Fourth Weekend After Epiphany (B/RCL)
“Under Brigid’s Cloak”
January 31-February 1, 2015
Question: what is an unclean spirit doing in a holy place (the synagogue) on a holy day (the Sabbath)? Answer: I don’t know!
Question: what is the Lord Jesus doing in the same place, at the same time? Answer:
- For starters, He’s honoring the command to keep the Sabbath holy by gathering in God’s space with God’s people, like He’d done weekly His whole life long.
- Secondly, Jesus is beginning His ministry by teaching the faithful in the familiar place of learning. (It makes sense to start with “family,” fan out to friends, then expand to strangers!)
- Thirdly, in this first public appearance after His baptism and following the temptation in the desert, Jesus commands the powers of darkness to cease and desist! The coming of the Kingdom sends evil away reeling. Jesus gives Satan the one-two-knockout punch right from the get-go!
Like other people in antiquity, the Jews of Jesus’ day believed that there were many, many unclean spirits, demons in the world. They made people sick. They made people crazy. They killed people. Like us, they believed that evil was intent on destroying God’s children. Unlike us, their understanding of evil was very primitive, very literal.
- They believed that demons had favorite times of day: very early, very late, and dab smack in the middle of the day when the sun was hottest.
- They believed that demons had favorite haunts: dry places (water was believed to destroy them) and deserted places and death places like tombs.
- They believed that demons had favorite victims: those traveling alone or at night, bridal couples, women in childbirth, children. (We believe that is how the concept of guardian angels became so important, to protect those little ones.)
Archaeologists have excavated ancient burial grounds in which they’ve found skulls with holes bored in them. They can tell those operations were performed while the people were still alive. (No operating suites, no sterile instruments, no anesthesia….) Those holes were bored in order to allow unclean spirits to leave the body. No measure was too drastic to free a loved one from a demon’s clutches.
The man in the synagogue on the Sabbath in today’s Gospel was in the right place at the right time to be healed by our Lord Jesus. Jesus’ spiritual scalpel was His word:
“Be silent, and come out of him!” (Mark 1:25)
The most important lesson in this story is that Jesus of Nazareth, beloved of the Father, the One who overcame all temptations, has authority to heal sin and sickness, authority to vanquish death, to bring about the Kingdom of God, to arrest evil and to command even the unclean spirits to obey. Nothing, no one is beyond His power to heal and save.
Our Lord shares His authority with His followers. The disciples had a hard time believing it, but Jesus actually told them they would do greater works than He, because He would ask His Father to send the Holy Spirit to them. This Sunday, February 1st, we remember and celebrate a disciple who used Jesus’ authority to do much good in this world: St. Brigid of Kildare, also known as the Mary of the Gaels (Mary of the Irish).
St. Brigid was born about 450 A.D. (This is about 10 years before St. Patrick died.) Her father was an Irish chieftain and her mother was one of his slaves; Brigid was born into slavery. It is said that St. Patrick baptized one or both of Brigid’s parents; she was raised in the faith and apparently had a close relationship with God from early on. She also had quite a heart for people and for creatures in need. Compassion and generosity are two of the shining qualities for which people have loved Brigid ever since.
There is a story that Brigid responded so enthusiastically to anyone who was hungry and came to her father’s door that she basically gave away the pantry! Her father got tired of hearing that the cupboard was bare. He decided to marry off beautiful Brigid to a neighboring king. She waited outside the castle while her father bargained inside. A beggar came up to ask Brigid for food. She had none, so she gave the poor man her father’s jeweled sword instead! Her father was upset; the king was impressed. He told her father to let her become a nun, as she had asked. Maybe the king really recognized her sanctity. Or maybe the king didn’t want to risk marrying Brigid and seeing his riches walk away!
Brigid acted with holy authority. She never asked permission to give her father’s food away; she just did it, because she recognized her Lord in the poor. Brigid founded the first community of women religious in Ireland, being named abbess by the bishop, who was convinced the Holy Spirit had chosen her to lead; she founded other monasteries as well.
Brigid spoke with holy authority. There are legends about her giving away all the sisters’ provisions to the poor, leaving them with nothing, and about how she then commanded the cows to give more milk, the hens to lay more eggs, the trees to bear more fruit. They did, of course J.
There’s another story about a woman who gave Brigid a basket filled with apples, all of which Brigid gave away. The woman complained to Brigid, “They were meant for you, not them!” Brigid simply answered her, “What is mine is theirs.”
Brigid spiritually nourished the people as well, preaching the Gospel to her many neighbors who had never heard it. It is said that she visited a pagan chieftain who lay on his deathbed. As she spoke to him, he noticed she was doing something with her hands. She showed him a cross she had woven of rushes picked up from the floor. This is a St. Brigid’s cross that Hilary brought me from Ireland and that hangs over the door to my study. It is Irish custom to make and hang these crosses over the outside doorway on Brigid’s feast day as a prayer for protection from fire, sickness and all evil. I would add the prayer that just as fire, illness and evil should be absent, hospitality and compassion should be present.
An Irish blessing among friends is, “May you be under Brigid’s cloak.” If you ever travel to Bruges, Belgium, peek into the cathedral to see what is said to be a piece of Brigid’s blue cloak. It’s associated with various miracles. (One of her biographers said she was able to hang it on a sunbeam J.) Loving care for the poor and the instilling of Christ-like generosity in others is the gist of the legends. In the best-known story, Brigid asked a king for land for her convent in Kildare. He refused, saying the land was too precious to him and profitable for him. Brigid said, “How about just giving me as much land as my cloak can cover?” “Sure,” he said, wondering what the point was. Brigid instructed her sisters to take the 4 corners of the cloak and start running in opposite directions. The cloak grew and grew till it covered more land than the eye could see. The king said, “Uncle!” and Brigid received more than enough land to build her convent and school.
The One who heals us of our sin and of our sickness, the One who protects us from disaster and all evil is, of course, our Lord Jesus Christ. It is He whom Bridget loved and served. This is the prayer prayed as the Brigid cross is hung over the door:
May the blessing of God and the Trinity be on this cross, and on the home where it hangs
and on everyone who looks at it. Amen.
May our Lord protect you and your home from all evil. May the Holy Spirit grant us, too, holy gifts of hospitality and generosity.
May we also say of our worldly wealth and of the poor, “What is mine, is theirs.”
May the Lord vest us, too, with His authority to do good. Amen.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham