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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: 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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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.

Mythicists, Maclean’s, and the Messiah: Did Jesus Exist?

Did Jesus Exist?

Q. During Holy Week, Maclean’s magazine ran a cover story called “Did Jesus Really Exist?” Many of my friends are reading this and actually believing this stuff – it is providing them with the “excuse” they need not to practice the faith.

A. Very often, around Christmas and Easter, secular media outlets will often publish materials that call into question the reality of Christianity. Their motive is clear: to sell more papers and magazines; to attract more viewers with something “controversial”. Thankfully for us, there is ample historical evidence for the historical truth of the faith.

However, this article in Maclean’s is especially questionable. As Andy Steiger writes, the article is “outright dishonest and manipulative. It preys on ignorance and reeks of a hidden agenda.”

Q. How so?

A. The article claims that research into memory has cast doubt on much that we know about Jesus, even whether or not he existed. What can be said in response to this? First of all, there is plenty of phenomenal scholarship that has been produced in recent years that has shown beyond a reasonable doubt the validity of memory and eyewitness testimony in the Gospels. One of the greatest works of this sort is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, a monumental study by the famed New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham.

As to the question of Jesus existence, the Maclean’s article is especially disingenuous. The author, Brian Bethune, attempts to make use of the work of skeptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman to “prove” Jesus never existed. Bethune does this by subtly implying that Ehrman endorses the views of Richard Carrier (the leading “mythicist” writing today, who claims Jesus was not a historical figure). Now, it’s certainly true that Ehrman doubts the reliability of the New Testament documents (I don’t think his arguments on that front are persuasive, but that’s another article for another day). But this is a totally separate topic from the question of the existence of Jesus.

What Bethune either willfully chose to ignore, or does not know, is this: Bart Ehrman himself wrote a book in 2012 called Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, in which he skewers the view of the “mythicists” who say that Jesus did not exist. The reality that Jesus exists, Ehrman says, “is the view of every trained scholar on the planet” (p. 12).

Either way, this is shoddy journalism, and even worse editing by Maclean’s. This once-proud Canadian institution ought to be ashamed of themselves for publishing such utter nonsense.

Sunday Scriptures: John 21 & The Papacy

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Q. This Sunday’s Gospel is taken from John 21. Does this chapter have any implications for the papacy?

A. Other texts, like Matthew 16, are often cited in this regard, but John 21 has one of the strongest proofs for the ongoing role of the office of Peter in the universal Church. Even non-Catholic scholars recognize this.

Q. Does the miraculous catch of fish in this chapter have anything to do with the Petrine office?

A. Fishing, of course, wasn’t just the former trade of the apostles; it represents their evangelistic mission of being “fishers of men”. The unbroken net conveys the unity of the one Catholic (universal) Church. Elsewhere, when Jesus provides a miraculous draught of fish, the nets begin to break from the strain; here, the nets are intact. Peter, dragging the net ashore, evokes his leadership in bringing the Church safely home to Christ, even to the shores of Heaven itself.

Interestingly, although the catch was so big that the disciples struggled to bring the nets aboard, almost sinking their boat, Peter now easily drags the net ashore all by himself. The Greek verb in the original text that is used to describe Peter’s dragging of the net is the same one used by Jesus in John 12:32. This is where Jesus says that, as he is lifted up from the earth, he will draw all people to himself.

Q. Why does the text mention specifically that 153 fish were caught?

A. By far, the most puzzling aspect of the passage is the reference to the 153 fish. First of all, this is an authentic eyewitness detail. On a secondary level, many commentators have proffered various theories to explain what this number might symbolize (John’s Gospel functions on “two levels” – there is often a secondary, “heavenly” meaning to earthly events). Most of these interpretations suggest the idea of the universality or completeness of the catch.

So, to sum up: we have Peter, alone, dragging the unbroken net of a universal catch to the shores of heaven. This is clearly a reference to his position as leader of the Church on earth.

When you add to all of this the threefold charge of Jesus to Peter (“Feed my Sheep”) that immediately follows, the picture is complete. Peter is singularly (in the original Greek text) given this responsibility to shepherd the universal Church. Keep in mind also that this event is recounted in the same Gospel in which Jesus describes himself as the “Good Shepherd” (John 10). Before his Ascension, Jesus here reaffirms Peter’s unique leadership position, passing the earthly reins of the Church to him.