October 9 – Abraham the Patriarch; Denis

Abraham the Patriarch (XIX cent. BC(E), maybe?) is the common patriarch of the three great Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). According to the Book of Genesis, Abraham was born Abram (“mighty father”; God later renames him Abraham, “father of many nations”[1]), and wandered into Canaan from Ur in Mesopotamia in response to a prompting from God.

God promised Abraham he would make him the father of many nations, but as the years flew by, Abraham still wasn’t the father of anybody. Then God showed up in person and repeated the promise, causing Sarah (Abraham’s post-menopausal wife) to laugh (though to be fair, she denied this). After God wandered off, Sarah suggested Abraham impregnate her maid Hagar, so he did. But God meant him to have a son with Sarah, and by God (literally) he did. Sarah then had Hagar and her son Ishmael sent away[2].

They called their son Isaac (laughter), and the ink wasn’t even dry on that chapter when in the next chapter God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on an altar with a knife and fire and everything. Isaac was so cooperative he even carried the wood for his own immolation. (I can hardly get my kids to carry their dishes to the sink.) At the last minute God told Abraham, “Hold up, don’t do it, use this ram instead. Kudos for doing what I told you. Now stop.” If you ever wanted to witness an argument between biblical scholars, get some, give them some wine and cheese, and ask them about this episode. Was God fooling? Was God testing Abraham? Did God intend all along to call it off, or did he change his mind? Is this a foretelling of the death of Christ? Can I refill your glass? It could be a very memorable evening.

There were other adventures in there, some more reputable than others, but our tale is drawing to a close. Sarah died and was buried, and Abraham took another wife and had five more kids, who quickly fall out of the biblical account. Sarah’s burial in Canaan becomes important later in the story, as it serves to root her descendants to the Canaanite soil. Isaac of course goes on to have his own kids and grandkids, and ultimately these become the world-famous Twelve Tribes of Israel, but this isn’t his story.

Denis of Paris (d. 250, 258, or 270) may be the same guy as Dyonisius the Aereopagite (Oct 3), or he might not. He was bishop of Paris, living on the Île de la Cité in the River Seine, which was considerably less posh in those days (it was mostly trees) (not that there’s anything wrong with trees, of course). He converted many pagans, which apparently greatly peeved the ones he didn’t convert. These dragged him off to the highest hill they had, which doubled as a druidic worship spot (altar, lotsa nice trees (druids liked trees), hot tubs, etc.). The hill is nowadays called Montmartre, “Mountain of the Martyrs,” due to the fact that Denis and his companions were martyred there, and the Parisians had a somewhat optimistic view of what constitutes a mountain (130 metres? pish-posh). It is reputedly the place where the Society of Jesus (Jesuit order*) was founded, but that’s not Denis’ fault. My source says it’s now a hot nightclub district, but that’s not even Ignatius’ fault.

Upon that hill, Denis was executed (as mentioned) by decapitation (as not mentioned). Not wishing to fall down dead on a pagan mountain (or even a pagan hill), he picked up his head and walked some 10 km (ca. 64 stadia), preaching all the way. “There’s just no shutting that guy up,” thought the pagans (well, one would like to think so). He was buried where he fell, and the spot became a cemetery and, centuries later (at the insistence of Geneviève of Paris (Jan 3)), a basilica dedicated to—who else?—Denis. He is one of the Patrons of France, and one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers*.

[1] A Jewish source fairly convincingly denies this, and suggests (with less certitude) “Their Shield.”
[2] Don’t worry, God took care of them.