Praised be Jesus Christ and Mary His Most Holy Mother! For our meditation of today I would like to continue to set before us the grace filled season of lent which will began on Ash Wednesday, February 18th.
The holy Season of Lent (Old English for spring) bids us to train and get into shape for spiritual combat. During this time we deny ourselves (or at least curtail) sensory pleasures and self-indulgence; increase our quality/quantity of prayer; and devote more time to good works and charity… all so that we may unite ourselves more closely to the Cross of Christ and have His strength to fight off the tempter – the ancient foe – who seeks to lure us away from God and eternal Life with Him.
In his commentary on Psalm 118, Bishop and Doctor of the Church St. Ambrose of Milan (340 - 397 A.D.) wrote about the daily battles of the Christian and how the strength of our blessed Lord helps us to daily conquer the devil:
As there are many kinds of persecution, so there are many kinds of martyrdom. Every day you are a witness to Christ. You were tempted by the spirit of fornication, but feared the coming judgment of Christ and did not want your purity of mind and body to be defiled: you are a martyr for Christ. You were tempted by the spirit of avarice to seize the property of a child and violate the rights of a defenseless widow, but remembered God’s law and saw your duty to give help, not act unjustly: you are a witness to Christ. Christ wants witness like this to stand ready, as Scripture says: Do justice for the orphan and defend the widow. You were tempted by the spirit of pride but saw the poor and the needy and looked with loving compassion on them, and loved humility rather than arrogance: you are a witness to Christ. What is more, your witness was not in word only but also in deed.
Who can give greater witness than one who acknowledges that the Lord Jesus has come in the flesh and keeps the commandments of the Gospel? One who hears but does not act, denies Christ. Even if he acknowledges Him by his words, he denies Him by his deeds. How many will say to Christ: Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy and cast out devils and work many miracles, all in Your Name? On that day He will say to them: Depart from me, all you evildoers. The true witness is one who bears witness to the commandments of the Lord Jesus and supports that witness by deeds.
How many hidden martyrs there are, bearing witness to Christ each day and acknowledging Jesus as the Lord! The Apostle knew this kind of martyrdom, this faithful witness to Christ. This is our boast, he said, the witness of our conscience. How many have borne witness in public but denied it in private! Do not believe every spirit, he said, but know from their fruits whom you should believe. Be faithful and courageous when you are persecuted within, so that you may win approval when you are persecuted in public. Even in those unseen persecutions there are kings and governors, judges with terrible power. You have an example in the temptation endured by the Lord.
In another place we read: Do not let sin be a king in your mortal body. You see the kings before whom you are made to stand, those who sit in judgment over sinners, where sin is in control. There are as many kings as there are sins and vices; it is before these kings we are led and before these we stand. These kings have their thrones in many hearts. But if anyone acknowledges Christ, he immediately makes a prisoner of this kind of king, and casts him down from the throne of his own heart. How shall the devil maintain his throne in one who builds a throne for Christ in his heart?
This past week we were all horrified at the beheading of the 21 Coptic Christians in Libya, These faithful were put to death by ISIS for confessing the name of Christ. Such an action has been repeated continuously throughout history. In fact the late Bishop Sheen wrote that God allows Islam to rise every 500 years so that the Church may be purified. These simple workmen now have the glory of the martyrs. We pray in the ancient Te Deum, Te martyrum candidatus Laudat exercitus…The white robed army of martyrs praises You! We may ask who are the Copts (members of the Coptic Church)?
The Copts are the ancient Egyptians, the descendants of the pharaohs. Unlike the majority of present day Egyptians, they are not ethnically Arabs. They speak a language different from Arabic and are in appearance very distinctive. They look like the ancient Egyptians. In fact the word Copt means Egyptian.
The Coptic Church was founded by St. Mark, the author of the second Gospel. He was the first Bishop of Alexandria. The present Patriarch of Alexandria (Pope Tawadros II) is the successor to St. Mark. The Coptic Church is called an Oriental Orthodox Church (along with the Armenian Church). They are monophysites that is they hold that Our Lord Jesus Christ had only one nature, a divine nature. In that their teaching is different from the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church which hold the ancient faith of Nicaea that Our Lord had two natures, the divine nature and human nature. He is one person, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, but has two natures. In simple terms, we may say Our Lord is one WHO (Person) but two WHATS, God and man. One of the great graces of my life was to have spent Easter 1996 in Egypt and with the Copts. At the time I was a priest student in Rome, so it was not a far journey to travel to Egypt. Their Churches (decorated with very colorful icons) and liturgy was most beautiful. Their liturgical language is unknown to anyone (including the priests who recite it) for they rightly understand that the Liturgy is the praise of God to whom everything is directed.
Some may know the beautiful Coptic Church of St. Mark’s on Woodbury Road in Woodbury. It was consecrated by Pope Tawadros predecessor, Pope Shenouda II in 1980. The Church has grown significantly over the years as persecution of Christians by Moslems in the Middle East has gown.
After the martyrdom of the Copts, ISIS proclaimed it would conquer Rome. Many of the pundits opined at what this could mean. It is actually the age old dream of Islam, to turn the Basilica of St. Peter into a pasture where cows will graze. Yes, these days in which we live are filled with the opportunity for penance and purification. Let us hope and pray that we will never see cows grazing on land on which stood the great basilica of the Prince of the Apostles. In fact, it was in 1571 that the great fleet of the Sultan set out to conquer Rome and was defeated at the battle of Lepanto on October 7th. We keep the Feast of Our Lady of Victory on that day.
The Moslems had already conquered the New Rome (Constantinople) on Tuesday May 29th 1453. (It is for that reason that even in our own time the Greeks look upon Tuesdays as an unlucky day, as many do Friday the 13th.) On the day of the Fall of Constantinople all the Christians gathered in the great Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia). The priests began to offer the Sacrifice of Holy Mass, the Divine Liturgy. As the Turks broke into the Basilica tradition has it that the priests ascended into the apse of the Church, not to return again until the city would be Christian once more. The Moslems then slaughtered every man, woman, and child in the Basilica. The carnage was so great that not even the Emperor could be recognized except for his purple sandals.
The Copts and all the Christians of the Middle East do not have the luxury of complaining about what they like and dislike about the Church and the priests; instead they are shedding their blood for Christ. May that blood of the martyrs assist us in rising from our luke warmness and comfort, may it help us to rise from our self-absorption and make us realize that it is not all about me. No it is all about Him to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
THE LITTLE SISTERS OF THE POOR are with us this weekend. They are not too proud to come to us as beggars. They will stand at the doors of the Church to receive your alms. Your kindness allows them to continue their work in caring for the elderly poor at their home in Queens Village, Queen of Peace.
Next week I will write of our two upcoming Lenten spiritual events. Our Lenten Retreat preached by Father Lachlan Cameron and our Lenten Evening of Recollection (March 18th) sponsored by the Marian Guild which will be preached by Bishop Andrzej Zglejszewski.
May Christ truly be the King of our hearts and souls, and may our blessed Lady help us to have a fruitful Lent in Him.
Benedicat Virgo Maria!
In Jesus and Mary,
Monsignor James F. Pereda