A Series of Related Commemorations

The calendar of commemorations in our new Prayer Book today lists three women: Lydia, Dorcus, and Phoebe. Normally, as you may be aware, only one commemoration per day is the norm. Sometimes if a group of people were martyred together they’ll share a date, and sometimes (even more rarely) a few people with similar legacies are remembered together. This “affinity group commemoration” phenomenon is mostly a feature of the Episcopalian calendar since 1979, though some rare examples of these entries have carried over into our calendar and/or can be found in other traditions also.

Just for one example, Lydia has been commemorated as a Saint in many traditions over the years, but her feast day varies widely. The Romans remember her on August 3rd, various Eastern churches commemorate her on March 27th, May 20th, or June 25th. Some Lutherans celebrate her on October 25th. We, with some other Lutherans and the Episcopalians, have her down for January 27th.

What is particularly interesting about this date for commemorating Lydia and Dorcus and Phoebe (since we don’t have clear traditions of when they died, which would be the normal date for a Saint’s Day) is that they are on Day Three of a three-day series of commemorations. January 25th is the Conversion of Saint Paul, January 26th is for Saints Timothy and Titus, and January 27th is for Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe. This string of remembrances is a real “Book of Acts Party”, I once joked, and makes a lot of sense. Together these six people form a sequence both historical and missiological:

  1. God calls Saul (eventually to be known as Paul) to faith in Christ
  2. Paul ordains ministers (Timothy and Titus) to continue his work
  3. More people convert (Lydia, Dorcus, Phoebe) and continue the advance of the kingdom

Thus this trio of celebrations is worth pointing out to our fellow church-goers as a biblical and liturgical reminder of the call of the Church to make disciples and grow. The different roles are important to note, because sometimes we assume that “mission” and “evangelism” is best done by professionals – or least by particular individuals with special zeal and drive. Saint Paul was an extraordinary individual, Timothy and Titus were bishops, they can be most inspiring but also very difficult to relate to. This is where the three women may come in helpful.

Lydia was a wealthy woman, who lived in Thyatira, in Roman Macedonia. She was essentially the first European convert to Christianity. She was already a “worshiper of God”, which means she was probably familiar with basic Jewish teachings and believed in the God of Israel, but (most importantly) “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” and she and her household were subsequently baptized. She heeded the Gospel, brought her family along, and then supported the ministry of Paul and his companions with her considerable means. Believing in the mission of the Gospel and supporting it with hospitality and finances is no small thing!

Dorcas, also named Tabitha, was a devout woman faithful in Christ and abundant in good works. Her ministry of providing for the poor and needy made her most beloved in her community and when she died many people showed St. Peter the clothing she had made for them, beseeching him to pray for her and raise her from the dead, which he did. Her resuscitation “became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.” Thus even though she did directly participate in “evangelistic outreach” as we might call it, her good deeds gave her a positive reputation that, when recognized by the Church, brought many to share the faith she proclaimed. The light of her good deeds was seen, and many others came to the Light as a result.

Phoebe, finally, is a person of some controversy in modern Christian circles. She is described as a “διάκονον” from which we have the word Deacon. Some argue she was a Deacon in the formal ordained sense, like the men in Acts 6. Some argue she was a Deaconess in the context of the Early Church’s practice: a non-ordained minister who assisted with the baptism of women and works of mercy in the community. Others take the word in its general sense – a “servant of the Church”. Whatever the precise interpretation of this word, we know that Phoebe was an active member of the Church at Cenchrae (probably a village near Corinth) who traveled to Rome, perhaps along with the letter that St. Paul had written to them. She was to be received “worth of the saints” and to be helped in whatever she might need, because she was a “patron of many” as well as of Paul himself. A patron indicates she probably was rich, like Lydia, and provided financial and/or hospitable support for the traveling apostles and the local church. As a woman of means, perhaps she was able to be active in other ways – supplying the church and the ministers, caring for the sick, bringing alms to the poor, or any number of other services for the cause of the Gospel.

So we remember today the great contribution of these three women; their service to the Gospel and the Church was incalculable and their names endure forever through the Scriptures and the liturgical calendar. It is helpful for us to commemorate people who made a great difference through seemingly “ordinary” means… maybe just maybe we can be inspired to spend and be spent for the cause of Christ, ourselves.

the Magnificat in the Prayer Book

Like the Benedictus, this is a Gospel Canticle drawn from Luke 1.  Where that canticle focuses on the work of salvation by Jesus Christ, especially as to be preached by John, this canticle focuses on the experience of salvation to be wrought by Jesus, particularly in line with the language of the Old Testament prophets.

Comments on the Text

In the text of this canticle, the Blessed Virgin Mary “magnifies” or “proclaims the greatness” of God, rejoicing in a litany of wonderful accomplishments that have been brought about by his hand.  The first five verses (as the Prayer Book prints it) are more personal.  She is a lowly handmaiden, regarded by the Lord, all generations will called her blessed for the great honor bestowed on her in becoming the mother of Jesus, God-in-the-flesh.  This special role granted to her in the course of salvation history magnifies her name, akin to how she magnifies God in her prayer.

Her observation “his mercy is on those who fear him” forms a transition from the first to the second half of the canticle.  With what comes before, she includes herself as one who fears God and been shown great mercy and grace, but her inclusion of “all generations” indicates that the entire world shall be blessed by the Son she then carried.

In the second half, Mary’s several “He has…” statements are easier to pray in the context of the Church’s worship after the fact, but form very much a groundbreaking text.  Worshipers can look back to the Cross and easily proclaim that God has shown his strength, scattered the proud, brought down the mighty, exalted the humble, and so forth.  And, although we can rightly celebrate this through Mary’s Canticle, the placement of these words before the birth of Jesus indicate that there is a Gospel to celebrate even then.  In the incarnation itself, God has begun the several reversals that these verses describe.  As the final verses sums them up, it is a matter of God bringing his ancient promises to fruition.  As far back as Abraham, the course of salvation history has been driving relentlessly toward the appearance of God’s Anointed One (or Messiah, or Christ) who finally appears in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Thus, in the evening, the worshiper celebrates the faithfulness of God who keeps his promises and has initiated a great reversal of worldly values and powers in the provision of his Son.

On a secondary note, this Canticle also provides the worshiper with the primary biblical example of what it is to venerate Mary.  All generations will call her blessed, God has regarded her lowliness, he has magnified her.  And all this is celebrated in the context of her role in God’s work of redemption: his ancient promises see their answer in her womb, in accordance with her faithfulness.  Where, with most Saints, the Church remembers their faith and works that point backwards in time to Christ, Mary’s faith and actions point to a present Christ.  She “received Jesus” in a more literal sense than anyone else – this is a blessed magnification that God has bestowed upon her, and the Church celebrates the work of the Lord in her.

History in the Prayer Books

This canticle has been a part of the Evening Prayer of the Church (or Vespers) at least since the 5th century Rule of Saint Benedict.  The Prayer Book tradition has maintained its position as the first canticle – the one read after the Old Testament lesson – excepting only the first American Prayer Book.  Although the Additional Directions for the Daily Office in the 1979 Book suggested more variable use of it, the primary text of the liturgy still held the Magnificat in its traditional place.

The classical Prayer Books appointed Psalm 98 as an alternative.  The first American Prayer Book appointed Psalm 98 and 92 instead of the Magnificat, and those two Psalms remained as options alongside the Magnificat in the subsequent two Prayer Books.

Who was St. Cyprian of Carthage?

There are several names that refer to early Christian Saints – John, Augustine, Clement, Theodore, Gregory, Basil, to name a few – so we generally have to give them suffixes to their names in order to distinguish them. Today’s commemoration in the calendar is one such example: St. Cyprian, from Carthage.

In many ways, Cyprian is the Augustine before Augustine. He was a Berber, a Roman African, born to a wealthy Pagan family, and he converted to Christianity at age 35. After his conversion he was ordained quickly, becoming the Bishop of Carthage roughly four years later. This was, perhaps understandably, a little controversial, but his actions in the ministry soon proved his sanctity-in-Christ. A wave of government oppression of the Church, called the Decian Persecution, swept through in the early 250’s, and Cyprian saw a lot of his flock cave in to the Roman demands to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods. Cyprian himself rode out much of that persecution in exile, believing it God’s will that he survive to shepherd his flock from a temporary distance, and be present to pick up the pieces when it was over, much like how the Apostles fled Jerusalem after the death of St. James, and how many Christians fled Jerusalem during the Roman-Jewish War culminating in the sack of 70 AD.

Needless to say, there was a controversy waiting for Cyprian when the dust settled: what do you do with the lapsi – the lapsed, who burned sacrifices to other gods? Cyprian’s initial demand was that they undergo public penance before being readmitted to Holy Communion, but a number of his earlier opponents thought this was too strict, and many priests took it upon themselves to invite people back under much more liberal conditions. As this controversy was brought to a local council, another party cropped up: a stricter group who argued that the lapsed could not repent and rejoin the church at all! The council stood with Cyprian, in between the too-liberal Novatus of Carthage and the too-strict Novatian of Rome.

As a pastoral and liturgical aside, this is insightful for us today, because we, too, see many lapsed Christians coming in and out of our churches these days. Do we admit them to Holy Communion without question? Or should we, as St. Cyprian ruled, call for public repentance of their wanderings from the Gospel before reinstating their place at the Holy Table? This is worth considering carefully, and we have resources in our Prayer Book to help us.

  • The Ash Wednesday exhortation explicitly mentions the ancient practice of public repentance.
  • The Exhortation in the Communion service warns us against unworthy reception of the Sacrament.
  • The Confirmation liturgy includes a variant for “Reaffirmation”, particularly for those who were previously confirmed, fell away, and have since returned.

It may well be that we have become too lax in our ministration of the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and need to re-learn, from the likes of St. Cyprian, what good Eucharistic discipline looks like.

This wrestling with the implications of the Gospel for those who fall away under persecution would return for St. Augustine of Hippo and the Donatists nearly 150 years later, though then it would be about the purported need for re-ordination, rather than readmission to Holy Communion. Cyprian was like an early Augustine in other ways too: his Latin writings were influential and beloved, his handling of controversy and good accord with other bishops was laudable. And they both saw disaster at the end of their lives. For Augustine, of course, it was the news of the sack of Rome and the arrival of barbarians at the gate of his own city. For Cyprian it was another round of government persecution, leading to his execution on 14 September 258.

The date of his commemoration isn’t so straight-forward, because 14 September has been taken by Holy Cross Day, forcing the Church calendar to shift St. Cyprian of Carthage to another day. Most Anglican calendars place him on an adjacent day – the 13th or 15th. The Roman Church has another observance (Our Lady of Sorrows) on the 15th, so they celebrate Cyprian on the 16th, and some other traditions follow suit.

Saint Augustine of Canterbury Day

May 26th is the commemoration of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, who is an immensely significant figure for Anglicans.  He was the first Archbishop of Canterbury.  He was the leader of a mission to re-evangelize the British Isles after the Anglo-Saxon invasion had pushed the old Celtic churches somewhat to the margins.  Sometimes today we romanticize Celtic Christianity, but it needs to be remembered that their unique traditions and style of spirituality did wane over time, and the land later to be known as England was not truly “won for Christ” for the long haul until Augustine’s second wave of evangelists beginning at the end of the 6th century.

St. Augustine had been sent by Pope Gregory the Great, and entrusted with the difficult task not only of evangelizing the warlike Saxon kings but also reconciling his new churches with the old Celtic ones.  It would be over 60 years later, at the Synod of Whitby, that the Anglo-Saxon Church finally settled a peaceful accord between the Augustinian churches and the Celtic churches.  In this sense, Augustine represents a sort of “catholicizing” influence on the English church, pulling local traditions more into alignment with the rest of the Church across the world.  I wrote about this last year, too.

By the way, much of what we know about Augustine and his mission, we owe to the Venerable Bede.  So it’s kind of fitting that their feast days are next to each other in this order!

The Venerable Bede

If you have an interest in medieval English history, Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England, or the now-ubiquitously-popular concept of “Celtic Christianity”, there is one giant of literature that you have to get to know: the Venerable Bede.  His body resides in Durham Cathedral and you can read a bit about him on their website if you like.  As that page notes, Bede’s “most famous work is The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the first ever written history of England.  Completed in 731, it is a key source for understanding early British history, details about St Cuthbert’s life and the arrival of Christianity.”

It is from his writings that we have the oldest-preserved poem in English, Cædmon’s Hymn (which I had to memorize in Anglo-Saxon and translate for an exam in college), and from his students we have another gem of a poem that he recited on his deathbed:

Before the journey that awaits us all,
No man becomes so wise that he has not need
to think out, before his going hence,
What judgment will be given to soul
after his death: of evil or of good.

He died 1,285 years ago tomorrow, but his commemoration day is today.  The reason for that is tomorrow is the commemoration of another saint, August of Canterbury, whose feast is traditionally of a higher “rank” than Bede’s.  Although the Prayer Book tradition only acknowledges two ranks of saints days (the red-letter days appointed with Collects and Lessons, versus the black-letter days listed in the calendar and left as optional commemorations) we still follow the old precedent of celebrating Augustine on May 26th and moving Bede up a day… and besides, it’s easiest to have just one saint per day.

But let’s go back to that poem.

It is, first of all, a reflection upon death and judgment.  It is not simply a momento mori (remembrance of death) like became popular in medieval piety over the centuries, but a remembrance of judgement and eternity.  No one should grow presumptuous (or worse, lethargic) about the state of one’s soul.  Before we die, we all must contemplate eternity, we all most think on our sinfulness and on God’s grace.  Bede does not say we should live in fear, as some accuse medieval Romanism of preaching, nor does he swing in the direction of easy-peasy pop-evangelicalism that focuses on God’s loving-kindness and tends to forget about our sinfulness.  He does not swerve in either direction, but stays simply in the middle: one must be mindful of judgment.

This poem navigates the balance between different sorts of biblical texts, such as:

  • Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28).
  • Judgement begins at the household of God (1 Peter 4:17).
  • They will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand (John 10:28).

I wish I knew more about Bede himself.  Hopefully I’ll make some time to his Ecclesiastical History in the coming year or two.  For now, though, this should be a good spiritual introduction to Bede’s sort of sober spirituality.