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Bible treehuggercomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy have omitted — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 18:24-28

Apollos Speaks Boldly in Ephesus

24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit,[a] he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. 27 And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, 28 for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.

—————————————————————————————————————————-

Last week’s passage was about Paul’s return to Caesarea, probably Jerusalem — although St Luke, the author of Acts, did not say — and then on to the churches in Syria and Asia Minor that he had founded.

Meanwhile, Paul’s friends from Corinth — Priscilla and Aquila — were ministering in Ephesus (Efes in Turkey).

During that time, Apollos, a learned Jew from Alexandria (Egypt) arrived in the port city. He was very well spoken and knew his Scripture equally well (verse 24).

Both Matthew Henry and John MacArthur state that Alexandria had a large Jewish population. MacArthur says that there were four different Jewish districts in the city.

Henry’s commentary tells us that Alexandria’s Jews numbered greatly because they had been sent into exile:

there were abundance of Jews in that city, since the dispersion of the people, as it was foretold (Deuteronomy 28:68): The Lord shall bring thee into Egypt again.

Henry also explains Apollos, the name (emphases mine):

His name was not Apollo, the name of one of the heathen gods, but Apollos, some think the same with Apelles, Romans 16:10.

As for Apollos the man, he tells us:

He was a man of excellent good parts, and well fitted for public service. He was an eloquent man, and mighty in the scriptures of the Old Testament, in the knowledge of which he was, as a Jew, brought up. (1.) He had a great command of language: he was an eloquent man; he was aner logios–a prudent man, so some; a learned man, so others; historiarum peritus–a good historian, which is an excellent qualification for the ministry: he was one that could speak well, so it properly signifies; he was an oracle of a man; he was famous for speaking pertinently and closely, fully and fluently, upon any subject. (2.) He had a great command of scripture-language, and this was the eloquence he was remarkable for. He came to Ephesus, being mighty in the scriptures, so the words are placed; having an excellent faculty of expounding scripture, he came to Ephesus, which was a public place, to trade with that talent, for the honour of God and the good of many. He was not only ready in the scriptures, able to quote texts off-hand, and repeat them, and tell you where to find themHe understood the sense and meaning of them, he knew how to make use of them and to apply them, how to reason out of the scriptures, and to reason strongly; a convincing, commanding, confirming power went along with all his expositions and applications of the scripture. It is probable he had given proof of his knowledge of the scriptures, and his abilities in them, in many synagogues of the Jews.

Apollos was a Messianic Jew, one who knew of the Messiah’s imminent coming as prophesied by John the Baptist (verse 25). There were many followers of John the Baptist who evangelised his prophecy throughout the ancient world. Whoever taught Apollos did so carefully and accurately. Many of John the Baptist’s followers who evangelised did not know that much about Jesus’s ministry or that He died on the Cross, rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven. (Had John the Baptist lived, they would have.) Apollos was one of these people.

Note that verse 25’s words, ‘fervent in spirit’, carry an explanatory footnote: ‘Or “in the Spirit”‘. On this point, our two commentators disagree somewhat.

Henry says:

Though he had not the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, as the apostles had, he made use of the gifts he had; for the dispensation of the Spirit, whatever the measure of it is, is given to every man to profit withal. And our Savior, by a parable, designed to teach his ministers that though they had but one talent they must not bury that … He was a lively affectionate preacher; as he had a good head, so he had a good heart; he was fervent in Spirit. He had in him a great deal of divine fire as well as divine light, was burning as well as shining. He was full of zeal for the glory of God, and the salvation of precious souls. This appeared both in his forwardness to preach when he was called to it by the rulers of the synagogue, and in his fervency in his preaching. He preached as one in earnest, and that had his heart in his work. What a happy composition was here! Many are fervent in spirit, but are weak in knowledge, in scripture-knowledge–have far to seek for proper words and are full of improper ones; and, on the other hand, many are eloquent enough, and mighty in the scriptures, and learned, and judicious, but they have no life or fervency. Here was a complete man of God, thoroughly furnished for his work; both eloquent and fervent, full both of divine knowledge and of divine affections.

MacArthur is less generous:

He was a powerful man in terms of teaching. And let me just say at this point that his power at this point was the natural. He was not a Christian at this point, so consequently, did not have the indwelling Holy Spirit. So the power in his life was expressed really through his natural abilities, not yet having the Gifts of the Spirit as we know them. Later on, when he comes to Christ and he receives the Holy Spirit and gets the Gift of the Spirit in those areas, I mean, he becomes so devastating … But in this point, in the natural–and by that, I don’t mean that the Spirit didn’t touch his life, because nobody can know anything apart from the Holy Spirit, right, in any dispensation. So, I’m not disqualifying the Spirit. He had the Spirit’s work in his life in a very general sense, not in the specific sense of the Gift and the indwelling that the New Testament Saint knows. But he could, in his own natural ability, speak and communicate and was learned in the Old Testament. And believe me, it didn’t take him long to make an impression.

Priscilla and Aquila heard him speak in the synagogue and understood that he did not have the story of Jesus Christ as Paul had related it to them. So, they took him to one side and explained it to him, as they had been taught (verse 26). MacArthur thinks they might have shared a meal with him followed by a long discussion about the life of Jesus and how He fulfilled Scripture.

The well educated Apollos learned from two tent makers. Henry tells us:

[2.] See an instance of truly Christian charity in Aquila and Priscilla; they did good according to their ability. Aquila, though a man of great knowledge, yet did no undertake to speak in the synagogue, because he had not such gifts for public work as Apollos had; but he furnished Apollos with matter, and then left him to clothe it with acceptable words. Instructing young Christians and young ministers privately in conversation, who mean well, and perform well, as far as they go, is a piece of very good service, both to them and to the church. [3.] See an instance of great humility in Apollos. He was a very bright young man, of great parts and learning, newly come from the university, a popular preacher, and one mightily cried up and followed; and yet, finding that Aquila and Priscilla were judicious serious Christians, that could speak intelligently and experimentally of the things of God, though they were but mechanics, poor tent-makers, he was glad to receive instructions from them, to be shown by them his defects and mistakes, and to have his mistakes rectified by them, and his deficiencies made up. Young scholars may gain a great deal by converse with old Christians, as young students in the law may by old practitioners. Apollos, though he was instructed in the way of the Lord, did not rest in the knowledge he had attained, nor thought he understood Christianity as well as any man (which proud conceited young men are apt to do), but was willing to have it expounded to him more perfectly. Those that know much should covet to know more, and what they know to know it better, pressing forward towards perfection.

MacArthur says that learning from Priscilla and Aquila was the moment of conversion for Apollos:

They told him the fullness of the facts regarding Christ. Oh, man, there’s the conversion of Apollos right there in those verses. And the Spirit doesn’t say much about it. Why? Because it wasn’t much of a change. He was already a saint.

Henry had good words for Priscilla:

Here is an instance of a good woman, though not permitted to speak in the church or in the synagogue, yet doing good with the knowledge God had given her in private converse. Paul will have the aged women to be teachers of good things Titus 2:3,4.

It is thought that Priscilla had more spiritual depth than her husband Aquila, which is probably why Luke put her name before his so often.

Apollos decided to go to Achaia, so the men from the church in Ephesus sent a letter of introduction (verse 27). Achaia was the province where Corinth was located. Corinth was the centre of government for Achaia. Paul appeared before Achaia’s proconsul, Gallio.

Luke did not state why Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, however, a few possibilities spring to mind. First, the Jews in Ephesus were largely receptive to Paul’s teaching, and Priscilla and Aquila were building a solid congregation there. Secondly, Corinth might have resembled Alexandria with regard to intellectual life. Thirdly, and most importantly, Apollos might have wanted to finish the job that Paul had started. Corinth still had Jews who were hostile to the Gospel message.

When Apollos arrived in Achaia, his eloquence and precision reassured the converts (verse 27). Furthermore, he was also able to powerfully refute the errors of the Jews in scripturally demonstrating that Jesus is the Messiah (verse 28).

Henry explains verse 28:

Unbelievers were greatly mortified. Their objections were fully answered, the folly and sophistry of their arguments were discovered, so that they had nothing to say in defence of the opposition they made to the gospel; their mouths were stopped, and their faces filled with shame (Acts 18:28): He mightily convinced the Jews, and that publicly, before the people; he did it, eutonos–earnestly, and with a great deal of vehemence; he took pains to do it; his heart was upon it, as one that was truly desirous both to serve the cause of Christ and to save the souls of men. He did it effectually and to universal satisfaction. He did it levi negotio–with facility. The case was so plain, and the arguments were so strong on Christ’s side, that it was an easy matter to baffle all that the Jews could say against it. Though they were so fierce, yet their cause was so weak that he made nothing of their opposition. Now that which he aimed to convince them of was that Jesus is the Christ, that he is the Messiah promised to the fathers, who should come, and they were to look for not other. If the Jews were but convinced of this–that Jesus is Christ, even their own law would teach them to hear him.

Apollos was a highly important church leader in Corinth, as Paul readily acknowledged in 1 Corinthians 3:6:

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

MacArthur also says he was a better public speaker than Paul and had a better physical presence:

He was probably without equal as a speaker. You say, “Was he greater than Paul?” Well, very possibly. He was a greater preacher than Paul. Paul said to the Corinthians, in I Corinthians 2:1, “I, Brethren, when I came to you came not with excellency of speech.” Paul never did really value his preaching ability. Interesting. I don’t know if you ever read this verse. Interesting. II Corinthians 10:10, it says, “His letters say they are weighty and powerful, but his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible.” So he’s a lot better writer than he was a body, and he was an even better body than he was a speaker. Now, that’s a interesting little insight into the possibility that Paul perhaps was not as great an orator as was Apollos, and I’m only making the comparison because I want you to know the stature of this man. He was without peer, as far as we could see in the New Testament, as a preacher, as a speaker.

Shortly after Apollos arrived in Corinth, a church schism arose. Wikipedia has a simple explanation about the purpose of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

Paul’s Epistle refers to a schism between four parties in the Corinthian church, of which two attached themselves to Paul and Apollos respectively, using their names[9] (the third and fourth were Peter, identified as Cephas, and Jesus Christ himself).[10] It is possible, though, that, as Msgr. Ronald Knox suggests, the parties were actually two, one claiming to follow Paul, the other claiming to follow Apollos. “It is surely probable that the adherents of St. Paul […] alleged in defence of his orthodoxy the fact that he was in full agreement with, and in some sense commissioned by, the Apostolic College. Hence ‘I am for Cephas’. […] What reply was the faction of Apollos to make? It devised an expedient which has been imitated by sectaries more than once in later times; appealed behind the Apostolic College itself to him from whom the Apostolic College derived its dignity; ‘I am for Christ.'”[11] Paul states that the schism arose because of the Corinthians’ immaturity in faith.[12]

MacArthur says that Apollos left Corinth for a time because the schism distressed him:

And such a holy man was he that later on when he saw the factions in Corinth, it so grieved his heart that in I Corinthians 16:12, Paul had asked him to go back and he wouldn’t go back to Corinth. The factions that came in Corinth weren’t Apollos’ fault any more than they were Peter’s fault, Paul’s fault or Christ’s fault. But they grieved him.

Wikipedia has more interesting information about St Apollos, venerated by the Orthodox churches, the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod:

Apollos’ origin in Alexandria has led to speculations that he would have preached in the allegorical style of Philo. Theologian Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, for example, commented: “It is difficult to imagine that an Alexandrian Jew … could have escaped the influence of Philo, the great intellectual leader … particularly since the latter seems to have been especially concerned with education and preaching.”[14] Pope Benedict suggest there were those in Corinth “…fascinated by his way of speaking….[13]

Apollos is mentioned one more time in the New Testament. In the Epistle to Titus, the recipient is exhorted to “speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way”.[16]

Jerome states that Apollos was so dissatisfied with the division at Corinth that he retired to Crete with Zenas; and that once the schism had been healed by Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, Apollos returned to the city and became one of its elders.[17] Less probable traditions assign to him the bishop of Duras, or of Iconium in Phrygia, or of Caesarea.[9]

Martin Luther and some modern scholars have proposed Apollos as the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, rather than Paul or Barnabas.[9] Both Apollos and Barnabas were Jewish Christians with sufficient intellectual authority.[18] The Pulpit Commentary treats Apollos’ authorship of Hebrews as “generally believed”.[19] Other than this, there are no known surviving texts attributed to Apollos.

Hebrews is one of my favourite books in the New Testament. If Apollos wrote it, you will see — if you don’t already know — how persuasive and clear he was.

Next time — Acts 19:1-7

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Happy Valentine’s Day to all the romantics out there! Have a LOVE-ly day! ❤

Lent starts on Valentine’s Day in 2018.

(Graphics credit: webdesignhot.com)

What follows are my past posts about February 14. The first is about the two Saints Valentine and the second discusses the traditions surrounding this day:

A bit of history about Valentine’s Day  (2015)

More history about Valentine’s Day (2016)

The third is about the totalitarian — secular and religious — rejection of love and romance:

Valentine’s Day ‘shameful’ to totalitarians (2017)

As we begin Lent, these past posts of mine explain why traditional Catholics and some Protestants, especially Anglicans and Lutherans, observe this 40-day season:

Ash Wednesday reflections

Lent, denominational differences and freedom in Christ

Ideas for Lent

Lutheran reflections for Lent

It is also worth noting that, centuries ago, Lent started earlier than it does now:

St Athanasius and the Lenten practices of the early Church

Lent in the early Church — not a pagan practice

Shrovetide — a history

The Sundays before Lent — an explanation

May those of us observing this season have a spiritually enriched Lent.

St NicholasHappy St Nicholas Day!

If you had a celebration today, I hope it was a pleasant treat before Christmas.

My 2014 post has much detail on this famous bishop of the 4th century. There is much we can learn about — and from — this great man:

St Nicholas Day

My 2016 post discusses the customs and celebrations observed on this day:

More on St Nicholas — feast day December 6

In commenting on that post, one of my readers, sunnydaysall, shared her experience of living in Germany and being able to join in the festivities:

Wow! I had no idea St Nicholas was so many things to so many different cultures.

When I lived in Berlin Germany, I lived in the heart of the population… On the “economy” as it was called by military dependents! I loved the German people and their customs, and Christmas was a real treat for my family! We put our shoes out on the stoop for St Nicholas to stuff our shoes with sweet treats and trinkets, and sometimes there was a simple exchanging of gifts! But it was the neighborhood celebrations that we all enjoyed so much!

The European Christmas with St Nicholas was so very different from our American Santa Claus, and Christmas was celebrated with neighbors, family, and friends! The cobblestone streets were filled with carolers and snow! Being from the South, it was the first time I had lived where it truly snowed!! Large beer wagons were filled with hay and people hopped aboard and caroled from the wagons as well! The “huge” horses were draped in jingle bells and they were braided in their mane and tails! The kids would get so excited when they heard them coming!

There were also people in the streets singing and the neighborhood pubs, where everyone gathered, stayed open almost all night! But you had to be ready for Church the next morning! 🙂

For a country with a dwindling population, 40 years ago, Germany was all about celebrating the “family”… But now I hear it is so very different now.

Thanks, sunnydaysall, for documenting a lovely memory — and for letting me share it here.

If you have been reading my Forbidden Bible Verses series over the past few weeks, you are acquainted with Acts 10, starring St Peter and a Roman centurion named Cornelius.

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, a student of Rembrandt’s, painted ‘Vision of Cornelius the Centurion’ in 1664. Eeckhout learned well from his master. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

If you are a newer subscriber, here are the posts about Cornelius and Peter:

Acts 10:1-8Cornelius, divine vision, angel, Peter, God-fearer

Acts 10:9-16Peter, divine vision, allegory, animals, Gentiles, forbidden food is now clean

Acts 10:17-23Peter, Holy Spirit, obedience, Gentiles, hospitality

Acts 10:24-29Peter, Cornelius, Jewish converts, Gentile converts

Acts 10:30-33Peter, Cornelius, Jew, Gentile, Jesus Christ

Acts 10:44-48 Peter, Cornelius, the Holy Spirit, baptism, Jew, Gentile

Acts 10 formally brought Gentiles into the Church, beginning with Cornelius, his family and friends.

John MacArthur tells us that Cornelius was a powerful man who believed in the God of Israel before he met Peter, who preached about Jesus Christ (emphases mine):

Now, Cornelius is a Gentile, a ruler, really in a real sense, because he ruled over a hundred men in the army of Rome

Cornelius was stationed in Caesarea and was part of the Italian Cohort (Acts 10:1).

It is strange that, having attended Catholic schools for nearly all of my academic career, I never heard of Cornelius — until I read the Bible in its entirety a few years ago.

I am not alone. Many Catholics have not heard of him.

Angelo Stagnaro wrote an article for the National Catholic Register in February 2017. I highly recommend reading ‘What Do We Know About St Cornelius the Centurion?’ It’s factual as well as being witty and warm.

Stagnaro opens by describing what happened at a Sons of Italy meeting he attended wherein the men and women assembled were thinking of a name for a new chapter of the organisation. The chapter had to be named after an Italian or an American with Italian ancestry.

Stagnaro offered what he thought was a brilliant suggestion:

How about St. Cornelius the Centurion?” I suggested.

“Who’s he?” came back the reply.

That’s not an uncommon question considering the Church has more than 17,000 saints and beati―no one could know all of them. So, I explained.

“St. Cornelius the Centurion is the first gentile, that is, non-Jew, who converted to Christianity. He’s Italian.”

All one-hundred people in the parish hall froze amid cannoli and snapped around to look at me. The gentleman leading the meeting had an almost panicked look on his face.

“Wait! What!?!” he demanded. 

“The first non-Jew to convert to Christianity was Italian,” I reiterated.

More accusatory silence.

“Where did you get this information?!” asked the group’s elected leader.

I was half expecting someone to yell out, “Leave the gun―take the cannolis.”

“From the Bible,” I replied, surprised at the crowd’s reaction

Stagnaro read them Acts 10 from his tablet.

The upshot is, how could so many Catholics — especially those with Italian heritage — not know of Cornelius? Stagnaro describes what it was like after the meeting ended (emphases in the original):

… twenty people came up to me after the meeting to verify what they thought I had said. 

“Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?

“I went to a Catholic school in an Italian parish and no one told me this!”

I know the feeling! I agree! How could it be?

Back to the life of Cornelius now. There was a lot of information for St Luke to put into the Book of Acts, so we do not hear any more about the centurion after Acts 10.

Wikipedia tells us (emphases mine):

Cornelius was a centurion in the Roman Empire’s Cohors II Italica Civium Romanorum which was stationed in Caesarea, the capital of Roman Iudaea province, to keep the Pax Romana.

Coptics believe that Cornelius retired from the Roman army after receiving the Holy Spirit and baptism:

Afterwards, Cornelius left the military service and followed the Apostles. St. Peter then ordained him a Bishop over the city of Caesarea of Palestine. He went there and proclaimed the Name of Christ, showing them the error of worshipping idols. Their minds were illuminated with the knowledge of God and they believed in Him. He strengthened them with the signs and miracles he performed before them and he baptized them all and among them was Demetrius the Governor. Then he departed in peace and received the crown of glory of the apostles.

We have no way of verifying if Cornelius performed these miracles, although the Orthodox Church in America also believe that he left the Roman army for ministry. Their site has a longer story about the conversion of Demetrius the Governor — or prince — excerpted below:

When the Apostle Peter, together with his helpers Saints Timothy and Cornelius, was in the city of Ephesus, he learned of a particularly vigorous idol-worship in the city of Skepsis. Lots were drawn to see who would go there, and Saint Cornelius was chosen.

In the city lived a prince by the name of Demetrius, learned in the ancient Greek philosophy, hating Christianity and venerating the pagan gods, in particular Apollo and Zeus. Learning about the arrival of Saint Cornelius in the city, he immediately summoned him and asked him the reason for his coming. Saint Cornelius answered that he came to free him from the darkness of ignorance and lead him to knowledge of the True Light.

The prince, not comprehending the meaning of what was said, became angry and demanded that he answer each of his questions. When Saint Cornelius explained that he served the Lord and that the reason for his coming was to announce the Truth, the prince became enraged and demanded that Cornelius offer sacrifice to the idols.

Cornelius asked to see the idols. Upon entering the temple, Cornelius said a prayer. Then:

There was an earthquake, and the temple of Zeus and the idols situated in it were destroyed. All the populace, seeing what had happened, were terrified.

Demetrius was furious and had Cornelius imprisoned. One of Demetrius’s servants told him that his wife and child had perished under the temple rubble. Some time later, a pagan priest, Barbates, told Demetrius that his wife and child had survived and could be heard praising the Christian God.

Demetrius, relieved and happy, rushed to the prison, said that he, too, believed in the one true God and freed Cornelius, asking him to try and rescue his family from the temple ruins. Cornelius went and prayed until Demetrius’s wife and child were able to emerge from the rubble.

Demetrius asked Cornelius to baptise him, his family and his entourage:

Saint Cornelius lived for a long time in this city, converted all the pagan inhabitants to Christ … Saint Cornelius died in old age and was buried not far from the pagan temple he destroyed. 

Again, we have no way of verifying this, except that he must have done something very special, because his feast day is commemorated in the Orthodox churches (September 13), the Catholic Church (February 2) and the Episcopal Church in the United States (February 4 or 7). In fact:

When Governor’s Island, New York, was a military installation the Episcopal Church maintained a stone chapel there dedicated to him.

These are the lessons that the Episcopal Church has for Cornelius the Centurion:

The Collect: O God, by your Spirit you called Cornelius the Centurion to be the first Christian among the Gentiles; Grant to your Church such a ready will to go where you send and to do what you command, that under your guidance it may welcome all who turn to you in love and faith, and proclaim the Gospel to all nations; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Isaiah 56:6-8: The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,

all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant–

these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;

their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;

for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.

Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,

I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.

Psalm 67Deus misereatur:

1 May God be merciful to us and bless us, *
show us the light of his countenance and come to us.

2 Let your ways be known upon earth, *
your saving health among all nations.

3 Let the peoples praise you, O God; *
let all the peoples praise you.

4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, *
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide all the nations upon earth.

5 Let the peoples praise you, O God; *
let all the peoples praise you.

6 The earth has brought forth her increase; *
may God, our own God, give us his blessing.

7 May God give us his blessing, *
and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him.

The Epistle is Acts 10:1-18, which is the account of both Cornelius’s and Peter’s visions.

The Gospel reading is Luke 13:22-29:

Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, `Lord, open to us,’ then in reply he will say to you, `I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, `We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, `I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’ There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.

Bill Kochman has a good article about Cornelius’s life and purpose. He points out that not many people in the Bible received visions. Therefore, God had a plan:

How often is it that people receive a heavenly visitation? The Scriptures seem to indicate that such events are reserved for those who have a very special calling from the Lord such as Moses, Gideon, Joseph and Mary, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Paul, etc. Another point worth considering is that Peter was the chief of the Apostles, yet the Lord didn’t think him too big or too busy, or too important to send to these lowly Gentile believers. In fact, the Lord specifically gave Peter his vision to convince him of the importance of his mission to Caesarea. The Lord knew that Cornelius and his family were an important part of His overall plans. Another fact to consider is that this family received the gift of the Holy Ghost. This is very important.

I hope we remember Cornelius’s faithful devotion to God, which brought him into contact with Peter.

I also hope we can draw inspiration from Cornelius’s example as a Christian.

John F MacArthurIn this final instalment on St Peter‘s spiritual journey, what follows are excerpts from the other two blog posts from John MacArthur on this great Apostle.

My other two in this series, based on MacArthur’s posts, are ‘John MacArthur on Peter’ and ‘John MacArthur on Peter’s leadership qualities’.

MacArthur tells us that Jesus taught Peter a number of lessons, all of which helped his spiritual and apostolic development. He outlined these in ‘Peter: Learning from Life Experience’, excerpts from which follow. Emphases mine below.

Previous entries covered Peter’s denial of Jesus early on Good Friday. However, there were other episodes which were also learning experiences for him. Highs were followed by lows:

… the experiences—even the difficult ones—were all necessary to shape Peter into the man he needed to become.

He learned, for example, that crushing defeat and deep humiliation often follow hard on the heels of our greatest victories. Just after Christ commended him for his great confession in Matthew 16:16 (“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”), Peter suffered the harshest rebuke ever recorded of a disciple in the New Testament. One moment Christ called Peter blessed, promising him the keys of the kingdom (Matthew 16:17–19). In the next paragraph, Christ addressed Peter as Satan and said, “Get behind me!” (Matthew 16:23)—meaning, “Don’t stand in My way!”

That incident occurred shortly after Peter’s triumphant confession. Jesus announced to the disciples that He was going to Jerusalem, where He would be turned over to the chief priests and scribes and be killed. Upon hearing that, “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘God forbid it Lord! This shall never happen to You!’” (Matthew 16:22). Peter’s sentiment is perfectly understandable. But he was thinking only from a human standpoint. He did not know the plan of God. Without realizing it, he was trying to dissuade Christ from the very thing He came to earth to do. As usual, he was speaking when he ought to have been listening. Jesus’ words to Peter were as stern as anything He ever spoke to any individual: “He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s’” (Matthew 16:23).

Ultimately:

Peter had just learned that God would reveal truth to him and guide his speech as he submitted his mind to the truth. He wasn’t dependent upon a human message. The message he was to proclaim was given to him by God (Matthew 16:17). He would also be given the keys to the kingdom—meaning that his life and message would be the unlocking of the kingdom of God for the salvation of many (Matthew 16:19).

But now, through the painful experience of being rebuked by the Lord, Peter also learned that he was vulnerable to Satan. Satan could fill his mouth just as surely as the Lord could fill it. If Peter minded the things of men rather than the things of God, or if he did not do the will of God, he could be an instrument of the enemy.

He backslid only once — and briefly — but the Apostle Paul sharply corrected him. The incident is in Galatians 2, discussed here.

MacArthur says that, whatever Peter’s experiences with Jesus, he learned to truly be a fisher of men:

Sometimes the experiences were bitter, distressing, humiliating, and painful. Other times they were encouraging, uplifting, and perfectly glorious—such as when Peter saw Christ’s divine brilliance on the Mount of Transfiguration. Either way, Peter made the most of his experiences, gleaning from them lessons that helped make him the great leader he became.

There is one more illustrative exchange between Jesus and Peter, which taught the Apostle about obeying earthly law. MacArthur discusses it in ‘Peter: The Submissive Leader’. It is the story of the temple tax in Matthew 17:

This account comes at a time when Jesus was returning with the twelve to Capernaum, their home base, after a period of itinerant ministry. A tax collector was in town making the rounds to collect the annual two-drachma tax from each person twenty years old or older. This was not a tax paid to Rome, but a tax paid for the upkeep of the temple. It was prescribed in Exodus 30:11–16 (cf. 2 Chronicles 24:9). The tax was equal to two days’ wages, so it was no small amount.

Matthew writes, “Those who collected the two-drachma tax came to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the two-drachma tax?’” (Matthew 17:24). Peter assured him that Jesus did pay His taxes.

But this particular tax apparently posed a bit of a problem in Peter’s mind. Was Jesus morally obliged, as the incarnate Son of God, to pay for the upkeep of the temple like any mere man? The sons of earthly kings don’t pay taxes in their fathers’ kingdoms; why should Jesus? Jesus knew what Peter was thinking, so “when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect customs or poll-tax, from their sons or from strangers?’” (Matthew 17:25).

Peter answered, “From strangers.” Kings don’t tax their own children.

Jesus drew the logical conclusion for Peter: “Then the sons are exempt” (Matthew 17:26). In other words, Jesus had absolute heavenly authority, if He desired, to opt out of the temple tax.

But if He did that, it would send the wrong message as far as earthly authority is concerned. Better to submit, pay the tax, and avoid a situation most people would not understand. So although Jesus was not technically obligated to pay the temple tax, he said, “However, so that we do not offend them, go to the sea and throw in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for you and Me” (Matthew 17:27).

As Christ’s example is the ultimate of all time, from it Peter learned to submit to earthly authority in his own ministry. He also encouraged his converts to do so, too, thereby following Christ’s example:

… in 1 Peter 2:13–18, he would write,

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king. Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable.

That is a tall order to fulfil, especially when governments are tyrannical and employers unreasonable.

MacArthur reminds us:

Remember, the man who wrote that epistle was the same man who when he was young and brash slashed off the ear of the high priest’s servant. He is the same man who once struggled over the idea of Jesus’ paying taxes. But he learned to submit—not an easy lesson for a natural leader. Peter especially was inclined to be dominant, forceful, aggressive, and resistant to the idea of submission. But Jesus taught him to submit willingly, even when he thought he had a good argument for refusing to submit.

MacArthur’s posts came at a serendipitous time, just as Peter’s great works and miracles are the subject of where I am in Acts (most recently here and here). Peter will be the dominant Apostle for the next few weeks.

Let us remember MacArthur’s words of wisdom as we read more about this great saint in the weeks ahead.

End of series

St NicholasMy post last year at this time discussed the life St Nicholas, legends associated with him and how the Dutch regard him.

St Nicholas’s feast day is December 6 and a French website, L’Internaute, had an excellent article about him. A summary follows.

St Nicholas became the patron saint of children thanks to the legends associated with him, which last year’s post explored. Most of them involved him rescuing young people: the poor man with three daughters, the three theological students or, as the French tell it, the three children who fell afoul of an evil butcher, and the boy from Myra kidnapped by pirates.

As the Dutch have Black Pete as a companion to Nicholas, the French have the Bogeyman (Père Fouettardfouetter means ‘to whip’). The French article says that in both cases, these two are alter-egos of the great bishop. There is the benevolent Nicholas who is kind to good children and the companion who punishes bad youngsters. Together, they mete out justice.

The French legend of Nicholas and the Bogeyman visiting homes on the night of December 5 into the morning of December 6 started in the Middle Ages. Nicholas would ask if the children had been good or bad during the year. A song even grew around this construct, the lyrics of which go like this (translation mine and, yes, the words rhyme in French). Here’s the first verse:

O great St Nicholas
Patron of schoolchildren
Bring me apples
In my little basket
I will always be good
Like a little picture
I will learn my lessons
To earn some sweets.

It’s not hard to see how Nicholas made the transition into Father Christmas, or, as the Dutch say, Sinterklaas, giving rise to the American Santa Claus who arrives at the time of the Christ Child.

Like the Dutch, the Belgians and a number of countries in Northern Europe, some French towns and cities hold local festivals on or near the time of St Nicholas Day. This is particularly true in the region of Lorraine in northeastern France.

The celebrations have extra meaning there, because in the late Middle Ages, an imposing German nobleman by the name of Hans von Trotha ruled over the area. He had a nasty reputation as a robber baron and a defiler of young girls. Over time, his evil reputation was extended to frighten children in the region to be good or ‘Hans Trapp’ or ‘Hans Trott’ would give them a good beating. The threats worked, as Hans in real life was a tall, robust man.

This year’s celebrations in eastern France are going ahead, despite the security threats. That said, authorities have forbidden firework displays because of the 2015 Paris attacks and the July 14 attack in Nice.

In closing, St Nicholas is also the patron saint of sailors (another legend), prisoners, lawyers, physiotherapists and single men.

Portrayal of Stephen I, King of Hungary on the coronation pall.jpgMany years ago, my family and I attended St Stephen’s Church, one of many Catholic churches in the United States built by Hungarian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

(Photo credits: Wikipedia)

These Hungarian churches were named for the first of Hungary’s Christian kings. Stephen I took his name from the first martyr, Stephen, whose story is recorded in Acts 6 and 7. I wrote about the first St Stephen several years ago, whose feast day is December 26.

To clarify: there are many other Catholic — as well as Episcopal and Lutheran — churches which bear the name St Stephen. Those are named for the aforementioned first martyr. However, when Hungarians founded parishes of the same name, most of those were honouring their first Christian king, still revered today.

Stephen I featured in an article in The Guardian published on June 8, 2016. The context is a Project Fear vehicle positing that if Brexit wins in the upcoming EU Referendum, Eastern Europe’s socially conservative views will become more predominant in shaping the Continent’s political policies. However, the author also provided this historical note:

According to the traditional narratives, the commitment of Hungary to Europe has seemed secure throughout most of its history. The coronation of the first Hungarian king, St Stephen, by the pope of Rome is usually portrayed as the symbol of a tribal people leaving behind their eastern pagan legacy. The bloody battles against the Tatar and then the Ottoman Turk invaders are often presented as the defence of Christian Europe by Hungary.

To this day, Stephen is arguably the most popular name for Hungarian males, including those born outside of Hungary. I have known several.

Devotion to St Stephen among Hungarians continued even during Communist rule, albeit underground.

Because Stephen I lived during the Middle Ages, definitive records about certain details of his life are thin on the ground. Yet, enough facts exist to be able to put together a portrait of a devout Christian who was canonised within a century after his death.

Before Stephen was crowned, the country had been ruled by a succession of Grand Princes of the Hungarians. Stephen was the last of those as well as the first king.

He was born between 967 and 975 AD. Most historians settle on 975. He was given a pagan name at birth: Vajk.

At some point, Stephen’s parents — Grand Prince Géza and his wife, Sarolt, — converted to Christianity and were baptised. They, in turn, had their only son Stephen baptised and renamed.

From Grand Prince to King

Stephen succeeded his father as Grand Prince of the Hungarians in 997. For the next three years, he fought wars for the throne against his powerful pagan relative Koppány, who wanted to marry the widowed Sarolt. (Some accounts say that Koppány had converted to Christianity by then, but his troops were overwhelmingly pagan.)

After Stephen won decisively in the year 1000 with Koppány dying on the battlefield, Pope Sylvester II sent him a crown for his coronation, which took place either on December 25, 1000 or January 1, 1001.

This crown (pictured at right) is known as the Holy Crown of Hungary and was used at more than 50 coronations until 1916.

Stephen’s ceremony was conducted according to German coronation traditions. Notably, he was anointed with consecrated oil. This would legitimise his status among Christian rulers of other European countries and territories.

Five years earlier, he had married Gisela of Bavaria, daughter of Henry the Wrangler, Duke of Bavaria, in 995. Tradition has it that Bishop Adalbert of Prague (St Adalbert, Bishop and Martyr) performed the ceremony in Bavaria at Scheyern Castle.

This arranged alliance between the Duke of Bavaria’s and Stephen’s families would prove advantageous in the decades of wars to come. To that end, several of the Duke’s knights were given land in Hungary and settled there.

From a religious perspective, as the Duke of Bavaria was related to Emperor Otto III of the Holy Roman Empire, Gisela would be a Christian wife and mother. Stephen would also use this Christian leverage to convert Hungary from paganism.

Conquest and conversion

Conversion became his primary priority soon after coronation.

Interestingly, although he owed his future power to the Holy Roman Empire, Stephen wanted Hungary’s churches to be independent of — yet friendly with — it. Soon after his coronation, he established an archbishop’s position in Esztergom, which ensured this independence. The first archbishop was appointed either in 1001 or 1002, the year when Pannonhalma Archabbey was founded.

Stephen invited foreign clergy to settle and evangelise in Hungary. Several who knew Bishop Adalbert, by then deceased, took him up on his invitation.

Stephen devised a new set of Christian laws which forced his subjects to give up pagan rituals. His First Book of Laws was deeply intertwined with the faith and stipulated certain observances, e.g. feast days, and confession prior to death (emphases mine):

If someone has such a hardened heart—God forbid it to any Christian—that he does not want to confess his faults according to the counsel of a priest, he shall lie without any divine service and alms like an infidel. If his relatives and neighbors fail to summon the priest, and therefore he should die unconfessed, prayers and alms should be offered, but his relatives shall wash away their negligence by fasting in accordance with the judgement of the priests. Those who die a sudden death shall be buried with all ecclesiastical honor; for divine judgment is hidden from us and unknown.

— Laws of King Stephen I[78]

Stephen’s contention for the faith and his reign’s legitimacy displeased many, including some family members.

The young king knew his uncle Gyula The Younger and his family opposed him, so he invaded their homeland of Transylvania to seize the man and his family in 1002 or 1003. He soon converted the people of that region to Christianity by force and established the Diocese of Transylvania at the same time. Gyula later escaped and fled to safety with Boleslav the Brave in the neighbouring Duchy of Poland.

After invading Transylvania, Stephen and his men occupied the lands ruled by Kean, Duke of the Bulgarians and Slavs in 1003. He also invaded Bulgaria in the 1010s.

Some Hungarians were resistant to Stephen’s occupations and forceful conversions. The Hungarian tribes had long before been assigned a colour motif and region. Those in the west were given the colour white, those in the east blue, those in the south red and those in the north black. Hence, the Black Hungarians. To clarify: the colours were those used in their symbols, emblems and standards (flags), nothing to do with skin colour.

The Black Hungarians had resisted conversion. Stephen conquered their land in 1009, and to make his intention clear, brought in a papal legate, Cardinal Azo, to seal the deal. The Bishopric of Pécs was established on August 23, 1009 by royal charter, which also delineated its boundaries.

Stephen also created the Diocese of Eger in the same region. (The Diocese’s Wikipedia page says it was founded in 1000. Stephen I’s page says it was founded in 1009.) The people living in and around Eger are thought to have been Kabars, a Khazar tribe. Stephen made them and their chieftain convert to Christianity, hence the creation of the diocese.

The chieftain’s family, the Abas, were influential in supporting Stephen’s Christian monarchy. Other Hungarian tribal clans also helped. With their support, Stephen was able to establish a network of Hungarian counties, each with a royal fortress which served as a county seat for matters economic and religious. The county seats quickly developed into market towns and economic centres.

A warm relationship between Hungary and the Holy Roman Empire helped Stephen increase his territory. In 1018, the aforementioned Boleslav the Brave ceded his lands in the Morava Valley to the king.

Relations with Otto Orseolo, the Doge of Venice, were also cordial. As Orseolo was related to the Byzantine Emperor Basil II, Hungary maintained friendly relations with that region, too. In fact, Stephen allied with Basil II in an invasion of the Balkan Peninsula to conquer the ‘barbarians’ in 1018.

Christianity in Hungary

During the invasion of the Balkans, Stephen had been collecting saints’ relics, for which he had a plan.

After his return to Hungary in 1018, he opened a new pilgrimage route near the old capital of Esztergom. This new route linked Hungary with Western Europe and the Holy Land.

To provide pilgrims with a centre of worship, Stephen founded a grand, triple-naved basilica dedicated to the Holy Virgin in Székesfehérvár. He donated his relics from the Balkans to the basilica. He also set up a cathedral chapter there and declared the city his new capital.

We do not normally think of the Middle Ages as a time of great international travel and communication. Yet, trade and pilgrimage routes had long been established across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

Therefore, it was not long before word reached the famous French abbot Odile of Cluny, who wrote a letter to Stephen which said, in part:

“those who have returned from the shrine of our Lord” testify to the king’s passion “towards the honour of our divine religion”.[122]

Stephen met pilgrims personally, which helped to increase his fame. He invited some of them to settle in Hungary. Among them was Gerard, a Benedictine monk from the Republic of Venice. It seems he helped Stephen establish several Benedictine monasteries in Hungary between 1020 and 1026.

In order to encourage Christians to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Stephen founded four pilgrim hostels. They were located in Constantinople, Ravenna, Rome and Jerusalem.

A historian of the period, Rodulfus Glaber, wrote of this new and attractive route for pilgrims (emphases mine):

[Almost] all those from Italy and Gaul who wished to go to the Sepulchre of the Lord at Jerusalem abandoned the usual route, which was by sea, making their way through the country of King Stephen. He made the road safe for everyone, welcomed as brothers all he saw and gave them enormous gifts. This action led many people, nobles and commoners, to go to Jerusalem.

Stephen became so well known and loved across Europe that even his coinage was forged. People wanted to own something associated with him. He began issuing silver dinars in 1020, inscribed with STEPHANUS REX (‘King Stephen’) and REGIA CIVITAS (‘royal city’). Forgeries of those coins have been found as far away as Sweden.

Family life

Gisela bore Stephen several sons. He outlived all of them.

Emeric — Henry — lived the longest. Stephen hoped Emeric would succeed him. To that end, Stephen wrote a book of Christian behaviour and morality for him called Admonitions. One brief passage reads:

Be obedient to me, my son. You are a child, descendant of rich parents, living among soft pillows, who has been caressed and brought up in all kinds of comforts; you have had a part neither in the troubles of the campaigns nor in the various attacks of the pagans in which almost my whole life has been worn away.

Another says:

My dearest son, if you desire to honor the royal crown, I advise, I counsel, I urge you above all things to maintain the Catholic and Apostolic faith with such diligence and care that you may be an example for all those placed under you by God, and that all the clergy may rightly call you a man of true Christian profession. Failing to do this, you may be sure that you will not be called a Christian or a son of the Church. Indeed, in the royal palace, after the faith itself, the Church holds second place, first constituted and spread through the whole world by His members, the apostles and holy fathers, And though she always produced fresh offspring, nevertheless in certain places she is regarded as ancient. However, dearest son, even now in our kingdom the Church is proclaimed as young and newly planted; and for that reason she needs more prudent and trustworthy guardians lest a benefit which the divine mercy bestowed on us undeservedly should be destroyed and annihilated through your idleness, indolence or neglect.

SaintEmeric.jpgEmeric (pictured at left) was named after Henry II, Gisela’s brother. Henry II was Holy Roman Emperor between 1014 and 1024, the year of his death. Like Stephen, Henry II fought several of the same people in the same lands, albeit on a larger scale. He and his wife, the Empress Cunigunde, were very devout. Their marriage produced no children and some historians posit they were celibate for religious reasons. Henry was canonised in 1147 and Cunigunde in 1200.

Emeric was born around 1007. In addition to religious and moral instruction from Stephen, Emeric also received much tutoring between the ages of 15 and 23 from the aforementioned Venetian monk Gerard.

In 1022, Emeric married. The identity of his wife is still disputed. However, like his uncle Henry II and aunt Cunigunde, Emeric and his wife had a chaste marriage.

By all accounts, Emeric was a saintly young man. It was to Hungarians’ sorrow that, on September 2, 1031, he was killed by a boar whilst hunting.

Stephen and Gisela had Emeric buried in the basilica at Székesfehérvár. After his death, Stephen fell into ill health, from which he never recovered. His territorial and conversion battles over, Stephen devoted his life to Christian practice. He kept various vigils and washed the feet of paupers in his capital.

Politically, Stephen was threatened without a direct successor. Historians dispute whether more than one plot was designed to depose him. His cousin Vasul, a suspected pagan, was thought to have launched an unsuccessful coup against him.

Stephen died on August 15, 1038. Like Emeric, he was buried in the basilica at Székesfehérvár.

His nephew, Peter Orseolo the Venetian, succeeded him. The next four decades were marked by civil wars, a partial return to paganism and foreign invasion.

As a result, Gisela left Hungary in 1045 and returned to her native Bavaria. She became a nun and was Abbess of the Niedernburg Abbey in Passau by 1060.

Canonisations

Szekesfehervar Puspokkut3.jpgPeace and order only returned once Vasul’s grandson Ladislaus I ascended to the throne in 1077.

During the intervening years, Emeric’s grave was the site of many wondrous healings and conversions.

On November 5, 1083, Ladislaus I presided over a grand ceremony at the basilica at which Pope Gregory VII officiated. Emeric’s bones were unearthed for the occasion. Gregory VII canonised Emeric, Stephen and the monk — later Bishop — Gerard of Csanád.

The statue in Székesfehérvár (pictured at right) shows Gerard of Csanád teaching Emeric.

Those travelling to or sightseeing in Hungary will have much fascinating history to discover.

St NicholasThe feast day of St Nicholas is on December 6.

This famous saint, revered around the world by Catholics and many Protestants, led a fascinating life of faith which also included persecution.

(Photo credit: St Nicholas Center)

Life events

Nicholas was born on March 15, 270 in Asia Minor, then known as Greek Anatolia. Today we call it Turkey.

He grew up in a wealthy Christian family and inherited a lot of money at a young age when his parents died of an epidemic which swept through the region.

Epiphanius and Johanna — sometimes referred to as Theophanes and Nonna — raised Nicholas in faith and holiness. Nicholas also willingly observed the canonical fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays. When his parents died, Nicholas went to live with his eponymous uncle who was the Bishop of Patara. There, Nicholas was tonsured and pursued theological studies. His uncle appointed him a reader and, when the time came, ordained him as a presbyter — a priest.

In 312, Nicholas went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to better understand our Lord’s life. He ended up staying three years, living with the monks of the monastery dedicated to the Great Martyr George — St George. They lived at Beit Jala, a mountain overlooking Bethlehem. Whilst visiting the great shrines commemorating events and places in the life of Christ, Nicholas prayed regularly. Then, one day, he felt the necessity to return to his homeland, specifically Myra.

He arrived in Myra in 317 as the people of city were in the process of deciding whom to elect as a bishop. They decided to elect Nicholas.

This was a time of intense persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. The emperor Diocletian ordered the young Bishop of Myra to be exiled and imprisoned. Diocletian did not bother filling prisons with criminals, only Christians. Nicholas met a great many other bishops — as well as deacons and priests — during his time in captivity. When Constantine became emperor, he freed the Christian prisoners and Nicholas was able to return to Myra.

The false teachings of the heretic Arius were making the rounds of the Christian world at that time. St Methodius wrote:

thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as death-dealing poison.

In 325, the Council of Nicaea formally declared Arianism a heresy and, to guard against present and future generations adopting it, wrote the Nicene Creed.

Although Methodius did not say whether Nicholas attended the Council, another account maintains that he was present. That account claims Nicholas was so angry that he slapped Arius in the face. The other clergy present found this un-Christian behaviour and took away not only his episcopal insignia but also sent him to prison. Tradition says that our Lord and Mary appeared. Nicholas was released and reinstated as Bishop of Myra.

Orthodox Christians believe that Nicholas was one of the signers of the Nicene Creed.

In Myra, Nicholas guarded his people against paganism. He destroyed several temples, including the main one of Artemis. It is said that when he destroyed it, the evil spirits fled, howling.

Nicholas felt responsible not only for his flock’s spiritual welfare but also for their material welfare. Many were needy. Others were innocent people falsely charged with crime. Nicholas was their tireless defender and helper.

Nicholas died in Myra on December 6, 343. He was buried there. By the time the emperor Justinian came to power, a basilica had been built in Constantinople to honour the new St Nicholas. The Church did not have formal canonisation procedures until the 10th century.

During the next several centuries, devotion to St Nicholas spread across all lands and among all ages. One Greek living in the 10th century wrote:

the West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies him. Wherever there are people, in the country and the town, in the villages, in the isles, in the furthest parts of the earth, his name is revered and churches are built in his honor. Images of him are set up, panegyrics preached and festivals celebrated. All Christians, young and old, men and women, boys and girls, reverence his memory and call upon his protection. And his favors, which know no limit of time and continue from age to age, are poured out over all the earth; the Scythians know them, as do the Indians and the barbarians, the Africans as well as the Italians.

The relics

Nicholas’s relics have continued to exude manna — a watery substance that smells like roses — from his death in Myra to the present day. This occurs only once a year, on December 6.

During the Saracen invasion in the 11th century, the shrine dedicated to him in Myra eventually fell to the Muslims.

The great Italian cities of the time decided to rescue the saint’s relics. Venice and Bari ended up being the two most powerful contenders. Bari was successful.

A group of men from the city set sail for Myra and were able to load the saint’s relics onto their ship. They returned home on May 9, 1087. That part of the country — Apulia — had maintained many Greek colonies, a factor that might have been an added incentive for the men. A new church (now a basilica) was built in St Nicholas’s honour and the then-Pope — now Blessed — Urban II was present for the installation of the relics. They remain there today. There is also a Greek Orthodox church close by.

Priests continue to extract one flask of Nicholas’s manna a year and will do so on Sunday, December 6, 2015. The manna is poured into small vials which can be purchased from the basilica.

Sailors from Bari will also process from the basilica on Sunday carrying St Nicholas’s statue. They have been doing this for centuries in the hope that he will keep them safe on the sea (see next section).

Stories and legends

The faithful quickly established a cult — devotion — of St Nicholas which spread across Christendom.

Many legends, no doubt some of which are true stories, spread about his goodness and generosity.

The following were to have happened during his lifetime.

The three imperial officers

In St Methodius’s time only one story circulated about Nicholas. That concerned the ill fate of three imperial officers travelling on duty to Phyrgia. When they returned from their assignment to Constantinople, the prefect Ablavius imprisoned them on false charges. It is said that Ablavius was a jealous man. Ablavius went further and appealed to Constantine to issue a death warrant for the three men. Constantine duly did.

When the imprisoned officers found out about their ultimate fate, they remembered the holy example of the Bishop of Myra. They prayed to God that Nicholas might somehow intercede on their behalf.

That night, Nicholas appeared in a dream to Constantine and to Ablavius. The next day, Constantine and Ablavius told each other of their dreams. They sent for the three officers who told them of their prayers for Nicholas’s intervention. Afraid and awestruck, Constantine freed the men and wrote to the Bishop of Myra asking him to pray for the peace of the world. That is how much spiritual power Constantine thought Nicholas had.

The sailors

A group of mariners encountered a storm off the coast of Lycia. Frightened, yet faithful, they asked for help from the Bishop of Myra. He appeared before them and guided their vessel back to port. Sailors travelling in the Aegean and Ionian seas often remembered St Nicholas. They:

wore their “star of St. Nicholas” and wished one another a good voyage in the phrase “May St. Nicholas hold the tiller.”

The poor man with three daughters

A poor man had three daughters whom he hoped would marry. However, he could not afford to pay the required dowries to their bridegrooms — a custom that continues in various cultures today.

He was beside himself with worry.

One night, unbeknownst to the poor father, Nicholas crept onto the man’s chimney and dropped a bag of gold into a stocking that was hanging by the fire to dry. This meant that the man’s eldest daughter was now able to marry.

Some time later, a second bag of gold arrived in a stocking hanging by the fire. It was for the second daughter.

Intrigued, the man stayed up late at night by the fire to discover who was leaving him dowry money.

Finally, one night, he saw that the mysterious benefactor — with the third bag of gold — was Nicholas, who begged him not to tell anyone.

It is difficult to maintain silence in such circumstances, and it was not long before several people knew. After that, word spread quickly that anonymous gifts came from Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra.

The three bags of gold translated into three balls of gold — hence the saint’s protection of pawnbrokers — and also into satsumas or oranges for children’s stockings, suggesting gold. These fruits, until recently, were expensive; children considered them highly valued treats.

The theological students; children and the butcher

Three theological students were on their way to study in Athens.

They stopped at a local inn, where the evil innkeeper murdered them. He hid their remains in a pickling vat.

Some time later, Nicholas was travelling along the same route. He stayed at the same inn. That night, he dreamt about the murders. He awoke and immediately summoned the innkeeper. Nicholas prayed fervently. When he had finished, the students had been resurrected in full health.

In France, the story involves three children who got lost and fell prey to an evil butcher. St Nicholas appeared and appealed to God to resurrect them and return them to their families. God heard and fulfilled the prayer. This is one legend linking the saint to children.

The Arab pirates and the boy from Myra

This is another which also relates to children.

I have separated this story from the others. It could be relevant to the next section.

Some years after Nicholas’s death, the people from Myra were celebrating his feast day. However, their joy was short-lived as a gang of Arab pirates arrived from Crete. They looted the Church of Saint Nicholas and, before they sailed home, kidnapped a young boy, Basilios, an only child.

The emir wanted Basilios to be his cup-bearing slave.

For the next year, the boy’s parents were understandably gripped by anxiety. Meanwhile, Basilios brought the emir his wine in a golden cup every day.

When the next St Nicholas Day arrived, Basilios’s mother was too grief-stricken to join in the celebrations. She stayed home and prayed.

The story goes that, as Basilios was about his duties for the emir, he was suddenly whisked up, up and away. St Nicholas appeared to the boy, calmed him down, blessed him and set him back down at his home in Myra.

Basilios was said to have appeared before his parents with the emir’s golden cup in his hands.

This is the first legend that circulated about Nicholas’s protection of children.

This legend illustrates why we have the association of St Nicholas-Father Christmas travelling across the sky.

Black Pete — Zwarte Piet

I put Basilios’s story above because I theorise it relates to the Dutch Zwarte Piet, St Nicholas’s mythical helper.

St Nicholas Day was a feast for everyone. It is unclear how or where the custom arose, but putting shoes out for a gift from the saint appears in Utrecht’s St Nicholas Church records in 1427. Even adults participated.Not a Zwarte Piet here

Children were given more particular gifts. Bad children were given lumps of coal or switches for whippings. Good children were given fruit, biscuits or a toy.

Jan Steen’s The Feast of St Nicholas (1665-1668), pictured — courtesy of Netherlands by Numbers — shows a typical scene. The boy who is crying has a switch in his shoe.

Although countries of the Reformation banned celebrating saints’ feasts, the Netherlands continued to observe St Nicholas Day.

For most of the centuries when the Dutch celebrated this feast, St Nicholas always operated alone.

History

Then, in the 18th century, the saint somehow acquired a helper, Zwarte Piet — Black Pete.

A century later, one Dutchman later would codify Black Pete into every one’s mind.

Before going into his story, please consider the aforementioned legend of Basilios, whom St Nicholas rescued, and The Netherlands’ place in history from the 17th century.

History Extra reminds us that, at the time, the Lowlands — of which The Netherlands was part — were ruled by Spain under the Hapsburgs. The Dutch would have seen Spanish soldiers.

In the run-up to St Nicholas Day, children were often told that if they were very, very bad, a man named Black Pete might bundle them in a bag and take them to Spain.

These days, being bundled off to Spain sounds pretty good. However, that wasn’t always the case.

In fact, I had an ex-colleague from The Netherlands whose parents used to threaten him with kidnap to Spain in the 1960s. It scared him into being good! Spain was, even then, far away and foreign.

So, how did Black Pete come into the picture? History Extra gives us two possible reasons.

One concerns history. All of the listed possibilities reminded me of the aforementioned Basilios:

Black Pete’s origins are … problematic. There are suggestions that he started life as a Moorish servant from Spain, a Turkish orphan rescued by St Nick, or an Ethiopian slave freed by him.

The other concerns the spiritual element as well as colour symbolism of good and evil from paganism to Christianity:

Among his miracles and good deeds St Nicholas also had time to combat the devil and medieval pictures show him with Satan in chains. The devil is often painted black, but it’s possible Pete is pre-Christian. One of his jobs is to look after Sleipnir, Santa’s horse. He’s an elegant but normal nag and has the same name as Norse god Odin’s eight-legged steed. Odin is often portrayed taking dead souls back to the underworld. Guess what colour they are? Black.

In any event, in the popular mind, the Turkish bishop somehow ended up in Spain. He and his servant Pete would make the trip to arrive in the Netherlands every December 5-6 and punish or reward children accordingly. St Nicholas — Sinterklaas (St Klaas — St ‘Claus)) to the Dutch, in the same way we say St Nick — gave the instruction for the gift. Pete fulfilled his bidding.

The story that changed everything

In 1850, Dutch schoolteacher Jan Schenkman published a wildly imaginative and equally inaccurate story of St Nicholas and Black Pete.

Sinterklaas and his Servant has the two sailing to the Netherlands from Spain by steam ship. It was meant as just a bit of fun, no doubt. But there might also have been some excitement for young minds of the day. Steam ships were a new and technologically advanced form of transport at the time. Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe was also a popular novel. It tells the story of a Knight Templar who returns from Palestine with two black Saracen servants. Schenkman must have had his finger on the pulse, because his story took off.

Slaves on horseback?Black Pete was dressed in Saracen attire whilst Nicholas wore his episcopal robes. The postcard ‘St Nicholas and his Servant’ (same root as ‘knight’) — courtesy of The Netherlands by numbers — shows a scene from a St Nicholas Day celebration of the era.

Despite the mild mischief he engaged in, Pete was always a force for good. However, this does not come without complications today.

Present day controversy rages

Over the past few years, people of colour in the Netherlands have been both sad and angry about Black Pete. Some are sad because they have been called Pete — this includes women, too — whilst others are angry that an annual national celebration includes a reminder of slavery. Others are offended to see some Petes acting like buffoons.

However, Pete continues to be an even better guy these days; he no longer hands out punishment gifts or kidnaps children.

In fact, whilst Nicholas is on his horse, Pete’s the chap who’s busy handing out sweets to children eagerly lining the streets of Dutch towns and cities.

Yet, he’s still a troublesome character.

History Extra says:

Earlier I deliberately wrote of Zwart Pete’s “darker” side. It is this unthinking western link between evil, death, colour and coarse caricature that so worries some. Others point out that it is Pete who is really loved by the kids, not the stuffy Bishop, and they always add that it’s a bit of harmless fun. Here, it’s a debate that is as seasonal as Christmas itself.

VQR Online has an excellent article by a black American who lives in The Netherlands. In some St Nicholas parades, Black Pete also holds the bridle of St Nicholas’s horse, suggesting servitude. The author, Emily Raboteau, writes:

In this last posture, he reminded me a little of a lawn jockey, that American holdover from the days of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Clearly, this was why Zwarte Piet haunted and sickened me in Amsterdam.

At the Amsterdam procession she attended, Raboteau made these observations:

“Piet, Piet!” the children cried. It seemed they loved him more than Sinterklaas, who carried a miter and never smiled …

While I munched on those little Euro-​coin-​sized cookies made soggy by the rain, one particular child captured my attention. She was older than the others, maybe ten or eleven. Her makeup was unevenly applied, as if she’d smudged her face with dirt. In her ear was a cochlear implant, and when she shouted Piet’s name you could hear the deafness in her voice, but also the joy. Her mother stood directly behind her, happy to see her daughter made so happy. I couldn’t be angry with that girl, who was guileless, nor with her mother, who had grown up with the tradition. One Piet stopped clowning long enough to give the girl cookies. I must admit it made me feel good to see that girl smiling. I felt my baby quickening inside me and looked forward to future Christmases: eggnog, “Silent Night,” midnight mass, the smell of the tree. I remembered my felt stocking stuffed with walnuts, tangerines, and candy canes, and choosing the biggest present to open on Christmas Eve. I knew I would gladly lie about Santa Claus to make my kid’s childhood more magical, just as my parents had done for me. Was there an ingredient of love in all this Zwarte Piet stuff?

She illustrated her article with a number of representations of Black Pete.

I studied the photo of the Jumbo brand chocolate boxes. One can buy a box of St Nicholas chocolates or two different kinds of Black Pete.

That alone tells one something: Black Pete is more popular. His representations also look super-friendly whereas St Nicholas’s is just creepy.

Some supermarkets have withdrawn these chocolates from sale after protests from Dutch blacks and those born in former colonies, such as Surinam. In fact, when short motion pictures became affordable, a few St Nicholas Day processions were recorded on film. The Netherlands by numbers says that one was made in Amsterdam in 1934 or 1935:

Sinterklaas was accompanied by a lot of white heralds in outfits very similar to today’s Zwarte Piet. And, according to Sinterklaas expert Marie-Jose Wouters, the procession also included six Surinamese sailors whose boat was in the harbour at the time. They are, alas, not on the film. But it could just be that the very first Zwarte Piets in the procession were Surinamese.

However, in 2012, Amsterdam city council took a local survey:

39% of people of Surinamese origin don’t like the idea of Zwarte Piet being at their children’s school, nor do 28% of Ghanians, 24% of Antilleans and 17% of English speakers. However the survey found no people of Moroccan origin thought Zwarte Piet was an issue. A survey in October 2013 for television programme EditieNL found 96% of the Dutch think the Zwarte Piet character should stay.

Oddly, although technically Caucasian, St Nicholas was from Asia Minor. It is unclear whether he would have owned a slave and we do not know what his circumstances were with regard to having servants. Schenkman’s story — rather than actual history — might be what is stoking people’s objections today.

It is interesting to discover that all the objection started in 1968 — that fateful year which gave rise to a twisted era in much of Europe and North America that continues today. A woman named M C Grünbauer said:

it no longer appropriate to continue to celebrate our dear old Saint Nicholas feast in its actual form.

Conclusion

Perhaps one solution would be to go back to the real story of St Nicholas in as far as people know it. Black Pete’s not part of that history, certainly not as represented.

I’ve run on quite a bit here. I’ll be back next year with more information on St Nicholas and Black Pete references, including how the saint became part of Christmas.

For now, here is another story about St Nicholas by Margaret Meyerkort, Wynstones School, Whaddon, Gloucester, England. The last two sentences sum up this feast perfectly:

The earth is wide and great. There, where St. Nicholas cannot go himself, he asks a good and pious person to go to the children and take them apples and nuts and tell the children of the coming of the Christ Child.

And that’s all that matters.

A recent development in the new syncretic New Age Contemplative Christianity movement is to use a saying which St Francis of Assisi used:

Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.

Many Catholics and Protestants are adopting this approach to evangelisation.

There’s a problem with that. According to St Francis’s biographer Mark Galli, he never said such a thing.

In a 2009 article for Christianity Today, ‘Speak the Gospel‘, Galli tells us (emphases mine):

Francis of Assisi is said to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”

… The problem is that he did not say it. Nor did he live it. And those two contra-facts tell us something about the spirit of our age.

In fact:

no biography written within the first 200 years of his death contains the saying. It’s not likely that a pithy quote like this would have been missed by his earliest disciples.

And:

Second, in his day, Francis was known as much for his preaching as for his lifestyle.

Galli’s book reveals that Francis began preaching early in his ministry, in the Church of St George, the church of his childhood and adolescence. He went on to preach regularly in the Cathedral of St Rufinus:

He usually preached on Sundays, spending Saturday evenings devoted to prayer and meditation reflecting on what he would say to the people the next day.

He then became an itinerant preacher, openly proclaiming the Gospel to rich and poor alike:

sometimes preaching in up to five villages a day, often outdoors. In the country, Francis often spoke from a bale of straw or a granary doorway. In town, he would climb on a box or up steps in a public building. He preached to serfs and their families as well as to the landholders, to merchants, women, clerks, and priests—any who gathered

It’s time we put away the romantic, ethereal ideal we have of St Francis. No doubt the millions of statues, beautiful though they are, portraying him with a bird in his hand have gone some length over the past several decades to reinforce a notion that he was a mystical, silent, holy man who cared more for nature than preaching.

However, we would be mistaken. He loved an active ministry — as well as all of God’s creation.

So, let’s ensure that we put away false ideas of St Francis’s ministry. He was very much oriented to people and to preaching. Instead, we would do better to imitate what he actually did — spread the Gospel message in words to rich and poor!

Ed Stetzer has a good article, also in Christianity Today, on how to do this: ‘Preach the Gospel, and Since It’s Necessary, Use Words’. In short, use words people can understand, be sincere, evangelise outside of church as well as inside it! He says:

The gospel requires, demands even, words. So, let’s preach the gospel, and let’s use words, since they’re necessary. May they be clear and bold words that call those inside and outside the church to follow Jesus.

St George Paolo Uccello Musee Andre Jacquemart ParisIt’s April 23, the feast day of St George, patron saint of England and several other countries.

George was a soldier and martyr. Several legends about his valour soon circulated after his death.

We continue to connect him with slaying the dragon, as depicted in Paolo Uccello’s painting above. This is said to have taken place in a town in Libya called Silene where a dragon terrorised the townspeople. They tried to placate the beast by feeding it animals. When they ran out, they began giving him human beings. The princess Cleolinda, daughter of their king, was about to be sacrificed in desperation. At that point, George rode up on his white charger, dismounted and fought the dragon on foot. When he had subdued the beast, he dragged it through Silene and slayed it in front of the townspeople. Cleolinda’s father offered George a bag of gold for his efforts, but the valiant soldier asked that the money be given to the poor instead.

The Royal Society of St George explains (emphases mine):

The story is a powerful allegory, emblematic of the triumph of good over evil; but it also teaches of enduring Christian faith in the extreme and the trust that at all times should be placed in the Almighty by the invocation of the name of St. George, Soldier, Saint and Martyr.

George was born around 280 AD in Cappadocia, in present day Turkey. He became a cavalryman in the Roman army at the age of 17 during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian. He quickly earned a reputation for his remarkable virtue, military bearing, physical strength and good looks.

He was promoted to the rank of Millenary or Tribunus Militum, the equivalent rank of a colonel today. He commanded 1,000 soldiers and was a favourite of Diocletian.

Although we do not know at what point George became a Christian, he practised his faith at a time when most Christians in the Roman Empire hid in fear. Persecution was rife. Diocletian’s second-in-command Galerius decreed that Persia, which he had recently conquered, would be subject to the pagan religion and all Christian places of worship destroyed. Any scripture would also be burnt. Furthermore, Christians would lose their rights as citizens and perhaps their lives.

When George saw an edict to this effect as he entered the city of Nicodemia, he immediately tore it down. The local Christians were relieved to have such a staunch defender of the faith on their side. He, in turn, was compassionate towards them.

As both Diocletian and Galerius were in the city at the time, George knew that he would soon be tried. In preparation, he sold his worldly possessions and freed his personal slaves. The Royal Society of St George tells us:

When he appeared before Diocletian, it is said that St. George bravely denounced him for his unnecessary cruelty and injustice and that he made an eloquent and courageous speech. He stirred the populace with his powerful and convincing rhetoric against the Imperial Decree to persecute Christians. Diocletian refused to acknowledge or accede to St. George’s reasoned, reproachful condemnation of his actions. The Emperor consigned St George to prison with instructions that he be tortured until he denied his faith in Christ. 

St George, having defended his faith was beheaded at Nicomedia near Lyddia in Palestine on the 23rd of April in the year 303 AD.

George’s head was taken to Rome where it rests in a church which was named after him.

It is no wonder that the exploits and faith of George circulated around Europe.

Today, community celebrations are taking place around England. Lytham St Annes has four days of events, Southampton has scheduled a St George’s celebration, Nottingham has a parade, and the West Somerset Railway a special fish and chips lunch. In London, the Coldstream Guards are giving a St George’s Day concert, Trafalgar Square has live music with food stalls and St George’s Hanover Square will feature a concert with the Royal British Legion’s Central Band.

May St George serve as an example to us all. As the Britannia site explains:

Saint George is a leading character in one of the greatest poems in the English language, Spencer’s Faerie Queene (1590 and 1596). St George appears in Book 1 as the Redcrosse (sic) Knight of Holiness, protector of the Virgin. In this guise he may also be seen as the Anglican church upholding the monarchy of Elizabeth I:

But on his breast a bloody Cross he bore
The dear remembrance of his dying Lord,
For whose sweet sake that glorious badge we wore
And dead (as living) ever he adored.

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