Monday, July 25, 2016

Motivation Monday - St. Mary Major

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a film showcasing the basilicas of Rome. One that I didn’t previously know much about was St. Mary Major. The church sits on Italian territory but is owned by Vatican City. It was built shortly following the Council of Ephesus in 431, which proclaimed Mary as the Mother of God. It contains several 5th and 6th century mosaics and the Crypt of the Nativity, said to contain wood from a crib of Christ. St. Jerome, the Doctor of the Church who translated the Bible into the vernacular (Latin) is buried there, along with six popes.

The church is also called Our Lady of the Snows, because according to legend, there was a Roman couple in the 5th century who were childless and decided to donate their wealth to St. Mary. They prayed that she might make known how to do so. On August 5, snow fell on the Esquiline Hill. The couple and the Pope Sixtus III had visions that night to go to the hill. The pope outlined the basilica in the snow, and the couple built the church.

In the 16th century, renovations were made which included gilding the ceiling of the church. The gold had been brought to Europe from the New World, a gift from Christopher Columbus to the Spanish pope Alexander VI.

Friday, July 22, 2016

An Apostle to Apostles

From the St. Alban's Psalter
Today is the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene. In previous years the day has been a memorial, but Pope Francis elevated her celebration to a feast, on par with the apostles, so that she could officially be hailed as “an example and model for every woman in the Church.”

When reading through the Gospels, it’s clear that Mary Magdalene was around in the ministry of Jesus. But when I stop and think about it, it’s amazing just how much of a role she played. She suffered from seven demons (sometimes considered seven men or the seven deadly sins) until Jesus cast them out. She was a single woman travelling around with the disciples. She was there at the crucifixion. She was the first to announce the Resurrection. She was front and center with the apostles, yet not an apostle herself.

Her being there caused trouble for later generations. Who exactly was this woman and what role did she play? Was she an apostle, ordained by Christ and silenced by patriarchy? Was she a prostitute, a red-headed sex pistol following this group of men around? Was she Jesus’ devoted wife (thanks for popularizing that one, Dan Brown)?

Here’s what I do know: Mary Magdalene was a repentant sinner who loved and followed Jesus. She was there in his darkest moments. She kept the faith. She’s a saint, a pretty awesome and important one at that. St. Thomas Aquinas referred to St. Mary Magdalene as “Apostle to the Apostles,” as she was the first witness of the Resurrection and the one to announce the Easter message to the men.

She’s a feminist icon, but not in the way modern feminism wants her to be. She did not set out to smash gender roles; she just followed Jesus. She was a woman of strong faith and devotion. She, and other women like Joanna, were welcome to follow and learn from Jesus, a radical notion in first century Palestine. Even more, she evangelized. One doesn’t have to be a bishop to share the Gospel.

She’s a great role model for women, but she’s also a great role model for all Christians. It doesn’t matter where you started or what people say about you. Love Christ, follow him unto the end, and preach the Good News. St. Gregory the Great said of her, “The one whom she sought outwardly was the one who inwardly taught her to keep on searching.”

She's also holding the myrrh she was taking to
Jesus' tomb on Easter Sunday.
On a side note, St. Mary Magdalene is often depicted, especially in the East, with a red egg (settle down, Da Vinci Coders). Legend says that after the Resurrection, she was travelling around, evangelizing. In Rome, she gained an audience with Caesar Tiberius; she wanted to protest that the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, and the high priests had executed an innocent man.

It was custom to bring the caesar a gift. Mary Magdalene handed him an egg, representing the rolled away stone, and said, “Christ is risen!” Tiberius obviously doubted her and said, “How could anyone ever rise from the dead? It is as impossible as that white egg to turn red.” At this, the egg turned bright red. Pilate was transferred to Gaul, and “Christ is risen!” became the traditional Easter greeting among Christians. Regardless of historical authenticity, the red Easter egg represents St. Mary Magdalene’s strong evangelization of the Resurrection.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Motivation Monday

I think I was going to write something when Paris was attacked. Or maybe it was Belgium. I considered it for San Bernardino and Orlando, but it’s difficult staying on top of the latest national tragedies. Wait too long and another mass murder has happened. Not to mention the singular murders in between that highlight the institutionalized racism, civil unrest, and general dissatisfaction in the country. How do I even respond, when it doesn’t end? How do I ignore one incident over another? Is this week’s focus in Dallas or Nice? (And since I started this, another mass shooting of police took place in Baton Rouge and Turkey experienced a failed military coup.)

So I’m not going to address any of them. We know all the responses already; we have to hear them over and over. The statements and prayers and commentary are background noise, like gunfire. So to combat what it turning out to be a pretty petty, rubbish year, I’m using Mondays as the day to post more uplifting things. There is a lot of beauty in the world, in art and music and architecture and poetry, and I’d rather fill my thoughts with those things. Perhaps it’s a coping mechanism, but at least it’s one that values the good of humanity.

And I’m taking a cue from C. S. Lewis, who wrote in 1948:
“The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb, when it comes, find us doing sensible things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”

Saturday, July 2, 2016

We're Here Because

July 1 marked the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. It’s remembered as the bloodiest day in British military history. A single day that encapsulates the horror and sorrow and futility of war. I’ve read a lot from the Lost Generation, so WWI memorials always remind me of how haunting the war was. An entire generation saw modern technology used to kill and maim young men. If they came back, they came back empty, defeated in spirit, unsure of how to navigate a postwar world.

I always love seeing the British display of poppies around Veterans’ Day. Their memorials don’t seem seeped in nationalism but in somber acknowledgement of the sacrifices of war. The people that actually fight it don’t care about the politics; they just want to get home to their families. War dehumanizes both sides. It fractures humanity. It empties us out. Whether you win or not, something is lost. In a world of perpetual war, it would be good to remember that war should be a last resort. It should be grieved. 

In a moving tribute yesterday, the National Theatre secretly organized thousands of men to appear in uniform at public locations, representing the 19,000 British soldiers who died at the Somme. They stood in silence. When approached, they would hand out cards with the name, regiment, and age of a soldier. The ghosts of the past looking into our faces, the war suddenly not so far away and long ago, the scars still visible. 



Then they broke out in song, underlining the pointlessness of it all. During a weekend that joyously celebrates victory with patriotism and fireworks, I can't stop thinking about the loss, the silence, the ghosts of war.