Keeping Watch: The Easter Vigil


The Easter Vigil also called the Paschal Vigil or the Great Vigil of Easter is a service in traditional Christian churches as the first official celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus. It is traditionally at this time that people are baptized and that adult catechumens are received into full communion with the Church. It is held in the hours of darkness on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Sunday–most commonly in the evening on Holy Saturday or midnight. It is the first celebration of Easter, days traditionally being considered to begin at sunset.

In the West, liturgical churches including the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran, it is among the most important services of public worship in the church year and is the first time since the start of Lent, that the exclamatory “Alleluia” is used, a distinctive feature of the Easter season. 

The original twelve Old Testament readings for the Easter Vigil survive in an ancient manuscript belonging to the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Armenian Easter Vigil also preserves what is seen as the original length of the traditional gospel reading of the Vigil (from the Last Supper to the end of Matthew’s Gospel). In the earliest Jerusalem usage the vigil began with Psalm 117 [118] sung with the response, “This is the day which the Lord has made.” Then followed twelve Old Testament readings, all but the last being followed by a prayer with kneeling.

(1) Genesis 1:1-3:24 (Creation and the Fall) (2) Genesis 22:1-18 (the binding of Isaac) (3) Exodus 12:1-24 (the Passover) (4) Jonah 1:1-4:11 (Jonah) (5) Exodus 14:24-15:21 (crossing the Red Sea) (6) Isaiah 60:1-13 (the promise of Jerusalem) (7) Job 38:2-28 (Lord’s answer to Job) (8) 2 Kings 2:1-22 (the assumption of Elijah) (9) Jeremiah 31:31-34 (New Covenant) (10) Joshua 1:1-9 (Entering the Promised Land) (11) Ezekiel 37:1-14 (Valley of Dry Bones) (12) Daniel 3:1-29 (The Three Youths) 

The final reading leads into the Song of the Three Children and is not followed by a prayer with kneeling, but is followed by the prokeimenon of the Eucharistic Liturgy. 

In Roman Catholicism, the Vigil consists of four parts:

1. Service of Light 

2. Liturgy of the Word

3. Christian Initiation and the Renewal of Baptismal Vows

4. Holy Eucharist

Because the new liturgical day begins at sunset, the vigil starts between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter outside the church, where an Easter fire is kindled and the Paschal Candle is blessed and then lit. The candle will be used throughout the season of Easter, remaining in the sanctuary or near the lectern, and throughout the coming year at baptisms and funerals, reminding all that Christ is “light and life.”

After the candle has been lit, the ancient dramatic rite of Lucernarium begins. The deacon carries the candle through the nave of the church which is in complete darkness, stopping three times to chant an acclamation such as “Christ our Light” or “Light of Christ” (Lumen Christi) to which the people respond “Thanks be to God” or “Deo Gratias.” As the candle proceeds through the church, all present receive candles which are lit from the Paschal candle. As this symbolic Light of Christ spreads throughout those gathered, the darkness is decreased. The deacon, priest, or a cantor now chants the Exsultet (also known as the “Easter Proclamation”) after which the people are seated for the Liturgy of the Word. Once the candle has been placed on its stand in the sanctuary, the lights of the church are switched on and the assembly extinguish their candles. Though in some churches the custom is to continue the liturgy by candlelight or without any lights until the Gloria.

The Liturgy of the Word consists of seven readings from the Old Testament (Genesis 1:1-2:2; Genesis 22:1-18; Exodus 14:15-15:1; Isaiah 54:4-14; Isaiah 55:1-11; Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4; Ezekiel 36:16-17, 18-28. The account of the crossing of the Red Sea is given special attention since this event is at the center of the Passover, in which Christ’s death and resurrection is the fulfillment of. Each reading is followed by a psalm or a biblical canticle sung responsively and a prayer relating what has been read in the Old Testament to the Mystery of Christ. After the readings are finished, the candles are lit on the altar and the Gloria in Excelsis Deo is sung for the first time since before Lent, and the church bells and organ, silent since that point on Holy Thursday, are sounded again–although it is customary in some churches to have no organ playing during Lent at all, except when accompanying hymns. The Gospel of the Resurrection then follows, along with a homily.

At that point, the water of baptismal font is blessed any catechumens and candidates for full communion are initiated into the church by baptism and/or confirmation. After the celebration of these sacraments of initiation, the congregation renews their baptismal vows and receive the sprinkling of baptismal water. The prayers of the faithful then follow. After the prayers, the Liturgy of the Eucharist continues as normal. This is the first mass of Easter Day. During the service, the newly baptized receive Holy Communion for the first time. According to the Missal, the Eucharist should finish before dawn. 

In the Anglican Communion, the Easter Vigil is not universal but its use has become far more common in recent decades. The service follows more or less the same form as the Roman Catholic one. Though in the Anglican service, there are up to nine readings from the Old Testament. And the Gloria is sung after the Baptism or Renewal of Baptismal Vows. Confirmation only happens if a bishop is present since he/she is the only one who can confirm someone. 

The Lutheran service is also similar. And like in Anglicanism, the service is enjoying a renewed popularity. The Easter Vigil is also a very important service in Eastern Orthodoxy as well and commences at midnight Saturday. 

Two Men and a House They Built



On a lake in southeastern Wisconsin, is a house, Nashotah House, a traditional and theologically conservative seminary in the Episcopal Church. It is also officially recognized by the Anglican Church of North America. Here is the story of two of the men who founded the school. 

Bishop Jackson Kemper (1789-1870) was the first missionary bishop of the Episcopal Church. He was born in the Hudson River Valley of New York, where his parents had taken temporary refuge during a smallpox outbreak in New York City. Baptized David Jackson Kemper by Dr. Benjamin Moore, the assistant rector of Trinity Church, NYC. He eventually dropped the name “David.” His father was Colonel Daniel Kemper, a former aide-to-camp to General George Washington at the battles of Germantown and Monmouth during the American Revolution. His mother, Elizabeth (Marius) Kemper, descended from well-known families of the Dutch New Amsterdam era.

At Columbia College, he studied theology under Dr. Henry Hobart and graduated in 1809 as valedictorian of his class. Having moved to Philadelphia, he was ordained a  deacon in 1811 and priest in 1814. In 1835, the Episcopal Church decided to consecrate missionary bishops to preach the gospel west of the settled areas. Kemper was chosen and he promptly headed west. He found that clergy who had lived all their lives in the East were slow to respond to the call to join him on the frontier. So he recruited priests from among men already in the West and established a college in St. Louis for that very purpose. He went on to found Nashotah House and Racine College in Wisconsin and founded the mission parish that became the Cathedral Church of All Saints in Milwaukee. 

Kemper constantly urged a more extensive outreach to the Native American peoples and the translations of the Bible and services of the Church into their languages. His first official act as Missionary Bishop, in what would become Wisconsin, was laying the cornerstone for a new frame building for Hobart Church, Duck Creek, which served the Oneida Indian Mission. But more importantly, it was at that church that he ordained William Adams and James Lloyd Breck, two of the men who would assist him in establishing Nashotah House on October 9, 1842. He also ordained a member of the Ottawa tribe, Emmagahbowh, as deacon in 1859. These were the first ordinations in what would become Wisconsin. 

Kemper supported the Oxford Movement, although he maintained the importance of separation from the Catholic Church. In 1846, he purchased a property adjacent to Nashotah House and spent the rest of his life there. From 1847 to 1854, he served as provisional bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Wisconsin, and then served as its diocesan bishop from 1854 until his death in 1870. He also supported the creation of a new diocese, though he did not live to see the formation of the Diocese of Fond du Lac come to fruition. Kemper is honored on May 24th in the Episcopal Church.

James Lloyd Breck (1818-1876) was a priest, educator and missionary of the Episcopal Church. Born in Philadelphia County, he went to high school at the Flushing Institute, founded by William Augustus Muhlenberg, who inspired him to resolve at the age of sixteen to devote himself to missionary activity. He received his bachelors from the University of Pennsylvania in 1838 and a B.D. from the General Theological Seminary in 1841.

In 1842, now a deacon, he went to the Wisconsin frontier, with two of his classmates under the direction of Bishop Kemper, to found Nashotah House as a monastic community, seminary and center for theological work. It continues today as a seminary. Breck was ordained into the priesthood by Kemper later that year. 

In 1850, he moved to Minnesota, where he founded a school for boys and girls such as Breck School in Golden Valley, MN and the Seabury Divinity School at Fairbault, MN. He also started missionary work among the Ojiibwa. On June 23, 1850, on top of Grandad Bluff, Breck celebrated the first Episcopal eucharist in the La Crosse area. 

In 1867, he moved to Benicia, California to build another two institutions. Breck was known as “The Apostle of the Wilderness.”

Breck died in Benecia in 1876. He was buried beneath the altar of the church he served as rector but later his body was removed and reinterred on the grounds of Nashotah House in Wisconsin. The recommittal service there had 14 bishops, around 100 priests and numerous lay people in attendance. As legacy, Breck School was established in 1886 in Wilder, Minnesota. 

Nashotah House considers itself to be within the orthodox Anglo-Catholic tradition. Overall, the faculty support traditional theology and conceptions of Christian doctrine in opposition to liberal theologies. Graduates themselves come from a variety of jurisdictions both inside and outside of the Episcopal Church. Nashotah House sees its mission to form priests and church leaders from all over the Anglican Communion, including several international students.

Nashotah began as a community inspired by traditional monastic life of prayer, work and study. James Lloyd Breck‘s vision was to create a center for Christian formation in the (then) wilderness that would also be movement to propagate other communities for the purpose of evangelizing the frontier. Today, much of this vision remains intact and students still live a Benedictine cycle of prayer,work and study. The life of the Seminary seeks to form the character of priests and leaders into the image of Christ. Various students have been involved in mission work around the Anglican Communion as well.

“Seminarians are invited to participate in an ascetic, disciplined, prayerful season of spiritual growth in Christ” in which they “practice the Benedictine Rule of daily prayer, labor, and study.” Daily routine includes Morning Prayer, Mass, breakfast, classes, lunch, and Solemn Evensong.

172 years later, the mission founded Kemper and Breck continues today and the impact of the House continues to impact the world for Christ. These two men would be pleased to see that. 

The Man Behind the Rule: St. Benedict of Nursia



The magnitude of Benedict’s significance in church history is not matched, unfortunately, 

by the knowledge of his life. About forty years after his death (and the year of his death is not known), Pope Gregory I wrote a series of dialogues on noteworthy Christians of previous times; his account of Benedict contains almost all the solid biographical information we have.


He was born in about the year 480 in Nursia in north Umbria in Italy, along with his twin sister St. Scholastica. Benedict was the son of a Roman noble of Nursia. He was educated at Rome, where he was repelled by the vices of the city and in about the year 500, he abandoned the city and fled to the mountainous town of Subiaco, some forty miles away. He seems to have been about nineteen to twenty years of age. 


On his way there, he met a monk named Romanus, whose monastery was on a mountain overhanging a cave. The wise monk discussed with Benedict the purpose which had brought him to Subiaco and gave him the monk’s habit. By his advice, Benedict became a hermit and lived for three years, unknown to men, in this cave above a lake. Romanus served Benedict in every way he could. The monk apparently visited him frequently and on fixed days brought him food. 


During these years of solitude, Benedict matured in mind and character and in his knowledge of himself and his fellow man. Despite his desire for solitude, his holiness, austerities and spiritual insight became well-known. He secured the respect of those in the area, so much so that upon the death of the abbot of a monastery in the neighborhood, the community at Vicovaro came to him and begged him to be their abbot. Benedict consented. 


But the monks came to resent Benedict’s attempts to reform the monastery along with his strict rule of life and the monks tried to poison him and he returned to his cave at Subiaco. The legend goes that they first tried to poison his drink. He prayed a blessing over the cup and the cup shattered. They then tried to poison his bread. When he prayed a blessing over the bread, a raven swept in and snatched the bread away. This is why Benedict is sometimes portrayed with a raven. From this time forward, the miracles seem to have become quite frequent and many people, attracted by his sanctity and character, came to Subiaco to be under his guidance and Subiaco became a center of spirituality and learning. For them, he built in the valley twelve monasteries, in each of them he placed a superior with twelve monks. 


In 525, he moved south to Monte Cassino where he destroyed a pagan temple to Apollo on its crest, brought the neighboring people back to Christianity and in about 530 he started to build the monastery that was to be the birthplace of Western monasticism. The monastery exists to this day, sitting on a hilltop between Rome and Naples. He remained the father or abbot of all the monasteries he founded. Soon disciples again flocked to him as his reputation for holiness, wisdom and miracles spread far and wide. Benedict organized the monks at Monte Cassino into a single monastic community. It was most likely after the arrival at Monte Cassino and as part of the effort to reform the general practice of monasticism that Benedict composed his regula  or Rule prescribing common sense, a life of moderate asceticism, prayer, study and work, and community life under one superior known as an abbot or father. It stressed obedience, stability, zeal and had the Divine Office as the center of monastic life. It was to influence spiritual and monastic life in the West for centuries to come. 


This famous Rule soon won nearly universal approval as providing shape for monasticism in the West. Benedict’s Rule was also read with appreciation in the East. It became the norm for tens of thousands of new monastic communities in Europe and it served as an inspiration for the slightly altered ideals that created the Mendicant Orders (or “friars”) in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. “Never in the recorded history of Christianity has a person whose own life remains so obscure,’ writes historian Mark Noll, ‘done a deed with greater public consequences.”  While ruling his monks, most of whom including Benedict, were not ordained, he counseled rulers and popes and ministered to the poor and destitute around him. 


Benedict died of a high fever at Monte Cassino at its magnificent abbey, while standing in prayer to God. According to tradition, this occurred on March 21, 543 or 547. But due to the observance of Lent, he is commemorated on July 11, including in the Anglican Church.  He was buried with his sister in the same grave. 


He is the patron saint of Europe, students, monks, against poison, farmers, cave explorers and many more. It is quite an impressive list and it shows how influential St. Benedict is. In fact, the early Middle Ages have been called “the Benedictine centuries.” Benedict lived at the end of the classical age when Roman civilization had been overrun by barbarian hordes. It was the Benedictines who, in the words of Pope Paul VI, “brought Christian culture to the peoples scattered from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, from Ireland to Poland.” During the Dark Ages, Benedictines taught people how to read and write, to cultivate the soil, to develop crafts and the arts, and to pray. In short, Benedict helped bring about stability during a very unstable time period.


In April 2008, Pope Benedict XVI discussed the influence St. Benedict had on Western Europe. The pope emeritus said that “with his life and work St. Benedict exercised a fundamental influence on the development of European civilization and culture” and helped Europe to emerge from the “dark night of history” that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Benedict of named the patron protector of Europe by Pope Paul VI in 1964. In 1980, Pope John Paul II declared him co-patron of Europe, together with Saints Cyril and Methodius. To this day, The Rule of St. Benedict is the most common and influential Rule used by monasteries and monks, more than 1400 years after its writing. 

One Man’s Prayer: World Vision



In 1947, Robert (Bob) Pierce (1914-1978) worked for Youth for Christ, whose mission was to evangelize the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The young and compassionate evangelist held a crusade in China where thousands came to faith in Christ. He then encouraged them to share their new faith with their loved ones. On the trip, he met Tena Hoelkedoer, a missionary teacher. She presented him a battered and abandoned child named White Jade who had given her life to Christ at Pierce’s crusade and had shared her new faith. She was then beaten and abandoned by her family. Unable to care for this little girl herself, Tena asked Pierce, “What are you going to do about it?” He then gave the woman his last five dollars and promised to send her the same amount each month to help her care for the child. It was the just the beginning.

Bob Pierce saw the widespread hunger and need and his heart started to stir with compassion. He wrote this short prayer in the leaflet of his Bible: “Let my heart break with the things that break the heart of God.” Dragging a movie camera across Asia-China was soon closed-Pierce showed the resulting pictures to church audiences in North America. He then asked for money to help these children. He showed their faces and asked his fellow Christians to “adopt” one. In 1950, he incorporated this personal vision as World Vision. 

In 1959, journalist Richard Gehman wrote that “Pierce cannot conceal his true emotions. He seems to me to be one of the few naturally, uncontrollably honest men I have ever met.” Pastor Richard Halverson wrote that Pierce “prayed more earnestly and importunely than anyone else I have ever known. It was as though prayer burned within him. … Bob Pierce functioned from a broken heart.” 

In 1967, he resigned from World Vision. He then went on to found the Christian humanitarian organization, Samaritan’s Purse. In 1978, he passed away from leukemia. 

Since then, World Vision has grown into one of the largest relief and development organizations in the world, with 45,000 staff working in nearly 100 countries around the globe, helping transform the lives of nearly 4.2 million children in child sponsorship programs worldwide (2012) and providing $93 million for disaster relief and rebuilding efforts. And as the need continues to grow, so does the work of World Vision. 

Prohibition in America



American consumption of alcohol has never been a joke, and in spite of many attempts to treat it that way, neither was the effort to control it. Consumption of alcohol was a lot higher than it was today. There were five times the amount of saloons and historians sometimes referred to nineteenth-century America as the “alcoholic republic.” Behind the Eighteenth Amendment (1919), which prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” lay more than a century of organized effort to stem the flow of alcohol. It may come as a surprise to some people that the temperance movement, which confusingly has always meant total abstinence, had nothing to do at all with the Puritans. Cotton Mather declared wine to be “of God” and drunkenness of the devil. The movement arose out of complex developments at the start of the nineteenth century. The overproduction of corn (more salable as whiskey than as grain) and the social anxieties that came from the westward movement and the swift democratization of national life combined to create a staggering liquor problem. In some regions, annual consumption of absolute alcohol exceeded ten gallons for each adult white male. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln were only a few of the public figures who spoke out against the national excess of alcohol. 

But evangelical leaders, with Lyman Beecher in the vanguard, became the chief opponents of booze. In their minds the progress of the gospel and the moral perfection depended on the control of alcohol. Neal Dow, who spearheaded the campaign for the first state prohibition law (Maine, 1846) called the effort “Christ’s work” for which “every true soldier of the Cross” should fight.

After the Civil War, the prohibition movement went national. Americans were actually drinking less. Yet the hazards of overindulgence seemed greater in the new cities and in its effects upon industrial production. The tavern, once a place of community conviviality, had now become the saloon. And the saloon business-the “whore-making, criminal-making, madman-acting business”as prohibitionists called it-loomed as threatening to America as Communism would in the 1950s.

The campaign for prohibition involved many people. Methodist Frances Willard, a sometime associate of Dwight Moody, was the driving force the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Her public activity, which included women’s suffrage, marked a new prominence for women’s evangelical reform in the U.S. The Anti-Saloon League, founded in 1893, became a national movement and the most effective lobbying tool for prohibition in the states and in Congress. The Methodists, with their perfectionist theology, led most of the Anglo-American Protestant denominations in the fight. Some Catholics, preeminently archbishop John Ireland, also joined the fight against alcohol. These Catholics saw prohibition both as a means to end a social ill and prove the Americanness of their denomination, whose Irish and German members routinely slandered them as drunkards. Businessman, social scientists, and proponents of the social gospel also added their voices to the effort to remake American life. And World War I, which linked the crimes of the Kaiser to brewers, set the stage for passing the Prohibition Amendment.

But, as we all know, this great moral experiment failed in many ways. The “great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose,” as Herbert Hoover called it, did not remake America the perfect moral nation. It did not as Billy Sunday predicted “turn our prisons into factories and our jails into corncribs.” Although prohibition probably improved public health and morals generally in the nation, it also led to public mockery of the law, to the massive strengthening of the organized crime, and with widespread disillusionment with efforts to enshrine the ideals of nineteenth century reform into national legislation. 

Prohibition was a disaster for the country. It led to a massive stranglehold of organized crime and a nation of bootlegging criminals, and cost the federal government billions of dollars in lost tax revenue. And tax is no laughing matter and now more than ever the government needs cash. With the stock market crash of 1929, the country is broke. A tax on alcohol is a solution. So in December 1933, the eighteenth amendment is repealed–killed for the need for cold hard cash. It’s a remarkable u-turn; the only time an amendment to the Constitution is repealed. Yet the issues which Prohibition movement raised still remain for Christians to this day. The debate continues and sometimes rages in the church. And the answer depends on who you talk to. 


St Brendan the Navigator


St. Brendan of Clonfert (c.484-c.577) called “the Navigator,” “the Voyager,” or “the Bold” is one of the early Irish monastic saints. He is chiefly renowned for his legendary quest to the “Isle of the Blessed” which is also called St. Brendan’s Island. The Voyage of Saint Brendan is an Irish navigational story. He was one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. His feast day is celebrated on May 16 by Catholics, Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox Christians.

In 484, Brendan was born in Tralee, in County Kerry, in the province of Munster, in southwestern Ireland. He was born among the Altraige tribe who originally lived around Tralee Bay, to parents Finnlug and Cara. Tradition says he was born in the kilfenora/Fenit area on the north side of the bay. He was originally to be named Mobhi but signs attending his birth and baptism by Bishop Erc led him to be baptized “Broen-finn” or “fair drop.” Baptized at Tubrid, near Ardfert, by Saint Erc. For five years he was educated under St. Ita, “the Brigid of Munster.” When Brendan was six, he was sent to St. Jarlath’s monastery school at Tuam to further his education. Brendan was one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, one of those who had been tutored by the great teacher, Finnian of Clonard.

Saint Erc ordained him a priest in 512. During the next 20 years of his life, St. Brendan sailed all around the islands surrounding Ireland spreading the Word of God and founding monastery after monastery. The most notable of these is Clonfert in Galway, which he founded around 557 and which lasted well into the 1600s. Brendan’s first voyage took him to the Arran Islands, where he founded a monastery and to many other islands which he only visited, including Hinba, off Scotland where he is said to have met Columba. He also went to Wales and finally to Brittany, on the northern coast of France. Between 512 and 530 he built monastic cells at Ardfert and at the foot of Mount Brandon, Shanakeel-Seana Cill or “the old church.” From here is supposed to have set out on his famous voyage to Paradise.

St. Brendan is chiefly known for his famous journey to the Isle of the Blessed as described in the ninth century text Voyage of St. Brendan the Navigator. Many versions of the tale exist that tell how he set out onto the Atlantic Ocean with sixty pilgrims searching for the Garden of Eden. On his voyage, he is supposed to set eyes on St. Brendan’s Island, a blessed island covered with vegetation. He also encountered a sea monster, an adventure shared with his contemporary St. Columba. The earliest version of the story was recorded around 900 AD. There are over 100 manuscripts of the story across Europe, as well as many additional translations. It is an overtly Christian narrative. Yet it also contains tales of natural phenomena and fantastical events and places, which appealed to a broad populace.

On the shores of Kerry, he built a currach-like boat of wattle, covered it with hides tanned in oak bark softened with butter, set up a mast and a sail. He and a small group of monks fasted for forty days and after a time of prayer, embarked in the name of the Trinity. The account is characterized by a great deal of literary license and contains references to hell where “great demons threw down lumps of fiery slag from an island with rivers of gold fire” and “great crystal pillars.” Many now think these to be references to the volcanic activity around Iceland and to icebergs. The Voyage of Saint Brendan fits in with a then-popular genre of literature peculiar to Ireland, called an immaram, that describes a hero’s series of adventures in a boat.

Brendan is one of the most famous of Irish saints. His voyages helped create one of the most remarkable and enduring of European legends. It has been hard for scholars to interpret what is factual and what is folklore. Irish immram flourished during the seventh and eighth centuries. Immram was sea-voyage in which a hero wanders from island to island,  meets other-worldly wonders and finally returns home. Brendan’s Voyage shares some characteristics with a immram.

Over the years there have been many interpretations of the possible geographic location of St. Brendan’s Island: southern part of Ireland, the Canary Islands, Faroes or Azores, Madeire or near the equator.  While the story is often assumed to be a religious allegory there has been considerable discussion as to whether the legends are based on actual events including speculation that the Isle of the Blessed was actually North America. There is a St. Brendan’s Society that celebrates the belief that Brendan was the first European to reach North America giving the glory of the discovery to the Irish. Tim Severin has demonstrated that it is possible that a leather-clad boat such as the one described in the story could have reached North America.

Brendan travelled to Wales and the holy island of Iona.  He established a bishopric at Ardfert and proceded to Thomond and founded a monastery at Inis-da-druim (now Coney Island) in County Clare around 550. In Wales, he studied under St. Gildas at Llancarfan; it was after then that he travelled to Iona. Returning to Ireland after a three year mission in Britain, he founded a monastery at Annaghdown, where he spent the rest of his days. He also founded a convent there for his sister Briga. He also did more proselytizing in Leinster especilly at Dysart (County Kilkenny), Tubberboe and Brandon Hill. He established churches at Inchinquin, County Galway and at Inishglora, County Mayo. He died in 577 at Annaghdown, while visiting his sister. Fearing after his death his devotees might take his remains as relics, Brendan had arranged before his death to have his body secretly carried back to the monastery he founded at Clonfert concealed in a luggage cart. He was buried in Clonfert Cathedral.

As the legend of his seven year voyage spread, crowds of pilgrims and students flocked to Ardfert. Religious houses were built at Kilmalchedor, Brandon Hill, and the Blasket Islands to meet the wants of those who came for spiritual guidance from St. Brendan. He is the patron saint of sailors and travelers. At the U.S. Naval Academy a large stained glass window commemorates Brendan’s achievements. At Fenit Harbor, Tralee, a large bronze sculpture with a small horn has been erected to honor his memory. Brendan is also the patron saints of the Dioceses of Kerry and Clonfert. He also has been made the patron saint of scuba divers.

His name has been perpetuated in numerous place names and landmarks along the Irish coast (Brandon Hill, Brandon Point, Mt. Brandon, Brandon Well, Brandon Bay, Brandon Head).

The group of ecclesiastical remains at Ardfert is one of the most interesting and instructive existing in Ireland. The ancient ruins of the Cathedral of St. Brendan, with its charities and detached chapels, form a complete reliquary of Irish church architecture in its various orders and ages from the plain but solid of the seventh or eighth centuries to the late and ornate of medieval Gothic. The cathedral as seen now, or as it stood before it was dismantled in 1641.

The First Martyrs: Holy Innocents



Today (December 28) is the day the church commemorates the Holy Innocents. The event remembered is the infanticide carried out by the soldiers of Herod the Great. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod ordered the execution of all male children under the age of two, so as to avoid the loss of his throne to the newborn king, born in Bethlehem, whose birth he had heard about from the Magi. Unwittingly, he fulfilled biblical prophecy; Jeremiah prophesied, “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.” The number of infants killed is not known. With Bethlehem being a town of around 1000 inhabitants, the number there could be around twenty. Although not Christians these children have been seen by the church as the first martyrs. 

The account of the massacre is found in Matthew 2:13-18:

“Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Coventry Carol is a Christmas carol dating from the sixteenth century. The carol was performed in Coventry in England as part of a mystery play entitled The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. The play depicts the Christmas story from the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel. The carol refers to the Massacre of the Innocents. The lyrics of this haunting carol represent a mother’s lament for her doomed child. It’s the only carol to have survived from this play. The author is unknown. The carol is traditionally sung a cappella. 

The theme of the Massacre of the innocents has provided many an artist of multiple nationalities with opportunities to compose complicated depictions of massed bodies in violent action. Its popularity decreased in Gothic art but revived in the large works of the Renaissance. The massacre also provided a comparison of ancient brutalities with early modern ones during the period of religious wars that followed the Reformation. Bruegel’s versions show the soldiers carrying banners with the Hapsburg double-headed eagle (often used at the time for ancient Roman soldiers). The 1590 version by Cornelius van Haarlem also seems to reflect the violence of the Dutch Revolt. Guido Reni’s early (1611) Massacre of the Innocents is at Bologna. The Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens painted the theme more than once. The French painter Nicolas Poussin painted The Massacre of the Innocents (1634) at the height of the Thirty Years’ War. 

The massacre is the opening plot to the 2006 film The Nativity Story (great film). 

The commemoration of the massacre of the Innocents, considered by some Christians as the first martyrs for Christ, first appears as a feast of the western church in the Leonine Sacramentary, dating from about 485. The earliest commemorations were connected with the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6); Prudentius mentions the Innocents in the hymn on the Epiphany. Leo in his homilies on the Epiphany speaks of the Innocents. This day is also known as Childermas or Children’s Mass. 

Red is the color worn on this feast day which is the traditional color for martyrs. 

Various Catholic countries used to have a traditions of role reversal between children and their adult educators, including boy bishops. In some cultures, such as medieval England and France, it was said to be an unlucky day, when no new project should be started. In addition, there was a medieval custom of refraining where possible from work on the day of the week on which the feast of Innocents Day had fallen for the whole of the following year until the next Innocents Day. This was presumably the custom observed mainly by the better-off. Phillipe de Commynes, the minister of King Louis XVI of France tells in his memoirs how the king observed this custom and the trepidation he felt when he had to inform his majesty of an emergency on the day. 




Jonathan Edwards: America’s Greatest Mind



Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is considered by many to be the greatest mind that America has ever produced and he is certainly this country’s greatest theologian and was a leading figure in the First Great Awakening and that revival’s learned supporter and advocate.

He was born on October 5, 1703 in East Windsor, CT. His mother was a daughter of Solomon Stoddard, pastor of the famed Congregational church at Northfield, Massachusetts for fifty-seven years. He began study of Latin at six years of age under the tutorship of his father and four older sisters. Before he was 13, he had a good knowledge of Latin, Greek and Hebrew and he entered Yale at age 13 in 1716 and in 1720 he graduated with the highest honors (at age 17). His conversion took place around the age of 17. He stayed on for two more years at Yale to receive a Masters degrees in theology. In 1722, before age 19, he went to New York City where he preached at a small Presbyterian church for eight months. Edwards then received a call from Yale to become a tutor and he returned to Yale for two years. In 1726, he was ordained a colleague of his grandfather, Rev. Stoddard, and married Sarah Pierrepont, the following year. He then assumed full ministerial duties when Stoddard died in 1729. He would remain pastor there until 1750.

In a sermon entitled A Divine and Supernatural Light, preached in 1733, Edwards described religious knowledge as “a true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the Word of God.” Edwards’ all-important distinction is between a “sense” of divine truth and an “understanding” of it. The first concerns the innermost will (the heart), whereas the the second applies to rational speculation (the head). He stressed that unless the heart is affected through regenerative grace, religion is nothing more than what unregenerate man can know through natural reason. 

And religious experience on a large scale describes New England’s Great Awakening (1733-1745) which by 1735 involved not only Northampton but the whole Connecticut River Valley. Edwards saw the revival as evidence of God’s redemptive work in New England. In 1737, he published an account of the revival entitled A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, which was widely read in America and abroad. Notwithstanding the dramatic sermons of George Whitefield, who visited in Northampton in 1740, the most famous sermon preached during the Great Awakening if not in all of American history was Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of Angry God preached in 1741, which had a powerful effect upon its hearers. In order to make religious revivalism theologically understandable, Edwards wrote The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741) and Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival (1743). 

Edwards believed that God performs saving works, sometimes in extraordinary ways, but he also stressed that vital piety, consisting of holy affections seated in the heart, requires constant self-scrutiny. His analysis of religious experience culminated in a Treatise Concerning Religious Affections published in 1746. It affirms the heart as the locus of religious experience and the integration of the transformed heart and visible acts. 

In 1750, after he had been in Northampton for 23 years, an old controversy concerning the terms of full admission in the church was revived. Edwards opposed the view and practice held by his predecessor and held on to his own views. He was shortly ejected from the pastorate preaching his Farewell Sermon on July 1, 1750.

In 1751, he became pastor at the Congregational church at Stockbridge, MA and missionary to the Housatonic Indians. His years at Stockbridge proved to be his most productive.

In 1754, he published the Freedom of the Will which was a defense of the doctrines of foreordination, original sin, and eternal punishment, a masterpiece of philosophical reasoning. Man’s natural will is free in time but his depraved moral will can only choose grace when divinely inclined. In 1757, he was elected president of Princeton College in New Jersey. Five weeks after his inauguration in 1758, at the age of fifty-six, died as a result of a smallpox inoculation. Jonathan Edwards was the outstanding Calvinist preacher and theologian of colonial New England and the founder and leader of Edwardean or New England theology. One of the brightest minds America’s ever produced, his legacy and influence continues to this day. 

A Famous Sunday School Song: Onward Christian Soldiers



Whitmonday was a festival for schoolchildren. During the day children would march to neighboring villages carrying crosses and banners. In 1864, local pastor Sabine Baring-Gould wanted a new hymn to encourage the children in their marching. In just fifteen minutes, he wrote a song called “Hymn for Procession with Cross and Banners.” It was later renamed “Onward Christian Soldiers.” He had no intention of it ever being published, especially in adult hymnals. Sabine-Gould was at the time a curate of a parish in Yorkshire county in northern England. He recounts how and why he wrote the song:

“It was written in a very simple fashion…Whitmonday is a great day for school festivals in Yorkshire, and one Whitmonday it was arranged that our school should join its forces with that of a neighboring village. I wanted the children to sing when marching from one village to another, but couldn’t think of anything quite suitable, so I sat up one night resolved to write something myself. ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ was the result. It was written in great haste and I am afraid some of the rhymes are faulty. Certainly nothing has surprised me more than its great popularity.”

Though it was never intended for publication, it found its way into a periodical later that year and soon into English hymnals around the globe. Louis Benson suspects that it caught on in the U.S. because it tapped into the “soldier spirit left in the hearts of young and old Americans by four years of Civil War” which had just ended. 

The music was composed by Arthur Sullivan in 1871. Sullivan named the tune “St. Gertrude” after the wife of his friend Ernest Clay Ker Seymour, at whose country home he composed the tune. The Salvation Army adopted the hymn as its favored processional. The piece became Sullivan’s most popular hymn. The theme of the hymn is taken from New Testament references to the Christian being a soldier such as II Timothy 2:3 (KJV): “Thou therefore endure hardship, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”

When Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met in 1941 on the battleship Prince of Wales to agree to the Atlantic Charter, a church service was held for which Prime Minister Churchill chose the hymns. He chose “Onward Christian Soldiers” and he made a radio broadcast afterwards explaining his choice:

“We sang Onward Christian Soldiers indeed, and I felt that this was no vain presumption, but that we had the right to feel that we serving a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high. When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals…it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation.”

The hymn has been sung at many funerals, including that of Dwight D. Eisenhower at the National Cathedral in D.C. in March 1969. Apart from its obvious militant associations, the songs has been associated with protest against the established order, particularly the civil rights movement. An attempt was made in the 1980s to strip “Onward Christian Soldiers” from the United Methodist Hymnal and the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 due to the perceived militarism. Outrage among parishioners caused both committees to back down. However, the hymn was omitted from the 1990 hymnal of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Australian Hymn Book. 

Largely because of its association with missionaries of various types, the song has been sung in a number of movies and television programs including M*A*S*H, Little House on the Prairie and The Simpsons. 

I grew up with this hymn being sung at church and from my days in the church’s youth handbell choir. So it has great sentimental value. And indeed it is one of the great hymns of the church which has inspired and roused the hearts of generations of believers. 



Now Thank We All our God: Its Amazing Backdrop



Now Thank We All our God is a popular Christian hymn that is often sung at weddings and at other times of rejoicing. In Germany, it is sung at times of national thanksgiving. Nun danket alle Gott (its German title) was written by Martin Rinkart (1586-1649), being inspired by Sirach, chapter 50, verses 22-24, from the praises of Simon the high priest. He was born in Eilenberg, Saxony (Germany), a small town near Leipzig, which during the twentieth century ended behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany for several decades. 

Rinkart studied for the Lutheran ministry and was called to be the pastor of his own hometown of Eilenberg. He arrived there just at the start of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), a war that would devestate Germany in general and Eilenberg in particular. Being a walled city, it became a place for refugees to flee to and it soon became overcrowded, thus rendering it susceptible to disease. And the result was indeed famine and pestilence. Armies overran it three times. The Rinkart home was a refuge for the victims, even though he was often hard-pressed to provide for his own family. At the start of 1637, the Year of the Great Pestilence, there were four ministers in Eilenberg. But one abandoned his post for healthier regions and could not be persuaded to return. Rinkart officiated at the funerals of the other two ministers. As the only surviving pastor, he performed 40 to 50 funerals per day, some 4,480 in all that year. In May of that same year, his own wife died. By the end of that year, the refugees had to be buried in trenches without services. The plague decimated Eilenberg killing some 8,000 people. 

Yet, amazingly, it is out of such horrific tragedy, that Now Thank We All our God was written around the year 1636. Rinkart was a prolific hymn writer and he did not let the horrors of war, famine and plague deter him from writing praises to our God. Yet the first two stanzas were not written, not as a hymn for public worship, but as table grace for his own family. At the end of the war, Nun danket alle Gott was sung at the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the treaty that ended the war. Rinkart would die the following year in 1649 in Eillenberg. 

It was set to music by Johann Cruger (1598-1662) around 1647 (tune: “Leuthen Chorale”), who composed the music for many other hymns including Ah Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended and  Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness. The hymn tune, Leuthen Chorale is also used in Bach’s cantatas, such as BWV 79, 192 and in his BWV 252, 386 and 657. The now-familiar standardization was devised by Felix Mendelssohn in 1840, when he adopted the hymn, sung in the now-standard key of F Major, with its original German lyrics, as the chorale for his second symphony, known as Lobgesang or “Hymn of Praise.” The Late-Romantic Germanic composer Sigfrid Karg-Elert was one of the more recent composers to use this hymn composing a Marche Triomphale, a famous piece in the classic pipe organ repertoire. After the Battle of Leuthen during the Seven Years War, a soldier of the triumphant Prussian army started to sing it and soon all 25,000 soldiers joined in the hymn. Now that would have been something to hear!

Yet we in the English-speaking world would not have known of this great hymn of the church if it were not for the efforts of Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), an English woman who translated many hymns into English during the nineteenth century. Other hymns she translated are Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness and Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates. 

If Martin Rinkart could sing such a great hymn of thanksgiving during a time of unimaginable horror and upheaval, surely we today, who will most likely not see such tragedy like he did, can do the same. So as we in America celebrate Thanksgiving in a couple weeks, let us remember the amazing account of the Rev. Martin Rinkart and may we, like him, sing with one voice:

Now thank we all our God, with heart, and hands, and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom the world rejoices; who from our mother’s arms hath blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us! with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us; and keep us in his grace, and guide us when perplexed, and free us from all ills in this world and the next.

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given, the Son, who reigns with them in highest heaven, eternal, Triune God, whom earth and heaven adore, for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore. Amen. 

Our future depends on a good understanding of the past. I invite you to take a walk in the cloister with me as we learn about what has gone before. For by learning from those who have gone before, we can help ensure a better future for us and those who will come after us.