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?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Bishops Reiterate Opposition to Health Care Bill

From the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:
WASHINGTON—The U.S. bishops urged the House of Representatives to fix flaws in health care legislation or vote against its passage in a March 20 letter to House members. The letter was signed by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, chair of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities, Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, New York, chair of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, chair on the Committee on Migration.
Read the letter here.

Meanwhile, take three minutes and call these guys. Tell them not to cave.

Berry (202) 225-4076

Cueller 202-225-1640

Kaptur(202) 225-4146

Rahall (202) 225-3452

In all honesty, I can say that if this bill passes there will be a unified Catholic opposition to those who were responsible for it the likes of which I don't think we have ever seen. Seriously--that's not just an empty threat.

Notice that the opposition is not simply fueled by partisan politics--opposition is coming from both parties. Or, put it another way, the only "bi-partisan" movement here is one that seeks to stop this legislation. I know--I'm usually cynical about politics here. But this is really serious.

My wife and I are taking names and are pledging to help finance the campaigns of those running against the supporters of this bill--and we are hardly alone. In addition, there will likely be constitutional challenges to this bill. We will support those movements too. Please join us!

The Story of the Rising of Lazarus (John 11)

Tomorrow's Gospel reading is taken from John 11, the story of the raising of Lazarus. Much could be said here. Here I'll offer only a few thoughts. In the end we'll see a possible connection with the prodigal son story--at least, a similar message.

Jesus Waited Until Lazarus Died

Right at the beginning of the story we read: "Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go into Judea again” (John 11:5-7).

The logic doesn't really seem to follow here. Jesus loved Lazarus and so when he heard he was ill he remained where he was. He did not immediately rush to his side. It seems that Jesus deliberately waits until Lazarus dies, knowing what he is about to do. And he does this out of love for him.

Sometimes we may face certain crises and we wonder why it seems divine intervention is delayed. What we need to remember is that God does not delay because he does not love us--in fact, sometimes it is to the contrary. Even if we seem to think God must act "right now", we know that the Lord may have other plans--and his plans are always better than ours!

"Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover."

I have to highlight another element in the story which really is quite humorous. Indeed, people who have heard me speak on John know that I think it is one of the funniest books in the New Testament.

The apostles clearly do not get what is going on when Jesus explains why they are headed to Bethany:

[Jesus said,] “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead; 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him" (John 11:11-15).
So clearly we see the reason Jesus is acting the way that he is--his miracle is going to be a sign for the disciples.
But we should point out that the whole section is dripping with Johannine humor. Jesus says that Lazarus has "fallen asleep". The apostles don't see the problem: "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover." John then explains how Jesus has to back away from the symbolic language for a moment to help the thick-headed apostles: "Then Jesus told them plainly, 'Lazarus is dead'". Jesus' exasperation at the apostles' density is obvious. It's almost like John says, "Then Jesus told them plainly, 'Lazarus is dead, you numbsculls." You almost get the sense that Jesus is rolling his eyes here--I said, almost.

Resurrection and Restoration in Jewish Hopes

Why is the miracle of raising the dead such an important sign. Well, clearly raising the dead would have been impressive; it's not something you see every day.

However, even more importantly, ancient Jews apparently linked the rising of the dead with the coming of the future eschatological age, the age of the Messiah. In fact, the image of raising the dead was especially closely linked to Jewish hopes for the restoration of Israel. Let me explain.

In Israel's history there are two major exiles. In the eighth century B.C. most of the northern tribes were taken off into captivity by the Assyrians. They were never heard from again (=the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel). Later, in the sixth century B.C., the southern tribes were taken off into exile, however, they returned.

Yet, God promised that one day the northern tribes would return from exile. This is evident in a number of prophetic texts:

The famous prophecy which tells of the “new covenant”, the only one in the Old Testament, explicitly states this: “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jer. 31:31). This idea of a reunited Israel is found throughout the Old Testament. Here are some examples.

“In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant which is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. He will raise an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. The jealousy of E'phraim shall depart, and those who harass Judah shall be cut off; E'phraim shall not be jealous of Judah, and Judah shall not harass E'phraim” (Isaiah 11:11-13).

“For behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of the my people, Israel and Judah, says the Lord, and I will bring them back to the land which I gave to their fathers. . .” (Jeremiah 30:3).

“How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel!. . . They shall go after the Lord, he will roar like a lion; yea, he will roar, and his sons shall come trembling from the west; they shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord” (Hosea 11:8, 10-11).

In fact, it’s hard to find a prophet who doesn’t express this hope!

This "scattering" of Israel was seen as a kind of "death". Hence, it is not surprising, the hoped-for return of Israel was linked with resurrection language. A clear example of this is found in the first reading this Sunday, Ezekiel's prophecy of the dry bones. There "resurrection" imagery is clearly linked to the restoration of Israel:
"Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel" (Ezek 37:11-12).
Interesting, the term used to describe the "scattering" of Israel throughout the world was diaspora. Most scholars know the term, but do not know its origin. James Scott explains that the word was most frequently used to describe "decomposition", i.e., of a body.[1] It is no suprise then resurrection was clearly linked to the hope of the restoration of Israel (cf. Hosea 6:2; Daniel 12:1–2; Bar 2:14–18; 4Q521 2, II, 1–13; 7, 5; 4Q385 II, 2–9).

The Restoration of Israel and the Raising of Lazarus

That restoration from exile is in the backdrop of the leaing of Lazarus story is also clear from what follows in the chapter. In response to Jesus' miracle of raising Lazarus we read that the high priest said something which was in fact prophetic.
But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all; 50 you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.
Jesus' death would bring about the future restoration of Israel--Lazarus' resurrection was a kind of anticipation of that event. If you want to learn more about this theme in John's Gospel I highly recommend John A. Dennis, Jesus' Death and the Gathering of the True Israel (WUNT 217; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2006).

What Practical Lesson Are We Left With?

Again, much could be said about the story of the raising of Lazarus. The scene famously tells us that Jesus "wept" (John 11:35--the shortest verse in the Bible). This of course highlights the humanity of Jesus and underscores the way he stands in solidarity with us.

Another theme, however, which flows out of our reading above is this: God is faithful to his promise and can reconcile us no matter how far we have wondered away from him. The Israelites had been scattered--carried off to the far corners of the world in captivity. The Old Testament makes it clear why this happened: sin.

But God reveals that he bring us back to him no matter how unlikely that might seem. To bring back together the northern tribes and unite them to the southern tribes--to restore the twelve tribes of Israel--that would take a miracle. But that was what Jesus expected (e.g., he named twelve apostles). God would bring about a resurrection--and, in fact, he accomplished his plan through just that, i.e., the resurrection of his Son.

The Tie-In to the Prodigal Son Story

If you're thinking that this sounds like the prodigal son story which we heard last week, you're right. In fact, the story of the prodigal son seems, on a deeper level, to evoke traditions about Israel. As readers of the Old Testament know, God describes Israel as his “son” (e.g., Exod 4:22). As we have explained, the twelve tribes were separated into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom eventually rejected the temple in Jerusalem and turned to idolatry, leading to the exile of most of the northern Israelites (=the lost ten tribes of Israel). The southern kingdom, Judah, remained attached to the temple in Jerusalem.

Read in this light the story of the prodigal son could be seen as a kind of lesson about Israel. The northern Israelites defiled themselves―even worshipping golden calves upon splitting with the southern kingdom (1 Kgs 12:25–33). They have therefore been taken away to a foreign land, brought away in captivity (and servitude). Yet the prophets predicted that one day God would once again call his son back to him (cf. Hosea 11).

The Judeans oftentimes looked down on their northern brothers. They had rejected God, they had defiled themselves―in a sense, they got what was coming to them. The Judeans had remained at the temple, serving the Lord. That Jesus takes his ministry to Galilee, seems to be a clear indication that he has the salvation of the northern kingdom clearly at the forefront of his eschatological program. That the father kills the fatted calf may be a kind of allusion to the hope of reconciliation of the northern Israelite brothers who separated from the Lord and tuned to golden calves.

In Christ we have redemption from sin and restoration--we truly have new life. The raising of Lazarus reveals that even if it seems lilke death has conquered, there is still hope. Let us hope in the Lord!

[1] See Ezekiel 37; Hosea 13-14; Daniel 12. Indeed, the word diaspora was used most frequently to describe “decomposition”. See Scott, James. “Exile and the Self-Understanding of Diaspora Jews.” Exile: Old Testament, Jewish and Christian Conceptions (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 178-179.

URGENT: Call these guys NOW!!!

It looks like the health care legislation will not have language prohibiting tax dollars from funding abortion.

This is despicable. When Democrats themselves are divided on this you know this is not just about partisan politics. The administration has gone over the line here and has decided to allow the far left of the party control the whole agenda. This is not centrist legislation. What ever happened to the pledge of a post-partisan president?

In fact, the AP is now running a story--hardly a right-wing outfit!--detailing the many broken promises made by the president this legislation represents.

It was a bold response to skyrocketing health insurance premiums. President Barack Obama would give federal authorities the power to block unreasonable rate hikes.

Yet when Democrats unveiled the final, incarnation of their health care bill this week, the proposal was nowhere to be found.

Ditto with several Republican ideas that Obama had said he wanted to include after a televised bipartisan summit last month, including a plan by Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to send investigators disguised as patients to hospitals in search of waste, fraud and abuse.

And those "special deals" that Obama railed against and said he wanted to eliminate? With the exception of two of the most notorious — extra Medicaid money for Nebraska and a carve-out for Florida seniors faced with losing certain extra Medicare benefits — they are all still there.

For the White House, these were the latest unfulfilled commitments related to Obama's health care proposal, starting with his campaign promise to let C-SPAN cameras film negotiations over the bill. Obama also backed down with little apparent regret on his support for a new government-run insurance plan as part of the legislation, a liberal priority.

Berry (202) 225-4076

Cueller 202-225-1640

Kaptur(202) 225-4146

Rahall (202) 225-3452

Pope to Victims: "I am truly sorry"

Below is the full text of Pope Benedict's letter to Ireland concerning the child abuse scandal.

1. Dear Brothers and Sisters of the Church in Ireland, it is with great concern that I write to you as Pastor of the universal Church. Like yourselves, I have been deeply disturbed by the information which has come to light regarding the abuse of children and vulnerable young people by members of the Church in Ireland, particularly by priests and religious. I can only share in the dismay and the sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them.

As you know, I recently invited the Irish bishops to a meeting here in Rome to give an account of their handling of these matters in the past and to outline the steps they have taken to respond to this grave situation. Together with senior officials of the Roman Curia, I listened to what they had to say, both individually and as a group, as they offered an analysis of mistakes made and lessons learned, and a description of the programmes and protocols now in place. Our discussions were frank and constructive. I am confident that, as a result, the bishops will now be in a stronger position to carry forward the work of repairing past injustices and confronting the broader issues associated with the abuse of minors in a way consonant with the demands of justice and the teachings of the Gospel.

2. For my part, considering the gravity of these offences, and the often inadequate response to them on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities in your country, I have decided to write this Pastoral Letter to express my closeness to you and to propose a path of healing, renewal and reparation.

It is true, as many in your country have pointed out, that the problem of child abuse is peculiar neither to Ireland nor to the Church. Nevertheless, the task you now face is to address the problem of abuse that has occurred within the Irish Catholic community, and to do so with courage and determination. No one imagines that this painful situation will be resolved swiftly. Real progress has been made, yet much more remains to be done. Perseverance and prayer are needed, with great trust in the healing power of God’s grace.

At the same time, I must also express my conviction that, in order to recover from this grievous wound, the Church in Ireland must first acknowledge before the Lord and before others the serious sins committed against defenceless children. Such an acknowledgement, accompanied by sincere sorrow for the damage caused to these victims and their families, must lead to a concerted effort to ensure the protection of children from similar crimes in the future.

As you take up the challenges of this hour, I ask you to remember "the rock from which you were hewn" (Is 51:1). Reflect upon the generous, often heroic, contributions made by past generations of Irish men and women to the Church and to humanity as a whole, and let this provide the impetus for honest self-examination and a committed programme of ecclesial and individual renewal. It is my prayer that, assisted by the intercession of her many saints and purified through penance, the Church in Ireland will overcome the present crisis and become once more a convincing witness to the truth and the goodness of Almighty God, made manifest in his Son Jesus Christ.

3. Historically, the Catholics of Ireland have proved an enormous force for good at home and abroad. Celtic monks like Saint Columbanus spread the Gospel in Western Europe and laid the foundations of medieval monastic culture. The ideals of holiness, charity and transcendent wisdom born of the Christian faith found expression in the building of churches and monasteries and the establishment of schools, libraries and hospitals, all of which helped to consolidate the spiritual identity of Europe. Those Irish missionaries drew their strength and inspiration from the firm faith, strong leadership and upright morals of the Church in their native land.

From the sixteenth century on, Catholics in Ireland endured a long period of persecution, during which they struggled to keep the flame of faith alive in dangerous and difficult circumstances. Saint Oliver Plunkett, the martyred Archbishop of Armagh, is the most famous example of a host of courageous sons and daughters of Ireland who were willing to lay down their lives out of fidelity to the Gospel. After Catholic Emancipation, the Church was free to grow once more. Families and countless individuals who had preserved the faith in times of trial became the catalyst for the great resurgence of Irish Catholicism in the nineteenth century. The Church provided education, especially for the poor, and this was to make a major contribution to Irish society. Among the fruits of the new Catholic schools was a rise in vocations: generations of missionary priests, sisters and brothers left their homeland to serve in every continent, especially in the English-speaking world. They were remarkable not only for their great numbers, but for the strength of their faith and the steadfastness of their pastoral commitment. Many dioceses, especially in Africa, America and Australia, benefited from the presence of Irish clergy and religious who preached the Gospel and established parishes, schools and universities, clinics and hospitals that served both Catholics and the community at large, with particular attention to the needs of the poor.

In almost every family in Ireland, there has been someone – a son or a daughter, an aunt or an uncle – who has given his or her life to the Church. Irish families rightly esteem and cherish their loved ones who have dedicated their lives to Christ, sharing the gift of faith with others, and putting that faith into action in loving service of God and neighbour.

4. In recent decades, however, the Church in your country has had to confront new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularization of Irish society. Fast-paced social change has occurred, often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values. All too often, the sacramental and devotional practices that sustain faith and enable it to grow, such as frequent confession, daily prayer and annual retreats, were neglected. Significant too was the tendency during this period, also on the part of priests and religious, to adopt ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel. The programme of renewal proposed by the Second Vatican Council was sometimes misinterpreted and indeed, in the light of the profound social changes that were taking place, it was far from easy to know how best to implement it. In particular, there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations. It is in this overall context that we must try to understand the disturbing problem of child sexual abuse, which has contributed in no small measure to the weakening of faith and the loss of respect for the Church and her teachings.

Only by examining carefully the many elements that gave rise to the present crisis can a clear-sighted diagnosis of its causes be undertaken and effective remedies be found. Certainly, among the contributing factors we can include: inadequate procedures for determining the suitability of candidates for the priesthood and the religious life; insufficient human, moral, intellectual and spiritual formation in seminaries and novitiates; a tendency in society to favour the clergy and other authority figures; and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal, resulting in failure to apply existing canonical penalties and to safeguard the dignity of every person. Urgent action is needed to address these factors, which have had such tragic consequences in the lives of victims and their families, and have obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing.

5. On several occasions since my election to the See of Peter, I have met with victims of sexual abuse, as indeed I am ready to do in the future. I have sat with them, I have listened to their stories, I have acknowledged their suffering, and I have prayed with them and for them. Earlier in my pontificate, in my concern to address this matter, I asked the bishops of Ireland, "to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected, and above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes" (Address to the Bishops of Ireland, 28 October 2006).

With this Letter, I wish to exhort all of you, as God’s people in Ireland, to reflect on the wounds inflicted on Christ’s body, the sometimes painful remedies needed to bind and heal them, and the need for unity, charity and mutual support in the long-term process of restoration and ecclesial renewal. I now turn to you with words that come from my heart, and I wish to speak to each of you individually and to all of you as brothers and sisters in the Lord.

6. To the victims of abuse and their families

You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen. Those of you who were abused in residential institutions must have felt that there was no escape from your sufferings. It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel. At the same time, I ask you not to lose hope. It is in the communion of the Church that we encounter the person of Jesus Christ, who was himself a victim of injustice and sin. Like you, he still bears the wounds of his own unjust suffering. He understands the depths of your pain and its enduring effect upon your lives and your relationships, including your relationship with the Church. I know some of you find it difficult even to enter the doors of a church after all that has occurred. Yet Christ’s own wounds, transformed by his redemptive sufferings, are the very means by which the power of evil is broken and we are reborn to life and hope. I believe deeply in the healing power of his self-sacrificing love – even in the darkest and most hopeless situations – to bring liberation and the promise of a new beginning.

Speaking to you as a pastor concerned for the good of all God’s children, I humbly ask you to consider what I have said. I pray that, by drawing nearer to Christ and by participating in the life of his Church – a Church purified by penance and renewed in pastoral charity – you will come to rediscover Christ’s infinite love for each one of you. I am confident that in this way you will be able to find reconciliation, deep inner healing and peace.

7. To priests and religious who have abused children

You betrayed the trust that was placed in you by innocent young people and their parents, and you must answer for it before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals. You have forfeited the esteem of the people of Ireland and brought shame and dishonour upon your confreres. Those of you who are priests violated the sanctity of the sacrament of Holy Orders in which Christ makes himself present in us and in our actions. Together with the immense harm done to victims, great damage has been done to the Church and to the public perception of the priesthood and religious life.

I urge you to examine your conscience, take responsibility for the sins you have committed, and humbly express your sorrow. Sincere repentance opens the door to God’s forgiveness and the grace of true amendment. By offering prayers and penances for those you have wronged, you should seek to atone personally for your actions. Christ’s redeeming sacrifice has the power to forgive even the gravest of sins, and to bring forth good from even the most terrible evil. At the same time, God’s justice summons us to give an account of our actions and to conceal nothing. Openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God’s mercy.

8. To parents

You have been deeply shocked to learn of the terrible things that took place in what ought to be the safest and most secure environment of all. In today’s world it is not easy to build a home and to bring up children. They deserve to grow up in security, loved and cherished, with a strong sense of their identity and worth. They have a right to be educated in authentic moral values rooted in the dignity of the human person, to be inspired by the truth of our Catholic faith and to learn ways of behaving and acting that lead to healthy self-esteem and lasting happiness. This noble but demanding task is entrusted in the first place to you, their parents. I urge you to play your part in ensuring the best possible care of children, both at home and in society as a whole, while the Church, for her part, continues to implement the measures adopted in recent years to protect young people in parish and school environments. As you carry out your vital responsibilities, be assured that I remain close to you and I offer you the support of my prayers.

9. To the children and young people of Ireland

I wish to offer you a particular word of encouragement. Your experience of the Church is very different from that of your parents and grandparents. The world has changed greatly since they were your age. Yet all people, in every generation, are called to travel the same path through life, whatever their circumstances may be. We are all scandalized by the sins and failures of some of the Church's members, particularly those who were chosen especially to guide and serve young people. But it is in the Church that you will find Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and for ever (cf. Heb 13:8). He loves you and he has offered himself on the cross for you. Seek a personal relationship with him within the communion of his Church, for he will never betray your trust! He alone can satisfy your deepest longings and give your lives their fullest meaning by directing them to the service of others. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and his goodness, and shelter the flame of faith in your heart. Together with your fellow Catholics in Ireland, I look to you to be faithful disciples of our Lord and to bring your much-needed enthusiasm and idealism to the rebuilding and renewal of our beloved Church.

10. To the priests and religious of Ireland

All of us are suffering as a result of the sins of our confreres who betrayed a sacred trust or failed to deal justly and responsibly with allegations of abuse. In view of the outrage and indignation which this has provoked, not only among the lay faithful but among yourselves and your religious communities, many of you feel personally discouraged, even abandoned. I am also aware that in some people’s eyes you are tainted by association, and viewed as if you were somehow responsible for the misdeeds of others. At this painful time, I want to acknowledge the dedication of your priestly and religious lives and apostolates, and I invite you to reaffirm your faith in Christ, your love of his Church and your confidence in the Gospel's promise of redemption, forgiveness and interior renewal. In this way, you will demonstrate for all to see that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (cf. Rom 5:20).

I know that many of you are disappointed, bewildered and angered by the way these matters have been handled by some of your superiors. Yet, it is essential that you cooperate closely with those in authority and help to ensure that the measures adopted to respond to the crisis will be truly evangelical, just and effective. Above all, I urge you to become ever more clearly men and women of prayer, courageously following the path of conversion, purification and reconciliation. In this way, the Church in Ireland will draw new life and vitality from your witness to the Lord's redeeming power made visible in your lives.

11. To my brother bishops

It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations. I recognize how difficult it was to grasp the extent and complexity of the problem, to obtain reliable information and to make the right decisions in the light of conflicting expert advice. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that grave errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness. I appreciate the efforts you have made to remedy past mistakes and to guarantee that they do not happen again. Besides fully implementing the norms of canon law in addressing cases of child abuse, continue to cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence. Clearly, religious superiors should do likewise. They too have taken part in recent discussions here in Rome with a view to establishing a clear and consistent approach to these matters. It is imperative that the child safety norms of the Church in Ireland be continually revised and updated and that they be applied fully and impartially in conformity with canon law.

Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of the Irish people towards the Church to which we have consecrated our lives. This must arise, first and foremost, from your own self-examination, inner purification and spiritual renewal. The Irish people rightly expect you to be men of God, to be holy, to live simply, to pursue personal conversion daily. For them, in the words of Saint Augustine, you are a bishop; yet with them you are called to be a follower of Christ (cf. Sermon 340, 1). I therefore exhort you to renew your sense of accountability before God, to grow in solidarity with your people and to deepen your pastoral concern for all the members of your flock. In particular, I ask you to be attentive to the spiritual and moral lives of each one of your priests. Set them an example by your own lives, be close to them, listen to their concerns, offer them encouragement at this difficult time and stir up the flame of their love for Christ and their commitment to the service of their brothers and sisters.

The lay faithful, too, should be encouraged to play their proper part in the life of the Church. See that they are formed in such a way that they can offer an articulate and convincing account of the Gospel in the midst of modern society (cf. 1 Pet 3:15) and cooperate more fully in the Church’s life and mission. This in turn will help you once again become credible leaders and witnesses to the redeeming truth of Christ.

12. To all the faithful of Ireland

A young person’s experience of the Church should always bear fruit in a personal and life-giving encounter with Jesus Christ within a loving, nourishing community. In this environment, young people should be encouraged to grow to their full human and spiritual stature, to aspire to high ideals of holiness, charity and truth, and to draw inspiration from the riches of a great religious and cultural tradition. In our increasingly secularized society, where even we Christians often find it difficult to speak of the transcendent dimension of our existence, we need to find new ways to pass on to young people the beauty and richness of friendship with Jesus Christ in the communion of his Church. In confronting the present crisis, measures to deal justly with individual crimes are essential, yet on their own they are not enough: a new vision is needed, to inspire present and future generations to treasure the gift of our common faith. By treading the path marked out by the Gospel, by observing the commandments and by conforming your lives ever more closely to the figure of Jesus Christ, you will surely experience the profound renewal that is so urgently needed at this time. I invite you all to persevere along this path.

13. Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, it is out of deep concern for all of you at this painful time in which the fragility of the human condition has been so starkly revealed that I have wished to offer these words of encouragement and support. I hope that you will receive them as a sign of my spiritual closeness and my confidence in your ability to respond to the challenges of the present hour by drawing renewed inspiration and strength from Ireland’s noble traditions of fidelity to the Gospel, perseverance in the faith and steadfastness in the pursuit of holiness. In solidarity with all of you, I am praying earnestly that, by God’s grace, the wounds afflicting so many individuals and families may be healed and that the Church in Ireland may experience a season of rebirth and spiritual renewal.

14. I now wish to propose to you some concrete initiatives to address the situation.

At the conclusion of my meeting with the Irish bishops, I asked that Lent this year be set aside as a time to pray for an outpouring of God’s mercy and the Holy Spirit’s gifts of holiness and strength upon the Church in your country. I now invite all of you to devote your Friday penances, for a period of one year, between now and Easter 2011, to this intention. I ask you to offer up your fasting, your prayer, your reading of Scripture and your works of mercy in order to obtain the grace of healing and renewal for the Church in Ireland. I encourage you to discover anew the sacrament of Reconciliation and to avail yourselves more frequently of the transforming power of its grace.

Particular attention should also be given to Eucharistic adoration, and in every diocese there should be churches or chapels specifically devoted to this purpose. I ask parishes, seminaries, religious houses and monasteries to organize periods of Eucharistic adoration, so that all have an opportunity to take part. Through intense prayer before the real presence of the Lord, you can make reparation for the sins of abuse that have done so much harm, at the same time imploring the grace of renewed strength and a deeper sense of mission on the part of all bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful.

I am confident that this programme will lead to a rebirth of the Church in Ireland in the fullness of God’s own truth, for it is the truth that sets us free (cf. Jn 8:32).

Furthermore, having consulted and prayed about the matter, I intend to hold an Apostolic Visitation of certain dioceses in Ireland, as well as seminaries and religious congregations. Arrangements for the Visitation, which is intended to assist the local Church on her path of renewal, will be made in cooperation with the competent offices of the Roman Curia and the Irish Episcopal Conference. The details will be announced in due course.

I also propose that a nationwide Mission be held for all bishops, priests and religious. It is my hope that, by drawing on the expertise of experienced preachers and retreat-givers from Ireland and from elsewhere, and by exploring anew the conciliar documents, the liturgical rites of ordination and profession, and recent pontifical teaching, you will come to a more profound appreciation of your respective vocations, so as to rediscover the roots of your faith in Jesus Christ and to drink deeply from the springs of living water that he offers you through his Church.

In this Year for Priests, I commend to you most particularly the figure of Saint John Mary Vianney, who had such a rich understanding of the mystery of the priesthood. "The priest", he wrote, "holds the key to the treasures of heaven: it is he who opens the door: he is the steward of the good Lord; the administrator of his goods." The Curé d’Ars understood well how greatly blessed a community is when served by a good and holy priest: "A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy." Through the intercession of Saint John Mary Vianney, may the priesthood in Ireland be revitalized, and may the whole Church in Ireland grow in appreciation for the great gift of the priestly ministry.

I take this opportunity to thank in anticipation all those who will be involved in the work of organizing the Apostolic Visitation and the Mission, as well as the many men and women throughout Ireland already working for the safety of children in church environments. Since the time when the gravity and extent of the problem of child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions first began to be fully grasped, the Church has done an immense amount of work in many parts of the world in order to address and remedy it. While no effort should be spared in improving and updating existing procedures, I am encouraged by the fact that the current safeguarding practices adopted by local Churches are being seen, in some parts of the world, as a model for other institutions to follow.

I wish to conclude this Letter with a special Prayer for the Church in Ireland, which I send to you with the care of a father for his children and with the affection of a fellow Christian, scandalized and hurt by what has occurred in our beloved Church. As you make use of this prayer in your families, parishes and communities, may the Blessed Virgin Mary protect and guide each of you to a closer union with her Son, crucified and risen. With great affection and unswerving confidence in God’s promises, I cordially impart to all of you my Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of strength and peace in the Lord.

From the Vatican, 19 March 2010, on the Solemnity of Saint Joseph


Prayer for the Church in Ireland

God of our fathers,
renew us in the faith which is our life and salvation,
the hope which promises forgiveness and interior renewal,
the charity which purifies and opens our hearts
to love you, and in you, each of our brothers and sisters.

Lord Jesus Christ,
may the Church in Ireland renew her age-old commitment
to the education of our young people in the way of truth and goodness, holiness and generous service to society.

Holy Spirit, comforter, advocate and guide,
inspire a new springtime of holiness and apostolic zeal
for the Church in Ireland.

May our sorrow and our tears,
our sincere effort to redress past wrongs,
and our firm purpose of amendment
bear an abundant harvest of grace
for the deepening of the faith
in our families, parishes, schools and communities,
for the spiritual progress of Irish society,
and the growth of charity, justice, joy and peace
within the whole human family.

To you, Triune God,
confident in the loving protection of Mary,
Queen of Ireland, our Mother,
and of Saint Patrick, Saint Brigid and all the saints,
do we entrust ourselves, our children,
and the needs of the Church in Ireland.


Friday, March 19, 2010

On the Radio Today!

Tune in today (Friday), when, as on every Friday, I will be doing my radio show Reasons for Faith Live from 2-3pm Eastern Time (11am-12pm Pacific).

How to hear the show:
Listen on-line: Click here and go to the "Radio" tab (you'll figure it out from there).

Listen on a local AM/FM station: To find a radio station in your area go here.

Listen on SIRIUS Satellite Radio [channel 160]

Listen on shortwave.

Be a part of the show:
To call in to the show dial 1-888-526-2151.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Augustine on the Need to Know Hebrew and Greek

"The great remedy for ignorance . . . is knowledge of languages. And men who speak the Latin tongue, of whom are those I have undertaken to instruct, need two other languages for the knowledge of Scripture, Hebrew and Greek, that they may have recourse to the original texts if the endless diversity of the Latin translators throw them into doubt. Although, indeed, we often find Hebrew words untranslated in the books as for example, Amen, Halleluia, Racha, Hosanna, and others of the same kind. Some of these, although they could have been translated, have been preserved in their original form on account of the more sacred authority that attaches to it, as for example, Amen and Halleluia. Some of them, again, are said to be untranslatable into another tongue, of which the other two I have mentioned are examples. For in some languages there are words that cannot be translated into the idiom of another language. And this happens chiefly in the case of interjections, which are words that express rather an emotion of the mind than any part of a thought we have in our mind. And the two given above are said to be of this kind, Racha expressing the cry of an angry man, Hosanna that of a joyful man. But the knowledge of these languages is necessary, not for the sake of a few words like these which it is very easy to mark and to ask about, but, as has been said, on account of the diversities among translators. For the translations of the Scriptures from Hebrew into Greek can be counted, but the Latin translators are out of all number. For in the early days of the faith every man who happened to get his hands upon a Greek manuscript, and who thought he had any knowledge, were it ever so little, of the two languages, ventured upon the work of translation."
--St. Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, II, 11

Monday, March 15, 2010

Living Together Before Marriage: What the Studies Really Show

Normally, I wouldn't touch this stuff on the blog, but since I am teaching a class on Christian Marriage next quarter, I had to highlight this. . .

CBS News, whose ridiculously liberal bias has been long known ever since Bernard Goldberg's famous whistle-blower book (though I realize all outlets have some bias or another. . . "fair and balanced" ain't what it's cracked up to be!), is highlighting a study which tries to make a case that living together before getting married won't negatively impact your marriage. Newsbusters tackles the distortion.

Of course, what they mean by "won't negatively impact your marriage" is this: you won't get divorced.

Okay. . . let's just take that at face value (though other studies clearly dispute that finding!). Just because a couple does not get divorced does not mean that they have a happy marriage. A couple that has separated but is not technically divorced is not, I think by anyone's standards, experiencing a happy marriage. In fact, as Newsbusters reports, studies show that domestic abuse and child abuse are far more likely to take place in relationships where the couples had lived together before getting married.

In sum, the data indicates that living together will greatly harm your relationship.

Newsbusters cites psychologist Nancy Wartik, who in Psychology Today, explains:
"We move in together, we get comfortable, and pretty soon marriage starts to seem like the path of least resistance. Even if the relationship is only tolerable, the next stage starts to seem inevitable," she wrote. " Because we have different standards for living partners than for life partners, we may end up married to someone we never would have originally considered for the long haul."
We could cite other studies but, suffice it to say, it's no big mystery why the odds are strongly against finding happiness through "shacking up". When there's no commitment, there's a fear of break-up, which causes couples to do their best to hide their weaknesses and bad habits. But once married, all those tendencies which were carefully avoided begin to rise to the surface and it quickly becomes apparent to the persons involved: "This is not the same person I thought he/she was."

So, do you want to destroy the relationship with the person you love? There's an easy way to do it. You can happily wreck your perfect relationship by moving in together before marriage.

Once again what do we find? Do it God's way, and you'll find happiness; go another way and, well, just read this MSNBC story from last year. It's an iron-clad law: if you want to be happy, follow the Lord's design; if you want to be sad, ignore it. In short, God knows how to make us happy better than we think we do. The world may suggest a "trial" marriage will help you find happiness--in reality, though, it's not. The wisdom of the world is folly.

Of course, this is inconvenient for some and so they will try to fool themselves into thinking that they will somehow be exceptions--they still know best. I believe St. Paul said it better than I ever could: "for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools" (Rom 1:21-22).

Series About Abortion Opens Thoughtful Dialogue--Something Truly Needed!

Bringing Both Sides Together to Talk

For the first time, perhaps ever, people from both sides of the abortion debate entered into an international conversation about the issue that was truly honest, thoughtful and civil. I've never seen anything like it. The web series, Bump+, a fake reality show, which followed three women facing unplanned pregnancies, has received endorsements from numerous pro-choice and pro-life groups. Perez Hilton praised it--and so did Fr. Frank Pavonne, the head of Priests for Life, probably the most well-respected Catholic pro-life organization. When has an attempt to bring people together to discuss the issue been so successful? When has such a thing ever happened?!

The show has easily been the most talked about web series ever. This has been by far the most amazing development in the conversation about abortion I have ever witnessed. Anyone who watched the show and participated in the conversation knows that something really remarkable took place here. Here's the retrospective, but if you did not follow the show as it aired live, you really need to check out the brief episodes (go here) the conversations revolve around. The message boards are only going to remain open for another 72 hours! "Join the conversation!", as they say.

The Need for Dialogue

Some might be surprised by my support for this show. Readers of this blog know how much the experience of becoming a father has reinforced my belief that abortion is evil. In my mind, you can't look at an ultrasound and not be transformed--it certainly looks like a human life to me! So it might seem odd to some that I have supported this show, which fosters open dialogue.

In fact, I'm always a big proponent of honest dialogue--whether that be about theological issues, biblical issues, philosophical issues, moral issues--etc. Having, as a Catholic, received most of my education at non-Catholic institutions, I can testify first hand to the fact that much fruit comes from open and honest conversation. I would submit that most, though admittedly not all, of the theological and biblical disagreements stem from misunderstandings and knowledge of only straw-man arguments in support of various positions.

Yet some clearly have a mistaken view of what dialogue entails, claiming that it should be avoided because it necessarily involves compromising principles. Laura Ingraham, a conservative talk show host, slammed the Bump+ show. As a Catholic, she claimed, it is wrong to open up dialogue--Catholics are called to "take a stand" she stated, "not dialogue".

Ingraham's thinking is flawed on many levels--I can't possible enter into a full discussion here. But, fundamentally, her view seems to illustrate the problem: people have given up talking to each other in favor of talking at each other.

Moreover, Laura's Ingraham's position reveals her own ignorance of Catholic teaching, which has repeatedly called for dialogue. Engaging in honest conversation is not antithetical taking a stand. In fact, Bump+ is about initiating the kind of charitable, intelligent conversation the Second Vatican Council called for:

Respect and love ought to be extended also to those who think or act differently than we do in social, political and even religious matters. In fact, the more deeply we come to understand their ways of thinking through such courtesy and love, the more easily will we be able to enter into dialogue with them.

This love and good will, to be sure, must in no way render us indifferent to truth and goodness. Indeed love itself impels the disciples of Christ to speak the saving truth to all men. But it is necessary to distinguish between error, which always merits repudiation, and the person in error, who never loses the dignity of being a person even when he is flawed by false or inadequate religious notions.(10) God alone is the judge and searcher of hearts, for that reason He forbids us to make judgments about the internal guilt of anyone [Cf. Luke 6:37-38; Matt. 7:1-2; Rom. 2:1-11; 14:10, 14:10-12].

The teaching of Christ even requires that we forgive injuries [Matt. 5:43-47], and extends the law of love to include every enemy, according to the command of the New Law: "You have heard that it was said: Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thy enemy. But I say to you: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute and calumniate you (Matt. 5:43-44).

--Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 28.

If Catholics and Christians seriously took these words to heart and put winning friends over simply winning debates in the abstract, the world would be in a much better place.

The way people talk at each other--oftentimes ignoring the women most especially involved--was in fact illustrated in this, my favorite episode of the series. If you haven't seen it, here it is--and seriously, you've got to see the whole show to really understand this in context. Again, you've got 72 hours--go add your voice now!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Prodigal Son, New Life and Sacramental Imagery

This Sunday the Church reads the story of the Prodigal Son in the Liturgy (unless you’re doing the RCIA cycle, in which case you will read from John 9). Here I thought I’d offer a few thoughts on the story.

You’re Dead to Me

Jesus begins by telling the story of a man who had two sons. The parable begins with the younger brother going to the father and asking for his inheritance.

Of course, an inheritance is usually bestowed upon offspring after the death of the one bequeathing it. Essentially, by demanding his inheritance while his father is still alive the younger brother basically says, “Dad, you’re dead to me.”

We might note how incredible it is that the father actually honors his request―the father gives his son of his own estate while he is still living. In effect, the father impoverishes himself. Notably, the son has not told his father what he is going to do with it. Ostensibly, one could think that the son was looking to simply take responsibility of the family’s goods he would one day receive. (Though, given the fact that son has basically declared the death of his father, his next actions are not at all surprising). Yet, instead of sticking around and managing the family estate he has been entrusted with, he takes off with it!

The Son’s Loose Living and His Eventual State of Destitution

Not only does he abandon the family, he squanders what he received from his father on debauchery―i.e., “loose living” (Luke 15:13) and harlots (Luke 15:30). It is interesting that here sexual immorality is linked with the lack of responsibility to family, but here we need to resist an interesting tangent.

Ultimately, the son finds himself without any money in a foreign land. To make matters, there’s a famine. He ends up with nothing. He joins himself to one of the citizens of the country he is in (Luke 15:15) and ends up feeding his swine (Luke 15:16)―which were of course known as unclean animals (Lev 11:7; Deut 14:8; 1 Macc 1:47; b. B. Qam. 82b). Even the food of the pigs looks good to him (cf. Luke 15:16). The man has, in a sense, been reduced to the level of the swine―he is among them, one of the “unclean”. By working for a foreigner, who in all likelihood does not honor the Sabbath command given to Israel, he is essentially completely cut off from his God, his family and reduced to servitude.

It is important to point out that when the famine comes “no one gave him anything” (Luke 15:16). In fact, the only person who ever gave him anything was his father―the very person he has rejected. The son opted for the people in this distant land over him, but now that he has run out of money, they have kicked him to the side of the road―or at least, to serve alongside the pigs.

Also worth noting is the word used to describe how the prodigal “joined” himself to a citizen in the country. The word in Greek, kollaomai, is used by Paul , who used the term to describe those who are “joined” to prostitutes (1 Cor 6:16). It is also used by Paul to describe how believers ought to “hold fast” to what is good (Rom 12:9) and be “joined” to the Lord (1 Cor 6:17). Of course, this man is not holding fast to God, but to some random citizen who ultimately does little for him.

At this point we hear that the man “comes to himself” (eis heauton erchosthai). Here Jesus uses an idiom that is found in non-biblical literature. The phrase here does not quite mean “repentance”. In sum, the man has simply “come to his senses” by realizing that his fathers’ servants are better treated than he is. He therefore comes up with a plan. He will go back and beg his father to take him back, not as a son but as one of his hired hands.

We should note this dichotomy between sonship and servanthood, because, as we shall see, it is key in the story. The son realizes that he has renounced his sonship. But even the servants of his father are better than he is in his present state.

You Can Go Home Again

He thus comes up with a good spiel, which he hopes will allow him to return to his father’s house. He plans to go to his father and say: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants” (Luke 15:18–19). He sets off for home.

His father, however, sees his son “while he was yet at a distance” (Luke 15:20). It seems the father has been looking off into the horizon. The sense one gets is that he was looking, just waiting, to see his son return. One is reminded of the story in Tobit: “Now Anna sat looking intently down the road for her son. 6 And she caught sight of him coming, and said to his father, ‘Behold, your son is coming, and so is the man who went with him!’” (Tob 11:5–6).

His father’s joy at seeing his son returning is immediately apparent. His acceptance of his son precedes his son’s request for reconciliation―a reminder that we do not need to somehow impress our heavenly Father in order to turn his attention towards us. God is always waiting for us to return to him―He loves us far more than we could ever ask him to love us!

In fact, the son isn’t even able to complete the carefully rehearsed speech he has prepared for his father. He says, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). Yet before he can finish the last lines of his prepared speech (i.e., “treat me as one of your hired servants”), his father exclaims, “‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; 23 and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; 24 for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found’” (Luke 15:22–24).

The son is not welcomed back into the family because of his own clever speech―in fact, the father takes him back even before he can fully get through it. This is a reminder that salvation is a grace. As St. Paul says, “. . . no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3).

The Older Son

Now we get to the older son. Upon hearing that his brother has returned, the elder son refuses to go into the feast and welcome his brother back. His speech to his father is revealing: “‘Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’” (Luke 15:29–30).

Notice that elder son describes his relationship with his father in terms of a servant--he, in effect, does not relate to him as a son but as a slave. He “serves”, and “obeys his father’s commandments”. Moreover, the reason for his service is not love but self-interest; he resents his father for not giving him anything. In a sense, the elder son, like the younger son, renounces his sonship for slavery. He even refuses to identify his brother as his brother (i.e., “this son of yours”)―he cuts himself off from the family. He does not want to feast with his family but with “my friends”.

The father however refuses to cut his son off― ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” Just as the father is eager to reconcile with the younger brother, so too he continues to reach out in love to his other son, reminding him of his place in his house. The elder son may cease to identify himself as a member of the family; the father, however, never ceases to call him “son”.

Resurrection Language and Baptism

We might highlight the fact that the son’s return is described in terms of resurrection. The son announces when he comes to himself in the foreign land, “I will arise and go to my father” (Luke 15:18). The Greek word used for “arise,” anistamai, is the same word used for “resurrection” elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., Luke 9:8; John 6:39; Mark 16:9; etc.). In fact, the father explains in no uncertain terms to the elder brother, “your brother was dead, and is alive” (Luke 15:32).

In turning to God from our sin we are, by his grace, “raised to new life”. St. Paul explains, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4).

In fact, as in the passage just cited from Romans, the New Testament also clearly links baptism to the believer's acceptance of saving grace. A few passages here will suffice:
Acts 2:37–39:  Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

1 Peter 3:21: Baptism, which corresponds to [the Flood of Noah], now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. . .

Colossians 2:11–12: In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12 and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
Not surprisingly then it is possible to see not only the message of reconciliation in the story of the prodigal son, but also baptismal imagery. Let me explain.

The “Robe” as Baptismal Imagery

The Fathers of the Church saw the father's act of putting a robe (stolē) on the prodigal son as a reference to the baptismal practice of the early church. As mentioned above, for the early Christians, the grace one received in Christ was understood as coming through baptism. Yet, receiving God's grace in Christ is also linked to the action of "putting on" Christ as in putting on a garment (cf. e.g. Eph 4:23-24; Col 3:9-10). This is explicitly linked with baptism in Galatians: "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Gal 3:27).

Moreover, in the early church baptism was typically carried out by immersion. After baptism the person came out of the waters they were typically given a new garment. In fact, the garment, specifically the robe (stolē), is linked with the saints in other places in the New Testament (Rev 6:11; 7:9, 13, 14). In Revelation it is even linked with the image of washing: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates” (Rev 22:14). This language is also linked with martyrdom (cf. Rev 3:4: “Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy”), which, of course, was closely linked to baptismal theology (e.g., Mark 10:39: “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized”).

Thus the baptismal significance of the robe is recognized by patristic writers. For example, Theophylact writes, “By the servants (or angels) you may understand administering spirits, or priests, who by baptism and the word of teaching clothe the soul with Christ himself” (cited in Thomas Aquinas, Cantena Aurea on Luke 15:22).

The Feast and Eschatological Banquet Traditions

Finally, we might say a few things about the feast which is celebrated. First, let us note that, as many scholars have noted, in Luke’s Gospel Jesus constantly links table-fellowship to his ministry to sinners. Scholars have noted that such actions are likely linked to the Jewish expectation of an eschatological banquet, to be celebrated in the future age in which God would send the Messiah and redeem his people.[1] The tradition appears most explicitly in Isaiah 25:6–8:
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined. 7 And he will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. 8 He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken” (Isa 25:6–8).
Jesus specifically links Israel’s restoration with meal imagery, evoking the hope of the eschatological banquet (e.g., Luke 22:30; cf. also Matt 8:11–12//Luke 13:28–29).[2] Yet, it is not simply Jesus’ words that lead scholars to believe that this hope played a role in his ministry. Jesus’ very practice of table-fellowship with sinners in connection with his eschatological teaching would likely have been understood as evoking traditions relating to this future feast.[3]

One especially important passage here is found in Luke 13 where Jesus speaks of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God and then goes on to relate “banquet” imagery. In speaking to those who receive divine judgment on the last day, Jesus explains:  “But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from; depart from me, all you workers of iniquity!’ 28 There you will weep and gnash your teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves thrust out. 29 And men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God.”

What is implied in this is a feast at which the saints will be joined by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob―something Matthew makes more explicit: “ I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 8:11).

At first glance it may seem that this imagery is irrelevant to the story of the prodigal son, which really only speaks of the father celebrating a banquet to welcome back his wayward boy. Yet one must look more closely at the way the story is situated.

The reference to eating in the Kingdom is found in Luke 13, but the imagery of eschatological dining does not end there.

Feasting Imagery in Luke 14

In chapter previous to the one in which the prodigal son story is narrated, Luke sets the context for this important story―attention to the details is required.

The context for the teachings in chapter 14 is a meal―Jesus has been invited to a Pharisee’s house to dine (cf. Luke 14:1). While at the feast, in 14:7–11, Jesus gives a parable about a marriage banquet. The parable is clearly an allegory for invitation to the kingdom. But note: the invitation to the kingdom is linked with a feast.

Jesus goes on to speak of banquet imagery some more, saying that in giving a feast one ought to invite those who cannot pay you back, e.g., the blind, the lame, etc. (Luke 14:12–14).

Upon hearing the teaching, someone at the feast, clearly evoking hopes for the eschatological banquet, exclaims: “Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!” (Luke 14:15).

Jesus responds to this by speaking―yet again―about a banquet. Specifically, Jesus tells the story of a man who gave a feast to which none of the people he invited came, all providing excuses (cf. Luke 14:15–20). The man then sent his servant to invite the outcasts to the feast in the place of those who did not accept the invitation (cf. Luke 14:21–23). He concludes, “For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet’” (Luke 14:24). Again, Jesus speaks of salvation in terms of dining.

Luke 14 ends with Jesus applying the message of the parable―in order to be a disciple of Christ one must put aside everything. In effect, the disciple must not be like those in the preceding parable who made excuses for not coming to the banquet.

The Banquet and Rejoicing in Heaven

And so begins chapter 15: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1–2). Notice, once again, the imagery returns to the motif of dining.

Jesus, responding to the Jewish leaders’ expressed disdain for sinners, explains tells two stories which emphasize that he has come to seek the lost: (1) the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to find the one sheep that has gone astray; and (2) the woman who rejoices over a lost coin.

Then comes a key saying: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). Jesus links the return of the sinner to a heavenly celebration.
This is immediately followed by the story of the prodigal son, which recounts the return of the sinner which climaxes in a banquet. In a sense, the banquet of the father in the prodigal son story is, within the narrative of Luke, linked with the heavenly celebration of the reconciliation of the sinner to God.

The Eucharist as the Heavenly Feast

We have already mentioned that the fathers found baptismal imagery in the story of the Prodigal Son. Yet we might also note the Eucharistic imagery here tied to the feast.

In fact, the Last Supper appears as the climactic meal in Luke’s long narrative of Jesus’ table-fellowship. Indeed, scholars recognize eschatological banquet traditions in Luke's account of the Last Supper. In particular, Jesus states at the Last Supper, “I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer; 16 for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:15). Jesus then goes on to eat the Passover, which seems to link the Last Supper to the eschatological banquet of the kingdom of God.

The Eucharistic tie-in to Jesus' table-fellowship is most especially clear in the account of two other important banquets: (1) the feeding of the five thousand (Luke 9:10–17) and (2) the meal at Emmaus (Luke 24:28–35). In both stories Jesus’ actions over the bread―“he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them”―evoke the Last Supper story.

In the Eucharistic feast we enter into that banquet at which we, repentant sinners, are brought into communion with God. It is not just a earthly meal―heaven rejoices with the earthly community and the sinner sits at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the presence of all the angels who rejoice over the salvation of the repentant believer.

[1] See especially John Priest, “On Note on the Messianic Banquet,” in The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity (J. H. Charlesworth, ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 222–38; Dennis E. Smith, “The Messianic Banquet Reconsidered,” in The Future of Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Helmut Koester (ed. B. A. Pearson; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 64–73. Aside from Isa 25:6–8 also see Isa 30:29; Ezek 39:17–20; Zech 8:18–29; 1Q28a (1QRule of the Congregation) II; 1 En. 62:14. In connection with this, the restoration is connected with the Lord feeding his people (cf. Isa 40:11; 49:10; 58:12–14; Jer 50:19; Ezek 34:13–16, 23; Mic 5:4; 7:14). In addition, this concept is also probably present in other texts where the restoration is linked to the Lord providing Israel with an abundance of grain and wine (cf. Isa 23:18; 62:8; Jer 31:10–14; Ezek 36:29; Joel 2:19; 2 Bar. 29:3–30:1). In Ezekiel and 1 Enoch those in the renewed Jerusalem are to eat fruit from trees evoking the tree of life in Eden (cf. Ezek 47:12; 48:18–19; 1 En. 25:4–5; cf. 4 Ezra 7:123). See Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 394. Dunn also explains, “The theme of a messianic/eschatological banquet was well known in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic thought. Although it is found in its developed form in only a surprisingly few texts, its pervasiveness is attested by allusions to it which can be given without explanation or comment” (237).
[2] Jesus also links the eschatological kingdom with the banquet imagery in Matthew 22:1–10//Luke 14:16–24//Gos. Thos. 64. Other passages such as Jesus’ beatitude about the hungry being filled (cf. Matt 5:6//Luke 6:21) have also been linked to the hope for the eschatological feast. See, e.g., Smith, “The Messianic Banquet Reconsidered,” 68; Bryan, Jesus and Israel’s Traditions of Judgement and Restoration, 76–81; Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, 103.
[3] See, e.g., Meier, Marginal Jew, 2:966: “[Jesus’] offer of table fellowship to all, including social and religious ‘lowlifes’ like toll collectors and ‘sinners,’ was meant to foreshadow the final eschatological banquet and to give a foretaste of that banquet even during his public ministry (cf. Matt 8:11–12//Luke 13:28–29; Mark 14:25 parr.).” Likewise, Robert L. Brawley (“Table Fellowship: Bane and Blessing of the Historical Jesus,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 22 [1995]: 19), explains, “. . . Jesus transforms ordinary meals into celebrations of participating in God’s eschatological promises.” Still also see Bryan (Jesus and Israel’s Traditions of Judgement and Restoration, 80), who states, “By engaging in table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus implied that those who were regarded as certainly among those to be judged with the enemies of Israel in conjunction with the eschatological feast would in fact be the ones who enjoyed the feast. Viewed against this background, Jesus’ table fellowship may be regarded as an enacted parable whose meaning is captured in the parable of the great banquet. Jesus’ parable implies that the eschatological banquet will not be enjoyed by those widely regarded as the elect in celebration of God’s destruction of their enemies. Rather, the banquet will be enjoyed by outsiders while those thought to be the elect are excluded as the objects of God’s anger.” Numerous other scholars could also be mentioned here. See, e.g., Becker, Jesus of Nazaret, 194–211; Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, 208–9; Trautmann, Zeichenhafte Handlungen Jesu, 160–64.