Tuesday of the Third Week in Lent 2019
It’s often been said by commentators that the “ten thousand talents” that the Gospel servant owed his master was a sum greater than the gross national product of Palestine in New Testament times. Jesus is clearly exaggerating for effect here, something that points out how compelling His story-telling talents were for His disciples. The traditional means of enforcing a debt, something that has been around probably as long as there have been debtors, is to throw the debtor into what we know as a workhouse or debtors’ prison. That doesn’t seem in any way a smart method, because the debtor could certainly earn more outside the prison than in it. But the strategy was to keep him in prison until some friend of his, sympathetic to his family, paid the debt for him. Of course, once this idiot servant, who threw his own debtor into prison over what was about a month’s wages, was himself put into jail, he would have lost any claim on friends and would stay in prison forever. That, Jesus tells us, is what awaits us if we do not forgive those who hurt us–eternal separation from the good, the true and the beautiful, God Himself.
The prayer of Azariah in the fiery furnace looks at the reality of sin from the sinner’s perspective. This is a critical text for the development of sacrificial theology. Azariah admits that the people of Israel, who were chosen by God as a nation “peculiar to Himself,” that is a people who would bear witness to the true God, fell away from the covenant. Worse, with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 587 BC, there was no longer a place for the Jews to offer burnt sacrifices in reparation for sin. Azariah, with his two friends, has been thrown unjustly into the big furnace by the king of Babylon. The furnace was so hot that its heat burned up the people who cast them inside. So Azariah, who hasn’t caught fire yet, asks God to accept his death and that of his friends, praying: “let us be received; As though it were holocausts of rams and bullocks, or thousands of fat lambs, So let our sacrifice be in your presence today as we follow you unreservedly; for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame.”
Now, as it had been a thousand years before with the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, God saved the three friends from death. But in the fullness of time, the Father allowed His innocent Son, God Himself, to be offered in sacrifice on the altar of the cross. No earlier holocaust could take away sin, but the sacrifice of Christ has the power to forgive every sin, mortal or venial, that has been committed since Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden. As the Fathers have often said, by the wood of the tree in the Garden humans fell from grace; by the wood of the tree on Calvary, through the infinite merits of God’s Son, we were made heirs of every grace. And in this Eucharistic sacrifice, we renew that covenant, we partake in the memorial meal that is of the very Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Son of God.
The martyrs of our heritage continued that tradition of forgiving their persecutors, and of dying to this life in order to witness to the reality of the life to come in Christ. Today we look to England during the time of the Protestant Revolution, to one of the many St. Margarets of our heritage.
“St. Margaret Clitherow was born in Middleton, England, in 1555, of Protestant parents.” At that time, Mary Tudor was queen, but died when Margaret was three. Margaret was a comely lass who was much admired in the community. “In 1571, she married John Clitherow, a well-to-do grazier and butcher (to whom she bore two children).” By this time, of course, Elizabeth Tudor was queen. She had been excommunicated by Pope Pius V early in 1570. It was a bad time to be a Catholic.
But the Truth seeks us out even when we run from it. Margaret thirsted for Truth, and for the true sacraments that had been discarded by Protestant revolutionaries. “She converted to Roman Catholicism in 1574. Although her husband belonged to the Established Church, he was supportive as his brother William was a Roman Catholic priest. He paid her fines for not attending church services. She was first imprisoned in 1577 for failing to attend” Protestant services. Her third child, William, was born in prison.
“Her home became one of the most important hiding places for fugitive priests in the north of England. Local tradition holds that she also housed her clerical guests in the Black Swan Inn at Peaseholme Green, where the Queen's agents were lodged.” Of course, Margaret was eventually arrested when the Queen’s agents found her priest hole. “She refused to plead, thereby preventing a trial that would entail her three children being made to testify, and being subjected to torture. Although pregnant with her fourth child, she was executed on Lady Day, 1586, (which also happened to be Good Friday that year) in the Toll Booth at Ouse Bridge, by being crushed to death, the standard inducement to force a plea.” Margaret was canonized by Pope St. Paul VI in 1970 with the other martyrs of England and Wales.
The culture itches to persecute the Catholic Church, and a small number of renegade priests and bishops who abused their authority have provided the excuse. So in this time of difficulty for the Church Christ established, we should pray, “St. Margaret Clitherow, pray for us.”