Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Mary, Mother of God, a Common Protestant and Catholic Confession

As our Catholic readers know, this is the Solemnity (Holy Day) of Mary, Mother of God, one of the more significant liturgical celebrations in the Catholic calendar.

The confession of Mary as “Mother of God” presents a stumbling block for some non-Catholic Christians, but curiously it never did for me.

I think it was back in the Fall of 1992 when I was sitting in a course in Ancient Church History at one of the best Calvinist seminaries in America.  Our professor, a devout Dutch Calvinist (like most of us students), was lecturing on the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus AD 431, the council that recognized Mary as “Theotokos,” “Mother of God” (or more literally, “Bearer of God”).  He began to address the question, Can Calvinists confess Mary as “Mother of God”?  He answered in the affirmative, granted that one understood this not as a claim for Mary’s motherhood of divinity itself, but in the sense that Mary was mother of Jesus, who is truly God.  And that, of course, is precisely how the Catholic Church understands the term.

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

Happy feast day to all!

A brief commentary on the Readings:

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Feast of the Holy Family

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

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

God sets a father in honor over his children;
a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas Readings

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

Christmas Vigil Mass

1. Reading 1 Is 62:1-5:
For Zion’s sake I will not be silent,
for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet,
until her vindication shines forth like the dawn
and her victory like a burning torch.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Pope Francis and Biblical Interpretation

Pope Francis' recent Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is vigorous and beautiful reading, full of provocative statements to awaken us from spiritual slumber.  Unfortunately, it is a long document, and many may not read it through carefully.  I thought it would be helpful to clip out some of the most striking comments the Pope makes on the interpretation of Scripture.  Although he has in mind the priest-homilist, the principles he lays out also apply, mutatis mutandis, to Bible scholars and other teachers of God's word:

146. The first step [of interpretation], after calling upon the Holy Spirit in prayer, is to give our entire attention to the biblical text, which needs to be the basis of our preaching.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Waiting While Nothing is Going Right: 3rd Sunday of Advent

Once when I was a grade school kid, my mother and I camped in Shenandoah National Park for a week in the fall.  One morning we got up to go hiking, but the weather was bad.  It was starting to rain.  I was bummed.  My mom said to go back in the tent and pray that the weather would clear.  So I did go and pray.  But the weather didn’t clear, it only got worse.  The rain got heavier, and the wind began to pick up—slowly and first, but soon so strong that the tent was shaking and starting to leak.  Helpless, I waited in the tent and tried to read and pray while my mom put on a poncho and walked around the campsite, trying to keep the tent upright in what was turning into near-gale force winds.  This dragged on all morning, through lunch, into the afternoon.  I forgot about the hike we were missing and began to wish simply for some calm, so that I wouldn’t be afraid of the tent collapsing at any minute.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Happy New Year! The 1st Sunday of Advent

Happy New Year, everyone!  The Church Year begins this week with the First Sunday of Advent, and we are back to reading cycle A in 2014. 

There is a very ancient tradition in the Church of reading the Book of Isaiah during Advent.  In antiquity, both Jews and Christians considered the Book of Isaiah to be one extended prophesy of the “age to come,” the “latter days” when the Anointed One (Heb. “Meshiach,” =”Messiah”) would arrive.  The First Readings for Sunday Mass and for weekday Masses, as well as the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours, are dominated by Isaiah during this liturgical season.

In the Gospel sequence, the First Sunday of Advent focuses on Jesus’ Second Coming, forming a good transition from the month of November with its focus on the Last Things.  The Second and Third Sundays of Advent focus on John the Baptist, the fore-runner of Jesus.  The Fourth Sunday finally casts its gaze on the events leading directly to Jesus birth. 

That’s the journey we are about to begin, so without further ado, let’s plunge in!

1.  The First Reading is Isaiah 2:1-5:

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe: 34th Sunday of OT

The Church year comes to an end this Sunday with the Solemnity of Christ the King, one of my favorite feast days.  The Readings focus heavily on the theme of the kingdom of Christ, which was typified or foreshadowed by the Kingdom of David in the Old Testament.

1.  The First Reading is 2 Samuel 5:1-3:

In those days, all the tribes of Israel
came to David in Hebron and said:
"Here we are, your bone and your flesh.
In days past, when Saul was our king,
it was you who led the Israelites out 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The End is Near! The 33rd Sunday in OT


I was driving my son to his orthodontist this past week, and while touring through the back hills of Ohio, we passed a billboard in a farmer’s field that advertised to all passing by on OH-45: “God has a Judgment Day coming!” 

My son asked me if the farmer who had placed the billboard in his field was Catholic or Protestant.  I suggested he probably was a Protestant.  My son asked why Catholics didn’t put up billboards like that.  I theorized that perhaps fewer Catholics owned farms close to the highway, or maybe they were less convinced that announcing the coming judgment was really an effective means of evangelism. 

Billboards announcing judgment day are not a part of American Catholic culture.  Nonetheless, the Readings for this coming Sunday affirm the truth of that well-meaning farmer’s sign.  God does have a day of judgment coming.  Is that good news or bad news?  It would depend, I suppose, on whether we have suffered injustice or committed it.

1.  Our First Reading Malachi 3:19-20a:

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Hope for a Hopeless World: 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Some of the readers of our blog are aware that I wrote a little book, Bible Basics for Catholics (Ave Maria Press), that introduces people to the basic outline of the biblical storyline, in seven chapters from Creation to Jesus. 
Last week, a bishop sent me an email saying he liked the book, but thinks I should add a final chapter on the Book of Revelation, the resurrection, and the life to come.  One of the reasons for the suggestion, he said, was that people nowadays are experiencing not just a crisis of faith, but also of hope.  They feel like there is nothing to believe in, but just as importantly: there is nothing to look forward to.

The bishop’s comments ring in my ears as I look over the Readings that the Church has selected for us this coming Sunday.  We are in the month of November, the time of the Church Year given over to contemplating the Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell.  The Readings this week focus our thoughts on a topic intertwined with each of the Last Things: the Resurrection.  They remind us that, as Christians, we are not a people whose hopes are tied to this life.  It they were, how sorry we would be! 

1.  Our First Reading is from 2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14:

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Importance of Making Things Right: 31st Sunday in O.T.


Happy November, everyone!  This month constitutes its own unofficial liturgical season, focused on the Last Things.  We begin the month with All Saints and round it out with the Feast of Christ the King.  This Sunday’s Readings introduce themes that will be developed throughout the month: repentance, the Kingdom of God, and final judgment.  In particular, the Gospel Reading urges us not merely to repent while we still have time, but also to make right the wrongs we have done to others, that is, to make reparation.  Some non-Catholic theologies deny the need for reparation, but it is a biblical concept that has within it the power of healing and reconciliation.

1. Our First Reading is Wisdom 11:22-12:2:

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What Does it Mean to Be Poor? The 30th Sunday in OT

Several years ago, an experiment was done in which three American families were taken to a remote part of the Midwest and left to survive with few belongings and 19th century technology (horse-drawn plows, etc.) for a year.  

As I recall, two families were able to persevere through the year without being rescued, and at the end of it, they returned to their twentith-century lives, with video games, TV, etc.

When interviewed a year after the end of the experiment, almost to a person the family members agreed that the year "in the past" had been very difficult, but they were happier during that year than they were now.  

Which raises the question: what is true poverty?  Were the participants poorer during the experiment, or in their present lives?

The Readings for this Sunday take up the question of true poverty, and the Gospel reading puts a "spin" on the previous three Scriptures.
1.  Our First Reading is Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18:

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Prayer as Warfare: The 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Usually we think of men of prayer and men of war as complete opposites.  A monk in a habit—such as St. Francis—is a man dedicated to peace, a total contrast to one clad in armor brandishing weapons.  Yet the Readings for this Sunday combine the imagery of war and prayer in interesting ways that provoke our thoughts about the nature and reality of supplicating God.

1.  Our First Reading is Exodus 17:8-13:

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Is Anyone Grateful? The 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The themes of the Readings for this Sunday focus on the gratitude for God’s salvation.  Gratitude is an important psychological and spiritual disposition.  Dr. Daniel G. Amen, the popular brain researcher and public health spokesman, identifies gratitude as a key character quality of persons with physiologically healthy brains.  That’s right: gratitude affects your physical health, including the shape and functioning of your brain.  This Sunday’s Readings focus particularly on gratitude to God, and how it should be expressed.

1.  Our First Reading is 2 Kgs 5:14-17:

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Does it Matter How We Treat Others? The 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Does it matter how we treat others?  What does my neighbor’s suffering have to do with me?  Can I continue living in comfort while bypassing those around me who are in misery?   
These are questions that the Readings for this Sunday raise, and to which they provide uncomfortable answers.  Let’s read and let the Holy Spirit move us outside our comfort zone.

1.  The First Reading is Am 6:1a, 4-7:

Thus says the LORD the God of hosts:
Woe to the complacent in Zion!
Lying upon beds of ivory,
stretched comfortably on their couches,
they eat lambs taken from the flock,
and calves from the stall!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

God and Mammon: The 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

As Jesus continues his “death march” to Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 9–19), he challenges us this Sunday to choose, in a clear and conscious way, our goal in life: God or money.  The First Reading reminds us that wealth was a seductive trap for the people of God throughout salvation history.

1. The First Reading is Amos 8:4-7:

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Prodigal Son Sunday: 24th Sunday in OT

This upcoming Sunday marks one of only two times in the main Lectionary cycle that we hear the Parable of the Prodigal Son proclaimed (the other being the 4th Sunday of Lent [C]).  The Readings are marked by the theme of repentance and forgiveness. 

1. Our First Reading is Ex 32:7-11, 13-14:

The LORD said to Moses,
“Go down at once to your people,
whom you brought out of the land of Egypt,
for they have become depraved.
They have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them,
making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it,
sacrificing to it and crying out,
‘This is your God, O Israel,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’

Thursday, September 05, 2013

The Cost of Discipleship: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

One of the most famous German opponents of Adolf Hitler and Nazism was the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom the Nazis executed by hanging in April 1945 for his involvement in a plot against Hitler himself.  Bonhoeffer’s most famous work was a meditation on the Sermon on the Mount entitled (in English) The Cost of Discipleship.  In it, Bonhoeffer parted ways with a Protestantism that understood “salvation by faith alone” as some kind of easy road to heaven.  Bonhoeffer criticized “easy-believism” as “cheap grace”:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.

Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: "My yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Bonhoeffer was a Protestant, but there is much in his writings that a Catholic can affirm, including the passage above.  Like St. Maximillian Kolbe, he died at the hands of a totalitarian government because he would not compromise his faith in Christ.  I could not help thinking of Bonhoeffer as I meditated on the Readings for this coming Sunday, which stress the high cost of discipleship to this mysterious man Jesus of Nazareth, who is nothing other than the Wisdom of God in the flesh.

1.  Our First Reading is Wis 9:13-18b:

Monday, September 02, 2013

A Protestant scholar on the miracles at Lourdes

There is no more comprehensive work on the credibility of New Testament's account of miracles (e.g., Jesus'), than the two-volume monograph written by Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

Keener, of course, is a Protestant. Yet one of my favorite aspects of his book is his treatment of the miracles at Lourdes, the site where the Blessed Virgin Mary is said to have appeared (vol. 2, pp. 675-686).

Scholars have long turned to Lourdes as a stunning example of well-documented instances of miraculous healings. A great treatment can be found in John P. Meier's work. Meier writes that even though numerous cases have been certified by impartial medical examiners as inexplicable (1,300 between 1948 and 1993) only 18 have been recognized by the Catholic Church as legitimately “miraculous” (cf. Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2:528, n. 528).

I won't reproduce the whole section but Keener has numerous reports, including ones from non-Catholic sources (e.g., a Methodist source).

He concludes with the following:
Whether one feels free to count the religious context at Lourdes affects one's interpretation of the results. One scholar skeptical of supernatural approaches readily grants that the healings occur. He affirms that "some utterly extraordinary cures" have occurred there 1, noting that enemies of the Catholic Church and leading medical scientists like Alexis Carrel have been persuaded by the data.2 He concedes that some cases cannot even be explained psychosomatically;3 among examples, he lists "the instant healing of a terribly disfigured face, and the instantaneous healing of a club foot on a two and one half year old child," showed by non-Catholics to be permanent. Further, he cited a news article about a three-year old with terminal cancer and the bones being eaten away; after the healing, even "the bones in her skull grew back. Her doctor, a Protestant, said that 'miracle' would not be too strong a word to use."4

Yet this same scholar notes that scientists can reject the supernatural interpretation at Lourdes by suggesting that some sort of naturalistic interpretation would arise if only we had sufficient evidence. The collocation of natural factors in this case might occur together only one in ten million times, he argues, but, because he assumes the miraculous impossible, must have occurred here.5 Scientists need autonomy to do their work, he insists, not having to wait to see if theologians will pronounce some event miraculous.6 Some theologians might wish to retort that they need some autonomy to evaluate miracles without the theological premise of their entire discipline being ruled out by thinkers committed to antisupernaturalist assumptions. The scholar's antisupernatural assumptions in this case have made a fair evaluation of the data impossible.

Graphic Novel on "The Big Questions"

I have to give a plug for a great new book released by Catholic Answers called "The Truth is Out There".  It's a graphic novel that follows the adventures of two eccentric characters, Brendan and Erc, as they travel space while debating fundamental philosophical and theological issues: why do we exist?  Is there a God?  Is there any right or wrong? 

I gave it to my teenage boys, and they were through with it in 24 hours and loved it.  It's a great book to share with teens, especially in this culture of "New Atheism" that thinks Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were just "idiots."

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner? The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time


In 2005, a quasi-remake of the famous 1967 movie “Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner” was released.  Entitled “Guess Who?” it starred Bernie Mac as an African-American father who struggled to deal with his daughter’s Caucasian fiancé (played by Ashton Kutcher).  Much of the comedy of the film revolved around the clash of cultures at the dinner table.  Usually we only share meals with people like us, family members or friends from our own “circle.”  When someone from “outside” comes in, it upsets the our balance. 

If anything, Jews of Jesus day were even more careful than contemporary Americans about who they invited around their table.  The Readings for this Lord’s Day are going to conclude with Jesus calling his followers to invite people from “outside”—the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind—to dine with us.  This takes humility, for it requires us to recognize we are not “too good” to share as equals with those people overlooked by the rest of society.  Thus, we also observe a strong theme of humility running through the Readings.

1. Our First Reading is Sir 3:17-18, 20, 28-29:

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Will Many Be Saved? The 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

If Jesus was walking through your town and you had ten seconds as he passed to ask any question you wished, what would it be?  “Why is there evil in the world?” “How can I be saved?” “What is heaven like?”

In this Sunday’s Gospel, an anonymous bystander gets his chance to ask Jesus one of the “big questions”: “Will only a few people be saved?”  Jesus’ answer is complex, indirect, and very well worth examining!  The Readings leading up to the Gospel help prepare us to understand Jesus’ response.

1.  The First Reading is Is 66:18-21:

Thus says the LORD:
I know their works and their thoughts,
and I come to gather nations of every language;
they shall come and see my glory.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

“Family Values”: 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

In recent decades, the term “family values” has almost become a code word for “Christian culture” in American society.  Influential Christian organizations have adopted names like “Focus on the Family” and the “Family Research Council,” and on the Catholic side of things we have “Catholic Family Land” or The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, better known as “C-FAM.”  The natural family unit—based on a husband and wife who have made an exclusive, permanent, public commitment to share a common life and raise children together—has been under such political and social pressure that at times we almost identify Christianity as a social movement to promote family life.

In this context, this Sunday’s Mass Readings can be unsettling.  Jesus says he has “not come to bring peace but division.”  Come again?  Lord, with due respect, isn’t one of your messianic titles “Prince of Peace?”  Then again, the Lord speaks of causing division and struggle within families—strife in the family unit caused by Jesus!  How can this be?  Doesn’t Jesus believe in “family values”?

1.  Our First Reading is Jer 38:4-6, 8-10:

Monday, August 12, 2013

Apologies for Technical Difficulties

Last week I went on vacation with my wife and eight kids to Pennsylvania's "Dark Area," a remote region in north central PA noted for excellent star-gazing due to lack of light pollution.  Knowing that I would be without internet access for the week, I actually wrote the reflection on the Readings for Week 19 of Ordinary Time on Friday August 2 and set blogger to publish it last Tuesday morning (Aug. 6).  Unfortunately, something didn't work right, because when I returned to the online universe today (Mon. Aug. 12) I realized it had never posted.  I apologize to our faithful blog readers for the mishap. 

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Staying Vigilant: The 19th Sunday in OT

[Technical difficulties prevented this post from appearing as planned last Tuesday, while I was on vacation.  I apologize for the confusion.  See post above.]

My father once served as the chaplain for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.  (U.S. Navy chaplains also serve the Marines and the Coast Guard).  I have fond memories of that beautiful seaside city.  In any event, perhaps the only bit of Coast Guard culture that I absorbed during my dad’s tour of duty was the motto: Semper Paratus, “Always Prepared,” which seems an appropriate summation of the theme of this Sunday’s Readings, which stress vigilance in the Christian life.  In fact, these Readings feel like something we might get in November, closer to Christ the King, but here they are coming to us in the middle of Ordinary Time.  Yet perhaps that’s appropriate, because it is not just at the end of our lives (or the liturgical year) that we need to be vigilant, but at all times—even and especially when its literally or metaphorically “summertime, and the livin’ is easy …”

1.  Our First Reading is Wisdom 18:6-9:

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Church of the Poor: The 18th Week of OT

“How I long for a poor Church for the poor!”

These were some of the first words of Pope Francis’ pontificate, and the Readings this week seem providentially to support our new pontiff’s emphasis on the spiritual value of poverty.  Texts from the Old and New Testaments remind us that human happiness is not to be found in the accumulation of material goods.  Riches are fleeting and empty.  We are called instead to “store up treasure in heaven, where neither rust nor moth destroy, where thieves cannot break in and steal.”

1.  Our First Reading is Ecc 1:2; 2:21-23:

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!

Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill,
and yet to another who has not labored over it,
he must leave property.
This also is vanity and a great misfortune.
For what profit comes to man from all the toil and anxiety of heart
with which he has labored under the sun?
All his days sorrow and grief are his occupation;
even at night his mind is not at rest.
This also is vanity.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Bargaining With God: The 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

With the Bible Conference going on at Franciscan this week, I have to offer a shorter reflection on the Readings:

Who has the guts to bargain with the Divinity?  Abraham, our Father in , does.  In the Readings for this Sunday, we find united several themes: persistence in prayer, the justice and mercy of God, the generosity of God.

1.  Our First Reading is Gn 18:20-3:

Friday, July 19, 2013

Entertaining God: The 16th Sunday of OT

This Sunday, as we continue to accompany Jesus on his fateful journey to Jerusalem in the Gospel of Luke, we are confronted with a pair of Readings in which human beings host a meal for God: Abraham for the LORD in the First Reading; Martha and Mary for Jesus in the Gospel.  But is it really possible for us to “do God a favor” by giving him a nice meal?  We are going to discover that, while God graciously accepts our services, it’s really about what God does for us, not what we can do for him.

1.  The First Reading is Gn 18:1-10a: