Thursday, October 29, 2009

St. Narcissus of Jerusalem (d. 215)

Life in second- and third-century Jerusalem couldn’t have been easy, but St. Narcissus managed to live well beyond 100. Some even speculate he lived to 160. Details of his life are sketchy, but there are many reports of his miracles. The miracle for which he is most remembered was turning water into oil for use in the church lamps on Holy Saturday when the deacons had forgotten to provide any. We do know that Narcissus became bishop of Jerusalem in the late second century. He was known for his holiness, but there are hints that many people found him harsh and rigid in his efforts to impose church discipline. One of his many detractors accused Narcissus of a serious crime at one point. Though the charges against him did not hold up, he used the occasion to retire from his role as bishop and live in solitude. His disappearance was so sudden and convincing that many people assumed he had actually died. Several successors were appointed during his years in isolation. Finally, Narcissus reappeared in Jerusalem and was persuaded to resume his duties. By then, he had reached an advanced age, so a younger bishop was brought in to assist him until his death.

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Luke (13.31-35)

At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to Him, "Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you." He replied, "Go tell that fox, 'I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will attain my end.' But for today and tomorrow and the next day I must keep going — for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem! O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! So be it! Your house will be left to you. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.' "


Peter the Great demonstrated a far-sighted vision for Russia and many have maintained that it was he who set the nation on the road to being a modern state. Many other examples could be given of persons who, having attained great prominence in society and with the forces of society now at their command, displayed great insight and ability. In such cases, though, their civil powers and their achievements - for good or for ill - depended on their securing and retaining positions of influence and even dominance. Peter the Great was impressive precisely as one who was in full mastery and seen to be so. So too with Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar long before him - without their military and political power to impose themselves, what would they have been or done? Their success was visible and enforceable. Thus, we may say, it has always been. Success is deemed to be visible success and failure is visible failure. In modern societies the influence of the media is proverbial. When Pope Paul VI visited Sydney at the end of 1970, among the groups he addressed were the journalists. He told them they were world power number one. Now, in the media’s presentation of the world, politics and economics, there is nothing like success to be successful, and there is nothing like failure to be a failure. However, all this can be a house of cards, for all the props of success in these terms can suddenly crumble, and this we often see. A question we should ask is, Is there a success which is not dependent on social approval, adulation or coercion? Indeed, is there a success which comes forth from evident failure? In a word, is there a success which is open to anyone, in any and every circumstance? Can a person be successful in the midst of a very ordinary life, or a life of manifest failures, or even opprobrium? To answer such a question we may think the matter through in a philosophical fashion, or look to examples. Both are important, but examples convince and inspire the imagination to action.

In our Gospel passage today (Luke 13:31-35), the Pharisees come to Jesus and urge Him to flee because Herod was after Him. Perhaps the Pharisees had been told this by the Herodians, and we have instances in the Gospels of the Pharisees and the Herodians colluding in their opposition to Jesus - though there were Pharisees who were secret believers, such as Nicodemus. Perhaps the Pharisees of our Gospel passage today were testing the courage of Jesus, or hoping to see Him on the run. Christ knows that the forces against Him were growing and closing in on Him. As He would say to the Twelve at the Last Supper, the prince of this world was on his way. Our Lord’s seeming success was draining away, and the spectre of failure in visible terms was looming large. Let us notice, though, there is no panic in Christ, no confusion, no radical change of course in order to retrieve a crumbling dream. On the contrary, the vision splendid grows as the apparent failure grows. Success looms in proportion to the looming failure. He can see, He knows, and He teaches, that it is “failure” that will give Him the victory. His rejection by those who matter is the way His mission will attain its end. It is precisely the Cross which will take Him and all others to Glory. No matter what the circumstances might be, Christ possessed the key to success. It had nothing to do with visible success, approval, adulation or the possession of the means of influence and command. This is a resounding message to the ordinary man of history, the man of numerous failures and disappointments, the man who has nothing of the means of success as ordinarily regarded. Herod was after Him, but Christ knew that this mattered little. What mattered was doing the will of His heavenly Father and completing the work He - He, not others - gave Him to do. “Go tell that fox, 'I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will attain my end.'” His end - His success - is attained by doing the will of His Father.

Let us not be distracted in ways we may not fully realize by the standards of the world. Let us not allow to lurk deep within our imaginations an image of success in life that is worldly, dependent on what is seen and approved by others. Let us look to Christ and His pre-eminent example. The only success that matters here and hereafter is that which is accounted such by God, who sees all. Success is the success which Christ sought and most assuredly attained, and he did this in the midst of seeming failure. Indeed, His “failure” was an integral element in his success. He had to undergo the Cross in order to enter His Glory - and to bring all others into Glory with Him. Let us, then, for love of Him take up our cross every day and follow closely in His footsteps.

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