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“Hail, Full of Grace”: On the Solemnity of the Annunciation

Annunciation di Corciano

Today’s Gospel on this Solemnity of the Annunciation is the famous account of Mary’s encounter with Gabriel from Luke 1:26-38. It includes some indirect proof for two major Marian dogmas of the Church – the Immaculate Conception (which was recently celebrated on Dec. 8), and the perpetual virginity of Our Lady. It also gives us part of the biblical roots of the “Hail Mary”.

When the archangel Gabriel greets Mary, it marks the only recorded incident in scripture that an angel greets someone by their title, not their name. “Hail, Full of Grace, the Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28). This, of course, is the first line of the “Hail Mary”, with the second line, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”, from Luke 1:42. So much for the ridiculous argument that the prayer is “unbiblical”.

But what of those dogmas? Speaking of the phrase, “Full of Grace”, in the original Greek of Luke’s Gospel, it is an interesting term: kecharitomene. It means, literally, “one who has been made full of God’s grace” (biblical translations that render this term “highly favored one”, or something to that effect, don’t cut it) . It’s a past perfect term, meaning that, at some point in the past, Mary was made perfectly full of God’s grace. This condition extends out into the future, into eternity. This is exactly what the Immaculate Conception is all about – that, from the first moment of her existence, Mary was preserved free from all stain of original sin. If one is perfectly full of the grace of God, there is no room for sin.

With respect to the perpetual virginity, Gabriel explains to Mary that she will bear the Messiah, and at this point he has said nothing about Jesus being conceived by the Holy Spirit. Yet, Mary says, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk 1:34). A very strange question for a young woman to ask, who, as we have already been told, was engaged to be married. Unless, that is, she had already intended to remain a virgin, consecrating herself wholly to God.

This post was originally published as “Mary of the Annunciation”

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.

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: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

intofmercyandgrace

“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.

Was Jesus being cruel here?

Ossuaries on the

In today’s Gospel reading at Mass we hear about three would-be followers of Jesus:

As Jesus and his disciples were proceeding on their journey, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.” And another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” Jesus answered him, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.”

– Luke 9:57-62

What troubles many readers is that Jesus seems especially harsh towards the second man, whose father has passed away. Of course, we know that elsewhere, Jesus stressed the importance of a “God-first” lifestyle – that God must come before family. “Whoever loves father and mother…son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37). Jesus is not implying that we should not love family – of course we should! But we must love God above all. In fact, only by using this “top-down” approach can we love people as they should be loved in God. Thomas More, a great family man and martyr, knew this full well.

But Jesus appears to many people to be going completely over-the-top in today’s Gospel. Most people read this passage as understating the extreme urgency of following Jesus, no matter what is going on in one’s life. when Jesus calls, you jump up. You follow. But, is Jesus seriously implying that this man should not care for his father in his final hours, and be present for his proper burial? Is Jesus being cruel here?

In a word: no! Far from it. You see, in all likelihood, the man’s father was already dead, and had been for quite some time. The Jews in Jesus’ time practiced what is known as secondary burial. After the deceased had been buried, one year later the family would return to the tomb and collect the bones (the flesh had decomposed by this point). The bones would then be placed in what is known as an ossuary (literally, a “bone-box”) and placed in a niche in the family tomb.

At the time Jesus called this man to be a disciple, he was probably making preparations for the re-interment of his father’s remains – a task that, while important, could have been undertaken by others. If the man’s father had still been on his deathbed, no doubt Jesus would have wanted him to be cared for. But, given that he was already dead, and given who Jesus is – and the criticality of his mission – it is a lot more understandable in this instance why Jesus would call him.

What do you think? Has this passage ever confused you? Share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn and discuss!

Reaching out with Christ’s love

Today’s Gospel reading (Luke 5:12-16) features Jesus reaching out to touch and heal a leper, who was outcast in the society of his day because of his disfiguring illness. For me, this reading immediately brought to mind Pope Francis’ embrace of a severely disfigured man at the Vatican some months ago, which brought tears to the eyes of even the most jaded Vatican observers. This, in turn, evoked the Pontiff’s namesake, St Francis of Assisi, who famously kissed a person stricken with leprosy in his day.

And all of that, taken together, reminds us of our Christian calling to reach out to all people with the healing touch of Christ – those who are in need of healing of body and soul. Before Pope Francis was elected, he spoke to the conclave of the problem of a “self-referential Church”, turned in on itself. A Church that is often “navel-gazing”, as it were – focused on itself, and not its missionary mandate. For our Christian baptism calls us to two things, when boiled down to its essence: holiness, and apostolate (sharing our faith). Becoming saints, and helping others to do so. That is Christianity in a nutshell – lived so eloquently by Christ’s followers throughout the centuries – by Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis, and, Lord willing, you and me.

 

Pope Francis’ Midnight Mass Christmas Homily

Pope Francis holds the baby Jesus statue at the end of the Christmas night mass in the Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican
THE NATIVITY OF THE LORD: MASS IN THE HOLY NIGHT
HOMILY OF POPE FRANCIS
ST PETER’S BASILICA
24 DECEMBER 2014

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Is 9:1). “An angel of the Lord appeared to [the shepherds] and the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Lk 2:9). This is how the liturgy of this holy Christmas night presents to us the birth of the Saviour: as the light which pierces and dispels the deepest darkness. The presence of the Lord in the midst of his people cancels the sorrow of defeat and the misery of slavery, and ushers in joy and happiness.

We too, in this blessed night, have come to the house of God. We have passed through the darkness which envelops the earth, guided by the flame of faith which illuminates our steps, and enlivened by the hope of finding the “great light”. By opening our hearts, we also can contemplate the miracle of that child-sun who, arising from on high, illuminates the horizon.

The origin of the darkness which envelops the world is lost in the night of the ages. Let us think back to that dark moment when the first crime of humanity was committed, when the hand of Cain, blinded by envy, killed his brother Abel (cf. Gen 4:8). As a result, the unfolding of the centuries has been marked by violence, wars, hatred and oppression. But God, who placed a sense of expectation within man made in his image and likeness, was waiting. He waited for so long that perhaps at a certain point it seemed he should have given up. But he could not give up because he could not deny himself (cf. 2 Tim 2:13). Therefore he continued to wait patiently in the face of the corruption of man and peoples.

Through the course of history, the light that shatters the darkness reveals to us that God is Father and that his patient fidelity is stronger than darkness and corruption. This is the message of Christmas night. God does not know outbursts of anger or impatience; he is always there, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, waiting to catch from afar a glimpse of the lost son as he returns.

Isaiah’s prophecy announces the rising of a great light which breaks through the night. This light is born in Bethlehem and is welcomed by the loving arms of Mary, by the love of Joseph, by the wonder of the shepherds. When the angels announced the birth of the Redeemer to the shepherds, they did so with these words: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12). The “sign” is the humility of God taken to the extreme; it is the love with which, that night, he assumed our frailty, our suffering, our anxieties, our desires and our limitations. The message that everyone was expecting, that everyone was searching for in the depths of their souls, was none other than the tenderness of God: God who looks upon us with eyes full of love, who accepts our poverty, God who is in love with our smallness.

On this holy night, while we contemplate the Infant Jesus just born and placed in the manger, we are invited to reflect. How do we welcome the tenderness of God? Do I allow myself to be taken up by God, to be embraced by him, or do I prevent him from drawing close? “But I am searching for the Lord” – we could respond. Nevertheless, what is most important is not seeking him, but rather allowing him to find me and caress me with tenderness. The question put to us simply by the Infant’s presence is: do I allow God to love me?

More so, do we have the courage to welcome with tenderness the difficulties and problems of those who are near to us, or do we prefer impersonal solutions, perhaps effective but devoid of the warmth of the Gospel? How much the world needs tenderness today!

The Christian response cannot be different from God’s response to our smallness. Life must be met with goodness, with meekness. When we realize that God is in love with our smallness, that he made himself small in order to better encounter us, we cannot help but open our hearts to him, and beseech him: “Lord, help me to be like you, give me the grace of tenderness in the most difficult circumstances of life, give me the grace of closeness in the face of every need, of meekness in every conflict”.

Dear brothers and sisters, on this holy night we contemplate the Nativity scene: there “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1). People who were unassuming, open to receiving the gift of God, were the ones who saw this light. This light was not seen, however, by the arrogant, the proud, by those who made laws according to their own personal measures, who were closed off to others. Let us look to the crib and pray, asking the Blessed Mother: “O Mary, show us Jesus!”.

Craig Evans Responds to Bart Ehrman: How God Became Jesus

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Don’t miss Dr Craig Evans live at The Faith Explained Conference on September 27. Cardinal Thomas Collins will also speak, so grab your tickets here while you still can! Check out Dr Evans’ response to Bart Ehrman in this YouTube clip.

The Israel Chronicles: Sepphoris (Part II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Israel Chronicles: Sepphoris (Part I)

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

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

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

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