Saturday, April 04, 2015

"On the first day of the week. . .": Readings for the Mass of Easter Day

Here I thought I'd offer some thoughts on the readings for the Mass of Easter Day. (For the Easter Vigil readings, go here for John Bergsma's fine commentary from last year.)

Happy Easter in advance!

FIRST READING: Acts 10:34a, 37-43
Peter proceeded to speak and said:
“You know what has happened all over Judea,
beginning in Galilee after the baptism
that John preached,
how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth
with the Holy Spirit and power.
He went about doing good
and healing all those oppressed by the devil,
for God was with him.
We are witnesses of all that he did
both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem.
They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.
This man God raised on the third day and granted that he be visible,
not to all the people, but to us,
the witnesses chosen by God in advance,
who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
He commissioned us to preach to the people
and testify that he is the one appointed by God
as judge of the living and the dead.
To him all the prophets bear witness,
that everyone who believes in him
will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.”
In the First Reading, Peter explains that Jesus is the "Christ". The term is the Greek equivalent of "Messiah". Both terms, of course, mean "Anointed One". Here Peter tells us that God "anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power" (Acts 10:38). Here we see that the "Spirit" is inseparable from Jesus' identity as "Christ".

In the Old Testament, we read that kings (as well as priests and prophets) were anointed. The anointing oil seems to have been linked with the coming of the Spirit. I cannot fully develop this here but let me simply highlight one passage where this is clear: the anointing of David. In 1 Samuel 16 we read:
"Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed [David] in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. (1 Sam 16:13)." 
We might also mention Isaiah 61:
"The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me" (Isa 61:1).
What is the Christ? He is the "anointed one", i.e., he is the one who comes in the Spirit. 

It is no surprise then that the Gospels especially link the public initiation of Jesus' Messianic ministry with his baptism. There the Spirit visibly descends upon him. In fact, in Luke--the prequel to the book of Acts, the book where Peter's speech here is taken from--Jesus' baptism is followed with an account of Jesus reading Isaiah 61, which states, "The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me" (Isa. 61:1; cf. Luke 4:16-18).

All of this fits well with the outline of Peter's speech. After mentioning the baptism of John, Peter speaks of how God anointed Jesus. This probably a reference to his baptism. Indeed, Peter then goes on to describe Jesus' public ministry.

Notably, Peter describes Jesus' ministry in terms of his bringing deliverance from the devil. Indeed, after describing Jesus' baptism, Luke places Jesus in a synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61, a passage that not only describes God's "Anointed One" but also emphasizes the theme of future divine deliverance:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (cf. Luke 4:18).
Scholars recognize that the background for this prophecy is the Jubilee year, which involved the cancelation of debts and the freeing of prisoners (cf. Lev 25:8–10). Isaiah 61 announces the coming of the eschatological Jubilee--the day when Israel will finally have its "debts"--i.e., sins--forgiven and when they at long last will be delivered from captivity. In fact, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls further develops this hope (cf. 11Q13 [11QMelchizedek]).

By the way, no person on the planet knows more about all of this than my co-blogger, John Bergsma, who wrote an outstanding doctoral dissertation on this topic under James VanderKam at Notre Dame University (published version here).

Peter makes it clear that Jesus has brought about this long awaited deliverance, which is not liberation from earthly political enemies but victory over the true enemy, the devil. Moreover, he insists that he and the apostles were witnesses to what Jesus did during his public ministry. In fact, Luke puts special emphasis on the apostles as "witnesses", stressing at the beginning of his Gospel that the information he has received about Jesus' life has come from those who saw first hand what he had accomplished (cf. Luke 1:2: "those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word" (cf. Luke 1:2).

Peter's description of Jesus' death is also noteworthy: They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.

Of course, "hanging" from a "tree" has the connotation of death by a rope with a noose. From the Dead Sea Scrolls we know that in the first century this terminology was apparently also used to describe crucifixion (cf. 4Q169). It is not surprising then that Paul applies Deuteronomy 21, which speaks of "hanging on a tree", to Christ's death on the cross:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree” [Deut 21:23]. (Gal 3:13)
The application of such imagery to Christ seems to be significant for a further reason. "Hanging" seems to have been linked with atonement imagery. In Numbers 25, Israel's sinfulness in the wilderness brings down God's wrath upon Israel. To avert the anger of the Lord, the chiefs of the people are to be "hung":
So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel; 4 and the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” (Num 25:3-4)
Though the precise language of "atonement" is not used here a similar conceptual matrix seems involved.

Why do I bring all of this up? Peter has explained that Christ has brought about "deliverance". As we have seen, the language is evocative of Jubilee traditions. Interestingly, however, the Jubilee was linked not only to the forgiveness of debts and the release of captives, it was also closely tied to the Day of Atonement (cf. Lev 25:8–10; 11Q13 [11QMelchizedek]).

If Peter (or Luke) was aware that "hanging on a tree" could be linked to "atonement" type theology, the constellation of imagery here appears deliberate: Jesus brought deliverance not only through his ministry but also through his atoning death.

That Acts elsewhere depicts Jesus as the Suffering Servant reinforces the possibility that such imagery is in play. The Servant is depicted in terms of an atoning sacrifice. Indeed, the language used in Isaiah 52-53 seems related to Day of Atonement traditions: the Servant “bore” (nāśāʾ) the sins of many (Isa 53:12), the same term is used in the description of the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 to describe the scapegoat (Lev 16:22). Likewise, the Servant is “afflicted” (ʿānâ) (Isa. 53:4), language also linked with the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29).

In speaking to the Ethiopian eunuch, Philip identifies Jesus with this figure in Acts 8:29–35. Other descriptions of Jesus in Acts also seem influenced by this passage. For example, Peter Stuhlmacher points out that passages in Acts 3 and 4 which portray Jesus as the anointed “servant” (pais) of the Lord who is put to death according to the will of God and exalted (Acts 3:13, 26; 4:27, 30) are undoubtedly influenced by Isaiah 61:1–2 and the Suffering Servant Song. That Jesus is identified in Acts 3 as the “Righteous One” confirms the presence of Suffering Servant imagery (compare Acts 3:14 with Isaiah 53:11).

Finally, the role of the apostles as witnesses is emphasized once again when Peter speaks of the resurrection.  For the early Christians, the resurrection was no pious legend. Matthew deliberately contrasts his story of what happened on Easter Sunday with the made up story the Jewish leaders had the Roman soldiers tell, namely, that the disciples had stolen Jesus' corpse (cf. Matt 27:11-15). In fact, in the New Testament, the historical nature of the resurrection is underscored by the assertion that there were numerous eyewitnesses to the Risen Lord. Most notably, Paul insists:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Cor 15:3-8)
Ultimately, however, the truth of the resurrection is emphasized for a purpose: everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.

The resurrection is, at the end of the day, not accomplished for the sake of Jesus but something accomplished for believers. Through Jesus' victory, we are finally delivered. As Paul puts it, Christ "was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification." (Rom 4:25).

This is an especially important aspect of New Testament theology that is far too often overlooked. We often hear Christians speak of Christ "dying" for one's salvation. Yet this misses a key aspect of the New Testament's message. As Thomas Aquinas explains in his Summa Theologiae, Christ’s death is not the only aspect of his redemptive work (for what follows see Summa Theologiae IIIa, q. 53, art. 1).

Specifically, Thomas pays very close attention to Paul’s language:
  1. Christ was "put to death for our trespasses"
  2. Christ was "raised for our justification"
Salvation involves, he argues, thus involves two elements:
  1. The payment of the debt due to sin, which is accomplished on the cross (e.g., he was “put to death for our trespasses”).
  2. Resurrection "for our justification". 
Ultimately, Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t for his sake but for ours. How is the resurrection related to salvation?

For the New Testament writers, the goal of salvation was not simply to save us from sin, but to unite our humanity to God in Christ. Peter explains that we are called to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4). Christ’s resurrection then is the cause of our sharing in the new life of grace―the unity of our humanity with divinity. Salvation isn’t just a matter of being delivered from the punishment due to sin, namely, hell―it also means being delivered to life in God (cf. also ST IIIa q. 56, art. 2; cf. also IIIa q. 57, art. 6.; also see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 654).

RESPONSORIAL PSALM: Ps 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23
R. This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.
R. Alleluia.

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his mercy endures forever.
Let the house of Israel say,
“His mercy endures forever.”
R. This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.
R. Alleluia.

“The right hand of the LORD has struck with power;
the right hand of the LORD is exalted.
I shall not die, but live,
and declare the works of the LORD.”
R. This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.
R. Alleluia.

The stone which the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
By the LORD has this been done;
it is wonderful in our eyes.
R. This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.
R. Alleluia.
Much could be said about Psalm 118. Here let me focus on one particular image: the stone rejected by the builders. This passage is, of course, picked up in the New Testament and applied to Christ. 

It is especially important to note that Psalm 118 is closely tied to the temple, which serves as the context for the psalm (cf. v. 26: “We bless you from the house of the Lord”). Thus it is widely acknowledged that the “cornerstone” should be recognized as relating temple imagery. 

Especially noteworthy is the non-biblical work, Testament Solomon 23:6–8 where Solomon speaks of the cornerstone in connection with his building of the temple. Although it is unclear whether the passage is a pre-Christian or not, either way it is significant for interpreting this saying. If the passage is pre-Christian it can be included with other Jewish sources that closely link “stone” imagery with the temple. If it reflects Christian theology, it would appear to support the idea that early Christians caught the temple allusion in the “cornerstone” language.[1]

When Jesus applies the psalm's language of the stone "rejected" by the builders to himself, scholars thus acknowledge that he is likely using temple-building imagery.[2]

Indeed, a veiled reference to the psalm's language of the "rejection" of the cornerstone seems present in the Passion predictions: e.g., “the son of man must suffer . . . and be rejected [ἀποδοκιμάζω]” (Mark 8:31). If the "rejection" is the passion, the vindication is no doubt the resurrection. 

Yet it should also be pointed out that the precise language chosen by Jesus—his being the “cornerstone” of the temple—seems to imply that the new temple would involve something more than merely himself. Many thus see here Jesus speaking of the community as, with him, forming the temple.[3]

By the way, such imagery is certainly in play in the usage of Psalm 118:22 in 1 Peter 2:6–7. 

On Easter Sunday we celebrate the day the cornerstone is vindicated and the new temple is established, the body of Christ. 

SECOND READING: Colossians 3:1-4 (or 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8)
Brothers and sisters:
If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above,
where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.
For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
When Christ your life appears,
then you too will appear with him in glory. 
The point here that is important for us to grasp is this: what happened in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus has effects on the believer in the present. Christians are united to the risen and ascended Lord and sit with him in the heavenly places. The resurrection isn't simply a reality for the future; we partake in it in the here and now. 

GOSPEL: John 20:1-9
On the first day of the week,
Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning,
while it was still dark,
and saw the stone removed from the tomb.
So she ran and went to Simon Peter
and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them,
“They have taken the Lord from the tomb,
and we don’t know where they put him.”
So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb.
They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter
and arrived at the tomb first;
he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in.
When Simon Peter arrived after him,
he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there,
and the cloth that had covered his head,
not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.
Then the other disciple also went in,
the one who had arrived at the tomb first,
and he saw and believed.
For they did not yet understand the Scripture
that he had to rise from the dead.
The fact that Jesus' resurrection is linked with Sunday was, of course, significant for the early Christians. It was understood (among other things) as the "first day", the day of the new creation. That John places Jesus' tomb in a "garden" (John 19:41) further encourages such connections. Aquinas, for example, writes: 
"The place where Christ was buried is then mentioned, Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden. Christ was arrested in a garden, underwent his agony in a garden, and was buried in a garden. This indicates to us that by the power of Christ’s passion we are freed from the sin which Adam committed in the Garden of delights, and that through Christ the Church is made holy, the Church, which itself is like a garden enclosed." [Ion., 20:1297.
John highlights the role of Mary Magdalene as the first witness on Easter morning. Notice, however, that he does not seem entirely unaware that other women were with her: "we don't know where they put him."

That Mary arrived at the tomb while it was "still dark" may also be significant. There are a number of interpretive options. Craig Keener writes:
John may play on his light-and-darkness symbolism. . . the light of the world was about to be revealed in its darkness. The darkness may indicate Mary's fear (cf. 3:2) or may emphasize her devotion (cf. 20:16-17) in coming as soon as possible after the Sabbath and the night that followed it. Other accounts show mourners coming at the moment of dawn to show their affection for someone they loved dearly.[4]
Going on, we read about Peter and "the other disciple" going to the tomb. Notably, with one exception (John 19:26-27), this disciple is always associated with Peter. Who could this be? The most natural choice is John, who is paired off with Peter in other places, particularly, in Luke-Acts. Consider the following examples:
"When came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8 So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the passover for us, that we may eat it.” (Luke 22:7-13) 
Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. (Acts 3:1) 
Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered. . . 19 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge. . . ” (Acts 4:13, 19). 
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John. . . (Acts 8:14).
Indeed, this "other disciple" is the one upon whom the testimony of the Fourth Gospel is based. This is made clear in John 19, when, in speaking of the piercing of the side of Christ on the cross, the author states:
He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth—that you also may believe. (John 19:35)
Again, as in the First Reading, the resurrection in John is based on eyewitness testimony. The Fourth Gospel insists that it is relating a report of Easter Sunday from someone who was there. 

Moreover, as John 19:35 emphasizes, this eyewitness testimony is delivered for one purpose: that you also may believe. This is, in the end, the same purpose Peter's first hand account of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection is meant to serve in the First Reading. 

Finally, one last note: upon finding the tomb empty, the disciples still do not understand what has happened. The reason for their lack of comprehension is clear--they did not understand the Scripture. John even believes--but he does not understand. 

Christ, particularly his resurrection, is underscored here as the interpretive key to the witness of the prophets. This is yet another point made by the First Reading: To him all the prophets bear witness (Acts 10:43).

Joseph Ratzinger explains how all of this is encapsulated in the Christian affirmation: "Jesus Christ is Lord!" (Phil. 2:11). "Christ" is the one to whom the scriptures of Israel point. He is thus the one who gives the scriptures of Israel their fullest meaning. One cannot understand "Christ" without understanding the Old Testament and one cannot understand the Old Testament without understanding Christ: 
“The formula that ‘Jesus’ is the ‘Christ’ signifies quite simply that the Christ-message of the Old Testament has come to fulfillment in the historical Jesus; that you can understand who Jesus is on the basis of the Old Testament and see what the Old Testament means in the light of the Christ-event.”[5]
Let us rejoice this Easter as we celebrate the Paschal mystery, the event that illuminates entire plan of God: Death is not the end. Death has been defeated.  

Χριστὸς ἀνέστη! Christ is risen!

[1] Most agree that though it appears to bear evidence of Christian redaction, it is also recognized as containing older traditions.  For a fuller discussion, see, e.g., D. C. Duling, “Testament of Solomon,” in OTP 1:943–44; idem., “Solomon, Testament of,” ABD  6:111–17; Michael E. Stone, The Literature of the Jewish People in the Period of the Second Temple and the Talmud: Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period (SCRINT 2; Assen: Van Gorcum, 1978), 327; Ian K. Smith, Heavenly Perspective: A Study of the Apostle Paul’s Response to a Jewish Mystical Movement at Colossae (London: T & T Clark, 2006), 83. 
[2] See Timothy C. Gray, The Temple in the Gospel of Mark (WUNT 2/242; Tubingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2008), 70: “both the vineyard and stone imagery have a common reference: the temple.” See also Michael F. Bird, Jesus and the Origins of the Gentile Mission (Library of Historical Jesus Studies 331; New York: T & T Clark, 2007), 158–9. 
[3] For a discussion see Beale, The New Temple, especially, 187–188; T. J. Geddert, Watchwords: Mark 13 in Markan Eschatology (Sheffield: JSOT, 1989), 132-133; P. W. L. Walker, Jesus and the Holy City: New Testament Perspectives on Jerusalem (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996), 10; Hugh Andersen, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1976), 330; Dale Allison, The End of the Ages Has Come (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 153.
[4] Craig Keener, Gospel of John (2 vols.; Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003), 2:1178-79, citing Chariton, Aphrodisiensis 3.3.1. 
[5] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, God’s Word: Scripture—Tradition—Office, trans. H. Taylor (eds. P. Hünermann and T. Söding; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 54.

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