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On the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

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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

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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

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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.

What Happened to St. Joseph’s Body?

In this clip, as I guest host Catholic Answers Live, guest Dr. Michael Barber and I field an interesting caller question: What happened to St. Joseph’s body? We’re well aware of Church teaching on the bodily Assumption of Mary (which we also discuss), but are there any doctrines or traditions concerning the fate of St Joseph’s body – or where it might be buried? Watch the clip to find out!

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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: 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: 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.

St Francis of Assisi v Martin Luther

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Not quite Batman v Superman – but actually, it kinda is! Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent had different ways of attacking the same problem. St Francis (whom Jesus commanded to “rebuild” his Church) and Luther had very divergent approaches to reform.

Taylor Marshall, writing on this feast day of St Francis:

Saint Francis of Assisi is perhaps one of the best examples of patience in the cause of reform. When St Francis went to Rome to seek recognition from the Pope, the Pope dismissed him impatiently and told him to go “lie down with the pigs.”

After a little while, Francis returned smeared with swine feces and stinking to high heaven. When the Pope objected, Francis answered, “I obeyed your words and merely did as you said. I lay down with the pigs.” Suddenly the Pope realized that this was a holy man who was willing to obey even in the face of humiliation. The Pope listened to Francis’ vision for renewal and the rest is history.

When rebuffed by the pope, Saint Francis could have appealed to Sacred Scripture, showing this his pattern of life was poor and lowly like that of Christ. He might even have contrasted his own “biblical life” against the extravagance of the Papal court. Francis may even have rightly rebuked the abbots, bishops, and cardinals for lacking evangelical witness. Instead, Francis followed the path of Christ. He allowed himself to be misunderstood and maligned, knowing that God would bring about his vindication…and God always does.

Contrast Saint Francis to Martin Luther. Luther did not visit Rome for confirmation of his cause, nor did he respect the structures of the Church. In fact, Cardinal Cajetan met privately with Luther and explained how Luther might modify his message so that Cajetan could have it approved by the Roman Curia. If Luther had moved more slowly and charitably, he may have become “Saint” Martin Luther.

Evocative story about St Francis, to say the least. Lots more in the original post.

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Was Jesus being cruel here?

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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!