Saint Agatha, Virgin Martyr

Today’s readings

As is true for many, or perhaps most, of the virgin martyrs, we know almost nothing about Saint Agatha, other than the fact that she was martyred in Sicily during the persecution of Decius in the third century. Legend has it that Agatha was arrested as a Christian, tortured and sent to a house of prostitution to be mistreated. She was preserved from being violated, and was later put to death. When Agatha was arrested, the legend says, she prayed: “Jesus Christ, Lord of all things! You see my heart, you know my desires. Possess all that I am—you alone. I am your sheep; make me worthy to overcome the devil.” And in prison, she said: “Lord, my creator, you have protected me since I was in the cradle. You have taken me from the love of the world and given me patience to suffer. Now receive my spirit.”

The stories of the early virgin martyrs like Saint Agatha do two things. First, they remind us of the unsurpassed greatness of a relationship with Christ. If they could witness to Christ when it would have been so much easier—and life-saving—to turn away, then how can we turn away from God in the trying moments of our own lives, those trials which pale in comparison to the martyrdom they suffered? But even those relatively minor sufferings which we may bear can be the source of our salvation. We should look to the saints like Agatha to intercede for us that we may patiently bear our sufferings and so give honor and glory to God. Second, these stories always point to Christ. Even though we could get caught up in honoring a saint who stood fast for the faith to death, still that same saint would have us instead be caught up in honoring Christ, the one who was their hope and salvation.

Saint Agatha’s life is a participation in our Lord’s call to take up our cross. She was joined inseparably to Christ in both her virginity and her martyrdom. Her example calls us to join ourselves to Christ inseparably as well, in whatever way we may be called upon to do it. May our prayer in good times and bad always be the same as that of Saint Agatha: “Possess all that I am—you alone.”

Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyr

Today we celebrate the feast day of Saint Agnes, a virgin and martyr of the Church. She is thought to have lived and died in the third century, but little is really known of her life. She is mentioned in the first Eucharistic Prayer in the list of saints: “Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and all the saints.”

What is known about Saint Agnes might not be one hundred percent factual, but it is instead meant to foster our own lives of holiness and dedication to the Lord. Legend tells us that Agnes was a young girl, probably twelve or thirteen years old, and very beautiful. Many young men longed for her, lusted after her, really, and one such man, having looked at her lustfully, lost his eyesight. But his sight was restored when Agnes herself prayed for him.

Because of her dedication to Christ, she refused the advances of the men who lusted after her. And one such man, having been refused, reported her to the government for being a Christian. She was arrested and confined in a house of prostitution, and was eventually put to death, although the method of her death is unclear. She was buried near Rome in a catacomb that was then named in her honor, and Constantine’s daughter later built a basilica in her honor.

Saint Ambrose wrote of her in his discourse on virginity, saying: “This is a virgin’s birthday; let us follow the example of her chastity. It is a martyr’s birthday; let us offer sacrifices; it is the birthday of holy Agnes: let men be filled with wonder, little ones with hope, married women with awe, and the unmarried with emulation. It seems to me that this child, holy beyond her years and courageous beyond human nature, receives the name of Agnes [which is the Greek word for “pure”] not as an earthly designation but as a revelation from God of what she was to be.”

May the intercession of Saint Agnes lead us all to a reclaiming of virtue and holiness, and above all, an uncompromising love for Christ.

Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist

Today’s readings

“He saw and believed.” The “other” disciple, often called the “beloved” disciple or the disciple “whom Jesus loved,” is Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist, the one we celebrate today. Saint John had a very special relationship with Christ. He wasn’t as zealous and boisterous as Peter could be, but he had a faith as strong as Peter’s in his own way. His was a faith that observed and processed and believed. His was a faith that grew quietly, as he made connections between what Jesus prophesied and what came to pass. It’s no wonder that when he stood at the tomb, “he saw and believed.”

In Saint John’s writings, the theme of love is almost overwhelming. We hear that in today’s first reading, from his first letter. That love is bound up in the whole theme of fleshly existence. John proclaims that because God loved the world so much, he could not bear to be apart from us or aloof from our nature. Instead, he took on our fleshly existence, this body that can so often fail us, can so often turn to sin and degradation, can so often lead us in the wrong direction. Taking on that flawed human flesh, he redeemed it for glory. Through the Incarnation, God proclaims once and for all that we have been created good, that we have been created in love, and that nothing can ever stand in the way of the love God has for us.

Saint John’s preaching of love and the goodness of our created bodies is a preaching that has a very special place in the celebration of Christmas. It was because of that love that God had for us, a love that encompasses our bodies and our souls, that he came to live among us and take flesh in our world. His most merciful coming was completely part of his loving plan for our salvation. That’s the message Saint John brings us on his feast day today, and throughout this celebration of Christmas.

Saint Lucy, Virgin Martyr

In every age, young people have the difficult task of remaining pure. Some ignore the task, but some take it up at great personal cost. This was true of Saint Lucy, who desired to remain pure because of her commitment to Christ. She was born of noble parents in Sicily around the year 283. Her father died early in her life, and so she was dependent on her mother. She consecrated her virginity to God and sought to renounce worldly possessions in favor of caring for the poor. Her mother, after suffering from a hemorrhage for several years, decided to make a pilgrimage to Catania, to see the relics of St. Agatha. She was indeed cured of her disease, and in her joy consented to Lucy’s desire to give greatly to the poor.

But that generosity, probably mixed with frustration over her commitment to virginity before marriage, was viewed with great skepticism by her unworthy suitor, who denounced her as a Christian to the Governor of Sicily. She was condemned to a life of prostitution, but prayer rendered her immovable and she could not be dragged off to the house of ill repute! At that point, logs were piled around her and a fire was set, which had no effect on her at all. She was finally put to death with a sword and suffered martyrdom for her dedication to Christ.

As one of the prominent figures of Advent, St. Lucy points the way to the coming Christ. The details of her story have been disputed, however the point of the story is not to provide a historical record, but rather a spiritual record. Her commitment to Christ provided a rich and unobstructed pathway for the entrance of her Lord into her heart.

We too have challenges along the way to Christ. We might not be called to give our lives rather than forsake our virginity or even our belief in Christ, but we are called to lay down our lives to cover the rough places in the road so that others can come to find Him. Along the way, we are encouraged by great saints like Agatha and Lucy. Every single one of them points us in the right direction: to Christ our God who comes to be incarnate among us in every age.

Saint Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Today’s readings

While he was still a catechumen, St. Ambrose was chosen as bishop of Milan and was consecrated on December 7, 374. Ambrose was a classically educated man, a revered Scripture Scholar and a solid preacher. It is his preaching that in some ways influenced St. Augustine to convert to Catholicism, and it was Ambrose who baptized Augustine.

Ambrose was a man not just of great learning, but also great courage. He strongly defended the Church against attacks by the Arians, and also by the empire. Ambrose specifically admonished Emperor Theodosius for the massacre of 7,000 innocent people. The emperor did public penance for his crime.

St. Ambrose’s sermons and his works tell us that he was a very educated man who was willing to roll up his sleeves and get involved in the issues of the day. He practiced what he preached and he was not shy about calling people to repentance. He was able to influence learned men such as Saint Augustine, and won many converts to the Church.

Isaiah says in our first reading this morning “Those who err in spirit shall acquire understanding, and those who find fault shall receive instruction.” Thanks be to God the Church has had men like Saint Ambrose to provide instruction and help people come to understanding in the ways of the Gospel.

Saint Josaphat, Bishop and Martyr

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate the memorial of Saint Josaphat, who was born in what is now Poland to Orthodox parents. He later became a Basilian monk, and was chosen bishop of Vitebsk, in what is now Russia. His task was to bridge the divide between the Roman and Orthodox Church, but this was not easy, because the Orthodox monks did not want union with Rome; they feared interference in liturgy and customs. But over time, using synods and other instruction, he was able to win many of the Orthodox in that area to the union.

But the fight was far from over. A dissident faction of the church was formed, and they fomented opposition to Josaphat. Eventually the mob murdered him and threw his body into a river. The body was recovered and is now buried in St. Peter’s basilica. Josaphat is the first saint of the Eastern Church to be canonized by Rome.

Josaphat had an insurmountable task to accomplish. But he had faith that God would give him what he needed to accomplish the mission. He knew well Jesus’ message in today’s Gospel: that the smallest seed of faith has power to uproot trees and plant in places where nothing like faith grows.  In just the same way, a small seed of faith on our part can cause awesome growth in improbable places, if we let it.

The Solemnity of All Saints

Today’s readings

Today, the Church militant – which is all of us – rejoice with the Church triumphant – which is all the Saints in heaven – because of the great glory of God. This glory they can already see; we hope to see it one day. And we will see it if, please God, we perfect ourselves and grow in holiness to the point that we too become saints for the Kingdom of God.

But I think many of us bristle at the very idea of becoming a saint. We might even throw up our hands in some conversations and say something like, “hey, I’m no saint…” Saints are those people in elaborate paintings or statues, who lived lives that we find very remote. Saints just seem out of touch and sainthood seems way past our grasp.

But that’s all wrong. We were all made by God to come back to him one day: we were, in fact, made for heaven. Becoming a saint is the vocation of all of us. That’s what we were put on earth to do. Because the most important thing we know about saints is that they are definitely in heaven, which is our true home, and that’s where we were meant to return some day. To get there, we ourselves have to become more like them. We have to grow in holiness and make our reliance on God’s grace and mercy the central focus of our lives.

It may help to know that most, if not all, of the saints struggled with holiness too. Think about Saint Paul himself: he began his career by persecuting Christians and we know that he had a hand in the stoning of Saint Stephen. Or think about Saint Augustine who was an intellectual man who disdained Christianity, until his mother’s prayers caught up with him. Or we might think even more recently of Saint Teresa of Calcutta who experienced a very dark time in her life when she could not even communicate with Jesus. But Jesus was still there and led her to heaven.

And so this feast in honor of all the saints is an important one. We celebrate those saints we know of like Mary and Joseph, Peter and Paul, Patrick and Dominic and so many others. But we also celebrate the ones we don’t know of; people whose faith and goodness only God knows. And most importantly, in celebrating them, we vow to become like them: close to Jesus who leads those who believe in him past the gates of death to the glory of heaven, where our reward will be great, as Jesus says in the Gospel today. On that day, we will indeed rejoice and be glad!

St. Isaac Jogues, St. John de Brébeuf & Companions, Martyrs

St. Isaac and St. John were among eight missionaries who worked among the Huron and Iroquois Indians in the New World in the seventeenth century. They were devoted to their work and were accomplishing many conversions. The conversions, though, were not welcomed by the tribes, and eventually St. Isaac was captured and imprisoned by the Iroquois for months. He was moved from village to village and was tortured and beaten all along the way. Eventually he was able to escape and return to France. But zeal for his mission compelled him to return, and to resume his work among the Indians when a peace treaty was signed in 1646. His belief that the peace treaty would be observed turned out to be false hope, and he was captured by a Mohawk war party and beheaded.

St. John worked among the Iroquois and ministered to them amid a smallpox epidemic. As a scholastic Jesuit, he was able to compose a catechism and write a dictionary in the Huron language, which made possible many conversions. He was eventually captured, tortured and killed by the Iroquois.

St. Isaac, St. John and their companions inspire us to take up the mission: to make Christ known, relying on the treasure of grace he brings us and promises us, and accepting that this world’s glory is not worth our aspirations. This will not be easy, of course, in a culture that largely rejects the promises of heaven in its pursuit of instant gratification. But perhaps the witness of these French Jesuits would help us to bravely witness to the Truth with the same zeal for the mission that they did. Our mission may not be to a culture so different to us as the Indian cultures were to these men, but that mission is none the less vital to the salvation of the world.

Saint Thérèse of Liseaux, Virgin and Doctor of the Church

Today, we celebrate the memorial of Saint Thérèse of Liseaux, the Little Flower, who was one who sought to proclaim the Lord in every simple act of her life.  Saint Thérèse had a child-like faith: child-like, that is, in her trusting obedience to God’s will, even in the smallest of matters.  She truly believed that small acts of faith and love would work wondrous miracles for the Kingdom of God.

Thérèse was a very sickly young lady.  A childhood illness left her weak for the rest of her life, and during her last year on earth, she was dying of tuberculosis.  She entered the convent at the age of fifteen, and when she died she was just twenty-four years old.  Yet in that short span of time she wrote much about her faith and encouraged others to embrace a simplicity of life and a dedicated obedience to God’s will.  In 1997, Pope John Paul II named her a Doctor of the Church, one of just three women to have that special title.

Saint Thérèse was not one who sought the limelight.  She did not seek to make a name for herself or become anything other than what God wanted her to be.  In her view, even the most menial tasks in the convent could be transformed into great acts of love.  And her preference for hidden sacrifice did indeed convert souls.  Saint Thérèse is one of the most beloved saints in the Church.  Her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, is read and loved throughout the world.

Saint Thérèse’s rule of life, doing little things with great love, is one that can be such a freeing experience for all of us.  Today, we pray that we too can find joy in the routine and menial parts of our day, doing them with great love for the glory of the Kingdom of God.

Saint Matthew, Apostle

Today’s readings

How wonderful for us to celebrate the feast of St. Matthew. Because Matthew was qualified to be a disciple of Jesus in much the same way that we are qualified to be disciples of Jesus-which is to say, not at all. Matthew was a tax collector, working for the Roman occupation government. His task was to exact the tax from each citizen. Whatever he collected over and above the tax was his to keep. Now the Romans wouldn’t condone outright extortion, but let’s just say that they weren’t overly scrupulous about what their tax collectors were collecting, as long as they got paid the proper tax.

So Matthew’s reception among the Jews was quite like they might accept the plague. The Pharisees were quick to lump men like Matthew with sinners, and despised them as completely unworthy of God’s salvation. But Jesus had different ideas.

“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.

Go and learn the meaning of the words,

I desire mercy, not sacrifice.

I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

Which brings us back to us. How wonderful for us to celebrate the call of a man who was anything but worthy. Because he was called, we know that our own calls are authentic, unworthy as we may be. Just as the Matthew spread the Good News by the writing and preaching of the Gospel, so we are called to spread the Good News to everyone by the witness of our lives. Matthew’s call is a day of celebration for all of us sinners, who are nonetheless called to do great things for the Kingdom of God.