Wednesday, February 3, 2010

St. Blase (d. 316)

We know more about the devotion to St. Blase by Christians around the world than we know about the saint himself. His feast is observed as a holy day in some Eastern Churches. The Council of Oxford, in 1222, prohibited servile labour in England on Blase’s feast day. The Germans and Slavs hold him in special honour and for decades many United States Catholics have sought the annual St. Blase blessing for their throats. We know that Bishop Blase was martyred in his episcopal city of Sebastea, Armenia, in 316. The legendary Acts of St. Blase were written 400 years later. According to them Blase was a good bishop, working hard to encourage the spiritual and physical health of his people. Although the Edict of Toleration (311), granting freedom of worship in the Roman Empire, was already five years old, persecution still raged in Armenia. Blase was apparently forced to flee to the back country. There he lived as a hermit in solitude and prayer, but made friends with the wild animals. One day a group of hunters seeking wild animals for the amphitheatre stumbled upon Blase’s cave. They were first surprised and then frightened. The bishop was kneeling in prayer surrounded by patiently waiting wolves, lions and bears. As the hunters hauled Blase off to prison, the legend has it, a mother came with her young son who had a fish bone lodged in his throat. At Blase’s command the child was able to cough up the bone. Agricolaus, governor of Cappadocia, tried to persuade Blase to sacrifice to pagan idols. The first time Blase refused, he was beaten. The next time he was suspended from a tree and his flesh torn with iron combs or rakes. (English wool combers, who used similar iron combs, took Blase as their patron. They could easily appreciate the agony the saint underwent.) Finally he was beheaded.

First Reading (2 Samuel 24.2)

"King David said to Joab and to the senior army officers who were with him, 'Now go throughout the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beersheba and take a census of the people; I wish to know the size of the population'..."

Recovering a sense of sin

We read in the second book of Samuel how David, at the end of many years of achievement, looked with pride and satisfaction on his kingdom. He decided to take a census. He wished to know the size of the population, but the context indicates that the reason for this was his vanity: he wished to display before himself and perhaps before many others what he had done and the glory that was now his. For this the prophet Gad told him he was to be punished by God. "So Gad went to David and told him, 'Are three years of famine to come on you in your country' he said, 'or will you flee for three months before your pursuing enemy, or would you rather have three days' pestilence in your country? Now think.." (2 Samuel 24: 13)

David's punishment for taking the census may cause surprise — it may seem out of all proportion to what David did. Why was he being punished? The reason was that he was arrogating to himself the glory due to God. God had chosen him, God had made him a king, and God had built him up. It was God's work, and David chose to regard it as his. His action was an offence against God, and this brought down the punishment of God. Thus can reading Scripture can give a sense of the reality and seriousness of sin as an offence against God. Our temptation is to ignore or deny the evil of sin, and the story of punishment for sin as described in Scripture educates us to its evil. Sin is an offence against the all-holy God, and Scripture teaches us its consequences.

Pope Pius XII once said that the sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin. The story of David will help us recover it. 'I have committed a grave sin' David said to Yahweh" (2 Samuel 24: 10). While David's sins are recounted in Scripture, so too is his repentance. Let us imitate David in his readiness to recognise his sinfulness, for this was part of his greatness.

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Mark (6:1-6)

Jesus left there and went to His home town, accompanied by His disciples. When the Sabbath came, He began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard Him were amazed. "Where did this man get these things?" they asked. "What's this wisdom that has been given Him, that He even does miracles! Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren't His sisters here with us?" And they took offence at Him. Jesus said to them, "Only in his home town, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honour." He could not do any miracles there, except lay His hands on a few sick people and heal them. And He was amazed at their lack of faith.

Faith the Foundation
(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

In reading this passage it is important that we bear in mind its context. In Mark’s account — which is probably the account of Simon Peter — this return of our Lord to his home village of Nazareth occurred well into his Galilean ministry. All Mark has had to say of Nazareth to that point is his mention in the first chapter that Jesus came from Nazareth to be baptized by John in the river Jordan. Once baptized and with John now in prison, Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, preaching the imminence of God’s Kingdom. In this account, Simon and Andrew are the first to be formally called to share in our Lord’s ministry, together with James and John. This call occurs in Galilee, and Capernaum appears to be the base of our Lord’s ministry (ch.2). An intense programme of teaching and miracles ensues in Galilee and it is with the reputation of a great prophet that our Lord returns, in chapter 6, to his own town. They had heard of the miracles and here they have among them once again their relative, friend, acquaintance. We can imagine the simplicity and modesty of our Lord as he takes up a brief abode in the town. Presumably he stayed with his mother in the family dwelling, occupying his room once again. There would have been nothing of high airs about him. His would have been the same simplicity and humility that characterized his life during the years of his childhood, youth and adulthood there, prior to his leaving for the baptism of John. He would have met his cousins — such as “James, Joseph, Judas and Simon” — and friends of the village. He would not have borne about him any studied manner of “the great man.” Our Lord was too real for anything of that, too truthful, too accessible. The marvel of the situation is that here was the great God, yet a true man. And so he entered the Synagogue and stood up to read, speaking on the text before him. The village was amazed! They had never seen the like in speech and in wisdom. It would have been the most impressive public words ever uttered in that tiny village.

That is to say, this man they knew so well suddenly manifested extraordinary qualities exceeding all their experience of him. They knew him so well, but it was now evident that they had not known him as well as they thought. There was a great mystery at hand, and the mystery was Jesus. He was far more than they had assumed. Were our Lord’s townsmen to step forward to acknowledge the new reality being thus manifested before them, or were they to refuse? We read that “many who heard him were amazed. Where did this man get these things? they asked. What's this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6: 1-6). They had heard of the miracles, and now they heard his inspired and heavenly words, expressing a faultless wisdom the like of which Nazareth had never witnessed. It thereupon placed them at the crossroads, and despite the manifest facts before them, we read that “they took offence at him.” They refused confidence in him. Our Lord came unto his own, and his own did not accept him. Observe just one detail, though. St Mark tells us that “many” who heard him were amazed, and reacted in this way. He does not say that this was so of “all.” Nazareth was a picture encapsulating the general pattern. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. He came unto his own and his own did not receive him — but to all who did accept him he gave the power to become children of God. The Nazarenes refused to accept in Jesus anything more than the simple and humble man with whom they had long been familiar. It looks like a common form of pride, a reluctance to acknowledge One who was revealed to be higher and more than they. Sin jostled in and pushed aside the Holy One. They refused to honour him beyond what was their comfortable custom. As our Lord sadly commented, “Only in his home town, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honour.”

Ominously, it meant that “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.” Presumably, the few sick people were among the few who did believe in him. Our Lord “was amazed at their lack of faith” because the evidence was so manifest. There were his words of unparalleled wisdom, his existing renown for miracles, and, of course, the moral goodness in him that had all along been manifest to them and which would have been the guarantee of his present truthfulness. Our Lord was amazed at their refusal to believe. Its source was sin and its upshot was that they did not receive the blessings of heaven available in him. Let us learn from this, and resolve to make faith in Jesus Christ, who is true God and true man, the foundation of life.

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