A saint, and All Saints Day
St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School
The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales
Blessed…blessed….blessed….blessed…Nine times in today’s gospel, the word “blessed” rings from the mountaintop where Jesus had gone to teach his disciples. When Jesus was beginning his work, he chose 12 helpers, but before they could help him teach, they had to learn. So he climbed a hill, and the disciples followed, and so did a large crowd of followers. The words he spoke there became known as The Sermon on the Mount, and the part we heard today is called “The Beatitudes.”
There is a lot to think about in these nine sayings about finding true happiness even in the midst of trouble–so much that we’d be here all day if we tried to pick up each beatitude and turn it this way and that to learn everything about it. So today, we’ll just look at one of the beatitudes and how it helped make one person a saint. Most of the saints we know about loved all of the beatitudes, but for each one there was one that was especially for them. For a saint named Tekla, the beatitude that is especially his is this: “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”
Tekla was born hundreds of years ago in a village named Zorare, in Ethiopia. His birth was a surprise because his parents had waited a long time to have a child, and also because the night he was born a special star hung over his parents’ hut. The king, Amlak, heard about the star and asked for the child to come to him, and little Tekla was baptized at the great cathedral, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Back in his family’s village, Tekla quickly grew into a strong, adventurous boy. One day, while he was climbing the tallest tree he could find, a branch snapped. He came down with a hard thud.
Tekla’s leg was badly broken, and in those days there were no x-rays, no casts, no physical therapy to help. Tekla’s parents tried to make him well, but week after week, he lay suffering on his sleeping mat. He grew thinner and weaker, but his leg did not heal.
Then someone showed him mercy. Abba Salama, the village priest, prayed over the boy, returning every day to read to him from the Bible. Tekla looked forward to these visits, and as his knowledge of the Bible grew, so did his strength. Finally, he told his parents, “If you make me a small crutch, I think I can walk again. Then I can help you with the goats.”
Tekla’s father whittled him a crutch from a forked branch, and he hobbled off with his herd. Tekla and his parents were grateful, but the villagers were disappointed. What was the meaning of the great star, when this boy was so ordinary? “It’s obvious the boy has no future,” they whispered.
Tekla disagreed. I will never be a warrior, he thought, but I can be a priest. He tucked his few possessions in a sack, kissed his parents, and limped away, headed to the ancient monastery of Debra Damo. Halfway there, he was so tired he had to lie down under a bush to sleep. Suddenly, he was awakened by a sound like a baby crying. Through the bushes he saw . . . a lion! A deep gash ran down its leg, and blood dripped from its paw. Tekla was afraid but also filled with compassion. “Anbassa,” he said, which is the Ethiopian word for lion. “You are hurt, like me. I will help you.” He bandaged the lion’s leg while the great beast purred and rubbed his head against the boy’s arm. “Goodbye,” Tekla said. “I will pray that you recover.”
Years went by. Tekla studied hard at the monastery and became a priest. When he was about 20 years old, he was lowered down from the cliff on which the monastery sat, and began to make his way, still leaning on his crutch.
When he had gone barely a mile, though, something terrible happened His crutch snapped, right in two, and he fell to the ground. Hard as he tried, he could not stand up. Vultures gathered in the trees, waiting for him to die.
Just then a tremendous roar startled Tekla. Poised on a rock stood a great lion, ready to leap. “Lord, save me!” cried Tekla.
At the sound of Tekla’s voice, the lion stood still. It started to purr, jumped from the rock, and rubbed his huge head against Tekla the way your kitty might do to you. Tekla noticed the long white scar on the lion’s leg. The great beast, to whom Tekla had shown mercy, was now showing mercy to him.
“Anbassa!” Tekla cried, amazed that the lion recognized him after so long. “I am sorry, my old friend,” Tekla said, “but I must be on my way now to do the Lord’s work.” He tried to stand, but without a crutch, his leg buckled and he fell . . . every time.
Anbassa nudged him, then lay down at his feet. Tekla lifted his good leg across the lion’s broad back. Then the majestic animal rose to his feet and trotted off, with Tekla holding on to his mane.
And that’s the way they traveled, the little priest and the big lion, throughout Ethiopia, telling everyone the good news of Jesus and God’s love. And of all the words of Jesus that Tekla loved to share, I think maybe his favorite were these: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Amen.
Based on A Saint and His Lion: The Story of Tekla of Ethiopia, by Elaime Murray Stone (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2004).