Tag: apostles

Seeing and Believing

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Saint Thomas the Apostle was labeled “The Doubter” because he needed to see proof of the resurrection in order to believe. But his focus on visual  confirmation might have been a natural result of his professional training, with some modern implications.

The Builder’s Square (near the 47th street door) is an especially appropriate symbol for Thomas, because square encompasses multiple meanings: it can be a geometric shape, or a tool used  to measure and lay out right angles. As a figure of speech, it relates to certainty, as in a sample sentence from Thesaurus.com: “do those announcements really square with the facts?”

Ironically, we have few dependable facts about Thomas, who is thought to have been a builder or architect for a King Gondophares in the region known today as Pakistan and Afghanistan (and who may have been Gaspar, of the Three Wise Men at the Epiphany).  Encyclopaedia Iranica reports an ancient tale that “The apostle was entrusted with funds for building a palace, but spent them on relief of the poor. When called to account, he declared he had built the king a palace in heaven…”  (this is a slightly different version from our 1940 Anniversary Book, which claims Thomas built the palace then donated his own construction profits to the poor). Tradition says Thomas went afterwards to India, where he is  “commemorated as a founder of the South Indian Christian community, and a church is named in his honor.”

We don’t know if Thomas ever actually built a palace for the glory of King Gondophares: his story is from an early manuscript in the Apocrypha not considered reliable enough to become part of the Bible. But its lesson – that a heavenly palace built of good deeds is superior to an ostentatious display of personal wealth – is very apostolic. The location of Thomas’ emblem next to the donor plaque in our church is also interesting: is it there because he is the Patron Saint of Architects and Builders or is it a  subtle reminder to early wealthy parishioners that they should also work on their spiritual palaces?

Thomas, emphasizing visual symbols, is an important saint for those who build and maintain religious structures. Large buildings commemorate what is valued in a society and modern landmarks tend to be commercial.  But each church in the landscape provides a needed visual reminder of God’s presence to all who pass by — a reason to keep ours in good order!

 

The Poisoned Chalice

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Snake on cup — unhygienic?

Perhaps not!

The 1940 parish anniversary book reported that the snake-and-cup emblem of Saint John the Apostle (by the 47th Street door) came from an ancient legend: “according to the tradition handed down by Saint Isidore, the idolatrous enemies of the Saint having poisoned the wine which he used for the holy sacrifice of the Mass, hoped thus to kill him. But the Saint frustrated their design, for on his blessing the wine a serpent came forth to warn him.”

The story first appeared in the Apocrypha — a collection of manuscripts not considered reliable enough to be included in the Bible. In the Sixth century, St. Isidore included the texts in an ambitious encyclopedia of all world knowledge. His information was then folded into the 13th century Golden Legend collection of saints lore, and spread from there.

Versions of the story differ: the wine was sometimes Communion wine; more usually, it was a beverage given to John at the Temple of Artemis or in the Marketplace. But the truth might actually be related to the roots of modern medical science.

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In Greek mythology, Asclepius was the god of medicine and his daughter, Hygieia, was the goddess of health and hygiene. Hygieia tended to the snakes at her father’s temple, which were made immortal by his magical potions. Her snake-on-a-cup emblem, known as the “Bowl of Hygieia,” has become an international symbol of pharmacy.

Snake magic was a distraction that obscured real medical knowledge. Ephesus (in Turkey), where St. John visited, was not far from Pergamum – site of an important temple to Asclepius  and early medical center (where celebrated physician Galen would establish the foundations of modern medicine half a century later). So John’s snake chalice could have been a “Bowl of Hygieia” containing medicine. Was he healed of an illness? In any case, legend suggests that acceptance of science strengthened, rather than damaging his religious faith. An important idea.

The Catholic Encyclopedia suggests a (snake-free) chalice is a logical emblem for Saint John for an entirely different reason: “Perhaps the most natural explanation is to be found in the words of Christ to John and James: ‘My chalice indeed you shall drink…’” This brings us to the central image above the altar in our church, with Saint John on the left, gazing up at the crucified Jesus, and, abstractly, the “Bread of Life and Cup of Salvation.”

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BONUS: The Tale of St. John’s bedbugs from the Apocrypha:

bedbug…And having so said, and bidden farewell to them, and left much money with the brethren for distribution, he went forth unto Ephesus…

Now on the first day we arrived at a deserted inn, and when we were at a loss for a bed for John, we saw a droll matter.

There was one bedstead lying somewhere there without coverings, on which we spread the cloaks which we were wearing, and we told him to lie down upon it and rest, while the rest of us all slept upon the floor.

But John, when he lay down, was troubled by the bugs, and as they continued to become yet more troublesome to him, when it was about midnight, in the hearing of us all, he said to them: I say unto you, O bugs, behave yourselves, one and all, and leave your abode for this night and remain quiet in one place, and keep your distance from the servants of God.

And as we laughed, and went on talking for some time, John went to sleep; and we, talking low, gave him no disturbance (or, thanks to him we were not disturbed).

But when the day was now dawning I arose first, and with me Verus and Andronicus, and we saw, in the doorway of the house which we had taken, a great number of bugs standing, and while we wondered at the great sight of them, and all the brethren were roused up because of them, John continued sleeping.

And when he awoke we told him what we had seen. And he sat up on the bed and looked at the bugs and said: Since ye have behaved yourselves in heeding my rebuke, come unto your place.

And when he had said this, and had risen from the bed, the bugs ran from the door, hastened to the bed, climbed its legs, and disappeared into the joints.

And John said again: This creature listened to the voice of a man, and stayed by itself and was quiet and did not trespass; but we who hear the voice and commandments of God disobey and are light-minded: and for how long?

After these things we came to Ephesus…

Adapted from  “The Apocryphal New Testament”
M.R. James-Translation and Notes
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924

 

The Thirteenth Apostle

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dscn4256-2Around the nave of our church are twelve names and symbols of Jesus’ Apostles. But the twelve inscriptions do not include Judas Iscariot – the “bad guy” who betrayed him on Holy Thursday. So who is the extra Apostle?

Matthias, near the sacristy, was not among the original twelve. Our 1940 Anniversary Book mentions that “St. Matthias is represented by the emblem of the spear, as Raphael has painted him; others picture him with the hangman’s axe to indicate that he was beheaded…” A much-quoted anonymous reference suggests that the Italians painted Matthias with a spear and the Germans with an axe, although few enough representations exist that it is hard to generalize!

Little verifiable information is available about Matthias. Tradition says he was selected by lot, following a Jewish custom for determining God’s Will, to replace the traitorous Judas. Some accounts suggest that Matthias was killed while preaching in Judea. Other accounts suggest he was martyred after a mission to Colchis (Also  land of mythological Jason and the Golden Fleece. Today the country of  Georgia), where he was, perhaps, blinded by “cannibals” and, possibly, saved, for a time,  by Saint Andrew. Matthias is the patron saint invoked against alcoholism.

Why were there twelve Apostles in the first place? It is said that twelve is a “perfect” or “complete” number in Jewish religion. Twelve Apostles may have represented a link and sense of continuity with the Twelve Tribes of Israel. This would explain why it was important to maintain the number.

Judas, the first twelfth Apostle,  may have been banished from our walls, but he is still represented in our church, in the sculptured scene of the Last Supper on the front of the freestanding altar from Most Blessed Sacrament Church. All twelve original apostles were important in that most perfect of ceremonies – including the betrayer — an interesting thought.

Our 1911 back-facing altar features twelve encircled Xs around a Chi Rho (PX monogram representing the first two letters of Christ in Greek).  A similar design at St. Malachy Church – also decorated by Henry Dagit under Reverend Crane’s direction – is described as “…crosses in circles making twelve in number, which symbols stand for the twelve Apostles, the authorized teachers of Christ, who carried the real doctrine….to all the world.” This suggests that St. Malachy’s invoked Matthias, but we don’t know for sure which twelfth Apostle, in which role – Last Supper or Pentecost — was intended on our original  Altar!

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The Spear of Saint Thaddeus

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Mosaic panels around the nave of our church feature names and symbols of the Twelve Apostles at Pentecost: Peter, Andrew, James, John, Thomas, James, Phillip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Simon,  Matthias (who replaced Judas), and …Thaddeus?

Saint Thaddeus, near the parking lot door, is actually a surname or nickname: the saint’s real name was Judas. Not Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus. Other Judas! So as not to confuse folks, the “good” Judas was called Thaddeus in the old Latin Rite. Today, he is generally known as St. Jude or St. Jude Thaddeus in the Roman Catholic church, and Saint Thaddeus in the Orthodox churches.

You may recognize St. Jude as the Patron of Lost Causes, invoked for impossible tasks. One of his letters, reproduced in the New Testament, exhorted the faithful to persevere and hold fast to their belief in times of trouble – showing his connection with desperate times and circumstances. Pilgrims who visited his shrine at the Vatican reported many intercessions, and Saint Bernard and Saint Brigid of Sweden are both said to have had visions asking them to accept St. Jude as the patron of extreme situations.

Some suggest that the saint was neglected for many years, due to his unfortunate name, and that may also have contributed to his identification with lost causes. Dedication to Saint Jude is a fairly modern phenomenon in this country: a national shrine in Baltimore, run by the Pallottines, began devotions in 1917; and one in Chicago, run by the Claretians, began in 1929. Both dates are long after our church was built.

Our 1940 Anniversary Book describes our mosaic as showing a “lance as his emblem,” “to remind us of the instrument by which he suffered martyrdom.” St. Jude Thaddeus is thought to have been martyred in Armenia, Persia, or Syria, and little is known about how he died. His symbol is more usually a club or a halberd — a long-handled axe — looking a lot like the object in our mosaic. There is a lance connection, though: in the Armenian Orthodox Church, the saint was said to have brought a sacred relic —  an ancient lance supposed to have pierced the side of Jesus on the cross — with him to Armenia, where it remains in a museum today (The Vatican also claims an ancient lance).

Speaking of things lost and found:  look up Saint Jude on Wikipedia, and you’ll see our mosaic inscription for St. Thaddeus, down at the bottom of the page!