March 23

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1540

Waltham Abbey, the last English monastery, is dissolved

The English Reformation was a piecemeal process, directed from the top and often taking sinister turns. One such regrettable misstep was the epic looting known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Though Henry VIII had begun the process of creating a Protestant England by removing the national church from the pope’s control, he still fancied himself a good Catholic theologically. Nonetheless, his chief adviser and evil genius Thomas Cromwell advanced the reform of religion by sanctioning an English translation of the Bible, arranging a (disastrous) Protestant marriage partner for Henry, and persuading the king that the monastic system which had endured in England for a thousand years be abolished.

Cromwell sent out commissioners to catalogue the wealth of the monasteries, priories, chantries and nunneries as well as investigators to take the spiritual temperature of the religious houses. Unsurprisingly, they reported to their master what he wanted to hear — that the monasteries were very rich and corrupt: indolent, sexually incontinent and parasites on the realm. The Henrician regime then embarked on a policy of suppressing this ancient system by buying out the abbots and priors with handsome pensions, booting the vast majority of the monks and nuns on to the street with little compensation, and judicially murdering those who opposed these acts. What resulted was one of the biggest involuntary transfers of wealth in history, on a par with the sack of Constantinople in 1204, the looting of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, and the British destruction of the Chinese Summer Palace in 1860.

Henry VIII did not really benefit from the seizure of these rich properties; most lands went to his supporters and vast sums were wasted on wars with France. The charities and schools that the monasteries had supported were often ignored by the lords who seized the revenues and the north of the country rose in a rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. The remains of these once-great institutions are evoked by Shakespeare who spoke of the “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang”.

March 21

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The Emperor Heraclius returns the True Cross to Jerusalem

The cross on which Jesus was crucified was for almost a thousand years the most valued of all Christian relics. It had been lost to history until being rediscovered by St Helena in 326 and enshrined in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. During an invasion of the Byzantine empire in 614, the Cross was looted and taken to Persia. After Heraclius had defeated the Sassanid armies at the Battle of Nineveh, the relic was returned to Christian control, first in Constantinople and then, on this date in 630, to Jerusalem. Though fragments of the Cross are claimed to be held in numerous churches the major part of it was lost after the Battle of Hattin in 1187 when the Kingdom of Jerusalem was defeated by the Turks.

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1556 The execution of Thomas Cranmer

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) was the leading Protestant churchman of the English Reformation and a brilliant prose stylist whose writings have deeply influenced the language. As Archbishop of Canterbury he helped engineer the divorce of Henry VIII from Katherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Cranmer was foremost in the king’s decision to wrench the Church of England from its obedience to the Pope but revealed himself to be a hotter sort of gospeller under Edward VI where he supervised the writing of two Books of Common Prayer and led the Church toward a unique kind of Protestantism that would be known as Anglicanism. He was arrested by Queen Mary following her accession and, in order to save his life, attempted to shape his beliefs to her resurgent Catholicism, writing recantations of his Protestantism.

This would have been a splendid propaganda coup for the Marian regime but the Queen who hated him for his part in the treatment of her mother Katharine insisted that he be executed despite his paper conversion. Learning he was to die anyway, Cranmer recanted his recantations and went to the stake in a brave way that moved even a Catholic bystander:

I would not at this time have written to you the unfortunate end, and doubtful tragedy, of Thomas Cranmer late bishop of Canterbury: because I little pleasure take in beholding of such heavy sights. And, when they are once overpassed, I like not to rehearse them again; being but a renewing of my woe, and doubling my grief. For although his former, and wretched end, deserves a greater misery, (if any greater might have chanced than chanced unto him), yet, setting aside his offenses to God and his country, and beholding the man without his faults, I think there was none that pitied not his case, and bewailed not his fortune, and feared not his own chance, to see so noble a prelate, so grave a counsellor, of so long continued honor, after so many dignities, in his old years to be deprived of his estate, adjudged to die, and in so painful a death to end his life. I have no delight to increase it. Alas, it is too much of itself, that ever so heavy a case should betide to man, and man to deserve it.

But to come to the matter: on Saturday last, being 21 of March, was his day appointed to die. And because the morning was much rainy, the sermon appointed by Mr Dr Cole to be made at the stake, was made in St Mary’s church: whither Dr Cranmer was brought by the mayor and aldermen, and my lord Williams: with whom came divers gentlemen of the shire, sir T A Bridges, sir John Browne, and others. Where was prepared, over against the pulpit, a high place for him, that all the people might see him. And, when he had ascended it, he kneeled him down and prayed, weeping tenderly: which moved a great number to tears, that had conceived an assured hope of his conversion and repentance….

When praying was done, he stood up, and, having leave to speak, said, ‘Good people, I had intended indeed to desire you to pray for me; which because Mr Doctor hath desired, and you have done already, I thank you most heartily for it. And now will I pray for myself, as I could best devise for mine own comfort, and say the prayer, word for word, as I have here written it.’ And he read it standing: and after kneeled down, and said the Lord’s Prayer; and all the people on their knees devoutly praying with him….

And then rising, he said, ‘Every man desireth, good people, at the time of their deaths, to give some good exhortation, that other may remember after their deaths, and be the better thereby. So I beseech God grant me grace, that I may speak something, at this my departing, whereby God may be glorified, and you edified….

And now I come to the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than nay other thing that ever I said or did in my life: and that is, the setting abroad of writings contrary to the truth. Which here now I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand, contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death, and to save my life, if it might be: and that is, all such bills, which I have written or signed with mine own hand since my degradation: wherein I have written many things untrue. And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished: for if I may come to the fire, it shall be first burned. And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy and antichrist, with all his false doctrine.’

And here, being admonished of his recantation and dissembling, he said, ‘Alas, my lord, I have been a man that all my life loved plainness, and never dissembled till now against the truth; which I am most sorry for it.’ He added hereunto, that, for the sacrament, he believed as he had taught in his book against the bishop of Winchester. And here he was suffered to speak no more….

Then was he carried away; and a great number, that did run to see him go so wickedly to his death, ran after him, exhorting him, while time was, to remember himself. And one Friar John, a godly and well learned man, all the way traveled with him to reduce him. But it would not be. What they said in particular I cannot tell, but the effect appeared in the end: for at the stake he professed, that he died in all such opinions as he had taught, and oft repented him of his recantation.

Coming to the stake with a cheerful countenance and willing mind, he put off his garments with haste, and stood upright in his shirt: and bachelor of divinity, named Elye, of Brazen-nose college, labored to convert him to his former recantation, with the two Spanish friars. And when the friars saw his constancy, they said in Latin to one another ‘Let us go from him: we ought not to be nigh him: for the devil is with him.’ But the bachelor of divinity was more earnest with him: unto whom he answered, that, as concerning his recantation, he repented it right sore, because he knew it was against the truth; with other words more. Whereby the Lord Williams cried, ‘Make short, make short.’ Then the bishop took certain of his friends by the hand. But the bachelor of divinity refused to take him by the hand, and blamed all the others that so did, and said, he was sorry that ever he came in his company. And yet again he required him to agree to his former recantation. And the bishop answered, (showing his hand), ‘This was the hand that wrote it, and therefore shall it suffer first punishment.’

Fire being now put to him, he stretched out his right hand, and thrust it into the flame, and held it there a good space, before the fire came to any other part of his body; where his hand was seen of every man sensibly burning, crying with a loud voice, ‘This hand hath offended.’ As soon as the fire got up, he was very soon dead, never stirring or crying all the while.

His patience in the torment, his courage in dying, if it had been taken either for the glory of God, the wealth of his country, or the testimony of truth, as it was for a pernicious error, and subversion of true religion, I could worthily have commended the example, and matched it with the fame of any father of ancient time: but, seeing that not the death, but cause and quarrel thereof, commendeth the sufferer, I cannot but much dispraise his obstinate stubbornness and sturdiness in dying, and specially in so evil a cause. Surely his death much grieved every man; but not after one sort. Some pitied to see his body so tormented with the fire raging upon the silly carcass, that counted not of the folly. Other that passed not much of the body, lamented to see him spill his soul, wretchedly, without redemption, to be plagued for ever. His friends sorrowed for love; his enemies for pity; strangers for a common kind of humanity, whereby we are bound one to another.

March 19

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St Joseph’s Day

You might think that the earthly father of Our Lord would get a little more attention but the general attitude toward him is shown by the Nativity icon above — Joseph is old, bewildered and remote from the action.

Joseph appears first in the gospels as the betrothed of Mary. When he learns she is pregnant he is dissuaded from abandoning her by an angelic visit that tells him the child has been conceived by the Holy Spirit. He takes Mary, late in her pregnancy, to Bethlehem to be enumerated and there she gives birth to Jesus. Warned in a vision to flee Herod he takes his wife and child to Egypt and then back to Nazareth. The last glimpse we have of him in the canonical scriptures is on a visit to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve and eluded his anxious parents to stay and talk with learned men in the Temple.

Legend and apocryphal scripture treat Joseph in much more detail. There he is always depicted as an older man, a widower with sons, who won Mary as a bride after supernatural intervention. In Nativity art he appears in depictions of his encounters with the angels, the Journey to Bethlehem, the manger scene and the Flight Into Egypt. In these settings he is often portrayed somewhat apart from Jesus — as a sign that he is not the child’s true father — and often looking bemused or thoughtful at the amazing turn of events.

Joseph is patron of the universal Church, Austria, Belgium, Canada, fathers, carpenters, house hunters and social justice. In the West his feast is on March 19 and in the Eastern churches it is the first Sunday after Christmas. As Joseph the Worker he is also celebrated on May 1. Because the Holy Family were in need of shelter both in Bethlehem and on the Flight to Egypt some homeowners today wishing to sell their house bury a statue of St Joseph upside down in the yard. A detailed discussion of this superstition with helpful tips for placement of the image may be found here: http://saint-josephstatue.com/Where_to_bury_a_St_Joseph_statue.html

March 17

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The Battle of Los Alporchones

In 711 Muslim Arab and Berber raiders from North Africa crossed the straits to Spain where they conquered the Christian Visigoth kingdom and occupied all of the Iberian peninsula except for a small part of the mountainous northwest. Islamic armies took the religion of Muhammed across the Pyrenees and got as far north as Tours in France before being pushed back. Moorish Spain with its capital in Cordoba became an ornament of civilization but it could never eradicate the independent Christian states who began a 700-year fight-back known as the Reconquisita. After the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 Muslim power was gradually reduced to the emirate of Granada in southeastern Spain.

The history of Spain in the late Middle Ages is often told as the tale of an inevitable decline in the presence of Islam. Though Granada paid a monetary tribute to the Kingdom of Castile it remained independent and prosperous, a thriving trade link between Africa and Europe. The glorious Alhambra Palace was built for the last dynasty of Granadan emirs. Granada also continued to conduct aggressive wars against its Christian neighbours, raiding for slaves and loot in Murcia and Castile.

During one such incursion in 1452 a Christian army ambushed the raiders who were returning home. In the subsequent battle, the Grenadans suffered heavy losses and the emirate would never again venture across the border. In honour of the saint on whose day the battle was fought the city of Murcia named Patrick their patron and built the church of San Patricio. 

In a scarcely related note, a unit of Irish-American deserters and immigrants fighting on the side of Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 called themselves the San Patricios or St Patrick Battalion. They had a distinguished combat record but, after the American victory, 50 of them were hanged for desertion. In Mexico, they are still regarded as patriotic volunteers.

March 16

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St Jean Brébeuf Day

Jean de Brébeuf (1593-1649) was a Norman who entered the Society of Jesus in 1617 and, like all Jesuits of the time, was trained to expect torture and death in the mission fields. The evangelization of Canadian natives had been entrusted to the Récollet order but when they gave up in frustration at their lack of success, the Jesuits took up the challenge. Brébeuf was sent to Quebec in 1625 and he would spend the rest of his life there, except for the four years from 1629-33 when the English occupied the colony.

Despite enormous hardships Brébeuf was an effective missionary to the Huron people in the area of Georgian Bay. He compiled a Huron dictionary and grammar and wrote the continent’s first Christmas carol in order to teach his flock the meaning of the nativity. Part of the Jesuit approach to missions has always been cultural sensitivity so Brébeuf set the story of the birth of Jesus in terms the Hurons could understand. Here is an English translation of the original “Ehstehn yayau deh tsaun we yisus ahattonnia”:

Have courage, you who are human beings: Jesus, he is born

The okie spirit who enslaved us has fled

Don’t listen to him for he corrupts the spirits of our thoughts

Jesus, he is born

The okie spirits who live in the sky are coming with a message

They’re coming to say, “Rejoice!

Mary has given birth. Rejoice!”

Jesus, he is born

Three men of great authority have left for the place of his birth

Tiscient, the star appearing over the horizon leads them there

That star will walk first on the bath to guide them

Jesus, he is born

The star stopped not far from where Jesus was born

Having found the place it said,

“Come this way”

Jesus, he is born

As they entered and saw Jesus they praised his name

They oiled his scalp many times, anointing his head

with the oil of the sunflower

Jesus, he is born

They say, “Let us place his name in a position of honour

Let us act reverently towards him for he comes to show us mercy

It is the will of the spirits that you love us, Jesus,

and we wish that we may be adopted into your family

Jesus, he is born

The 1926 English version by Jesse Edgar Middleton which begins “‘Twas in the moon of winter-time” is now loved around the world.

In 1649 the Iroquois waged genocidal war on the Huron Brébeuf and other Jesuits captive. The Catholic Encyclopedia recounts his sufferings:

On entering the village, they were met with a shower of stones, cruelly beaten with clubs, and then tied to posts to be burned to death. Brébeuf is said to have kissed the stake to which he was bound. The fire was lighted under them, and their bodies slashed with knives. Brébeuf had scalding water poured on his head in mockery of baptism, a collar of red-hot tomahawk-heads placed around his neck, a red-hot iron thrust down his throat, and when he expired his heart was cut out and eaten. Through all the torture he never uttered a groan.

Brébeuf was canonized in 1930 along with the other Jesuits murdered by the Iroquois during those years; they are known collectively as The Martyrs of Canada and are among the patron saints of that country.

March 10

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1528

Martyrdom of an Anabaptist theologian

Balthasar Hubmaier (1480-1528) was born in Augsburg and was educated at the universities of Freiburg and Ingolstadt. At the latter he was awarded his doctorate and was taught by Johann Eck, who was to become Luther’s first great adversary. As a Catholic priest he won fame as a preacher and became vice-rector of the university. He seems to have fallen under the influence of Erasmian humanism and then into a sort of Protestantism.  In 1523 he met with Huldreich Zwingli in Zürich which deepened his new faith but they came to differ on the vexed question of infant baptism. The next year he married and was forced to flee his Waldshut church when this came to the attention of the authorities.

The year 1525 saw momentous events in the religious history of Europe. It was the year of the great German Peasant Rebellion when dozens of armed uprisings occurred against the establish order, many of them espousing radical anti-Catholic ideas. At the same time, Zürich, which had declared itself a city adhering to the reformed faith, began to harden its heart against dissidents. Hubmaier, who was fleeing the violence, was arrested by Zwingli and under torture reluctantly recanted his stand on baptism. For Hubmaier, the test of any doctrine was whether it could be defended in Scripture and he continued to preach this after he left Switzerland for Moravia. In 1528 he was arrested and imprisoned in Vienna where again he underwent torture. This time he did not recant and was burnt at the stake for heresy. His wife was executed by drowning, an ironic punishment to those who underwent immersion rebaptism.

Today Anabaptism appears a harmless and valuable piece in the mosaic of contemporary Christianity but in the sixteenth century it was viewed with abhorrence. Not only was it tainted by the violence of some of its adherents in the 1525 rebellions and the 1535 seizure of Münster, its redefinition of true religion, its rejection of tradition and its unwillingness to fight against Turks provoked harshness by Protestants and Catholics alike.

March 8

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St John of God’s Day

Born João Duarte Cidade in Portugal in 1495, John was abducted from his parents at age 8 and ended up as a child shepherd in Spain. On reaching adulthood John joined the Spanish army and for 20 years fought in various campaigns against the French and the Turks. In his 40s he left the army and wandered about searching for a purpose in life. He tried giving himself as a martyr in North Africa and selling books in Gibraltar. He began to experience religious visions — in one of these the figure of Jesus called him “John of God” — and then suffered a mental breakdown which necessitated his being locked in a hospital for the insane where he underwent the traditional treatment: flogging and starvation. There was visited by John of Avila, a priest who was himself later canonized, who urged him to turn his suffering into caring for others.

On his release John began a ministry to the poor and the sick, caring for them in his house and begging for food and medicines. He attracted followers who were inspired by his example and, after his death from an illness contracted after rescuing a man from drowning, these disciples were recognized as the order of the Brothers Hospitallers of St John of God. This order continues his work today around the world.

John is the patron saint of hospitals, the sick, the dying, heart patients, publishers, printers, nurses, firefighters, alcoholics, and booksellers.

March 7

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Constantine makes Sunday the official day of rest

For a long time early Christianity debated the proper day for the Sabbath: Saturday, to follow the Jewish tradition; or Sunday, the day of the Resurrection. Standardization only occurred in the 4th century when the faith became legally recognized and the royal family of the Roman empire converted.

On March 7, 321 the emperor Constantine decreed that Sunday would be the universal day of rest throughout the Roman world:

On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country, however, persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits; because it often happens that another day is not so suitable for grain-sowing or vine-planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost.

Some claim that Constantine’s move was not directed so much by his new-found Christianity but by his long-standing devotion to the imperial sun-god cult of Sol Invictus. Coins bearing this image continued to be minted until 325.

This law was not immediately obeyed. The fact that the Council of Laodicea in 363 had to prohibit the Saturday Sabbath and demand Sunday rest meant that there was still the desire in some Christian communities to cling to the Jewish practice.

March 1

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Saint David’s Day

David (c. 542-601) was a bishop, founder of monasteries, and patron saint of Wales. Little is known for certain about his life but tradition makes him the offspring of an aristocratic family who became a priest and then the founder of ten monasteries including Glastonbury. His monks were reputed to practice severe asceticism — they had to pull the plough themselves without draught animals, and could drink only water and eat only bread with salt and herbs. David was said to immerse himself in cold water as a discipline. A legend developed around his appearance at the Synod of Brevi where he is said to have preached with such effect that he was made an archbishop on the spot and his monastery named the metropolitan see in perpetuity — a clear attempt to keep the Welsh church independent of Canterbury. Stories of his pilgrimage to Jerusalem where he performed the miracle of levitation are now regarded as spurious. His name in Welsh is Dafydd, from which comes “Taffy” the colloquial nickname for all of his countrymen.

Welshmen mark the day by wearing leeks or daffodils.

February 26

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398

John Chrysostom becomes Patriarch of Constantinople

John Chrysostom (349-407) was honoured as a saint, named a Doctor of the Church and hailed as one of Christianity’s greatest preachers but ended his life in disgrace and on his way to exile.

John was born in Antioch, the principal city of the Greek-speaking eastern part of the Roman empire. He studied rhetoric under the great pagan orator Libanius but was drawn to Christianity, spending some time as a hermit, praying and studying scripture. On his return to Antioch he was ordained a priest and gained such a strong reputation as a preacher that he was given the nickname “Chrysostom” or “Golden Mouth”.

In 398 when the position of archbishop of Constantinople, the second-highest church position after the Bishop of Rome, became vacant John was nominated to the post without his knowledge. His election to this coveted post was supposedly engineered by Eutropius, a eunuch and high-ranking imperial official. John learned of the election when a military detachment came to escort him to Constantinople. (The troops were necessary because the notoriously-excitable population of Antioch might have rebelled at learning of John’s departure.)

Unfortunately, John’s tenure as archbishop was marred by court intrigues, disputes with the still-powerful Arian faction in the capital and his tendency to speak honestly and openly about the vices of the imperial family. As a result of offending the emperor and empress he was ordered into exile in 405. When his voice proved to be still influential even at a distance he was sent even deeper into exile but died en route.

John’s impact on the Church as a liturgist, preacher and theologian remains profound.