Q and A on Noah

» 15 April 2014 » In Uncategorized » No Comments

Russell Crowe as NoahQ. The movie Noah, starring Russell Crowe, has inspired me to look into the biblical Noah. What does the Bible say about Noah and the Flood in Genesis 6:5-8:22?

A. It’s important to realize, as scholar John Walton reminds us, that the biblical account of the Flood has been “watered down” by the way most of us learned about it in Sunday School. Kids love boats and animals, so most childrens’ books and materials about the Flood focus on these things.

As we get older, we should realize that the main message about the Flood is not about Noah, the animals, the ark, or the water. It is about God. In fact, Noah never speaks at all in the account of the Flood. We only hear what God thinks about Noah – that he was “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). This is the standard we should aim for, too. God notices and cares when people try to live for him in the midst of a depraved culture – like the one Noah lived in, or like the one we live in today.

Q. What does the Flood account teach us about God?

A. Saint Peter, writing in the New Testament, teaches that the Flood reminds us of the approaching final judgment (2 Peter 2:5; 3:5-6). Walton points out four facts we can learn from this:

1. “The Lord knows how to rescue godly people from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment” (2 Peter 2:9).

2.  The only reason God is delaying the final judgment is to allow more people time to turn back to God. But this is a “limited-time offer” that will not last forever: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

3. The Flood meant destruction for the wicked, but a new world for those who were saved. The same will occur in the future: “But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13).

4. These future realities should impact the way we live our lives today: “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives” (2 Peter 3:11).

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3 Simple Steps to Kickstart Your Faith in Lent

» 20 March 2014 » In Uncategorized » No Comments

images-1A question I get asked a lot, especially because of my work with new converts, is “What are the things I should be doing to live an effective Christian life?” What these people are essentially looking for is a skeletal structure for their life, so that their faith becomes integrated into it, not an add-on.

So, here’s my 3-Step short list (Lent is a perfect time to start):

1. Daily prayer. “Love is deeds, not sweet words”. If you said you loved your spouse, or your best friend, but never spent any time with that person, it would ring hollow. Likewise, we must enter into God’s “orbit” by taking time out for the most important person in our lives. Start with 5 minutes; work up to two 15-minute sessions, once in the morning, and once in the afternoon or evening. Two 30-minute sessions is the ultimate goal, but baby steps at first.

2. Frequent the Sacraments. Sunday Mass is not heroic, it’s the bare minimum. If you truly believe that Jesus is substantially present in the Host – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity – than why not receive him more frequently? Daily would be the ultimate goal, but again, baby steps at first. Try attending one daily Mass outside of Sunday, and see the difference it makes in your day. Confession should be monthly (at barest minimum). Every two weeks is ideal, and weekly would be the ultimate goal. Judging from the length of the Communion lines, and the brevity of the Confession queue, we’re either living in the greatest generation of saints ever seen on earth, or the most delusional folks ever.

3. Study your Faith. Be formed. Be informed. Most people have fallen for a caricature of the Catholic faith, or of Jesus himself. Why not get the info “straight from the horse’s mouth”, so to speak? Read the Catechism. Read the Bible – not from cover to cover, either! At least not at first. Start with one of the four Gospels, the biographies of Jesus’ life. You’ll meet the real Jesus there. Move on to a couple of Paul’s letters. Read the New Testament first. Then tackle the Old. Don’t try to read the OT from cover-to-cover either, or you’ll get bogged down somewhere around the diteary laws of Leviticus. Join a good Catholic Bible Study program (I teach one at St Justin Martyr Parish in Toronto – just sayin’. You’d be most welcome.).

3.5 (Bonus!) Get a Spiritual Director. If someone has a (good) spiritual director, I don’t worry about them. Friend, you need a coach. And so do I. You are not objective about yourself! Ask your parish priest for a recommendation. Opus Dei priests are superb at tailoring a Christian life plan for people who live in the middle of the world. Worth checking out.

What do you think? It’s not an exhaustive list, of course, but what would your own list look like?  

 

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Saint Joseph, Powerful Intercessor

» 19 March 2014 » In Uncategorized » No Comments

Today, March 19, Holy Mother Church gives her children a treat amidst our regular Lenten practices. There are a couple of solemnities that usually fall on Lenten weekdays. One is the great Feast of the Annunciation on March 25. The other is today’s Feast of Saint Joseph, patron of the universal Church.

Many Christians do not avail themselves of the intercessions and help that this great Saint longs to provide them. Saint Thomas Aquinas said that the degree of assistance from God that a saint can provide for us is in direct proportion to the holiness of that saint. The words of James come to mind: “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (Jas 5:16). The more righteous the pray-er, the more powerful the prayer.

Of course, by these standards, the most powerful intercessor in heaven is the great Mother of God. Saint Joseph, “Silent Knight, Holy Knight” that he is, is so often overlooked. As always, the proof is in the pudding, so why not try entrusting a difficult problem to Saint Joseph? Saint Teresa of Avila was a notable advocate of the practice: “Our Lord would have us understand that, as he was himself subject to (Saint Joseph) upon earth – for Saint Joseph, having the title of father, and being his guardian, could command him – so now in heaven (Jesus) performs all his petitions” (Life, 6).

Saint Joseph, Ora pro nobis.

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Jesus: Lawmaker, Not Breaker

» 16 February 2014 » In Uncategorized » No Comments

Q. In this Sunday’s Gospel, we have the most important section of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. Why is this material so crucial?

A. Matthew is a very Jewish Gospel. It was not the first Gospel to be written (that, in all likelihood, would be the Gospel of Mark), but it is placed first in the New Testament canon because it is a natural bridge between the Old and New Covenants (in fact, the words “testament” and “covenant” mean the same thing).

Matthew highlights the mission of Jesus to Gentiles, to be sure (cf. 28:19-20). But he is striving to show to his fellow Jews that Jesus was not, as he had been accused of being in Jewish circles, a lawbreaker – that is, he did not circumvent the law of the Old Testament. This is why Matt 5:17 is so crucial: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.”

In fact, when Jesus says, “Do not think…” he is referencing the Maccabean martyrs, who also preserved the law, despite hideous tortures at the hands of the pagan tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes: “But do not think that you will go unpunished for having tried to fight against God!” (2 Macc 7:19).

Q. But if Jesus isn’t “changing”, or altering the law, why does he give a series of examples prefaced by the formula, “You have heard it said…But I say to you…”?

A. What Jesus is doing here is bringing out the true meaning of the law – its correct interpretation, contra the erroneous takes on the law given by popular teachers of Jesus’ day. These examples are known as the “antitheses” of the Sermon on the Mount.

Far from abolishing the law, Jesus’ demands are even more strict than what was commonly taught in the Judaism of that time. Jesus deals with the inner attitudes of the heart, from which sins spring (cf. Matt 15:19). In this way, he highlights the true intent of the law, which was to transform the inner person, not simply to outlaw certain behaviors.

In one of the antitheses, for example, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ (Ex 20:14 = Deut 5:18). But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:27-28). Jesus then brings up the topic of divorce and remarriage in 5:31-32 (which Jesus says is adultery). This is very interesting in light of John the Baptist’s criticism of Herod Antipas’ illicit marriage to his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, for which John paid with his life (Matt 14:1-12). Jesus strikes at the heart of the issue by correctly pegging the cause of adulterous divorce and remarriage as lust, from which indeed much sexual sin springs.

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Papa Was a Rolling Stone

» 29 January 2014 » In Uncategorized » 1 Comment

50e0f216-dbe5-46e4-9592-383f0f1e65ac_20140127-popecover-x600-1390844430He’s done it again.

The “Pope” Culture Icon. The People’s Pope. Whatever you want to call him, he is nothing short of a phenomenon, going where no pope – not even Blessed JPII – has gone before: The cover of Rolling Stone Magazine!

Well, for Pete’s sake!

The issue hits newsstands on Friday…it will be very interesting to read this particular take on the Holy Father. Cardinal Dolan of New York City said, following the Conclave that elected Francis, that the Cardinal-electors had asked themselves which among their number was the most like Jesus Christ. Their answer, obviously, was the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

And like Jesus Christ himself, Pope Francis provokes strong reactions among people. Like Jesus, he is tough to label or pin down. He has an orthodox, “conservative” mind, teaching right doctrine, and a “liberal” heart – with arms open to everyone. And like Jesus, he has been misunderstood and misquoted. We’ll see if Rolling Stone can paint an accurate picture of the “Rock” – the successor of Peter.

 

 

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Like the Caramilk Secret, the “Messianic Secret” Doesn’t Really Exist

» 15 January 2014 » In Uncategorized » No Comments

The Caramilk SecretOne axiom in biblical studies that needs to go away forever is the so-called “Messianic secret”. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this references in articles, commentaries, and sermons. What is the “Messianic secret”, you ask? It’s the idea floated by some Gospel scholars (especially of Mark and the other Synoptics) that Jesus was trying to keep his identity as Messiah a secret. This is allegedly why he doesn’t want people who he has healed to spread the news about him, and why he doesn’t allow demons to tell people who he really is, either (We just talked about that last item yesterday).

This is absolute nonsense! As Dr. Craig Evans, one of the best biblical scholars on the planet, is so fond of pointing out, Jesus is the Messiah and knows it. He wants others to know it, too. Today’s Gospel reading (Mark 1:29-39) sheds some light on the issue. In the Galilee of Jesus’ day, multitudes of people were sick at any given time. There were also a ton of people who suffered from demonic possession. And here comes Jesus: a one-man, walking, free health-care clinic. Obamacare, eat your heart out! This Mark 1 passage tells us that Jesus spent practically the entire night healing people and casting out demons. The demand for is services is insatiable. This is why Jesus announces the next morning that he and the Apostles need to move on to the next towns, to preach the Good News of the Gospel. This is also, by the way, why Jesus often preached from boats, while the crowd on the shore listened. If he had allowed the crowd to get near him, there never would have been a sermon, because everyone would have been pressing in for a healing – “all who touched him were made well”.

The healings, as great as they are, can actually get in the way of what Jesus came to accomplish: to preach the message of the Kingdom. No doubt, he proclaims it in both word and deed, and the deeds are the proof of the message, if you will. In this way, exorcisms are an even more clear proof of the establishment of the Kingdom of God and the destruction of Satan’s kingdom. But we have to start with the preached Word. Even if Jesus brings someone back from the dead, like Lazarus, it’s only temporary. Lazarus would die again. He was only resuscitated, not resurrected, like Jesus would be, never to die again. Saving souls is most important. Saving bodies is only #2, although Jesus wants to save both, and will ultimately save the bodies of all of God’s friends at the general resurrection. But for now, there’s a danger, in all the excitement about his healings, that the message Jesus is bringing is getting lost in all the excitement.

First things first.

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Shut Up…and Get Out!

» 14 January 2014 » In Uncategorized » No Comments

Synagogue at CapernaumWhy didn’t Jesus allow the demon he exorcised in today’s Gospel (Mark 1:21-28) to tell people who Jesus really was? Two reasons:

1. You don’t want demons to be your PR team. As the Divine Messiah of Israel, the last thing Jesus wants is demons, of all creatures, to announce to his people his true identity.

2. Exorcisms are a power struggle between exorcist and demon. Knowing someone’s name, or true identity, implies that you have some sort of power over that person. It’s a way of gaining “the upper hand”, if you will. That’s why a big part of an exorcism involves the exorcist attempting to learn the demon’s name. When the demon in Mark 1 says to Jesus, “I know who you are – the Holy One of God!”, Jesus can not let that “challenge” pass without a rebuke.

This is why Jesus essentially tells the demon, “Shut up…and get out!”

For much more on Jesus the exorcist, check this out:

“The Rite” and Jesus the Exorcist

 

 

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On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

» 09 December 2013 » In Uncategorized » No Comments

Pope Pius IX, who defined the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception (1854)

Pope Pius IX, who defined the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception (1854)

Today’s great Solemnity of the Immaculate conception of Mary is usually celebrated on December 8. However, due to the second Sunday of Advent falling on that date yesterday, the Solemnity was communicated to today this year. And it’s certainly a doctrine that is misunderstood by many.

The Immaculate Conception is not the Virginal Conception of Jesus. Nor does it have anything to do with this, sports fans.

Here’s the actual definition, from Blessed Pope Pius IX, “Pio Nono”:

We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.

-Ineffabilis Deus, Apostolic Constitution of Pope Pius IX solemnly defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, 8 December 1854.

the basis for the Immaculate Conception of Mary in the New Testament is well-known, but today I’d like to share about one of the ways the doctrine is foreshadowed in the Old Testament. In his masterful devotional series, In Conversation with God, Francis Fernandez writes about Mary as the new Temple in which God dwells:

In the litany of Loreto we call upon Mary, House of Gold, the abode of greatest conceivable splendor. When a family turns a house into a home by taking up residence there, the place reflects the individual qualities of the people. They accentuate the beauty of the dwelling place. Just like the Holy Spirit dwelling in Our Lady, the home and its inhabitants make up a particular unity, in much the same way as the body and its garments do. The foremost Tabernacle in the Old Testament, later to be the Temple, is the House of God, where the meeting of Yahweh and his people takes place. When Solomon makes the decision to build the Temple, the Prophets specify that the best available materials are to be used – abundant cedar wood on the inside and clad with gold on the outside. The most highly skilled craftsmen are to work on its construction.

Before God made known his coming into the world in the fullness of time, He prepared Mary as the suitable creature within whom He would dwell for nine months, from the moment of his Incarnation until his birth in Bethlehem. Evidence of God’s power and love show forth in his creation. Mary is the House of Gold, the new Temple of God, and is adorned with so great a beauty that no greater perfection is possible. The grace of her Immaculate Conception, including all the graces and gifts God ever bestowed on her soul, are directed towards the fulfillment of her divine Maternity.

God’s gift of supernatural life to her exceeds that of all the Apostles, Martyrs, Confessors and Virgins combined. It reaches far beyond the experience of anyone who has ever lived, or ever will live, until the end of time. God dwells in Our Lady more than in all the angels and saints, since the foundation of the world, taken together. Truly God has prepared a human vessel in keeping with the dignity of his eternal Son. When we say that Mary has an almost infinite dignity, we mean that among all God’s creatures she is the one who enjoys the most intimate relationship with the Blessed Trinity. Her absolute honor is the highest possible and her majesty is in every way unique. She is the firstborn and most highly favored daughter of the Father, as she has often been called throughout the history of the Church, and as has been reiterated by the Second Vatican Council, Our Lady’s blood relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, leads her to a singular relationship with him.

Mary is indeed the new Temple and Tabernacle of God.

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The Israel Chronicles: Sepphoris (Part II)

» 20 November 2013 » In Uncategorized » No Comments

Theatre at SepphorisNote: For much more on Sepphoris, and on other amazing archaeological finds that illuminate Jesus’ life, you will definitely want to grab a copy of Dr. Craig Evans’ excellent book Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence here!

As we continue our tour of Sepphoris, let’s look at some clues in the Gospels that this city may have influenced Jesus’ ministry. We all know that Jesus was a master at pointing out profound lessons from the everyday world that he lived in. Witness his many agricultural parables: having faith as a “mustard seed”, the “lost sheep”, etc. I believe there is a high probability that Sepphoris was a part of that world, and figures prominently in Jesus’ preaching  - especially in the Gospel of Matthew. It is thus a potential boon for understanding and clarifying certain aspects of Jesus’ teachings.

For example, the “city set on a hill (that) cannot be hidden” (Matt 5:14) may have been inspired by Sepphoris, which was indeed elevated. Its evening lights may have been visible to the inhabitants of Nazareth.

One of the most impressive discoveries resulting from the archaeological excavations that took place in Sepphoris during the 1970s and 1980s was its impressive public theatre. It was indeed a splendid structure; its first phase would have been completed in the 20s in the first century AD, carved out of the local bedrock. Its original seating capacity was about 2,500. Could it be that Jesus and Joseph worked on its construction? We will never know. A further expansion of the theatre took place decades later, which enabled it to hold 4,000.

Jesus’ references to “hypocrites” (cf. Matt. 6:2, 5, 16; 7:5; 15:7; 16:3; 22:18; 23:13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 28, 29; 24:51; Luke 6:42; 11:44; 12:1, 56; 13:15), an originally innocuous word that referred to “actors”, or “play-actors”, may have been expropriated from the theatre at Sepphoris. Jesus used the term “hypocrite” to excoriate the people-pleasing, insincere piety of some scribes and Pharisees of his day.

Jesus admonishes his disciples not to practice their piety “before people, in order to be seen by them” (Matt 6:1). The term translated as “to be seen” is the Greek word theathenai, from which we derive the English word “theatre”. Jesus advises people not to draw attention to their charitable giving: “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do” (Matt 6:2). The sounding of the trumpet signified a change of scene during a play. Jesus further says “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you”. Skillful actors coordinated the movements of their hands to match their actions, drawing attention to what was done.
Jesus teaches his followers not to “be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others” (Matt 6:5). This alludes to an actor who stands and performs a soliloquy on stage.

Jesus also encourages his disciples not to “look dismal” when they fast, unlike “the hypocrites”, who “disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by people” (Matt 6:16). Mimes would paint their faces in order to play a role. Overall, Jesus encourages us to live not for the applause of others, but rather for the applause of One: God alone.

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The Israel Chronicles: Sepphoris (Part I)

» 13 November 2013 » In Uncategorized » No Comments

UnknownIn this series about what I learned on my recent research tour of Israel, our next stop is Sepphoris, where an important archaeological excavation has taken place. Sepphoris is located only 6.5 kilometres north of Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. Along with with Caesarea Maritima and Tiberias, it was one of the largest and most important cities around the Galilee. This helps to quash the quaint myth that Jesus hailed from a sort of isolated backwater in Nazareth. In fact, a major highway linking Caesarea Maritima and Tiberias was not far from Nazareth. It is also possible that Joseph and Jesus worked in Sepphoris during its period of heavy expansion under Herod Antipas from 4 BCE – 39 CE, though it seems there would have been plenty of work to be had in Nazareth at that time as well. Antipas had originally intended to make Sepphoris his headquarters, and thus had some beautiful architecture installed there in the Greco-Roman style – colonnaded streets, etc.

The Greek word tekton that describes Jesus’ and Joseph’s work as carpenters actually means much more than that. It refers to a highly skilled laborer who would have been proficient in working with stone as well as wood and other materials. In fact, it is likely that Joseph and Jesus would have had architectural abilities as well. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan writes, one might say they were the equivalents of modern-day engineers.

The Sepphoris excavations are also important for quashing the theory of the ex-Catholic priest and scholar John Dominic Crossan that Jesus was in fact a Cynic philosopher. Excavations at the city dump have determined that at the time of Jesus, Sepphoris’ inhabitants kept to a kosher diet. Only in strata postdating 70 CE do we find pig bones and other evidence of Hellenizing influences. This is consistent with Sepphoris’ expanding non-Jewish population following the failed Jewish revolt of 66-70 CE . Coins minted in Sepphoris prior to 70 CE do not depict the image of the Emperor (as deity), which would have offended devout Jews, even though such coins were common elsewhere in the Empire. Post-70 CE, this is not the case. Stone vessels and miqva’ot – ritual bathing pools – used for Jewish purification rites, as well as menorah, have also been found from the pre-70 period.

In short, Sepphoris was in all likelihood an almost, if not completely Jewish city at the time of Jesus.  It is therefore improbable that Jesus would have come under the sway of Cynics during his early life in and around Nazareth.

 

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