May 17, 2012

Ascension, Mother's Day and maybe a miracle

Ascension of Christ
Ascension of Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Today is the fortieth day after Easter. According to the ancient calendar of the church, this is the day to celebrate the Ascension of our Lord, the proper end of His earthly ministry. However, here in la Caramuca we will do so this on Sunday, April 20. 

Ascension Day is not a public holiday in Venezuela, so we would not expect a large attendance at a midweek service. However, because of the importance of this event in story of Jesus, I do not want it to pass unnoticed. So we will observe Ascension Day this Sunday when most of our members will be in attendance.

In the sermons for the last two Sundays, I have spoken of the importance of the Ascension and of Pentecost (which is not a national holiday, either). The risen Christ could not remain in this world in visible form, but rather had to complete the plan of redemption through the restoration of His divine power and authority with His human nature intact (He is no longer confined to one time and place, but is available as true God and true man to intercede for us with God the Father in all times and places)  and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon His church, so that the church might be empowered, through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, to proclaim the Gospel throughout the world until the second coming of Christ in glory, at which time all will be raised and all who believe will ascend to meet Him in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:17). This is the real rapture that will take place on the Last Day, as prophecied in the Scriptures and in contrast to the fictional "pre-tribulation rapture" of the "Left Behind" books and movies.

National days off in Venezuela that correspond to dates on the liturgical calendar include all of the week before Christmas and after Christmas until Epiphany (January 6); the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (Carnaval): and all of Holy Week.  In addition, various regions celebrate local holidays dedicated to supposed apparitions of the Virgin Mary and Roman Catholic saints who are supposed to be patrons of that particular locality.

The historic influence of Roman Catholicism and contemporary ambivalence toward it are evident in other aspects of Venezuelan civil law. For example, abortion is illegal, except in cases where terminating the pregnancy would save the mother's life, and merits a sentence of up to two years in prison for a woman who has an authorized abortion and up to three years for the doctor who performs it. Yet contraceptives are widely available and used. You can buy condoms off the rack in most pharmacies and many supermarkets. Consequently, the annual birth rate in Venezuela (20.1 births pér 1,000 people) is roughly equivalent to the U.S.birth rate in the mid 1960s, when abortion was illegal in most states, but the use of contraceptives had become widespread. Currently, the U.S. birth rate is 13.8 births per 1,000 people. It is chilling to reflect that the United States probably would not have such a low birth rate without allowing the murder of children in the womb.
Mother's Day games
Mother's Day games

Mother's Day

Which brings me to the event that captures most people's attention here in May: Mother's Day. It is said that in terms of generating economic activity (purchase of cards, gifts and flowers, phone calls, and so on), Mother's Day in Venezuela rivals Christmas. The positive aspect of this is that in Venezuelan culture, motherhood is not somewhere down the list of goals to which a woman may aspire, but is a central part of her life and necessary to the continuation of all human life.

The negative aspect is that the strong focus on motherhood to some extent is an attempt to compensate for the lack of strong male role models in many Venezuelan homes. Absentee fatherhood also is a cultural tradition with many men taking little responsibility for the raising of their children. Latin American "machismo" insists that a strong, virile man does not let himself get tied down by one woman and her children. This creates a dysfunctional pattern of family relationships which, of course, perpetuates itself for generation after generation.

Nonetheless, we had an excellent Mother's Day activity in our preschool on May 9, the Wednesday before the official observance of Mother's Day on Sunday, May 13. After a brief devotion, mothers (or grandmothers) and children enjoyed games, refreshments, cookies and cake. On Sunday we gave thanks for and implored God's blessing on our mothers in the prayer of the church.

Prayers answered

Anyi Garrido
Anyi Vanesa Garrido
We also prayed for three-year-old José Ignacio Garrido, who had been hospitalized the previous week with dengue fever; his one-year-old sister, Anyi, who was subsequently diagnosed with dengue; and also six-year-old Maria Andreina Ruiz, who was hospitalized with a broken arm. Torrential spring rains have created more habitat for the mosquitos that carry dengue fever.

Since last Sunday, José Ignacio has made a sudden recovery. The attending nurse said it was hard to believe that his charts from the day before the recovery and from the next day were charts for the same child. So perhaps we can count that as a small miracle in answer to our prayers. Little Anyi remains hospitalized in serious condition, however.

Postscript from Friedensau

When we lived in Nebraska, my family often would spend Memorial Day visiting my grandfather's grave at Trinity Lutheran Church of Friedensau. Friedensau,  which means "Peaceful Meadow", was in the late 19th Century a flourishing community of German immigrants in the Blue River valley. The town was first settled by people from Indiana and Illinois, most of whom were former parishioners of Pastor John Kern. In 1874, Kern himself arrived to give Friedensau its name and establish Trinity Lutheran Church.

By 1885, Friedensau had two Lutheran churches, a school, post office, mill, lumberyard, hotel, livery stable, blacksmith shop and other businesses. However, in 1887  the railroad was built five miles to the south, through what is now the town of Deshler. The businesses and many of the people moved to Deshler, and now all that remains of Friedensau is the original church and its cemetery.

I remember asking why there were so many children's graves in the cemetery. It was because of scarlet fever, which was often fatal to children before penicillin became a widely available antibiotic in the 1940s (it was discovered by Sir Alexander Fleming in 1928).

David Julius and Theodora Ernst
David Julius and Theodora Ernst
My grandfather, David Julius Ernst, was himself the victim of childhood disease. I did not know this for many years, because he died in 1946, 12 years before he was born. But when he was a boy, my grandfather contracted polio and became paralyzed on one side of his body. Nevertheless, he grew up to be a schoolteacher, church organist and choir director. Born and raised near Austin, Texas, he met my grandmother, Theodora Schabacker, in Friedensau, where she was the pastor's daughter. They are buried side by side there now.

When I think of these hardships of the past, I give thanks to God for the medical discoveries that have eliminated such things as smallpox, polio or scarlet fever as threats to the well-being of children. Yet I reflect on how human life still is a fragile and precious thing, and I give thanks to God for the gift of every human life, no matter how brief, and for the courage and faith of parents who are willing to give the gift of life to the next generation.

And, especially in this season of Eastertide, which draws to its close at Pentecost, let us give thanks for the hope of the resurrection and the life of the world to come. Amen.

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