Category: Article

Feast of the Guardian Angels ~ The Rt. Rev. Michael Beckett, OPI

We often think of guardian angels as a special angel only for children, but the truth is that we all have a guardian angel for our entire lives. Our angels are a gift from God. They watch over us, aid us in prayer, enlighten us, guide us and protect us. Angels are mentioned in both the Old and New Testament and many saints have had visions of their guardian angels. We can hope that our Guardian Angel will help us during our journey to eternal happiness in Heaven. The Feast of the Guardian Angels is celebrated on October 2nd. Although Guardian Angels have been venerated since the early days of the Church, it wasn’t until the 17th century that Pope Clement X extended the feast day to the universal Church. It comes just two days after the Feast of the Archangels Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael.

On this Feast of the Guardian Angels in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI said,“Dear friends, the Lord is always near and active in human history, and follows us with the unique presence of His angels, that today the Church venerates as ‘Guardian,’ in other words those who minister God’s care for every man. From the beginning until death human life is surrounded by their constant protection.”

It is an established Catholic belief that each individual person has their own guardian angel assigned to watch over their soul. There are three important verses in the Catholic Bible from which this belief is drawn:

Psalm 90:11: “For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.”

Matthew 18:10: “See that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.”

Hebrews 1:14: “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to do service for the sake of them that shall inherit salvation?”

These verses have led St. Jerome, one of our early Church Fathers, to conclude, “How great the dignity of the soul, since each one has from his birth an angel commissioned to guard it.” Many others wrote about our guardian angels, including St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, and St. Thomas Aquinas. According to Aquinas, our guardian angels have a good influence over us, but they cannot control our free will. Guardian angels influence or guide us by acting upon our intellect through our senses and our imagination. When they do this, they are influencing our will to do good and avoid evil. So really, their job is to help you get to heaven. Thus guardian angels do not control us by any means, but they do greatly assist us in finding and doing God’s will. Our guardian angels are also able to protect us from danger as well as assist us in prayer and meditation on the divine things of God.

We don’t only have the Scriptures and the Early Fathers of the Church who tell us about our Guardian Angels. We also have the saints, some of which actually witnessed their guardian angel in action. In many cases their Guardian Angel was visible to them. These include St. Padre Pio, who could see his guardian angel, which would often send him on special missions; St. Faustina Kowalska, whose Guardian Angel accompanied her to observe the pains of the Holy Souls in Purgatory; and St. Gemma Galgani, to name a few. St. Gemma Galgani wrote much about her Guardian Angel in her autobiography, including this account:

“One evening, when I was suffering more than usual, I was complaining to Jesus and telling him that I would not have prayed so much if I had known that He was not going to cure me, and I asked Him why I had to be sick this way. My angel answered me as follows: ‘If Jesus afflicts you in your body, it is always to purify you in your soul. Be good.’”

Ask yourself this question today: How is my relationship with my guardian angel? Do I listen to him? Do I say good morning to him in the morning? Do I ask him: Watch over me when I sleep?’ Do I speak with him? Do I ask his advice? He is by my side. We can answer this question today, each of us: How is our relationship with this angel that the Lord has sent to watch over me and accompany me on my journey, and who always sees the face of the Father who is in heaven?So, today is the day to tell your guardian angel “Thank You” for their daily guidance, and to show gratitude to God for assigning a powerful heavenly protector for your personal care. It is also a good time to make the resolution to pray to your Guardian Angel daily as our Holy Father admonishes us.

As St. Bernard of Clairvoux plainly states in his sermon:

“‘He has given his angels charge over you to guard you in all your ways’. These words should fill you with respect, inspire devotion and instill confidence; respect for the presence of angels, devotion because of their loving service, and confidence because of their protection. And so the angels are here; they are at your side, they are with you, present on your behalf. They are here to protect you and to serve you.

But even if it is God who has given them this charge, we must nonetheless be grateful to them for the great love with which they obey and come to help us in our great need. So let us be devoted and grateful to such great protectors; let us return their love and honor them as much as we can and should. Yet all our love and honor must go to Him, for it is from Him that they receive all that makes them worthy of our love and respect. Even though we are children and have a long, a very long and dangerous way to go, with such protectors what have we to fear? They who keep us in all our ways cannot be overpowered or led astray, much less lead us astray. They are always loyal, prudent, and powerful.

Guardian Angel Novena:

Loving God, you are so good that you gave me a Guardian Angel to protect my body and my soul. Help me to know and follow my angel so that, with their guidance, I will be worthy of being in Heaven with You!

My sweet Guardian Angel, you are my defender every day of my life. Protect me from sin and bodily harm. Help me to learn to defend and protect myself so that I can be the person that God is calling me to be.

You are with me all the time so you already know these my intentions that I ask you to deliver to the Lord. (Mention your intentions here…)

My guardian angel, my defender, protect me!

The Feast of the Archangels ~ The Rt Rev Michael Beckett, OPI

The liturgy celebrates the feast of these three archangels who are venerated in the tradition of the Church. Of the seven archangels, only three are named in Scripture.  Michael (Who is like God?) was the archangel who fought against Satan and all his evil angels, defending all the friends of God. He is the protector of all humanity from the snares of the devil. Gabriel (Strength of God) announced to Zachariah the forthcoming birth of John the Baptist, and to Mary, the birth of Jesus. His greeting to the Virgin, “Hail, full of grace,” is one of the most familiar and frequent prayers of the Christian people. Raphael (Medicine of God) is the archangel who took care of Tobias on his journey.

Angels are pure, created spirits. The name angel means servant or messenger of God. Angels are celestial or heavenly beings, on a higher order than human beings. Angels have no bodies and do not depend on matter for their existence or activity. They are distinct from saints, which men can become. Angels have intellect and will, and are immortal. They are a vast multitude, but each is an individual person. Archangels are one of the nine choirs of angels listed in the Bible. In ascending order, the choirs or classes are 1) Angels, 2) Archangels, 3) Principalities, 4) Powers, 5) Virtues, 6) Dominations, 7) Thrones, 8) Cherubim, and 9) Seraphim.

St. Michael
The name of the archangel Michael means, in Hebrew, who is like unto God? and he is also known as “the prince of the heavenly host.” He is usually pictured as a strong warrior, dressed in armor and wearing sandals. St. Michael the Archangel is mentioned more than any other angel in the Bible.  His name appears in Scripture four times, twice in the Book of Daniel, and once each in the Epistle of St. Jude and the Book of Revelation. From Revelation we learn of the battle in heaven, with St. Michael and his angels combatting Lucifer and the other fallen angels (or devils). We invoke St. Michael to help us in our fight against Satan; to rescue souls from Satan, especially at the hour of death; to be the champion of the Jews in the Old Testament and now Christians; and to bring souls to judgment.

This day is referred to as “Michaelmas” in many countries and is also one of the harvest feast days. In England this is one of the “quarter days”, which was marked by hiring servants, electing magistrates, and beginning of legal and university terms. This day also marks the opening of the deer and other large game hunting season. In some parts of Europe, especially Germany, Denmark, and Austria, a special wine called “Saint Michael’s Love” (Michelsminne) is drunk on this day. The foods for this day vary depending on nationality. In the British Isles, for example, goose was the traditional meal for Michaelmas, eaten for prosperity, France has waffles or Gaufres and the traditional fare in Scotland used to be St. Michael’s Bannock (Struan Micheil) — a large, scone-like cake. In Italy, gnocchi is the traditional fare.

Patron: Against temptations; against powers of evil; artists; bakers; bankers; battle; boatmen; cemeteries; coopers; endangered children; dying; Emergency Medical Technicians; fencing; grocers; hatmakers; holy death; knights; mariners; mountaineers; paramedics; paratroopers; police officers; radiologists; sailors; the sick; security forces; soldiers; against storms at sea; swordsmiths; those in need of protection; Brussels, Belgium; Caltanissett, Sicily; Cornwall, England; Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee Florida; England; Germany; Archdiocese of Mobile, Alabama; Papua, New Guinea; Puebla, Mexico; San Miguel de Allende, Mexico; Sibenik, Croatia; Archdiocese of Seattle, Washington; Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts.

Symbols: Angel with wings; dressed in armour; lance and shield; scales; shown weighing souls; millstone; piercing dragon or devil; banner charged with a dove; symbolic colors orange or gold.

Prayer:  Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him we humbly pray; and do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the Power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits, who prowl through the world seeking the ruin of souls.  Amen.

St. Gabriel
St. Gabriel’s name means “God is my strength”. Biblically he appears three times as a messenger. He had been sent to Daniel to explain a vision concerning the Messiah. He appeared to Zachary when he was offering incense in the Temple, to foretell the birth of his son, St. John the Baptist. St. Gabriel is most known as the angel chosen by God to be the messenger of the Annunciation, to announce to mankind the mystery of the Incarnation.

The angel’s salutation to our Lady, so simple and yet so full of meaning, Hail Mary, full of grace, has become the constant and familiar prayer of all Christian people.

Patron: Ambassadors; broadcasting; childbirth; clergy; communications; diplomats; messengers; philatelists; postal workers; public relations; radio workers; secular clergy; stamp collectors; telecommunications; Portugal; Archdiocese of Seattle, Washington.

Symbols: Archangel; sceptre and lily; MR or AM shield; lantern; mirror; olive branch; scroll with words Ave Maria Gratia Plena; Resurrection trumpet; shield; spear; lily; symbolic colors, silver or blue.

Prayer to St. Gabriel:

O Blessed Archangel Gabriel, we beseech thee, do thou intercede for us at the throne of divine Mercy in our present necessities, that as thou didst announce to Mary the mystery of the Incarnation, so through thy prayers and patronage in heaven we may obtain the benefits of the same, and sing the praise of God forever in the land of the living. Amen.

St. Raphael
Our knowledge of the Archangel Raphael comes to us from the book of Tobit. His mission as wonderful healer and fellow traveller with the youthful Tobias has caused him to be invoked for journeys and at critical moments in life. Tradition also holds that Raphael is the angel that stirred the waters at the healing sheep pool in Bethesda. His name means “God has healed”.

Patron: Blind; bodily ills; counselors; druggists; eye problems; guardian angels; happy meetings; healers; health inspectors; health technicians; love; lovers; mental illness; nurses; pharmacists; physicians; shepherds; against sickness; therapists; travellers; young people; young people leaving home for the first time; Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa; Archdiocese of Seattle, Washington.

Symbols: Staff; wallet and fish; staff and gourd; archangel; young man carrying a staff; young man carrying a fish; walking with Tobias; holding a bottle or flask; symbolic colors, gray or yellow.

Prayer to St. Gabriel:

O Raphael, lead us towards those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us! Raphael, Angel of happy meetings, lead us by the hand towards those we are looking for! May all our movements, all their movements, be guided by your light and transfigured by your Joy.

Angel guide of Tobias, lay the request we now address to you at the feet of Him on whose unveiled face you are privileged to gaze. Lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of earth, we feel the need of calling to you and of pleading for the protection of your wings, so that we may not be as strangers in the province of Joy, all ignorant of the concerns of our country.

Remember the weak, you who are strong–you whose home lies beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful, always serene, and bright with the resplendent glory of God.
Amen.

Collect: O God, who dispose in marvelous order ministries both angelic and human, graciously grant that our life on earth may be defended by those who watch over us as they minister perpetually to you in heaven. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

THE FEAST OF ST PHILIP AND JAMES ~ The Rev. Dcn Igor Kalinski OPI

Saint Philip and James – witnesses of Jesus’ miracles

Whenever we celebrate the feast of an apostle, we are overwhelmed by the desire to learn as much as possible about his life. But this desire can only be modestly granted in this world because the information about most of the apostles is rather meager. This also applies to St. Philip and James the Younger, which we celebrate together today.

We find both apostles on all four apostolic lists in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and in the Acts of the Apostles. Philip is in fifth place, and James the younger, son of Alphaeus, in ninth place. According to the Gospel of John, Philip, like Andrew and Peter, came from Bethsaida on the Lake of Gennesaret. He is mentioned in five places in the Gospel of John.

“The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. However, he met Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me!’ Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Peter and Andrew. Philip met Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the Law, and the Prophets too! This is Jesus, the son of Joseph of Nazareth. ‘-‘ Can anything good come out of Nazareth? ‘Nathanael told him. “Come and see,” replied Philip “(Jn 1: 43-46). Philip was a youthful friend of the writer of the fourth gospel, with whom he belonged together to the discipleship of John the Baptist. That is why in his Gospel he erected this wonderful monument to him, which speaks of Philip’s first encounter with Jesus, as well as of his zeal to win another zealous disciple for Jesus as the promised Messiah. In his Gospel, John brings Philip to the stage and describes how Jesus miraculously fed five thousand people.

Then Jesus lifted up his eyes, and when he saw a great multitude coming to him, he said to Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?’ Sam knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred loaves of bread would not suffice for everyone to get a little” (John 6: 5-7). It is also a very beautiful scene in the gospel when the Gentiles seek Jesus. “Among the pilgrims who came to worship on the feast were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Lord, we would like to see Jesus.’ Philip went to tell Andrew. Andrew and Philip went to tell Jesus ”(Jn 12: 20-30). And finally, at the farewell with the disciples, here again Philip comes to the fore. Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me. If you knew me, you would know my Father. You already know him and have seen him! Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we have had enough.’ He who has seen me has seen the Father. So how do you say: Show us the Father! Do you not believe that I am in the Father and that the Father is in me? I do not speak for myself the words that I say to you: The Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me: I am in the Father and the Father is in me! If not, believe because of the works themselves ”(Jn 14: 6-11).

According to later tradition, Philip lived with his three daughters in Hierapolis in Asia Minor, where he died. Archaeologists even think they found his grave there. According to the church writers Polycrates and Papias, quoted by Eusebius, Philip’s daughters had the gift of prophecy. The relics of St. Philip the Apostle are worshiped in Rome in the Basilica of the Twelve Apostles, where the General Curia of the Franciscan-Conventuals is today.

St. James the Younger, son of Alphaeus, himself a writer of a New Testament scripture, except in the list of the apostles, is nowhere specifically mentioned in the Gospels. Sv. Paul in the Epistle to the Galatians mentions him as one of the most eminent figures of the early Church, while in the Acts of the Apostles he stands out as the bishop of Jerusalem. His message is very serious. It is full of admonition, rebuke and threat. In its 108 lines we find 60 imperatives. It can always serve us as a very useful and saving spiritual reading against the hardening of our conscience.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

28.IV.2021 GEVGELIJA/MACEDONIA Dominican Hermitage & Oratory of St’s  Sebastian and Peregrine

Saint Catherine of Siena

   

She was the youngest but one of a very large family. Her father, Giacomo di Benincasa, was a dyer; her mother, Lapa, the daughter of a local poet. They belonged to the lower middle-class faction of tradesmen and petty notaries, known as “the Party of the Twelve”, which between one revolution and another ruled the Republic of Siena from 1355 to 1368. From her earliest childhood Catherine began to see visions and to practice extreme austerities. At the age of seven she consecrated her virginity to Christ; in her sixteenth year she took the habit of the Dominican Tertiaries, and renewed the life of the anchorites of the desert in a little room in her father’s house. After three years of celestial visitations and familiar conversation with Christ, she underwent the mystical experience known as the “spiritual espousals”, probably during the carnival of 1366. She now rejoined her family, began to tend the sick, especially those afflicted with the most repulsive diseases, to serve the poor, and to labor for the conversion of sinners. Though always suffering terrible physical pain, living for long intervals on practically no food save the Blessed Sacrament, she was ever radiantly happy and full of practical wisdom no less than the highest spiritual insight. All her contemporaries bear witness to her extraordinary personal charm, which prevailed over the continual persecution to which she was subjected even by the friars of her own order and by her sisters in religion. She began to gather disciples round her, both men and women, who formed a wonderful spiritual fellowship, united to her by the bonds of mystical love. During the summer of 1370 she received a series of special manifestations of Divine mysteries, which culminated in a prolonged trance, a kind of mystical death, in which she had a vision of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, and heard a Divine command to leave her cell and enter the public life of the world. She began to dispatch letters to men and women in every condition of life, entered into correspondence with the princes and republics of Italy, was consulted by the papal legates about the affairs of the Church, and set herself to heal the wounds of her native land by staying the fury of civil war and the ravages of faction. She implored the pope, Gregory XI, to leave Avignon, to reform the clergy and the administration of the Papal States, and ardently threw herself into his design for a crusade, in the hopes of uniting the powers of Christendom against the infidels, and restoring peace to Italy by delivering her from the wandering companies of mercenary soldiers. While at Pisa, on the fourth Sunday of Lent, 1375, she received the Stigmata, although, at her special prayer, the marks did not appear outwardly in her body while she lived.

    Mainly through the misgovernment of the papal officials, war broke out between Florence and the Holy See, and almost the whole of the Papal States rose in insurrection. Catherine had already been sent on a mission from the pope to secure the neutrality of Pisa and Lucca. In June, 1376, she went to Avignon as ambassador of the Florentines, to make their peace; but, either through the bad faith of the republic or through a misunderstanding caused by the frequent changes in its government, she was unsuccessful. Nevertheless she made such a profound impression upon the mind of the pope, that, in spite of the opposition of the French king and almost the whole of the Sacred College, he returned to Rome (17 January, 1377). Catherine spent the greater part of 1377 in effecting a wonderful spiritual revival in the country districts subject to the Republic of Siena, and it was at this time that she miraculously learned to write, though she still seems to have chiefly relied upon her secretaries for her correspondence. Early in 1378 she was sent by Pope Gregory to Florence, to make a fresh effort for peace. Unfortunately, through the factious conduct of her Florentine associates, she became involved in the internal politics of the city, and during a popular tumult (22 June) an attempt was made upon her life. She was bitterly disappointed at her escape, declaring that her sins had deprived her of the red rose of martyrdom. Nevertheless, during the disastrous revolution known as “the tumult of the Ciompi”, she still remained at Florence or in its territory until, at the beginning of August, news reached the city that peace had been signed between the republic and the new pope. Catherine then instantly returned to Siena, where she passed a few months of comparative quiet, dictating her “Dialogue”, the book of her meditations and revelations.

    In the meanwhile the Great Schism had broken out in the Church. From the outset Catherine enthusiastically adhered to the Roman claimant, Urban VI, who in November, 1378, summoned her to Rome. In the Eternal City she spent what remained of her life, working strenuously for the reformation of the Church, serving the destitute and afflicted, and dispatching eloquent letters in behalf of Urban to high and low in all directions. Her strength was rapidly being consumed; she besought her Divine Bridegroom to let her bear the punishment for all the sins of the world, and to receive the sacrifice of her body for the unity and renovation of the Church; at last it seemed to her that the Bark of Peter was laid upon her shoulders, and that it was crushing her to death with its weight. After a prolonged and mysterious agony of three months, endured by her with supreme exultation and delight, from Sexagesima Sunday until the Sunday before the Ascension, she died. Her last political work, accomplished practically from her death-bed, was the reconciliation of Pope Urban VI with the Roman Republic (1380).

    Among Catherine’s principal followers were Fra Raimondo delle Vigne, of Capua (d. 1399), her confessor and biographer, afterwards General of the Dominicans, and Stefano di Corrado Maconi (d. 1424), who had been one of her secretaries, and became Prior General of the Carthusians. Raimondo’s book, the “Legend”, was finished in 1395. A second life of her, the “Supplement”, was written a few years later by another of her associates, Fra Tomaso Caffarini (d. 1434), who also composed the “Minor Legend”, which was translated into Italian by Stefano Maconi. Between 1411 and 1413 the depositions of the surviving witnesses of her life and work were collected at Venice, to form the famous “Process”. Catherine was canonized by Pius II in 1461. The emblems by which she is known in Christian art are the lily and book, the crown of thorns, or sometimes a heart–referring to the legend of her having changed hearts with Christ. Her principal feast is on the 30th of April, but it is popularly celebrated in Siena on the Sunday following. The feast of her Espousals is kept on the Thursday of the carnival.

    The works of St. Catherine of Siena rank among the classics of the Italian language, written in the beautiful Tuscan vernacular of the fourteenth century. Notwithstanding the existence of many excellent manuscripts, the printed editions present the text in a frequently mutilated and most unsatisfactory condition. Her writings consist of        

the “Dialogue”, or “Treatise on Divine Providence”; a collection of nearly four hundred letters; and a series of “Prayers”.

    The “Dialogue” especially, which treats of the whole spiritual life of man in the form of a series of colloquies between the Eternal Father and the human soul (represented by Catherine herself), is the mystical counterpart in prose of Dante’s “Divina Commedia”.

    A smaller work in the dialogue form, the “Treatise on Consummate Perfection”, is also ascribed to her, but is probably spurious. It is impossible in a few words to give an adequate conception of the manifold character and contents of the “Letters”, which are the most complete expression of Catherine’s many-sided personality. While those addressed to popes and sovereigns, rulers of republics and leaders of armies, are documents of priceless value to students of history, many of those written to private citizens, men and women in the cloister or in the world, are as fresh and illuminating, as wise and practical in their advice and guidance for the devout Catholic today as they were for those who sought her counsel while she lived. Others, again, lead the reader to mystical heights of contemplation, a rarefied atmosphere of sanctity in which only the few privileged spirits can hope to dwell. The key-note to Catherine’s teaching is that man, whether in the cloister or in the world, must ever abide in the cell of self-knowledge, which is the stable in which the traveler through time to eternity must be born again.

Born: March 25, 1347 at Siena, Tuscany, Italy

Died: April 29, 1380 of a mysterious and painful illness that came on without notice, and was never properly diagnosed

Canonized: July 1461 by Pope Pius II

Representation:  cross; crown of thorns; heart; lily; ring; stigmata

Patronage:  against fire, bodily ills, diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA, Europe, fire prevention, firefighters, illness, Italy, miscarriages, nurses, nursing services, people ridiculed for their piety, sexual temptation, sick people, sickness, Siena Italy, temptations

The Annunciation ~ The Very Rev Lady Sherwood, OPI

Reading I: Is 7:10-14; 8:10

Responsorial Psalm: 40:7-8a, 8b-9, 10, 11

Reading II: Heb 10:4-10

Gospel: Lk 1:26-38

Liturgical colour: White.

My dearest brothers and sisters in Christ:

Today, we come together to celebrate The Annunciation of Our dear Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. The day when The Angel Gabriel brought the glad tidings to Mary that she was going to conceive, and to be the mother of Our Lord when he was to come and live amongst us on the earth.

Let us take a look at today’s Gospel reading of Lk 1:26-38 (NIV):

The Birth of Jesus Foretold

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

There has never ever been better Good News proclaimed to us than the Holy message which the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary that day.  The world was in darkness of sin. Then, as if out of nowhere comes an angel to this young girl Mary, who was from a lowly family to announce the greatest news ever heard by human ears…

God has spoken to sinful humans.  His message is Jesus Christ, our dear Lord and Saviour.

This news brought to Mary from God, by way of the angel Gabriel, was the way in which Jesus would make His first entrance into our earthly world.  The incarnation is the result of Jesus being born of a human mother and of the Holy Spirit.  We also realize that technically it was a virgin conception.  This divine miracle here is how Jesus was conceived.

 LK 1:26-27 NIV:

The Birth of Jesus Foretold

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

In Verse 27, we are told young Mary was pledged to be married (betrothed) to Joseph.  From ancient Jewish customs, we understand that a betrothal was a binding engagement. A signed contract. Once the contract was signed by all the parties it could not be broken except by a divorce.  During this time of betrothal there were to be no intimate acts together.  The husband to be would pay the father of the bride a certain amount of money because the father of the bride was loosing a worker and the other family was gaining one.

For Mary to show up pregnant would cast enormous amount of doubt on her character.  Everyone would be wondering what on earth was going on.  Mary and Joseph are not living up to the agreement or perhaps Mary has found someone else?

Regardless what people would’ve thoughts or talked about behind her back she was willing to obey God regardless.  She feared God more than she feared man.  Would we be willing to sacrifice our reputation to do God’s will just as Mary did?  You may say that God would never ask us to do something that would put our reputation in jeopardy…so think about what this meant for the young, betrothed Mary.  For the rest of her life she was looked down upon by those who didn’t believe.  Jesus was considered an illegitimate child and Mary an adulterer.

Mary was of lowly estate. By human standards Mary was an unimportant teenager, but to God, however, she was indeed highly blessed.

Mary was Highly Favoured (LK 1:28-29 NIV):

[28] And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O Favoured one, the Lord is with you!”  [29] But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.

  [30] And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.

From these verses, we realize that being Favoured by God and being of low estate can go together.  Often, we as human, for some reason think that poverty is a sign of disfavour.

 But here, it’s crystal clear that they can and often do go together.  This should bring up the question…Are we really blessed?  Are all the comforts and material things which we enjoy so much truly always a blessing from God?  Mary was highly Favoured and yet she remained very poor to the world’s standards.  This should challenge our engrained thinking about the worldly material possessions which we may have.

Mary had much the same reaction as did Zechariah when the angel appeared to him.  He was frightened she was greatly troubled.  Gabriel says his usual opening line, Do not be afraid.

What is meant by the word favoured  is that God chose her to bear the Lord Jesus.  She was favoured or chosen to be the mother of Our Lord Jesus.

The Hail Mary:

Hail Mary, full of grace

The Lord is with thee.

Blessed art thou among women

and blessed

is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, mother of God

Pray for us sinners

Now and at the hour of our death. Amen

Let us pray:

[That we may become more like Christ,

who chose to become one of us.]

Almighty Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,

You have revealed the beauty of your power

by exalting the lowly virgin of Nazareth

and making her the mother of our Saviour.

May the prayers of this woman

bring Jesus to the waiting world

and fill the void of incompletion

with the presence of her child,

who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit

one God forever and ever. Amen

Dirty Foreheads, Clean Lives~ The Rt. Rev. Michael Beckett, OPI

Fine, powdery, dark gray and black ashes, smudged onto our foreheads in the shape of a cross, for all the world to imagine what we’ve been doing, looking like we bumped our heads while cleaning out the fireplace, and forgot to wash that part of our faces…
Just a few ashes…symbolizing more than most of us realize as we go through the motions of Ash Wednesday. What do we say to people who ask us the obvious question: What IS that on your head? Why do you have black stuff on your face?
Why WILL we participate in this strange custom this evening? What DOES it mean? The spiritual practice of applying ashes on oneself as a sign of sincere repentance goes back thousands of years. Frequently in the days of the Old and the New Testament, when someone had sinned, he clothed his body with sackcloth and covered himself with ashes. [Jer. 6:26] The sacramental that we are observing today arises from that custom, the spiritual practice of observing public penitence. Church history tells us that the liturgical practice of applying ashes on one’s forehead during the Lenten Season goes back as far as the eighth century. This was accompanied by different forms of fasting, prayer, sacrifices, charity towards others, etc… The writings of St. Leo, around 461 A.D., tell us that during the Lenten Season, he exhorted the faithful to abstain from certain food to fulfill with their fasts the Apostolic institution of forty days. In the days of the Old Testament, many tore their clothing as a sign of repentance.
Today, we use the ashes as a reminder of who we are. The Bible tells us
that we came from the dust and to the dust we shall return. The first
human was formed out of the dust of the earth by God and then God breathed
life into that dust. That is a powerful image. One that is meant to
remind us that without the breath or Spirit of God moving in us, we are
just like these ashes: lifeless – worthless.
The ashes that many of us will wear tonight are meant to be for us symbols of our repentance and signs that we truly seek to follow in God’s path.
The people in the Biblical stories probably put the ashes on top of their
heads – so why do we, instead of putting these ashes on our heads, put them
in the sign of the cross on our foreheads?
We do so because it is a reminder of how we are sealed for Christ. In most
churches when a baby is baptized the minister or priest uses oil to mark
the child with the sign of the cross. The mark of the cross is a mark of ownership. These ashes tonight remind us that we are Christ’s – that he died so that we might live. These may be just a few ashes but they mean a lot. They are a symbol of our need for God. We are nothing but dust and ashes apart from God.
But what about Lent itself? What is it? Why do we have this season? Most of us were taught that the lengthy period of Lent was one of penitence and fasting, a time provided for those who were separated from the church by their sins, so they could be reconciled by acts of penitence and forgiveness.
For most of us, Lent is the time of sometimes painful self-examination, during which we scrutinize our habits, our spiritual practice, and our very lives – hoping to make ourselves better, trying to make ourselves worthy of the love of God. We “step up” our prayer, fasting, and self-denial in order to remove worldly distractions from our lives. And we take on Bible study, classes, and service projects in order to add meaning and depth to our existence. For some children, Lent means no sweets, for teenagers, less time on Facebook. For adults, it may be consuming less meat or alcohol, or attending that Lenten course offered by the Church.
However we go about it, the goal is pretty much the same: Lent makes us ready for Easter. Quite simply put, we are better able to appreciate Resurrection joys come Easter Day by enduring these Lenten disciplines now.
The Old Testament Lessons, the Psalm appointed for today, and today’s Gospel Reading all tell us the “how” and “why” of Lent. But then, there is Paul. Saint Paul tells is, right off the bat, in the very first verse of the Epistle for today, to “BE RECONCILED TO GOD.” Nowhere does he say, “Observe a Holy Lent, THEN be reconciled to God.” Not after enduring a forty-day fast. Not after lengthy Bible study. Not even after prayer, but now, here, today: Be reconciled to God. Paul not only invites us to be reconciled to God, he actually beseeches us. That is, he pleads, implores, presses, begs, and demands. “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. … Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation.”
If we but recognize this, if we are but reconciled to our God NOW, and THEN work toward our Lenten goals of fasting, of prayer, and of penitence, if we seek to discipline ourselves during Lent, and make those disciplines into daily habits, we will not only most assuredly have the Holy Lent we all desire, but will come to live a more holy life in general. And isn’t that, really, what Lent is all about in the first place? Amen.

Praise the Lord Anyway! ~ The Rt. Rev. Michael Beckett, OPI

How many times have we heard, “I’ve been through alot this past year and I’ve always wanted to believe in God.. I’ve tried.. but I don’t understand why there’s so much suffering in the world.. why do people beg and plead and pray to God to not let loved ones die.. and they die anyway? What kind of God would allow that? The horrific things people go through and see while praying to God for help.. I don’t get it and saying it’s a part of God’s plan or you just have to have faith doesn’t work for me either.. I’ve prayed about it and listened and tried to understand but I just don’t.. I’m an open-minded person and I respect everyone’s beliefs but I’m just not able to accept that a loving God would let good people suffer.”?

This question is as old as humanity.  First of all, God does not ‘give’ us the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things that happen in our lives.  Life happens.  Crap happens.  People make poor choices.  Natural disasters occur.  We get sick.  Nowhere does Holy Writ support the claim that any of these things is God’s doing.  What kind of God would we worship if he, indeed, sent us all the trials and tribulations and suffering and horror for which He is blamed?

We have to remember that, even though God is firmly in control, Satan has power and he fights against our Lord.  Ephesians 2:2 says:  “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:1–2, emphasis added). In this text the apostle Paul describes Satan first as a “prince” with power, because he has authentic power in the world (1 John 5:19). This power has been given him by God (Luke 4:6). Satan has power over some illnesses (Luke 13:16; see also 2 Corinthians 12:7—it’s unknown if Paul’s “thorn” was an illness or something else). In some sense, Satan has power over death (Hebrew 2:14). The reason Satan is called a prince rather than a king is because there is only one King—Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 6:15).

Satan also has power over some people. The “sons of disobedience” referred to in Ephesians 2:2 are those who have not trusted Christ as Lord and Savior (cf. Acts 26:18; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Revelation 13:12). The demons are also under the rule of Satan (Matthew 12:24), and one of his titles is “prince of demons” (Matthew 9:34). Satan has a kingdom (Matthew 12:26) and a throne (Revelation 2:13). Satan is called a prince because he is a ruler and possesses power to manifest evil in the world through influencing people and commanding demons.

“The air” in Ephesians 2:2 may refer to the invisible realm above the earth where Satan and his demons move and exist. This space, of course, is the location of the earth’s atmosphere or “air.” In Ephesians 6:12, Paul writes, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” This evil realm called the “air” could be an actual locality, but it could also be synonymous with the “world” of John 12:31. This whole world is Satan’s domain (Matthew 4:8–9).

Although Satan has power and authority in the current world system in which we exist, his power is limited, always under the sovereign control of God (Job 1:12), and it is temporary (Romans 16:20). God has not revealed all of the why’s and when’s concerning Satan’s rule, but He has made it clear that there is only one way to escape the power of Satan’s dominion, and that is through His Son, Jesus (Acts 26:18; Colossians 1:13–14). It is Jesus who, speaking of the impending cross, declared victory: “Now the prince of this world will be driven out” (John 12:31).

Now, when Satan has so much power, what are we left with?  The Bible DOES say that that he will, when we are suffering temptation provide a way of escape (1 Cor. 10:13). But never does it say that God will not give us more pain and suffering than we can handle.

Many Christians have suffered to the point of death at the hands of executioners, (consider the Holy Martyrs.) Many suffer to the point of death at their own hands. All we can say is that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). This may not solve our depression, but it does give us perspective. Even if our depression has caused us enormous doubt, this can be helpful. 

When “bad” things happen to any of God’s children, God is grieved and suffers with us, and this was experienced most vividly in the hurt and suffering of Jesus Christ for all humanity. Any “bad” thing which happens is never the last word. Rather, God is the deepest and last word, and that word is love and eternal life with God.

The Bible clearly teaches that God does not cause us to suffer. For example, the Bible says that when we go through trials, it would be a mistake to say: “I am being tried by God.” Why? Because “with evil things God cannot be tried, nor does he himself try anyone.” (James 1:13) In other words, God never causes the trials we face or the suffering that follows. To do so would be wicked, but “God does not act wickedly.” (Job 34:12.)

If God does not cause us to suffer, then who or what does? Sadly, humans are often victimized by other imperfect humans. (Ecclesiastes 8:9) Additionally, we may face calamities because of “unexpected events”—that is, because of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Ecclesiastes 9:11) The Bible teaches that ultimately “the ruler of this world,” Satan the Devil, is responsible for human suffering, for “the whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one.” (John 12:31; 1 John 5:19) It is Satan—not God—who causes people to suffer.

God is aware of our suffering. From the very start of human suffering, not a single teardrop has gone unnoticed by our loving Father, whose “watchful eyes” see everything. (Psalm 11:4; 56:8) For example, when his worshippers in ancient times were being oppressed, God said: “I have certainly seen the affliction of my people.” But was he only vaguely aware of their pain? No, for he added: “I well know the pains they suffer.” (Exodus 3:7) Many people have found comfort in that truth alone—the thought that God is aware of everything we suffer, even the trials that we or others may not be aware of or fully understand. (Psalm 31:7; Proverbs 14:10.)

God feels for us when we suffer. Our Heavenly Father is not only aware of human suffering but also deeply moved by it. For example, God was sincerely troubled when his ancient worshippers faced trials. “During all their distress it was distressing to him,” says the Bible. (Isaiah 63:9) Although God is vastly superior to humans, he feels empathy for those who suffer—as if their pain were in his heart! Indeed, “Our Heavenly Father is very compassionate and merciful.” (James 5:11) Additionally, Our Heavenly Father helps us to bear our suffering. (Philippians 4:12, 13.)

We must also remember that our Lord Jesus knows what it is to suffer, to mourn.  He wept at the grave of Lazarus, he wept over Jerusalem, and he suffered horrifically during His Passion.

God will end all human suffering. According to the Bible, God will bring an end to the suffering of every human on the planet. By means of His Heavenly Kingdom, God will drastically change the human condition—for the better. Regarding that time, the Bible promises that God “will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4) What about those who have already died? God will bring them back to life here on earth so that they too can enjoy life free from suffering. (John 5:28, 29) Will anyone be plagued by painful memories of past suffering? No, for Our Heavenly Father promises: “The former things will not be called to mind, nor will they come up into the heart.” (Isaiah 65:17.)

Jesus could have come and healed Lazarus when he was still alive.

Instead, He waited to raise him from the dead when he was already in his grave.

God could have made David become king the day after he was anointed.

Instead, He waited 15 years to rise to the throne, many of those years spent fearing for his life, hiding out and running away from his own father-in-law.

God could have spoken to Moses in the desert about sending him to help free His people from slavery 40 days after he ran away from Egypt.

Instead, He made him wait for 40 long years.

God could have gotten Joseph out of prison one year after he was sentenced there.

Instead, he was stuck in that dungeon for 10 years before he was finally set free.

God could have given Abraham the son He promised him when he was still a young man.

Instead, He waited until he was 100 years old and because of physical reasons would have a more difficult time conceiving at that age.

God could have answered prayers and met the needs of these men of God much quicker, but He didn’t.

He made them wait instead.

And He often makes us do the same.

He makes us wait for healing to come after we’ve been praying for years and there is no sign of recovery.

He makes us wait to fulfill His call in our lives after He puts the desire and passion in our hearts to serve Him in a certain way.

He makes us wait to give us the desires of our hearts, whether it’s a baby, a spouse, or a new job.

He makes us wait for direction when we are stuck at a dead end and we don’t know where to go or what to do.

He could answer that same prayer that you’ve been praying for years every night in a millisecond.

That same prayer that has been bringing you to tears.

That same prayer that the longer that it goes unanswered, the more it makes you question whether He even hears.

He kept Moses in a desert for 40 years.

Joseph in a prison cell for 10 years.

Abraham without a child for 100 years.

David on the run for 15 years.

And maybe He is keeping you right where you’re at for the same reason He kept these men for so many years: to build your faith.

To build your faith in a dungeon cell, during the valley in your life where it’s too dark to see and too hard to believe.

To build your dependence on Him when you are barren and empty to see if He is truly all you desire and all you need.

To see how well you will trust and serve Him when you are still stuck in the background somewhere, doing seemingly nothing too significant for Him.

To build your trust in Him when the storm keeps raging, the battle keeps going and breakthrough and victory doesn’t seem near.

That we grow in faith.

That we learn to only depend on Him.

What are you waiting for today?

What longing do you have that seems so far from ever being fulfilled?

What prayer do you keep on praying that seems to never reach God’s ears?

I want to remind you that God is not deaf to your prayers.

He is not blind to your constant tears, to your desires, and to your needs.

IF He is making you wait, there is a very good reason for it.

If He is telling you “no” today, maybe it’s because He has a better “yes” waiting for you tomorrow.

If He is keeping you in the same place you’ve always been today, maybe it’s because He’s helping build your faith before you enter your Promised Land tomorrow.

If He is not healing you or bringing you victory today, maybe it’s because you will have a greater testimony when He waits to help you be an overcomer tomorrow.

Wherever you are at today know that God is right beside you and that there is a purpose for you. Even if that purpose is to wait.

Don’t give up just because you don’t see anything happening today.

Maybe there is nothing physically happening that your eyes can see but there is definitely something happening in the spiritual realm as you learn to rely on Christ.

Don’t allow your waiting period to make you hopeless about what tomorrow will bring.

Instead, let it build your faith and give you even greater hope for what God has prepared for you.

He made some of the greatest men of faith wait.

Don’t be discouraged if He makes you wait as well.

He will come through for you, just like He came through for them.
“Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.” – Psalm 27:14

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton ~ The Very Rev. Lady Sherwood, OPI

Reading I: 1 Jn 3:22–4:6

Responsorial Psalm: 2:7bc-8, 10-12a

Gospel: Mt 4:12-17, 23-25

Liturgical colour: White.

Today is the Memorial of my Dominican Order Name Saint, that being St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

 This particular Saint was given as my order Name Saint because my Bishop noticed there seemed to be many similarities between the life of St Elizabeth Ann Seton and the life of myself. We both share the fact that we have both overcome many life traumas and adversities, but yet, we both always  have remained strong of faith regardless of the things life has thrown at us.

Mother Seton founded the first American religious community for women, named the sisters of charity, and so she was a keystone of the American Catholic church. Mother Seton also opened the first American parish school, and the first American Catholic orphanage. All this, she had accomplished by the age of 46, whilst also raising her own five children.

Mother Seton is a true daughter of the American Revolution, she was born on Aug 28th 1774, which was only two years prior to the declaration of Independence.

By both birth and marriage, Mother Seton was linked to the first families of New York and enjoyed the rich fruits of high society, but this situation wasn’t to last.

Mother Seton suffered the early deaths of both her mother in 1777, and of her baby sister in 1778, but far from letting it get her down, she faced each new ‘holocaust’  as she called it, with a hopeful cheerfulness.

At only aged 19, she married a handsome wealthy businessman named William Magee Seton and they had five children together. But William’s business failed, and he died of Tuberculosis when Elizabeth was aged 30, leaving her widowed, penniless and with five young children to support. Many of her family and friends rejected her when she converted to the Catholic faith in March 1805.

As a means to support her children, mother Seton opened a school in Baltimore which always followed a religious community pathway and her religious order of the sisters of charity was officially founded in 1807.

The thousands of letters of Mother Seton reveal the development of her Spiritual life from that of a person of Ordinary goodness, to one of heroic sanctity. She suffered many great trials within her life yet with her strong faith, she overcame them all. Trials of sickness, of misunderstanding, the deaths of her loved ones (mother, baby sister, husband, and even two of her own children), and the heartache of having a wayward son.

St Elizabeth Anne Seton died on January 4th 1821, she became the first American=born citizen to be beatified in 1963, then Canonized in 1975. She is buried in Emmitsburg in Maryland.

Let us pray:

O Father, the first rule of our dear Saviour’s life was to do your will. Let His Will of the present moment be the first rule of our daily life and work, with no other desire but for it’s complete accomplishment. Help us to follow it faithfully, so that doing your Will may be pleasing in your sight.

Amen.

So Christmas Is Over; Epiphany!!!!!!!

Today we mark the end of the Christmas season – the Day of Epiphany.  We celebrate this day to reflect on the visit of the Magi – the wise men – to Jesus and the giving of their gifts. We reflect on the meaning of this visit of those wise ones to see Jesus.

Epiphany is about Jesus and his message being available and relevant to people of every age and race. Jesus isn’t just a Jewish prophet with an exciting message, but God made present amongst us and available to all of us to worship and follow. God’s love reaches beyond the everyday barriers of race and class; something the Magi didn’t quite get at first.

So Who Were the Magi?

We don’t know much about the Magi from Scripture. All Saint Matthew tells us is that they were “Magi from the East”. Some translations have “Wise men from the East”. The word in Greek refers to priests of the Zoroastrian religion. They came from Persia, the countries now known as Iran and Iraq, and they saw meaning in the movement of the stars. Their visit fits an Eastern pattern of great births being accompanied by momentous events in the sky. Certainly we know of a comet in 11BCE in Gemini with its head towards Leo, seen by many as a symbol of Judah.  We also know of planetary conjunctions in both 7BCE and 6 BCE which would have added to a sense that momentous happenings were on the way. The Magi would have noticed these things and taken them seriously. But who were they?

One commentator, Brian Stoffregen puts it like this;

“Originally in Persia, Magi were dream- interpreters. By Jesus’ time, the term referred to astronomers, fortune-tellers, or star-gazers.   They were horoscope fanatics – a practice condemned by Jewish standards. We might compare them to people in fortune – telling booths, or people on the “psychic hotline” or other “occupations” that foretell the future by stars, tea leaves, Tarot cards etc. They were magicians, astronomers, star-gazers, pseudo-scientists, fortune tellers..”

Another writer, Nathan Nettleton, puts it like this;

“They were the speakers of the sacred words at the pagan sacrifices. At worst, the term referred to a magician or sorcerer, or even a deceiver. Magi were people whose activities were repeatedly condemned and prohibited throughout the scriptures and were completely anathema to the people of Israel.”

Whilst in English we get the words “magic” and “magician” from Magi, the Zoroastrian religion forbade sorcery. They clearly were looking for a new king and had found meaning in the movement of the planets and stars which led them to come to Israel to greet the new-born king. They journeyed from their homes in Persia to Bethlehem in search of this baby. Instead of angels and visions, we have the image of the Magi following a sign in the skies – in nature – and for a long period of time. The magi see the intentions of God in the skies. This is not new: Psalm 19 tells us that the heavens themselves declare who God is, and that his handiwork is seen in created nature.  “We observed his star at its rising”. The magi know that there is something significant happening.

When did they come?

The Gospel of Saint Luke doesn’t mention the Magi and holds that the Holy Family returned to Nazareth after the presentation of Jesus at the Temple where he was circumcised. It’s probable that Saint Luke didn’t know of this episode in Jesus’ early life. Saint Matthew seems to place the visit of the Magi some time after Jesus’ birth. The Holy Family are in a “house” not in the
stable of the inn.  Herod kills all the newborn boys under the age of two years. So it’s likely that the Holy Family had stayed for some time in Bethlehem and the Magi came some time after Jesus’ birth, perhaps as long as two years after.

WHY did they come?

Clearly, the Magi were searching.  The Magi recognized much of the truth of Jesus, who he was and what he would become.  The magi had a general idea of this God and this King of the Jews, but they didn’t really know who or what they were looking for.  Bono and U2 were criticized some years ago by some supposedly orthodox Christians when they produced a song entitled, “I still haven’t found what I am looking for.”  I can’t see the problem with that especially given the spiritual depths in many of their songs. You see, the example of the Magi was that they were searchers, not really knowing what or who they were looking for.  They didn’t claim to have it all but they saw their lives as a journey of discovery. And in that they are an example to us. We don’t know it all. But if we like them are prepared to be diligent seekers, then like them we may be graced by God’s light, by our Epiphany.  When the wise men finally found Jesus, we are told that their first response was joy – “they were overwhelmed with joy”. That is what happens when we find Jesus. This is what awaits us at the end of the journey. Next, they paid him homage – they worshiped him and acknowledged Him as King. After the joy comes the worship. That means acknowledging Jesus as King. Jesus as the center. Jesus as Lord. And then, after joy and after worship, comes offering of their gifts. In response to who Jesus is and the joy He gives, we offer ourselves and our gifts to Him.

So my message for today is to dare, like them, to take the risk of seeking, and God may well bless us with our own Epiphanies which transform us as doubtless the Magi were transformed by what must have been a surprising experience for them as they knelt before the infant Jesus.

So how do you find Jesus? Maybe you can start out like the Magi – with a general idea of God, and a general idea that He is guiding you. Like the Magi, we need to turn to the scriptures. If you don’t read them, you will never really get the specific directions that God is trying to give you. Approach them with the right spirit, the right purpose. Ask for help along the way – the church, God’s people, are meant to help you along that way. The wise men knew when they needed to ask someone else for help. And pray. Ask God. When you find Jesus, rejoice. After all, He is God. Put Him in the center of your life. Ask yourself whether what you are doing honors him a King. Offer to him what you have, who you are.

Where can this Jesus be found?  He is with you now.  Won’t you seek Him?  Won’t you recognize Him?  Won’t you let Him fill YOUR life with joy?  Amen. 

Standing Firm: St. Stephen the Martyr ~ The Very Rev. Lady Sherwood, OPI

Reading 1: ACTS 6:8-10; 7:54-59

PS 31:3CD-4, 6 AND 8AB, 16BC AND 17

Gospel: MT 10:17-22

Liturgical colour: Red.

Today, the day after we have celebrated the joyous birth of Our Lord and Saviour, and after all the enjoyment of festive food and the giving of gifts which we traditionally do at Christmas, and with this being the first time many of us have been able to have any joyous type of occasion this year amid all the covid19 pandemic situation, we now come in total contrast to that of the celebrations of Christmas day, to the Feast of St. Stephen who was the first Martyr to die for his faith in Our Lord.

Throughout the Old Testament we see time and time again, of the faithful being persecuted and often even killed by those without faith.  But it’s not just an Old Testament phenomenon.  This is what humans can do in their natural and unredeemed state.  We as humans  don’t like our sins to be pointed out to us.  We manage to make ourselves believe that we’re really not all that bad.  We work hard to justify our sins and failings.  We find the really, really sinful people in history—men such as Nero or Stalin—and we tend to compare ourselves to them and actually start to feel pretty good about where we stand before God because we don’t believe our sins are as bad as those of such people.  And that’s when one of God’s faithful workers comes along—someone who, while by no means perfect, is living a life renewed by grace and who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit—and suddenly all the illusions we’ve built up about our own goodness are shattered and we get angry.  Like Cain, instead of acknowledging our sins and instead of repenting, we torment, persecute, and sometimes even kill God’s people when they show us up.

Jesus weeps over Jews, knowing that they will continue to kill those whom he sends as his messengers. They won’t stop at only Jesus’s messengers, but they will indeed kill our Lord and Saviour himself soon also  They won’t heed the warnings.  But brothers and sisters, Jesus warns us—the faithful—too.  To his disciples he says:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you dear brothers and sisters when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on the Lord’s account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Jesus prepares us for the fact that as we joyfully follow him, and  joyfully do the work of his kingdom, and as we witness the great Christmas joy we’ve found in the manger and at the cross—as we live a life of joy before our King—we will face persecution from the world.  To submit ourselves to that seems nonsensical.  How can we find joy in persecution?  We find it there, because when we make Christ our Lord, he gives us that eternal perspective we’ve been hearing about all throughout Advent.  Suddenly the things of this world are so much less important.  Our focus is on Jesus and on building his kingdom.  Our focus is on being witnesses of his new life and taking his Good News to the world.  And that change in perspective means that if we can effectively communicate the Gospel to others whilst being tormented or with the risk of even being killed, well then, so be it.  Our joy in living in and sharing Christ is greater than our joy in the things of this world—even in life itself, because we know that our share in eternal life is so much greater than anything this world could ever possibly give. But it’s not just about joy.  It’s about love too.  That’s another theme that is carried throughout the season of Advent.  We saw Love Incarnate in the manger yesterday.  And now because God has so changed our perspective by loving us, we start loving as he did— if we are indeed true children of God and his faithful  servants, we simply can’t help it!  And it’s not just that we love God’s Church or that we love our brothers and sisters in Christ, but that we even love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us.  That’s the hardest command of all for us to obey, but the reason it’s so hard is because we haven’t been perfect in love ourselves.  The closer we grow to Christ, the better able we’ll be to live it.  But it’s also true that the better we live it, the closer we will be to Christ! It is a never ending circle.

However, we fully know that Living that way is hard.  We so often get bogged down in matters of this world.  We focus more on life here than we do on life in the Kingdom of Heaven. .  We fall back into living in fear instead of living in faith.  The witness of St. Stephen should focus our eyes on our Lord and Saviour and on living the life he has given us.  No one knows for sure why this feast falls on the day after Christmas, but one thing I’ve realised is that it’s easy to be excited about grace and to live as Christmas people on Christmas Day.  But dear brothers and sisters, as humans we’re incredibly fickle, and the next day many forget about being Christmas people and go back to living in fear and in faithlessness.  We forget our witness.  How often do you come to worship God on a Sunday morning, getting excited about grace, and yet even as you drive home someone on the road does something that makes you angry and you forget all about grace; or you get bad service while you’re out having lunch, and you forget all about grace; or you get a bad news the next morning about your job, and you forget all about grace.  The Church reminds us today that being Christmas people requires real commitment on our part and that as much as it’s joyful work, it’s extremely hard work and work that requires truth and devout faith in the promises of God.

The story of Stephen actually begins in Acts Chapter 6.  He was among the group of seven men appointed the first deacons by the apostles.  They were the servant-ministers of the Church in Jerusalem.  Stephen was excited about his work.  Acts 6:8 tells us:

Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.

He was doing what he was supposed to do as a Christmas person and he attracted attention.  The problem was that he attracted the attention of Jews who didn’t like what he was doing.  Now, I say “the problem”.  That just shows how our perspective isn’t fully where it should be.  We see it as a “problem” when we face persecution.  We forget that God is sovereign and that he’s working everything out for the good of his people and the spread of his kingdom.  Persecution is hard and painful, but it’s still “good”.  Remember, Jesus tells us that we find blessing in it.  So it was a “problem” that the Jews were upset by what Stephen was doing, but it wasn’t really a problem.  God was still in control.  We need to keep that in mind in our own lives: Christians don’t have “problems”, we have “opportunities” to exercise our faith.

And Stephen knew that, even as these angry men dragged him before the Sanhedrin and produced all sorts of false witnesses who attested that he was as a blasphemer.  He was on trial and it wasn’t going in his favour.  And yet even as these men told lies about him, St. Luke tells us that Stephen sat there with the face of an angel—he was peaceful even in the face of condemnation.  The one other place in Scripture we hear a description like this is of the face of Moses after he had been with God.  Stephen was close to his Saviour and was experiencing the “peace of the Lord”.

In fact, when the high priest gave Stephen a chance to defend himself, what did Stephen do?  He didn’t try to explain away the things he had said and done that he got him into trouble in the first place.  No.  He took the opportunity to preach the Gospel to the whole Sanhedrin!  He addressed them and started with Abraham and told the story of redemption down through Joseph and Moses.  He told them the stories of their fathers who were rescued from slavery in Egypt and then again how God cared for them in the wilderness and drove out their enemies in Canaan to give them a home—and he stressed how all these things were made possible by God and were his gifts.  And as he told the story, he noted how over and over the people rejected God—gladly claiming the great things he gave them, but never truly receiving God himself.  And with that Stephen brings them right down to Jesus and he says:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit.  As your fathers did, so do you.  Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.  (Acts 7:51-53)

He doesn’t pull any punches.  He tells them that in rejecting Christ, they’re doing the same things that their fathers had done before them in rejecting the grace of God and in being disobedient.  We don’t have time this morning to read Stephen’s full sermon, but I urge you to read through it—Acts 7—sometime this next week.  This was a man who was full of passion for his Lord.  He was full of passion to share the Good News, even when he was in the lion’s den.  What strikes me is how what Stephen does here runs counter to so much of what the Church today tells us to do in terms of evangelism.  We’re told today not to be confrontational; we’re told not to talk too much about sin—or not to talk about it all—because that might turn people off; we’re told to focus on the positive; we’re told to witness the Gospel with our lives and that we might get into trouble sharing it with our mouths.  Look at what Stephen does!  Not only does he live the Gospel, but he speaks it out loud and clear!  He confronts these men right for being the religious hypocrites they are.  Stephen didn’t just sit there, quietly and say to himself: “I’m not going to bother with these guys.  I’d just be casting my pearls before swine.”  No, he shared the Good News with them and he did it peacefully and joyfully.  And he did it because he was living in the grace and love of Christmas.  He knew that these men might never come to know the Saviour but for his witness, but he also knew that if they were truly reprobate, their rejection of his Gospel sermon would simply confirm to them and to the world their rejection of the Saviour, and God would have greater glory in their condemnation.  God’s Word never returns void.  Stephen knew that.

St. Luke continues the story and tells us their response:

Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him.  But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”  But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him.  Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.  And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice,  “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:54-60)

We might read that story and think, “Wow.  Stephen certainly had a bad day!”  Our eyes are blind to God at his work.  Stephen took a faithful stand for his Lord, and even as they got ready to drag him out to be stoned, God granted him a vision of his own glory and of Jesus enthroned beside him.  Stephen’s “bad day” was a good day for the Church, because on that day God set Stephen before the rest of us as a witness—a lesson as to what it means to be Christmas people—people of his grace and his love and his power.  He showed himself to Stephen so that Stephen could show himself and his faith in Christ to the rest of us.

But Stephen’s story does more than just encourage us to share the Good News and to stand firm in our faith.  He reminds us what it means to witness the Gospel in our deeds.  Stephen had that vision of the Lord Jesus before his eyes, and so even as these evil men started hurling stones at him, he responded with Christlike love.  When Jesus was hanging on the cross, do you remember what he prayed?  He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know now what they do.”  To the last Jesus was concerned with the souls and with the eternal state of the people around him—even his enemies.  He was an evangelist to the end, even when there were no more words to say to his persecutors and murderers, he was praying for them.  And Stephen, with his eyes on Jesus, does the same.  There was nothing left to say to these men and there was nothing left for him to do, and so he prayed for them: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Luke tells us that St. Paul was there that day.  He was holding coats so that people could do a better job throwing rocks at Stephen.  Of course, this is when he was known as Saul—before he met Jesus on the Damascus Road and had his life changed forever.  The next verse, 8:1, tells us that Paul approved of Stephen’s execution.  What we don’t know is what impact Stephen’s loving and gracious response had on Paul’s future conversion.  But Luke certainly included this detail for a reason.

Brothers and sisters, Stephen reminds us that we need to be living as Christmas people, not just on Christmas, but each and every day.  But he also shows us very dramatically what it means to live in the life and grace of Christmas—especially in light of St. Luke’s note that Paul was there that day.  We never know who is witnessing us and how those around us may, or may not, be impacted for the Gospel by what we say and what we do and by how we deal with the circumstances of life.  Who would have thought on that day that Saul of Tarsus—Hebrew of Hebrews and member of the Sanhedrin, the man who hunted down Christians and brought them to trial before the Jewish authorities—who would have thought that Stephen’s witness of love and grace that day might change the whole course of Church history as Saul later became Paul, the apostle to the gentiles.

And lastly, Stephen teaches us something about the extreme nature of grace and love and forgiveness.  These men were more than just run-of-the-mill enemies.  These weren’t just men who didn’t like him or were just angry with him.  These were men who saw him as a threat to their existence and wanted to kill him—who did kill him.  Stephen didn’t reciprocate their anger.  No, he saw them as Jesus saw them: sinful men whom he loved and who would face eternal damnation without the Gospel of love and grace.  Stephen knew the love that overcomes a multitude of sins and he knew it because he had experienced it himself through Jesus Christ.  St. John reminds us that anyone who claims to love God, but hates his brother is a liar—that you can’t have experienced the redeeming love of God and still hold grudges and hate in your heart against those who have wronged you.  Friends, to hold a grudge, to resent the sins of others, to fail to show a forgiving spirit, is to be self-righteous—it’s to ignore what God had done for you! Stephen could look on these angry men with love, precisely because he had himself experienced the love of Christ and God’s forgiveness—and he knew that there was nothing these men could do to him that was as bad as even his own smallest offences against God.  God had forgiven him so much—and he realise that so well—that it was a “small” thing for him to forgive these men and to show them love.  Lest we think that Jesus and John are just speaking in hyperbole when they tell us to love our enemies, St. Stephen shows us how the love of Christ really does work out in our lives—or at least how it should, if we truly claim to love God and to have experienced his grace and forgiveness.

So remember today: We are a Christmas people, living in the grace and love of God.  But remember too that God calls us to be Christmas people every day of our lives and not just in the Christmas season..  The joy of Christmas is something that should permeate every aspect of our lives that we might be witnesses, even to our enemies and even to those who would kill us, of the love and grace that God has shown us through his Son.  And so we pray, “Grant, O Lord, that in all our sufferings for the testimony of your truth we may look up steadfastly to heaven and see by faith the glory that is to be revealed and, filled with the Holy Spirit, may learn to love and pray for our persecutors as St. Stephen your first martyr prayed for his murderers to you, blessed Jesus, where you stand at the right hand of God to help all who suffer for you, our only mediator and advocate.  Amen.”