A Great Cloud of Witnesses

On June 10, 2009, I published a post about our first weekly saint, St. Columba.  Since then, the list has grown considerably.  Most of them get the big ST, but not all.  The principle has been the examination of the lives and teachings of those who have gone before us.  Not all Christians of interest get the big ST.

We have looked at ancient, mediaeval, and post-mediaeval (‘modern’) Christians.  We have looked at Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and one Ethiopian Orthodox.  Apostolic men stand alongside poets who shake hands with mystics and martyrs.  All of these people have lived lives for Christ, and I hope that all of them can help bring us nearer to Christ by their example and teaching.

My selection has sometimes been from the Church Calendar.  Sometimes it has started there, as with Edmund James Peck (see in the list) and then extended by association; following Peck I wrote about other missionaries to the Arctic.  Sometimes they are chosen because I am reading about them or studying their work.

Often, if you have been following these weekly saints, you will have noticed that I give a brief biography of the saint, but not always.  Sometimes I offer a meditation on some aspect of the saint’s life and teaching.  Sometimes I ponder how best we might be able to honour or learn from a particular saint.  I hope these have been a blessing and will continue to bless!  Enjoy!

There are no women.  This is too bad.  I should fix this.  I meant to St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland, when her feast rolled on by, but posted about no saint that week.  She and others shall make their way into the saints for 2011.  Here are the Weekly Saints thus far:

St. Joseph the Carpenter

Pope St. Leo the Great (here & here)

St. John of the Cross

St. Ambrose of Milan

St. Andrew the Apostle

St. Albert Lacombe

St. John the Baptist

St. Thomas the Apostle

St. Matthias the Apostle

St. Boniface

St. Augustine of Canterbury

St. Anthony of Padua

Emperor Constantine the Great

St. Athanasius

Dante Alighieri

St. George the Dragonslayer

George MacDonald

Thomas Cranmer

St. Cuthbert

St. Gregory of Nyssa

John Wesley (here & here)

St. Polycarp of Smyrna

St. Valentine

St. Antony the Great

St. Jean de Brebeuf

St. Francis of Assisi

Hans Egede

St. Juvenaly of Alaska

Edmund James Peck

St. John of Damascus

Abba Giyorgis Saglawi

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Maximilian Kolbe

CS Lewis

St. Alban the Martyr

Sts. Peter and Paul

St. Basil the Great

St. Columba


The Cult of the Cross 1

A while ago, I posted a blog about the origins of the sign of the Cross here.  The post was fairly innocuous — a few quotations from the Fathers about making the sign of the Cross and the power that the Cross has over demons with another from Martin Luther thrown in for good measure (if Protestants don’t trust the Fathers, they might trust Luther).  At the close, I remarked upon the lack of popularity the sign of the Cross has with Protestants.

The version imported to Facebook received the following comment:

It has likely lost favour with Protestants because the act of signing yourself with the cross has no biblical basis. Venerating wooden crosses and believing that the sign of the cross holds ‘magic power’ is dishonouring to Christ. It is by the shedding of Christ’s blood that we are saved, by his death and resurrection that the penalty for our sins is paid – it is not by the piece of wood that Christ was nailed to. The cross as an object holds no power and to worship it is idolatry. We should look to Jesus, the person, not to the object upon which he was killed.

When done properly, veneration of the Cross operates in a manner similar to all symbolic action, even more similar to the use of icons (but Protestants aren’t often fond of those, either).*  When I look upon a cross, or make the shape of one over my body, I am not thinking, “This t-shape will save me,” or “That piece of wood/bronze/silver/stone is worthy of my worship.”  Rather, the Cross becomes a window to a great spiritual truth.  It is a vehicle for the imagination and the reason and emotions to be drawn back through history to the great moment of Time when the timeless, deathless One entered Time and died.

A cross is a kind of recapitulation of the one, unrepeatable historical event of the Crucifixion of the King of Glory.  The death of Christ my God is made real to me as I contemplate the Cross.  The benefits of his passion are brought to me as I behold the crossed bits of wood hanging in my prayer area, the ornamented fragment of silver I wear around my neck, the shining brass at so many Anglican churches, the stained glass at St. Alban’s in Ottawa.

These benefits are not made real simply by the presence of a piece of wood, but through receiving the benefits of the historical Crucifixion through the contemplation of the object before me by faith in Christ our God.  Faith is the key ingredient, and that Faith lies in the One Who hung and died, the One Who loves me most.

It strikes me as a natural event that Christian worship would include veneration of the Cross, art of the Crucifixion, Crucifixes on necks and walls, bare crosses on necks and walls, films of the Passion, plays of the Passion, poetry about the Cross, and what ultimately could be called the “cult” of the Cross.

Given what I’ve said above, I do not believe that a cult (cultus) of the Cross is a bad thing.  Kissing crosses, parading crosses, meditating with crosses, kneeling before crosses, prayers recalling the Cross — these are not bad things.  They are a reminder not of a piece of wood that may or may not have been found by St. Helena in the fourth century but of the salvation of the world wrought upon one such Cross by our Saviour and Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ.

“All this is well and good,” you may say, thoroughly unconvinced, no doubt.  “What about the Bible?”  We’ll get to that next time.

*Amusing slip of the tongue from a friend referring to the statue of St. Alban the Martyr of which I am fond, “So, you really like the idols, don’t you?”

The Saint of Last Week: St. Alban the Martyr

Last week’s saint was to be St. Alban the Martyr.  So you get him today instead.  I am a big fan of St. Alban.

St. Alban holds the distinction of being the first British martyr.  According to the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he was martyred under Diocletian, c. 305.   The following is pretty much from memory; correct me if I’m wrong.

Alban was converted when he gave refuge to a priest during the persecution.  While the priest was staying with him, he observed this Christian at prayer and was converted to the Faith and then baptised by him.  When the soldiers came to arrest the priest, Alban dressed in the priest’s clothes, so they took him instead.  Having gone before the magistrate — who, if I remember aright, was sacrificing to demons at the time — the ruse was found out.  Nevertheless, he refused to make the necessary sacrifice and was condemned to death.  I imagine the sacrifice was burning incense to the Emperor.

As the soldiers were marching him to the place of execution, for some reason they couldn’t use the bridge.  Alban was so prepared to stand before the Judgement Seat of Christ that, like Moses, Joshua, or Elijah, he parted the waters of the river and continued on to the place of his earthly death.  His first executioner was converted by the miracle and refused to behead this holy man.  He was condemned to death also.  The second executioner’s eyes proceeded to fall out of his head when he did the wicked deed — much to the delight of mediaeval illuminators.  And where Alban’s head fell, there did a spring bubble up.

Alban has been a part of my life for many years.  My father was rector of St. Alban’s Anglican Church in Brooks, Alberta, when I was born.  I was thus baptised at St. Alban’s.  St. Alban’s martyrdom was accordingly listed in the events on my dad’s timeline of church history during confirmation class (although by then we were at a different parish).  In university, I was blessed to attend St. Alban the Martyr Anglican Church in Ottawa.  Then I was married at St. Alban’s in 2007.  All that remains is to find a St. Alban’s for me to attend at the hour of my death so that I may have my funeral at St. Alban’s.

Oh yes—and whilst in university, the martyr would occasionally grow restless.  My friends and I would oblige him by taking his statue from the church around the city and getting some photos with him.  He visited the pubs with us, went to class, saw the Parliament Buildings, attended my wedding.

Finally, let us reflect on St. Alban and see what we can learn from his tale.  Certainly we learn that Christ can use even the observation of a believer at prayer to enact His work of saving grace in people’s lives.   We should not be awkward about praying or uncomfortable mentioning our prayer lives to those around us.  Second, we see that we should carry ourselves with bravery.  This saint went bravely and eagerly to his martyrdom.  Perhaps you doubt tales of miraculous river crossings, eyes popping out of heads, springs rising up where bits of saints land.  Nevertheless, we should not be ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone!  Let us be emboldened by St. Alban the Martyr — not to the point of insensitive spiritual bullying, but to the point of clear, unabashed statements of what we believe as followers of the Most High God.

St. Alban’s feast day is June 22 by the BCP calendar.  He is much remembered and revered by Anglicans because he is England’s first martyr.  Thus, there were 9 parishes dedicated to him in England in “ancient times”.