Sunday Scriptures: Cults of Personality

1 Cor

Once again, this Sunday’s second reading is from 1 Corinthians, and once again it’s from chapter 1 (vv. 10-13, 17). There were real divisions in the congregation that were very worrying to St Paul. Peter Kreeft once noted that Paul was horrified by the beginnings of a sort of “Protestantism” in Corinth. It isn’t a bad analogy at all – many early Protestant movements came to be identified with the particular individual who founded it – Lutheranism (Martin Luther) and Calvinism (John Calvin) are two examples that immediately spring to mind.

In Corinth in the first century, members of the Church were aligning themselves behind various leaders, too. They weren’t leaving the Church per se in order to do that, but these actions still had a very divisive effect. Catholics were forming various “camps” based on which leader they preferred, whether that was Paul, Apollos (a very eloquent preacher in the early Church who had spent some time in Corinth – for more on him see Acts 18:24-28), or Cephas (the Apostle Peter – “Cephas” is “Peter” in Aramaic). Some seemed to reject any merely human leadership, claiming to belong solely to Jesus Christ, without need of any Church intermediaries.

Some representatives of a “parishioner” in Corinth (“Chloe’s people”) had gotten word about this state of affairs to Paul, who at the time was in Ephesus. He was incredulous and extremely disappointed. He thunders, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” He urges them in the strongest words possible (“in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”) “that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.” Christ must be the centre, and human leaders are only useful inasmuch as they point people not to themselves, but to Jesus.

How can we apply Paul’s warning to us today?

Today, just as in the first century, Catholics are just as tempted to create “cults of personality” centred around human leaders, whether they be bishops, priests, professed religious, or laypeople. There are also people who foolishly believe that they can have full access to Jesus without the Church. How do we deal with such problems? I would suggest two remedies – one for all of us, and one for those in leadership.

First, for all Catholics – we must recognize that the basis of our belief is the one Person of Christ. This is what unites us: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism”, as Paul writes elsewhere (Ephesians 4:3-5). Secondly, leaders must purify their intentions. Why do we do what we do? Is our intention solely to give glory to God, or to ourselves? Humans are always a “mixed bag” of motives to some extent, but our neither our motives nor our message should revolve around ourselves. Paul himself sets the example, as he notes in today’s reading: Christ sent him to “preach the gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.”

Maltese Madness

ALTodd Aglialoro, writing for Catholic Answers:

With their shocking publication of new norms for permitting divorced and remarried Catholics to return to the reception of Holy Communion (based on their reading of Amoris Laetitia – ed.), the bishops of Malta have shown how great errors can grow from tiny seeds.

And:

Remember, divorced and remarried Catholics (those, obviously, who have not had their first marriages determined to be invalid by the annulment process) are not prohibited from receiving Communion because the “failure” of their first marriage was a sin. They are prohibited because, in maintaining a sexual relationship with a person who isn’t their spouse, they are committing adultery. This grave sin is incompatible with the state of grace required for worthy reception of the Eucharist (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1415).

The remedy for such people, as affirmed for example in John Paul II’s encyclical Familiaris Consortio (84), is first to stop committing adultery. Even if life circumstances practically or even morally require them to continue living in a common household with someone who isn’t their spouse, in no way would those circumstances ever require them to continue having sexual intercourse with someone who isn’t their spouse.

The bishops of Malta, on the strength of footnote 329 (of AL ed.), are now saying that circumstances might do just that. Because not having sex with someone may be impossible, adultery and Holy Communion are now compatible.

What an appallingly defeatist idea, and one that is without analog in Catholic morality. Where else do bishops teach that it’s impossible to do what’s right?

Todd absolutely nails some key issues here, with the precision and power of a Bobby Hull slapshot (he’s a big hockey fan). The fact that Catholic Answers (a well-known, orthodox organization, faithful to the Magisterium and to historic Church teaching) thought it necessary to publish such a piece in the first place is very telling. It’s safe to say we’ve reached a full-blown crisis in the universal Church. Nothing less than the integrity of three sacraments (marriage, the Eucharist, and confession) are at stake. The integrity of scripture (with respect to the Gospel teaching of Jesus on marriage) is also being challenged. Quite a bit is on the line, not to mention the fate of countless eternal souls who have every right to look to the bishops of Christ’s Church for clear moral guidance.

Sunday Scriptures: 1 Corinthians Overview

1 Corinthians

Over the next few weeks, the second reading at Sunday Mass will be taken from Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians). This week, we read the first few verses of chapter one:

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
and Sosthenes our brother,
to the church of God that is in Corinth,
to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy,
with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.

(1 Cor 1:1-3)

Here’s some background on the letter. As scholar Richard Hays points out, anytime we read one of the New Testament letters, we are really reading someone else’s mail! Of course, these documents have been canonized as sacred scripture, and are indeed the Word of God. So, there is always a message from the Lord for us when we read them. But in another sense, as Hays notes, Paul probably would have preferred that some of the “issues” the believers of Corinth were dealing with were not broadcast to the ages. There’s a lot of embarrassing stuff here – everything from sexual immorality within the congregation, to lawsuits among church members, to divisions, factions and personality cults; and much more.

Thankfully for us, this letter was preserved, because it reminds us that there really was no “golden age” in Church history, even in the beginning, where everything was perfect and all were perfectly holy. We in today’s Catholic Church are still dealing with the same old sins. Human nature is no different. “The more things change, the more they stay the same”, as the saying goes. We can use Paul’s letter to figure out how best to deal with problems like these in today’s Church.

And thankfully for us, God’s grace is still just as powerful now as it ever was back then. God is still in the business of salvation and redemption. As Paul notes in today’s reading, the Corinthians (and us) are “sanctified in Christ Jesus, and called to be holy” (1 Cor 1:2).

But, what does being called to holiness really mean?

This Sunday’s Gospel (John 1:29-34) reminds us that Jesus pours out the Holy Spirit on us in Christian baptism. And our baptism calls us to two things, which can never be accomplished without the help of God’s powerful Spirit : 1) Holiness (becoming a saint); and 2) Apostolate (sharing our faith and helping others to become saints, too). Let’s focus briefly on the first point, that of holiness.

As one writer is fond of saying, becoming a saint means becoming “the best version of yourself”. It also means becoming more like Jesus Christ, who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). It is Jesus’ truth and life poured through our unique personalities, situations, and vocations. But we must cooperate with Jesus in this process. God does the heavy lifting, of course, but it doesn’t happen without effort and willingness on our part.

As St. Josemaria Escriva wrote:

“They have the stuff of saints in them.” At times you hear this said of some people. Apart from the fact that the saints were not made of “stuff”, to have “stuff” is not sufficient. A great spirit of obedience to your (spiritual) Director and great readiness to respond to grace are essential. For, if you don’t allow God’s grace and your Director to do their work, there will never appear the finished sculpture, Christ’s image, into which the saintly man is fashioned. And the “stuff” of which we were speaking will be no more than a heap of shapeless matter, fit only for the fire…for a good fire, if it was good “stuff”!

(The Way, No. 56).

Christmas in January?

epiphany

Ever wonder why some Eastern Christians celebrate Christmas on January 6, the date the Western Church chose for the Epiphany? And how did the West settle on December 25 as the date for Christmas?

Andrew McGowan, Dean of Yale Divinity School, sheds much light on these questions:

“Around 200 CE, 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. 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. 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.

“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, and on the same he suffered.’ 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.’

“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.’ Even today, the Armenian Church celebrates the Annunciation in early April (on the 7th, not the 6th) and Christmas on January 6.

“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).”

Bishop Robert Barron Reviews Scorsese’s “Silence”

silenceBishop Robert Barron, Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles and founder of Word on Fire ministries, has offered up yet another great movie review. This one’s on director Martin Scorsese’s Silence, long in the making, which adapts Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel of the same name. It deals with (spolier alert) the apostasy of certain Jesuit missionaries in Japan during that nation’s bloody persecution of Catholics in the 17th century. Barron refutes the idea that the choice these men made should be lauded:

What in the world do we make of this strange and disturbing story? Like any great film or novel, Silence obviously resists a univocal or one-sided interpretation. In fact, almost all of the commentaries that I have read, especially from religious people, emphasize how Silence beautifully brings forward the complex, layered, ambiguous nature of faith. Fully acknowledging the profound psychological and spiritual truth of that claim, I wonder whether I might add a somewhat dissenting voice to the conversation? I would like to propose a comparison, altogether warranted by the instincts of a one-time soldier named Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuit order to which all the Silence missionaries belonged. Suppose a small team of highly-trained American special ops was smuggled behind enemy lines for a dangerous mission. Suppose furthermore that they were aided by loyal civilians on the ground, who were eventually captured and proved willing to die rather than betray the mission. Suppose finally that the troops themselves were eventually detained and, under torture, renounced their loyalty to the United States, joined their opponents and lived comfortable lives under the aegis of their former enemies. Would anyone be eager to celebrate the layered complexity and rich ambiguity of their patriotism? Wouldn’t we see them rather straightforwardly as cowards and traitors?

Indeed, the true heroes of the film are the Japanese lay martyrs, not the apostate Jesuits. And, as Barron notes, there are more than a few similarities between how cultural elites in 17th-century Japan and those of today want to “silence” (sorry, couldn’t resist) the faith today:

My worry is that all of the stress on complexity and multivalence and ambiguity is in service of the cultural elite today, which is not that different from the Japanese cultural elite depicted in the film. What I mean is that the secular establishment always prefers Christians who are vacillating, unsure, divided, and altogether eager to privatize their religion. And it is all too willing to dismiss passionately religious people as dangerous, violent, and let’s face it, not that bright.

The whole review, as is the case with anything by Bishop Barron, is well worth your time and can be found here.

The Reality of the Christ: Part 2

savior

Matthew and Luke are the only two Gospel writers who include an infancy narrative in their biographies of Jesus. According to the most widely accepted theory about how the Gospels were composed, Matthew and Luke wrote independently of one another. That is, Matthew did not have a copy of Luke’s Gospel on his desk when writing his Gospel, as it were, and vice versa.

Having said that, it is amazing that these two birth narratives almost never cover the same events! But in the few instances that they do, they are in agreement. The famous biblical scholar Father Raymond Brown pointed out eleven points (reproduced in Monette, The Wrong Jesus, pp. 108-109) at which Matthew and Luke’s accounts are in accord with one another:

1. Mary and Joseph are legally engaged but haven’t lived together (see Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:27,34).
2. Joseph is from King David’s lineage (see Matthew 1:16,20; Luke 1:27,32; 2:4).
3. Angels announce the forthcoming birth of the baby (see Matthew 1:20-23; Luke 1:30-35).
4. Mary becomes pregnant as a virgin (see Matthew 1:20,23,25; Luke 1:34).
5. The child is conceived through the work of the Holy Spirit (see Matthew 1:18,20; Luke 1:35).
6. An angel proclaims that the child’s name will be Jesus (see Matthew 1:21; Luke 1:31).
7. An angel states that Jesus is to be the Saviour (see Matthew 1:21; Luke 2:11).
8. The birth of Jesus happens after Mary and Joseph began living together as spouses (see Matthew 1:24-25; Luke 2:5-6).
9. Jesus is born in Bethlehem (see Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:4-6).
10. Herod the Great is in power during the time of the birth of Jesus (see Matthew 2:1; Luke 1:5).
11. Jesus is raised in Nazareth (see Matthew 2:23; Luke 2:39).

The fact that these two independent sources on Jesus’ infancy are in agreement on all these major details gives us greater confidence that we can trust these accounts.

The Reality of the Christ: Part 1

nativityDuring the Christmas and Easter seasons in particular, many skeptics appear in the media who insist that these celebrations are meaningless, because Jesus never actually existed. How can we respond?

It’s important to understand that people who doubt the birth and existence of Jesus of Nazareth are extremely few. Their claims are, quite frankly, not credible. They are not accepted by any legitimate historian. In fact, no credible professor of history who holds a university teaching chair denies Jesus’ existence as a historical figure.

One such professor has truly thrown down the gauntlet in this regard. Scholar Greg Monette notes that “John Dickson, who holds a PhD in ancient history and is senior research fellow of the department of ancient history at Macquarie University, is so sure of the evidence for the historical Jesus that he’s recently put forward a challenge on Facebook: If anyone can provide the name of a single university professor holding a PhD in ancient history who denied the existence of Jesus, he’d eat a page from the Bible! So far, Dickson’s Bible is safe, and I believe it will stay that way” (Monette, The Wrong Jesusp. 28).

In actuality, there are many historical references to Jesus from pagan, Jewish, and Christian sources. Let’s focus for now on the pagan Roman sources. These are valuable in part because they are essentially “hostile witnesses”, who have no interest in promoting Christianity – often quite the contrary. Yet, they affirm the existence of Jesus. Here are a few of the most important Roman citations (cited by Monette, pp. 28-29):

1. PLINY THE YOUNGER (AD 62–113), Epistles 10.96:

“They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light [Sunday], when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food, but of an ordinary and innocent kind.”

2. TACITUS (AD 60–120), Annals 15.44:

“Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.”

3. SUETONIUS (AD 75–160), Life of Claudius 25.4:

“Because the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.”

4. MARA BAR SERAPION (2nd or 3rd century), in a letter:

“The Jews in executing their wise king were ‘ruined and driven from their land [and now] live in complete dispersion. . . Nor did the wise King die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given.’”

Even the skeptical scholar and ex-Catholic priest, John Dominic Crossan, has written: “That [Jesus] was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.” If Jesus was a historical figure who was crucified, he was of course born into our world as well. And this is what we commemorate during the season of Christmas.

Living Advent and Christmas Well in the Family

advent

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:

“(W)hen the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Saviour’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating (John the Baptist’s) birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: He must increase, but I must decrease” (CCC 524).

“He (Jesus) must increase, but I must decrease”. He must become greater, and I must become less. This statement of John the Baptist’s can easily be appropriated by us as we seek to stamp out our own selfishness and self-centredness this Advent.

Let’s really make an effort to make Advent and Christmas truly about our Lord this year – and what he wants for us, as opposed to what we might “get” this Christmas. And what he wants for us is holiness, which will in turn make us much happier (not to mention the people who have to live with us)! However, we need to battle the culture around us to do that – a culture that seeks to pull us farther and farther from Jesus and the true meaning of these sacred seasons.

Michaelann Martin says, “Either we live the liturgical year with its varying seasons of joy and sorrow, work and rest, or we follow the pattern of the world, writes Helen McLoughlin in ‘Advent and Christmas in a Catholic Home’, commenting on the challenge Catholics have of being in the world, but not of the world, throughout the year. She wrote these profound words in the 1950s, but they are even more important today because of the general decline in Catholic family life during the last 40 years. With two parents working in many households, there is less time to devote to the spiritual life of the family. As Catholic parents, we must readjust our priorities and teach our children by living our faith, both inside and outside the home.”

In other words, we have to be intentional about creating a Catholic culture in our own homes and families, or else we will be swept along by secularism, almost by default. We don’t want to become “Catholics in name only” (CINOs), so here are some ideas for creating family Advent traditions:

Children love to anticipate. In our family creche (manger) scene, we can make sure that we don’t place the Christ child in the manger until Christmas arrives. We can also have our own Advent wreaths and candles that are lit at mealtime, or during the family rosary.

Another highlight of Advent is the opportunity to teach children about the real St. Nicholas, whose feast we celebrated on Dec. 6. Santa Claus is, of course, based on St. Nicholas, but commercialism has obscured the historical figure of the saint, whose story is fascinating and can be taught to one’s children.

These are just some ideas – you can also create your own unique Catholic traditions within your family. The seasons of Advent and Christmas, lived well, make a deep impression on children that can last a lifetime.

What are your most cherished Advent and Christmas family traditions? Share this post on social media and let others know how your faith impacts your own family celebrations.

On the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

guadalupe

Matthew Leonard, Executive Director of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology:

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the native people of Mexico City suffered conquest first by the Aztecs and then by the Spanish conquistadores. It was the custom of the Aztecs to harvest the conquered people as victims for human sacrifice, offered to the snake god Quetzalcoatl (Qweztzel-coh-AH-tul). Think Mel Gibson’s movie “Apocalypto”, though it was about Mayans. Same basic, brutal principle.

By the Aztecs’ own account, this cost a quarter of a million human lives per year. In the dedication of just one temple, a celebration lasting four days, they slaughtered more than eighty thousand men and women. As you can imagine, these native peoples lived a life of natural and supernatural terror. Yet the fear of their idols kept them trapped in idolatry, and they resisted conversion to the Christian faith. The best efforts of brilliant missionaries proved basically ineffective.

Then, in 1531, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared in Mexico City to a peasant man named Juan Diego.

Read the rest here.

In Assisi in 2005, my wife and I met an American priest named Padre Sisco. He gave me his contact information, which I, of course, misplaced. This guy was unbelievable – on the off chance any readers out there know him, I’d love to get in touch. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on homilies preached in Mexico following the appearances of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the miraculous image she left behind.

That would make for some pretty incredible reading – over eight million Mexicans, by some accounts, converted to the faith in just a few years as news of these events spread. As Leonard notes, Mexico had been stubbornly infertile mission territory prior to 1531.

I’ve always found it fascinating that, while the Church on the Continent in the 16th century was being fractured by Luther’s revolt and the events that followed, the most effective evangelistic movement in the history of the world was taking place at the exact same time in the Americas.

Sunday Scriptures: Third Sunday of Advent 2016

matthew-11

In this Sunday’s Gospel reading (Matt 11:2-11), John the Baptist, who by this time has been imprisoned by Herod, sends messengers to ask Jesus if he is the promised Messiah. Have you ever wondered why John did that? Have you ever wondered why Jesus doesn’t simply answer, “Yes”? Read on!

Indeed, Jesus’ reply to the imprisoned John the Baptist (Matt 11:2–6; cf. Luke 7:18–23) is seen by some commentators as not Messianic. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that Jesus never personally believed he was the Messiah. When asked “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matt 11:3), Jesus answers in what appears to be a vague manner, using words from Isaiah 61: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me” (Matt 11:4-6).

A very important clue as to why Jesus answered the way he did was discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Scrolls were written roughly around the time of the Advent of Jesus Christ – between the last three centuries BC and the first century AD. Although they were composed by a sectarian, apocalyptic Jewish sect, they do shed light on what Jews who were roughly contemporaneous to Jesus believed about the coming Messiah.

One of the most important Scrolls that was discovered, known as 4Q521, says this:

For the heavens and the earth will listen to his Messiah…For he will honour the devout upon the throne of eternal royalty, freeing prisoners, giving sight to the blind, straightening out the twisted…and the Lord will perform marvellous acts…for he will heal the badly wounded and will make the dead live, he will proclaim good news to the meek, give lavishly to the needy, lead the exiled, and enrich the hungry.

One can easily see by comparing these two texts why it was that John asked the question about Jesus’ Messiahship, and why Jesus replied the way he did. It was assumed that when the Messiah arrived, according to 4Q521, “prisoners would be set free”. The righteous John, at this time languishing in Herod’s prison fortress at Machaerus, is wondering why Jesus hasn’t sprung him in a “prison break” of sorts. Jesus replies to John by noting that his marvellous works indeed match up with the deeds of the expected Messiah, in line with the teaching of Isaiah 61 and 4Q521. For Jesus to be any more explicit than this would arouse the attention of the secular authorities, prior to the completion of his Messianic mission. However, attentive Jews would have understood Jesus’ claims. Thus, in a culturally relevant manner, Jesus is inviting his fellow Hebrews to consider the evidence of his ministry and draw their own conclusions.