Category Archives: Saints

For All The Saints: Living the Communion More Than One Day A Year

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours…
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet…

So, who wrote that? Teresa of Avila?

Nope. Methodist minister, Guy Pearse. He wrote the first few lines in 1888. The rest was added in 1892 by English Quaker, Sarah Eliza Rowntree, of the York, England, Rowntrees, who were chocolate makers, like the Cadburys of Birmingham.

But a chocolate loving Quaker is not as sexy as a 16th century mystic. Who wants Sarah Eliza Rowntree when you can have Teresa of Avila? That’s what a well-known blogger said to me when I pointed out the misattribution on his site. He said, “Yeah, I know, but Teresa’s name makes people want to read it.”

In 1968, a Harvard undergrad named Keith Kent wrote some guidelines for student leaders as a class assignment. He called them “Paradoxical Commandments.” We know them as the “Anyway” prayer of Mother Teresa. Seems you’ll never get your 15 minutes with a saint in the neighborhood. They’ll steal your stuff every time. There’s just something about a saint that confers authority even on clichés. You can write, “You must let the dog out,” sign it “St Francis of Assisi,” post it on Instagram, and within five minutes it’ll go viral.

And speaking of Francis…

We Protestants say we don’t “do” saints, but we sure “do” Francis. If we have outdoor statuary, it’s often Francis in a birdbath. And somewhere in our churches there’s a copy of a familiar prayer (that he didn’t write) that begins: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” Who cares if in addition to loving birds and peace, Francis loved priests, popes, and transubstantiation? Somehow this medieval Catholic has become a saint even modern Protestants can love.

But we aren’t supposed to love saints. We don’t canonize them. We don’t pray to them. They don’t do miracles for us. We don’t believe it’s just the few, the fine, and the dead who are saints, but all the baptized, including you and me. In most of our UCC churches, all it takes to become a saint is to sign up for a committee. Nothing canonizes you faster than volunteering to fill a slot on the Board of Christian Education!

We say saints aren’t special, yet we reverently share Facebook memes with their supposed sayings. We don’t privilege canonized saints over ordinary people, but we let Teresa of Avila steal from Sara Rowntree and get away with it. We don’t believe saints have special powers, yet some of us will pray to Jude, patron of hopeless causes, when we really need a parking space, or to St Anthony when we’ve lost our glasses.

We all know that the Protestant Reformers downplayed devotion to saints. It made a lot of sense to do that in the 16th century. But now? No one is collecting their relics and selling them any more, at least not where I live. No one is making crass bargains with them in return for a cure. No one thinks they can get us or our relatives into heaven if we donate a bundle to a hospital in their name. 

There are no insurmountable theological obstacles to our veneration of the saints, nothing to keep us from honoring and emulating them. St Paul told the early Christians to imitate him insofar as he was imitating Christ. That’s precisely what we do when we set the saints before us so that we might gain encouragement and derive fruitful lessons for our own discipleship. It’s what we do when we light a candle in memory of dear departed grandmother Smith or Pastor Jones on All Saints Day, too, acknowledging the many ways their example of Christian life has shaped and inspired us to be who we are.

And if we believe that the saints are with God and living still, even asking for their intercession is not terribly different from asking our earth-bound friends and neighbors to pray for us. Protestants have reconsidered and adapted a great deal of our pre-Reformation heritage, including more attention to ritual and the liturgical cycle, and even to fancy vestments. Why not the saints? And yes, I do mean the “big” ones, canonized or otherwise universally esteemed saints, as well as the more domestic, local ones. 

We call them “the church triumphant”—the church triumphant, living members of the church, still active in and crucial to its mission. If we want to be the church, the whole church, and nothing but the church, we can’t go about our mission ignoring an entire segment of the membership! Bad enough we do it with children and youth. And old people. Recovering a vivid sense of the communion of saints could make a big difference in the way we live into the church, its mission, and our own discipleship. I think we need the saints. 


The saints shows us the myriad ways grace takes shape in real human lives.

We have one pattern—Christ. But Christ comes in all shapes and sizes. Race, gender, class, nationality, marital status, ability—you name it, in every time and place God has made saints from the material at hand. All different, all saints. To see the particularity of the saints helps us claim the particularity of our own discipleship. I don’t have to be anyone but me to witness faithfully to the gospels. In fact, if I’m not me, in all my particularity, I’m not witnessing faithfully to Christ.

Now, to be honest, over the centuries the church has not always done well in showing us the full range of human particularity in those it has named as its saints. For too many of those centuries, the official saints have been predominantly white, male, straight (as far as anyone knew or wanted to believe) and in the Catholic and Orthodox worlds, celibate. The more we reflect on the saints, however, and the more we wonder about what makes for one, the greater the chance we will expand the old parameters and add to the rolls people from every race and clan, every condition and class, every geography and time. 

The saints enlarge our notion of community.

We say, “St Swithen’s by the Sea is a friendly community,” and “St Polycarp by the Pool is an active community.” But ‘community’ is one of those weasel words that can mean a lot of things. Too often it means only us like-minded folk, this happy, homogeneous little bunch. But when it comes to the ties of affection, aspiration, and accountability that bind the church in Christ, we need a thicker, more durable word, a word that fills the gaps we would happily leave unfilled—we need a communion. A communion of all the saints. If our idea of community is too thin or too parochial, too inward looking or self-regarding, too non-confrontational and not sufficiently challenging, the active presence of the saints in glory will enlarge it. The saints always bring a bigger world to our smallish one.

The saints teach us it’s not all about us in the now.

One of my missions in life is to convince everybody that just because people lived in the past doesn’t mean they were stupid. Or benighted. Or naïve. We who live today think no one’s ever been as clever and enlightened as we are. This is (as scholar Peggy Bendroth says) “presentism.” Like most all isms, it’s bad. The ‘now’ is a very narrow slice of human experience, after all. When you’re stranded in the present, you quickly come to the end of your own resources. You’ll easily grow cynical and defeated.

What might it do for a church like the UCC, still captive to the culture of the West, if, for example, we were to make the acquaintance of the patriarch Timothy who in the late 8th century was head of a church that extended over a vast territory—Iraq, Iran, Turkey, India, China, Tibet; and which by the 11th century encompassed a full third of the world’s Christians?

How would it spark our imagination and enlarge our sense of possibility if we knew that, unlike his medieval European counterparts, Timothy did not look to secular emperors or kings to guarantee his authority, did not amass wealth and power, and did not persecute people of other faiths, but interacted and cooperated with them without fear, contempt, or hostility? (One of the emblems in use in Timothy’s church was the cross sitting on a lotus flower, the symbol of Buddhist enlightenment.) So many things we think of as challenges unique to the 21st century were normal for Timothy in the 8th and 9th—globalization, interfaith encounter, the complexities of living under regimes of other faiths.

And that’s just one example out of millions. The witness of the saints helps us recover parts of the Christian story we’ve forgotten. The saints offer us insights and practices, convictions, and hopes that stir and challenge our thinking and doing today. Even the sometimes bizarre “past-ness” of the saints is a gift. It teaches us that we will one day seem bizarre to our descendants too. This is much needed humility for presentists like us who believe that, compared with silly ancient people, we’re the cat’s meow.

The saints held the treasure in earthen vessels.

The saints are indeed wonderful, but they weren’t born wonderful. They worked out their salvation in fear and trembling. If we imitate them, it’s that “working out” that we imitate. It’s one of the most encouraging things about them. Living in communion with the saints we see how God’s power really is manifest in weakness. How else to explain John Wesley with his embarrassing boundary violations, a man so frustrated by his inability to fix himself that he wrote to his brother, “I do not love God, I never did”? Or a Teresa of Avila, a people pleaser (“I could be bought off with a sardine”) so unwilling to say no a person who’d once done her a favor that she endangered the safety of her nuns? Or a Simon Peter, whose denial of Jesus was every bit as bad as Judas’ betrayal?

Maybe you find the notion of sanctity off-putting, especially if you think it means moral perfection. You know you can’t reach that, and people who try to be perfect are usually insufferable. But the saints’ holiness is different—it consists in their having really needed forgiveness, and in having loved the world out of an experience of undeserved mercy undeservedly received. The communion of saints is a communion of sinners. Forgiveness made their faithfulness possible. God’s power shone brightest in these sinful people who knew they depended on mercy for everything.

The saints witness to the ordinariness in being extraordinary. 

In St Francis’ world, lepers were frightful creatures. One never got close to them. It was extraordinary that anyone took up the calling of caring for them. Francis and his first brothers did. When he reflected on this, Francis noted that it was one of the effects of his conversion. After he was converted, he wrote, “I did not turn away from lepers” any more. But Francis didn’t become a saint in that moment he stopped turning away. He had to keep re-turning towards them day after day, not turning away again and again.

Holiness is not a matter of a moment, but of a lifetime of moments of not turning away, a lifetime of persevering practice, purified and shaped by an ever-deepening commitment to Christ. We rarely think of it when we think of saints, but it’s there—the unromantic routine, the sheer drudgery of doing things faithfully day after day with no audience, no reinforcement of the self, no consolation. And so we learn that sanctity is more about discipline and perseverance than mystical flights and heroic deeds. 

Without the saints, we won’t remember what we must never forget.

Right before he invaded Poland in 1939, Hitler spoke to his staff about the Armenian genocide 24 years earlier—a horror invisible to the outside world because those who knew about it chose to say and do nothing. He assured the generals that no one remembered the Armenians. And no one had ever paid a moral price for what was done to them. There’d be no moral price to pay for the invasion of Poland either, he said—not in a world with such a short self-serving memory.

As Peggy Bendroth says, “The world’s unwillingness to remember one genocide will always enable the next.” Bendroth concludes that remembering is an ethical obligation. But we don’t remember alone. We need a community to remember—a whole community, the communion of all the saints. If memories are partial or local or lost, she says, we’ll end up believing we’re not the kind of people who burn witches or look away from holocausts or criminalize the poor. But when we remember with all the saints, “they will say to us, ‘Well, we were that kind of people. You could be too. You’re not immune.’”

We need the saints. We need to be in everyday communion with them. But how do we do that? It takes practice. It is a practice. Here’s the shape it might take:

Invoke the saints often

Especially at the Font, the Table, at annual meetings and other crucial gatherings, and when new members join. Create and introduce a litany of the saints as a regular part of these celebrations. Acknowledge their presence with you as you gather to worship, as you decide big issues, as you bury your dead. Treat the saints as active members of the community on whose encouragement, inspiration, and prayers you rely. Make the cloud, the communion itself, a key part of how you understand the church, your church. When people ask how many members you have, say “Billions!”

Learn about their lives

Big saints and little saints—make it part of your church’s formation efforts to get to know one or two every year in order to appreciate and be inspired by the diversity of ways God has acted in human beings to produce holiness, service, and wisdom.

Tell the saints’ stories to each other and especially to your children, as you would the stories of family.

Because they are family. Don’t be afraid to hang pictures of saints in your church. (The icons of Robert Lenz are perfect for this practice.) People will say, “That’s too Catholic!” Tell them to get over themselves. It’s the family photo album. When we look at the photos we remember who we are, where we came from. We hope to see family resemblances, to discover who got Francis of Assisi’s feet, the belly laugh of Jonathan Daniels, Bishop Romero’s justice-seeing gaze, the vibrant intellect of RBG, the courage of Sojourner Truth. And millions more. Tell their stories.

If your children or grandchildren have a saint’s name, look up their saint’s day on a calendar of saints.

Celebrate that day annually, along with the child’s birthday, baptism day, and other anniversaries. If a child isn’t named for a saint, make up a saint’s day for them, and on that day bless God for the saint the child is already becoming.

Honor your baptisms in every way you can

The holiness of the saints is nothing more than baptismal grace unfolding over a lifetime. At every baptism, and on your baptism anniversary, remind yourself and each other how incarnated and particular this grace is, and that it’s at work in you.

Desire to be a saint.

When I was a child, the nuns taught us to aspire to sanctity. They meant moral perfection, and that was wrong. But their encouragement wasn’t. Understood rightly, growing into a generous and generative Christian maturity should be our dream. So next time you sing, “I sing a song of the saints of God,” be serious about the last line of each verse—“…and I mean to be one too!” It’s just anther way of affirming our baptismal commitment to the cause of Christ, aka discipleship.

Celebrate the heck out of All Saints Day!

Remember your dear local saints, but don’t confine yourself solely to the local list: celebrate all the saints in glory—past, present, and to come. Make All Saints day more than a kind of congregational memorial day. Make it a festival of the whole church, a day of baptismal renewal, a day to thank God that, by grace, all of us who truly “want to be in that number” surely will be.

By these and many other practices, make sure the saints feel at home in your church. Make sure they know that no matter who they are, or where they are on life’s journey, they are welcome here!

Image is “The Communion of the Saints, for All Saints” by Ira Thomas;

July 25 St James the Apostle







The New Testament has many Jameses, so let’s sort them out.

First, there’s James, called “the Just,” who is Jesus’ brother. We read about him in the Acts of the Apostles. He appears to be the overseer of the original church in Jerusalem. When a bitter controversy about circumcision for Gentile converts arose, he eventually endorsed Paul’s uncut version of the gospel (ahem).  For many centuries he was thought to be the author of the New Testament letter of the same name, but most scholars agree that that letter first appears on the church’s radar screen a lot later than 62 CE, the year James the Just was martyred, so he wasn’t.

Next, there’s James, son of Alpheus. We traditionally call him James Minor, Little James, James the Lesser, and maybe that’s because we know only that much about him—very little, far less than we know about any other James. He is remembered in the calendar of saints on May 1, May Day, together with the apostle Philip and the proletariat revolution (which Jesus began and we have yet to finish).

Finally, we come to James the Apostle, our honoree today. In the gospels he is introduced as one of the two male children of Zebedee, a fisherman in Galilee, and Salome, who would later be identified as one of the ‘pious women’ in Jesus’ entourage. John is the other son, and both he and James are nicknamed “Sons of Thunder.” James is one of the first four disciples Jesus called to follow him.

This James is the James of “Peter, James, and John”–the little trinity of disciples who form Jesus’ inner circle and show up at the big moments, like the T-Fig; they were also the ones Jesus angrily rebuked after they tried to call down fire on a Samaritan town.

When he and his brother went traipsing after Jesus, they may have taken their mom with them. At least she was with them as they all went up to Jerusalem for the last time. She asked for special places for her two boys in Jesus’ kingdom, and Jesus asked them in return if they could drink his cup. They said, “Yes, we can,” but they forgot to ask what was going to be in it. It’s hard to know if they would have been so eager it if they understood how bitter it would be

In subsequent tradition, James is called James Major, Big James, James the Greater. In addition to what we learn about him in the New Testament, sometime in the 9th century a pious Christian legend grew up about his having gone off to Spain to preach the gospel and, after his martyrdom in Jerusalem, somehow ending up buried back there, in a field of stars, Compostela. Which is why thousands of pilgrims tramp across Europe every year on one of the many routes known as the “Camino” of Santiago (Iago, Jacobo, Jaime, James), enduring all sorts of physical indignities to reach his shrine.

The power associated with his relics inspired later Christian efforts to defeat the Muslims in Spain, where during eight hundred years Muslims, Jews and Christians had forged an uneasy, sometimes violent, but still somehow fruitful civilization (for the era, that is; believe me, they weren’t having interfaith dinners or anything). ‘Santiago Matamoros,’ his devotees called him—James the Moorslayer—turning him into the mascot of a royal policy of forced Christianization that gave rise to coerced conversions and eventual expulsion. But none of this awful stuff was Big James’ fault. You can’t control what other people do with your brand long after you’re gone, so this ought not be held against him.

After St. Teresa of Avila died in the 16th century, her devotees wanted to make her Spain’s patron saint, but there was a small hindrance—Spain already had one: St James. For quite a while an unseemly ecclesiastical tussle about patronal primacy ensued. In the end, it was decided to retain James, but Teresa was named patron of a bunch of important national institutions, like the Armed Forces, so that she wouldn’t be sad about losing.

Extra tidbit: James is the only Christian saint I know of who is routinely depicted wearing the costume of a pilgrim on the way to his own shrine–a broad brimmed hat, a drinking gourd, a cape, a walking staff and a cockle shell.


Commemoration of Saint Nicholas, December 6


“He had to be made like his siblings in every way, so that he might become a merciful high priest… For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses…”—Hebrews 2:17, 4:15

When his wealthy parents died, Nicholas of Myra gave away a fortune and gave himself to the church. As a bishop, he acquired a reputation for generosity to the poor. After he died on December 6, 354, his fame spread beyond Asia Minor. In Europe, Christian imagination transformed him into jolly old St. Nick. Here, cartoonist Thomas Nast made him Santa Claus.

These days, many Christians are down on Santa and the commercialization of the season he represents. Aiming for a holier Advent, they point back to St. Nicholas, Santa’s prototype. We’d be a lot closer to the right spirit, they say, if we looked to the bishop, not the elf.

If only it were that simple. It turns out that the kind bishop was also a harsh bishop. Once jailed for his orthodox faith, he gave as good as he got, persecuting pagans and repressing Arian heretics. He was an amalgam of utmost kindness and fierce certainty, passions sweet and cruel, a compromised person in a complicated world. Like ours. Like us.

And if we’re hoping to be squeaky clean in this expectant season; if we think there’s a right way to do Advent that will bring us to Christmas with bright shiny faces; if we’re striving to reach a spiritual place in our lives without defects, contradictions, and dead-ends, perhaps we haven’t yet begun to grasp the Mercy we’re waiting for, the One who reached eagerly for the compromised flesh we try to escape, entered the complicated world we try to smooth out, and loved them both to death, even death on a cross.


On St. Nicholas Day, we surrender our compromised hearts, complicated lives, and earnest striving to you, O Mercy without end.


Image: St Nicholas, 16th c. Russian icon

Teresa of Jesus (1515-1582)


The only portrait of Teresa from life, by Fray Juan de la Miseria. When Teresa saw the finished work, she is reported to have said, “God forgive you, Brother Juan, you have made me ugly and bleary-eyed.” The portrait is one of the many Teresian treasures housed in the convent of the Carmelite nuns in Seville, which Teresa founded in 1575.

THE LIFE of the Spanish Carmelite reformer, Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), was a complicated adventure in a complicated world.

At a time when practicing contemplation could get you either the garrote and the stake or a halo and a feast day, Teresa was a mystical sensation. She loved her God—and wrote about ‘Him’–with an erotic passion that sent chills down the spine of watchful churchmen who worried that affectivity in the spiritual life was at best a confusion, at worst heresy.

In a Spanish church serious about reforms but at dangerous odds about who should direct them and how far they should go, Teresa initiated one of her own, eventually splitting the  Carmelite Order.

In a male-dominated culture, she was a woman who read, a writer who meant to publish, and a theological gadfly.

In a society whose anxiety about reputation, bloodlines, and orthodoxy made moving targets out of personal safety, ecclesiastical standing, and social status, Teresa — born to a Jewish converso family — managed to neutralize and then overwhelm her detractors, ascending to the altars only 40 years after dying, a bona fide saint.

Even the most persevering readers with a passion for mysticism get lost in her vibrant, unruly prose—writings that are now regarded as some of the greatest in the canon of Golden Age literature. Making sense of her spiritual experiences — visions, voices, levitations and, yes, hot penetrations — is tougher still. It’s no wonder that some critics, for whom voices are a sign of mental illness and levitation a party game, call her the patron saint of religious pathology.

Teresa was, first and last, a soul in a progress towards God. And what a progress! That metaphor, a nod to the age of exploration in which Teresa lived, points to a life-long inner journey, as biographer Cathleen Medwick put it, “as full of wonder and terror as any ocean voyage through uncharted seas.” It took courage to navigate the soul. The dangers were real and many. Teresa’s battle to authenticate her religious experience with even the sympathetic and supportive men who guided her was ferocious. It left her physically ill and close to despair.

Life outside her “interior castle” was no easier. During the last twenty years of her life, in an era when only masochists traveled for pleasure, Teresa was constantly on the road founding and supervising reformed convents. The story of those foundations is a wild ride, a confusion of briefs, bulls, and competing obediences, a riot of real estate, fundraising, and ruthless intra-Carmelite politics.

Teresa gives us the story herself in her  writings, the Life and Foundations especially. The plot-twists and quirky characters in those relations make your head spin. Could there be a more sinister nemesis, for example, than the princess of Eboli– a breathtakingly self-absorbed woman with a black eye-patch and a refined taste for betrayal who, following a disastrous stint as a nun in a convent she’d forced the Saint to establish, sent Teresa’s top-secret autobiography to the inquisitors to avenge the convent’s collapse after an exasperated Teresa ordered the remaining nuns to desert it hastily, in the dead of night?

But the vivid personality of the evil princess cannot hold a candle to Teresa’s own — attractive, expansive, sociable, incisive, mordantly witty, shrewd and tenacious, possessed of a bottomless capacity for intimacy and an equally bottomless capacity for self-doubt and loneliness. She was a people-pleaser whose loyalties were often to a fault; and yet she could be breathtakingly brave when push came to shove towards a necessary confrontation. Her relationships with men were always more satisfying than her friendships with women; yet she complained that no one really understood her; and in truth, at some point or other, nearly all her closest allies disappointed or disparaged her.

Single-mindedly resolute (“I have,” she said, “a very determined determination”), she bent many to her will, even God. A workaholic, she was famously restless, and yet longed for nothing more than a little cell where she could tell her beads. Pragmatic and always ready to deal, she could be at times vain, coy, and Clintonesque, yet she always strove sincerely for simplicity and a transparent conscience, hammering away at the centrality of truth (for her, a synonym for humility) in the life of the soul.

If she despised anything on earth, it was pretension, especially the ruinous aspiration to status, pure bloodlines, and wealth–or at least the appearances of wealth– which had wounded her own family and created legions of  proud but destitute nobility, many hiding the tenths of fourths of  Jewish blood in their backgrounds with false genealogies and gaudy coats of arms. A close reading of her life and writings reveals a running protest against the moral captivity  of reputation, honor, and shame, as well as the wasteful sidelining of women in the church and the no-win situation of  ‘new Christians, among whom she found some of her best allies and friends. She hated what Spain had become in the post-expulsion era–a society organized for deceit.

She was unswerving in hope while enduring monstrous headaches, stomach disease, and crippling depression. She came across to all who knew and loved her as alternately domineering and compassionate, fragile and indestructible, admirable and  inimitable. In her day, many believed her to be a vile menace to the Church. Many others believed her to be its shining savior. To this day, she pleases no one who clings piously to the belief that saints are actually holy.

I  adore her.



The Assumption of Mary, August 15



–Russian Icon, The Dormition of the Theotokos

On August 15, Roman Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.* This is the belief that the mother of Jesus was ‘assumed’, or taken into heaven, ‘body and soul,’ immediately upon her death, without having to undergo the grave’s decay. By this feast, the Catholic Church teaches that the final restoration of all creation to which scripture attests, including the resurrection of the body, is anticipated in Mary.

Catholics are taught that because of her unique role in the drama of salvation, God chose to bestow on her, in an anticipated way, the glory we will all enjoy one day. The glory Mary enjoys it isn’t for her alone: she is given first what all the redeemed receive later. In the Assumption, we get to see in her what will become of us all because of the saving grace of Christ. The Assumption is the Church’s way of affirming the ancient conviction that ‘humanity’s future has a body’ (Luke Powery).

This festival has deep roots in Christian liturgy and devotion. The first extant mention of it is in the 4th century in the East. It was universally celebrated by the 6th . Clearly there was ‘something about Mary’ that the ancient church appreciated more than we do today—especially we who are Protestants and tend to view Marian doctrines as unnecessary at best and idolatrous at worst.

Here’s what I’m appreciating about the Assumption today—

The Assumption of Mary asks us to imagine that a human being in her body, not just her soul or spirit, now lives in the eternity of God we have traditionally called ‘heaven.’ Forget for a moment the triumphalist trappings, physical, and metaphysical problems of this doctrine. Go to the nub of it and allow yourself to see Mary in her body welcomed into heaven, enjoying God forever in a fully bodily way, breathing, sensing, moving… in all her body’s uniqueness. If you grant this vision, even for a moment, and if you grant that her present is our future, what does this feast day say?

It says the human body belongs in the presence of God. It says that the body is holy. It says that God and bodies are not opposites. It says that bodies are not ‘mere’ bodies, not inferior housing for a superior soul; not to be escaped from, dispensed with, or despised. It says there’s no such thing as ‘spirituality’ without ‘bodiality.’ It says you have to love the body because God does. Even when it’s hard to love the body, your particular body, and especially when it’s hard to love somebody else’s, it says you have to honor them all. It says you can’t kill Michael Brown or (insert another name here while you weep) because their bodies are male and black. It says you have to love those black bodies. It says you can’t make any body no body. It says God cares, infinitely cares, what we do with our bodies. It says when any body’s hands go up, the guns go down.

If you observe this feast day, that’s what you commit to. If you don’t, maybe you should.


*The Orthodox also observe this mid-August commemoration, but they call it the Dormition (falling asleep)of the Theotokos. They prefer to think she was taken to God without experiencing even the slightest twinge of death’s customary pangs. Anglicans call this observance the Feast of Mary the Virgin, or more familiarly, the Feast of Mary in Summer. It’s a more generic celebration of Mary, but the collect of the day mentions God taking Mary to Godself, a clear nod to the ancient doctrine of the Assumption.



Ambrose and the Bees

honeycomb_wide-2c4f64a3a0de4582c1f62c306d23ef63da2e2d8c-s6-c30Bees were much appreciated by ancient Church teachers. St. John Chrysostom, who was known as the “mellifluous” teacher ( Latin: “mel”, honey), admired bees for their selflessness: “The bee is more honored than other animals,” he wrote, “not because it labors, but because it labors for others” (12th Homily).

Bees were important to the 4th century bishop Ambrose of Milan, who baptized Augustine and whose name means “sweet food” (Latin: “ambrosia”). He often referred to the gathering of pollen and the production of honey as emblems of Christian formation—the Church’s teachers gather the pollen of Scripture to explain the great mysteries of the faith and feed Christ’s people the honey of Divine Truth. For Ambrose, bees were a symbol of wisdom.

Ambrose was also known as a “honey-tongued” preacher and teacher. (Later, St Bernard would also earn this sobriquet.) This tag refers to his eloquence and persuasiveness, as well as to his fondness for singing in church. Legend has it that honey bees lighted on his face when he was an infant and left a drop of honey on his lips, foreshadowing his future eloquence. Bees and honeycombs were included in the early iconography of Ambrose. Not surprisingly, he is the patron saint of beekeepers and honey manufacturers.


At the start of the Great Vigil of Easter, a deacon sings the Easter Proclamation, often referred to by its Latin first word, exsultet—exult, or rejoice! It is a chant sung by the light of new fire, the Paschal candle, praising the God of light for the new dawn of Christ’s resurrection. In several ancient versions of this song, bees received a grateful shout-out.

The praise of bees is no longer included in modern versions of this old song, including versions used in the Protestant re-appropriation of the Vigil. And that’s a shame. The bees deserve thanks for their industry and for the sweet products of their work, all of which God uses to serve human need and enliven the creation. What better night to include these creatures in our praise than on the night when God brings forth a new creation through the resurrection of Jesus?

Here is the excised excerpt from the Exsultet: …

“… In the grace of this night, O Eternal God,

receive as an evening sacrifice this burning light,

which holy Church renders to you

in the solemn offering of this candle of wax, made by the bees.

We know the glory of this candle kindled by God’s bright flame.

Though divided, it is not dimmed, for it is fed from the wax

which the mother bee wrought to make this precious lamp…”



March 22 Saint Epaphroditus


Saint Epaphroditus

Philippians 2:25-30 [Excerpt from The Message]  But for right now, I’m dispatching Epaphroditus, my good friend and companion… You sent him to help me out; now I’m sending him to help you out… When you see him again, hale and hearty, how you’ll rejoice and how relieved I’ll be. Give him a grand welcome, a joyful embrace! People like him deserve the best you can give.

Even if you have perfect attendance at Bible study, you probably don’t know who Epaphroditus is, much less how to pronounce his name. He turns up once, in five verses in Philippians, then fades back into the biblical woodwork. But Paul says he was quite a guy—loyal, eager, selfless, a treasured companion who ministered to Paul while he was in prison. The affection Paul feels for him jumps off the page. Epaphroditus is someone you’d like to get to know better.

The good news is that we know more about him than we think, because every church has at least one Epaphroditus. These are the folks who lend themselves gladly to the mission without demanding the limelight. They’re ready and willing whenever the Spirit is looking for someone to send. They can pivot on a spiritual dime. When they’re around, the joy thermometer spikes. When they’re away, you really miss them. And if, like Paul’s Epaphroditus, they should get really sick and nearly die, the whole church feels a sorrow almost too hard to bear: ‘one huge grief piled on top of all the others,’ as Paul says so poignantly. These folks are the real deal, solid as rock.

Their names won’t go down in history, but that doesn’t mean they don’t merit a shout-out in the church. So if there’s an Epaphroditus in your congregation, praise God and pass the affirmation. Tell them today and every day what a gift they are. Don’t be stingy with your thanks, because, as Paul knew, people like Epaphroditus will never ask for or expect any. They are authentic treasures. They ‘deserve the best you can give.’

Gracious God, it’s a little hard to pronounce, but you know who we mean when we thank you wholeheartedly for every Epaphroditus we know. Help us remember to honor them as you do, with thanks, blessing, and a joyful embrace.


Epaphroditus was the delegate of the community at Philippi sent to bring material assistance to Paul during his imprisonment at either Rome or Ephesus. Nothing more is known of him except for this mention he gets in the letter to the Philippians (2:25-29) announcing his return, but tradition honors him as the first bishop of that church. Saint Epaphroditus is commemorated liturgically in the West on March 22, and in the East on March 30.

Matthias the Apostle, February 24

200px-Saint_Matthias[1]The author of Acts is worried about numbers. Twelve is a very important number. Eleven is not. When Judas defects and soon afterwards dies, the remaining apostles feel a biblical urge to round up. It won’t do to have the formerly Twelve continue very long into history as the limping Eleven—eleven kind of messes up your biblical allusions. So they nominate a couple of men from the wider group of disciples, pray to God to show them which one God prefers for the job, and cast lots. The lots fall to Matthias, and he becomes an apostle. [Acts 1:15-26]

But who is he? The gospels don’t mention him before Jesus was crucified and raised, unless you think, as some ancient commentators did, that he was actually Zacchaeus, or even Nathanael, by another name. And after his elevation to the ranks of the ‘overseers,’ he is never heard from again. There are no remotely reliable later traditions about him either—although if I could choose one of his legends to be true, it would be the one about him preaching to the cannibals in Georgia. (No, not that Georgia.) Although his relics are venerated in the great church of St Matthias in Trier, Germany, most scholars agree they are not his, but maybe, maybe, those of another Matthias, one of the early bishops of Jerusalem. Our Matthias is a holy cipher.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that Matthias is haphazardly included (for all grace is, to human eyes, capricious) and subsequently so unknown. It’s instructive to know that among the Twelve there is one who fell into the apostolic role more or less by chance, one who was drafted into the witnessing business by a roll of the dice, one whose name alone is documented and all the rest unremarkable and ignored. It puts the spotlight on the calling itself, not on the personality and exploits of the called.

Which takes some pressure off those of us who believe ourselves also chosen to be witnesses, but who, despite years of trying, have yet to build a church of more than forty members, end world hunger, bring a lasting peace upon the earth, or die a heroic death among cannibals. Maybe St Matthias’ day is a day to be glad that the grace and wonder of the choice of us lies elsewhere. Maybe on St Matthias day it’s enough to celebrate that God chose him. Maybe today we honor not an apostle so much as a choosing. And maybe not a choosing so much as the Chooser.

Matthias’ liturgical commemoration has traditionally fallen on February 24. The Anglicans still commemorate him on this day, but the Catholics have moved him to May 14, nearer to the feast of the Ascension, in order not to have to celebrate an apostle in Lent (too much festivity for a solemn season), and to associate him more closely with his election, which occurred in the few days between the Ascension and Pentecost.

He is, of course, the patron saint of lottery players. Today might be a good day to buy a ticket.


P. S. If Matthias is unheralded, imagine the obscurity of the other guy in the running! If you commemorate Matthias today, take a moment also to remember Joseph, called Barsabbas [aka Justus], disciple of Jesus and loser.


st andrew

About Andrew we know very little—the four canonical gospels concur in reporting that he was from Bethsaida and that he was Simon Peter’s brother, a son of Jonah (or John). The Synoptics record that they were fishermen and that Jesus, who was passing by on the shore of the Sea of Galilee one day, peremptorily called them away from their father and their nets to follow him.

The fourth gospel’s story is different, as usual. In John’s account, when we first meet Andrew he’s a disciple of John the Baptist. When Jesus wanders by one day, the Baptizer looks up and sees him. Calling him ‘lamb of God,’ John points him out to his own followers. Curiously compelled, Andrew and a second disciple leave John and approach Jesus. It is they who ask him the famous question, “Where do you live?” (or “Where are you staying?”), to which Jesus answers, “Come and see.”’

John the Evangelist makes it seem almost as if John the Baptist wants his disciples to abandon him, a mere forerunner, for the real deal, the Messiah, Jesus. There is probably more behind the story—some rivalry and perhaps even serious contention between the two groups. It’s unlikely we’ll ever know the ‘facts,’ but if we take the scene at face value, it turns out that Andrew is the first of the twelve apostles Jesus called, a claim to fame if there ever was one.

But Andrew’s biggest claim to fame may be that he recruited his brother to follow Jesus. The fourth gospel reports that after meeting Jesus, he ‘first of all’ or ‘immediately’ went to Simon and told him that he had found the Messiah. It was at this moment that Jesus, “looking at [Simon] closely,” decided to rename him Cephas, Peter, the Rock.

About Peter we know a great deal more than we do about his brother, because of Peter’s subsequent significance for the church, which is inestimable. And so Andrew turns out to have something in common with his former guru—although both men are still honored in Christian memory, others eclipsed them in our remembrance; the Baptist and Andrew are holy second fiddles. Role models for most of us, I’d say.

Andrew also recruited for Jesus’ band another man from Bethsaida, Phillip, who in turn ‘found’ Nathanael (he of ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ fame). Later, ‘some Greeks’ approached Philip wanting to see Jesus. Philip referred the request to Andrew, perhaps because he had seniority or greater access, we’ll never know. In any case, it was through Andrew that the Greeks got their introduction to the Teacher and, presumably, found for themselves what Andrew had already found. And thus it was that Jesus’ inner circle began to grow, owing in no small measure to Andrew’s recruiting skills.

Andrew appears in some other key scenes in the gospels, such as that day when thousands were hungry after a long day of teaching and healing. Jesus, who wants to feed the crowd, asks his disciples if they have any food. Andrew’s the one who tells him about the boy with five loaves of bread.

Along with Peter, James and John, he asks, ‘Is it now you will restore the kingdom?’, which prompts one of Jesus’ eschatological discourses. You know—the crazy stuff most preachers dread having to wrestle to the ground on the first Sunday of Advent every year. For this prompting question we do not necessarily thank our saint of the day.

Andrew, we suppose, was also present with the others in the upper room for the last supper, but after that, aside from one brief mention of his name in the list of the Twelve in the Acts of the Apostles, we lose documented track of him—unless you count the wild and wonderful miracle stories (well, there’s a few in there that are not so wonderful and actually a little vicious) contained in the mid-2nd c. Acts of Andrew, in which, for example, he rescues Matthias from hungry cannibals in the ‘land of the anthropophagi.’

When it comes to saints, their afterlives are often far more exciting than their lives. And so here is the rest of the story, according to one tradition.

After Pentecost, a peripatetic Andrew preached the gospel all over the Mediterranean region—in Cappadocia, Galatia, Bithynia, the Scythian deserts, Byzantium, Thrace, Macedonia, and Achaia. No one knows when, where, or how he died, which has not prevented many stories about his death from circulating. Most concur that he was crucified during the reign of Nero (on November 30, in the year 60 CE, they say), probably at Patrae in Achaia.

We also hear that he was strung up on the cross with ropes, not fixed to it with nails. The earliest traditions say he died on a Latin cross, just like Jesus, but by the time his legend picked up steam in the Middle Ages, it had become a crux decussata, a saltire, now known as St Andrew’s cross. Apparently Andrew, like his more prominent brother, felt unworthy of a crucifixion like the Lord’s. His solution was to die on that X-cross; Peter’s was to be nailed to a Latin cross, but upside down.

Not only are we told that the well-traveled Andrew evangelized in the Mediterranean region; he is also claimed as the bringer of the faith by Georgia, Ukraine, and Romania (in those places he is sometimes remembered as a fisherman who plied his trade on the Black Sea—go figure); and, of course, he is claimed by Scotland.

Until the early 14th c., the Scots had been content with having received and enshrined many relics of Andrew (legend has them arriving in installments, starting in the 4th and ending in the 9th c.), using them to build up a popular pilgrimage site, St Andrew’s church. The possession of relics gave them a peculiar sense of proximity to Andrew, a kind of pride of ownership. (The story of the dispersal of Andrews’ relics is a saga in itself—but must be saved for another day.) But with political independence on their minds (see the Declaration of Arbroath, 1320 CE) , the Scots also began to claim Andrew as the one who brought them the faith, and they made him the country’s patron saint (bumping St Columba, since an apostle outranks a monk any day of the week) and giving the church in Scotland the prestige of apostolic origins.

No one really believed a word of it then, of course; and no one does today either, but it doesn’t matter. Andrew is now more Scottish than Galilean. This should not surprise or scandalize us. We’re always naturalizing the holy ones, granting them citizenship, dressing them up in the local costume, asking them to fly our flags, and preoccupying them with our preoccupations, turning them into homeys, folk like you and me. I think we’ll always manipulate them in this way. Sometimes I think God makes saints just so that we can project our stuff onto them. And I suspect they don’t mind being made into mirrors in which we can try ourselves on.

Long live Andrew! Now let us pray:

Collect for the Feast of St Andrew

Almighty God, who gave such grace to your apostle Andrew that he readily obeyed the call of your son, Jesus Christ, and brought his brother with him: Give us, who are called by your holy Word, grace to follow him without delay, and to bring those near to us also into his gracious presence. Amen.


Andrew is, along with his brother Peter, the patron saint of fishermen, which makes eminent sense. Don’t ask me why, but he’s also the patron saint of unmarried women who want to get married, textile workers, water carriers, and people with throat illnesses, convulsions, and gout.

July 26 — Anne, Mother of Mary, Grandmother of Jesus

Today is the Commemoration of Anne, the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus. That Mary had a mother and Jesus had a grandmother there can be no doubt—we all have them—but the New Testament authors do not name Anne (or her husband, Joachim) or give us a single detail about her in the stories of Jesus’ conception, birth, and upbringing.

That there was an  Anne is what some call ‘a venerable tradition’ and others disdain as a pious lie, depending on the extent to which one honors and enjoys the religious imaginations of the ancestors and is not reflexively dismissive of stories. You know where I come down on this one.

Anne (along with Joachim) first appears in the Protoevangelium of James, c. 150 [?], a much-loved book in the ancient Eastern Church (in the West, not so much), and later in other non-canonical writings. Some people say that her story—an older woman conceiving later in life, bearing a famous child—was modeled after the story of Hannah (Anne), the mother of Samuel. Whatever the origins and literary models of her story, she soon became a fan favorite.

Devotion to Anne can be documented in the East from the mid-6th century; but if by that time the Byzantine emperor Justinian is busy constructing a great church in her honor, we can be sure that it had been gaining steam for a good while before that. In the West, there is no extant representation of Anne until the 8th century (a nice fresco in Rome), and not much fervent devotion until the 13th; but it took off after her story was included in a popular collection of saints lives (The Golden Legend, Jacobus de Voraigne), and Anne swiftly became one of the most beloved saints of the Latin Church.

The medieval imagination provided Mary’s parents with parents too—Stollanus and Emerentia; and with many marriage stories, including one in which Anne is married and widowed a three times, giving birth in successive unions to Anne (by Joachim); to Mary (by a fellow named Cleophas), who becomes the wife of Alphaeus and mother of the apostles James the Lesser, Simon and Judas, and of Joseph, called the Just; and Maria Salomae (by  Salomas) who became the wife of Zebedaeus and mother of the apostles John and James the Greater. The way her story was developing, she might eventually have ended up grandmothering the entire corps of apostles, and the further 72 as well. 

Muslims also venerate Anne (Hannah), the grandmother of the much-venerated prophet, Isa, whom we know as Jesus. The Qur’an does not name her (only her father and husband get names—Faqud and Imram, respectively), but subsequent teachers tell a poignant  story about her conception of Maryam (Mary): Hannah has trouble conceiving and is about to give up when she sees a mother bird feeding hatchlings. The maternal desire grows strong again and she and her husband try one more time. You know the result.

The Qur’an recounts that before conceiving, Hannah had promised Allah that, like the Biblical Hannah, she would dedicate her son to him (she was sure it would be a boy). She is surprised when a girl appears, and maybe a little afraid to present the little Maryam to God, but in mystical insight she decides that the baby girl is a true gift of God. The Qur’an is at pains to show that Allah is extremely pleased with the birth of this girl child and has great plans for her.

After she dies, Anne endured the fate of many great saints in the medieval church, traveling more in death than she ever had in life. Her relics are said to have been taken to Constantinople in 710. They remained there, in Hagia Sophia, until 1331, when the city was conquered and her relics were taken to Europe for safekeeping—and dispersal. Or if you like you can follow the tradition that Lazarus, Jesus’ moldy friend, took her body to France and buried her there. In Douai, you can venerate her foot (not sure if it is her left or right). Her head resided in Mainz in Germany for a while, before it was stolen by pious thieves from Duren in the Rhineland. I could go on, but these are unedifying details, so no more of this.

One of the lovely traditions of iconography associated with Anne is called the Metterza (Italy), Anna selbdritt (Germany) or Anna te Drieen (Low Countries). Taken together, these terms describe depictions of ‘the three generations’—Anne, Mary and Jesus; or as one author put it, these are images in which “Granny makes three.” {See such a depiction by Albrecht Düerer, below.) 

Another important iconographic tradition shows Anne teaching Mary to read. Anne was a good teacher, it seems, and Mary learned well. She was still reading as a young woman: in a great deal of iconography of the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel enters to find Mary with a book (probably scripture) open on her lap. The Word arrives as words are pondered.

Now, if you are a Protestant and not much inclined to saints, you have good reason to like this one, for it could be said that St. Anne made the Reformation possible. When, caught in the midst of a terrible lightning storm, a terrified young Martin Luther cried out to heaven to be spared, promising to become a monk if he lived, it was to St. Anne that he prayed. Apparently, she heard him. Luther credited his safety to her intercession. He kept his vow and entered the Augustinian friary at Erfut on July 17, 1505.  The rest is history.