Agnes is one of the most important saints of the early church. She’s among the seven women mentioned in the 1 Eucharistic Prayer: “Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia.” That prayer goes back to St. Gregory the Great in the 6th century. Some also say his mother and aunt may have promoted that list of women, all strong women who died for their belief. ( cf. Joseph Jungmann)
It’s interesting to see where those women come from. Felicity and Perpetual are from North Africa, Agatha and Lucy from Sicily, Agnes and Cecily from Rome, Anastasia originally from Greece. They’re holy women from all parts of the church of their time.
Agnes’ story appears in legendary 5th century sources, but historians today are more and more appreciative of these early stories, as they are of the infancy narratives of the gospels. They contain more history than legend.
Agnes was a beautiful, wealthy 13 year old girl, probably chosen to be the wife of an influential Roman man, but she refused to marry him or anyone else, because she believed as a Christian she had the right to choose marriage or not.
That choice wasn’t an option for Roman women then. They were expected to marry young, to marry men chosen for them, and to have two or three children. Rome needed soldiers then to grow and hold on to their empire. It preferred its own men and wanted its own women to produce them. Only reluctantly did Rome come to accept and depend on foreigners for its army.
.Agnes’ refusal to marry went against strong Roman expectations. She also lived during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, who was suspicious of Christians, so Agnes was made an example of what would happen to anyone who made a choice like hers.
Tradition says that after much pressure the authorities brought her to the Stadium of Domitian in the center of Rome, to a brothel of prostitutes there, to commit her to a life of prostitution, but God kept her from harm. She would not yield, and so they took her into the arena and killed her by slitting her throat. Those who saw her die marveled at her courage and her faith.
Agnes was buried in the catacombs along the Via Nomentana outside the walls of the city. An ancient church stands over her grave there. A beautiful church to visit if you are in Rome. ( below) Another 16th century church honors Agnes in the Piazza Navona, where the Stadium of Domition once stood and the young girl suffered and died.
The feast day of St. Agnes, January 21, comes about the time prayer and demonstrations for legal protections for the unborn occur in the United States. Agnes is a good reminder of the important place women have in the issue of unborn life. The choices women make are crucial.
One of the prayers for this time speaks of the importance of unborn children and the role of women who bear them and care for them:
God, author of all life,
bless, we pray, all unborn children;
give them constant protection
and grant them a healthy birth,
for they are signs of our rebirth one day into the eternal rejoicing of heaven.
Lord, grant courage to all women
whom you have gifted with the joy of motherhood,
and give them the determination to bring their children along the way of salvation.
The land where Jesus lived spoke to him and inspired so many of the parables he taught. Did the water speak to him too? Jesus went into the waters of the Jordan River to be baptized Mark’s Gospel says, and he heard his Father’s voice and the Spirit rested on him. His ministry continued around the Sea of Galilee. The towns he visited were there; he taught on its shores. He traveled its waters and encountered its storms. He called disciples there.
Pilgrims today still look quietly on those waters when they visit this holy place. From the mountains above, the Sea of Galilee becomes a stage for gospel stories heard before. The waters of the Jordan flowing into it and out on their way to the Dead Sea remind them how realistic the mysteries of faith are. Fishermen, along with cormorants and herons, still fish the waters. At night, a stillness centuries old, takes over.
.Jesus began his ministry here. This land and its waters spoke to him.
The Jordan River figures in many of scriptures’ sacred stories and it’s still vital to this land today. It winds almost 200 miles from its sources at the base of the Golan mountains in the north into the Sea of Galilee and then on to the Dead Sea in the south. The direct distance from one end to the other is only about 60 miles. The river falls almost 3,000 feet on its way to the Dead Sea,.
The Jordan is sacred to Jews from the time they miraculously crossed it on their way to the Promised Land. The great Jewish prophet Elijah came from a town near the river’s banks. Later he found safety from his enemies there.
Elijah’s successor, the Prophet Elisha, also from the Jordan area, told Naaman a Syrian general to bathe in the river to be cured of his leprosy, and he was cured. Ancient hot springs near Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee fostered the river’s curative reputation then. They’re still used today.
At the time of Jesus, the river’s fresh flowing waters were the life-blood of the land, making the Sea of Galilee teem with fish and the plains along its banks fertile for agriculture. Pilgrims from Galilee were guided by the Jordan on their way to Jericho and then to Jerusalem and its temple.
The Jordan Today
The river is still essential to the region. Lake Kineret, as the Israelis call the Sea of Galilee, is the primary source of drinking water for the region and crucial for its agriculture. The use of water from the Jordan is a major point of controversy between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
The Jordan nourished prophets in the past. Somewhere near Jericho where people forded the river John the Baptist preached to and baptized pilgrims going to the Holy City. The place where John baptized was hardly a desert as we think of it. It was a deserted place that offered sufficient food for survival, like the “ grass-hoppers and wild honey” John ate, but this uncultivated place taught you to depend on what God provided.
Jesus taught this too. “I tell you do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or drink, or about your body, what you will wear… Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” (Mt 6, 25 ff) The desert was a place to put worry aside and trust in the goodness of God.
When Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan to be baptized, he acknowledged his heavenly Father as the ultimate Source of Life, the creator of all things. Water, as it always is, was a holy sign of life. Like the prophets Elijah and John the Baptist, Jesus remained in this wilderness near the water for forty days to prepare for his divine mission. He readied himself to depend on God for everything.
The Jordan after Jesus
Later, when the Roman empire turned Christian in the 4th century, Christians came to the Jordan River in great numbers on Easter and on the Feast of the Epiphany to remember the One who was baptized there. They went into the sacred waters, and many took some of it home in small containers.
Early Christian pilgrims like Egeria, a nun from Gaul who came to the Holy Land around the year 415 AD, left an account of her visit to the Jordan where she looked for the place of Jesus’ baptism. Monks who had already settled near the river brought her to a place called Salim, near Jericho. The town, associated with the priest Melchisedech, was surrounded by fertile land which had a revered spring that flowed into the Jordan close by. Here’s how she described it:
“We came to a very beautiful fruit orchard, in the center of which the priest showed us a spring of the very purest and best water, which gives rise to a real stream. In front of the spring there is a sort of pool where it seems that St. John the Baptist administered baptism. Then the saintly priest said to us: ‘To this day this garden is known as the garden of St. John.’ There are many other brothers, holy monks coming from various places, who come to wash in that spring.
“The saintly priest also told us that even today all those who are to be baptized in this village, that is in the church of Melchisedech, are always baptized in this very spring at Easter; they return very early by candlelight with the clergy and the monks, singing psalms and antiphons; and all who have been baptized are led back early from the spring to the church of Melchisedech.” p 73
A 19th Century Pilgrim at the Jordan
Christians in great numbers have visited the Jordan River since Egeria. Towards the end of the 19th century, an English vicar, Cunningham Geikie, described Christian pilgrims following the venerable tradition of visiting its waters.
“Holy water is traditionally carried away by ship masters visiting the river as pilgrims to sprinkle their ships before a voyage; and we are told that all pilgrims alike went into the water wearing a linen garment, which they sacredly preserved as a winding sheet to be wrapped around them at their death.
“The scene of the yearly bathing of pilgrims now is near the ford, about two miles above the Dead Sea, each sect having its own particular spot, which it fondly believes to be exactly where our Savior was baptized…
“Each Easter Monday thousands of pilgrims start, in a great caravan, from Jerusalem, under the protection of the Turkish government; a white flag and loud music going before them, while Turkish soldiers, with the green standard of the prophet, close the long procession. On the Greek Easter Monday, the same spectacle is repeated, four or five thousand pilgrims joining in the second caravan. Formerly the numbers going to the Jordan each year was much greater, from fifteen to twenty thousand….”(Cunningham Geikie, The Holy Land and the Bible,Vol 2, New York, 1890 pp 404-405)
The Jordan and Christian Baptism
Today, every Catholic parish church at its baptistery celebrates the mystery of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan as new believers receive new life and regular believers remember their own baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some eastern Christian churches prefer calling their baptisteries simply “the Jordan.”
Today the most authentic site of Jesus’ Baptism, according to archeologists, is in Jordanian territory at el-Maghtas, where a large church and pilgrim center has been built following excavations begun in 1996 by Jordanian archeologists. It is probably the “Bethany beyond the Jordan” mentioned in the New Testament where Jesus was baptized and John the Baptist preached.
The Jordan River offers a commentary on the mystery of death and resurrection of Jesus, expressed in his baptism. At one end of the river is the Sea of Galilee brimming with life, and at the other end is the Dead Sea a symbol of death. The river holds these two realities together, and if we reverse its course we can see the gift God gives us through Jesus Christ.
Like him, we pass through the waters of baptism from death to life.
Besides the scriptures, the saints are companions on life’s journey, revealing the wisdom of God from age to age. “A cloud of witnesses,” the Letter to the Hebrews calls them.
January 13th we remember St. Hilary of Potiers, who lived in the early 4th century, a crucial time for the church, when the Emperor Constantine and his successors ended years of persecution and welcomed Christians as allies in governing the empire.
Hilary was born in Gaul into a wealthy family, but he wasn’t brought up in a Christian environment. He came to baptism (about the year 345 AD) through personal study of the scriptures. He was married and had a daughter. Then, about ten years after his baptism he was elected by the people of Potiers as their bishop. An unusual path to become a bishop!
A bishop’s role changed after Constantine gave the church freedom in 312 AD. More and more, they became agents of the emperor and his administration, and that brought temptation. Hilary and one of his friends, Martin of Tours, thought a good number of the bishops in Gaul were after worldly power and prestige rather than a spiritual ministry.
Many bishops closely associated with the emperors– both in the eastern and western parts of the empire– were also influenced by Arianism, which was favored by the emperors Constantius ( 350-361) and Valens (364-378). Arianism claimed that Jesus was human and not divine. He was only godlike.
Arianism is Christianity lite; it dismisses the claims of Jesus to be divine and makes him like us, only better and more powerful. Probably the emperors and bishops sympathetic to the Arian doctrine felt it made Christianity more palatable for unbelievers. A good political option
Hilary strongly upheld the divinity of Jesus, basing his faith on the scriptures he read and the sacrament of baptism he received. His stand brought him exile in Asia Minor, but he continued to teach and write in defense of orthodoxy and eventually he was restored to his diocese.
Hilary’s counterpart in the eastern church, St. Athanasius, was another big opponent of Arianism and imperial control of the church. Both bishops suffered exile and helped the church hold to the faith professed at the Council of Nicea in 321 AD. St. Jerome expressed the gravity of the situation: “The world groaned, amazed that it had become Arian.”
Hilary in Gaul and Athanasius in Egypt argued for Catholic orthodoxy from the scriptures and church tradition. They also strongly encouraged religious life in the church. Athanasius saw the spirituality of the desert, exemplified by St. Anthony ( we remember him later this week) as a remedy for the increasing worldliness of Christians. Hilary was the teacher of Martin of Tours, founder of religious life in Gaul.
The two saints promoted religious life which played an important part in promoting sound faith in the church. Christianity always needs communities of dedicated believers as well as sharp-minded leaders for its journey through time. Say a prayer for our religious communities, including my own. We need them in the church.
And let’s not forget to pray for good bishops too.
“To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?” ( Mark 4, 30) Jesus turned to the land where he lived and the life lived around him to answer that question.
It was a changeable land. If you stand on the roof of the Passionist house in Bethany near Jerusalem, as I did some years ago, you can still see ordered rows of olive trees growing beneath you. As night falls, the sky over the Mount of Olives raises questions of its own. Jesus knew this land.
Then, looking eastward to Jericho and the Dead Sea, there’s the barren desert. Then, from Jericho to Galilee the land turns from desert to lush farmland. A changing land.
Jesus experienced a changing landscape as he left Nazareth for the Jordan River and then the Sea of Galilee; it influenced the way he spoke. His parables are rich with the language of the sower and the seed. Like us, he was influenced by the place and life around him.
In a book written in the 1930s Gustaf Dalman, an expert on the geography and environment of Palestine, observes that when Jesus went from the highlands of Nazareth, 1,100 feet above sea level to the fishing towns along the Sea of Galilee, 680 feet below sea level, he entered a different world.
For one thing, he ate better – more fish and nuts and fruits were available than in the hill town where he grew up. He looked out at the Sea of Galilee instead of the hills and valleys around his mountain village. He saw a great variety of birds, like the white pelicans and black cormorants challenging the fishermen on the lake. He saw trees and plants and flowers that grew abundantly around the lake, but were not around Nazareth.
Instead of the chalky limestone of Nazareth, Jesus walked on the hard black basalt around the lake. Basalt provided building material for houses and synagogues there. They were sturdy structures, but they were dark and drab inside. They needed light. Light on a lampstand became one of his parables. (Mark 4,21)
Basalt also made for a rich soil where everything could grow. “… here plants shoot up more exuberantly than in the limestone district. Where there are fields, they yield a produce greater than anyone has any notion of in the highlands.” (Dalman, p123)
Farmland in Galilee
The volcanic soil on the land around the lake produced a rich harvest. The Jewish historian, Josephus, praised that part of Galilee for its fruitfulness, its palm trees, fruit trees, walnut trees, vines, wheat. But thistles, wild mustard, wild fennel grew quickly too and could choke anything else that was sown. The land around the Sea of Galilee was fertile then; even today it has some of the best farmland in Palestine.
Soil near the Sea of Galilee
The weather in the Lake District was not the same as in the mountains, warmer in winter, much hotter and humid in summer, which begins in May. “It is difficult for anyone used to living in the mountains to work by day and sleep by night…Out of doors one misses the refreshing breeze, which the mountains along the lake cut off…one is tempted to think that Jesus, who had settled there, must often have made occasion to escape from this pitiless climate to his beloved mountains.” (Dalman, p. 124)
You won’t find these observations in the gospels, of course, but they help us appreciate the world in which Jesus lived and the parables he drew from it. He was influenced by where he lived, as we are.
And what about us? We’re experiencing climate change now, aren’t we? It’s going to influence our spirituality, how we see, how we live, how we react to the world around us.
About this time every year when I was a boy, my mother would put up on the kitchen door the calendar we got from church. She marked down the anniversaries of family deaths and birthdays and other celebrations coming along, and she added other dates as the days passed. The pictures on the calendar interested me most then. When we put up the calendar, we were ready for the days ahead.
The calendar’s still a good way to get ready for the days ahead. “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart,” one of the psalms says.
Our calendars today may be on our computers instead of the kitchen door. They’ve also changed in a number of ways since the Second Vatican Council. For one thing, our church calendars today list the scripture readings read at Mass for the weekdays and Sundays throughout the year. They open the treasures of our faith for us.
Our calendars alert us to the main feasts and seasons, Christmas and Easter, advent and lent, celebrated by the whole church throughout the year. The general calendar also lists the days for celebrating saints honored the world over, such as Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the apostles, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Theresa of Avila and others.
The council left countries and regions to decide on some celebrations of their own. In our particular calendar here in the United States, for example, we celebrate Thanksgiving Day and American saints like St. Elizabeth Seton, St. Elizabeth Cabrini and St. John Neumann.
The calendar’s still a good way to keep our lives in order, not only doctors’ and social appointments, birthdays and anniversaries, but our spiritual lives as well. They go together. We’re meant to live from day to day, from feast to feast, and be formed by the mysteries of Christ, his saints and the scriptures.
Christmas is a time of poverty. The Spirit of Bethlehem is one of smallness, of tiny new beginnings that open our minds to the infinite largeness of Incarnate Wisdom. The Christ Child heals us of our presumption. The New Born shows us that we simply don’t know what God has in store. His impoverished delivery stops us in our tracks. We stand like beasts in a stable, our knowledge, our understanding, our science, our facts, our truths stripped of eternal value. All that remains, whether we’re shepherds or kings or someone in between, is for us to nod along with the tiny beat of the drummer boy offering his seemingly meaningless gift. Let’s welcome Christ Jesus, Innocence itself, by being poor with Him. Let’s let go of preconceived notions of having control. To stand before the Lord in our nothingness is worth more to Him than any amount of gold, frankincense or myrrh. Our humility before the bright light is pure praise and prayer to the One Who offers us everything.
Albrecht Durer, “Virgin and Child with Saint Anne”, ca. 1519 (The Met)
Christmas is a time for grandmothers.
They bake and cook and decorate. Their homes become mini North Poles, diplomatic outposts of Santa’s Castle.
At its core, Christmas is of course all about Jesus. All about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. All about the Holy Family.
The Holy Family is an extended family though. And it doesn’t stop at grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, or even cousins and distant cousins.
Just ask Saints Joachim and Anne, Zechariah and Elizabeth, or John the Baptist—not to mention all the unknown relatives whom the child Jesus surely encountered throughout His Galilean days. Ask any one of them about the far-reaching ripple effects of family grace.
Those touched by Jesus have a tendency to appear bigger than life.
Look at Santa Claus.
Most of us are aware that he is really Saint Nick.
But do we stop to wonder who Mrs. Claus really is?
I think she’s Saint Anne.
After all, Mrs. Claus is seen as everyone’s grandmother, especially when it comes to holiday cheer. But when it comes to truly celebrating the birth of Jesus, it is through Saint Anne that we approach the gates of Christ’s Nativity.
Mary’s Mother holds a special key. She is first among grandmas, first among those who pinch chubby cheeks, who pass along one more extra sugary treat.
Saint Anne help us. Speak to us. Show us how to be grand parents to all those around us, especially the little ones. Stir up the spirit of Advent. Bake away the holiday blues. Cook up a dish of Christmas love that only your hearth can serve.
Come one, come all, to the home of Saint Anne. Come with me to Grandma’s house for a holiday visit. Taste and see. Enter her kitchen, where the hot chocolate can always fit a little more whipped cream, where you hear the constant refrain: “eat…eat…eat…”
At Grandma’s your plate is never empty.
Her table is continually set.
She always sees Jesus as having just been born.
She is always wrapping Him up tightly in swaddling clothes.
It is simply grand.
To Grandma, Jesus is always an innocent child.
And she can’t help but see Him deep within both you and me.
Yesterday I witnessed a “dress” rehearsal for a live nativity. The cast was made up of first and second graders, and the audience was mostly composed of residents of a retirement home for religious sisters, Franciscans. It was spectacular.
Last week I was at Radio City Music Hall to watch the Rockettes in their “Christmas Spectacular”. It was quite a production.
Sitting in the dark this morning I cannot help but contrast the two.
I also cannot help but relate to the seven-year old who played the part of The Little Drummer Boy.
As that child walked so slowly toward the foot of the altar, where the rehearsal was being staged, I saw my vocation in an entirely different light.
The children were all singing their hearts out, and many of the eighty and ninety year-old sisters were mouthing the words. The boy with the drum didn’t utter a sound. He just kept walking, slowly, extremely slowly toward the altar, every once in a while ever so slightly pretending to tap two tiny sticks upon a toy drum. He was beautifully awkward.
There was no greater spectacle on earth at that very moment. Shall I dare to say, no greater event that heaven or earth has ever known?
For a child was born. We were all being born.
Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum
A new born King to see, pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,
So to honor Him, pa rum pum pum pum, When we come.
Little Baby, pa rum pum pum pum I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum That’s fit to give the King, pa rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,
Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum, On my drum?
Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum I played my drum for Him, pa rum pum pum pum I played my best for Him, pa rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,
Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum Me and my drum.*
.*(Little Drummer Boy was composed by Katherine K. Davis, Henry Onorati and Harry Simeone in 1958.)
(Note: This post was originally published on December 24, 2011.)
We have not put up a tree in years.
For nearly a decade we have been moving—no longer than two years in any one house and no less than ten different not-so-humble abodes. Between and during the moves we were very much engaged with the world. A seemingly endless movable beast.
This December marks one year in our current house. I am happy to say it is our home. The Lord has blessed us with great peace. And with that peace comes a tree. A simple, well-shaped tree. Fittingly, a dear friend offered it to us as a gift.
Francesca could not be more ready to be initiated into the act of trimming. Before the tree arrived, her two-year-old fingers pointed out every tree, artificial or real, that graced the pages of a holiday flyer or the commercial floor of a Rite Aid or Dollar Store.
Up the stairs came the evergreen, into the old stand that has been in storage since my father last used it several decades ago. I cut off the mesh and out popped the branches.
We hung the lights and old glass ornaments that my mother-in-law washed a few days before.
The main attraction for Francesca was the Nativity.
Not since St. Francis of Assisi assembled the first Nativity in Greccio in 1223, has there been such admiration for each and every witness who Our Lord assembled to adore His Son that first Christmas two millennia ago. Francesca kissed and hugged every shepherd, sheep, donkey, angel, and king. Most of all she adored the Holy family, calling Mary and Joseph, Ma-ma and Da-da, respectively. And Jesus, He was simply called: “ba-be.”
She carried them around the apartment. I did not want to ruin her fun, but they are ceramic. I explained a few times to be very careful.
“Gentle, Francesca…gentle…”, I harked a host of times.
Boom. To the wood floor went the shepherd. Amazing, grace held him intact. I took that as a great sign to put an end to her carrying the animals, angels and representatives of mankind.
I was fixing my coffee when I turned to see Francesca with Baby Jesus in her tiny hands. But He is so small, so tiny, what harm could come from holding Him? So I let her get away with carrying the Savior.
As I stirred my spoon Christ crashed to the floor, the tile floor. Francesca immediately looked at me, as if expecting all hell to break loose. I think I sighed but that was about all. It is Christmas, right? And it is, after all, only a ceramic figure purchased at Target.
After assuring Francesca not to worry and guiding her toward a few coloring books in the living room, I bent down to retrieve the broken Christ.
St. Francis was told by a Crucifix in an old abandoned chapel: “Restore my Church.”
In my small one-bedroom apartment, I found Baby Christ, broken into exactly three: The Head, the Torso, and the Crossed Legs.
“Restore the Trinity,” was spoken to me.
For half of my forty years I can honestly say I have tried to pursue Truth, wherever it lie. In philosophy, in scripture, in literature, in art, in nature, in history…
Now, the entire Gospel of Christ lie naked on my kitchen floor.
We separate, we distinguish, we categorize, we breakdown. The Fall of Adam was a fall into denomination.
Christ’s body is One. His Church cannot be broken. Only mere men can get things so wrong.
I think of the great “Angelic Doctor” of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, who after spending a lifetime in unparalleled pursuit of human understanding, said after glimpsing a vision of what Our Lord has in store for those who love God:
“All that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me.”
Yes… “straw”…my brother Thomas…merely straw. Straw that lines the manger within which Our Savior is laid bare.
It is tradition to leave the crib empty until Christmas morning. Only then do we place the figurative baby Jesus into the scene, after all until that moment he was not yet brought forth from Mother Mary’s womb.
This Christmas morning I will glue together a Broken Baby Christ. The Head, the Torso, and the Crossed Legs will again be One.
Like the world after the birth of Christ, I will never be the same.
For what has now been revealed to me, no fall can break apart.