Thursday, October 16, 2008

Feast of saints

You may not have noticed but this week we get a feast of saint days. On Tuesday we celebrated Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky (1831-1906), who may not be a household word, yet his deeds were extraordinary: as the Anglican bishop to Shanghai, China, he translated the Bible into Chinese typing with one finger after physical infirmities rendered him disabled. 

On Wednesday we celebrated the feast day of Teresa of Avila (1449-1556), the Spanish founder of the Carmelite nuns whose mystical writings on the inner spiritual life are still a must-read for anyone seriously exploring Christian spirituality.

And today we celebrate Bishops Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1449-1556), the architects of modern Anglicanism and authors of the Book of Common Prayer (more on them in a bit; the picture here is of Cranmer); tomorrow we celebrate the feast day of Ignatius of Antioch (died 115), the Syrian-born patriarch of the early church whose concepts of Christ's divinity still shape our own. 

And on Saturday we celebrate Saint Luke himself (or herself -- there is a current theory that "Luke" may have been a nom de plume for a woman writer of the gospel). Luke is thought to have been a companion of Saint Paul, and many still consider the gospel to be the most historically accurate of the four.

Why do we bother looking at the lives of the saints? First because when we mention in our eucharistic prayers of being "surrounded by a cloud of witnesses," we are talking of those souls who have shaped our own, living and dead, and who we believe join us in communion  at the Holy Table in our Eucharist -- along with those millions of others whose names are known to God alone. 

We don't claim these people were perfect or that they had magical powers. Yet we do well to pay critical attention to their lives, if only because their accomplishments and failures, and the ideas they promoted,  are still deeply embedded in our DNA as Christians. Ignatius, for example, fought a crucial battle against the Docetists who held that Jesus was not human and did not suffer on the Cross, but was really a spirit-being who was faking his suffering. Ignatius was a principle architect in the theological concept that Jesus is "fully human and fully divine," a theological concept that many still struggle with. Ignatius's theological triumph defined orthodoxy but came at a cost of excluding other ideas rendered as heretical by the early church patriarchs.

We are also the inheritors of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer's concept of a church that could live in tension with the theological beliefs of both Catholics and Protestants (and one might argue, a church that is truly catholic in its breadth). His ideas were ahead of his time (and maybe our own) in a Europe awash in heresy trials and inquisition. Cranmer wrote the first Book of Common  Prayer in 1549, and he included not only Catholic and Protestant prayers (and theologies) but Eastern Orthodox as well.

Cranmer and his friends, Latimer and Ridley, paid with their lives for the idea of a broad church; they were burned at the stake in 1556 in Oxford by Queen Mary during her brief but bloody attempt at re-instituting Roman Catholicism in England (hence her name, "Bloody Mary"). When Elizabeth I took the throne, she brought back Cranmer's prayer book, and it has remained foundational to Anglican worship ever since. We do well to remember that in this time of great strife in the Anglican Communion that our forebearers believed it possible to form a church among people who disagree deeply but who do not claim to have the sole monopoly on truth.

All of these lives are worth studying, and I commend to you examining their wisdom and foibles, their doubts and their hopes. If you want to keep track of the saint days in the Episcopal Church, and the readings that go with each day, go to the Lectionary Page. You can also read a brief biography of each saint by consulting a copy of Lesser Feasts and Fasts in the church library.  May we continue to be surrounded by their witness.

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