Monday, July 16, 2018. Have a blessed day on this Feast of Our Lady!
Address to the Latin American Bishops, Blessed John Paul II, Catholic, Christian, Dei Verbum, Ecclesia in America, Evangilization, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus, Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, religion
The term “The New Evangelization” is thrown around in many Catholics circles today, but what exactly does it mean?
It is believed that Blessed John Paul II first used the term in 1983 in an address to Latin American Bishops. He would later bring this term to the attention of the entire Church. Perhaps, the most clear definition of the New Evangelization is in his encyclical, Redemptoris Missio. In section 33 of this encyclical, Blessed John Paul II describes three different situations for evangelization: mission ad gentes, Christian communities, and the new evangelization.
Mission ad gentes: Latin for “to the nations.” This is a situation where “Christ and his Gospel are not known.”
Christian communities: “In these communities the Church carries out her activity and pastoral care.” This is the ongoing evangelization of those “fervent in the faith.”
New Evangelization: So, what is the new evangelization? Blessed John Paul II describes a situation between the first two options “where entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel. In this case what is needed is a ‘new evangelization’ or a ‘re-evangelization.’”
The new evangelization pertains to a very specific group of people: fallen-away Christians. For most Catholics in the western world, we see the need for this type of evangelization all around us. Everyone knows someone who was once baptized but who no longer practices the faith. Blessed John Paul II wanted the faithful to clearly recognize this problem and then try to solve it.
FOCUS (The Fellowship of Catholic University Students) aims to answer the John Paul II’s call for the new evangelization. On college campuses across the nation, college students are falling away from their faith. Statistics show that just 15% of Catholics aged 18-25 attend Church on a weekly basis. FOCUS lives out the new evangelization on the college campus because of this critical age demographic.
Pope Emeritus has continued the mission of the new evangelization in his pontificate. In 2010, Pope Emeritus Benedict established The Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. In 2012, there was Bishops’ Synod to discuss the New Evangelization. We should be hearing much more about this topic in the years to come. Below are some key quotes on the New Evangelization by Blessed John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict. For more, check out the full documents of the resources quoted below.
“I sense that the moment has come to commit all of the Church’s energies to a new evangelization and to the mission ad gentes. No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples” (Bl. John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, no. 3).
“To this end, it is more necessary than ever for all the faithful to move from a faith of habit, sustained perhaps by social context alone, to a faith which is conscious and personally lived. The renewal of faith will always be the best way to lead others to the Truth that is Christ” (Bl. John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, no. 73).
“Look to the future with commitment to a New Evangelization, one that is new in its ardor, new in its methods, and new in its expression” (Bl. John Paul II, Address to the Latin American Bishops).
“The new evangelization in which the whole continent is engaged means that faith cannot be taken for granted, but must be explicitly proposed in all its breadth and richness” (Bl. John Paul II, Ecclesia in America, no. 69).
“Our own time, then, must be increasingly marked by new hearing of God’s word and a new evangelization. Recovering the centrality of the divine word in the Christian life leads us to appreciate anew the deepest meaning of the forceful appeal of Pope John Paul II: to pursue the mission ad gentes and vigorously to embark upon the new evangelization, especially in those nations where the Gospel has been forgotten or meets with indifference as a result of widespread secularism” (Pope Benedict XVI, Dei Verbum, no. 122).
by Max Fisher and Caitlin Dewey
Published: May 23, 2013 at 3:05 pm • May 22, 2013
Pope Francis’s pronouncement that God has “redeemed all of us … even the atheists” Wednesday surprised both believers and nonbelievers around the world, who are used to stricter edicts from the Catholic church. It also got us wondering where the world’s atheists live.
There’s surprisingly little data available on the subject. But a 2012 poll by WIN/Gallup International — an international polling firm that is not associated with the D.C.-based Gallup group — asked more than 50,000 people in 40 countries whether they considered themselves “religious,” “not religious” or “convinced atheist.” Overall, the poll concluded that roughly 13 percent of global respondents identified as atheists, more than double the percentage in the U.S.
The highest reported share of self-described atheists is in China: an astounding 47 percent. Faith has a complicated history in China. The state is deeply skeptical of organized religion, which it has long considered a threat to its authority.
In the Taipei rebellion of the 19th century, a religious cult started a Chinese civil war that killed millions of people and left the country exposed to European powers. The official ideology of the Communist government scorned both “new” Western religions and more traditionally Chinese faiths, destroying countless temples and relics during the Cultural Revolution of 1967 to 1977. While today’s Chinese leaders do not seem to share Mao Zedong’s fervent belief that China’s rich religious history was holding it back from modernity, nor do they seem prepared to bring that history back.
Japan, where 31 percent call themselves atheist, is a little more complicated. While superficial religious observation is common – many weddings take place in churches – formal religious practice has never really recovered from the imperial era that culminated with World War Two.
For much of the 1920 through 1940s, Japan’s imperial government combined an extreme form of race-based nationalism with emperor-worship and traditional Shinto practice. Some symbols of that era still remain, such as the Yasukuni shrine, though they are deeply controversial and often associated with the country’s wartime abuses.
Like nationalism in Germany, a bit of a post-war taboo has developed around religion in Japan. Separately, there is an alarming trend in Japan of forced religious de-conversion, in which families may “kidnap” a loved one who as adopted a faith seen as too extreme, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, and pressure them to give it up.
One of the most surprising datapoints here might be Saudi Arabia, where 5 percent say they’re atheist. Not a high number, to be sure, but higher than in many other countries, despite the extremely sensitive taboo against atheism in Saudi Arabia, which is also considered a serious crime. (In both Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, less than 1 percent of respondents called themselves atheists.) We looked earlier at the surprisingly robust community of underground Saudi atheists.
In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, religious sentiment is strong in Ghana, Nigeria, Armenia and Fiji, where more than nine in 10 people say they’re religious. WIN/Gallup notes that religiosity is highest among the poor and, to a lesser extent, among the less educated, which certainly correlates among the most religious countries. (Ghana’s GDP per capita, for instance, ranks 173rd worldwide.)
As for Italy, a stone’s throw from the Vatican chapel where Pope Francis spoke on Wednesday, the Catholic Church has little to fear. Despite a gradual slide in Catholic baptisms in Italy over the past several decades, nearly three-fourths of Italians consider themselves religious. That number has actually grown one percent since 2005, according to WIN/Gallup, bucking the trend toward weaker religious feeling seen elsewhere in the world.
A blanket of snow covers the little town of Bethlehem, in Pieter Bruegel’s oil painting from 1566. Although Jesus’ birth is celebrated every year on December 25, Luke and the other gospel writers offer no hint about the specific time of year he was born. Scala/Art Resource, NY
On December 25, Christians around the world will gather to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Joyful carols, special liturgies, brightly wrapped gifts, festive foods—these all characterize the feast today, at least in the northern hemisphere. But just how did the Christmas festival originate? How did December 25 come to be associated with Jesus’ birthday?
The Bible offers few clues: Celebrations of Jesus’ Nativity are not mentioned in the Gospels or Acts; the date is not given, not even the time of year. The biblical reference to shepherds tending their flocks at night when they hear the news of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:8) might suggest the spring lambing season; in the cold month of December, on the other hand, sheep might well have been corralled. Yet most scholars would urge caution about extracting such a precise but incidental detail from a narrative whose focus is theological rather than calendrical.
The extrabiblical evidence from the first and second century is equally spare: There is no mention of birth celebrations in the writings of early Christian writers such as Irenaeus (c. 130–200) or Tertullian (c. 160–225). Origen of Alexandria (c. 165–264) goes so far as to mock Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries, dismissing them as “pagan” practices—a strong indication that Jesus’ birth was not marked with similar festivities at that place and time.1 As far as we can tell, Christmas was not celebrated at all at this point.
This stands in sharp contrast to the very early traditions surrounding Jesus’ last days. Each of the Four Gospels provides detailed information about the time of Jesus’ death. According to John, Jesus is crucified just as the Passover lambs are being sacrificed. This would have occurred on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Nisan, just before the Jewish holiday began at sundown (considered the beginning of the 15th day because in the Hebrew calendar, days begin at sundown). In Matthew, Mark and Luke, however, the Last Supper is held after sundown, on the beginning of the 15th. Jesus is crucified the next morning—still, the 15th.a
Easter, a much earlier development than Christmas, was simply the gradual Christian reinterpretation of Passover in terms of Jesus’ Passion. Its observance could even be implied in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 5:7–8: “Our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the festival…”); it was certainly a distinctively Christian feast by the mid-second century C.E., when the apocryphal text known as the Epistle to the Apostles has Jesus instruct his disciples to “make commemoration of [his] death, that is, the Passover.”
Jesus’ ministry, miracles, Passion and Resurrection were often of most interest to first- and early-second-century C.E. Christian writers. But over time, Jesus’ origins would become of increasing concern. We can begin to see this shift already in the New Testament. The earliest writings—Paul and Mark—make no mention of Jesus’ birth. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide well-known but quite different accounts of the event—although neither specifies a date. In the second century C.E., further details of Jesus’ birth and childhood are related in apocryphal writings such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Proto-Gospel of James.b These texts provide everything from the names of Jesus’ grandparents to the details of his education—but not the date of his birth.
Finally, in about 200 C.E., a Christian teacher in Egypt makes reference to the date Jesus was born. According to Clement of Alexandria, several different days had been proposed by various Christian groups. Surprising as it may seem, Clement doesn’t mention December 25 at all. Clement writes: “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar] … And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].”2
Clearly there was great uncertainty, but also a considerable amount of interest, in dating Jesus’ birth in the late second century. By the fourth century, however, we find references to two dates that were widely recognized—and now also celebrated—as Jesus’ birthday: December 25 in the western Roman Empire and January 6 in the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor). The modern Armenian church continues to celebrate Christmas on January 6; for most Christians, however, December 25 would prevail, while January 6 eventually came to be known as the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. The period between became the holiday season later known as the 12 days of Christmas.
The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed, December 25, is marked: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”3 In about 400 C.E., Augustine of Hippo mentions a local dissident Christian group, the Donatists, who apparently kept Christmas festivals on December 25, but refused to celebrate the Epiphany on January 6, regarding it as an innovation. Since the Donatist group only emerged during the persecution under Diocletian in 312 C.E. and then remained stubbornly attached to the practices of that moment in time, they seem to represent an older North African Christian tradition.
In the East, January 6 was at first not associated with the magi alone, but with the Christmas story as a whole.
So, almost 300 years after Jesus was born, we finally find people observing his birth in mid-winter. But how had they settled on the dates December 25 and January 6?
There are two theories today: one extremely popular, the other less often heard outside scholarly circles (though far more ancient).4
The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.
Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas’s origins has its problems. It is not found in any ancient Christian writings, for one thing. Christian authors of the time do note a connection between the solstice and Jesus’ birth: The church father Ambrose (c. 339–397), for example, described Christ as the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order. But early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church. Rather they see the coincidence as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods.
It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. A marginal note on a manuscript of the writings of the Syriac biblical commentator Dionysius bar-Salibi states that in ancient times the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6 to December 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday.5 In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible scholars spurred on by the new study of comparative religions latched on to this idea.6 They claimed that because the early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly.
More recent studies have shown that many of the holiday’s modern trappings do reflect pagan customs borrowed much later, as Christianity expanded into northern and western Europe. The Christmas tree, for example, has been linked with late medieval druidic practices. This has only encouraged modern audiences to assume that the date, too, must be pagan.
There are problems with this popular theory, however, as many scholars recognize. Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character.
Granted, Christian belief and practice were not formed in isolation. Many early elements of Christian worship—including eucharistic meals, meals honoring martyrs and much early Christian funerary art—would have been quite comprehensible to pagan observers. Yet, in the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E.
This would change only after Constantine converted to Christianity. From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals. A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs. At this late point, Christmas may well have acquired some pagan trappings. But we don’t have evidence of Christians adopting pagan festivals in the third century, at which point dates for Christmas were established. Thus, it seems unlikely that the date was simply selected to correspond with pagan solar festivals.
The December 25 feast seems to have existed before 312—before Constantine and his conversion, at least. As we have seen, the Donatist Christians in North Africa seem to have known it from before that time. Furthermore, in the mid- to late fourth century, church leaders in the eastern Empire concerned themselves not with introducing a celebration of Jesus’ birthday, but with the addition of the December date to their traditional celebration on January 6.7
There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years.8 But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.
The baby Jesus flies down from heaven on the back of a cross, in this detail from Master Bertram’s 14th-century Annunciation scene. Jesus’ conception carried with it the promise of salvation through his death. It may be no coincidence, then, that the early church celebrated Jesus’ conception and death on the same calendar day: March 25, exactly nine months before December 25. Kunsthalle, Hamburg/Bridgeman Art Library, NY
Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar.9 March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception.10 Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.d
This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.”11 Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.
Augustine, too, was familiar with this association. In On the Trinity (c. 399–419) he writes: “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”12
In the East, too, the dates of Jesus’ conception and death were linked. But instead of working from the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the easterners used the 14th of the first spring month (Artemisios) in their local Greek calendar—April 6 to us. April 6 is, of course, exactly nine months before January 6—the eastern date for Christmas. In the East, too, we have evidence that April was associated with Jesus’ conception and crucifixion. Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis writes that on April 6, “The lamb was shut up in the spotless womb of the holy virgin, he who took away and takes away in perpetual sacrifice the sins of the world.”13 Even today, the Armenian Church celebrates the Annunciation in early April (on the 7th, not the 6th) and Christmas on January 6.e
Thus, we have Christians in two parts of the world calculating Jesus’ birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day (March 25 or April 6) and coming up with two close but different results (December 25 and January 6).
Connecting Jesus’ conception and death in this way will certainly seem odd to modern readers, but it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together. One of the most poignant expressions of this belief is found in Christian art. In numerous paintings of the angel’s Annunciation to Mary—the moment of Jesus’ conception—the baby Jesus is shown gliding down from heaven on or with a small cross (see photo above of detail from Master Bertram’s Annunciation scene); a visual reminder that the conception brings the promise of salvation through Jesus’ death.
The notion that creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year is also reflected in ancient Jewish tradition, recorded in the Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud preserves a dispute between two early-second-century C.E. rabbis who share this view, but disagree on the date: Rabbi Eliezer states: “In Nisan the world was created; in Nisan the Patriarchs were born; on Passover Isaac was born … and in Nisan they [our ancestors] will be redeemed in time to come.” (The other rabbi, Joshua, dates these same events to the following month, Tishri.)14 Thus, the dates of Christmas and Epiphany may well have resulted from Christian theological reflection on such chronologies: Jesus would have been conceived on the same date he died, and born nine months later.15
In the end we are left with a question: How did December 25 become Christmas? We cannot be entirely sure. Elements of the festival that developed from the fourth century until modern times may well derive from pagan traditions. Yet the actual date might really derive more from Judaism—from Jesus’ death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year—than from paganism. Then again, in this notion of cycles and the return of God’s redemption, we may perhaps also be touching upon something that the pagan Romans who celebrated Sol Invictus, and many other peoples since, would have understood and claimed for their own, too.16
1. Origen, Homily on Leviticus 8.
2. Clement, Stromateis 1.21.145. In addition, Christians in Clement’s native Egypt seem to have known a commemoration of Jesus’ baptism—sometimes understood as the moment of his divine choice, and hence as an alternate “incarnation” story—on the same date (Stromateis 1.21.146). See further on this point Thomas J. Talley, Origins of the Liturgical Year, 2nd ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), pp. 118–120, drawing on Roland H. Bainton, “Basilidian Chronology and New Testament Interpretation,” Journal of Biblical Literature 42 (1923), pp. 81–134; and now especially Gabriele Winkler, “The Appearance of the Light at the Baptism of Jesus and the Origins of the Feast of the Epiphany,” in Maxwell Johnson, ed., Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), pp. 291–347.
3. The Philocalian Calendar.
4. Scholars of liturgical history in the English-speaking world are particularly skeptical of the “solstice” connection; see Susan K. Roll, “The Origins of Christmas: The State of the Question,” in Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), pp. 273–290, especially pp. 289–290.
5. A gloss on a manuscript of Dionysius Bar Salibi, d. 1171; see Talley, Origins, pp. 101–102.
6. Prominent among these was Paul Ernst Jablonski; on the history of scholarship, see especially Roll, “The Origins of Christmas,” pp. 277–283.
7. For example, Gregory of Nazianzen, Oratio 38; John Chrysostom, In Diem Natalem.
8. Louis Duchesne, Origines du culte Chrétien, 5th ed. (Paris: Thorin et Fontemoing, 1925), pp. 275–279; and Talley, Origins.
9. Tertullian, Adversus Iudaeos 8.
10. There are other relevant texts for this element of argument, including Hippolytus and the (pseudo-Cyprianic) De pascha computus; see Talley, Origins, pp. 86, 90–91.
11. De solstitia et aequinoctia conceptionis et nativitatis domini nostri iesu christi et iohannis baptistae.
12. Augustine, Sermon 202.
13. Epiphanius is quoted in Talley, Origins, p. 98.
14. b. Rosh Hashanah 10b–11a.
15. Talley, Origins, pp. 81–82.
16. On the two theories as false alternatives, see Roll, “Origins of Christmas.”
b. See the following BR articles: David R. Cartlidge, “The Christian Apocrypha: Preserved in Art,” BR 13:03; Ronald F. Hock, “The Favored One,” BR 17:03; and Charles W. Hedrick, “The 34 Gospels,” BR 18:03.
d. The ancients were familiar with the 9-month gestation period based on the observance of women’s menstrual cycles, pregnancies and miscarriages.
e. In the West (and eventually everywhere), the Easter celebration was later shifted from the actual day to the following Sunday. The insistence of the eastern Christians in keeping Easter on the actual 14th day caused a major debate within the church, with the easterners sometimes referred to as the Quartodecimans, or “Fourteenthers.”
Warden and President of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, Australia, Andrew McGowan’s work on early Christianity includes God in Early Christian Thought (Brill, 2009) and Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals (Oxford, 1999).
The great-grandmother of Jesus was a woman named Ismeria, according to Florentine medieval manuscripts analyzed by a historian.
The legend of St. Ismeria, presented in the current Journal of Medieval History, sheds light on both the Biblical Virgin Mary‘s family and also on religious and cultural values of 14th-century Florence.
“I don’t think any other woman is mentioned” as Mary’s grandmother in the Bible, Catherine Lawless, author of the paper, told Discovery News. “Mary’s patrilineal lineage is the only one given.”
“Mary herself is mentioned very little in the Bible,” added Lawless, a lecturer in history at the University of Limerick. “The huge Marian cult that has evolved over centuries has very few scriptural sources.”
Lawless studied the St. Ismeria story, which she said has been “ignored by scholars,” in two manuscripts: the 14th century “MS Panciatichiano 40” of Florence’s National Central Library and the 15th century “MS 1052” of the Riccardiana Library, also in Florence.
“According to the legend, Ismeria is the daughter of Nabon of the people of Judea, and of the tribe of King David,” wrote Lawless. She married “Santo Liseo,” who is described as “a patriarch of the people of God.” The legend continues that the couple had a daughter named Anne who married Joachim. After 12 years, Liseo died. Relatives then left Ismeria penniless.
“I’m pretty sure one is supposed to believe that it was either her dead husband’s relatives or, less likely, her natal family,” Lawless said. “The family of the Virgin Mary would not have been cast in such a light.”
Ismeria then goes to a hospital where she finds refuge. She is said to perform a miracle, filling a shell with fish to feed all of the hospital’s patients. After this miracle she prays to be taken away from the “vainglory of this world.”
After God called her to “Paradise,” a rector at the hospital informed the Virgin Mary and Jesus of her passing. They departed for the hospital with the 12 Apostles, Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary Cleophas. There they paid honor to St. Ismeria.
The legend marks a shift in belief, as sanctity was previously more often earned by blood martyrdom rather than piety. Lawless credits that, in part, to the rise in the belief of Purgatory, an interim space between heaven and hell where sins could be purged.
“The more sins purged in one’s lifetime (through penitence, good works, etc.) the less time needed in purgatory — for either oneself or one’s family,” she said.
She also pointed out that “the great bulk of Christian martyrs of the west died under the Roman persecutions, which ended in the fourth century.”
While the author of the Ismeria legend remains unknown, Lawless thinks it could have been a layperson from Tuscany. During the medieval period, “the story may have been used as a model for continent wifehood and active, charitable widowhood in one of the many hospitals of medieval Florence.”
“The grandmother of the Virgin was no widow who threatened the patrimony of her children by demanding the return of her dowry, nor did she threaten the family unit by remarrying and starting another lineage,” she added. “Instead, her life could be seen as an ideal model for Florentine penitential women.”
George Ferzoco, a research fellow at the University of Bristol, commented that the new paper analyzing the legend is “brilliant” and “reveals an exciting trove of religious material from late medieval and renaissance Florence, where many manuscripts were written specifically for females.”
“What is so striking about St. Ismeria,” Carolyn Muessig of the University of Bristol’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies told Discovery News, “is that she is a model for older matrons. Let’s face it: Older female role models are hard to come by in any culture.”
“But the fact that St. Ismeria came to the fore in late medieval Florence,” Muessig concluded, “reveals some of the more positive attitudes that medieval culture had towards the place and the importance of women in society.”