Reading 1: SGS 3:1-4B OR 2 COR 5:14-17
Responsorial Psalm: PS 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
Gospel: JN 20:1-2, 11-18
Liturgical colour: White.
Today is the day when we honour the Feast day of Mary Magdalene, who was a very dedicated follower of Jesus. There are many Legends around about the life of Mary Magdalene. In fact, Mary Magdalene is probably most well-known for false details and unproven facts in her life. Mary is often identified as a former prostitute, but there is no evidence in the Bible that substantiates this. Too often, people identify her with being the sinful woman from the city that anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair. But there are is no Biblical evidence in the Holy text as to the actual identity of that woman, and as such, there is no true reason to believe that it might be Mary Magdalene. Sometimes, Mary Magdalene has been confused with Mary of Bethany, Lazarus’ and Martha’s sister, but biblical evidence has Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene as two totally different people. There are also some biblically unsubstantiated myths of Mary Magdalene being married married to our Lord Jesus that are spread around. I have also seen on some church websites, that Mary Magdalene was thought to be the author of the Fourth Gospel, that we call the gospel of John, and that she was actually the “beloved disciple” described in that gospel, but yet again, true biblical text accounts certainly do not support this stance. So besides learning that we can’t believe everything which we may read on the internet, what can we learn about Mary Magdalene?
Well, she wasn’t a prostitute, highly likely she didn’t anoint Jesus’ feet, she wasn’t married to Jesus, and she didn’t write the Fourth Gospel, so what do we really know about the Truth of the life of Mary Magdalene? Very little of her life is known to us by the texts of the Bible. We can assume that her name “Magdalene” refers to Magdala, a town near Tiberias (in present day Israel), where she must have lived or grown up, but we don’t even know that for certain.
The most personal story about Mary Magdalene from the Bible is from Luke chapter 8. Mary Magdalene is identified in a list of women who provided for Jesus and the disciples out of their own resources. Mary Magdalene was freed from seven demons (accdg to the text), but it is not clear exactly what kind of bondage she was freed from. It could’ve been from anything. Mental illness? Physical illness? Other sin? We just don’t truthfully know. What we do know, was that Mary was restored to health when she was freed and given new life in Jesus.
Mary Magdalene loved Jesus very deeply – possibly even maybe more deeply than anyone else. She held a very important place in both his life and his ministry – she was present both at Jesus’ crucifixion and at his burial. She was one of the devoted women who came early in the morning to the empty tomb that first Easter Sunday morning. Mary Magdalene was the first one to actually see the resurrected Jesus, according to John, and the one who ran to tell the others. Mary Magdalene can teach us how to love Jesus completely by her example. So what can we learn from Mary Magdalene’s devotion to Jesus?
Firstly, we can learn persistence from Mary. She was the first one to be at the tomb that morning. For three days after burial, the custom was to visit the tomb of a loved one. When Mary arrived at Jesus’ tomb, she was stunned. The huge rock, which was supposed to seal the tomb, was gone. Immediately, she went to go get help, as she believed that the body had been stolen. After the disciples came and saw it for themselves, they went back home. Only Mary Magdalene remained at the tomb, not wanting to leave the tomb. Somehow, she could not give up. She didn’t expect to see Jesus, but this persistent woman couldn’t pull herself away either.
Sometimes we give up on God far too easily. We pray a quick prayer asking God to help, and when we don’t hear a positive answer in our own timing, we wonder why God had ignored our prayer. Or we may ask God to intervene in a situation and then we solve the problem ourselves or take it into our own hands. We can tend to move on too quickly when there’s no immediate action. Mary Magdalene persisted. She waited. She didn’t let outward appearances deter her from what she was seeking. She wanted to see Jesus even though it looked impossible, so she stayed. Mary Magdalene was persistent.
The Second thing we can learn from Mary Magdalene is Sincerity. Mary did not put on false airs and graces or act her way through this situation. We can see Mary’s heart all the way through in her actions. When a man who she assumed to be the gardener asked what she was looking for, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” This woman sincerely believes that she can carry Jesus’ adult male body back to the tomb. She knows that if she found his body, she would find the strength to carry him back to his tomb, no matter how impossible it seemed. Mary Magdalene was totally sincere when she offered to carry Jesus’ body back to the tomb where it belonged.
At times, we as Christians tend to put on a good show. When someone dies, we want everything to look good, so we cover up our true feelings. Rather than admitting that this is tragic and nobody can understand it, we parade around patronizing platitudes: “I guess God missed her too much,” or “She’s in a better place now,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” Instead of acknowledging the senselessness of some loss, we try to give answers that we have no business giving. Mary Magdalene did not hide how she felt. She did not give explanations that she couldn’t know. She just opened her heart and said what she felt. Mary single-heartedly sought the return of the body of Jesus whom she loved. Mary Magdalene was sincere.
Thirdly, we can learn enthusiasm from Mary Magdalene. Once she realized to whom she was speaking, once she recognised the gardener as her precious teacher (“Rabboni”), once Jesus told her to go share the news of his resurrection, nothing could stop her from telling others. Bernard of Clairvaux called Mary Magdalene the “Apostle to the Apostles”, because of her role in telling Jesus’ disciples about the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene brought the news to the disciples: “You’ll never believe it, but I have seen the Lord!” Then she told them what she had seen and experienced. She was the only one who stayed at the tomb, and she was the only one who saw Jesus. But Mary was so excited she could not keep her enthusiasm to herself. She was bursting at the seams to share the best news she had ever heard. Mary was enthusiastic.
Mary Magdalene holds a very unique place in the history of Our Lord Jesus. She was the first one to find the empty tomb on Easter and the only one, in the gospel of John, to meet Jesus face to face. We can learn a lot from her, but especially, we can learn from her persistence in waiting for Jesus, her sincerity in searching for Jesus, and her enthusiasm in telling others about the good news of Jesus. Her witness to us is inspiring. Though she’s got with some people a bad reputation through evidenceless myths throughout the years, Mary Magdalene has a lot to teach us about how we are deeply to love Jesus, to wait on Jesus timing persistently, and to search for Jesus in our hearts sincerely. We ought to Enthusiastically tell others about our dear Lord and Saviour, Jesus. And our devotion to Jesus should shine forth in the world in everything we do and say.
Do you ever wonder what it would take to make the world a better place. Less rotten? Less foolish? Less stupid? Less tasteless? Less dark?
I do. People at large would come up with a range of suggestions. Some people put their confidence in the political system. The government is there to improve things, and once a decade we change who is in power because we’re not convinced the current lot are fixing things well enough, so we try somebody else.
Others would say that capitalism is the answer. A video was put on the internet in November. It starts with a picture of a girl running in a field. The voice-over runs like this. “This child was born in the past year. She is expected to live to at least the age of 70. If she had been born just two centuries earlier, she would not have been expected to survive beyond her 30th birthday. The almost miraculous increase in life expectancy of the past two centuries is mainly the result of capitalism. By making life healthier, easier and better, capitalism has made life longer for billions of people around the world. Capitalism has given each of us a future, the chance to experience all that life offers. To defend and advance capitalism is to defend and advance our lives and those of our loved ones. What could be more important?” Get the world to embrace capitalism, things will improve further.
Others don’t like that, so they protest against capitalism, as if anti-capitalism were the answer.
Christians by and large reach for some better answers. Some would say that society will improve if we go back to the traditional values that we’ve lost. If the next generation can grow up once again knowing the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments, things might be a little less hopeless. Others would say that religion in general holds the key. Others would say that God can make things better. Others would be more precise still, and say that the answer is Jesus.
Jesus tells us in these verses from Matthew’s gospel what it will take to make the world a better place. The answer is surprising. It’s not God, or Jesus. It’s the Christian church. It’s groups of disciples. It’s ordinary Christians. It’s you, and it’s me.
But it’s not automatic. If the Christian church is to be God’s answer to improve a world that is frequently dark, rotten and lacking taste, two things must happen.
First, we must not lose our distinctiveness.
The first thing that needs to happen is this: We must not lose our distinctiveness. We must not lose our distinctiveness.
Verse 13: “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.”
Jesus compares us to salt. He says we are like salt. You are the salt of the earth. What point is he making?
In the ancient world, there were two main uses for salt. It was used as a preservative. People didn’t have fridges, so they would put salt on meat to stop it from going bad. If that is what Jesus means, he is saying that the world will go rotten all by itself, just as surely as a sirloin steak won’t smell or taste good after a day in the hot sun. We are the salt that stops the rot. Today, he might have said (although there would be problems with saying it): You are the deep freeze of the earth. When society goes rotten, we shouldn’t criticize society in pious “letters to the editor”, but ask why the salt was not applied. It’s not the meat’s fault if it goes bad if nobody put it back in the fridge.
The other use for salt was to flavor things, a use it still has today. If that is what Jesus means, he is saying that we are in society to make it a better place, to give the place a little more taste.
Jesus doesn’t tell us which he means. Perhaps he’s being deliberately ambiguous, so that we think of it from both angles. In any case, the exact way in which the salt helps isn’t his point. He tells us that we are like salt so that he can say one thing: The salt must not lose its saltiness. Literally, it must not lose its taste, or it must not become foolish.
How does salt lose its saltiness? Like this. In the ancient world, they didn’t have beautifully white refined table salt. They used something a bit like rock-salt. You remember the recent snow? There were footpaths that looked like they were gritted but the snow was still settling. That was salt that had lost its saltiness. The water and snow had leached the actual salt out of it. What you had left you might still call salt, but it had no actual salt in it.
So that is what he is saying. We are here to have an influence on the world of some kind. There’s some positive influence involved, as we improve the flavor of the world. There’s some negative influence involved, as we stop the rot. But we can’t do either of those things if we have lost the distinctive thing that we are supposed to contribute to society. And without that, there is no hope. The word “You” at the start of this is emphatic. “You are the salt of the earth”, and I mean “only you”.
So we must not lose our distinctiveness. Those qualities we thought about last time, Jesus’ portrait of what makes the follower of his different from other people: They really matter.
Sadly, though, the salt often loses its saltiness. The history of the Christian church contains many episodes where Christians compromised. Where they looked little to no different to the world around them.
Instead of being a source of influence, preventing decay and working for good, the church merely adopts the world around. It takes its culture, its morals and its values from the world. Sometimes this has been so much so, that the church has actually promoted the world’s values, when in fact it should have been standing against them.
It’s not just the church, considered corporately, that can lose its saltiness. Which of us does not feel this pressure individually as well. We feel the pressure to have the same standards of living as those around us, to drink the same amount at a party, to have the same standard of truthfulness when it comes to our expenses claims or our taxes, to have the same casual attitude to the speed limit, and so on. And then we adopt the world’s standards rather than living the way Jesus set out last time: We too quickly become proud, self-satisfied, glib, brutal and self-indulgent.
The pressure is on for us to lose our saltiness, to lose it as a church, and to lose it individually. But we must not. Because we are the salt of the earth. We must not lose our distinctiveness.
Secondly, we must not hide our discipleship
The second thing that must happen if we are to be God’s agent to improve the world, is that we must not hide our discipleship. We must not hide our discipleship.
Verse 14: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Jesus has changed his picture. He’s no longer comparing us to salt. Now we are light.
Light is a big Old Testament image. We remember it from those readings we get at Christmas time from Isaiah. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. In the Old Testament, darkness is frequently an expression of God’s judgment, whereas light is an expression of his favor and blessing.
Jesus came to fulfill those Old Testament promises. He came to bring the light of God’s blessing. He even said: “I am the light of the world”. And so it is that those who follow him live in the light of God’s favor. They are blessed by God. The start of this chapter, remember, told us again and again how blessed we are to follow Jesus.
What Jesus is saying in these verses is that the light that we have been given needs to shine, so that others can see that we are in Jesus’ kingdom, and that we are among those God is blessing. And the reason we are to shine in this way is so that God gets the glory.
Thirdly, we must not hide our discipleship.
One detail we must notice is that the light here is corporate. Jesus is saying “We must not hide our discipleship”, not “I must not hide my discipleship”. The “you” is plural.
Jesus develops this picture of a city on a hill. That seems like an abrupt change of subject. One minute, he’s talking about us being lights, and then he takes about a prominent city. It stands out like a sore thumb… until you see that what he’s talking about is the visibility of a city on a hill at night, in a country with no electric lighting. Here’s the point: The city is so bright, because it is a beacon made up of lots and lots of little lights.
The church is made up of many lights. We are that city. When people look at our church, they will see the brightness that is the cumulative shine of all of our lights. We must not hide our discipleship.
You may know the old chorus – I won’t sing it! The first verse goes like this: Jesus bids us shine with a pure, clear light, like a little candle burning in the night in this world of darkness So let us shine— You in your small corner, and I in mine.
That is not what Jesus is saying here. He’s not saying we’ll all stay in our own small corners, and shine into the dark world. He’s saying that each of us has experienced God’s blessing individually. And when we come together, we are the light of the world. We must not hide our discipleship.
You’ve doubtless heard of sea pollution, and you’re used to the idea that beaches can be polluted or clean. Well until recently, I hadn’t heard of light pollution. There’s an organization called the International Dark Sky Association that aims to reduce light pollution. And just as the EU can declare a beach to be clean, so they can designate a place a “Dark Sky Park”, meaning it’s free of artificial light – you can see the stars at night. There is currently one of these in the UK, its Galloway Forest Park in South-West Scotland. Exmoor National Park is working to get its recognition.
From what I read of studies, in the South-East they have no chance. Kemsing for example has no street lights, but they are too near to Sevenoaks and to London. Go to Galloway, and on a cloudy, moonless night, you can’t see your own hand. But all you need is one major town with electric light, and it bounces off the clouds, and for tens or hundreds of miles the night sky is no longer black.
That is what the Christian church is. It’s that city on the hill. But we must let the light shine. We must not hide our discipleship.
We must not hide it as individuals. Jesus has already said that we will fail to influence the world around us or to spread the kingdom if there is nothing distinctive about us. But we will also fail if we are distinctive, but that is so hidden that nobody would ever know!
Here are some of the questions we could ask ourselves: So when you’re at work, are you a Christian? Or is it too well hidden for anyone to know? Do you talk about your faith, or does shame or the fear of rejection mean that you stay quiet? How about at home: Are you a Christian? Do people know that the reason you are distinctive is because you are a follower of Jesus Christ, or is that detail buried?
We mustn’t hide it as individuals, but we also mustn’t hide it corporately. Remember the city on the hill. Just as our life together must be salty and distinctive, so it needs to shine out. It’s no use keeping it hidden.
It’s no use expecting people to come to us to hear the good news of the kingdom; we need to take it to them. That is one reason why I’m so keen that we have at least one, if not several, open-air services during the Festival in September. Recently, someone in the church said to me, “Where else in the village can we take the church?”
You probably know that the basket Jesus refers to in verse 15 is called a “bushel”. It was a measure, used for measuring grain. We could paraphrase Jesus: “Don’t light a lamp, and put it under a measuring jug”. Now, this building makes an excellent bushel. It’s no use reforming our worship to make it God-honoring in every way we can, it’s no use having excellent relationships with each other, being supportive, and living the life Christ called us to, if we then place this bushel of a church building over the top, and contain it and hide it away.
When we meet here, we look at the face of God in Jesus Christ. We confess our failures, and we find forgiveness. We hear God’s word, that is an active, shaping word, and we get brighter. But it’s when we go out of here that the light can shine.
So if you, like me, long to see this world a better place, a brighter place, a wiser place, a less rotten place, then we need Jesus to point us in the right direction. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. God wants us to be the means he uses to brighten this world with his kingdom. To be that, Jesus calls us to follow him. Then he tells us that as salt, we must not lose our saltiness, and, as light, we must not be hidden.
Yesterday, we celebrated the feast of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. On this day, the Church is called to be the Sacrament of Jesus, to be the sign of unity for the human race. At the same time, the Lord commanded His disciples to go and “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” As the disciples went out to proclaim the Good News of Jesus as Lord and Saviour, they won more converts into their fold. But as the Lord instructed, conversion is not reducible to making converts through baptism but they must be instructed in their faith so that they can become His disciples, walking in His step.
Consequently, the Church, as mother who gives birth to new children of God at baptism, has an equal responsibility to help the newly baptized to grow and mature in the faith. Of course, discipleship is an ongoing process. There is only one teacher and that is Jesus the Christ. The Church, therefore, provides the other sacraments as means for her members to grow in faith, in union with the Lord and His Church, and most of all, to live out their Christian life according to their vocation. The sacrament of the Eucharist strengthens the bond between the disciple and Christ and the Christian community. The Sacrament of Confirmation empowers them to be witnesses of Christ. The Sacrament of Matrimony helps disciples to live out their basic and fundamental vocations as husbands and wives and parents. The Sacrament of Reconciliation forgives their sins and heals fractured relationships. The Church also nourishes the faithful through preaching and teaching the Word of God. The end product is a faithful disciple of the Lord.
But where can the Church turn to in living out her role as mother if not our Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ? Since Christ is both Head and Body of the Church, Mary too is our mother. Her role as mother of the Church was prepared by Christ, as the scripture tells us. In today’s gospel, we read that when Mary was standing at the foot of the cross, one of the last acts of our Lord was to entrust Mary to the care of His beloved disciple, John. “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.” In calling His own mother, “Woman” and by not addressing John by name, but calling him, “Son”, it was the intention of the evangelist to portray Mary as the Mother of the Church. Later on, in the book of Revelation, we read how the evangelist described the Church as a Woman. “A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth.”
Furthermore, this role was already anticipated by our Lord at the Wedding in Cana. When the couple had no wine, Mary told Jesus, “‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’” What Jesus meant, in St John’s interpretation, was that it was not yet the time for Mary or for Himself to manifest their real identity until His glorification at His passion, death and resurrection. The hour refers to the hour of His glory. So in using the term “woman” at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and then again at the end of Jesus’ ministry, St John intended this term to be understood as the call of Mary to be the mother of the Church upon the death and glorification of Jesus. Her role as mother of the Church began when Jesus died and rose from the dead.
That is why, immediately after the ascension of our Lord and before Pentecost, we see Mary gathering with the apostles in the Upper Room at prayer, waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit. St Luke made special mention of Mary with the apostles. “All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” Hence, it is significant that Mary was present at the birth of Jesus, and also at the birth of the Church at Pentecost. She is therefore fittingly called to be both the Mother of Christ, Head and Body, which is His Church. She was there to take care of Jesus and supported Him when He was growing up. So too Mary was there with the infant Church, supporting her at the beginning of its establishment.
Consequently, if the Church wishes to find a model of motherhood, no one could be better than Mary herself. She showed herself to be not just a mother but a virginal mother. In other words, she was a mother in an exceptional and paradoxical sense. For logically, how can one be a virgin and yet a mother? Mary conceived Jesus as a virgin through the power of the Holy Spirit. She became mother not by her own strength or power but by the grace of God. So, too, the Church is not a man-made institution or a kind of political establishment, as some conceive the Church to be. It is our belief that the Church was born from the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which we just celebrated. Just as the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and she conceived Jesus, so too, the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Church and the Church was born. It is for this reason, the Church, although human and sinful, is also divine and holy. Jesus said to Peter, “…you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The Church too must rely only on the power of God!
To be a mother, the Church must first be devoted to our Lord, just as Mary was. This is the meaning of virginal motherhood. It means total dedication to the one whom we love. She was totally dedicated to God and sought only to do His will. When the angel greeted her and informed her of God’s choice for her to be the mother of the saviour, she willingly said “yes” to her vocation after a period of discernment and clarification. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And to the servants at Cana, she told them the same thing. “Do whatever he tells you.” The Church too must be fully devoted to the Lord and place Him above everything else. This is true also for all parents. If they love their children and want them to grow up to be loving, responsible and God-fearing people, they must show the example of being faithful to God’s will in their lives so that their children will also learn how to imitate their example. By being true to their vocation as parents and as working people, they teach their children how to combine faith with life.
But it is not just doing God’s will. Indeed, if we want to be good servants of God, we must be ready to do His will at all times, even when it is difficult and we do not quite understand His will, which is often the case. But Mary did not stop doing God’s will simply because she did not understand fully what and why the Lord acted thus. Indeed, right from the start, Mary was puzzled by Jesus’ action and words at the Temple when He was twelve years old. Jesus said, “‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them.” Then we read that upon pressure from the family, Mary and her relatives went to fetch the Lord home because they thought He was mad. That is why the Church must teach her members to trust in God and obey His will even when they cannot understand some teachings of scripture and the Church. As Isaiah says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Indeed, to be a virginal mother, we must be faithful to our Lord till the end, just as Mary was faithful to her Son right to the end. In this way, the Church, which includes all those in positions of authority, especially parents and guardians, is called to imitate Mary in her devotion to God and to our fellowmen, in obedience to God’s will, and faithful in trials and suffering. Through Mary, we become true disciples of the Lord. Like St John, therefore, we must also bring Mary into our home. Devotion to Mary, the Mother of our Lord is critical in learning how to be true disciples of the Lord and mothers of those under our charge. Let us cultivate a strong devotion to Mary so that we too can be one in union with our Lord in doing God’s will.
Sybillina’s parents died when she was tiny and as soon as she was old enough to be of use to anyone, the neighbors, who had taken her in at the time she was orphaned, put her out to work. She must have been very young when she started to work, because at the age of 12, when she became blind and could not work any more, she already had several years of work behind her.
The cause of her blindness is unknown, but the child was left doubly destitute with the loss of her sight. The local chapter of the Dominican tertiary sisters took compassion on the child and brought her home to live with them. After a little while of experiencing their kind help, she wanted to join them. They accepted her, young though she was, more out of pity than in any hope of her being able to carry on their busy and varied apostolate.
They were soon agreeably surprised to find out how much she could do. She learned to chant the Office quickly and sweetly, and to absorb their teaching about mental prayer as though she had been born for it. She imposed great obligations of prayer on herself, since she could not help them in other ways. Her greatest devotion was to Saint Dominic, and it was to him she addressed herself when she finally became convinced that she simply must have her sight back so that she could help the sisters with their work.
Praying earnestly for this intention, Sybillina waited for his feast day. Then, she was certain, he would cure her. Matins came and went with no miracle; little hours, Vespers–and she was still blind. With a sinking heart, Sybillina knelt before Saint Dominic’s statue and begged him to help her. Kneeling there, she was rapt in ecstasy, and she saw him come out of the darkness and take her by the hand.
He took her to a dark tunnel entrance, and she went into the blackness at his word. Terrified, but still clinging to his hand, she advanced past invisible horrors, still guided and protected by his presence. Dawn came gradually, and then light, then a blaze of glory. “In eternity, dear child,” he said. “Here, you must suffer darkness so that you may one day behold eternal light.”
Sybillina, the eager child, was replaced by a mature and thoughtful Sybillina who knew that there would be no cure for her, that she must work her way to heaven through the darkness. She decided to become a anchorite, and obtained the necessary permission. In 1302, at the age of 15, she was sealed into a tiny cell next to the Dominican church at Pavia. At first she had a companion, but her fellow recluse soon gave up the life. Sybillina remained, now alone, as well as blind.
The first seven years were the worst, she later admitted. The cold was intense, and she never permitted herself a fire. The church, of course, was not heated, and she wore the same clothes winter and summer. In the winter there was only one way to keep from freezing–keep moving–so she genuflected, and gave herself the discipline. She slept on a board and ate practically nothing. To the tiny window, that was her only communication with the outside world, came the troubled and the sinful and the sick, all begging for her help. She prayed for all of them, and worked many miracles in the lives of the people of Pavia.
One of the more amusing requests came from a woman who was terrified of the dark. Sybillina was praying for her when she saw her in a vision, and observed that the woman–who thought she was hearing things–put on a fur hood to shut out the noise. The next day the woman came to see her, and Sybillina laughed gaily. “You were really scared last night, weren’t you?” she asked. “I laughed when I saw you pull that hood over your ears.” The legend reports that the woman was never frightened again.
Sybillina had a lively sense of the Real Presence and a deep devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. One day a priest was going past her window with Viaticum for the sick; she knew that the host was not consecrated, and told him so. He investigated, and found he had indeed taken a host from the wrong container.
Sybillina lived as a recluse for 67 years. She followed all the Masses and Offices in the church, spending what few spare minutes she had working with her hands to earn a few alms for the poor (Attwater2, Benedictines, Dorcy).
Born: 1287 at Pavia, Lombardy, Italy
Died: 1367 of Natural Causes: Her body remains Incorrupt
Beatified: 1853 (Cultus confirmed); 1854 beautified
Patronage: Children whose parents are not married, illegitimacy, loss of parents
Blessed Isnard is another very distinguished and saintly first disciple of Saint Dominic whom Father Touron somehow overlooked. Of Isnard’s life up to the time he entered the Order practically nothing is known with certainty; whilst some of the statements anent his debut as a Friar Preacher are irreconcilable among themselves, and contrary to facts which have been ascertained in later years. Chiampo, a small town not far from Vicenza, Italy, was most likely the place of his birth; yet there are those who give the latter city this honor. Some think he was born of poor parents, and spent his youth in poverty. Others suggest that he belonged to a wealthy family by the name of Isnardi, which has been long extinct.(1)
It is beyond doubt that the future wonder-worker received the habit in Bologna, from Saint Dominic, in 1219; for this is a point on which nearly all the early authors are in accord. This truth seems certainly to prove that he was a student at the university there, and far advanced in his studies, At that time only such applicants were accepted; and this fact is a strong proof that his parents were well-to-do, for only the sons of this kind were given a higher education. Without exception the writers tell us of his singular purity of heart and religious disposition. His mind had been carefully guarded against the evils of the day, and in Bologna he proved faithful to the lessons of his earlier youth. Association with the holy man from Caleruega quickened his efforts for holiness of life and the salvation of souls.
For ten years after he entered the Order of Saint Dominic, we have no positive knowledge of where Isnard made his home. Yet the indications are that he spent this time between Bologna and Milan. In which case, of course, he labored energetically in those parts of Italy. Although a quite corpulent man, we are told, he was endowed with extraordinary energy, and was very gracious in action as well as in word. San Eustorgio, Milan, was most likely his convent for the greater part of this decade. So at least thinks Rudolph Majocchi, Blessed Isnard’s latest hagiographer.(2)
In more than one of our sketches, but especially in that of Saint Peter of Verona, we have seen how the Albigenses and kindred sects overran northern Italy at that date. Milan was one of the centers of Dominican activity against them; and it was from Milan that the convent of the Order in Pavia was founded. At Pavia the heretics were long in the ascendancy. The city was also a stronghold of Frederic II, whose Ghibellines, always opposed to the Holy See, constantly persecuted those who favored the authority of the Church. When, in 1230, zealous Rodobald Cipolla became bishop of Pavia, he found religion in a sad plight in his diocese, and began at once to seek means for a reformation.
Blessed Isnard’s reputation for holiness of life, zeal, eloquence, power over the souls of others, and fearlessness was broadcast. Most likely he had already preached in the Diocese of Pavia — perhaps many times; for the Friars Preacher of Milan carried their work in every direction. Possibly, too, he and Bishop Cipolla, himself an energetic character, had become friends at a prior date. Anyway, one of the new prelate’s first steps for the spiritual betterment of his flock was to invite the subject of our narrative from Milan, that he might establish a house of the Order at Pavia. This was in 1231; and before the close of the year we find the fathers actively engaged in their apostolate under the leadership of the man of God from Chiampo.(3)
The convent, which Rodobald Cipolla generously helped to erect, stood in the little village of Ticino, a short distance outside the walls of Pavia, and was given the name of Saint Mary of Nazareth. Throughout Italy the Friars Preacher were known as an effective aid to the hierarchy against the evils of the day. Thus Bishop Cipolla felt that, at least under Isnard, they would be an immense help to him in putting an end to the inroads of the enemy, and in freeing his diocese from the many ills in which it was enmeshed. He had not long to wait before he saw that his choice of auxiliaries was no mistake.
However, the task proved difficult, trying, and full of danger. On the one hand, the faithful, through long bad associations, had become so cold, careless, and wayward in the practice of their religious duties that it was exceeding hard to arouse them to a sense of their obligations. On the other, the Ghibellines and sectarians, ever of stubborn mood as well as violent in their methods, were even less subject to management. These possessed little or no faith. Besides they were loath to change their views, to amend their lives, or to part with the earthly goods which they had obtained by robbery or dishonesty.
As is ever the case in such conditions, the Friar Preacher’s success began with the poor and the laboring classes. For these he had a special love. He gathered them around him at the conventual church, instructed them in their religion, and inspired them with a love of its practice. Although he met with much opposition at first, it was not long before he had completely changed their lives. Reports of the good thus effected soon spread near and far. Meanwhile, he and his confrères preached throughout the City of Pavia and its environments — in churches, public squares, market places, or wherever they could find a space large enough for an audience. Gradually the wealthier Guelfs, and even not a few of the Ghibellines, began to harken to the call of grace and to receive the sacraments.
Among the little band of missioners Isnard shone with special brilliancy for his saintliness, zeal, and eloquence. The influence which he soon began to wield over the people caused the leaders of the heretics to single him out for their hatred. They mocked and ridiculed him, publicly spurned him, laughed at his corpulent figure, defamed him, threatened him, did everything in their power either to bring him into disrepute or to make him desist from his tireless apostolate. All was in vain. His sermons were incessant. He challenged his enemies wherever he met them. If they undertook to answer him, his inexorable logic put them to shame, or reduced them to silence. Never was he known to be ill natured, or to lose his patience; yet he showed the fire of divine love that glowed within his breast.
No doubt as much to demonstrate the holiness of His faithful servant as for the benefit of those to whom he preached, God blessed Isnard with the gift of miracles. The early writers mention many wrought by him both before and after his death.(4) These, quite naturally, quickened and strengthened the faith of the Catholics. They also gradually undermined the influence and broke the spirit of the heretics, many of whom were brought into the Church. By the time of the holy man’s death, the Diocese of Pavia was free from attacks by Albigenses, Catharists, and similar sects. They bad gone to other parts, been converted, or held their peace. No one could be found who would profess their principles. It was a glorious apostolate brought to a successful termination.
The Ghibellines, or adherents of Emperor Frederic II, gave Christ’s ambassador no end of worry and trouble. These were the rich who were not guided by their consciences in the acquisition of wealth; politicians without scruples; and soldiers of fortune, whose restless spirits ever led them into the service in which they might expect the greatest booty, license, and excitement. The machinations of the German monarch helped to keep them in keen antagonism to ecclesiastical authority and the interests of religion; which, of course, rendered them less responsive to our blessed’s impelling eloquence or the strong influence of his holiness and miracles. We may judge of the contempt of these friends of Frederic for the Holy See from the fact that their acts more than once led to a papal interdict on Pavia.
Still these men, who could laugh at an excommunication and interdict from the highest authority in the Church, perforce loved and admired Father Isnard. His charity, his zeal, his gentle goodness, his purity of heart, his constant efforts for the right, which they witnessed day by day, simply wrung respect from them. His dealings with Frederic II must have been much like those of John of Wildeshausen. Even when Bishop Cipolla was driven into exile, Isnard and his band of missionaries were left to continue their fruitful labors. In the absence of the ordinary, the clergy who still remained in the diocese seem to have gathered around the subject of our sketch for guidance. Possibly the saintly prelate, at the time of his departure, placed him in charge of his spiritual vineyard.(5)
Despite the turbulence and the anti-ecclesiastical spirit of the day, the holy Friar Preacher from Chiampo effected untold good even among this class of citizens. Documents which have escaped the ravages of time show that some, who deferred conversion until on their deathbeds, made him the instrument of their restitution. Others entrusted him with their charity and benefactions. Historians call him an apostle of Pavia, and largely attribute the preservation of the faith in the city to his zeal.
Another proof of the respect and confidence which Isnard enjoyed among all classes, as well as of his reputation abroad, is found in the incident which we have now to tell. From early times the Diocese of Tours, France, possessed landed estates in and around Pavia. Because of the political disturbances and the Ghibelline spirit, to which we have referred, the canons of the Tours cathedral found it impossible to collect their rents. In this dilemma, they appointed our Friar Preacher their agent; for they felt that he was the only man in northern Italy who either could obtain their dues for them, or would dare undertake the task. This was in 1240, the year after the historic excommunication of Frederic 11 by Gregory IX. The affair shows bow wisely Isnard steered his course, how all venerated him at home, and how well his courage and prudence were known even in France.(6)
Like a number of the early disciples of Saint Dominic whose lives we have outlined, the apostle and reformer of Pavia did not feel that he had done his all for the benefit of religion until he established a community of Dominican Sisters. These he placed in the immediate vicinity of his own convent, that he might the better look after their spiritual welfare. Their house bore the same name as that of the fathers — Saint Mary of Nazareth. Although he had perhaps never seen Prouille, his double institution at Pavia must have been much like that with which the Order started in southern France. The dowries of many of these sisters indicate that he founded them, in part, so that wealthy worldly dames, whom he had converted, might have a place in which they could more completely give themselves to the service of God. Saint Dominic, it will be recalled, established the community of Prouille principally with women converted from Albigensianism. When, some years after our blessed’s death, the fathers moved into the city proper, the original Saint Mary of Nazareth was turned over to the sisters.
Isnard had a profound devotion towards the Mother of God. He perpetually preached her protection over the faithful. In every way he propagated love and veneration for her. Father Majocchi thinks that this apostolate was of immense aid to him in his work of reformation; for no other piety seems to be more congenital to the affectionate Italian character. He labored zealously on almost to the very last. At least the Lives of the Brethren (Vitae Fratrum) say his final sickness was a matter of only a few days. The manuscript annals, or chronicles, of the old Friar-Preacher convent at Pavia tell us that he surrendered his pure soul to God on March 19, 1244. He knew that the end was near, prepared for it, and died as holily as he had lived.(7)
We have no account of the funeral of the man of God. Yet the great love and admiration in which he was held justify one in the belief that the Pavians attended it in immense numbers. Perhaps the sad event plunged the city in no less grief than his own community. He was buried in the Church of Saint Mary of Nazareth, where his tomb became at once a place of pilgrimage for the city and province of Pavia. Not a few miracles were wrought in answer to prayers to him. The name Isnard was often given to children at their baptism.
Later, for various reasons, the fathers moved into the city proper. First (1281), they took possession of San Marino, but gave up this place the next year for Saint Andrew’s. There they remained until 1302, when they exchanged Saint Andrew’s for Saint Thomas’, which was better suited to their purposes. At this last location they at once began a splendid temple of prayer, which was completed between 1320 and 1330. The body of Blessed Isnard, which had been brought from the extra-urban Church of Saint Mary of Nazareth to Saint Andrew’s, while the fathers lived in the latter convent, was again translated and enshrined in a marble sarcophagus built for the purpose in a chapel of the new Saint Thomas’ Church. The devotion of the people followed his relies to both of these places of rest. Nor is it any stretch of fancy to imagine that the two translations were times of great fervor for all Pavia.
Unfortunately, in a spirit of zeal and friendship, the fathers gave the use of Blessed Isnard’s Chapel, as it was called, to the University of Pavia for religious functions. Although its walls were afterwards decorated with paintings commemorative of the chief events in his life, these academic associations tended rather to decrease veneration for the saintly Friar Preacher. The misfortunes of Pavia during the Spanish-Austrian reigns of Charles V and Philip III, which lasted almost throughout the sixteenth century, well-nigh caused him (or rather his final resting-place) to be forgotten even by some members of his own Order, and his relies to be scattered to the winds. Happily the researches of Pavian historians helped to avert such a disaster.
In spite of the most thorough identification, however, and to the great sorrow of the fathers, the rector and senate of the university, though without authority in the matter, later compelled our blessed’s sarcophagus to be taken from the chapel and destroyed. This was in 1763. But, before its removal, the community reverently gathered up his relies and placed them in a wooden chest. All this was done in the presence of Cardinal Charles Francis Durini, who then closed the box, and fastened it with his seal. Thence until the suppression of Saint Thomas’ Convent by Emperor Joseph II, in 1785, Isnard’s relies were carefully preserved in the archives. The fathers then took the chest, with its precious contents, to Saint Peter’s. When, in 1799, they were also forced to leave this abode, they gave their spiritual treasure to Bishop Joseph Bertieri, O. S. A. This prelate, after an official examination, not only entrusted Isnard’s relies to the Church of Saints Gervasius and Protasius, but even ordered them to be exposed for public veneration.
It looks providential that, under all these changes and difficulties, popular devotion for Saint Dominic’s early disciple did not completely die out. That it continued to exist shows the unalterable love in which the Pavians held him. Bishop Bertieri’s act gave it new life. In 1850 portions of his relies were given to Chiampo and Vicenza. Old paintings of him here and there, which represented him as a saint, also helped the cause. In 1907 the diocesan authorities of Pavia approved of his cult, and requested the Holy See to accept their decision. The late Benedict XV, of happy memory, after a thorough investigation by the Sacred Congregation of Rites (that is, in 1919), granted his office and mass to the Friars Preacher and the Diocese of Pavia. March 22 was appointed as his feast day.
Isnard is the last of the original disciples of Dominic to be accorded the honors of the altar. The late date of his beatification affords the hope that several others of them may yet he similarly dignified by the Church.
Ambrose was born at Siena on 16 April 1220, of the noble family of Sansedoni. When about one year old, Ambrose was cured of a congenital deformity, in the Dominican church of St. Mary Magdalene. As a child and youth he was noted for his love of charity, exercised especially towards pilgrims, the sick in hospitals, and prisoners. He entered the novitiate of the Dominican convent in his native city at the age of seventeen, was sent to Paris to continue his philosophical and theological studies under Albert the Great and had for a fellow-student there, St. Thomas Aquinas.
In 1248 he was sent with St. Thomas to Cologne where he taught in the Dominican schools. In 1260 he was one of the band of missionaries who evangelized Hungary. In 1266 Sienna was put under an interdict for having espoused the cause of the Emperor Frederick II, then at enmity with the Holy See. The Siennese petitioned Ambrose to plead their cause before the Sovereign Pontiff, and so successfully did he do this that he obtained for his native city full pardon and a renewal of all her privileges. The Siennese soon cast off their allegiance; a second time Ambrose obtained pardon for them. He brought about a reconciliation between King Conradin of Germany and Pope Clement IV.
About this time he was chosen bishop of his native city, but he declined the office. For a time, he devoted himself to preaching the Eighth Crusade; and later, at the request of Pope Gregory X, caused the studies which the late wars had practically suspended to be resumed in the Dominican convent at Rome. After the death of Pope Gregory X he retired to one of the convents of his order, whence he was summoned by Innocent V and sent as papal legate to Tuscany. He restored peace there between Florence and Pisa and also between the dogal republics of Venice and Genoa, another pair of commercial rivals within Italy.
He died at Sienna, in 1286. His name was inserted in the Roman Martyrology in 1577. His biographers exhibit his life as one of perfect humility. He loved poetry, and many legends are told of victories over carnal temptations.
He was renowned as a preacher. His oratory, simple rather than elegant, was most convincing and effective. His sermons, although once collected, are not extant
Fra Angelico (c. 1395 – February 18, 1455), born Guido di Pietro, was an Early Italian Renaissance painter described by Vasari in his Lives of the Artists as having “a rare and perfect talent”. He was known to his contemporaries as Fra Giovanni da Fiesole (Brother John from Fiesole) and by Vasari as Fra Giovanni Angelico (Brother John the Angelic One).
Fra Angelico is known in Italy as il Beato Angelico, the term “Il Beato” (“Blessed One”) being already in use during his lifetime or shortly thereafter, in reference to his skills in painting religious subjects. In 1982 Pope John Paul II conferred beatification, in recognition of the holiness of his life, thereby making this title official. Fiesole is sometimes misinterpreted as being part of his formal name, but it was merely the name of the town where he took his vows as a Dominican friar, and was used by contemporaries to separate him from other Fra Giovannis. He is listed in the Roman Martyrology as Beatus Ioannes Faesulanus, cognomento Angelicus—”Blessed Giovanni of Fiesole, nicknamed Angelico”.
Vasari wrote of Fra Angelico: But it is impossible to bestow too much praise on this holy father, who was so humble and modest in all that he did and said and whose pictures were painted with such facility and piety.
Early life, 1395–1436
Fra Angelico was born Guido di Pietro at Rupecanina, in the Tuscan area of Mugello, near Fiesole towards the end of the 14th century and died in Rome in 1455. Nothing is known of his parents. He was baptized Guido or Guidolino. The earliest recorded document concerning Fra Angelico dates from October 17, 1417 when he joined a religious confraternity at the Carmine Church, still under the name of Guido di Pietro. This record also reveals that he was already a painter, a fact that is subsequently confirmed by two records of payment to Guido di Pietro in January and February 1418 for work done in the church of Santo Stefano del Ponte. The first record of Angelico as a friar dates from 1423, when he is first referred to as Fra Giovanni, following the custom of those entering a religious order of taking a new name. He was a member of the Dominican community at Fiesole. Fra, an abbreviation of frate (from the Latin frater), is a conventional title for a friar or brother.
According to Vasari, Fra Angelico initially received training as an illuminator, possibly working with his older brother Benedetto who was also a Dominican and an illuminator. San Marco in Florence holds several manuscripts that are thought to be entirely or partly by his hand. The painter Lorenzo Monaco may have contributed to his art training, and the influence of the Sienese school is discernible in his work. He had several important charges in the convents he lived in, but this did not limit his art, which very soon became famous. According to Vasari, the first paintings of this artist were an altarpiece and a painted screen for the Carthusian Monastery of Florence; none such exist there now.
From 1408 to 1418 Fra Angelico was at the Dominican friary of Cortona where he painted frescoes, now destroyed, in the Dominican Church and may have been assistant to or follower of Gherardo Starnina. Between 1418 and 1436 he was at the convent of Fiesole where he also executed a number of frescoes for the church, and the Altarpiece, deteriorated but restored. A predella of the Altarpiece remains intact in the National Gallery, London which is a superb example of Fra Angelico’s ability. It shows Christ in Glory, surrounded by more than 250 figures, including beatified Dominicans.
San Marco, Florence, 1436–1445
In 1436 Fra Angelico was one of a number of the friars from Fiesole who moved to the newly-built Friary of San Marco in Florence. This was an important move which put him in the centre of artistic activity of the region and brought about the patronage of one of the wealthiest and most powerful members of the city’s Signoria, Cosimo de’ Medici, who had a large cell (later occupied by Savonarola) reserved for himself at the friary in order that he might retreat from the world. It was, according to Vasari, at Cosimo’s urging that Fra Angelico set about the task of decorating the monastery, including the magnificent Chapter House fresco, the often-reproduced Annunciation at the top of the stairs to the cells, the Maesta with Saints and the many smaller devotional frescoes depicting aspects of the Life of Christ that adorn the walls of each cell.
In 1439 he completed one of his most famous works, the Altarpiece for St. Marco’s, Florence. The result was unusual for its times. Images of the enthroned Madonna and Child surrounded by saints were common, but they usually depicted a setting that was clearly heavenlike, in which saints and angels hovered about as divine presences rather than people. But in this instance, the saints stand squarely within the space, grouped in a natural way as if they were able to converse about the shared experience of witnessing the Virgin in glory. Paintings such as this, known as Sacred Conversations, were to become the major commissions of Giovanni Bellini, Perugino and Raphael.
The Vatican, 1445–1455
In 1445 Pope Eugenius IV summoned him to Rome to paint the frescoes of the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament at St Peter’s, later demolished by Pope Paul III. Vasari claims that at this time Fra Angelico was offered by Pope Nicholas V the Archbishopric of Florence, and that he refused it, recommending another friar for the position. While the story seems possible and even likely, if Vasari’s date is correct, then the pope must have been Eugenius and not Nicholas. In 1447 Fra Angelico was in Orvieto with his pupil, Benozzo Gozzoli, executing works for the Cathedral. Among his other pupils were Zanobi Strozzi.
From 1447 to 1449 he was back at the Vatican, designing the frescoes for the Niccoline Chapel for Nicholas V. The scenes from the lives of the two martyred deacons of the Early Christian Church, St. Stephen and St. Lawrence may have been executed wholly or in part by assistants. The small chapel, with its brightly frescoed walls and gold leaf decorations gives the impression of a jewel box. From 1449 until 1452, Fra Angelico was back at his old convent of Fiesole, where he was the Prior.
Death and beatification
In 1455 Fra Angelico died while staying at a Dominican Convent in Rome, perhaps in order to work on Pope Nicholas’ Chapel. He was buried in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.
When singing my praise, don’t liken my talents to those of Apelles.
Say, rather, that, in the name of Christ, I gave all I had to the poor.
The deeds that count on Earth are not the ones that count in Heaven.
I, Giovanni, am the flower of Tuscany.
—Translation of epitaph
Pope John Paul II beatified Fra Angelico on October 3, 1982 and in 1984 declared him patron of Catholic artists.
Angelico was reported to say “He who does Christ’s work must stay with Christ always”. This motto earned him the epithet “Blessed Angelico”, because of the perfect integrity of his life and the almost divine beauty of the images he painted, to a superlative extent those of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
From various accounts of Fra Angelico’s life, it is possible to gain some sense of why he was deserving of canonization. He led the devout and ascetic life of a Dominican friar, and never rose above that rank; he followed the dictates of the order in caring for the poor; he was always good-humored. All of his many paintings were of divine subjects, and it seems that he never altered or retouched them, perhaps from a religious conviction that, because his paintings were divinely inspired, they should retain their original form. He was wont to say that he who illustrates the acts of Christ should be with Christ. It is averred that he never handled a brush without fervent prayer and he wept when he painted a Crucifixion. The Last Judgment and the Annunciation were two of the subjects he most frequently treated.