Category Archives: Travel

Saints Cornelius and Cyprian

Cornelius

Today the church celebrates two early saints and martyrs, Cornelius, a pope who died in 253, and Cyprian, a bishop who was martyred in Roman Africa shortly after in 258.

At the time barbarian tribes in the west and the Persians in the east were invading Roman territory; the Roman emperors Decius and Valerian called for absolute loyalty from their people. The empire was imperiled.

To prove their loyalty, Roman citizens lined to offer sacrifice in honor of the emperor. Christians refused, and so at first church leaders were executed or imprisoned, wealthy, influential Christians lost their property, their positions and possibly their lives. Finally, all Christians could expect punishment for not performing the rites of sacrifice.

Not every Christian remained loyal to the faith at the time. Many offered sacrifice, betraying their faith, then afterwards sought to return to the church. Hard liners called for them to be banned for life for their lack of loyalty. Let God judge them when they die, they said. Others, like Cornelius and Cyprian, called to reconcile them after a time of penance, since God is all merciful.

Mercy and justice are always hard to reconcile. The gospels come down on the side of mercy. So should we.

In the persecution, Cornelius, bishop of Rome, was executed first, Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in Africa, was executed a few years later. The two men were from different social backgrounds and not always on good terms, historians say, but they found support in their common faith, as this letter of Cyprian to Cornelius, written shortly before Cornelius’ death, reveals:

“Cyprian to my brother Cornelius,

Dearest brother, bright and shining is the faith which the blessed Apostle praised in your community. He foresaw in spirit the praise your courage deserves and the strength that can not be broken; he was heralding the future when he testified to your achievements; his praise of the fathers was a challenge to the sons.

Your unity, your strength have become shining examples of these virtues to the rest of us. Divine providence has now prepared us. God’s merciful design has warned us that the day of our own struggle, our own contest, is at hand. By that shared love which binds us close together, we are doing all we can to exhort our congregation, to give ourselves unceasingly to fastings, vigils and prayers in common. These are the heavenly weapons which give us the strength to stand firm and endure; they are the spiritual defences, the God-given armaments that protect us.  

Let us then remember one another, united in mind and heart. Let us pray without ceasing, you for us, we for you; by the love we share we shall thus relieve the strain of these great trials.”

Love shared relieves the strain of trials.

The Triumph of the Cross: September 14

Holy sepul

Pilgims enteing the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

This ancient ecumenical feast,  celebrated by Christian churches throughout the world, commemorates the dedication of a great church in Jerusalem at the place where Jesus died and rose again. Called the Anastasis ( Resurrection) or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, it was built by the Emperor Constantine and was dedicated on September 13, 325 AD, It’s one of Christianity’s holiest places.

Liturgies celebrated in this church, especially its Holy Week liturgy, influenced churches throughout the world. Devotional practices like the Stations of the Cross grew up around this church. Christian pilgrims brought relics and memories from here to every part of the world. Christian mystics were drawn to this church and this feast.

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Tomb of Jesus

Calvary

Calvary

Pilgrims still visit the church and the tomb of Jesus, recently renovated , after sixteen centuries of wars, earthquakes, fires and natural disasters. They venerate the rock of Calvary where Jesus died on a cross. The building today is smaller and shabbier than the resplendent church Constantine built, because the original structure was largely destroyed in the 1009 by the mad Moslem caliph al-Hakim. Half of the church was hastily rebuilt by the Crusaders; the present building still bears the scars of time.

Scars of a divided Christendom can also be seen here. Various Christian groups, representing churches of the east and the west, claim age-old rights and warily guard their separate responsibilities. One understands here why Jesus prayed that ” All may be one.”

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Egyptian Coptic Christians

Seventeenth century Enlightenment scholars  expressed doubts about the authenticity of Jesus’ tomb and the place where he died, Calvary. Is this really it? Alternative spots were proposed, but scientific opinion today favors this site as the place where Jesus suffered, died and was buried.

For more on its history, see here.

And a video here.

Readings for the Triumph of the Cross

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Via Dolorosa - 17

“Do not forget the works of the Lord!” (Psalm 78, Responsorial Psalm) We remember his great works here. How can we forget them.

Bartholomew, the Apostle

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Cana today

August 24th is the feast of the apostle Bartholomew, also identified as Nathaniel,  from Cana in Galilee, only a few miles from Nazareth.  Like Nazareth, Cana attracted little interest in Jesus’ time, yet it played  a major role in Jesus’ early life and  mission.

In John’s gospel,  Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding in Cana, his first “sign” that God’s kingdom would come. (Jn 2, 1-12) The family faced a wedding nightmare: the wine was running out and embarrassment was sure to come.

Catholic Church, Cana

Catholic Church, Cana

Was the family related to Jesus? Or Bartholomew?  At least they were close. Why else would Jesus, his mother and his disciples be at the celebration?cana carol rothstein 7

The miracle was special,. More than saving a family from embarrassment, it’s a sign in John’s gospel of God’s great love for ordinary people in ordinary towns everywhere. God delights in them, says the Prophet Isaiah, whose words often accompany the Cana miracle,  Cana signifies poor Israel, whom God loves with all the ardor of a “young man marrying a virgin,” God’s love, bountiful, restoring, overflowing with delight, goes out to this poor place, as well as poor places everywhere.

Jesus performed another miracle at Cana, John’s gospel says, another sign of the coming kingdom. Besides the miracle at the wedding, Jesus cured the dying son of a government official from Capernaum, whose ” father came to Cana because he heard that Jesus was there. (John 4.46-54) Jesus saved his son from death.

cana carol rothstein

Through the centuries Cana hasn’t prospered much. It’s not much to look at today.  In the late 19th century, a visiting English vicar described it this way:

“ (Kefr Kenna) lies on high ground, but not on a hill…A broad prickly pear led to the group of houses which perhaps represents the New Testament Cana. Loose stones were scattered around the slope. There may be, possibly, 150 inhabitants, but one cannot envy them their huts of mud and stone, with dunghills at every corner. Huge mud ovens, like great beehives, stood at the sides of some of the houses.

“ In one house a worthy Moslem was squatting on the ground with a number of children, all with slates on which verses of the Koran had been written, which they repeated together. It was the village school, perhaps like that at Nazareth eighteen hundred years ago.

“ A small Franciscan church of white stone with a nice railed wall, with a beautiful garden at the side, had over its doorway these startling words in Latin: ‘Here Jesus Christ from water made wine.’ Some large water jars are shown inside as actually those used in the miracle, but such mock relics, however believed in by simple monks, do the faith of other people more harm than good.”

Cana’s still a poor town. Like other poor places in the world it’s waiting to be raised up to share in the splendor of the heavenly Jerusalem. God loves poor places like this, the Cana miracle says. Bartholomew came from here.

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Church of St. Bartholomew, Cana

St. Teresa Benedicta and St. Maximilian Kolbe

Maximilian Kolbe
Teresa Benedicta

A number of martyrs are remembered in our liturgy in mid-August. August 9, we remembered Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein, who died in the concentration camp at Auschwitz on today in 1942.

August 10th, we remembered Lawrence the Deacon, one of the most important martyrs of the early church.

August 14 we remember Maximillian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan priest, who also died in Auschwitz about a year before Edith Stein, August 14, 1941.

Peter Brown, an historian of early Christianity, says it wasn’t the bravery of Christian martyrs that impressed the Romans. The Romans were a macho people; war was in their blood. They prided themselves on dying bravely.

What the Romans marveled at was how Christian martyrs approached death. They saw something beyond death. They considered themselves citizens of another world, who followed Jesus Christ in how they lived. They believed in his promise of everlasting life.

Lawrence the deacon, for example, could have escaped Roman persecution, but he wouldn’t abandon the poor of Rome in his care. Jesus said take care of the poor.

Centuries later, Maximillian Kolbe was a priest who wouldn’t abandon the vocation God gave him.

Before World War II, Kolbe was active as a Franciscan priest, promoting devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. He ran a large, successful Franciscan printing enterprise in Warsaw.

In 1939, after invading Poland, the Nazi arrested him and a number of other Franciscans and imprisoned them for some months. They ransacked their printing place, probably hoping to intimidate them. Then, they left them go.

Instead of being intimidated, Kolbe began to house refugees from the Nazis, some of them Jews. That got him into trouble, so he was arrested again, on February 14th, 1941, and sent to Auschwitz to do hard labor.

Concentration camps like Auschwitz where Maximillian Kolbe and Sr.Teresa Benedicta died are the nearest thing to Calvary in modern times. More than 1500 of them were spread mostly through German occupied territories in Europe. Twenty million people died in the camps in the Second World War, 6 million were Jews. 1.3 million people went to Auschwitz; 1,1 million died there.

Five months after Kolbe entered Auschwitz, in July 1941, a prisoner from his barracks escaped. In reprisal, the Nazis took 10 men from the barracks to put them to death by starvation. One of them cried out that he had a wife and children who would never see him again. Father Kolbe stepped forward and offered to take the man’s place.

He was the last of the ten men to die of starvation and an injection of carbolic acid two weeks later, on August 14, 1941.

Many stories of Kolbe’s ministry among the prisoners in Auschwitz were told after his death when Auschwitz was liberated. He was canonized by Pope John Paul II on October 19, 1983, who called him “Patron Saint of Our Difficult Age.”

He was a sign of God’s love in a place where God seemed absent.

Maximillian Kolbe’s death on the vigil of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven has been seen as a further sign. God’s hand reached into the dark horror of Calvary to save his Son. God reached out to Mary to bring her, body and soul, to heaven. God reached into Auschwitz and other camps of horror to bring suffering human beings to glory and peace.

Ezekiel, Words for Hard Times

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Jewish captives led to Babylon, 6th century BC

We‘re reading the Prophet Ezekiel now at Mass. He was a priest brought as a captive to Babylon along with King Johoiachin and members of the Jewish elite after the Babylonians crushed the Jewish revolt against them in 597 BC. He would be one of those pictured above, on their way to exile .

The Jewish elite who were taken to Babylon had been convinced God would never permit Jerusalem to be destroyed. When it was destroyed, they were just as convinced it would be rebuilt quickly. You’re wrong in both cases, Ezekiel tells them. Jerusalem will be destroyed and it won’t be God’s fault– it’s yours. You are unfaithful leaders.

“Thus says the Lord GOD: Woe to the shepherds of Israel
who have been pasturing themselves!
Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep?
You have fed off their milk, worn their wool,
and slaughtered the fatlings,
but the sheep you have not pastured.
You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick
nor bind up the injured.”

Jerusalem won’t be restored by your power either, Ezekiel says. It will take time, and it will come in God’s time, not yours, by God’s power, not yours. In the meantime, ask God to take away your hearts of stone and give you natural hearts.

The Jewish leaders didn’t like Ezekiel’s message:

“Son of man, listen! The house of Israel is saying, ‘The vision he sees is a long time off; he prophesies for distant times!’ Say to them therefore: Thus says the Lord GOD: None of my words shall be delayed any longer. Whatever I say is final; it shall be done.”

Hard times lead to impatience, to blaming others, to thinking God is absent, but hard times are blessed times, Ezekiel says, when God is more present than ever. God will save his people.

“Thus says the Lord GOD,”

I swear I am coming… I will claim my sheep…I will save my sheep…
I myself will look after and tend my sheep.” (Ezekiel 34,1-11)

Good words for us today?

St.Mary Major

Basilica of St. Mary Major
Basilica of St. Mary Major

On the summit of the Esquiline Hill, a short distance from the Lateran Basilica, the church of St. Mary Major was begun in the early 5th century and completed by Pope Sixtus III (432-440.)

Hardly a good time to build a church. In 410, Alaric and his Goths shocked the Roman world by sacking a city all thought invincible. In 455 the Vandals under Genseric vandalized Rome. Twice more in the century other barbarian tribes invaded.

The English historian Edward Gibbon called this period a time of decline and fall. In far off Palestine St. Jerome cried out in disbelief at Rome’s misfortunes. In Africa St. Augustine replied to the followers of Rome’s traditional religions, who said Christian weakness caused the city’s devastation, by writing his treatise “The City of God.”

Christians were not the cause the city’s misfortunes, the saint said; two loves are at work in the world building two cities. One love builds an evil city; Christianity builds the City of God, promoting love and justice, even in hard times .

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is honored in this church.  In 431, the Council  of Ephesus repudiated Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, for refusing to call her “Mother of God.” The title safeguarded Christian belief in the mystery of the Incarnation: Jesus is God and man, the council said. The Christian world saw Mary as a defender of Jesus, her son, who was both human and divine.

Devotion to Mary ran high in the Christian world after the council, and churches dedicated to her arose everywhere. In the city of Constantinople alone, 250 churches and shrines in her honor were built before the 8th century. Pictures, icons of Mary holding her divine child multiplied, especially in churches of the East, where they became objects of special devotion.

Mary’s title, Mother of God, does not make her a goddess, otherwise how could she have given birth to Christ who is truly human? Yet, she can be called Mother of God, because Jesus who is truly her human son is truly Son of God from all eternity as well.

St. Mary Major was not built just as a doctrinal statement, however, it also shored up the spirits of frightened Christians who lived in dangerous times. On its walls stories from the Old and New Testaments called for courage and hope. God’s plan does not lead to decline and fall, they say, but to triumph in Christ.

In this church, Mary is Jesus’ mother and closest disciple. This place is “a school of Mary” – to use a phrase of Pope John Paul II–who teaches the mysteries she has learned.

She is a leading figure in the sacred stories depicted here and is joined by a noticeable number of women from the Old and New Testaments who like her seem powerless, but are empowered by God.

The great 13th century mosaic in the church’s apse of Mary crowned by Jesus Christ as heaven’s queen proclaims God’s triumph in her, but also his triumph in the church as well. She is taken up to heaven “to be the beginning and pattern of the church in its perfection, and a sign of hope and comfort for your people on their pilgrim way.” (Preface of the Assumption)

It shouldn’t surprise us that many of the mysteries in which Mary had a special role were first celebrated  here as liturgical feasts. The Christmas liturgy, especially the midnight Mass on December 25th ,  began in this church  in the 5th century and spread to other churches of the west. Early on, a replica of the cave under the church of the Nativity at Bethlehem, the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, was constructed here. After the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land in the 7th century,  Christian refugees placed relics here purported to be from the crib that bore the Christ Child and relics of St.Matthew, an evangelist who told the story of Jesus birth.

Besides the Christmas liturgy, other great Marian feasts, such as her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, developed their liturgical forms in this church.

Built on a hill where all could see it, near Rome’s eastern walls so often threatened by barbarian armies, St. Mary Major affirms Christianity’s ultimate answer to its enemies. It is not military might, but the power of faith and love that triumphs in the end.

Visiting St.Mary Major

The church’s 18th century façade was built by the popes to enhance the appearance of this  important church at a time when many visitors, especially  from England and Germany, were traveling to Rome on the Grand Tour to visit its classical and religious sites.

The church’s interior, with its splendid 5th century mosaics along the upper part of the nave, retains its original form better than any other of the major basilicas of Rome.

The Sistine Chapel at the right hand side of the nave was built to house a silver reliquary with relics of the crib brought from the Holy Land in the 8th century. Two popes, Sixtus V and Pius V are buried there.

The Borghese Chapel at the left hand side of the nave honors the ancient icon of the Virgin and Child,”Salus populist Romani”, that Roman Christians have reverenced for centuries. A reproduction of the icon is a nice remembrance to bring home.

The magnificent 13th century mosaic in the apse of the basilica presents the Coronation of Mary in heaven. It’s surrounded by 5th century mosaics depicting scenes from the birth of Jesus and the life of Mary.

Website:

http://www.vatican.va/various/sm_maggiore/index_en.html

The Birth of John the Baptist

June 23, three months after the angel announces to Mary that Elizabeth is six months pregnant (March 25) John the Baptist is born.

From his birth John the Baptist was destined, not to follow Zachariah his father as a priest in the temple, but to go into the desert to give himself solely into God’s hands to be readied to welcome the Messiah, Jesus Christ. John is the last of the Jewish prophets, the first to recognize Jesus, the only saint whose birth and death are celebrated in our church calendar.

It may have changed, but there’s an interesting Sunday walk in Rome I’d recommend.  Go out the city gate at the Porta di San Sebastiano and walk south along one of the oldest roads in the world, the Via Appia, to the catacombs and church of San Sebastiano. Outside the city gates, you’re in what the ancient Romans called the “limes,” the limits, the world beyond the city, a different world altogether.

To the ancient Romans the “limes”  meant the end of civilized, reasonable life. No place to live, they thought. Get where you’re going as soon as you can. “Speed limit” comes from the word. Go beyond the limit and you can lose your life.

Few people today are usually on that road, deserted fields all around. The only sound  you can hear is the sound of your own breathing and your footsteps.

The last line of St. Luke’s gospel for today’s feast says of John:

“The child grew and become strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.”

How did John become strong in a desert? Centuries before, God led the Jews from Egypt into the desert. With no map or provisions they went into a world unknown. Yet they were in the hands of God, who became their strength.

Most of us stay within our limits; we don’t go to live in physical deserts. Yet, try as we may to avoid them, we face them anyway in things we didn’t expect, like sickness, or death, or separation, or divorce, or the loss of a job, or lost friends or lost places we know and love. The desert’s never far from any of us.

The Via Appia brings you to the catacombs, the great underground tunnels where the early Christians buried their dead. They  buried them there, I think,  not to hide them, but because this place was an image of a new unknown world.  The “limes,”  marked the end of this life and foreshadowed a new life. The dead no longer belonged in the city; they were going to  a new city.

Life holds its doubts, fears, uncertainty. But we don’t face limits alone. In the “limes” God alone has you in his hands. God gives you strength and brings you where you’re meant to be. God is there.  God is there.

Readings for the Feast:

Like other ancient church feasts, the Nativity of John the Baptist is tied to cosmology. John’s birth coincides with the summer solstice. He begins to decrease to make way for the one who will increase. The Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist is celebrated by the Orthodox Church June 24.

Birth of John the Baptist. Orthodox Church of America.

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St. Justin, Philosopher and Martyr (c.100-165 AD)

Justin-Martyr
Justin Martyr

We need Christians today like St. Justin, the 2nd century philosopher we remember June 1. “We need to make our teaching known,” he said. Still true today.

In Justin’s time, philosophers were the mentors and teachers of Roman society and were welcomed in the forum and private homes of the Roman world. St. Paul addressed them in Athens with limited success.

Born in Nablus in Palestine of Greek parents, Justin studied all the philosophers of his time in Alexandria, Athens and Ephesus. It may have been in Ephesus around the year 130 that he encountered Christianity when, walking along the seashore, he met an old man who told him the human heart could never be satisfied by Plato for “the prophets alone announced the truth.”

“After telling me these and other things…he went away and I never saw him again, but a flame kindled in my soul, filling me with love for the prophets and the friends of Christ. I thought about his words and became a philosopher..” (Dialogue 8)

Justin was influenced, not only by Christian teaching, but also by the example of Christians he met:

“I liked Plato’s teaching at first and enjoyed hearing evil spoken about Christians, but then I saw they had no fear of death or other things that horrify, and I realized they were not vicious or pleasure-loving at all.” (Apology 2,12)

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Ruins of the Roman Forum

s a philosopher Justin championed the cause of Christians who were increasingly being attacked by society. Donning a philosopher’s cloak he taught and wrote in Rome about the year 150 AD. He was a new kind of Christian, a Christian philosopher engaging Roman society on its own terms. He gave Christianity a Roman face and voice.

Justin defended Christians against the charge they were atheists and enemies of the Roman state. Christians were good citizens, he wrote, who pray for Rome, though they don’t worship in temples, who had no statues of gods or who did not participate in the religious rites of the state.  Justin’s writings give us a unique picture of 2nd century Christianity and early Christian worship.

In his “Dialogue with Trypho, the Jew” Justin offered the traditional Christian defense of Christianity to a Jewish antagonist. The Jewish prophets predicted the coming, the death and resurrection of Jesus, Justin argues.

In the documents of Vatican ii, Justin is recognized as an early example of Christian ecumenism. (Evangelium Nuntiandi 53) Through the Word of God all things came to be, he said.  The Word became flesh in Jesus Christ, but Justin linked the biblical Word to the Logos of the philosophers. “Seeds of the Word” were scattered throughout the world, Justin claimed. Every human being possesses in his mind a seed of the Word, and so besides the prophets of the Old Testament, pagan philosophers like Heraclitus, Socrates and Musonius lead us to Jesus Christ, Justin said. (Apology 1,46)

A prolific writer and teacher, Justin was an early Christian intellectual using his talents to promote his faith, Unfortunately only three of his writings come down to us. Other Christian intellectuals followed him, using the tools of philosophy to dialogue with the Greco-Roman world.

Finally, rivals in Rome pressed charges against Justin as an enemy of the state and he was  brought before a Roman judge along with six companions. Sentenced to death, they were beheaded probably in the year 165 AD. The official court record of their trial  still survives.

The Ethiopian Eunuch

Philip eunuch

Readings
Rembrandt’s biblical subjects are always interesting. They say as a child he used to sit with his mother while she prayed and look at the illustrations in her prayerbook. All his life the painter was attracted to the bible. Even without a commission, he’d sketch a biblical story that caught his eye.

Here’s the Ethiopian eunuch–our reading from Acts for today– kneeling and looking intently at the stream of water, waiting to be baptized by Philip the deacon. He’s been profoundly moved by the story he’s been told.

His servant stands behind him holding his rich outer garments. He’s the queen’s treasurer, don’t forget. An imposing guard on horseback, armed to the teeth, maybe an Ethiopian security agent, looks on. The rest of his retinue stand back, maybe puzzled by it all and anxious to get on their way on the long trip home from Jerusalem.

Like Zacchaeus, another rich man Luke recalls, the Ethiopian sees something greater than riches in Jesus and the water promising life.

Though visibly absent, the Holy Spirit who orchestrated this scene is here too. .

How does it all turn out, we wonder? When they get home, does the eunuch get sacked because the security agent turns him in for foolish behavior? Does the servant who watched the baptism become a follower of Jesus too? Did the eunuch tell the Queen the story of Jesus? Did he ever get back to Jerusalem again?

Luke is a wonderful story-teller. In his day Ethiopia was the end of the world, and so the gospel reaches there. Luke is a wonderful story-teller, and Rembrandt is too.

April 18-24 : the Easter Season:The Long Day

www.usccb.org   (Readings for the Easter Season)

Weekday Readings for Easter Week

Monday: Acts 2:14; Matthew 28,8-15
Tuesday: Acts 2, 36-41; John 20,11-18
Wednesday: Acts 3,1-19; Luke 24, 13-35
Thursday: Acts 3,11-36 Luke 24, 35-48
Friday Acts 4,1-12 John 21,1-14
Saturday Acts 4, 13-21 Mark 16,9-15

The gospel readings this week recall the Easter appearances of Jesus to his disciples. The Acts of the Apostles, the continuation of St. Luke’s Gospel and an important reading in the Easter season,  describes how the first witnesses guided by the Holy Spirit, gave testimony and were received.  Luke describes the beginnings of our church and also offers an insight into our church  today.

The gospels for the Octave of Easter describe the appearances of Jesus to the first witnesses, Mary Magdalene, Peter and John, the Emmaus disciples, the women at the tomb, Thomas, and the disciples from Galilee who came up with him to Jerusalem.

In our readings from Acts on Monday, the witnesses begin to speak. Peter is the first. Just as it was with Jesus, his words are accompanied by a sign from God. The crippled man, a temple regular whom everyone knows, is cured by Peter and John as they come to the temple to pray. He becomes one of those who follow Peter and listen to him. He will be a sign that’s contradicted. The temple leaders refuse to credit him as a sign. (Acts, Wednesday to Friday)

From its beginnings in Jerusalem the church gradually spreads into the Roman world, incorporating gentiles, non-Jews, and eventually reaching Rome itself. Believers in the Risen Christ who give their testimony and signs that accompany their witness cause its growth.  

Morning and Evening Prayers here. Week I, Sunday readings all week.

Children’s Prayers here.