soldier for God and Christ, he was crowned with sainthood and eternal life.

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