6th – The Transfiguration
The story is told in Matthew (17:1-9), Mark (9:1-9) and Luke (9:28-36).
It was a time when Jesus’ ministry was popular, when people were seeking him out. But on this day, He made time to take Peter, James and John, his closest disciples, up a high mountain. In the fourth century, Cyrillic of Jerusalem identified it as Mount Tabor (and there is a great church up there today), but others believe it more likely to have been one of the three spurs of Mount Hermon, which rises to about 9,000 feet, and overlooks Caesarea Philippi.
High up on the mountain, Jesus was suddenly transfigured before his friends. His face began to shine as the sun, his garments became white and dazzling. Elijah and Moses, of all people, suddenly appeared, and talked with him. A bright cloud overshadowed the disciples.
Peter was staggered, but, enthusiast that he was – immediately suggested building three tabernacles on that holy place, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. But God’s ‘tabernacling’, God’s dwelling with mankind, does not any longer depend upon building a shrine. It depends on the presence of Jesus, instead. And so a cloud covered them, and a voice spoke out of the cloud, saying that Jesus was his beloved son, whom the disciple should ‘hear’. God’s dwelling with mankind depends upon our listening to Jesus.
Then, just as suddenly, it is all over. What did it mean? Why Moses and Elijah? Well, these two men represent the Law and the Prophets of the Old Covenant, or Old Testament. But now they are handing on the baton, if you like: for both the Law and the Prophets found their true and final fulfilment in Jesus, the Messiah.
Why on top of a mountain? In Exodus we read that Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the sacred covenant from Yahweh in the form of the Ten Commandments. Now Jesus goes up and is told about the ‘sealing’ of the New Covenant, or New Testament of God with man, which will be accomplished by his coming death in Jerusalem.
That day made a lifelong impact on the disciples. Peter mentions it in his second letter, 2 Peter 1:16 – 19 – invariably the reading for this day.
The Eastern Churches have long held the Transfiguration as a feast as important as Christmas, Epiphany, Ascension and Pentecost. But it took a long time for the West to observe the Transfiguration. The feast starts appearing from the 11th and 12th centuries, and the Prayer Book included it among the calendar dates, but there was no liturgical provision for it until the 19th century.
14th – Christian witness amidst 20th century suffering
Some people’s lives seem to epitomise the suffering of millions, but also to shine with a Christian response to it. One such person was Maximilian Kolbe, 1894 – 1941, a Franciscan priest of Poland, and publisher extraordinary.
Maximilian was born at Zdunska Wola, near Lodz, where his parents, devout Christians, worked in a cottage weaving industry. Like thousands of others at the time, the family and their village was ground into poverty by Russian exploitation. In 1910 Maximilian entered the Franciscan Order, and studied at Rome. After his ordination in 1919, Maximilian returned to Poland, where he was sent to teach church history in a seminary. But a new factor had entered his life: he was diagnosed with tuberculosis.
Living in post-war Poland was difficult enough, but with tuberculosis as well – most people would have quietly withered away. Not Maximilian Kolbe. Instead, the tuberculosis gave Maximilian a sense of urgency – a sense of the brief transitoriness of this life. He knew his time was slipping away.
Instead of teaching history, he determined to do something to help the Christians living in Poland now, in the tatters of Europe after the First World War. And so he founded a magazine for Christian readers in Cracow, who badly needed effective apologetics to help them hold to their faith in a chaotic world.
Soon, the obsolete printing presses (which were operated by Maximilian’s fellow priests and lay brothers) were working overtime – the magazine’s circulation had leapt to 45,000. Then the printing presses were moved to a town near Warsaw, Niepokalanow, where Maximilian now founded a Franciscan community which combined prayer with cheerfulness and poverty with modern technology: daily as well as weekly newspapers were soon produced. The community grew and grew, until by the late 1930s it numbered 762 friars.
Then in 1939 the Germans invaded Poland. Maximilian sent most of his friars home, to protect them from what was to come. He turned the monastery into a refugee camp for 3,000 Poles and 1,500 Jews. And the presses continued: taking a patriotic, independent line, critical of the Third Reich.
Kolbe was arrested by the Gestapo along with four friars. They were taken to Auschwitz in May 1941. Their names were exchanged for tattooed numbers; and they were sent to brutal forced labour.
But Maximilian Kolbe continued his priestly ministry. He heard confessions in unlikely places, and smuggled in bread and wine for the Eucharist. His sympathy and compassion for those even more unfortunate than himself was outstanding.
Then came the final scene in his hard life. At the end of July, 1941, several men escaped from his bunker at the camp. The Gestapo, in revenge, came to select several more men from the same bunker who were to be starved to death. A man, Francis Gajowniczek, was chosen. As he cried in despair, Kolbe stepped forward.
“I am a Catholic priest. I wish to die for that man. I am old; he has a wife and children.”
The officer in charge shrugged his shoulders – and obliged.
So Maximilian went to the death chamber of Cell 18, and set about preparing the others to die with dignity by prayers, psalms, and the example of Christ’s Passion. Two weeks later only four were left alive: Maximilian alone was fully conscious. He was injected with phenol and died on 14 August, aged 47.
He was beatified by Paul VI in 1971. In 1982 he was canonised by Pope John Paul II, formerly Archbishop of Cracow, the diocese which contains Auschwitz. Present at the ceremony that day was Francis Gajowniczek, the man whose life Maximilian Kolbe had saved.
28th – Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430)
After St Paul, who was the most influential Christian writer ever?
St Augustine of Hippo, whose feast-day in 28 August. He lived and wrote in a time of social and spiritual chaos. The Roman Empire was collapsing, the world was about to slide into the dark ages and the Church was under serious threat from both heresies within and paganism without.
What St Augustine wrote helped the Church both to avoid perversions of Christianity, and to stand strong and unafraid amongst the violent tumult of the times. His writings held sway over Christianity for the next 15 centuries or so, and still influence us heavily today.
Augustine was born at Tagaste, in modern Algeria. His father was a pagan, but his mother, Monica, was a Christian. After studying rhetoric at Carthage to become a lawyer, he instead became a scholar-philosopher. He abandoned Christianity for Manichaeism, and lived with a mistress for 15 years. He moved to Rome and then Milan to teach rhetoric, but slowly grew disenchanted with Manichaeism.
After a long interior conflict, vividly described in his ‘Confessions’, Augustine was converted and baptised a Christian in 386-7. He returned to Africa in 388, and joined some friends in establishing a quasi-monastic life. He was ordained priest in 391, and four years later became coadjutor-bishop of Hippo. From 396 until his death in 430 he ruled the diocese alone.
Augustine had a brilliant mind, an ardent temperament and a gift for mystical insights. Soon his understanding of the Christian Revelation was pouring forth in his many voluminous writings.
So what did he write? Most famous is ‘The Confessions’, the sermons on the Gospel and Epistle of John, the De Trinitate and the De Civitate Dei. This last, ‘The City of God’, tackles the opposition between Christianity and the ‘world’ and represents the first Christian philosophy of history.
Many other works were undertaken in his efforts to tackle various heresies: Manichaeism, Pelagianism, or Donatism, and led to the development of his thought on Creation, Grace, the Sacraments and the Church.
Augustine’s massive influence on Christianity has mainly been for the good. Few others have written with such depth on love, the Holy Trinity and the Psalms. (The preamble to the marriage service in the BCP is closely based on Augustine.) But his views on Predestination and some of his views on sex (that it is the channel for the transmission of Original Sin) have since been mainly ignored by the Church.
As bishop, Augustine fearlessly upheld order as the Roman Empire disintegrated around him. At the time of his death, the Vandals were at the very gates of Hippo.