Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Kingdom of God: Thanksgiving, English Martyrs, and Ferguson

I, John, saw in heaven another sign, great and awe-inspiring:
seven angels with the seven last plagues,
for through them God’s fury is accomplished.

Then I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire.
On the sea of glass were standing those
who had won the victory over the beast
and its image and the number that signified its name.
They were holding God’s harps,
and they sang the song of Moses, the servant of God,
and the song of the Lamb:

“Great and wonderful are your works,
Lord God almighty.”
—Revelation 15:1-3b

In these final days of the Church Year, the daily Readings present images of plagues, persecution, and parousia. They certainly stand in stark contrast with the festive Thanksgiving spirit that we try to claim as a nation, even as families hurry through their holiday meals to rush out for Black Friday deals… on Thanksgiving.  

The mix of the end-of-times language and imagery presented by our liturgy and the abundance of Thanksgiving reflects the very real tensions that exist in each of our lives. We have much to be grateful for, but we live in an imperfect, often unjust world. But the imperfection and injustice are not the end of our story. We have hope in a God who is always guiding history and who has given each of us a role to play in the salvation of the world. 

November 26 marks the anniversary of the execution of two English martyrs: Blessed Hugh Taylor and Blessed Marmaduke Bowes. Little is known of these two men, who were beatified with 83 other martyrs from England, Scotland, and Wales in 1987. But, as I was reflecting on these two holy men, I was struck by how their witness captures the tensions of this time of year, especially in these days when so many in America are protesting unjust systems and government processes. 

Hugh Taylor, a priest, had been born in Durham, England, around the year 1559. Because of the deadly persecution of English Catholics under King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, he had studied for the priesthood at the English seminary in Reims, France. Ordained in 1584, he was immediately sent to work in secret among England’s recusant Catholics. 

Little more than a year later, he encountered Marmaduke Bowes. Bowes was a husband and father who had outwardly conformed to the laws that demanded that English Christians take part in the services of the government-sanctioned Church of England. It is unclear if Father Taylor had actually stayed in Bowes home, or if he had simply been given a drink at the door. 

A short time later, Taylor was arrested and, upon hearing the news, Bowes went to York to see if there was something he could do to help free the priest. As a result of his efforts, he too was thrown into prison. Together, Taylor and Bowes were hanged, drawn, and quartered in York on November 26, 1585. They were the first to lose their lives under the newly passed “Act Against Jesuits, Seminary Priests and Other Suchlike Disobedient Subjects.” This law made it high treason for any priest ordained since the first day of Elizabeth’s reign to return to or remain in England and Wales, and for anyone to harbor or help such a priest.
"Christ in Majesty"
Stained glass window by John Piper
St. John's Hospital, Litchfield, UK

When I think about those Christians who have lived during times of persecution, I often wonder if they thought of passages like those chosen for the end of the Church Year. In the Gospel for today (Wednesday of the 34th Week of Ordinary Time), we hear Jesus warning his disciples of coming persecution, but also assuring them: “You are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute… they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”

For those Christians, the dark days they lived through may have seemed to be the end of time—just like many people we know might compare the disturbing images in Scripture with terrible things happening in the world today. But, we often forget that the harsh images used in Jesus’ teachings and texts like the one from Revelation quoted above were originally intended to build up the suffering believers’ hope and trust in God’s ultimate triumph. God was with them, regardless of what they were experiencing. (And, of course, we can also think of those Christians who are suffering for their faith today, especially in the Middle East.)

As Sr. Katherine Howard, O.S.B., observed in a reflection on these readings: “Our world, our neighborhoods, and our own lives confront us with many deeply troubling events. People suffer oppression and violence, as does the earth and sea and all their creatures. Our faith, hope, and love are tested. The good news is that God’s reign of justice and love will triumph in Christ who is with us and in us bringing ‘the divine work to fruitful completion,’ as we pray in today’s Collect. Our part is to stay faithful in prayer and to live in such a way as to make this a reality” (from Give Us This Day, November 2014). 

We can look to the great saints of the past for inspiration and encouragement—including Blessed Marmaduke Bowes, who, like one of the righteous in this past Sunday’s Gospel, welcomed the thirsting Christ and offered him refreshment and rest. Jesus assures us that he will always be with us and whatever challenges and trials we might be experiencing, suffering and death will never have the final say.

This is an important lesson for us this Thanksgiving, especially as we watch the tragedy of Ferguson, Missouri, continue to unfold. For the grieving families and citizens of that city—and so many like it across our nation—this Thanksgiving will be marred by the darkness of grief, loss, anger, fear, and a sense of betrayal. Only time will tell how true justice can come from this sad situation. But, like Blessed John Thayer and Blessed Marmaduke Bowes, we must also place our trust in Providence, commending all things to God’s Wisdom, while doing our part  to help make the healing power of the Kingdom of God more present in every corner of our broken world.

In a letter written days before his last missionary journey, Blessed John Mazzuconi, a priest of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (P.I.M.E.) who was martyred in 1855 on Woodlark Island in Papua New Guinea, wrote these words: “I only know one thing: that God is good and that He loves me immensely. All the rest, calm and storm, danger and security, life and death, are nothing more than momentary and changing expressions of the eternal and unchanging love.”

These reflections should remind us that we always have reasons to give thanks for all the blessings we’ve been given. Even when the world seems to be spinning out of control or when it seems the darkness will prevail, we do not have to be afraid. “The Lord has made his salvation known: in the sight of the nations he has revealed his justice… Let the sea and what fills it resound, the world and those who dwell in it; / Let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains shout with them for joy. / Before the Lord, for he comes, for he comes to rule the earth; / He will rule the world with justice and the peoples with equity” (Psalm 98:3a, 7-9).

A prayer for the end of the Church Year +
Stir up the will of your faithful, we pray, O Lord,
that, striving more eagerly
to bring your divine work to fruitful completion,
they may receive in greater measure
the healing remedies your kindness bestows.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal,
Collect for the 34th Week of Ordinary Time)


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