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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: First Sunday of Advent

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This Sunday is the Church’s “New Year’s Day”, as it were. It’s not only the first Sunday of Advent, but also the beginning of a new liturgical year in the Church. It’s a great time to start over, start fresh, and try to live our faith better. So, as we make our Catholic “New Year’s resolutions” about how to live Advent well, we need to keep some important points in mind:

The first thing we need to remember is that the season of Advent is not the season of Christmas! This is very difficult for us to do, because our culture has completely forgotten this truth. The culture at large wants to either A) eliminate all religious references to the season at all – for example, calling it simply the “Holiday Season”, or B) celebrating Christmas prematurely, within the season of Advent.

In the first case (A), cultural relativism – with a particularly virulent hatred for Christianity – seeks to eliminate all references to the divine at this time of year. But we really can’t escape the truth. Even the word “holiday” actually means “holy day”.

However, for Catholics, the second problem (B) is much more of a temptation. It has become quite common for people to “pull back” the feast of Christmas into Advent. The Church teaches us that Advent is actually (much like Lent) a season of penitential preparation for the great Feast of Christmas. This is one reason why many dioceses have an annual “Advent Confessions Day”, just as in Lent. This is also why Mass readings during Advent focus on the Second Coming of Christ and the Great Judgment – we need to put our lives in order and be ready to meet the great King.
The Church even encourages fasting during Advent. Without a fast, there can be no feast at Christmas. Other penances, like prayer and giving to the needy, get us spiritually ready for Christmas (cf. CCC 1434).

In stark contrast, cultural practices like office Christmas parties and other festive gatherings prior to Christmas encourage sumptuous feasting – and tragically, in so many cases, dissolute and downright dreadful debauchery. One should take to heart the words of Saint Paul from this Sunday’s second reading:

Brothers and sisters: You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;
let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the sinful nature (Romans 13:11-14).

Prayer, penance, and preparation. That’s the recipe for living Advent well. The great Feast of Christmas will be all the sweeter for us as a result.

Sunday Scriptures: Christ the King

inri2This Sunday, we celebrate the Solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. This Sunday also marks the end of the liturgical year. In today’s Gospel (Luke 23:35-43), we read about the crucifixion of Jesus. Speaking of Jesus’ kingship, Luke here mentions the titulus (Latin for “title”, referring here to the the inscription above Jesus’ cross) that read, “This is the King of the Jews”.

It was very common in the Roman practice of crucifixion in late antiquity to affix a titulus either to, or above the cross of the condemned. As criminals were usually crucified in public places (as was the case with Jesus of Nazareth), this practice enabled passerby to discern exactly what offense a condemned criminal had been found guilty of, which led to that person’s death sentence. These public executions fostered a great deterrent to those who would dare to challenge the might of the Empire.

Interestingly, as scholar Craig A. Evans points out, this inscription is in all likelihood the first thing that was ever actually written down about Jesus of Nazareth. And, although unintended by Jesus’ tormentors, it expresses a powerful truth about his identity.

Luke’s account of the death of Jesus is the only Passion Narrative taht mentions the so-called “good thief” who is promised “Paradise” by Jesus. Luke here shows the two possible responses to the crucifixion of Christ. On one hand, there is the response of the religious leaders of Jerusalem (and the Roman soldiers): “The rulers sneered at Jesus and said, ‘He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.’ Even the soldiers jeered at him” (Luke 23:35-36). Jesus is crucified alongside two criminals (probably insurrectionists). One of the two “reviled” (literally, “was blaspheming”) Jesus, echoing the insults and abuses of the rulers.

On the other hand, the other criminal rebukes his companion (vv. 41-42), noting that Jesus is not only innocent (“this man has done nothing criminal”), but that he believes Jesus will somehow survive his ordeal – an incredible act of faith (“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”). As hearers of this Gospel, we are clearly encouraged to identify with this man, making the same request to our Lord.

Luke’s Gospel will go on to demonstrate that Jesus, although condemned by the Sanhedrin and Pilate, will indeed be vindicated – and that by a much higher authority: Almighty God. Jesus’ powerful Resurrection means that the inscription on his cross proved to be true, in a way his enemies never expected. Jesus is indeed the Messiah (the Christ), and the King of the Universe.

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.

Sunday Scriptures: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

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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 Gospel reading, we hear Jesus’ famous parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector:

Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

– Luke 18:9-14

The mistake of the Pharisee is not found in his avoidance of sin or in his religious observances, like fasting and tithing. In fact, this is all quite laudatory. His real problem lies in his exalted view of himself. He does not discern his own sinfulness or need of God’s forgiveness. The tax collector, on the other hand, does realize that he is a sinner who stands in need of God’s forgiveness – and moreover, that he does not deserve that mercy.

The Pharisee does not realize that, far from being acceptable to God, he is actually an idolater! What the Pharisee is doing, ultimately, is arrogating one of God’s prerogatives unto himself (this is in fact what the devil does, as scholar Charles Talbert points out) – in this case, the prerogative of judgment. The Pharisee, who says, in essence – “I am not a thief” – is actually stealing something from God.

Now, while it is true that we must judge objective actions as being sinful or not, one can never judge a person’s intentions (what their motives may have been) or ultimate destiny (whether they will end up in either Heaven or Hell) before God.

What the Pharisee did not realize was that the tax collector not only a) knew he was a sinner; but b) had already inwardly repented and asked for God’s mercy. Ironically, the hated tax collector, despised by the Pharisee, is accepted by God. The Pharisee, conversely, demonstrates an attitude that God despises. The self-congratulating Pharisee was not aware of his own sin and thus didn’t feel the need to repent. Not having asked God for forgiveness, he therefore wasn’t forgiven! It was actually the tax collector who “went home justified before God”.

Christians should take note of Jesus’ words by practicing personal humility before God and others, and avoiding haughtiness.

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

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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.

My TV interview about Pope Francis’ trip to Greece

Cardinal Burke Responds to “Amoris Laetitia”

Cardinal Burke

Q. I am very confused about the apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) issued by Pope Francis. I’ve been reading a lot of articles online that say that the Pope is changing Church teaching on marriage. Is this true?

A. In a word, no. The Pope did not (and cannot) change Church teaching on faith (what we believe) and morals (how we live). In fact, Pope Francis makes it very clear in Amoris Laetitia (hereafter abbreviated as AL) that he is not speaking infallibly. Nor is the exhortation even to be regarded as an official document of the Magisterium (the teaching office of the Church). He is merely offering his own personal opinion and reflection on the work of the recent Synods of bishops on the family (AL 3).

In fact, AL upholds Church teaching on marriage, and condemns many societal evils, such as abortion, euthanasia, and “gender ideologies” that are cancers in the culture.

Q. Fair enough. But there are some who believe that the document calls for a change – not in the Church’s teaching, but in “pastoral practice” – specifically, that civilly divorced and remarried Catholics ought to be allowed to receive Holy Communion. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was a participant in the Synods on the family, has written an article in response to this idea. What did he say?

A. The article, which is well worth reading, can be found on the website of the National Catholic Register. Cardinal Burke notes that one can never validly “divorce” Catholic teaching from its application in pastoral practice.

He writes, “I remember the discussion which surrounded the publication of the conversations between Blessed Pope Paul VI and Jean Guitton in 1967. The concern was the danger that the faithful would confuse the Pope’s personal reflections with official Church teaching. While the Roman Pontiff has personal reflections which are interesting and can be inspiring, the Church must be ever attentive to point out that their publication is a personal act and not an exercise of the Papal Magisterium. Otherwise, those who do not understand the distinction, or do not want to understand it, will present such reflections and even anecdotal remarks of the Pope as declarations of a change in the Church’s teaching, to the great confusion of the faithful. Such confusion is harmful to the faithful and weakens the witness of the Church as the Body of Christ in the world.”

Cardinal Burke goes on to say:

“Over more than 40 years of priestly life and ministry, during 21 of which I have served as a bishop, I have known numerous other couples in an irregular union for whom I or my brother priests have had pastoral care. Even though their suffering would be clear to any compassionate soul, I have seen ever more clearly over the years that the first sign of respect and love for them is to speak the truth to them with love. In that way, the Church’s teaching is not something which further wounds them but, in truth, frees them for the love of God and their neighbor.

“It may be helpful to illustrate one example of the need to interpret the text of Amoris Laetitia with the key of the magisterium. There is frequent reference in the document to the ‘ideal’ of marriage. Such a description of marriage can be misleading. It could lead the reader to think of marriage as an eternal idea to which, in the changing historical circumstances, man and woman more or less conform. But Christian marriage is not an idea; it is a sacrament which confers the grace upon a man and woman to live in faithful, permanent and procreative love of each other. Every Christian couple who validly marry receive, from the moment of their consent, the grace to live the love which they pledge to each other.

“Because we all suffer the effects of original sin and because the world in which we live advocates a completely different understanding of marriage, the married suffer temptations to betray the objective reality of their love. But Christ always gives the grace for them to remain faithful to that love until death. The only thing that can limit them in their faithful response is their failure to respond to the grace given them in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. In other words, their struggle is not with some idea imposed upon them by the Church. Their struggle is with the forces which would lead them to betray the reality of Christ’s life within them.”