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Lessons From Big-City Jesus

Sepphoris Theatre

Here’s my latest piece for Catholic Answers Magazine. Hope you enjoy this look at the big city next door to little Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown – and how it may have influenced him.

My favorite basketball player growing up was the legendary Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics. The media (and Larry himself) liked to play up his humble, small-town roots, dubbing him the “Hick from French Lick,” the small Indiana town where Bird grew up. He was just a kid from the sticks who made good.

For centuries, preachers have similarly accented the alleged small-town roots of Jesus. Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, is usually portrayed in homilies as a type of isolated backwater, far removed from the hustle and bustle of the empire.

Now, it’s certainly true that in Jesus’ day Nazareth was relatively tiny, with a population somewhere between 200 and 400. But recent archaeological excavations around Nazareth, which today is a relatively bustling city of about 60,000, have quashed the quaint myth that Jesus grew up among “country bumpkins” removed from major centers of commerce and culture.

One of the most important of these digs took place at Sepphoris, which is located about four miles north of Nazareth. Sepphoris, which Roman historian Josephus called “the ornament of all Galilee,” was the largest and one of the most important cities in the area. In fact, a highway linking the two other major regional centers—Caesarea Maritima and Tiberias—was not far from Nazareth and Sepphoris.

Considering its proximity to Nazareth, it’s highly likely that Jesus would have traveled to Sepphoris on many occasions. In fact, according to an early Church tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary hailed from Sepphoris. One could easily imagine Jesus, Mary, and Joseph making the trip to see Jesus’ grandparents, Joachim and Anne, on many an occasion.

It is also possible that Joseph and Jesus worked in Sepphoris during its period of heavy expansion under Herod Antipas from 4 B.C. to A.D. 39. The Greek word tekton—which the Gospels employ to describe Jesus’ and Joseph’s occupation—actually means much more than “carpenter.” 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. One might even say they were the equivalent of modern-day engineers.) Antipas had originally intended to make Sepphoris his headquarters, and he installed some beautiful architecture there in the Greco-Roman style, including magnificent colonnaded streets and an impressive theater (more on that later).

The Sepphoris excavations are also important for debunking a popular skeptical theory. The scholar (and ex-Catholic priest) John Dominic Crossan argues that, in his early life, Jesus came under the sway of itinerant Cynic philosophers in Sepphoris who greatly influenced his teaching. But excavations at the city dump have determined that, at the time of Jesus, Sepphoris’s inhabitants were anything but pagan.

Only in strata (layers of cultural remains in the earth, representing different eras) dated after A.D. 70 do we find pig bones and other evidence of Hellenizing influences, consistent with growth in the city’s non­-Jewish population following the failed Jewish revolt of 66­-70. It seems the citizens of Sepphoris in Jesus’ time kept to a kosher diet.

Furthermore, coins minted in Sepphoris prior to 70 do not depict the image of the emperor as a deity, which would have offended devout Jews, even though such currency was common elsewhere in the empire. After the year 70, this is not the case. Also, stone vessels and miqva’ot (ritual bathing pools) used for Jewish purification rites, as well as menorahs, have also been found from the pre­-70 period.

In short, Sepphoris was in all likelihood a mostly—if not completely—Jewish city at the time of Jesus. It is therefore improbable that Jesus came under the sway of pagan Cynics during his early life in and around Nazareth. His teaching, like the area he hailed from, was thoroughly Jewish.

Sepphoris is also a potential boon for understanding and clarifying certain aspects of Jesus’ teachings. We know that Jesus was a master at pointing out profound lessons from the everyday world (for example, his many agricultural parables). I believe there is a high probability that Sepphoris was a part of that world and that it figures prominently in Jesus’ preaching—especially as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. The “city set on a hill [that] cannot be hidden” (Matt. 5:14) may have been inspired by Sepphoris, which was elevated. Its evening lights would have been visible to the inhabitants of Nazareth.

Excavations at Sepphoris also reveal a splendid public theater, carved out of the local bedrock and initially seating about 2,500. Could it be that Jesus and Joseph worked on its construction? But Jesus’ references to “hypocrites” (Matt. 6:2, 5, 16; 7:5; 15:7; 16:3; 22:18; 23:13-15, 23, 25, 27-29; 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 theater at Sepphoris. Jesus used the term to excoriate the people-pleasing, insincere piety of some scribes and Pharisees.

Jesus likewise 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 theater. 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 may allude to an actor who stands and performs a soliloquy on stage.

In contrast, Jesus encourages us to live not for the applause of others but rather for the applause of One: God alone.

Church Fathers, such as St. Jerome, referred to the Holy Land as the “Fifth Gospel” because it helps put the life of Jesus in context. It helps us to understand many of Jesus’ teachings and activities. It also helps us understand how the four written, canonical Gospels are indeed trustworthy, because they exhibit verisimilitude—that is, that they cohere with the way things actually were in the Israel of Jesus’ day. That’s why archaeological discoveries like those at Sepphoris shed so much light on the teachings of Christ.

Why Are the Bible’s Easter Accounts Different?

Empty Tomb

Note: This is my first article for Catholic Answers Magazine Online (or CAMO for short), and I hope you enjoy it. Catholic Answers is an organization I’ve long admired, and it has been a privilege getting to know the staff there over the past year, especially during the time I guest hosted Catholic Answers Live. Many thanks to the team there for publishing this piece.

Anyone who has read the Gospels in a more than cursory manner has come across what appear to be contradictions between them as they report the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth. This is no less true when we consider how they describe the most important event of all: the resurrection of Christ. If this event is not historical, says St. Paul, “our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14).

Speaking of St. Paul: before we consider apparent contradictions in the Gospels’ Easter accounts, we must remember that the Gospels are not our earliest written accounts of Jesus’ resurrection: those would be the letters of Paul. Even if the Gospels had never been composed, there would still be plausible literary testimony of the event, evidence with which a skeptic must deal. 1 Corinthians 15, which discusses the Resurrection, was written as early as A.D. 53, most likely prior to the publishing of at least some of the Gospels. What’s more, this chapter contains an even earlier ancient “creed” of sorts, crystallizing Easter faith in just a few lines (1 Cor. 15:3–7).

Even though the Gospels are not our earliest or only written sources on Easter, discrepancies in how they report resurrection phenomena have caused many to call into question their historical authenticity.

The empty tomb accounts

In Mark (which the majority of biblical scholars contend was the first Gospel composed), when the women disciples of Jesus arrive at the tomb early on Easter Sunday, the stone has already been rolled away. A “young man” in dazzling raiment (in all likelihood an angel) is inside the tomb. In Luke’s account, two men are inside. Matthew’s account has Mary Magdalene and another Mary arriving at a still-sealed tomb, but an earthquake suddenly occurs, whereupon an angel descends and rolls back the heavy stone. Three Gospels, and seemingly three different accounts.

Mark, Matthew, and Luke also give us slightly different lists of exactly which women were present. Mark has these women respond in fear, and states that they said nothing about this to anyone. In Matthew’s account, the two women meet Jesus on their way to inform the disciples of the Easter news. Luke does not say they ran into Jesus but rather that they immediately told the disciples, who didn’t buy their story. Same Gospels, and again, the accounts seem to differ.

So, why the differences?

Ancient biographies

As much as we might want the Gospels to conform to our modern conventions of history writing, they don’t read like contemporary police reports. But that doesn’t mean they don’t contain reliable accounts. In fact, they are perfectly consonant with how the ancients recorded history. The key is to understand the literary conventions of the time, which was  the mid-first century A.D. ,  and how the Gospels fit that mold.

Read the rest here.

My EWTN Journey Home Program Re-air

Many thanks to everyone who reached out to me from places far and wide this past week, after EWTN rebroadcasted Marcus Grodi’s interview with me on the Journey Home program. I’m very humbled and thankful that my story has been helpful to so many of you who are on your own journeys of Catholic discovery. Every now and again EWTN re-airs the episode, and I’m always amazed by how many people – Catholics and non-Catholics alike – watch this show worldwide. I’ve been having some particularly great conversations with a Protestant pastor from my own hometown, who is very thoughtfully considering the claims of the Catholic Church. The Journey Home has been marvellously used by the Lord to draw people closer to him and to his Church.

Marcus Grodi is an absolute prince of a guy, and his passion for souls is so evident to anyone who’s ever interacted with him. He’s truly one of those people who are even more impressive in person than what you imagine they might be like.

The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is what empowered the early Christians to be his witnesses in the world. The Journey Home program’s enduring popularity testifies to the power of personal encounters with Jesus, and their ability to inspire others to seek him. In these days when we are about to commemorate the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, people are often more open than usual to discussing spiritual things. Consider God’s artistry in weaving the tapestry of your life, and how sharing your story with someone you care about might draw them to the Master during the upcoming Easter season.

BREAKING: New Dead Sea Scrolls Cave Discovered

Cave 4 (credit- Cale Clarke)

This is an absolute bombshell.

My professor, Dr. Craig Evans, emailed me and some of his other students earlier this week, alerting us about an amazing discovery made in Israel, something he was sworn to secrecy about until the official announcement could be made today. It’s the kind of announcement that biblical scholars and, indeed, anyone who is concerned about the world of Jesus of Nazareth dreams about making: a new cave has been discovered in Israel, most likely containing more of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Dr. Evans, writing for the Logos academic blog:

The last Dead Sea Scrolls cave, linked to the ruins on the marl shelf at the mouth of Wadi Qumran, was discovered in 1956, bringing the total number of caves to eleven — eleven caves containing the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, ceramic jars, and a number of other artifacts.

For sixty years archaeologists and looters have been searching for a twelfth cave. Would another one ever be found? Most didn’t think so. This is what makes the announcement from Hebrew University so astounding: A twelfth cave has been discovered!

The cave that has been discovered has been unsurprisingly dubbed “Cave 12” (What did you expect? The Batcave? Already taken, sorry). Here’s what was inside:

Not only were six scroll jars recovered, but small fragments of parchment and papyrus, as well as at least one linen used for wrapping scrolls.

Scientific testing of the ceramic should confirm its link to the ruins and Qumran and to some of the other jars found in nearby caves. DNA testing of the parchment could confirm links to some of the scrolls whose origins have to date not been determined. The presence of the jars and the linen wrapper confirms that Scrolls used to be in this cave (and same applies in the case of Cave 8).

The Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) are not Christian documents, but they are vitally important for understanding Jesus and his world. They show what many Jews who were roughly contemporaneous with Jesus believed about the coming Messianic age. As Evans notes:

The Qumran Scrolls are also important because they shed a great deal of light on the Judaism of Jesus’ day and a great deal of light on specific teachings of Jesus and his early followers.

For example, an Aramaic scroll from Cave 4 speaks of a coming figure who will be called “Son of God” and “Son of the Most High” who will be “Great” and who will reign forever. The parallels with the Annunciation of Luke 1 are obvious. Another scroll from Cave 4 anticipates the coming of God’s Messiah who give sight to the blind, heal the wounded, raise the dead, and proclaim good news to the poor. The parallels to Jesus’ reply to John the Baptist are quite apparent.

Even Paul’s “works of the law” terminology finds an important parallel in a Cave 4 letter concerned with legal matters.
The Melchizedek Scroll from Cave 11 forecasts the coming of one who seems to be God himself, possessing the power to forgive sin, heal, and defeat Satan. Examples like these — and there are many more — should make it clear how important the Scrolls are.

Dr. Evans and another of his students, Jeremiah Johnston, have also published a piece today on FOX News, arguing that the Scrolls rightfully belong to Israel.

And, just in case all of this wasn’t enough to digest already, there is an extremely strong possibility that a thirteenth cave may also exist nearby! This one is even more promising, because the cave mouth has been sealed over (indicating that it may never have been looted). The coming days and weeks are going to be very, very interesting times for biblical scholars and archaeologists alike.

Share this article on social media and spread the word about this amazing discovery!

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).

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.

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.

Sunday Scriptures: Second Sunday of Advent 2016

12stoneslarge

On this Second Sunday of Advent, we encounter the figure of John the Baptist in the Gospel reading (Matthew 3:1-12):

John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea
and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:
A voice of one crying out in the desert,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair
and had a leather belt around his waist.
His food was locusts and wild honey.
At that time Jerusalem, all Judea,
and the whole region around the Jordan
were going out to him
and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River
as they acknowledged their sins.

When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees
coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers!
Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.
And do not presume to say to yourselves,
‘We have Abraham as our father.’
For I tell you,
God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.
Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.
Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit
will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance,
but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I.
I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand.
He will clear his threshing floor
and gather his wheat into his barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

John is dripping with not only honey, but with Old Testament motifs. He’s really the last prophet of the Old Covenant, bridging it with the New Covenant (Testament) of Jesus Christ. He is Elijah redux, to be sure, but I want to focus here on a somewhat overlooked section of John’s speech: “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Matt 3:9). What stones? And what do they mean?

Near the location where John was speaking, Joshua had set up twelve stones by the Jordan River as a memorial of God’s deliverance of the twelve tribes (Joshua 4). The twelve stones reappear in the time of Elijah, who built an altar with them (1 Kings 18:31-32). When one recalls Jesus’ identification of John with Elijah (Mark 9:13), and John’s own adaptation of Elijah’s very dress, this is instructive. As Elijah once did, John is calling Israel’s twelve tribes to repent, and prepare for the coming of Israel’s Messiah.

There is also a wordplay in effect: the Hebrew word for “stone” (eben) sounds like the Hebrew term for “son” (ben). John is essentially saying that God can obtain new children of his own from elsewhere; Israelites who remain unrepentant and faithless can’t rely on their pedigree alone for salvation; they must repent and become obedient to the teaching of the coming Anointed One.

Today’s Catholics also can’t rely on their baptism alone, their membership in the Church (the new Israel), as a “golden ticket” for salvation. One must ratify one’s baptism by remaining in friendship with God, obedient to Jesus Messiah. Advent offers us a wonderful chance to repent if we haven’t always done so. We must prepare for not only Christmas, the feast of Jesus’ first arrival, but the coming Parousia, Christ’s Second Advent, inexorably approaching.