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Sunday Scriptures: The Importance of 70 AD

Q: In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus appears to be talking about the end of the world. Is he?

A: There is a real connection with what Jesus is saying here in Mark 13, and with the Book of Revelation, which we are studying on Thursdays here at St Justin’s – you’re welcome to join us! Jesus’ “eschatological discourse” on the end of the universe indeed has reference to the end of history, and the renewal of the space-time universe in which we live. But its most immediate meaning refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70 AD.

Remember, Jesus says “Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away
until all these things have taken place.” How long is a generation? 40 years. Let’s do some quick math: Jesus’ death and Resurrection took place in approximately 30 AD. Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed exactly 40 years later, in 70 AD. So, Jesus’ solemn prophecy came true. Should anyone be surprised?

Q: What does the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple have to do with the end of the universe?

A: To the Jews, the temple was a miniature model of the universe, and the universe was to them, as it were, a gigantic temple. The temple curtain separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place had images of the stars, the moon, and the planets. Thus, when it fell, it was like Jesus predicted: “the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky”.

God’s judgment fell on the wicked temple establishment in 70 AD because of its rejection of the Messiah, as well as because of its avaricious, self-serving leadership. This was indeed the point of last Sunday’s Gospel reading from Mark 12 (the widow’s offering). Almost every preacher uses that text as an example of trust in God and sacrificial giving on the poor widow’s part – and that is undoubtedly a good application of the text.

But, read in context, it is a living parable of what Jesus had just explained about the religious leaders of his day. Jesus had said: “Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” And he sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.” (Mark 12:38-44).

The religious leaders of Jerusalem were supposed to be caring for widows and orphans. Instead, they were “devouring widows’ houses”. And here we have a widow whose house is indeed “devoured”. The two small copper coins she had put into the offering represented, in a sense, her last meal – they were just enough money to buy flour to make one small loaf or cake. In a sense, this woman’s plight was a living illustration of what Jesus had been complaining about.

The ill-treatment of those who were to be cared for and the rejection of Jesus as Messiah were characteristic of an evil temple leadership whose hearts had been closed to God and others. This is why Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem: he foresaw its destruction because many would fail to repent. May our own hearts learn the lesson well.

Second Sunday of Advent: “The beginning of the Good News”

Q. Can you tell us about the significance of this Sunday’s Gospel reading?

A. For this Second Sunday in Advent, the Gospel reading is from Chapter 1 of Mark’s Gospel. Mark does not have an infancy narrative in his Gospel, but rather, gets right into the action of Jesus’ public ministry. His incipit (introductory statement) is as follows: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). This may seem like a very basic declaration to us, as we read Mark approximately 2000 years after it was written. But, make no mistake, with this one line, Mark has instantly captured the attention of the entire world, Jew and Gentile alike.

Q. How is this so?

A. For the Jewish reader, Mark has declared Jesus to be the long-awaited Messiah. The word “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name! It is the English translation of the Greek word Christos, which in turn is a translation of the Hebrew word Meschiach (“Messiah”).

The Gentile world would have been arrested in particular by the statement that Jesus is “the Son of God”. The Roman Emperors were called “God”, “Son of God”, “God from God”, and “Universal Savior of Human Life”, among other exalted titles. Their victories were hailed as “Good News” throughout the Empire. We know this from archaeological inscriptions that have been uncovered in Roman cities. These were displayed publicly because they were things that citizens of the Empire were expected to know and believe.

Q. Is there, then, special significance to the Roman centurion’s confession of faith in Mark 15?

A. You are quite right, and this links Jesus’ Passion back to Mark’s incipit. When the centurion, assisting in Jesus’ crucifixion, witnesses the manner in which he dies and the portents that surround it, he is overwhelmed. He exclaims, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39, emphasis mine).

The most powerful person in the world was the Emperor of Rome, the Caesar. The most powerless person in the world was a victim of crucifixion. Beaten, scourged, naked – utterly forsaken. Crucifixion was so horrific that it was illegal for Roman citizens to be executed in this manner. Jesus, as a Galilean Jew, was afforded no such courtesy.

But the centurion was given an amazing grace. He recognized that his boss, the Emperor, on his Roman throne, was not the “Universal Savior of Human Life” and the “Son of God”. The seemingly powerless Jesus, on the “throne” of his cross, truly was. The centurion changes his allegiance from Tiberias to Jesus, and places all of his hope in the Lord. Mark invites his readers, and you and me, to do the same.

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.

Cardinal Collins to speak at The Faith Explained Conference Sept 27

Thomas Cardinal Collins will headline The Faith Explained Conference on Sept 27, along with Dr. Craig Evans. Get your tickets right here:

Cardinal Collins is a phenomenal speaker with a rare gift for opening the Scriptures. Check out this clip from the Cardinal’s phenomenal Lectio Devina series on the Gospel of Mark below. See you on Sept 27!

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Like the Caramilk Secret, the “Messianic Secret” Doesn’t Really Exist

The Caramilk SecretOne axiom in biblical studies that needs to go away forever is the so-called “Messianic secret”. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this references in articles, commentaries, and sermons. What is the “Messianic secret”, you ask? It’s the idea floated by some Gospel scholars (especially of Mark and the other Synoptics) that Jesus was trying to keep his identity as Messiah a secret. This is allegedly why he doesn’t want people who he has healed to spread the news about him, and why he doesn’t allow demons to tell people who he really is, either (We just talked about that last item yesterday).

This is absolute nonsense! As Dr. Craig Evans, one of the best biblical scholars on the planet, is so fond of pointing out, Jesus is the Messiah and knows it. He wants others to know it, too. Today’s Gospel reading (Mark 1:29-39) sheds some light on the issue. In the Galilee of Jesus’ day, multitudes of people were sick at any given time. There were also a ton of people who suffered from demonic possession. And here comes Jesus: a one-man, walking, free health-care clinic. Obamacare, eat your heart out! This Mark 1 passage tells us that Jesus spent practically the entire night healing people and casting out demons. The demand for is services is insatiable. This is why Jesus announces the next morning that he and the Apostles need to move on to the next towns, to preach the Good News of the Gospel. This is also, by the way, why Jesus often preached from boats, while the crowd on the shore listened. If he had allowed the crowd to get near him, there never would have been a sermon, because everyone would have been pressing in for a healing – “all who touched him were made well”.

The healings, as great as they are, can actually get in the way of what Jesus came to accomplish: to preach the message of the Kingdom. No doubt, he proclaims it in both word and deed, and the deeds are the proof of the message, if you will. In this way, exorcisms are an even more clear proof of the establishment of the Kingdom of God and the destruction of Satan’s kingdom. But we have to start with the preached Word. Even if Jesus brings someone back from the dead, like Lazarus, it’s only temporary. Lazarus would die again. He was only resuscitated, not resurrected, like Jesus would be, never to die again. Saving souls is most important. Saving bodies is only #2, although Jesus wants to save both, and will ultimately save the bodies of all of God’s friends at the general resurrection. But for now, there’s a danger, in all the excitement about his healings, that the message Jesus is bringing is getting lost in all the excitement.

First things first.

Shut Up…and Get Out!

Synagogue at CapernaumWhy didn’t Jesus allow the demon he exorcised in today’s Gospel (Mark 1:21-28) to tell people who Jesus really was? Two reasons:

1. You don’t want demons to be your PR team. As the Divine Messiah of Israel, the last thing Jesus wants is demons, of all creatures, to announce to his people his true identity.

2. Exorcisms are a power struggle between exorcist and demon. Knowing someone’s name, or true identity, implies that you have some sort of power over that person. It’s a way of gaining “the upper hand”, if you will. That’s why a big part of an exorcism involves the exorcist attempting to learn the demon’s name. When the demon in Mark 1 says to Jesus, “I know who you are – the Holy One of God!”, Jesus can not let that “challenge” pass without a rebuke.

This is why Jesus essentially tells the demon, “Shut up…and get out!”

For much more on Jesus the exorcist, check this out:

“The Rite” and Jesus the Exorcist

 

 

Tell what the Lord has done for you

Today’s Gospel reminds us of the incredible power of Jesus the exorcist. He casts out a “legion” of demons from the Gerasene demoniac. There have been many modern scholars who wish to rebrand the New Testament cases of demonic possession as merely misdiagnosed mental illness. The thinking is that the ancients had no concept of such diseases,as we “enlightened” 21st-centry people do. This theory is preposterous on many levels, but there are two facts in this particular case that make such a diagnosis impossible.

One, as those who study demonology know, those possessed by malevolent spirits often exhibit enormous physical strength, disproportionate to their natural capacities. In this case, check.
Also, the fact that Jesus sent the demons into the pigs, who rushed headlong over the cliffs into the sea (what a hogwash!), is an objective physical manifestation that cannot be explained away by an interior, subjective mental state.

The freed man is so grateful to the Lord that he desires with all his heart to join the Apostolic band – the hierarchy of the nascent Church, if you will. But Jesus says no. That’s not his vocation, as it were. Jesus wants him to engage in a personal apostolate, telling everyone he meets about what Christ has done for him.

We are all called to the same mission. Our baptism demands that we seek two things: holiness and apostolate. If we don’t have that fiery passion to tell others about Christ, we may be in danger of falling into lukewarmness and eventually spiritual death.

Break those fetters, your own chains of fear that prevent you from speaking to your friends about the Lord. As Saint Paul says in another place, “the word of God is not chained” (2 Timothy 2:9).

Son of God, Son of Man

The Old Testament readings at daily Mass lately have been taken from the book of Daniel. This was a book that Jesus drew from in important ways to explain his identity. In today’s first reading, we witness Daniel’s incredible night visions:

I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

– Daniel 7:13-14

Many Christians are under the mistaken impression that the term “Son of God” refers to Jesus’ divine nature, while “Son of Man” (which is Jesus’ favorite self-designation in the Gospels) is a reference to his human nature. In reality, the opposite is the case. Now, don’t get me wrong – Jesus is God the Son, the unique, “only-begotten son” of the Father (cf. John 1:18, 3:16). But, in the Old Testament, all Israel was known as God’s “son” (see Hos 11:1), with individual Israelites known as the “sons of God” in an adoptive sense.

The passage from Daniel above speaks of  an enigmatic “one like a son of man”, coming on the clouds of heaven, who approaches the “Ancient of Days” (God the Father) and receives an indestructible kingdom and the service of all people. This passage is quoted by Jesus when he is on trial before the high priest. At issue is his messiahship.

And the high priest stood up in the midst, and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” But he was silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am; and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments, and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death.

– Mark 14:60-64

The high priest certainly understood what Jesus meant by referring to himself as “Son of Man”. He is that figure who Daniel had envisioned so long ago – the everlasting King.

The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy

The old joke is still funny: Why did Peter deny Jesus? Peter was still mad that Jesus healed his mother-in-law. All kidding aside, many non-Catholics look at the indisputable fact that Peter had a mother-in-law (who was indeed healed by Jesus in Mark 1:30-31), and therefore must have had a wife, and consider the Catholic practice of clerical celibacy  – well, a bad joke. They ask, “How can the Catholic Church require priestly celibacy when it’s clear that at least Peter – and possibly other Apostles – were married?”

Today’s Gospel sheds light on both the Catholic practice in general, and Peter’s particulars. This is good evidence that Jesus himself required his apostles to share his way of life:

Peter began to say to Jesus,
‘We have given up everything and followed you.”
Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you,
there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters
or mother or father or children or lands
for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel
who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age:
houses and brothers and sisters
and mothers and children and lands,
with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.
But many that are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

– Mark 10:28-31

The fact of the matter is that many clerics were ordained as married men in the early Church, but here’s the thing: they were required to be continent (abstain from marital relations) after ordination. There’s plenty of evidence that this practice dates to the Apostolic age and continued in both East and West. Strong documentation is found in Christian Cochini’s The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, and Stefan Heid’s Celibacy in the Early Church, both published by Ignatius Press. Wives of potential clerics had to agree to such a change, or the ordination could not be carried out.

Peter, as Jesus indicated, left his wife and family home behind to follow Jesus more closely, as the Apostolic band roamed the countryside of Galilee. But this did not in any way indicate that he cruelly abandoned his bride, if she was indeed still living at the time. The extended family unit was paramount in Eastern cultures of the time, as it still is in many cases today. Many family members would often live under the same roof, and Mark notes that the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law occurred at Peter’s home in Capernaum. Peter’s wife would have been cared for. It is hardly imaginable that Jesus, who so despised divorce (which left women in a very precarious economic predicament in those days), would have advocated a cold dismissal of one’s spouse in order to be an Apostle.

Recently, the prominent canon lawyer Edward Peters has argued that the Church should return to her historical roots and that all clerics in higher orders, including permanent deacons (who currently are not required to do this), should observe the ancient practice of clerical continence. You can read his take here.

Sacramental Healing

Jesus healing a blind manToday’s Gospel reading at Mass cites a unique incident from Jesus’ career: a two-stage healing.

When Jesus and his disciples arrived at Bethsaida,
people brought to him a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him.
He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village.
Putting spittle on his eyes he laid his hands on the man and asked,
“Do you see anything?”
Looking up the man replied, “I see people looking like trees and walking.”
Then he laid hands on the man’s eyes a second time and he saw clearly;
his sight was restored and he could see everything distinctly.
Then he sent him home and said, “Do not even go into the village” (Mark 8:22-26).

There are two things we can learn from this:

1. This is more historical proof of Jesus as a wonderworker. No Christian is going to make up an account about Jesus’ healing not quite “working” the first time, especially when so many of Jesus’ miraculous deeds (healings, exorcisms, nature miracles) happen instantaneously, at his word, even from a distance. This smacks of authenticity and eyewitness detail. Furthermore, this is more evidence that the evangelists didn’t feel free to “invent” incidents from the life of Christ, or feel free to “edit” accounts of Jesus’ life that were passed on by tradents and collected into the Gospels. If that were the case, this account would have almost certainly been “cleaned up” by the evangelist, with the healing working at once.

2. This is a “sacramental” healing. Jesus didn’t need to take spittle and use that to heal the man’s vision. But the fact that he did shows that God can use matter to communicate his grace – that is, his very life. This should be obvious when considering the Incarnation itself. The body of Christ communicated, and was the very vehicle, of the life of God on earth. And Christ continues to communicate his healing powers through the sacraments of the Catholic Church. The sacraments each take ordinary, physical materials – water, bread, wine, oil – and, in the case of marriage, the very bodies of the spouses themselves – to communicate the life-giving power of God. The Eucharist, of course, is the greatest of all sacraments, because, as Saint Thomas aquinas once said, in all the other sacraments, the power of Christ is present; in the Eucharist, Christ himself is present – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.

The sacraments of the Church bring the power to see life and eternity – all of reality – in ever clearer and sharper focus. Like the blind man, we don’t always see this clearly at first, even after receiving the sacraments. We have to go “outside the village” and never go back in, like Christ led out the blind man – we must leave our old ways behind. And, as Saint Jerome taught, the “spittle” of Christ, which represents his word, his teaching, must be applied to our lives – that is, obeyed – for the healing of our lives to be complete.