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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.

Sunday Scriptures: Thessalonian Idle

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In this Sunday’s Second Reading (33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time), we heard Saint Paul address the Thessalonians:

Brothers and sisters:
You know how one must imitate us.
For we did not act in a disorderly way among you,
nor did we eat food received free from anyone.
On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day
we worked, so as not to burden any of you.
Not that we do not have the right.
Rather, we wanted to present ourselves as a model for you,
so that you might imitate us.
In fact, when we were with you,
we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work,
neither should that one eat.
We hear that some are conducting themselves among you in a
disorderly way,
by not keeping busy but minding the business of others.
Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly
and to eat their own food.

– 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12

Saint Paul is extremely forceful and commanding in his instructions to the Thessalonians here – and, by extension, to us. He speaks to both wrongdoers and the congregation as a whole with power: “We command and exhort you…in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. This is the strongest language Paul could have used. And what does Paul command? That certain people in the congregation stop being “disorderly” (which is sometimes translated as “idle”).

It’s not necessarily the case that these people were idle in the sense of being inert or slothful – “couch potatoes”, as it were. In fact, it appears they were quite “busy” in their own way – but not in a good way. They were being what Paul calls “busybodies”. That is, they were spending a lot of time and effort “meddling in the affairs of others” – literally, “minding other people’s business”. The so-called “work” that they were doing was not at all productive or helpful for the community. Rather, it was downright disorderly and harmful.

One is reminded of a maxim from Saint Josemaria Escriva:

You are untiring in your activity. But you fail to put order into it, so you do not have as much effect as you should. It reminds me of something I heard once from a very authoritative source. I happened to praise a subordinate in front of his superior. I said, “How hard he works!” “You ought to say”, I was told, “ ‘How much he rushes around!’”

You are untiring in your activity, but it is all fruitless…How much you rush around!

– Furrow, 506

Mere “busyness” can actually be a hidden form of laziness and love of comfort, not to mention disorderliness. Sure, a person can be running around, doing a whole bunch of “stuff” – but they are not the things the person ought to be doing.

There is also the very real temptation of being a “busybody” in another sense – that of being a gossip. This has always been a temptation whenever and wherever people live together, but it is a constant temptation in parish life – for both clergy and laity. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we simply must stop speaking about others behind their backs.

Saint Paul set the Church a powerful example in this regard, by doing hard, constructive, and productive work (in his case, as a tentmaker). He provided for his own needs, and even those of others, so that he was not dependent on anyone else (cf. 1 Thess. 4:11-12). Although, as an apostle, Paul could have received his living from the congregation, he chose not to. He did this so that he could provide a model for how his disciples should live in the world as Christians.

Saint Paul shows that work well done for God’s glory in any honest profession is the “hinge” of our sanctification in the world. We can sanctify our work, we can sanctify ourselves through our work, and we can also sanctify others through our work.

Sunday Scriptures: A Forged Letter and a Mysterious Villain

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“Sunday Scriptures” is a series of posts explaining the Sunday Mass readings – helpful for those preparing to worship, or preparing a homily!

In this Sunday’s Second Reading we hear:

We ask you, brothers and sisters, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ
and our assembling with him, not to be shaken out of your minds suddenly, or to be alarmed either by a “spirit,” or by an oral statement, or by a letter allegedly from us to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand.

–  2 Thessalonians 2:1-2

Paul wrote this because some people in the first-century Thessalonian church were absolutely obsessed with the Second Coming of Jesus – so much so that they had even quit their jobs! They expected Jesus’ imminent return to earth, with the final judgment to ensue (this is what “the day of the Lord” means in the Bible).

This had the effect of greatly upsetting other members of the congregation, who were, as Paul writes, both “shaken” and “alarmed”. To top it all off, the false teachers were claiming they were inspired by a “spirit” about these things. Some even claimed that Paul himself had taught this – hence the reference to an alleged “statement” from Paul. They even went so far as to forge a letter from Paul to this effect!

Paul goes on in the letter to set things straight about what must occur before the Second Coming. First, the mysterious “man of lawlessness” must be revealed – a figure identified with the Antichrist (2 Thess 2:3-12; for much more on this see CCC 668-79).

Paul also teaches believers how to live in the meantime. Specifically, they should heed Paul’s advice in his earlier letter to them (known as 1 Thessalonians). He warns them to stop being freeloaders, spending all their time gossiping, and tells them to get to work (see 2 Thess 3:6-14). Paul himself had set them a great example while he was with them. Rather than accepting money from the congregation for his apostolic endeavours (though he had every right to), he diligently worked “night and day” at his outside job (tentmaking) to provide for his own needs and those of others (2 Thess 3:8). In so doing Paul gives witness that one of the best ways to prepare for the afterlife is not to idly speculate about it, but to work diligently and live virtuously in this world.

Ancient Evidence for Jesus: Pliny the Younger

Pliny the YoungerPliny the Younger is another valuable historical source for information on Jesus and the early Church. Pliny was the governor of the Roman province of Bithynia, located in Asia Minor. In the year 112 AD, he wrote to the Emperor Trajan, asking how he should deal with those in his region who have been accused of being Christians.

In the letter, Pliny describes the practices of these “criminals”:

“They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, 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 food of an ordinary and innocent kind.”

From this passage, we can ascertain a number of facts about the early Church in Asia Minor:

1.Christians met on a “certain fixed day, before it was light”. This is undoubtedly a reference to Sunday worship.

2. The also “sang…a hymn to Christ, as to a God”. This worship involved worship of Jesus Christ. This is early, extrabiblical evidence of Christian belief in the Deity of Christ. In other words, the Divinity of Jesus is not a later “creation” of the Church. Who knows? Perhaps the hymn they were singing is the one St Paul quotes in Philippians 2:5-11.

3. Catholic Christianity, then as now, required adherence to the teaching of the Church on both faith (what to believe) and morality (how to live). We see the latter in Pliny’s description of the 2nd-century believers: they “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”.

4. They celebrated the Eucharist. In all likelihood, that explains the reference to their “partaking of food – but food of an ordinary and innocent kind”. Why did Pliny stress that last point? It could well be a reference to the fact that Christians were thought to be cannibals, because it was said that they ate the flesh and drank the blood of a certain individual when they met for their sacred meals. Some in Pliny’s day even spread rumors that babies were sacrificed for this purpose. This is, of course, a colossal misunderstanding of the Eucharist. Early Catholics did (as we continue to do) eat the true flesh and drink the actual blood of Christ in the Eucharist, albeit in a sacramental, unbloody manner.

All of this corroborates what we know of the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church, as presented in the New Testament.

Ancient Evidence for Jesus: Flavius Josephus

Josephus

One of the greatest non-Christian historical references to Jesus was made by Josephus, the great Jewish historian. He lived in the first century (c. 37-100 AD), and was a contemporary of many members of the nascent Church.

There are two mentions of Jesus in Josephus’ great work entitled “Jewish Antiquities”. One refers to the condemnation of James, the relative of Jesus who became the Bishop of Jerusalem after Peter’s departure from the city: James was “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ”, according to Josephus (Ant. 20.9.1). Few question the authenticity of this passage.

Of course, there is the famous “Testimonium Flavianum” (so named because Josephus took on the Roman name of “Flavius”, being known as “Flavius Josephus):

“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he . . . wrought surprising feats. . . . He was the Christ. When Pilate . . .condemned him to be crucified, those who had . . . come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared . . . restored to life. . . . And the tribe of Christians . . . has . . . not disappeared” (Ant. 18.3.3).

Scholars believe that Josephus did write this passage, but that it was later edited by Christian interpolators, who added the phrases like “if indeed one ought to call him a man”, “He was the Christ”, and “On the third day he appeared…restored to life”. Josephus was not a believer in Jesus, and certainly would not have written those things.

However, the bulk of what he wrote can be trusted as authentic. This is made even more sure by the fact that an Arabic version of Josephus’ “Antiquities” has been discovered, where the passage in question is present, minus the interpolations.

Josephus corroborates much of what we know from the New Testament’s portrait of Jesus: that he claimed to be the Messiah, was a wise man who was thought to have performed “surprising feats” (miraculous deeds), and that his followers continued to be his disciples in a movement that continued despite his death.

Sunday Scriptures: John 21 & The Papacy

John 21

Q. This Sunday’s Gospel is taken from John 21. Does this chapter have any implications for the papacy?

A. Other texts, like Matthew 16, are often cited in this regard, but John 21 has one of the strongest proofs for the ongoing role of the office of Peter in the universal Church. Even non-Catholic scholars recognize this.

Q. Does the miraculous catch of fish in this chapter have anything to do with the Petrine office?

A. Fishing, of course, wasn’t just the former trade of the apostles; it represents their evangelistic mission of being “fishers of men”. The unbroken net conveys the unity of the one Catholic (universal) Church. Elsewhere, when Jesus provides a miraculous draught of fish, the nets begin to break from the strain; here, the nets are intact. Peter, dragging the net ashore, evokes his leadership in bringing the Church safely home to Christ, even to the shores of Heaven itself.

Interestingly, although the catch was so big that the disciples struggled to bring the nets aboard, almost sinking their boat, Peter now easily drags the net ashore all by himself. The Greek verb in the original text that is used to describe Peter’s dragging of the net is the same one used by Jesus in John 12:32. This is where Jesus says that, as he is lifted up from the earth, he will draw all people to himself.

Q. Why does the text mention specifically that 153 fish were caught?

A. By far, the most puzzling aspect of the passage is the reference to the 153 fish. First of all, this is an authentic eyewitness detail. On a secondary level, many commentators have proffered various theories to explain what this number might symbolize (John’s Gospel functions on “two levels” – there is often a secondary, “heavenly” meaning to earthly events). Most of these interpretations suggest the idea of the universality or completeness of the catch.

So, to sum up: we have Peter, alone, dragging the unbroken net of a universal catch to the shores of heaven. This is clearly a reference to his position as leader of the Church on earth.

When you add to all of this the threefold charge of Jesus to Peter (“Feed my Sheep”) that immediately follows, the picture is complete. Peter is singularly (in the original Greek text) given this responsibility to shepherd the universal Church. Keep in mind also that this event is recounted in the same Gospel in which Jesus describes himself as the “Good Shepherd” (John 10). Before his Ascension, Jesus here reaffirms Peter’s unique leadership position, passing the earthly reins of the Church to him.

Sunday Scriptures: Christ the King

 

Q. This Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King. Can you explain how this relates to the second reading, which is taken from the Book of Revelation?

A. In the Old Testament, the Kings of Israel (think of David and Solomon) and the priests of Israel (think of someone like Caiaphas, the High Priest who condemned Jesus to death, along with Pilate), were different individuals with different roles. In fact, the Essenes (the Jewish sect that lived, among other places, at Qumran and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls) expected two different Messiahs to come: a Priestly Messiah, and a Kingly Messiah. They actually expected the Kingly Messiah to wage war against Rome, and that he would personally slay “The King of the Kittim” (the Roman Emperor himself) in the final battle.

Jesus radically combines (and redefines) the roles of King and Priest in his own person. In fact, Jesus is both Priest and Victim, the sacrifice and the one who offers it: “Jesus Christ is the faithful witness” (Revelation 1:5). The word “witness” in the original Greek text means “martyr” – one who offers one’s life for God. Unlike the Kingly Messiah envisioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jesus does not attempt to kill the Roman official, Pilate, but instead allows himself to be killed as a sacrifice for sin. This is why Jesus says to Pilate (as we read in today’s Gospel): “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting
to keep me from being handed over to the Jews” (John 18:36).

Jesus is indeed King – not just over Israel, but over all nations: “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5). Jesus received this kingship from God the Father, which is why Revelation says that “he is coming amid the clouds” (Revelation 1:7). This is actually a reference to today’s first reading from the Old Testament Book of Daniel (Daniel 7:13-14), which speaks of “one like a son of man” (remember, “Son of Man” was Jesus’ favourite self-designation on the Gospels), “coming with the clouds of heaven” to receive “dominion, glory, and kingship” from “the Ancient of Days” (God the Father). The Daniel text says that “all peoples, nations, and languages serve him”. This will indeed be fulfilled at Jesus’ Second Advent.

Q. How can we apply these truths to our lives today?

A. Today’s second reading reminds us that Jesus “has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father” (Revelation 1:6). By virtue of our baptism, we all share in Christ’s “offices” of King and Priest. And we must exercise these offices the way Jesus did: we don’t “Lord it over people”, but rather lay down our lives for others by serving them as Jesus did. Everything we do – in our spiritual life, our work, our relationships, and in sharing our faith – must be united by this concept of serving God and others. This is our priestly sacrifice for God. And in Jesus’ Kingdom, “to serve is to reign.”

Four Verses to Remember in November

As we continue through this month of November, we’re getting closer and closer to the end of the liturgical year. This month has also seen us celebrate the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. So, it is a natural thing to think about our final end as we approach the end of another Church year. It’s also, of course, profitable to “begin with the end in mind”, to consider how our supernatural destiny following death affects our purpose in daily life.

Here are four thought-provoking verses from the New Testament that shed light on this:

1) “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

In these words from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is preaching to the vast crowds. He is not speaking only to his “priests” (the Apostles). In other words, the Lord expects all baptized believers to be saints – not just priests, nuns, and monks. This is the “universal call to holiness”, which Vatican II reminded us of. It is both as old and as new as the Gospel.

2) “This is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3).

Many people wander through life wondering what God’s will for them might be. Saint Paul spells it out to the Thessalonians: God’s will is that you become a saint. His will is that you be holy, that you be sanctified. And what does it mean to become a saint? Nothing more than becoming the best version of yourself, the masterpiece God had in mind when he created you. In the verses that follow, St Paul also spells out some obvious facets of the life of sanctity, including avoiding immorality.

3) “He (God the Father) chose us in him (Christ) before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:4).

Saint Paul writes here to the Ephesian Church, reminding them of God’s plan for them from all eternity: that they would be saints. Paul was writing to a group that included many ordinary, everyday Christians: blacksmiths, metalworkers, and others involved in the trades. God expected the same sanctity from them as he did from Paul. The same is also true, of course, for you and I.

4) “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

All of us want to go to heaven after we die. All of us want to see Jesus face-to-face. The writer of Hebrews gives us some straight talk: only saints get into heaven. So, if you want to go there, get serious about your spiritual life. Satan likes to trick us with the lie that there are three different kinds of people: those who are obviously saints, those who are obviously evil, and regular people like you and me. But we read in the parables of Jesus in the Gospels about many “normal, good people” who didn’t make it to heaven, because they failed to take God seriously: the “foolish virgins”, for example (Matthew 25:1-13), or those who refused the invitation to the wedding feast because they were too “busy” (Luke 14:15-24). If your goal is to get into heaven “by the skin of your teeth”, what happens if you miss your target? Rather, we should make up our minds to become saints. We can, with God’s help.

Are there other biblical verses that you have found helpful in responding to the call to holiness? Share this post and your answer on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

Q and A on Noah

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).

On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

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.