Monday, 6 November 2017

Who is St. Leonard?

I have to admit that I didn’t know anything about St. Leonard before coming to serve here with you. November 6th is believed to be the day of his death and that is the day he is remembered. So today is the eve of his feast day.

During the Middle Ages one of the most widely read books was called The Golden Legend. It is a collection of stories about the saints that was written around 1260AD.

The Golden Legend tells us that St. Leonard was born around the year 500AD and died around 570AD. Leonard came to be so highly thought of by the king of France that any prisoners Leonard visited were released from prison. The King tried to make Leonard a bishop, but he refused the offer, preferring solitude for prayer. He lived at a number of places from central to South Western France (especially Orleans, Aquitaine, Limoges). It is said that many miracles happened through him. The Golden Legend also shares a few specific stories.

One day, Leonard was walking through the forest when he heard a woman crying in pain. Moved with compassion, Leonard went to see if he could help. He found that it was the queen giving birth in the king’s hunting lodge. The birth was not going well and the queen’s life was in danger. The King invited him in to pray for the queen and child and both got through the birth safely. … This story might be why Leonard is sometimes connected to pregnant mothers.

The king was so thankful that he offered Leonard a lot of money, which he refused telling him to give it to the poor. Leonard told the king that he didn’t need money and that all he really needed was to live in the forest and serve Christ. The king then offered to give Leonard the whole forest. Leonard said he didn’t need the whole forest, but he asked for as much as he could ride around on his donkey in one night. It was there that his monastery was built, and Leonard lived there with two other monks.

Primarily, Leonard is connected to prisoners, especially prisoners who are wrongfully held.  It was said that prisoners who invoked Leonard’s name saw their chains unlocked and were able to walk away free without anyone trying to stop them. These people would then bring their chains to Leonard, and many ended up staying with him. After his death miracles continued to occur and many people would visit his tomb. Former prisoners would continue to leave their chains at Leonard’s tomb.

One story is told that a certain nobleman created a very heavy and uncomfortable chain that was mounted to a beam that jutted out from a tower. It would be fastened around the neck and the person was left uncomfortably exposed to the elements and eventually died. The extravagance of the chain was supposed to strike fear into the heart of any would-be criminal. One man had the chain fastened around his neck, but had done nothing wrong. Before he was about to breath his last breath, Leonard appeared, and the chain fell off. Leonard then told the man to pick up the chain and follow him to his church. The large impressive chain was then laid at the saint’s tomb. … You can hear echoes of Peter’s story in Acts where he was released from prison by the angel.

Leonard had such a reputation for freeing prisoners that one tyrant made special plans to thwart him. The man said, “That Leonard frees everybody, and the strength of iron melts before him like wax in front of a fire. If I put my man in chains, Leonard will be on hand at once and will set him free. If, on the other hand, I manage to keep the fellow, I will get a thousand pounds’ ransom for him.” So the man dug a deep pit under the tower and he chained the prisoner in it so that even if his chains were removed he still wouldn’t be able to get out of the pit. The tyrant was proud of himself for having outsmarted the saint. … But, one night Leonard arrived and broke the chains and carried the man in his arms out of his prison. Once out, they walked and chatted like friends on the way to Leonard’s monastery.

Now these stories are fun and interesting, but we don’t know how much of this is historical. I tend to be a bit of a romantic, so I tend to believe that these kinds of things can happen. … I should say that you can be a perfectly fine Christian without believing these stories.

The historical nature of the stories aren’t primarily what I’m interested in. I’m interested in how the Gospel shines through the stories. I’m interested in how these stories inspire me to be more like Jesus. … The theme of captives being set free is a strong theme throughout the Bible.

The central story for the identity of the Jewish people in the Old Testament is the Exodus story- The story of an oppressed group of slaves who cried out to God for justice. God then sent Moses and worked miracles to free the Hebrew slaves from the Egyptian Pharaoh.

Once free from Egypt, though, there is still another freedom needed. While they are physically free, in that the slave master’s whip was no longer at their back, they still had to deal with an internal slavery. … When Moses was on the mountain they made a golden idol to worship. They were still enslaved to the idols and worship of Egypt. … They still longed for the food they had as slaves, rather than relying on the provision of God in the wilderness. … Even when on the threshold of the Promised Land they trusted in their own lack of ability rather than trust in God’s direction and power. … They may have left Egypt, but they were still enslaved to the mindset of Egypt. The rest of the Bible could be seen as God’s mission to liberate his people and the world from slavery.

For the first thousand years the major way to view the cross was to see it as Christ rescuing humanity from slavery to sin and the devil. It was seen as a liberation from bondage. The cross was God trading Himself as Jesus to the devil in exchange for humanity who became enslaved to the devil when the first couple trusted the serpent’s voice rather than God’s and ate the forbidden fruit. … Jesus couldn’t be contained, however, and broke the chains of death in the power of resurrection. … A very old story called the Gospel of Nicodemus tells about Jesus breaking the gates of Hell and freeing Adam and Eve from their prison and leading them to paradise. It was doing theology through story. … So this freedom from bondage is a very persistent theme throughout both Christian and Jewish tradition.

Baptism can be seen as a kind of liberation from slavery. In baptism we reject three kinds of slavery- the world, the flesh, and the devil.

The “Devil” is to say that there is evil that comes from an unseen reality that doesn’t have anything to do with human beings. There is an unseen evil power that seeks to do harm to God’s creatures. It means that if you add up all the personal evil that every person on the planet does, there is still an unaccounted for evil. In our tradition this usually manifests as destructive and lying thoughts whispered into our souls. That doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of generating our own negative thoughts, but the traditional place of these evil creatures is to tempt us in our thoughts. … When we are baptized, we reject that power and declare it to be an enemy.

The “world” is not the fish and the trees and the sky and the mountains. The “world” is human systems that try to organize themselves apart from God. It is human systemic oppression. The “world” is what caused the systemic oppression of people in the southern United States. The “world” is what created economies that relied on the literal slavery of human beings. The “world” is what causes apartheid in South Africa, and the damage of Residential Schools. The “world” is the way we organize ourselves as a society that results in us not treating human beings as creatures bearing the image of God, and not treating creation as the masterpiece of the Creator. … Part of being a Christian means fighting against this power that destroys people and creation. When we are baptized we vow to step out from under that power and to make it an enemy. … (Liberation Theology has a strong focus here in trying to side with the poor against oppressive governments and corporations.)

We also reject the “flesh”. This isn’t our physical bodies. The “flesh” is our internal desires that drive us away from God. Our desires are broken. We want things that will harm us. Our loves are disordered. We recognize that not only is there systemic human evil out there in the world. There is also brokenness right inside of me. These desires are often summed up in the Seven Deadly Sins- pride, lust, gluttony, greed, envy, wrath, and sloth. … I also believe lies about myself- that I’m worthless, and good for nothing- That God rejects me because I’m not good enough- That if people knew every dark corner of my life, they would reject me. … So when I reject the flesh, I reject all those desires and lies that try to drive me away from God. Not only to I reject them from my own life, but I make them an enemy so that I work to become a force for good to help others fight against those desires and lies that enslave people.

So when I think of St. Leonard, I think about where I need to be liberated. What imprisons me? Are there habitual sins I need to be freed from? Are there repetitive negative and destructive thoughts that need to be broken? Are there lies I believe about myself and others that need to be confronted with the truth? We can live in many different kinds of prisons.

When I think about what it means to be a church bearing St. Leonard’s name. I think about how we can be a force for liberation for those around us. How can we become known as the ones who help people find freedom in Christ? What prisons do we see around us? Addiction is a prison? Poverty is a prison? Loneliness can be a prison? Fear can be a prison? Trauma? Un-forgiveness?

As Christians we can be saved, but if we don’t allow Jesus to do that deeper spiritual work in us we can still be enslaved. We might not live in slavery in Egypt anymore, but our minds might be still trapped in Egypt. We might be saved by Jesus on the cross, but we might not be living in the kind of freedom Jesus wants for us. God is your liberator.

This is one of the main purposes behind the spiritual disciplines, and practices like spiritual direction. God desires for us to be free. God wants us to be freed from the lies and habits that imprison us, so that we can live lives under the dominion of God. God wants us to live victorious, liberated lives, so that we can be a force of liberation in the lives of others.

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