Thursday, December 30, 2010

What is Realism? Ben XVI's Perspective


What is realism? Some would say it was an artistic movement of the nineteenth century, a good example of which is the painting at right.

For others, "realism" is almost synonymous with "pessimism" or "cynicism." So a realist is the person who says the glass is half empty.

One of my favorite lines from the Pope's Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini is the following:

"The Word of God makes us change our concept of realism: the realist is the one who recognizes in the Word of God the foundation of all things" (§10).

As we continue to celebrate the Octave of Christmas, reflecting on the Word made Flesh, may we all become Realists!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Thank You, Lord, for a Bishop Like This

Check out this video of Bishop Olmstead, responding to criticism for declaring officially what everyone had known for some time: the local Catholic hospital was not really Catholic:

Good Advice on Surviving Christmas

Florine Church shares a link to a good article on surviving the rigors of Christmas. Check it out and enjoy!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Catholic Saint on the Importance of Scripture


The Pope's recent apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini, (through which I am reading, albeit slowly), reminds me of how frequently the popes, the fathers, the doctors, and the saints have urged us Catholics to read and reflect on Scripture--and how sluggish our response has been!

I know the stereotype is that Catholics aren't interested in Scripture. In many places and at many times the stereotype holds true. I would add that many Protestants are also not interested in Scripture, but the point at present is not to argue apologetics. My point at present is that, if Catholics are not interested in Scripture, it is not from a lack of exhortation from the most authoritative representatives of the faith.

St. Josemaria Escriva, a recently canonized saint, is a good example of the reverence for Scripture that lies at the heart of the faith:

“When you open the Holy Gospel," St. Josemaria wrote, “think that what is written there—the words and deeds of Christ—is something that you should not only know, but live. Everything, every point that is told there, has been gathered, detail-by-detail, for you to make it come alive in the individual circumstances of your life.

“God has called us Catholics to follow him closely. In that holy Writing you will find the Life of Jesus, but you should also find your own life there.

“You too, like the Apostle, will learn to ask, full of love, ‘Lord, what would you have me do?’ And in your soul you will hear the conclusive answer, ‘The Will of God!’

“Take up the Gospel every day, then, and read it and live it as a definite rule. This is what the saints have done” (The Forge, §754).

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ruth and Advent


The Book of Ruth is rarely mentioned during Advent, but it makes for good Advent meditation.

There are obvious connections between Ruth and the Christmas story. Both Bo'az and Ruth are mentioned in Jesus' genealogy in Matthew 1. Outside of Matthew and Luke, only in Ruth do we have a story about a pious young Jewish couple having their firstborn son in Bethlehem.

When we read Ruth in light of all the Scriptures, we see in Bo’az a clear type, or image, of Jesus Christ. Jesus is truly our “Bo’az,” which means in Hebrew “in him is strength.” Jesus is our go’el, our Redeemer, which is what Ruth calls Bo’az in 3:9 (blandly rendered “next of kin” in the RSV). Jesus is the one who feeds us with bread and wine until we are satisfied (as Bo’az does for Ruth in 2:14) and even have an abundance to share with others (again see Ruth 2:14, and compare The Feeding of the 5000, John 6:11-13, 35). Jesus is the one who espouses himself to us (John 3:29; Eph 5:25-32), though we are poor and hungry (Matt 5:3,6), and not even of the race of Israel (Eph 2:11-13, 19-22). In Ruth 2:12, Bo’az invokes the LORD to bless Ruth since she has come under the LORD’s “wings” (Heb kanaphim); in Ruth 3:9, Ruth literally says to Bo’az, “Spread the wing (kanaph) of your garment over me.” The LORD’s “wing” becomes Bo’az’s “wing.” Bo’az becomes to Ruth the concrete manifestation of the LORD’s mercy, strength, protection, and love. This is also what Jesus is to us, the Church, in the New Covenant.


Marriage is not a human invention and cannot be redefined by human beings. Marriage is an natural icon designed by God to represent his covenant with his people. For that reason, marriage is a prominent theme throughout the Bible and salvation history, from the first marriage of Adam and Eve (Gen 2:21-24) to the Wedding of the Lamb (Rev 21-22). Pope Benedict XVI remarks, “Biblical revelation, in fact, is above all the expression of a story of love, the story of the covenant of God with man; therefore the story of the love and union between a man and a woman in the covenant of marriage was able to be assumed by God as a symbol of the history of salvation” (Address, 6 June 2005). Ruth is one of the best examples in Scripture in which a story of courtship and marriage typifies God’s plan of salvation.


The Messianic reading of the book of Ruth is not uniquely Christian. In conversations with Brant last night, he pointed out that the rabbinic tradition was strongly given to a Messianic interpretation of Ruth. In particular, Ruth 2:14, which has such Eucharistic overtones for Christian ears, was understood by the rabbis as a reference to the Messianic banquet!


I hope to teach on Ruth and on the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem in about five months! I’m helping lead a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Everyone is invited! Here’s the specifics if you want to come: http://www.holytravels.org/journeys.html . You'll have to scroll down a little to find my pilgrimage.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Sacred Page Makes A Different Top Blogger List

Yes, thanks to Jeremy Thompson, every month the list of the top fifty biblioblogs comes out and, invariably, TheSacredPage.com makes the cut.

Now we're being mentioned on another list: the top 50 blogs written by professors of Theology, Biblical studies and other related fields, i.e., Religious Studies. The list has been compiled by Rachel Stevenson over at Master of Theology, a site intended to help people learn about grad programs. Check it out.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sola Scriptura: Is it taught in Scripture?


It's an interesting question to ask whether the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura is actually taught in Scripture.

When I have posed this question to people, the verse that is most frequently cited is 2 Timothy 3:16:

2Tim. 3:16 All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

However, if one examines the verse carefully, it falls short of saying that Scripture is the only source for the content of the faith, etc. The best defense is probably to take the the Greek word for "profitable" (ophelimos) as "sufficient," reading the verse this way: "All scripture is ... sufficient for teaching, etc." However, that is a bit of a linguistic stretch.

So what do you think? What is the best Scriptural proof of Sola Scriptura?

P.S. Michael, how did the Leviticus talks go?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Life on the Rock Interview

Here's the Life on the Rock episode. I don't come on until about 8 minutes into the show:


Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Keeping Your Finger on the Pulse of Biblical Scholarship (without spending money!)


Not everyone has institutional funds to cover expenses for conferences like the Society of Biblical Literature. If you are in that situation (e.g. a poor grad student or independent scholar), a great way to keep current on developments in biblical studies is simply to read the abstracts of the papers given every year at the SBL. If you find a paper that really intrigues you, search down the email of the scholar who presented it, and ask them for an electronic copy. Often they are willing to provide one. It’s easy to be intimidated by well-known scholars, especially during one’s student years, but most Bible scholars lead rather modest lives and feel flattered if anyone expresses interest in their work. In any event, if you click on the title of this post, it will take you to the site from which you may view this year’s abstracts. It's useful to "select all" and copy the page into a Word doc. Since it’s electronic format, it’s searchable! That's a big improvement over the print editions which used to be distributed on site.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

What is Modernism?

Some may have seen this classic sequence before, but as long as we're in a jovial mood on the blog, I thought I'd post it. Although it's done by and for Anglicans, Catholics and other sorts of Protestants will recognize the Modernist approach to religion satirized here:

Saturday, November 27, 2010

SBL Paper on Deuteronomy and Hittite Literature


Just adding on to what Michael said below, I thought the SBL was great. Hanging with Michael in Atlanta's cheapest hotel was awesome. I never knew he talked in his sleep. I learned a lot of really interesting stuff!

One of my favorite papers from the SBL was Joshua Bermann's comparison of Deut 13 with passages from Late Bronze Age (c. 14th-13th century BC) Hittite literature. (Click on the title of the post to see the full text.) I didn't know what to expect heading into the session, but Bermann made a really convincing case that Deuteronomy shared strong parallels with these ancient texts. Unfortunately, I'm afraid most scholars of biblical law are not going to know what to do with his data, because the view that Deuteronomy is a seventh-century BC text influenced by Assyrian literature is firmly entrenched in scholarship (and that's an understatement).

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

International Trade in the Days of Solomon?

At the Society of Biblical Literature annual convention, I like to hang out at the archeology sessions. One of the more interesting presentations this year was from an archeologist working in the land of Israel, who, among other things, had uncovered some tenth-century BC religious vessels. The vessels had incense residue in them, and upon testing, the incense had components in it native to Sri Lanka (apparently). That's quite an import in the tenth century BC. Further testing needs to be done to confirm this. *IF* confirmed, it's quite a discovery. Israel Finkelstein, for example, has been claiming that the report of the Queen of Sheba (southern Arabia) visiting Solomon is fictitious, because trade routes weren't that extensive in the time of David/Solomon.

Bob Cargill's SBL Paper

Bob Cargill has posted the text of his excellent SBL paper, "Instruction, Research and the Future of Online Educational Technologies." He does an excellent job explaining the way the world is going online, pointing out that the academy is being left behind. Here are a few excerpts:
"I’ll point you to this statistic: this year marked the first year that Amazon.com sold more e-books than it did printed books. If this stat is shocking to you, you probably work for a university. The world has transitioned to e-books, online journals, and handheld devices.

This leaves the academy, which is only now beginning to seriously ask the question: “what’s happening?”
. . .

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"Pope Approves Condoms": Yeah, right...


So I'm coming back from the Atlanta SBL conference (Society of Biblical Literature) and I'm sitting in the airport, and I buy a (grossly overpriced) wireless internet pass so I can check my email (well, actually, so I could watch highlights of the ND-Army game, but I don't want to admit that). And as I am dutifully answering my urgent messages (i.e. watch Tommy Rees throw touchdown passes), I notice an new email pop up from a conservative news site with the headline "Pope Says Condoms OK in Some Cases." Normally I would have ignored a news article like that, but the source (Newsmax) is not a tabloid and is generally sympathetic to Catholicism. Reading the article, I found out that "the Pope says condoms are OK in some cases, like for male prostitutes...." My reaction was, "I'm just sure. Like the Pope is really going to reverse Catholic moral teaching so that male prostitution is OK as long as you use a condom."

I followed links to the actual document, and found out that what the Pope really said was that condoms were not an answer to the spread of AIDS, and that the only real answer was to rehumanize sexuality. The point of confusion arose over a further comment, in which he indicated that sometimes the use of a condom might be a step in the right direction morally: in other words, at least you care enough about the person you are having relations with, that you make *some* effort to avoid communicating to them a serious disease.

That's it. He did not say condom use was moral, or that relations outside of marriage were moral, but only that in some instances the use of a condom might indicate that a person has a modicum of concern for the one with whom they are sleeping, which is better than having no such concern.

Of course, explaining what the Pope really said doesn't make for a good headline, and doesn't get people to buy newspapers or click on links.

The way papal statements get mangled in the media make it very difficult for the Pope to say anything careful, precise, or nuanced in public. When he tries, people get it wrong and spread confusion. It's hard to lead the largest human organization in the world when you're working under such a limitation.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Election of Dolan Bodes Well


The U.S. Bishops broke from precedent by not electing the sitting Vice President of the USCCB as President. Instead, they elected Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, as President. The Archbishop of New York is, practically speaking, the primate of the U.S., though the U.S. has no formal primate. Lately, the USCCB has been much more pro-active than ever before about life and moral issues, both in the Church and in politics. The election of Dolan is another sign that the American bishops are increasingly not willing to do "business as usual," but are seeking to make the USCCB an effective organization in promoting the Church's teaching. Dolan has a great deal of charisma, is camera-friendly, and speaks the Church's teachings clearly.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

CRC and RCC Getting Closer: Common Baptism


It seems that the major Reformed or Calvinist denominations in America are ready to sign a document recognizing Baptism with the Catholic Church. (Click on the title of this blogpost to go to the full article.) My own denomination was the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). I've often found it a little amusing that I went from CRC to RCC (Roman Catholic Church). The two will be a little closer if this document is signed. (The distinctive CRC cross-and-triangle logo is at right.)

Monday, November 08, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI's New Apostolic Exhortation on the Bible (Nov 11)

Great News!
According to Zenit News Service, Pope Benedict XVI's long-anticipated Apostolic Exhortation on the Bible, Verbum Domini will be released next week, November 11!
For those of us in Catholic biblical studies circles, this document's advent is something akin to the coming of the Son of Man. It has long been known that the document would appear--the Synod on the Word of God took place in Fall 2008!--but no one seemed to know either the 'day or the hour'.
Now we know: Nov 11. It's not clear from the article whether the English translation will be available next week. Let's hope so, or some of the cognitive dissonance associated with eschatological delay may well set in for those of us who have been "keeping watch" for what is sure to be an important document on the Bible.
This is curious, since post-synodal apostolic exhortations (think here of Sacrament of Charity) usually take six months or so to be published; this one has taken well over two years! Let's hope that the delay of the parousia in this case is an indicator that it was well worth the wait. It's Benedict, after all, so I suspect it will be. Some have speculated that the delay is tied to the debate over inerrancy and interpretation that took place during the synod; I have no way of verifying or falsifying that, but it will be interesting to see whether the exhortation addresses it, since Proposition 12 from the bishops requested clarification on "the inspiration and truth" of Scripture. Will Benedict give it in this exhortation? We'll find out.
In any case, as far as I know, there hasn't been a full-length papal document focused solely on Scripture since the publication of Pius XII's Encylcical Letter, Divino Afflante Spiritu, which was published in 1943. That's quite some time ago! Not a little exegetical water has passed under the bridge since the Second World War. (To be sure, there have been several lengthy PBC documents, but these are not properly magisterial, as Ratzinger himself points out in the intro. to the 1993 Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.)
So spread the word! And if you happen to be one of my students or friends, don't email me or call me next Thursday. I'll be busy reading...

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Bob Dylan, John Paul II, and Ecclesiastes

We're studying Ecclesiastes in our undergraduate Wisdom and Psalms course right now, and I am fascinated by the similarity of many of the "Preacher's" (aka Qoheleth's) assertions to those found in popular culture.

Cultural icon Bob Dylan wrote a famous song, "Blowin' in the Wind":

"How many roads must a man walk down, before they call him a man,
How many seas must a white dove sail, before she sleeps in the sand,
How many times must the cannonballs fly, before they are forever banned?

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind,
The answer is blowing in the wind."


And so it goes. I don't remember Bob Dylan personally, but the song is played on radio, it's been transmuted to various Muzak versions, and has appeared frequently in movies, e.g in a pivotal scene in "Forrest Gump."

Dylan's poem/song is really a cry about the injustice of the world, especially the injustice of death:

"How many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died?"

This is likewise the issue that occupies the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. People say that it is the “vanity” or “meaninglessness” of life that bothers the preacher, but if you study the book carefully, it turns out that it’s really Death that is the “kicker,” the central issue that makes life so “vain”:

“8:1 Everything before [mankind] is vanity, since one fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. ... 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that one fate comes to all...”

The word for “vanity” in Hebrew is “hebel,” which can also mean “breath, vapor, breeze.”

So the Preacher of Ecclesiastes and Bob Dylan have a very similar outlook on life. “Breath of Breath, all is Breath” and “The answer is blowing in the wind” mean just about the same thing.

Now I want to relate one of the most iconic events in the papacy of the late John Paul the Great.

Back in 1997, the Pope went to speak to a youth rally in Bologna, and some creative liturgist had the idea to invite Bob Dylan to “open” for him.

(Yes, that’s just what the Catholic youth of Italy need: aging American hippies to catechize them. Whatever.)

Be that as it may, Bob Dylan was invited and came out to sing, and of course, what is he going to sing except his signature song: Blowin’ in the Wind.

The Pope, unnoticed by everyone else, was backstage and listening intently to what Dylan was singing. When he finally came out to speak to the youth, he took advantage of the situation:

"A representative of yours has just said on your behalf that the answer to the questions of your life "is blowing in the wind". It is true! But not in the wind which blows everything away in empty whirls, but the wind which is the breath and voice of the Spirit, a voice that calls and says: "come!" (cf. Jn 3:8; Rv 22:17).

You asked me: How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man? I answer you: one! There is only one road for man and it is Christ, who said: "I am the way" (Jn 14:6). He is the road of truth, the way of life."


The Preacher and Bob Dylan are both representatives of the contemplative thinker who cannot make sense of the world by reason alone. All turns out to be wind. But the Pope echoes the answer of the New Testament to the cry of thinkers ancient and modern: there is a Wind, and there is a Way, that really are an answer!

(Click on the title of this post for a longer article about the Pope and Dylan at the Bologna 1997 event.)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

More on the Literary Nature of Judges


Continuing on Michael's observation on the literary structure of Judges, there are other literary techniques involved in the book as well. For example, as others have noted, the choice of judges is almost continually ironic. With few exceptions, those who rise to judgeship are unusual, or display eccentricities that normally would not characterize those in leadership in the ancient Near East:

Ehud: Left-handed
Shamgar: Fights with an ox goad!
Deborah and Jael: Female
Gideon: timid youngest son of small clan
Jephthah: son of a harlot
Samson: a Nazirite, a womanizer, and none too bright.

This can hardly be an accident; sacred author seems to delight in telling us about the unusual judges. It seems to reflect the author's view that this was a chaotic period in Israel's history in which down was up and up was down. Whenever I read it, I think of 1 Corinthians 1:26-31.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

"The Sexual Person" and Why I Became a Catholic


A couple days ago I blogged about a book purportedly about Catholic moral theology called “The Sexual Person” by two professors associated with Creighton University, and the US Bishops clear rebuke of the arguments presented therein.

Basically the authors deconstruct all Scriptural and magisterial sources of authority for moral reasoning by applying a radical historicism. In other words, “The biblical authors, the church fathers, and the popes just reflected the cultural norms of their day, plus they aren’t as smart as we are now, so we can disregard their views about sexuality.”

For me, reading the arguments from “The Sexual Person” were a blast from the past.

While I was in high school, and an ardent Dutch Calvinist, a report was made to my denomination’s synod from one of our sister denominations, concerning their committee on sexual morality. After years of study, this Calvinist denomination’s committee was unable to affirm almost any of traditional Christian moral teaching. The only principle remaining to guide one to moral sexual relations was “justice love.” Wherever “justice love” was present, sex was moral. They recommend that our denomination accept the same “principles” of “morality”—ones essential re-articulated now in “The Sexual Person.”

Looking over the reasoning our sister denomination was using, I realized their “hermeneutic” could be used to defeat any Scriptural teaching.

That was the beginning of a gradual dawning on me—which would eventually lead to Rome—of the realization that Scripture alone was not sufficient to conserve the deposit of the faith, because various hermeneutics could make Scripture say almost anything one wished.

One needs to be guided by tradition, but even tradition is not enough—there also has to be a living voice of the salvific community.

“When Scripture is disjoined from the living voice of the Church, it fall prey to the disputes of experts,” Benedict XVI says.

The living voice just spoke through the mouths of the US Bishops. I am thankful for them.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

US Bishops Exercising Their Teaching Authority


Yesterday, the US Bishops committee on doctrine released a censure of a book on moral theology (really, a book of immoral theology) called "The Sexual Person." The document is worth reading in full by clicking the title of this post.

My reactions: First, the Bishops have some pretty decent things to say about interpreting Scripture. They have certainly made my life easier by saying them. I plan to use the document in future teaching, to confirm things I have been saying all along.

Second, the kind of moral theology advocated by the authors of the book in question strikes me as old and silly. Old, because twenty years ago folks like Walther Brueggemann were making these same (im)moral arguments about sexual behavior (not) based on Scripture, and even then the arguments were already dated. I remember, because I did my master's thesis on normativity in Brueggemann's biblical theology. Silly, because the the (im)morality advocated by the authors of The Sexual Person is so obviously vague and malleable that it transparently serves to support whatever self-interested self-gratification anyone may want to engage in. Such a book screams, "Apply a hermeneutic of suspicion to me! What I really am is a propaganda piece to justify the desired behaviors of my authors!" Or is it only to Scripture and the Magisterium that we can apply a hermeneutic of suspicion?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Anecdotal Confirmation of Increase in Priestly Vocations


Michael Barber had a great post below about growing numbers of religious vocations in the Catholic Church in America. I believe I've seen confirming evidence of this trend at the school where I teach, the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Franciscan has always had a strong pre-theologate program, with a fairly steady enrollment of about 50 guys at any given time. (A pre-theologate prepares men to enter a major seminary). Franciscan campus culture is heavily dominated by "households", our alternative to the Greek system. A "household" is a community of students that prays together regularly and supports one another morally, socially, etc. Three "households" on campus are entirely made up of "pre-the's" (pronounced "PRE-thees", i.e. guys in the pre-theologate, i.e. future priests.) One would think, then, that the Franciscan contribution to the priesthood of the Church would be limited to these "pre-thee" households.

I am an advisor of a different household, called the Disciples of the Word, which is not made of guys in the pre-theologate program. So they all are going to be laymen, right? Actually not! In the past three or four years, I've watched several of the Disciples graduate and then enter seminary for a diocese or religious order. Currently, a large number--one of the students estimated more than half--of the household's membership is pondering a priestly vocation.

Of course, many guys will ultimately "discern out," as we say, but in seven years at Franciscan, I have never seen so many young men in my household thinking about the priesthood at the same time and in such a serious way.

The only drawback is, this is going to make it even harder for our Franciscan U girls to find that good Catholic guy they came looking for.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

O How the Mighty Have Fallen! Reflections on the Passing of Weinfeld, Greenberg, and Milgrom


In the past eighteen months, biblical scholarship has been deeply impoverished by the loss of three of the greats of the Israeli biblical guild: Moshe Weinfeld (April 2009), Moshe Greenberg (May 2010), and Jacob Milgrom (June 2010).

These were three of my favorite scholars of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and I want to acknowledge the deep debt I owe them in my own formation as a biblical scholar. My dissertation was profoundly influenced by Weinfeld’s work on the ancient Near Eastern roots of the jubilee and sabbatical years, by Milgrom’s commentary on Leviticus, and Greenberg’s commentary on Ezekiel. I think my own work stands, on many issues, broadly within the approach these men adopted toward the Hebrew Scriptures, and I think they would be pleased with it, had they ever had opportunity to read my contributions.

Weinfeld, Greenberg, and Milgrom, I think it is fair to say, belonged to the Kaufmann School of biblical scholarship. Yehezkel Kaufmann was a brilliant philosopher and Bible scholar who taught for years at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and influenced an entire generation (or more) of Israeli academics. I don’t pretend to be an expert on Kaufmann, but in a series of posts, I plan to make some small comments about the significance of Kaufmann and the sudden passing of these three of his great intellectual heirs.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Jesuit D.J. McCarthy on Source Criticism and Biblical Interpretation


Fr. D.J. McCarthy, S.J., longtime professor at the Biblicum and one of the twentieth century's most significant contributors to the concept of "covenant" in the Bible and the ancient Near East, on source criticism and biblical interpretation:

"But the primary object of literary study is the text, its primary tools a knowledge of words and phrases and a feel for their use. A first call then: let us read the text for what it is with all the wit and skill we can bring to it. This sounds very simple, but it is not. Normally, the Biblist does not read the text. He breaks it up and reads parts. He tears out its sources. He does not explain the significance of the so-called “plague stories” in Exodus. He merely explains what the Yahwist writer or the Priestly writers thought about plagues. But it is the narrative as it stands which interests the Church or the men of culture concerned with the world’s classics. This also should be the Biblist’s interest in so far as he is concerned with explaining the Bible." [D. J. McCarthy, “God as Prisoner of Our Own Choosing: Critical-Historical Study of the Bible,” in Historicism and Faith (ed. P. L. Williams; Scranton, PA: SCS, 1980) 40]

Monday, May 10, 2010

Everyone Come Home to the Church


I just came across this amazing website called "Catholics Come Home." Despite the name, it is for more than just Catholics. I highly recommend going there and watching at least their 2-minute "Epic" commercial. Click on the title of this post to take yourself there.

This website is part of a media initiative started by Tom Peterson, a media executive and revert to the Catholic Church. Click here for the full story.

Amazingly, in the six dioceses where these infomercials have been run, there has been an 11% increase in mass attendance. Folks, that is truly astounding. I used to be, essentially, a professional evangelist, and was current on the missiological literature in the late 80's and early 90's. If a church grows by 1% a year, that's a healthy growth rate. An 11% average increase in Church attendance is enormous for an evangelistic endeavor! The commercials run by this initiative are really powerful. I was left wondering: Why has it taken us so long to put together the best message in the world into a TV commercial format?

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Church our Mother: Mother's Day Reflections on the Lectionary Readings

It’s a providential coincidence (if that is not an oxymoron) that Mother’s Day this year falls on the Sixth Sunday of Easter. One of the themes that tie together the Mass readings for today (click on the title of this post to read them) is the mystery of the Church, which is, of course, our spiritual mother. As the Church Fathers used to say, “No one can have God as his Father who does not have the Church as his Mother.”

The first reading, from Acts 15, gives us a synopsis of the events of the council of Jerusalem, a council which in hindsight might rightly be called the First Ecumenical Council of the Catholic (Universal) Church.

The controversy that led to this council was the issue of circumcision for Gentile Christians. Was it necessary for Gentiles to become Jews (i.e. submit to circumcision) in order for them to enter into the New Covenant community (the Church?). The response of the apostles and elders (presbuteroi, whence “priests”)of the early church was, “No.”

It’s instructive to observe here how the early Church handled controversy. Significantly, they did not split into two different denominations (The Church of the Gentile Mission and the True Orthodox Church of the First Covenant) and go their separate ways.

Instead, they submitted the question to those who had proper authority, and abided by their decision.

Notice the authority with which the leaders of the Church make their decision: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us …” The apostles and elders took seriously the words of Jesus recorded for us in the Gospel reading: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I told you.” The animation of the Church by the Holy Spirit is so tangible that the decisions of the Church are the decisions of the Holy Spirit.

As a Protestant pastor, I was always somewhat puzzled by why the Bible contained no instructions about when to break off and form a new church, about when to give up on the leadership of one’s “denomination” and start over from scratch. You will read nothing in the Bible about schism, or about what to do when the Church as a whole makes “the wrong decision”, or how to react when the Church is “hopelessly” corrupt. In hindsight, I understand why no such instructions are found there. The confidence of the early Church, reflected in the Scriptures, is that the Holy Spirit guides those entrusted with the care of the universal Church—whether “the apostles and elders” of the first century or their successors today. Schism is not justified, because it amounts to a lack of faith in the Holy Spirit to guide the Church aright.

That sounds like a strong statement to non-Catholic ears, but I suggest to you, there is no other ecclesiology (doctrine of the Church) that is either Scriptural or workable in practice.

The second reading speaks of the New Jerusalem coming out of heaven from God, built on the foundation of the apostles. This ties with the first reading, as the apostles and their decisions form the spiritual basis for the unity of the universal church. It also ties into the gospel reading, in which Jesus commissions the apostles for this ministry, and promises them the aid of the Holy Spirit to perform it. The New Jerusalem is not an exclusively eschatological (end times) reality. We experience it now, in the mystical Body of Christ we call the Church. Compare Eph 2:19-22 and Hebrews 12:22-24 with the imagery of Rev 21. The imagery of the New Jerusalem applies to the Body of Christ that we experience even now in this life.

Recently a close friend who is not a Catholic criticized me (gently) for my commitment to an "organization" (i.e. the Catholic Church) which "obstructs" my personal relationship with Christ. I do not find, however, that the Scriptures view the Church, even the visible Church, merely as an "organization." Instead, despite the failings of her human and imperfect members, she remains the voice of the Holy Spirit and the New Jerusalem of God.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Flew's Last and Best Book

I forgot to recommend Flew's last book, in which he details his reversal of opinion:
"There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind," by Antony Flew and Roy Varghese (HarperOne: 2008).

I read it last year, and in my opinion, it's one of the great books of our generation, a must-read for those interested in Western intellectual history.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Antony Flew, Unatheist, Dies at 87


Antony Flew, world's most famous ex-atheist, has passed away at age 87.

Not everyone may remember Flew or his significance. I do, because Flew was the "Richard Dawkins" of my childhood. Actually, Flew was never "Richard Dawkins," because he was never as crass and philosophically illiterate as Dawkins; but when I was younger, Flew was the key voice for atheism in the English-speaking world, as Dawkins appears to be now.

When I was in fourth grade I read a book entitled "Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?", a debate between Flew and Christian apologist Gary Habermas. The general consensus was that Habermas won the debate; I certainly thought so, after reading the book. It was a key point in my own intellectual development, because it convinced me that one could make solid rational arguments for the veracity of Christian faith.

I was completely taken aback just two years ago when the news broke that Flew had changed his mind. After dialoguing with a Catholic proponent of intelligent design theory for years, Flew finally came to concede that the marvelously complex features of the universe--like the fine tuning of cosmological constants and the information content of DNA--were inexplicable without positing a Mind behind them. Therefore, Flew became a Deist. He never--so far as I know--became a Christian, although he counted Christians among his friends.

So long, Professor Flew. You were a model of the intellectually honest gentleman scholar. You always treated your opponents with respect, and tried to follow truth wherever it lead you, even when that was someplace you didn't want to go.

May you find that the God you knew as your Designer is also your Father. I pray you have discovered it to be so.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Easter Vigil as a Celebration of Covenant History


Brant, Michael and I belong to a school of thought that sees covenant as a central concept in biblical theology, particularly Catholic biblical theology. Such an approach has strong support in the text of Scripture and in the tradition and liturgy of the Church, and would seem to be a "no-brainer," yet there are those who oppose it and de-emphasize the significance of covenant for interpreting the Scriptures in the Church. For that reason, it's necessary periodically to justify this approach.

When I teach biblical theology, I focus on a series of covenants which are central to the economy of salvation: the (1) Creation (or Adamic; Genesis 1-3; Hosea 6:7), (2) Noahic (David Noel Freedman preferred "Noachian"; Genesis 9), (3) Abrahamic (Genesis 15, 17, 22); (4) Mosaic (Exodus 24), (5) Davidic (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89); and (6) New (Jeremiah 31:31; Luke 22:20). It has always struck me, and my students, how well this overview of the divine economy accords with the readings of the lectionary of the Mass, especially the readings of the Easter Vigil.

I'll proceed to point out how all these covenants appear in various forms in the seven Old Testament readings that form the backbone of the Liturgy of the Word for the Vigil.

The readings begin with the creation story from Genesis 1, a text concerning the Creation Covenant. That there was a covenant present at creation is controversial, but it has the backing of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as well as certain contemporary scholars and a stream of the Jewish tradition. Benedict XVI's argument for the presence of a creation covenant hinges on the culmination of the creation week with the Sabbath, which elsewhere in the OT is understood to be the sign of the covenant (Exod 31:16-17). Hosea 6:7 (in Hebrew: "Like Adam they transgressed the covenant") testifies to a very early interpretive tradition which understood a covenant to be present already at the beginning of human history.

The second OT reading is Genesis 22, one of the most central texts in all the Old Testament. I call it the "Calvary of the Old Testament," perhaps the most important type of Christ's sacrifice on the cross in the pages of the Scriptures of Israel. Genesis 22, of course, recounts the "Aqedah" or binding of Isaac, in which Abraham comes close to sacrificing his "one and only" or "only begotten" son on the wood of the altar on the top of Mt. Moriah. God's solemn oath of blessing on Abraham in vv. 15-18 is one of the central texts in all the Bible: arguably, this the culmination of the covenant with Abraham begun in Genesis 15 and continued in Genesis 17. Although the word "covenant" does not appear in Genesis 22, God's solemn oath in vv. 15-18 was understood as a covenant in subsequent Scripture (e.g. Deut 7:8-9; Luke 1:72-73). This solemn covenant-oath by God promises blessing to all nations through the seed of Abraham; Easter is a celebration of the fulfillment of that promise, as all nations have been blessed through Jesus the seed of Abraham (Matt 1:1) who pours out the Spirit on all nations through his self-sacrifice on the cross.

The third OT reading for the Vigil is Exodus 14, the account of the triumph of God in delivering the Israelites from the armies of Egypt at the Red Sea. This corresponds to the Mosaic Covenant (the covenant with Israel through Moses), as the people of Israel had already entered into a covenant relationship with God through the Passover (Exodus 12-13) and were headed out to Sinai where the covenant would be further solemnized (Exodus 24).

The fourth OT reading is a beautiful passage from Isaiah 54:5-14, which, surprisingly, makes reference to the Noahic Covenant (Isaiah 54:9), and compares the coming “covenant of peace” (Isaiah’s term for the reality described by Jeremiah as the “new covenant,” Jer 31:31) to the covenant made with Noah. This passage also employs touching marital imagery to describe God’s relationship with Israel. Marriage was a form of covenant in ancient Israel, so it was natural to describe God’s covenant relationship with Israel in terms of marriage.

The fifth OT reading (Isaiah 55:1-11) is one of my favorite, and one of the most amazing, texts from Isaiah. In this passage, God promises that at some point in the future, he will offer the covenant of David (“I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my covenant fidelity [Hebrew hesed] for David”; Isa 55:3) to every one who is hungry and thirsty. He will offer this covenant through eating and drinking (Isa 55:1)!

The sixth OT focuses on divine wisdom, but the seventh and last (Ezek 36:16-28) has important covenant themes. After recounting Israel’s unfaithfulness to the (Mosaic) covenant, Ezekiel prophesies a coming day when God will sprinkle his people with water and put a new spirit within them which will enable them to keep their covenant with God (“live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees”). Ezekiel 36 is found canonically in the middle of Ezekiel’s “Book of Consolation” (Ezek 34-37), a long section of Ezekiel in which the prophet offers hope for a new age for Israel, a hope that culminates in Ezek 37:25-28 with the establishment of a “covenant of peace”, an “everlasting covenant” (37:26), Ezekiel’s terms for Jeremiah’s “new covenant” (Jer 31:31).

Thus, all the major covenants of salvation history are referred to in some form in the seven OT readings for the Easter Vigil, and taken together the readings (not to mention the psalms that go with them!) make a beautiful synopsis of the general structure of the divine economy (salvation history). Since the Vigil, like every mass, culminates in the consecration of the bread and wine which become “the New and Everlasting Covenant” in Christ’s blood, it is appropriate that the OT readings recount the older and provisional covenants that anticipated the new one celebrated in the Liturgy. Understanding salvation history through the lens of the covenant is an authentically Catholic approach to biblical theology.

Blessed Easter to Everyone!


Christ is risen! A blessed Easter to all our readers! I've just finished the last week of Lent and the incredible experience of the Triduum, with nightly solemn masses on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil at our local parish, and I have to say, it rocks to be Catholic! The experience of Lent culminating in the Triduum is one of the most physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually cathartic and ecstatic experiences of my life. To be able to watch the Easter Vigil Mass in St. Peter's Basilica (courtesy of EWTN) with the world's greatest living theologian, successor of Peter, celebrating the resurrection of Christ with over a billion people worldwide, in a language spoken in Christ's own day--it's just too much! This is my ninth Easter as a Catholic and the euphoria has not worn off! A happy Easter to everyone, and some comments on the Easter readings are soon to follow!

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Was Jesus Really Crucified with the Passover Lambs?

It's rather commonplace to hear these days, both in the pulpit and on the page, that Jesus was sentenced to death at the "very hour" the Passover lambs were being offered in the Temple. Above all, Raymond Brown made this idea popular in his commentary on the Gospel of John, when he argued that John's reference to Jesus' standing before Pilate on the Pavement (Gabbatha) at "about the sixth hour" (John 19:14) was a Johannine clue meant to signal to the reader that Jesus, the true Passover lamb, was being led to the cross to take away the sins of the world. (See Brown, The Gospel according to John, 2:556).
There's only one problem with Brown's theory; he's got no evidence to back it up. In fact, the little evidence we do have contradicts his assertion. For example, Josephus, who was a priest in the Temple in the first century A.D., makes very clear that the Passover lambs were sacrificed between 3 and 5 o'clock.:
Accordingly, on the occasion of the feast called Passover, at which they sacrifice from the ninth hour [=3p.m.] to the eleventh hour [=5 p.m.], and a little fraternity, as it were, gathers around each sacrifice, of not fewer than ten persons. (Josephus, War 6:423-24)
If this is correct--and the later Mishnah backs up Josephus, saying that at the earliest, the Passover lambs would not be sacrificed until 1:30p.m. (cf. Pesahim 5:1)--then John 19:14 cannot be a signal to the reader that Pilate is sentencing Jesus to death just as the Passover lambs are beginning to be killed in the Temple. Strangely, however, this false interpretation is so widespread that I regularly encounter people now who say that John "says" Jesus was crucified at the same time as the Passover lambs. But he says no such thing.
The Perpetual Sacrifice in the Temple: 9a.m. and 3 p.m.
So, is there any cultic significance to the hour of Jesus' passion and death? Did Jesus' death on Calvary correspond to any sacrifices in the Temple?
I would suggest there is, and that it is the Synoptic evangelists who have brought this out. For while the Synoptic Gospels make it explicit that the Passover lambs were slaughtered twenty-four hours before Jesus' death (cf. Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7), there was one other sacrifice that was going on in the Temple when Jesus was crucified on Good Friday: the perpetual sacrifice, known as the Tamid.
Strangely, this sacrifice, which is forgotten by almost everyone, was arguably the most memorable of all the Jewish sacrifices, since it happened every day, twice a day. According to the Torah itself, twice a day, in the morning and the evening, an unblemished male lamb was to be sacrificed in the sanctuary, and offered along with an unbloody sacrifice of flour and wine (see Num 28:1-8; Exod 29:38-42).
Now, although the Old Testament does not say exactly when the morning and evening sacrifice took place, according to ancient Jewish sources outside the Bible, the morning offering of the Tamid took place at 9 a.m., while the evening offering took place at 3 p.m. (See Mishnah, Tamid 3:7; Josephus, Antiquities 14.4.3; Philo, Special Laws, 1:169).
The New Tamid
With that information in mind, go back to the Synoptic accounts of Jesus' death on Good Friday. Remarkably, the Gospel of Mark makes very clear that Jesus' passion and death coincided with the offerings of the perpetual sacrifice:
And it was the third hour (9a.m.), when they crucified him (Mark 15:25).
And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour (3 p.m.). And at the ninth hour, Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"... And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last. (Mark 15:33-37)
Notice that Mark twice states that Jesus expired at the ninth hour, 3 o'clock. Why the emphasis? Apart from historical accuracy, what is Mark trying to communicate?
I would suggest that both chronological references are meant to tie Jesus' passion and death to the perpetual sacrifice being offered in the Temple: the bloody sacrifice of the unblemished lambs and the unbloody sacrifice of cakes and wine. In other words, Mark is showing us that Jesus is the true Tamid, the true perpetual sacrifice, who replaces the atoning power of the Temple cult. Perhaps this is why he stresses the effect of Jesus' death on the Temple:
"And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the veil of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom." (Mark 15:37-38)
In short, there is no reason to strain to connect the hour of Jesus' death with the Passover lambs that had been offered Thursday afternoon. For there was another sacrificial lamb, that was directly linked to atonement, which was being offered at the very hours of his crucifixion and death.
Now, I should probably stop here. But since it's Good Friday, I'll make one last point.
What Were the Jews in the Temple Praying for when Jesus Died?
According to ancient Jewish tradition, as found in the Mishnah and Talmuds, the daily Tamid was not just about sacrifice; it was also accompanied by prayers, which Jews everywhere would say while the sacrifices were being offered in the Temple. According to these traditions, a series of blessings, commonly known as the "Eighteen Benedictions," were being said by Jews everywhere in union with the Tamid (b. Ber. 26b; Gen. R. lxviii). Remarkably, the Rabbis claim that this was taking place even during the Second Temple Period (see Babylonian Talmud, Ber.33a, Meg. 17b.)--with the exception of the benediction against the "heretics," which the Rabbis say was added by Gamaliel II at Yabneh after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70A.D. (see b. Ber. 28b).
Now, before you balk at the idea of using Talmudic traditions to reconstruct Second Temple practices, recall that the New Testament itself tells us that Jesus own followers would go up to the Temple at the hours of the perpetual sacrifice to pray. This is explicit in the book of Acts:
Now Peter and John went up to the Temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour (=3p.m.) (Acts 3:1; cf. 2:15).
The question is: What prayers were Jews saying while the Tamid was being sacrificed in the first century? On the one hand, we could say, 'we don't have any idea'. On the other hand, ancient Jewish tradition, provides a rather concrete answer: it tells us that the Eighteen Benedictions were being prayed at that time.
What is striking about these prayers is this: If these ancient Jewish traditions are correct--and I realize that this is disputed--then what follows below are the kind of things the Jews in the Temple would have been praying for while the Tamid was being sacrificed and while Jesus was dying on the Cross:
1. According to Jewish tradition, at 9a.m. and 3p.m., the Jews in the Temple would have been praying for redemption:
"Look upon our affliction and plead our cause,and redeem us speedily for your name's sake, for you are a mighty redeemer. Blessed are you, O Lord, the redeemer of Israel." (7th Benediction)
2. According to Jewish tradition, at 9a.m. and 3p.m., the Jews in the Temple would have been praying for the forgiveness of sins:
"Forgive us, O our Father, for we have sinned; pardon us, O our King, for we have transgressed; for you pardon and forgive. Blessed are you, O Lord, who is merciful and always ready to forgive." (6th Benediction)
3. According to Jewish tradition, at 9a.m. and 3p.m., the Jews in the Temple would have praying for the coming of the Messiah:
"Speedily cause the offspring of your servant David to flourish, and let him be exalted by your saving power, for we wait all day long for your salvation. Blessed are you, O Lord, who causes salvation to flourish." (15th Benediction)
4. In fact, according to Jewish tradition, at 9a.m. and 3p.m., the Jews in the Temple would have been praying for the resurrection of the dead:
"You, O Lord, are mighty forever, you revive the dead, you have the power to save. You sustain the living with lovingkindness, you revive the dead with great mercy, you support the falling, heal the sick, set free the bound and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust... Who resembles you, a king who puts to death and restores to life, and causes salvation to flourish? And you are certain to revive the dead. Blessed are you, O Lord, who revives the dead." (2nd Benediction)
In short, if these traditional prayers do in fact go back to the Second Temple period, then something remarkable emerges. For we find a plausible explanation for why Mark emphasizes Jesus' crucifixion and death as corresponding to the hours of 9a.m. and 3p.m.. We find that ancient Jews were praying for the very things Christians believe were dispensed by Jesus on the Cross, at the very hour he was dispensing them.

Have a blessed Triduum and a holy Easter.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Jewish Roots of Palm Sunday


Tomorrow is, of course, Palm Sunday.
Most Christians will celebrate this feast with two prominent features: the story of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the blessing and waving of palm branches.
This raises the questions: Why did Jesus enter Jerusalem on a donkey? Why not on a horse? Why not in a chariot? And why did the crowds greet him with branches? The answers to these questions can be found by exploring the Jewish roots of the Triumphal Entry, as revealed in the texts of the Old Testament.
Solomon's Rides a Mule into Jerusalem
The answer to the first question is rooted in two texts: 1 Kings 1 and Zechariah 9. In the book of Kings, we learn that Jesus wasn't the first king to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem. Long before him, Solomon had done the same, immediately before he was enthroned as king of Israel:
King David said... "Cause my son Solomon to rid on my own mule, and bring him down to Gihop, and let Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet there anoint him king over Israel; then blow the trumpet, and say, 'Long live King Solomon!' You shall then come up after him, and he shall come and sit upon my throne... So Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and Pelethites, went down and caused Solomon to ride on King David's mule, and brought him to Gihon [the spring alongside the Temple mount]. There Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the tent, and anointed Solomon. Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, "Long live King Solomon!" And all the people went up after him, playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise. (1 Kings 1:32-40)
Notice that Solomon's triumphal entry on the mule takes place after his having been anointed king in the waters of the Gihon and immediately before his enthronement. Thus, this is not just a triumphal entry, but a royal enthronement.
The Triumphal Entry of the Messiah
Moreover, this text gives rise to a prophecy in Zechariah, which speaks of the coming Messiah, the future king, who will recapitulate the actions of Solomon:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!Lo, your king comes to you;triumphant and victorious is he,humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass. (Zechariah 9:9)
Now, most readers stop here, noting the obvious parallels between this messianic oracle and the actions of Jesus. But keep reading: What does the Messiah do when after he rides into Jerusalem on an ass?
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your captives free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope... (Zechariah 9:10-11)
This is a stunning oracle. In it, the future king not only rides into Jerusalem on an ass in humility, but establishes (1) a universal kingdom ('to the ends of the earth'), which is characterized by peace, not war (the chariot is 'cut off). Finally, and most stunning, (3) by means of a blood covenant, God sets Israel's "captives" free from "the waterless Pit" and brings them hold to Jerusalem (the 'stronghold'). This last line is particularly strange; since what is clearly in view is deliverance from Exile in Sheol, the realm of the dead, which is frequently referred to in the Old Testament as "the Pit." Zechariah clearly seems to expect the messianic return from exile to include those who had descended into Sheol, who would somehow be released through the "blood of [the] covenant."
Jesus' Triumphal Entry
Once this Old Testament background is in place, Jesus' Triumphal Entry takes on a deeper significance. First, he is deliberately recapitulating Solomon's royal entry into Jerusalem when he was enthroned as king. Second, he is performing a prophetic sign of the fulfillment of Zechariah's prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. In other words, Jesus is both a New Solomon and the long-awaited Messiah. Should there be any doubt about this, Matthew's Gospel makes both very clear, since he not only cites Zechariah 9, but the crowds describe Jesus as none other than the 'son of David', a title to which, above all people, Solomon bore the right:
And when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If any one says anything to you, you shall say, 'The Lord has need of them', and he will send them immediately." This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, "Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass." [Zech 9:9]. The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon. Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and other cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" (Matthew 21:1-9)
The Palm Branches of the King Who Comes to Offer Sacrifice
This leaves us with one key question: Why the palm branches? No palms are mentioned in 1 Kings or Zechariah . As Matthew's account makes clear, the branches are tied to Psalm 118, the Great Hallel psalm, which the Jewish crowds are chanting as Jesus enters into Jerusalem. What is striking about this psalm is, when read in context, it too describes the coming of the king into the city. But in this case, the king enters not to be enthroned, but to ascend to the altar and offer sacrifice:
[King speaking:] "Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner...
[Crowd speaking:] "Save us [Hosanna], we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! We bless you from the house of the LORD... Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar!" (Psalm 118:19-27)
That this is the psalm chosen by the pilgrims to celebrate Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is no accident. For while the crowds recognize that Jesus is indeed the long-awaited king of Israel, the new Solomon, what they do not see--what they cannot see--is what kind of king he is, and how he is going to reign. For the altar on which Jesus will pour out "the blood of the covenant" is not the bronze altar in the Temple, but the table of the Last Supper. And the throne to which Jesus is about to ascend as king is not the golden throne of Solomon, but the wooden throne of Golgotha. As king, he will indeed go up to the horns of the altar to offer sacrifice and ascend to the throne of his kingdom to reign. But his triumph will not be through the power of the chariot or the violence of the bow, but through the offering his own life. By means of his blood, the blood of the new covenant, he will bring home the exiles from the land from which no man returns, and will set all captives free, including those imprisoned in the "waterless pit."
At every Eucharist, when we sing the Sanctus, the Church, the new Jerusalem, takes up this cry of the crowds in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and makes it our own: "Blessed is he comes in the name of the LORD!" (Ps 118:26).

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Three Reasons for Teaching the Bible


Why teach the Bible?
In his inaugural lecture at the University of Paris, when St. Thomas Aquinas was installed as Magister in Sacra Pagina--note, as a master commentator on the Bible, not first and foremost as a philosopher--Thomas gave three primary reasons, based on a quotation from the book of Baruch:
"This is the book of the commandments of God, and the law that is for ever. All that keep it shall come to life: but they that have forsaken it, to death" (Baruch 4:1)
[Thomas speaking:] According to Augustine in On Christian Doctrine 4:12, one skilled in speech should so speak as to teach, to delight, and to change; that is, (1) to teach the ignorant, (2) to delight the bored, and (3) to change the lazy.
The speech of Sacred Scripture does these three things in the fullest manner. For it firmly teaches with its eternal truth. Psalm 118.89: "Thy word, O Lord, stands firm forever as heaven." And it sweetly delights with its pleasantness. Psalm 118.103: "How sweet are thy words to my mouth!" And it efficaciously changes with its authority. Jeremiah 23.29: "Are not my words as a fire, saith the Lord?"
Therefore, in the text above [Baruch 4:1] Sacred Scripture is commended for three things. First, for the authority with which it changes: "This is the book of the commandments of God." Second, for the eternal truth with which it instructs, when it says, "And the law that is forever." Third, for the usefulness with which it entices, when it says, "All that keep it shall come to life."
--Thomas Aquinas, Hic Est Liber, 1256
(Ralph McInerny, Thomas Aquinas, Selected Writings, 5-6)
Thomas' statements are remarkable for two reasons.
First, he lays out an admirable philosophy of pedagogy. Teachers should not simply strive to communicate information; they should strive to do it in a way that is delightful, as well as transformative.
Second, he points out that Scripture--above all other objects of study--has the power to accomplish all three of these "in the fullest manner."
I must say that in my own experience, I have seen this time and time again in the classroom. I studied many subjects in college, in which I found great instruction and much delight, but they paled beside the first course I took on the Bible. The experience was... electrifying. That's the only way to describe it.
Now that I'm on the other side of the desk, it's even better. I can't tell you how many times in the classroom we have what you might call an "Emmaus Road" experience, in which the hearts of the students (and my own heart) are "burning within us" when we get down to the task of explaining the sacred page.
Moreover, I've also noticed the distinct power that the Bible has not only has to instruct and to delight (as do many other subjects) but to actually transform students. I like how Thomas puts it: "To change the lazy." (Thomas evidently had no illusions about students in the 13th century, who were evidently not much different than students in the 21st century!)
For those of you who've taught Scripture, have you had this experience?
For those of you who've studied Scripture in the classroom, did your Scripture courses accomplish all three of Thomas goals?



Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lent: The Romance of the Wilderness


I've recently been intrigued by two themes which seem to run through Lent: the desert and nuptiality. On the one hand, Lent is a "desert" experience, in which our forty days of self-denial are meant to bring us into closer communion with Christ who fasted forty days in the desert (or "wilderness"). On the other hand, Lent is a preparatory time in the Church as catechumens prepare for their Nuptial Bath (Baptism) and the Wedding Feast of the Lamb (the Eucharist). So, for catechumens and, to a lesser extant, the rest of the Church that spiritually accompanies them on this journey, Lent has the aspect of the final days of courtship and preparation for a spiritual marriage. Nuptial themes run through some of the readings from the Gospel of John used during Lent and the Holy Triduum (Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter).

But the juxtaposition of desert imagery with the joy of wedding preparation seems incongruous; except that they are conjoined in a beautiful passage of Scripture:

Hos. 2:14 “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. 15 And there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. 16 “And in that day, says the LORD, you will call me, ‘My husband,’ and no longer will you call me, ‘My Baal.’

In this passage, the prophet Hosea speaks to Northern Israel and promises a resumption, at some future date, of the nuptial (spousal, covenantal) relationship between the LORD and his wayward people. The place of the nuptial tryst between the LORD and Israel is described as "the wilderness"--in part because it was in the wilderness that Israel first entered into a covenant relationship with the LORD (at Sinai, Exodus 24). But what does this mean for us?

Lent, when lived well, is a desert experience in which we deny ourselves many of the comforts that usually pad our existence, and the addictive crutches we turn to when stressed. We practice, to greater or lesser extents, sensory deprivation that recalls the barren wilderness of Judea, which offers little to comfort the senses. The advantage of sensory deprivation, however, is that there is less to distract. The wilderness does not have the flashing lights and allurements of Times Square. In the wilderness, one can focus. One can concentrate. And that may be another reason that the LORD leads his people into the wilderness to allure her. In the desert she will not be distracted. In the desert she can focus once more on her beloved. The intent of the Church is that in the desert of Lent we would deny ourselves some of our more common distractions and learn to be alone, and to fall in love once again, with our Bridegroom.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Wooing the Woman at the Well: Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent


The Gospel reading for this Sunday, if your local parish is following the readings for RCIA, is the "Woman at the Well" (John 4).

This is one of the key texts in the Gospel of John that present to us Jesus as the Bridegroom Messiah.

Recall that the Gospel of John begins with an enumeration of seven days, with a wedding on the seventh (the Wedding at Cana, John 2:1-11). There is probably an intentional parallel here to the creation story, in which Adam is created on the sixth day, falls asleep, and wakes up (on the seventh day?) and, seeing Eve, pronounces the covenant words ("bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh") with establishes the first marital covenant. The only identified characters at the Wedding at Cana are Jesus and Mary, whom the Church recognizes as the New Adam and New Eve.

In the following chapter (John 3), John the Baptist explicitly identifies Jesus as the Bridegroom.

Now in chapter 4, Jesus is traveling through Samaria and sits down by a well.

The minute Jesus sits down by the well, the reader familiar with the Old Testament expects a woman to show up. The reader is not disappointed: here she comes (John 4:7). Recall that Jacob and Moses both met their wives at a well, and that Abraham's servant found Rebecca for Isaac at a well. Moreover, the well in John 4 is identified as "Jacob's Well". Although it was clearly not the same well where Jacob met Rachel (which would have been in Northwest Mesopotamia), there was a tradition that this well near Sychar was in fact that very same well, which had now moved to the Land of Israel. In light of all this, it seems like John is telling this story in such a way as to evoke a betrothal scene in the style of the Old Testament.

Jesus' request of the woman, "Give me a drink," (4:7) recalls the request of Eliezer (Abraham's steward) to Rebecca when he was seeking to determine if she was the Lord's intended bride for Isaac. This serves to heighten the nuptial atmosphere of the whole passage.

Jesus and the woman begin to discuss water, living water in particular. At one point, Jesus implies that anyone who drinks of the water he provides will him- or herself become a well of living water (John 4:14), which calls to mind one of the images that the Bridegroom uses to describe the Bride in the Song of Songs (Song 4:15).

Finally, the conversation turns explicitly to marriage (4:16): "Go, call your husband, and come here." We discover that the woman has had five husbands, and the man she is living with now is not properly her husband.

It is probably not coincidental that the Samaritans were the ethnically-mixed descendants of poor Israelites left behind by the conquering Assyrians (8th cent. BC), and FIVE other ethnic groups (each with their own male patron deity) brought in by the Assyrian to repopulate northern Israel (2 Kings 17:24). Apparently, the Israelites left behind intermarried with the five immigrant peoples and worshipped their gods, until some point in history, perhaps after the return of the Judeans from Babylon, when they quit the paganism and returned to the worship of the God of Israel--but not in the authorized way or place! Instead of going down to the legitimate temple in Jerusalem, they built their own sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim and altered the text of Deuteronomy to make it appear that Gerizim was the LORD's intended site for a central sanctuary. So the Samaritan people, after having participated in five different foreign cults, were now back "living with" the LORD, but not in a proper covenant relationship. The experience of this woman of Samaria mirrors the spiritual history of her people.

Trying to change the subject of conversation to something else besides her personal life, the woman tries to distract Jesus with a theological question (v. 19). Jesus responds, speaking about the true manner of worship, but his answer goes over the woman's head. All she can say in response is to make a profession of faith in the coming Messiah, whom she hopes will be able to explain everything. Jesus answers: "He who speaks to you, I AM!"

At this point the woman drops her water jar in amazement and wanders dazed back into town, telling everyone to come out and see this man who has told her everything she did. Can this really be the Messiah? Jesus stays with the villagers two days and many come to place their faith in him.

So what has happened in this story? Jesus, who is the LORD, the God of Israel, has come to woo these descendants of northern Israel (the Samaritans) back to himself, as he promised to do in many prophecies, notably those of Hosea:

Hos. 2:14 “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. 15 ... And ... she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. 16 “And in that day, says the LORD, you will call me, ‘My husband,’ and no longer will you call me, ‘My Baal.’ 17 For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more. 18 And I will make for you a covenant on that day ... 19 And I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. 20 I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD."

The woman is a type and image of her people, the people of Samaria, whom the LORD did not forget, but return to woo them to himself.

Christ the LORD, the Bridegroom Messiah, comes to woo each one of us at the Eucharistic Liturgy (Mass). Despite our sins, shames, and checkered histories, he comes suddenly under the images of bread and wine, offering himself to us, calling himself to us, to be his spotless bride (Eph 5:25-27; Rev 21:9-11).