OUR LORD AND SAVIOR
Jesus was born to a devout Jewess named Mary and a carpenter named Joseph. According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus was conceived by a miracle of the Holy Spirit before the couple had had any sexual relationship.
Matthew and Luke also report that Jesus was born in Bethlehem because the Roman emperor had decreed that all families register for a census in their ancestral hometowns. Mark and John do not discuss Jesus’ birth; they begin their narratives with Jesus’ adulthood.
The Gospels are virtually silent when it comes to Jesus’ early life, but some information can be inferred from references elswhere. Jesus was from a small town called Nazareth , where he probably trained as a carpenter under his father.
Jesus spoke Aramaic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew, though it seems he knew enough Greek to converse with Roman officials during his ministry.
The Gospel of Luke offers the only account of this period, in which a 12-yea
r old Jesus wanders off from his parents in Jerusalem to discuss religion in the temple. When his frantic parents finally track him down, Jesus asks, “Didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house?”
Teaching and Healing Ministry
Jesus reenters the Gospel narratives at about the age of 30 (circa 26 AD). The four gospels agree that Jesus’ first act was to be baptized by John the Baptist, a charismatic and ascetic figure who called people to repentance and baptized those who responded. This event marked the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. (Some have also theorized it was at that moment the human Jesus became divine. ==)
After the baptism, several of John’s followers left to follow Jesus. Jesus then selected several others until he had established a group of 12 disciples. (Two of these disciples, Matthew and John, are the traditional authors of the Gospels that carry their name.)
The teachings of Jesus focused primarily on the “the kingdom of God” and were usually relayed through parables drawing on familiar images from agricultural life. He rebuked the hypocrisy of some Jewish leaders and taught the importance of love and kindness, even to one’s enemies.
While Jesus’ teachings were fundamentally Jewish, they departed significantly from the Jewish law of his day. Perhaps most astonishing of all was that he taught on his own authority. Whereas Jewish prophets had always prefaced their messages with “thus saith the Lord,” Jesus said things like, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’”
Jesus’ popularity grew quickly, but so did opposition from local leaders. Roman rulers were uncomfortable with the common perception that he was the Messiah who would liberate the Jews from Roman rule, while Jewish leaders were disquieted by Jesus’ shocking interpretations of Jewish law, his power with the people, and the rumor that he had been alluding to his own divinity.
In the Gospels Jesus repeatedly suggests to his disciples his end is near, but they do not fully understand or accept the idea. The clearest expression of this is at the “Last Supper,” which took place on the night before his death. All four Gospels record Jesus shared bread and wine with his disciples, asking them to “do this in remembrance of me.” Christians celebrate this event in the sacrament of the Eucharist, or Communion.
On this evening Jesus also predicts that one of them will betray him, which is met with astonishment and denial. But that very night, Jesus’ fate was sealed when Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples and possibly the group’s treasurer, led Roman soldiers to Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. As they arrested Jesus, the ever-colorful Peter defended his master with a sword, slicing off the ear of a centurion. But he was rebuked by Jesus, who admonished, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”
Jesus was brought before the Jewish chief priests for trial. When questioned, he said very little but affirmed he was the Messiah. He was then judged worthy of death for blasphemy and handed over to the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, for punishment. Although reluctant to condemn Jesus for reasons not entirely clear, Pilate sentenced Jesus to death at the insistance of the mob that had gathered. According to Matthew, when Judas learned of the sentence he threw his silver coins into the temple and hanged himself.
Jesus was brutally beaten, clothed in a mock-royal purple robe and crown of thorns, then executed by crucifixion at Golgotha (The Place of the Skull). This method of execution, apparently a Roman invention, entailed nailing or tying the victim’s hands and feet to a wooden cross. It produced a slow, painful death by asphyxiation.
The Gospels report that only Jesus’ mother and a handful of female disciples were present at the execution. Jesus suffered on the cross for six hours before finally crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and breathing his last. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark report extraordinary events upon Jesus’ death – the entire land went dark, there was a great earthquake, the temple curtain was torn in half, and some recent dead came back to life.
The Empty Tomb
The four Gospels vary somewhat in their reports as to what happened next, but all generally agree that the women told the other disciples but their story was not believed. But the risen Jesus later appeared to the disciples, where he passed through a locked door yet demonstrated he was not a ghost by eating and allowing himself to be touched. He made several other appearances among various groups before ascending into heaven
All four Gospels include an account of the resurrection. In Acts, the central message preached by the apostles is the resurrection of Christ. In his first letter to the Corinthians, which dates to as early as 55 AD, Paul writes that the resurrection is of “first importance” and that “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
The belief that Jesus’ resurrection makes it possible for people to have peace with God in this life and meet a favorable end in the next was a major source of the incredible courage shown by the early Christian martyrs.
Who was St. Francis Of Assisi?
Francis of Assisi was a poor little man who astounded and inspired the Church by taking the gospel literally—not in a narrow fundamentalist sense, but by actually following all that Jesus said and did, joyfully, without limit and without a mite of self-importance.
Serious illness brought the young Francis to see the emptiness of his frolicking life as leader of Assisi’s youth. Prayer—lengthy and difficult—led him to a self-emptying like that of Christ, climaxed by embracing a leper he met on the road. It symbolized his complete obedience to what he had heard in prayer: “Francis! Everything you have loved and desired in the flesh it is your duty to despise and hate, if you wish to know my will. And when you have begun this, all that now seems sweet and lovely to you will become intolerable and bitter, but all that you used to avoid will turn itself to great sweetness and exceeding joy.”
From the cross in the neglected field-chapel of San Damiano, Christ told him, “Francis, go out and build up my house, for it is nearly falling down.” Francis became the totally poor and humble workman.
But genuineness will tell. A few people began to realize that this man was actually trying to be Christian. He really believed what Jesus said: “Announce the kingdom! Possess no gold or silver or copper in your purses, no traveling bag, no sandals, no staff” (see Luke 9:1-3).
Francis’ first rule for his followers was a collection of texts from the Gospels. He had no idea of founding an order, but once it began he protected it and accepted all the legal structures needed to support it. His devotion and loyalty to the Church were absolute and highly exemplary at a time when various movements of reform tended to break the Church’s unity.
He was torn between a life devoted entirely to prayer and a life of active preaching of the Good News. He decided in favor of the latter, but always returned to solitude when he could. He wanted to be a missionary in Syria or in Africa, but was prevented by shipwreck and illness in both cases. He did try to convert the sultan of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade.
During the last years of his relatively short life (he died at 44) he was half blind and seriously ill. Two years before his death, he received the stigmata, the real and painful wounds of Christ in his hands, feet and side.
On his deathbed, he said over and over again the last addition to his Canticle of the Sun, “Be praised, O Lord, for our Sister Death.” He sang Psalm 141, and at the end asked his superior to have his clothes removed when the last hour came and for permission to expire lying naked on the earth, in imitation of his Lord.
Who was Mother Theresa?
Mother Teresa was always her own person, startlingly independent, obedient, yet challenging some preconceived notions and expectations. Her own life story includes many illustrations of her willingness to listen to and follow her own conscience, even when it seemed to contradict what was expected.
This strong and independent woman was born Gonxha (Agnes) Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Yugoslavia, on August 27, 1910. Five children were born to Nikola and Dronda Bojaxhiu, yet only three survived. Gonxha was the youngest, with an older sister, Aga, and brother, Lazar. This brother describes the family’s early years as “well-off,” not the life of peasants reported inaccurately by some. “We lacked for nothing.” In fact, the family lived in one of the two houses they owned.
Nikola was a contractor, working with a partner in a successful construction business. He was also heavily involved in the politics of the day. Lazar tells of his father’s rather sudden and shocking death, which may have been due to poisoning because of his political involvement. With this event, life changed overnight as their mother assumed total responsibility for the family, Aga, only 14, Lazar, 9, and Gonxha, 7.
Though so much of her young life was centered in the Church, Mother Teresa later revealed that until she reached 18, she had never thought of being a nun. During her early years, however, she was fascinated with stories of missionary life and service. She could locate any number of missions on the map, and tell others of the service being given in each place.
At 18, Gonxha decided to follow the path that seems to have been unconsciously unfolding throughout her life. She chose the Loreto Sisters of Dublin, missionaries and educators founded in the 17th century to educate young girls.
In 1928, the future Mother Teresa began her religious life in Ireland, far from her family and the life she’d known, never seeing her mother again in this life, speaking a language few understood. During this period a sister novice remembered her as “very small, quiet and shy,” and another member of the congregation described her as “ordinary.” Mother Teresa herself, even with the later decision to begin her own community of religious, continued to value her beginnings with the Loreto sisters and to maintain close ties. Unwavering commitment and self-discipline, always a part of her life and reinforced in her association with the Loreto sisters, seemed to stay with her throughout her life.
One year later, in 1929, Gonxha was sent to Darjeeling to the novitiate of the Sisters of Loreto. In 1931, she made her first vows there, choosing the name of Teresa, honoring both saints of the same name, Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux. In keeping with the usual procedures of the congregation and her deepest desires, it was time for the new Sister Teresa to begin her years of service to God’s people. She was sent to St. Mary’s, a high school for girls in a district of Calcutta.
Here she began a career teaching history and geography, which she reportedly did with dedication and enjoyment for the next 15 years. It was in the protected environment of this school for the daughters of the wealthy that Teresa’s new “vocation” developed and grew. This was the clear message, the invitation to her “second calling,” that Teresa heard on that fateful day in 1946 when she traveled to Darjeeling for retreat.
The Streets of Calcutta
During the next two years, Teresa pursued every avenue to follow what she “never doubted” was the direction God was pointing her. She was “to give up even Loreto where I was very happy and to go out in the streets. I heard the call to give up all and follow Christ into the slums to serve him among the poorest of the poor.”
Technicalities and practicalities abounded. She had to be released formally, not from her perpetual vows, but from living within the convents of the Sisters of Loreto. She had to confront the Church’s resistance to forming new religious communities, and receive permission from the Archbishop of Calcutta to serve the poor openly on the streets. She had to figure out how to live and work on the streets, without the safety and comfort of the convent. As for clothing, Teresa decided she would set aside the habit she had worn during her years as a Loreto sister and wear the ordinary dress of an Indian woman: a plain white sari and sandals.
Teresa first went to Patna for a few months to prepare for her future work by taking a nursing course. In 1948 she received permission from Pius XII to leave her community and live as an independent nun. So back to Calcutta she went and found a small hovel to rent to begin her new undertaking.
Wisely, she thought to start by teaching the children of the slums, an endeavor she knew well. Though she had no proper equipment, she made use of what was available—writing in the dirt. She strove to make the children of the poor literate, to teach them basic hygiene. As they grew to know her, she gradually began visiting the poor and ill in their families and others all crowded together in the surrounding squalid shacks, inquiring about their needs.
Teresa found a never-ending stream of human needs in the poor she met, and frequently was exhausted. Despite the weariness of her days she never omitted her prayer, finding it the source of support, strength and blessing for all her ministry.
A Movement Begins
Teresa was not alone for long. Within a year, she found more help than she anticipated. Many seemed to have been waiting for her example to open their own floodgates of charity and compassion. Young women came to volunteer their services and later became the core of her Missionaries of Charity. Others offered food, clothing, the use of buildings, medical supplies and money. As support and assistance mushroomed, more and more services became possible to huge numbers of suffering people.
From their birth in Calcutta, nourished by the faith, compassion and commitment of Mother Teresa, the Missionaries of Charity have grown like the mustard seed of the Scriptures. New vocations continue to come from all parts of the world, serving those in great need wherever they are found. Homes for the dying, refuges for the care and teaching of orphans and abandoned children, treatment centers and hospitals for those suffering from leprosy, centers and refuges for alcoholics, the aged and street people—the list is endless.
Until her death in 1997, Mother Teresa continued her work among the poorest of the poor, depending on God for all of her needs. Honors too numerous to mention had come her way throughout the years, as the world stood astounded by her care for those usually deemed of little value. In her own eyes she was “God’s pencil—a tiny bit of pencil with which he writes what he likes.”
Despite years of strenuous physical, emotional and spiritual work, Mother Teresa seemed unstoppable. Though frail and bent, with numerous ailments, she always returned to her work, to those who received her compassionate care for more than 50 years. Only months before her death, when she became too weak to manage the administrative work, she relinquished the position of head of her Missionaries of Charity. She knew the work would go on.
Finally, on September 5, 1997, after finishing her dinner and prayers, her weakened heart gave her back to the God who was the very center of her life.