August 15: The Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin, Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ

Apse icon from Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem
Apse icon from Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem

The honor paid to Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus Christ our Lord and God, goes back to the earliest days of the Church. Indeed, it goes back further, for even before the birth of her Son, Mary prophesied, “From this time forth, all generations shall call me blessed.”

O God, who have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Besides Jesus himself, only two humans are mentioned by name in the Creeds. One is Pontius Pilate, Roman procurator of Judea from 26 to 36 AD. That Jesus was crucified by order of Pontius Pilate pins down the date of his death within a few years, and certifies that we are not talking, like the worshippers of Tammuz or Adonis, about a personification or symbol of the annual death and resurrection of the crops. His death is an event in history, something that really happened. The other name is that of Mary.

The Creeds say that Christ was ‘born of the virgin Mary.’ That is to say, they assert on the one hand that he was truly and fully human, born of a woman and not descended from the skies like an angel. On the other hand, by telling us that his mother was a virgin they exclude the theory that he was simply an ordinary man who was so virtuous that he eventually, at his baptism, became filled with the Spirit of God. His virgin birth attests to the fact that he was always more than merely human, always one whose presence among us was in itself a miracle, from the first moment of his earthly existence. In Mary, Virgin and Mother, God gives us a sign that Jesus is both truly God and truly Man.

Little is known of the life of the Virgin Mary except insofar as it intersects with the life of her Son, and there is an appropriateness in this. The Scriptures record her words to the angel Gabriel, to her kinswoman Elizabeth, to her Son on two occasions. But the only recorded saying of hers to what may be called ordinary, run-of-the-mill hearers is her instruction to the servants at the wedding feast, to whom she says simply, indicating her Son, ‘Whatever he says to you, do it.’

This we may take to be the summation of her message to the world. If we listen to her, she will tell us, ‘Listen to Him. Listen to my Son. Do what He tells you.’ When we see her, we see her pointing to her Son. If our regard for the Blessed Virgin does not have the immediate effect of turning our attention from her to the One whom she carried in her womb for nine months and suckled at her breast, to the Incarnate God, the Word made flesh, then we may be sure that it is not the kind of regard that she seeks. A right regard for her will always direct us to Him Who found in her His first earthly dwelling-place.

Hagiography written by James Kiefer, and reprinted with permission. Read more of his work.

July 1: Pauli Murray, priest, 1985

On July 1, we honor the memory of Pauli Murray, an early and committed civil rights activist and the first African American woman priest ordained in The Episcopal Church.

Liberating God, we thank you most heartily for the steadfast courage of your servant Pauli Murray, who fought long and well: Unshackle us from bonds of prejudice and fear, so that we show forth your reconciling love and true freedom, which you revealed through your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Born in Baltimore in 1910, Murray was raised in Durham, North Carolina, and graduated from Hunter College in 1933. After seeking admission to graduate school at the University of North Carolina in 1938, she was denied entry due to her race. She went on to graduate from Howard University Law School in 1944. While a student at Howard, she participated in sit-in demonstrations that challenged racial segregation in drugstores and cafeterias in Washington, DC.

Denied admission to Harvard University for an advanced law degree because of her gender, Murray received her Master of Laws degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1945.

In 1948 the Women’s Division of Christian Service of the Methodist Church hired Murray to compile information about segregation laws in the South. Her research led to a 1951 book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, that became a foundational document for Thurgood Marshall in his work on the decisive Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954.

Committed to dismantling barriers of race, Murray saw the civil rights and women’s movements as intertwined and believed that black women had a vested interest in the women’s movement.

Perceiving a call to ordained ministry, Murray began her studies at General Theological Seminary in 1973. She was ordained deacon in June 1976, and, on January 8, 1977, she was ordained priest at Washington National Cathedral. She served at Church of the Atonement in Washington, D.C., from 1979 to 1981 and at Holy Nativity Church in Baltimore until her death in 1985.

Murray’s books include the family memoir Proud Shoes: Story of an American Family (1956) and the personal memoir Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage (1987).

(Hagiography taken from A Great Cloud of Witnesses, Church Publishing, Inc.)

June 25: James Weldon Johnson: poet

On June 25, we remember James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), an American poet, educator, diplomat, and civil rights activist.

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has tought us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
let us march on till victory is won.

James Weldon Johnson was born on June 17, 1871, in Jacksonville, Florida. His parents stimulated his academic interests, and he was encouraged to study literature and music. Johnson enrolled at Atlanta University with the expressed intention that the education he received there would be used to further the interests of African Americans. He never reneged on that commitment.

In the summer after his freshman year, Johnson taught the children of former slaves. Of that experience he wrote, “In all of my experience there has been no period so brief that has meant so much in my education for life as the three months I spent in the backwoods of Georgia.” After graduation, he became the principal of the largest high school in Jacksonville, during which time he was paid half of what his white counterparts were paid, even though the school excelled under his leadership.

In 1900, he collaborated with his brother, Rosamond, a composer, to create “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Written in celebration of President Lincoln’s birthday, the song, still popular today, has become known as the “African American National Anthem.” Due to the success of their collaboration, Johnson moved to New York in 1901 to join his brother, and together they attained success as lyricist and composer for Broadway.

In 1906, Johnson was invited to work for the diplomatic corps and became U.S. Consul to Venezuela and later Nicaragua. During his Nicaraguan tenure, Johnson was a voice of reason and reconciliation in a time of civil unrest and turmoil. His ability to bring together people of differing viewpoints toward a common vision served Johnson well in the 1920’s, when he became an organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Johnson was a prolific poet and anthologist. He edited The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), a major contribution to the history of African American literature. His book of poetry, God’s Trombones (1927), seven biblical stories rendered into verse, was influenced by his impressions of the rural South. (Note: at Saint Alban’s, Johnson’s poetry is included as a non-scriptural reading at the Liturgy of the Word at the Easter Vigil.)

James Weldon Johnson died on June 26, 1938.

Biography from A Great Cloud of Witnesses (Church Publishing).

 

June 18: Bernard Mizeki, catechist and martyr in Rhodesia, 1896

Today the Episcopal Church honors the memory of Bernard Mizeki, martyr.

Almighty and everlasting God, who kindled the flame of your love in the heart of your holy martyr Bernard Mizeki: Grant to us, your humble servants, a like faith and power of love, that we who rejoice in his triumph may profit by his example; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Bernard Mizeki was born in Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique) in about 1861. When he was twelve or a little older, he left his home and went to Capetown, South Africa, where for the next ten years he worked as a laborer, living in the slums of Capetown, but (perceiving the disastrous effects of drunkenness on many workers in the slums) firmly refusing to drink alcohol, and remaining largely uncorrupted by his surroundings. After his day’s work, he attended night classes at an Anglican school.

Under the influence of his teachers, from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE, an Anglican religious order for men, popularly called the Cowley Fathers), he became a Christian and was baptized on 9 March 1886. Besides the fundamentals of European schooling, he mastered English, French, high Dutch, and at least eight local African languages. In time he would be an invaluable assistant when the Anglican church began translating its sacred texts into African languages.

After graduating from the school, he accompanied Bishop Knight-Bruce to Mashonaland, a tribal area in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), to work there as a lay catechist. In 1891 the bishop assigned him to Nhowe, the village of paramount-chief Mangwende, and there he built a mission-complex. He prayed the Anglican hours each day, tended his subsistence garden, studied the local language (which he mastered better than any other foreigner in his day), and cultivated friendships with the villagers. He eventually opened a school, and won the hearts of many of the Mashona through his love for their children.

He moved his mission complex up onto a nearby plateau, next to a grove of trees sacred to the ancestral spirits of the Mashona. Although he had the chief’s permission, he angered the local religious leaders when he cut some of the trees down and carved crosses into others. Although he opposed some local traditional religious customs, Bernard was very attentive to the nuances of the Shona Spirit religion. He developed an approach that built on people’s already monotheistic faith in one God, Mwari, and on their sensitivity to spirit life, while at the same time he forthrightly proclaimed the Christ. Over the next five years (1891-1896), the mission at Nhowe produced an abundance of converts.

Many black African nationalists regarded all missionaries as working for the European colonial governments. During an uprising in 1896, Bernard was warned to flee. He refused, since he did not regard himself as working for anyone but Christ, and he would not desert his converts or his post. On 18 June 1896, he was fatally speared outside his hut. His wife and a helper went to get food and blankets for him. They later reported that, from a distance, they saw a blinding light on the hillside where he had been lying, and heard a rushing sound, as though of many wings. When they returned to the spot his body had disappeared.

The place of his death has become a focus of great devotion for Anglicans and other Christians, and one of the greatest of all Christian festivals in Africa takes place there every year around the feast day that marks the anniversary of his martyrdom, June 18.

Hagiography written by James Kiefer. See more here: http://elvis.rowan.edu/~kilroy/JEK/home.html

June 15: Evelyn Underhill, mystic, 1941

Today, June 15, the Episcopal Church remembers Evelyn Underhill, mystic and writer, 1941.

To go up alone into the mountains and come back as an ambassador to the world, has ever been the method of humanity’s best friends. The windows of Christ’s Mysteries split the [Light] up into many-coloured loveliness, disclose all of its hidden richness…make its beauty more accessible to us…And within  this place we too are bathed in the light transmitted by the windows, a light which is yet the very radiance of Eternity.

The only child of a prominent barrister and his wife, Evelyn Underhill was born in Wolverhampton, England, on December 6th, 1875, and grew up in London. She was educated there and in a girls’ school in Folkestone, where she was confirmed in the Church of England. She had little other formal religious training, but her spiritual curiosity was naturally lively, and she read widely, developing quite early a deep appreciation for mysticism. At sixteen, she began a lifelong devotion to writing.

In the 1890’s, Evelyn began annual visits to the European continent, and especially to Italy. There she became influenced by the paintings of the Italian masters and by the Roman Catholic Church. She spent nearly fifteen years wrestling painfully with the idea of converting to Roman Catholicism, but in the end she discerned that she was called to remain as an Anglican.

In 1921, Evelyn Underhill became reconciled to her Anglican roots, while remaining what she called a “Catholic Christian.” She continued with her life of reading, writing, meditation, and prayer. She had already published her first great spiritual work, Mysticism. This was followed by many other books, culminating in her most widely read and studied book, Worship (1937).

Evelyn Underhill’s most valuable contribution to spiritual literature must surely be her conviction that the mystical life is not only open to a saintly few, but to anyone who cares to nurture it and weave it into everyday experience, and also (at the time, a startling idea) that modern psychological theories and discoveries, far from hindering or negating spirituality, can actually enhance and transform it. In Mysticism, she writes:

We are, then, one and all the kindred of the mystics; and it is by dwelling upon this kinship, by interpreting—so far as we may—their great declarations in the light of our little experience, that we shall learn to understand them best. Strange and far away though they seem, they are not cut off from us by some impassable abyss. They belong to us. They are our brethren; the giants, the heroes of our race. As the achievement of genius belongs not to itself only, but also to the society that brought it forth; as theology declares that the merits of the saints avail for all; so, because of the solidarity of the human family, the supernal accomplishment of the mystics is ours also.

She died, at age 65, on June 15th, 1941.

from A Great Cloud of Witnesses (Church Publishing)

June 14: Basil the Great, 379

Today the Church remembers Basil the Great, Bishop of Ceasarea, 379.

Almighty God, who have revealed to your Church your eternal Being of glorious majesty and perfect love as one God in Trinity of Persons: Give us grace that, like your bishop Basil of Caesarea, we may continue steadfast in the confession of this faith, and constant in our worship of you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; who live and reign for ever and ever.

Basil was born about 329, in Caesarea of Cappadocia, into a Christian family of wealth and distinction. He was baptized at the age of twenty-eight, and ordained a deacon soon after. Educated in classical Hellenism, Basil might have continued in academic life, had it not been for the death of a beloved younger brother and the faith of his sister, Macrina.

Macrina had founded the first monastic order for women at Annesi. Fired by her example, Basil made a journey to study the life of anchorites in Egypt and elsewhere. In 358 he returned to Cappadocia and founded the first monastery for men at Ibora.

Assisted by Gregory Nazianzus, he compiled The Longer and Shorter Rules, which transformed the solitary anchorites into a disciplined community of prayer and work. The Rules became the foundation for all Eastern monastic discipline. The monasteries also provided schools to train leaders for Church and State.

Basil was ordained presbyter [or, priest] in 364. In the conflict between the Arians (supported by an Arian Emperor) and orthodox Christians, Basil became convinced that he should be made Bishop of Caesarea. By a narrow margin, he was elected Bishop of Caesarea, Metropolitan of Cappadocia, and Exarch of Pontus.

He was relentless in his efforts to restore the faith and discipline of the clergy, and in defense of the Nicene faith. When the Emperor Valens sought to undercut Basil’s power by dividing the See of Cappadocia, Basil forced his brother Gregory to become Bishop of Nyssa.

In his treatise, On the Holy Spirit, Basil maintained that both the language of Scripture and the faith of the Church require that the same honor, glory, and worship is to be paid to the Spirit as to the Father and the Son. It was entirely proper, he asserted, to adore God in liturgical prayer, not only with the traditional words, “Glory to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit;” but also with the formula, “Glory to the Father with the Son together with the Holy Spirit.”

Basil was also concerned about the poor and, when he died, he willed to Caesarea a complete new town, built on his estate, with housing, a hospital and staff, a church for the poor, and a hospice for travelers.

He died at the age of fifty, in 379, just two years before the Second Ecumenical Council, which affirmed the Nicene faith.

from A Great Cloud of Witnesses (Church Publishing).

June 13: Anthony of Padua, 1231

Today, the Church remembers Anthony of Padua: priest, confessor, doctor, preacher, 1231.

O God, who by your Holy Spirit gave your servant Anthony a love of the Holy Scriptures, and the gift of expounding them with learning and eloquence, so that your people might be established in sound doctrine and encouraged in the way of righteousness. Grant us always an abundance of such preachers, to the glory of your Name and the benefit of your Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Read More

June 12: The First Book of Common Prayer, 1549

Today, we remember the publication of the first Book of Common Prayer. It is typically remembered on a weekday following the Day of Pentecost. This year, at St. Alban’s, we observe it today: June 12. 2019.

Almighty and everliving God, whose servant Thomas Cranmer, with others, did restore the language of the people in the prayers of thy Church: Make us always thankful for this heritage; and help us so to pray in the Spirit and with the understanding, that we may worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The first Book of Common Prayer came into use on the Day of Pentecost, June 9, 1549, in the second year of the reign of King Edward VI. From it have descended all subsequent editions and revisions of the Book in the Churches of the Anglican Communion.Read More

June 11: Saint Barnabas the Apostle

The Episcopal Church observes June 11 as a major feast, a holy day commemorating the life and ministry of Barnabas, an Apostle of Jesus Christ.

Grant, O God, that we may follow the example of your faithful servant Barnabas, who, seeking not his own renown but the well-being of your Church, gave generously of his life and substance for the relief of the poor and the spread of the Gospel; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

“Joseph, a Levite born in Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), sold a field he owned, brought the money, and turned it over to the apostles” (Acts 4:36–37). This first reference in the New Testament to Barnabas introduces one whose missionary efforts would cause him to be called, like the Twelve, an apostle.

As a Jew of the diaspora, Barnabas had much in common with Paul. When Paul came to Jerusalem after his conversion, the disciples were afraid to receive him. It was Barnabas who brought Paul to the apostles, and declared to them how, on the road to Damascus, Paul had seen the Lord, and had preached boldly in the name of Jesus (Acts 9:27). Later, Barnabas, having settled in Antioch, sent for Paul to join him in leading the Christian church in that city.

Barnabas and Paul were sent by the disciples in Antioch to carry famine relief to the church in Jerusalem. Upon their return, the church in Antioch sent them on their first missionary journey beginning at Cyprus.

At Lystra in Asia Minor, the people took them to be gods, supposing the eloquent Paul to be Mercury, the messenger of the gods, and Barnabas to be Jupiter, the chief of the gods, a testimony to the commanding presence of Barnabas.

The association of Barnabas and Paul was broken, after their journey, by a disagreement about Mark, who had left the mission to return to Jerusalem.

After attending the Council of Jerusalem with Barnabas, Paul made a return visit to the churches that he and Barnabas had founded in Asia Minor. Barnabas and Mark went to Cyprus, where Barnabas is traditionally honored as the founder of the church.

Tradition has it that he was martyred at Salamis in Cyprus.

from Lesser Feasts & Fasts 2018