December Spiritual Heroes
Spiritual Heroes for Commemoration at Communion
December 1: World AIDS Day—Since 1988 this day has been a time for remembering those who have died and for renewing our commitment to support those living with HIV throughout the world. The red ribbon, which began as a “grass roots” effort, has become an international symbol of AIDS awareness.
December 3: Mary Baker Eddy (1821 – 1910): Author of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures and Founder of the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston. Also the leading figure in the Christian Science movement.
December 9: Blessed Juan Diego (16th century)—Witness to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Mary appeared, it is said, to Juan Diego with dark skin and Indian features, surrounded by symbols of Indian religion and culture. She spoke to him in his native Nahuatl, not Spanish. The message to the church was clear: it must not serve as the agent of colonial oppression, but be rooted in the experience of the people.
December 10: Thomas Merton (1915-1968)—Trappist monk. An American priest whose writings are among the greatest spiritual works of our time, Merton initially turned his back on the world by seeking solitude at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. In time he came to understand a deep solidarity with humanity and concern for issues of peace and justice. He also had a strong interest in Eastern spirituality, especially Zen Buddhism, from which he learned that the path to God is found in experience, not analysis.
December 12: Sister Alicia Domon (d.1977)—French nun and martyr. During a period of military dictatorship in Argentina thousands of civilians were abducted and never heard from again, including several French nuns who had devoted themselves to working with the poor and oppressed. Sister Alicia became closely involved with the Mothers of the Disappeared, who dressed in black and gathered in silence in the central plaza each day, carrying pictures of their children. Along with several others, Alicia was abducted and, as later reports revealed, tossed out of an airplane over the Atlantic Ocean.
December 17: Dom Bede Griffiths (1906-1994)—Monk and Sannyasi. Raised in a middle-class English family and student of C. S. Lewis at Oxford, Griffiths’ spiritual journey led him first to the Catholic faith and the life of a Benedictine monk. While sent to establish a monastery in India, he came to believe that the secularized West had much to learn from the East. He helped found a Christian ashram that was faithful to Christian traditions, but adopted the disciplines of the East, including yoga and meditation. He dressed in the saffron robes and lived as a sannyasi, or Hindu holy man. His liturgies combined Christian and Hindu prayers and readings. He believed he could find the truth of Christ present within all the religions of the world.
December 23: Rabbi Abraham Heschel (1907-1972)—Teacher. A major force in Jewish spiritual renewal, Heschel came from a long line of Hasidic rabbis. After studying philosophy at Warsaw and Berlin he taught at several universities, eventually escaping to the United States from Nazi Germany. As a champion of interfaith dialogue, his writings exerted a tremendous influence on Christian thought. With a deep sense of prophetic justice, he sought to connect the mysticism of his Hasidic faith with the modern secular world.
December 24: Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993) – Champion of positive thinking and author of The Power of Positive Thinking and founder of Guideposts Magazine. Peale was a Methodist minister who became Dutch Reformed so that he could pastor New York’s prestigious Marble Collegiate Church.
December 25: Nativity of Jesus (c. 4 BCE)—The celebration of Christmas at the darkest days of Winter marks the birth of light and hope for the world. The traditional date of Jesus’ birth was determined in Rome in 336, taking the place of an existing Roman holiday, the birth of the Unconquerable Sun. The actual date Jesus was born was more likely in the Spring. The word “Christmas” goes back to the 12th century and is a contraction of “Christ’s Mass.”
Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary (circa 4 BCE – 29 CE) – is understood in a variety of ways. What one believes about Jesus has to do with how mystically/spiritually/allegorically oriented one is, or how “concrete” (or literalist) one tries to be. Historical criticism would point out that what we know of Jesus is at best second hand (and sometimes more removed than that), and that words attributed to him are never written in his own hand, but are written by people decades after his execution. His original followers saw him as a teacher and a healer. He was clearly a charismatic person who was able to draw crowds and impact people very deeply. Some people came to view him as the long awaited and hoped for messiah (a leader who would reestablish the independent Jewish state).
After his death, people glorified him all the more (as people do with slain heroes), and within a hundred years of his death some were remembering him as “God” in human flesh (similar to the Greek, Egyptian, and Roman gods of the time). In any case, he was someone who profoundly impacted human history and who continues to inspire people thousands of years after his death. People experienced and remembered him as being somehow God-filled, though the explanations of the experiences vary widely.
From the evidence we have, it seems that Jesus’ message was that all people are children of God and that the Realm of God is actually within the human spirit. He also seemed to believe that God was more concerned with people’s character, motivation, and true desires than with their religiosity or conformity to tradition or even to scripture. His teachings helped people feel liberated in spite of political oppression and whole in spite of physical maladies. A word often used for this wholeness and liberation is “salvation.”
Jesus, or so our stories about him suggest, was not opposed to reinterpreting old religious views to fit new realities and to include more people into the experience of God’s love and grace. He believed the most important commandment was simply to love, and he taught the Golden Rule, which is to do unto others as you would have others do unto you. He scandalized people of his time by eating with people outside his social group, by being friendly with presumably corrupt tax collectors as well as with prostitutes, by healing even the enemies of his people (and healing at times when any work, including healing was forbidden), and by intentionally reaching out to and speaking well of Samaritans (who were often despised by his community).
Heraclitus (circa 535 – 475 BCE) – known for his teaching that change is central to the universe, summarized by his statement, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” He said that all things come to be in accordance with the Logos (that is, “word,” or “reason”). Notice that Heraclitus lived half a millennium before Jesus, almost 600 years before the writer of the Gospel of John (who opens his Gospel with, “In the beginning was the Logos…[and] all things came to be through [the Logos], and without [the Logos] nothing came to be”). Logos philosophy was alive and well long before the Church applied it to Jesus.
Ammonius Saccas (mid-third century CE???) – was an exponent of Neo-Platonism which was pantheistic (belief that the divine is all pervasive…God is all or is in all…not to be confused with panentheism, the belief that all is in God). Saccaas believed that God is the only creator and that the ultimate reality of the universe is an infinite, unknowable, perfect ONE. It may have been Saccas who first used “Word” to define “Logos.”
December 26: St. Stephen (c. 34)—Deacon and martyr. Most likely a Hellenistic Jew, Stephen is remembered as one of the first deacons chosen in the early Christian community in Jerusalem to aid the Apostles by caring for the sick and needy. Stephen’s story is told in Acts 6-7.
December 27: St. John the Evangelist—Apostle. John became, with Peter and James, one of the inner circle of Jesus’ followers. Ancient icons picture him as the “Beloved Disciple” at the Last Supper with his head on Jesus’ breast. Tradition holds that he took care of Mary after Jesus’ death on the cross, and that he later settled at Ephesus in modern Turkey. It is John who reminds us over and over of Jesus’ command for us to love one another.
December 29: St. Thomas Becket (1118-1170)—Archbishop and martyr. Thomas was a close friend of the young King Henry II, who intended to place him as Archbishop of Canterbury. Reluctant at first, Thomas finally accepted. He took his position as spiritual head of England very seriously, and soon clashed with Henry, who intended to rule over every aspect of his country. Eventually Becket was murdered in the Cathedral for his stand against the power of the state to control the church.