Friday, February 09, 2018

Spiritual Leprosy and Healing: The 6th Sunday of OT

In this weekend’s readings, a healed leper disobeys Jesus and spreads the news of his miraculous cure everywhere, impeding the Lord’s ministry.  Why did Jesus tell him to be quiet about the healing?  What is the role of miracles in the Jesus’ ministry, and in the life of the Church today?

1. The First Reading for this weekend’s masses was obviously chosen to provide the background for understanding leprosy as it was experienced by the Jews and other ancient peoples.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Jesus, Healer of the Broken-Hearted: The 5th Sunday of OT

I went to a public high school in Hawaii back in the late 1980’s, and the social group I hung around with had more than its share of young cynics.  For some reason, it was cool to be morose, and one of my buddies was fond of responding to anyone’s account of some problem or difficulty that they were facing with the lovely couplet, “Well, life s***ks, then you die.”  At the time, we thought it was amusing, a kind of gallows humor, but in hindsight I regret showing any approval for such expressions of pessimism.  Life is difficult, but it neither helps nor is it virtuous to utter expressions of stoic fatalism.  The true virtue, the true courage, is to maintain hope (and also love, and joy) in the face of what can sometimes look and feel like an ocean of darkness.

This Sunday’s Readings raise the problem of the great sorrows of life, the reverses, difficulties, and especially illnesses that can seem to sap life of all joy. Yet in the Gospel, Jesus travels through Galilee relieving the ills and oppressions which have reduced so many to a life of “drudgery.”  The Readings leave us to ponder: how is it that even today, Jesus still comes to us to heal our broken-heartedness, restoring joy and hope?

The First Reading is from the Book of Job:

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Listen to the Ultimate Prophet: 4th Sunday in OT

In the Readings for this Sunday, we are following 1 Corinthians and the Gospel of Mark ad seriatim, so there is less cohesion between the Second Reading and the Gospel than on a high feast day.

Nonetheless, the Readings this week can be linked by the theme of “hearing the voice of the prophet.”

1.  The First Reading is a very famous passage from the Book of Deuteronomy that should be familiar to every Catholic student of biblical theology:

Monday, January 22, 2018

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Come Now! Readings for 3rd Sunday of OT

In my house, not everyone comes for dinner when called.  “It’s dinner time!  Come for dinner!” I’ll call up the stairs, but only a spattering of children materializes in the kitchen—maybe three or four, but where are all the others?  So I have to search the house to find them in various corners, engrossed in some activity—reading, building something, or typing something on their laptop.  They’ve ignored my summons, or didn’t “hear” it.  A wave of frustration sweeps over me, tempered by memories of having been the same way when I was their age.  Then the words pass my lips: “Drop what you’re doing and come now!”  We can’t postpone dinner indefinitely for everyone to finish their pet project before coming to eat.

“Drop what you’re doing and come now!” fairly well summarizes the urgency of the call to repentance that forms the major theme of the Readings for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time.  The Scriptures have been chosen to emphasize the immediate response to the call of God.

We begin with a reading from the Prophet Jonah:

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Just in time for your Ash Wednesday gift giving ...

Looking for that Ash Wednesday gift for that special person who's hard to buy for?  Look no further than Ave Maria Press and my most recent book in the Basics series ... Psalm Basics for Catholics!
 It's now available for order on Amazon and other book retailers.

I use a series of stick-figure sketches to take the reader by the hand on a tour through the "plot" of the Psalms, which turns out to be the history of the Davidic Kingdom.  (For this I am indebted to Michael Barber, Singing in the Reign, and before him, G.H. Wilson's work on the redaction of the Psalter.)

I also discuss in greater depth twenty-five psalms—five from each book—that fall into the "Absolutely Must Know" category.  The famous, the unforgettable, the pivotal ones fall into this category:  Psalm 1, 2, 8, 22, 23, 51, 72, 89, 90, 100, 110, 136, and many others.  

Did I mention that Brant Pitre and Mike Aquilina say nice things about this book, which should motivate you to purchase it?  If I didn't, let me mention that.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Call of the Disciples: "Fishers of Men" (The Mass Readings Explained)

The video for The Mass Readings Explained for this Sunday is now out.  I hope it is helpful!

Lastly, Catholic Productions still offers a 14 day free trial for all those who may be interested in subscribing.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Personal God who Calls Us By Name: 2nd Sunday in OT

George Lucas’ concocted an interesting religion for his Star Wars film series by combining elements of Christianity and eastern religion.  Ultimate reality, or “God,” in Star Wars turns out to be “the Force,” an impersonal power with a “dark” and “light” side, similar to the way many forms of eastern religion conceive of the divine.  So, instead of the Christian farewell “May God be with you,” Star Wars characters say, “May the Force be with you!”

Is that the ultimate nature of reality?  An impersonal force which is neither good nor evil but somehow combines both?  Or does nature ultimately come from a loving and personal Being, who created us for a relationship with Himself?

The readings for this Sunday’s Mass come down clearly in favor of the personal view of God and reality.

1. Our First Reading recounts the call of Samuel, one of Israel’s greatest prophets, the one who would ultimately anoint Israel’s greatest king, David:

Thursday, January 04, 2018

The Readings for Epiphany

The word “Epiphany” comes from two Greek words: epi, “on, upon”; and phaino, “to appear, to shine.” Therefore, the “Epiphany” refers to the divinity of Jesus “shining upon” the earth, in other words, the manifestation of his divine nature.

The use of the word “epiphany” for the revelation of divinity predates Christianity.  The Syrian (Seleucid) emperor Antiochus IV (reign 175-165 BC), the villainous tyrant of 1-2 Maccabees, named himself “Epiphanes,” because he considered himself the manifestation of divinity on earth.  His people called him “Epimanes,” which means roughly “something is pressing on the brain,” in other words, “insane.”  Antiochus eventually died in defeat; apparently mankind would need to wait for a different king to be the “Epiphany” of divinity.

The Readings for Epiphany remain the same through Years A, B, and C in the Lectionary.

1.  Our First Reading is taken from Isaiah 60:1-6:

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Readings for Mary, Mother of God

January 1 is the Solemnity (Holy Day) of Mary, Mother of God.  To call Mary the “Mother of God” must not be understood as a claim for Mary’s motherhood of divinity itself, but in the sense that Mary was mother of Jesus, who is truly God.  The Council of Ephesus in 431—long before the schisms with the Eastern churches and the Protestants—proclaimed “Mother of God” a theologically correct title for Mary. 

So far from being a cause of division, the common confession of Mary as “Mother of God” should unite all Christians, and distinguish Christian orthodoxy from various confusions of it, such as Arianism (the denial that Jesus was God) or Nestorianism (in which Mary mothers only the human nature of Jesus but not his whole person).

Two themes are present in the Readings for this Solemnity: (1) the person of Mary, and (2) the name of Jesus.   Why the name of Jesus? Prior to the second Vatican Council, the octave day of Christmas was the Feast of the Holy Name, not Mary Mother of God.  The legacy of that tradition can be seen in the choice of Readings for this Solemnity.  (The Feast of the Holy Name was removed from the calendar after Vatican II; St. John Paul II restored it as an optional memorial on January 3.  This year it is not observed in the U.S., because Epiphany falls on January 3. In the U.S. this year, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God is not a holy day of obligation, because it falls on a Monday.)

1.  The First Reading is Numbers 6:22-27

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Readings for Holy Family Sunday

The Sunday that falls in the Octave of the Solemnity of Christmas is dedicated to celebrating the Holy Family.  The Readings for this Sunday focus on the rights and responsibilities of family members toward each other, and the Gospel focuses on the role of the “most forgotten” member of the Holy Family, St. Joseph, who cared for and protected the Blessed Mother and infant Jesus through the dangerous early years of Jesus’ childhood.

The Lectionary provides different reading options for this Sunday: the celebrant may opt for the “standard” (ABC) readings, or choose the more recently proposed readings for Year B.  (The USCCB website provides both, although not the standard (ABC) Gospel Reading, for some reason.)  It what follows, we will try to cover all the options:

1.  The First Reading (ABC) is Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14:

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Readings for Christmas

I'm putting up my annual commentary on the Christmas Readings already, lightly edited from previous years.  The comments on the Fourth Sunday of Advent are the post below.

The Christmas Solemnity has distinct readings for four separate masses:  Vigil, Midnight, Dawn, and Day.  There’s such a wealth of material here to meditate on, that not everything can be covered.  In fact, there is almost an entire biblical theology in the sequence of readings of these four masses.  In what follows, I am going to offer just a few brief comments on the more salient points.
 Christmas Vigil Mass
1. Reading 1 Is 62:1-5

Israel's "King Arthur": The 4th Sunday of Advent

T.H. White wrote a fantasy novel about King Arthur in the 1950s called “The Once and Future King,” which my English class was assigned to read in 8th grade.  The title comes from the legendary Latin inscription on Arthur’s tomb, Hic iacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futurus: “Here lies Arthur, king at one time, and king to be.”

For the ancient Israelites, David was their “Arthur”: a king of fame and renown, to whom God had made great promises, and whose return they expected.

The Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent are strongly set up to show Jesus of Nazareth as the fulfillment of the covenant promises to King David of old.  In fact, the First Reading and Psalm are without doubt the two most important chapters of the Old Testament concerning the Davidic covenant: 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 89.

The First Reading is the basic account of God’s grant to David of a covenant of kingship:

Reading 1 2 Sm 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16

When King David was settled in his palace,
and the LORD had given him rest from his enemies on every side,
he said to Nathan the prophet,
"Here I am living in a house of cedar,
while the ark of God dwells in a tent!"
Nathan answered the king,
"Go, do whatever you have in mind,
for the LORD is with you."
But that night the LORD spoke to Nathan and said:
"Go, tell my servant David, 'Thus says the LORD:
Should you build me a house to dwell in?'

"'It was I who took you from the pasture
and from the care of the flock
to be commander of my people Israel.
I have been with you wherever you went,
and I have destroyed all your enemies before you.
And I will make your name great, like the great ones of the earth.
I will fix a place for my people Israel;
I will plant them so that they may dwell in their place
without further disturbance.
Neither shall the wicked continue to afflict them as they did of old,
since the time I first appointed judges over my people Israel.
I will give you rest from all your enemies.
The LORD also reveals to you
that he will establish a house for you.
And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors,
I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins,
and I will make his kingdom firm.
I will be a father to him,
and he shall be a son to me.
Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me;
your throne shall stand firm forever."

The Davidic covenant is the last and climactic divine covenant recorded in the Old Testament.  Prior to David, covenants had been made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, and all Israel (through Moses).  The Davidic covenant is, in a sense, a fulfillment of all of these: David is a successor of the Patriarchs Adam, Noah, and Abraham; and a sacred embodiment and representative (as king) of all Israel.  It is hard to overemphasize the importance of God’s covenant with David to the theology of the Old Testament: it’s influence is pervasive in the historical books, the psalms, and the prophets.  Essentially, outside the Pentateuch, the Old Testament is largely “the David channel.”  

Raymond Brown has a famous quote on the significance of the Davidic covenant and kingdom in Christian theology:

The story of David brings out all the strengths and weaknesses of the beginnings of the religious institution of the kingdom for the people of God. . . .  The kingdom established by David . . . is the closest Old Testament parallel to the New Testament church. . . . To help Christians make up their mind on how the Bible speaks [to church issues] it would help if they knew about David and his kingdom, which was also God’s kingdom and whose kings, with all their imperfections, God promised to treat as “sons” (2 Sm. 6:14).[1]

Now, back to the First Reading: the context is that David has firmly established the kingdom of Israel in his own hands, and now turns his attention to enhancing the worship of the LORD.  He desires to build God a house, that is, a temple; but God instead replies that he will build David a house, that is, a dynasty.  There is a wordplay in this famous chapter on the Hebrew term “house.”  A reciprocal relationship is set up between the House of David and the House of God.  God will build David’s House (dynasty), but David’s House (dynasty) will build the House of God.  Ultimately, in the mystery of God’s providence, the House of David and the House of God are going to become one reality.  The dynasty and the Temple are going to become one person (John 2:21), and by extension, one people (Eph 2:12-22).

The Responsorial Psalm is one of the most pivotal psalms in the entire psalter, the last psalm of Book III, which praises God for his covenant faithfulness to David.  Notice how both the Psalm and the First Reading emphasize the Father-Son relationship between David (and his heirs) and God.  A covenant establishes kinship—a family relationship.  Thereafter, the covenant partners may be called by familial terms: usually either Father-Son (for a non-reciprocal covenant) or Brother-Brother (for a parity covenant):

Responsorial Psalm Ps 89:2-3, 4-5, 27, 29
R. (2a) For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
The promises of the LORD I will sing forever;
through all generations my mouth shall proclaim your faithfulness.
For you have said, "My kindness is established forever";
in heaven you have confirmed your faithfulness.
R. For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
"I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to David my servant:
Forever will I confirm your posterity
and establish your throne for all generations."
R. For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.
"He shall say of me, 'You are my father,
my God, the Rock, my savior.'
Forever I will maintain my kindness toward him,
and my covenant with him stands firm."
R. For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.

The Second Reading drives home the point that Christ’s birth was not an unexpected novum in the history of the world, but rather was the culmination of a divine plan “manifested through the prophetic writings” (for example, the readings from Isaiah over the past several ferial [weekday] masses):

Reading 2 Rom 16:25-27
Brothers and sisters:
To him who can strengthen you,
according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ,
according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages
but now manifested through the prophetic writings and,
according to the command of the eternal God,
made known to all nations to bring about the obedience of faith,
to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ
be glory forever and ever. Amen

The Gospel is the account of the Annunciation, and there is no end of what we could say about this beautiful passage, especially if we began to unpack its Mariological significance.  Nonetheless, in the context of these Readings, we want to highlight the Davidic Covenant themes.  Note that Mary is espoused to Joseph “of the house of David.”  Bargil Pixner, the great Benedictine archeologist and bible scholar, argues that Nazareth was a small community settled by Davidides (descendants of the royal house) in the post-exilic period and named “Nazareth” (“little branch or shoot”) after the promises of the nezer (“branch”) of David who was to come according to Isaiah 11:1.

Note, too, that almost all the substance of Gabriel’s message to Our Blessed Mother in vv. 32-33 (“He will be great … and of his kingdom there will be no end”) is “taken” directly from 2 Samuel 7.  Gabriel is telling Mary that her child will fulfill all the promises made to David of old. 

There is even temple, or at least sanctuary, imagery in this Gospel reading, as Gabriel tells Our Mother that “the Power of the Most High will overshadow you,” using a rare Greek word episkiazo employed to describe the cloud of God’s presence which filled the Tabernacle in Ex. 40:35.  Mary is becoming a kind of new Tabernacle of the Presence of God.  We could say that the sanctuary-nature of Christ, who is both House of David and House of God, is being communicated to Mary by association.  As such, Our Mother is a type and icon of the Church, which also shares the sanctuary-nature of her Lord:

Gospel Lk 1:26-38
The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin's name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
"Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you."
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
"Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.

"Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his kingdom there will be no end."
But Mary said to the angel,
"How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?"
And the angel said to her in reply,
"The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God."
Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word."
Then the angel departed from her.

Of course, the docile submission of Our Mother to God’s word—a word that will involve a share in her Son’s suffering (Luke 2:35), but also a share in his glory (8:17)—is held up as an example for us all.

I used to preach on this text as a Protestant pastor each advent.  Although I was taught by my seminary professors (peace and good will to all of those excellent men) not to preach sermons focused on biblical characters as moral examples (I forget why exactly this was wrong), nonetheless, every year, after doing all my proper exegetical steps, I always came to the same conclusion: the author of this Gospel text is intentionally holding up the Blessed Mother as a moral example for his readership.

Obedience to God’s word is also going to mean both suffering and glory for us.  Let’s embrace it with the docility and submission that our society finds so resists.

[1] Raymond E. Brown, S.S., “Communicating the Divine and Human in Scripture,” Origins 22.1 (May 14, 1992) 5-6, emphasis mine.