Those who bring us to Christ

This morning at prayer breakfast, we read 1 Peter 5:1-4.  These verses are about leadership, and the conversation quickly turned to mentoring.  And this brought up an interesting question for me, and it’s one that we heard a lot while in seminary: who is it that brought you to a deeper understanding of God in Christ?  And how did they do it?  God the Spirit works in our lives to enlighten and deepen our faith, surely, and often the Spirit works through people in our lives.  Who were these people? 

Two priests come to my mind, though surely there are many others.  These were priests who both served at an Episcopal Church I attended in Athens, Georgia.  At the time, I knew very little about the Episcopal Church, and both were open and patient with my questions.  They never made me feel bad that I didn’t know about something, and they were happy to sit with me as I struggled with my growing understanding of God.  And they were funny!  They laughed a lot, and when I try to picture them in my mind, the first images that come are them smiling and laughing.  Both of them were good priests, and such good, good Christians as well.

Thinking of these two priests, I wanted to ask all of you: who were your mentors?  Who brought you closer to Christ?  Who deepened your faith through their words, actions, or just plain who they were.  And if you feel open to doing so, post a bit about these people below.  I’d love to hear more about them.

~Fr. Tim

This meditation was posted on our Facebook page. If you’d like to share stories about your mentor with us, hop over to this Page and leave a comment.

The Feast of St. Alfred the Great, King of Wessex

Stained glass of King Alfred the Great in Winchester Cathedral

St. Alfred the Great, King of Wessex
Wisdom 6:1-3, 9-12, 24-25
Psalm 21:1-7
2 Thessalonians 2:13-17
Luke 6:43-49

Click here to access these readings.

Today is the feast day of St. Alfred the Great, King of Wessex.  And when you hear this, you might ask, “Who?” or “King of where?”  Alfred was born in what is now Great Britain in 849 A.D.  He was the son of the ruling king of Wessex, one of the small kingdoms that eventually became England. Alfred had three older brothers, and so it was unlikely that he would ever be king, except that he lived when the Vikings were invading the island.  Alfred’s father died while defending the kingdom, and Alfred’s three brothers both ruled and were killed as well. While Alfred was king, the country was overrun and he survived, for a time, living in the forests with a small group of retainers.  Alfred earned the title “the Great” by raising his ragged country-men and fighting back, but also in what he did afterwards.  Alfred drew scholars from all across the land to reestablish learning and religion in his kingdom.  He translated or helped to translate great works of knowledge, such as Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and St. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

In all, Alfred seems like a pretty great medieval king but perhaps a little odd for a saint.  Although he helped revive Christian learning in England and translated some pretty important works into English, he was still, on the whole, a secular man.  Alfred was known as being an extremely devout Christian and very knowledgable about Christian history and tradition, but, again, he was a king, and his main function in life was the defense and right rule of his people.  And even though he sought to protect his people and to establish peaceful relations with his enemies (even so much as standing as godfather to a Viking king), he was, even still, a secular king.  Why was Alfred made a saint?

This question leads us back to one I wrote about a week or so ago: what is a saint?  Normally, we might think of saints as extremely holy people who did nothing but sit around and pray all the time, but in reality, saints were often very active people.  They were holy and deeply good, but they did not shy away from life, especially a life of pain, suffering, and sacrifice for those around them. This goodness and saintliness can occur in any walk of life, both because God is present in any walk of life and because we humans, no matter where we are, always need God.  And from his deep love of humanity, God sends men and women into some of the darkest places on earth so that we can remember God’s love and the salvation offered to us in Jesus Christ.  These women and men are saints in God’s eyes first, and we discern their sainthood (as opposed to the other way around; we actually never “made” Alfred a saint, nor do they “become” saints on their own strength of will).  

Alfred was a man who was born at a time of crisis, and he was called to a task that was perhaps too much for any person.  And, as a king, Alfred fulfilled his duty: he fought for his people, he worked for peace where he could, and he sought to nurture people when swords were at last put away.  But he did not just do his duty.  Alfred did not simply fight a good fight.  Alfred went above and beyond what the world called him to do and listened to a higher calling.  This higher calling was through his vocation as a king, not against it, but even still it was higher than any might have expected.  It was a call from God not only to protect but also to heal, not only to fight a war but to be concerned with what happens afterwards, not only to give out laws and decrees for the betterment of the people but also to practice what he preached.  His work in a time of warfare reminds us in our own day to listen to what God is calling us to do through our work, our family, and our lives in our community.  God is ever with us and calling us to a life more spiritually rich and more greatly founded upon Christ.  

The Feast of St. Luke, Evangelist

St. Luke, Evangelist
Sirach 38:1-4, 6-10, 12-14
Psalm 147
2 Timothy 4:5-13
Luke 4:14-21

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Today is the feast day of St. Luke, the third evangelist.  St. Luke is known as being a physician and for setting his gospel account firmly in history.  He is often represented (as he is in the picture above) by a winged ox.  This may seem a little odd (what do oxen have to do with doctors or writing?), but, in fact, all of the gospels are traditionally represented by some similar figure.  Matthew’s gospel is the “winged man”, Mark’s is the “winged lion”, and John’s is the eagle.  Each of these represents some important aspect of their gospel account.  Matthew’s gospel, for instance, begins with Jesus’s genealogy (and so his specifically human descent), and so the “winged man” is appropriate.  The eagle, according to tradition, had such good eye-sight that it could look directly into the sun, and this bird was seen as a fit symbol for St. John’s gospel.  The wings of each symbol represent their ability to ascend beyond the normal, work-a-day world; the gospels are not just simply accounts of Jesus’s life (called vita in the ancient world), but holy Scripture.  They are the Word of God, and, at the same time, they are grounded in the life of Jesus in this world.

These symbols were not thought up in the first century A.D. but were, instead, drawn from Scripture.  In the beginning of the book of Ezekiel, the prophet sees a magnificent vision.  And in this vision, he sees:

“As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber.  In the middle of it was something like four living creatures. This was their appearance: they were of human form.  Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings.  Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze.  Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus:  their wings touched one another; each of them moved straight ahead, without turning as they moved.  As for the appearance of their faces: the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle;  such were their faces.” (Ezekiel 1:4-10b)

Early Christian writers, and tradition thereafter, saw in this image a foretelling of the Christian Scriptures and, especially, the four gospel accounts.  These four symbols are seen again in Revelation (4:6-8).  Tradition pulled from both these sources and, ever afterwards, depicted each gospel by these four, winged beings. 

So, what’s with the “winged ox”?  The ox was an animal of sacrifice, and so it represents both the priestly order that completed sacrifices but also the sacrificial victim.  And in St. Luke’s gospel we find many stories about sacrifice and the priestly vocation of Jesus.  In the ancient world, sacrifice was done to re-establish a person or community’s relationship with God.  Jesus Christ, however, took these sacrifices upon himself and made a lasting and eternal relationship with His Father, ending the need for other sacrifices.  St. Luke’s gospel explains this idea through its parables and stories about and around Jesus, and so tradition associated him with the symbol of the ox.

If all this talk of sacrifice is getting you down, think of it this way: one of the collects for mission during Morning Prayer (and often reserved for Friday) is the following:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on 
the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within 
the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit 
that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those 
who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for 
the honor of your Name. Amen.

Jesus, we believe, went to Calvary without complaint, because He knew what His sacrifice would do for the people of the world.  Jesus went to the cross in pain, surely, but out of love.  And we who follow him, how much do we hope to sacrifice out of love?  Parents give up a great deal for their children; teachers work long hours for their students; soldiers leave their homes to defend their country.  In St. John’s gospel, we hear “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend” (15:13).  Jesus upon the cross was of pain, surely, but it was also of a dedicated love that we can only hope to emulate.  

May we all live a life dedicated to the love of others, as Jesus did before us.

The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels

The Trinity, icon by Andrei Rublev, 15th c.

St. Michael and All Angels
Genesis 28:10-17
Psalm 103 
Revelation 12:7-12
John 1:47-51

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Today we celebrate the feast of St. Michael and All Angels.  Such a day brings up two rather important questions: first, how can angels be saints?  The word “saint” is a rather confusing one, because the Church uses it in three different senses.  The first (and perhaps most important) definition, and the biblical definition, is quite simply a Christian.  Many letters of the Bible are addressed to the saints, and this doesn’t mean those who are already dead!  All Christians are saints of the Church. 

The second definition is a bit more particular.  It was the medieval definition and requires a belief in Purgatory, a place where, after death, a person’s soul is purged of their sin.  A saint in this sense is someone who, by living a life wholly dedicated to Christ, does not have to go to Purgatory.  Their soul is already pure, and they are, at the time of death, already in the presence of God.   

The third definition is actually the one that the Church, as a whole, uses most often.  Here, a saint is someone who has lived a holy and godly life.  We revere such a person because she or he has shown us so much of what it means to be a Christian.  Angels, then, can be saints according to this definition, though only three angels (Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael) are considered to be saints.

These definitions lead, however, to a question: how can we revere a saint when the only being worthy of worship is God.  There is a difference, though, between “revere” and “worship.”  To worship something (be it God or something else) is to give oneself wholly to it.  We are ultimately loyal to that thing, whatever it may be, and we draw our identity from it.  This is why the Bible is so insistent that we do not worship false idols, and that we cannot worship God and something else (that is, we cannot serve two masters). 

“Reverence”, however, is different.  We revere many things, from saints to sports stars to national heroes.  I may revere an author or musician that I enjoy, or I may even revere my parents or mentors.  I do not give them my all, but instead I give them my respect and look up to them.  It is the same for saints.  We revere the saint by remembering them, celebrating their lives, and asking them to pray for us. 

For Christians, we revere the angels because of their service to humanity as protectors and as messengers of God.  Our Christian lives, indeed the lives of all humanity, is connected to all of Creation, be that the material world or the spiritual one.  We are part and parcel to it, and on days like today we remember those spiritual beings who, during biblical times and into our own, continue to work for the glory of God.

The Feast of St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist


St. Matthew
Apostle and Evangelist

Today is the feast day of St. Matthew, the “author” of the gospel of Matthew.  I put the word “author” in quotes here because he was, of course, the person who wrote the words of his gospel, but he is also something more.  Christians don’t, generally, believe that the Bible was written in the same fashion as other pieces of literature.  St Matthew is not, say, just like Shakespeare, or Wordsworth, or C.S. Lewis.  Being an evangelist, we believe, is more than just writing down facts or imagining what something was like and making a story about it.  Being an evangelist is being in the presence of God in a special way while writing.  That’s why we call Matthew a saint and commemorate him, and other evangelists, on their feast days.

It’s for this reason that I chose the image above.  It’s from a book called the Ebbo Gospels, an illuminated manuscript from the 9th century.  This image of St. Matthew is, I believe, a wonderful testament to what it meant to be an evangelist.  Here, Matthew looks wind-swept, his hair wild and all in a tussle.  He’s bent over his small table, his eyes wide as if he is amazed at what he is writing.  In all, he seems caught by the Holy Spirit, fully present himself but also completely in the presence of God.

So St. Matthew was imagined 1,200 years ago.  It’s not a photo of him, surely; it’s just an image.  I do believe, however, that it is an image of something true: of a man fully within the task and hope laid upon him.  May we all see our Lord in the work given to us.

Our readings for today are:

Proverbs 3:1-6
Psalm 119:33-40
2 Timothy 3:14-17
Matthew 9:9-13

You can click here for the readings.