Too Smart for His Own Good.
The Sixth Wednesday of Easter.
Lessons from the feria, according to the ordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Acts 17: 15, 22—18: 1.
• Psalm 148: 1-2, 11-14.
• John 16: 12-15.
The Second Class Vigil of the Ascension; Rogation Wednesday; and, the Commemoration of Saint Gregory of Nazianzan, Bishop, Confessor & Doctor of the Church.*
Lessons from the Vigil, according to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Ephesians 4: 7-13.
• [The Gradual is omitted.]
• John 17: 1-11.
9:44 AM 5/9/2018 — Today’s Apostolic lesson is a story of abject failure. It’s here, in the Acts of the Apostles, that Saint Luke chronicles the Blessed Apostle Paul’s second missionary journey, through Greece. Having already had success establishing the Church in Ephesus, leaving his young friend Timothy behind as the bishop, he presses on into the interior of Greece alone. He visits a lot of places in Greece: Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens; his success is relatively mixed in most of these places, but he does make a few very devout converts who would later have success after him. During his third missionary journey, he will pen letters to almost every city he visited during this previous trip, including two personal letters to Timothy, all of which are recorded for us in the New Testament; but, you’ll notice that there’s one missing: the Bible contains no Epistle of the Blessed Apostle Paul to the Athenians.
I suppose it’s possible he did write one and it was simply lost and is no longer extent, but what’s more likely is that he didn’t even attempt to write to them because of the overwhelmingly embarrassing nature of his failure there, which Saint Luke presents to us today.
The Athenians, steeped in a thousand-year tradition of philosophical enlightenment nurtured by such figures as Socrates and Plato, were also devout pagans who worshiped a multiplicity of gods, and their beautiful city was dotted with temples to all of them; but, just to make sure they had all their bases covered, they built one more superfluous temple to an unknown god, just to make sure they didn’t inadvertently leave anyone out; it was called the Areopagus. Paul latches onto this peculiarity, and today’s first lesson shows him standing in front of this temple telling the Athenians that this unknown god they worship here is really the God of the Jews, Who came to earth in the person of Jesus, and who died and rose to save them from their sins. Not only does he stun them with this revelation, but he goes on to tell them that this Jesus-God is the only God, and that all the other gods they worship don’t exist. The Athenians don’t buy any of this, and they laugh him out of town. He succeeds in making a handful of converts, a couple of whom are mentioned by name at the end of the lesson; but, other than that, his visit there is a complete disaster.
It’s probably not possible for us to relate to how much this disappointed Paul. Athens, the city of Socrates and Plato, the intellectual engine of the known world, the shining pinnacle of art and culture, was going to be converted to Christ … except that it all crashed and burned. And I think it behooves us to reflect on why Saint Paul failed so miserably in Athens. He was trying to be too clever for his own good; and, sometimes, in our witness to the Gospel among those we encounter along the way, we can fall pray to the same trap, thinking that argument and persuasion are somehow better than the simple witness of a joyful life lived in grace. There’s an old saying that a lot of people mistakenly attribute to Saint Francis of Assisi, though it was actually never said by him: “Preach the Gospel. Occasionally, use words.”
But what may be a more valuable reflection for us today is how this failure did nothing to quash Paul’s enthusiasm for the faith, or discourage him from pressing on. From Athens he hiked on into Corinth, and there he had great success, taking the lesson of his failure in Athens with him. And when he returned to some of these very same cities during his third missionary journey, he found vibrant churches that had grown great in the faith from the humble seeds he had planted years before. And isn’t that the case with many of us? We try our best to raise our children in the faith, sometimes seeing them drift away as they grow up and leave home, not knowing if the seeds we planted in them will ever take root. But sometimes the seeds of the good we try to do don’t take root until long after we’re dead. No where does Christ tell us that we’re entitled to see the results of the good we do. Like the farmer, we plant the seed, and leave the rest in the hands of God.
* In the Roman Rite, the concept of a vigil differs completely between the ordinary and extraordinary forms. In the ordinary form, a vigil is simply a celebration of the feast the evening before, either prior to or following First Vespers. In the extraordinary form, the word “vigil” designates the entire day before a First Class Feast, and the Mass on that day takes place in the morning, with the day of vigil having lessons of it's own.
Concerning the Rogation Days: Earthquakes and other calamities afflicted the diocese of Vienne in Dauphiny (France) in the fifth century, and St. Mamertus, who was bishop there, instituted a penitential procession with public supplications on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Ascension Day. In 816, Pope Leo III introduced the practice at Rome, and it soon became observed throughout the whole Church, and known as the Rogation Days. Rogation Monday and Rogation Tuesday are ferias of the Fourth Class; but, as the Vigil of the Ascension, Rogation Wednesday is a feria of the Second Class.
The manner of making the procession is simplicity itself: prior to Holy Mass, the priest, wearing purple stole and cope (regardless of the color of the day), processes with the servers—and, if he so wishes, the people—around the church, singing the Litanty of the Saints as they go; Psalm 69 and the other prayers that accompany the Litany of the Saints in the Roman Breviary are also said. The procession ends at the foot of the Altar, where the priest changes into the proper vestments for Mass, and begins the usual prayers at the foot of the altar, the Mass continuing as normal. There is nothing in the rubrics that indicates that anything in particular is carried in this procession.
Gregory was educated at Athens in all the sciences, along with Saint Basil the Great. He become bishop of Nazianzen, dying in 389. He and St. Basil and are extremely important saints in the Eastern Churches. Cf. several homilies from previous years, when I served as a pastor in the Ruthenian Catholic Church.