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.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Was Joseph really suspicious of Mary? Another view from the Early Church

 On Christmas Eve, the Gospel reading is taken from once again from Matthew 1.
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; 19 and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly. 20 But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; 21 she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:18–21).
Instead of rehashing the last Sunday readings reflection let's focus on a different aspect of the story: Joseph's desire to divorce Mary quietly. 

Why was Joseph, in the angel's words, "afraid" to marry Mary?

Monday, December 23, 2013

Jim West, the "Virgin Birth", the Fathers, and Zwingli

My friend Jim West tweeted,
ALERT: it isn't 'the virgin birth'. It's the virginal conception. It's an important distinction.#RespectAccuracy.
I can't help but tweak him a bit for his tweet. 

Let me just say that, actually, according to the earliest Christian sources it is the Virgin Birth. And the Protestant Reformers agreed with them on that. 

From the earliest times, Christians interpreted the Gospel tradition as indicating that Mary remained a virgin in conception, in labor, and after Jesus' birth. 

For example. . . 

Protoevangelium of James (2nd cent.)

In the Protoevangelium of James (2nd cent.), we read an apocryphal account of Salome doubting that Mary's virginity remained intact after the birth of Jesus. She said, "As the Lord my God liveth, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth" (Prot. Jas. 19). Without getting into all the uncomfortable details, she ends up believing.

"Therefore let those who deny that the Son is from the Father by nature and proper to His Essence, deny also that He took true human flesh of Mary Ever-Virgin. . ." (Contr. Ar., 2:70; NPNF2 4:386-87). 
"For being born of a mother who, although she conceived without being touched by man and always remained thus untouched, in virginity conceiving, in virginity bringing forth, in virginity dying, had nevertheless been espoused to a handicraftsman, [Christ] extinguished all the inflated pride of carnal nobility."  (De catech. rud. 22.40; NPNF1 3:307). 
Leo the Great 
And by a new nativity He was begotten, conceived by a Virgin, born of a Virgin, without paternal desire, without injury to the mother’s chastity. . . (Sermon 22.2; NPNF2 12A: 130).
Many others could be cited, e.g., Jerome, Epiphanius of Salamis, Didymus the Blind, Ambrose of Milan, etc. I could also give multiple quotes from the fathers above but let me move on. . . 

Notably, the Reformers agreed with these fathers. 

Martin Luther 
  • "Christ, our Savior, was the real and natural fruit of Mary's virginal womb . . . This was without the cooperation of a man, and she remained a virgin after that" (Luther's Works, vol. 22 [ed. J. Pelikan; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955], 23).
  • "A new lie about me is being circulated. I am supposed to have preached and written that Mary, the mother of God, was not a virgin either before or after the birth of Christ. . ." (Luther's Works, 22:14-15.
John Calvin
  • "Helvidius displayed excessive ignorance in concluding that Mary must have had many sons, because Christ's 'brothers' are sometimes mentioned." (Harmony of Matthew, Mark & Luke on Matthew 13:55; Calvin's Commentaries [trans. W. Pringle; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949], 215). 
  • "The inference [Helvidius] drew from [Matt. 1:25] was, that Mary remained a virgin no longer than till her first birth, and that afterwards she had other children by her husband . . . No just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words . . . as to what took place after the birth of Christ. He is called 'first-born'; but it is for the sole purpose of informing us that he was born of a virgin. . . No man will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness for disputation." (cf. Pringle, 1.107).
  • "Under the word 'brethren' the Hebrews include all cousins and other relations, whatever may be the degree of affinity." (cf. Pringle, 1.283).

Huldrych Zwingli 
  • "I firmly believe that Mary, according to the words of the Gospel as a pure Virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and in childbirth and after childbirth forever remained a pure, intact Virgin" (Zwingli Opera [Corpus Reformatorum; Berlin, 1905), 1:424.
Suffice it to say, for the bulk of Christian history, when Christians invoked the "virgin birth" they actually meant... um, er, "virgin birth".

I love you, Jim. I just wish you agreed with Zwingli more. 

; ) 

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.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Moses' Death, Josephus, St. Jerome, and Redaction Criticism

Next quarter I'll be teaching a graduate level course on the Pentateuch.

Of course, we will be talking, among other things, about the question of the "authorship" and "sources" of the Pentateuch.

While ancient Jewish (e.g., Josephus, A.J. 4.326; Ag. Apion, 1.37-43; m. Abot. 1:1; b. Baba Bathra 14b)) and Christian tradition (Mark 7:10; John 5:46; Mark 12:19; Rom. 10:5) attributes the five books of the Torah to Moses, a view supported in part by the Torah itself (cf., e.g., Exod. 17:14; Num 33:2; Exod. 24:4; Exod. 35:25-27; Deut. 31:9-13; cf. Josh. 8:30-32; etc.), a number of passages in it are hard to attribute to Moses himself. Chief among them, the account of Moses' death:
"So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord, 6 and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no man knows the place of his burial to this day" (Deut 34:5).
How could Moses have written this?

Interestingly, Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, argued Moses wrote this but only out of humility:
"[Moses] wrote in the holy books that he died, which was done out of fear, lest they should venture to say that, because of his extraordinary virtue, he went to God" (A.J. 4.326).
While taking a different approach than that of modern source criticism, Jerome was certainly was not unwilling to recognize that the final form of the text could have resulted from the contributions of later editors (working under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, of course). He writes:

“The word of God says in Genesis, ‘And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and the rings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem, and lost them until this day’ [LXX Gen 35:4]. Likewise at the end of Deuteronomy, ‘So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And he buried him in the valley, in the land of Moab over against Beth-peor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.’ We must certainly understand by this day the time of the composition of the history, whether you prefer the view that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch or that Ezra re-edited it. In either case I make no objection.” (Adv. Helv. 7; cited from NPNF2 6:6337). 
A number of introductions to the Pentateuch promote the myth that such later "redaction" or "editing" of the text was only recognized by modern Biblical scholarship. Not so!

In short, ancient interpreters, while obviously operating with a different hermeneutic and methodology than contemporary scholars have, read the text much more closely than is realized.

But to discover that you'd actually have to read such sources, not just secondary (or tertiary) characterizations of them.

Benedict XV on "True Interpretation"

“St. Jerome lays down that we have got to keep to the ''true interpretation, and that the real function of a commentator is to set forth not what he himself would like his author to mean, but what he really does mean.'”
--Pope Benedict XV, Spiritus Paraclitus (Encyclical Letter On the Fifteenth Centenary of the Death of St. Jerome)(1920), no. 55 citing St. Jerome, Epist. ad Pammachium, 49, 17, 7.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

"A Virgin Shall Conceive": The Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

This weekend, as we celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the lectionary readings have us focus on Jesus' virgin birth. Much could be said about the readings for this Sunday, but here I want to especially look at this theme (as it seems to be the intention of the lectionary).

Why is the Virgin Birth important? Is it simply the result of a mistranslation? What is the point of this Christian belief? Why is this belief so important that it appears in the Creed? Is it relevant today?

For the answers to these questions, read on. . .

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.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Pope Francis and the Reforms of Benedict XVI

Today John Allen writes:
It's fashionable to style Francis as a dramatic break with the past, and there's a sense in which that's real. On the other hand, several substantive reforms for which he's getting credit actually began under Benedict XVI, and nowhere is that more true than in the arena of financial transparency. 
It was Benedict who made the historic decision in 2010 to welcome outside secular inspection by inviting Moneyval to conduct the same detailed review of anti-money-laundering protocols it carries out in other European nations. Never before had the Vatican opened its books in this fashion, and the decision met internal resistance. Some members of the old guard objected that in earlier centuries, popes had paid in blood to resist such external involvement in church affairs while Benedict was rolling out the red carpet.Benedict also created the Financial Information Authority to act as a watchdog on Vatican finances and began the process of issuing new rules designed to bring the Vatican into compliance with accepted international standards. 
Assuming that process reaches completion under Francis, he'll rightly win praise for finishing the cleanup operation. Certainly, no pope has ever done so much so quickly to recalibrate popular impressions of the church's attitude toward money or to set a new standard of simplicity for church leadership. 
At the same time, a good case can be made that if we're talking about financial glasnost -- or, for that matter, recovery from the church's child sexual abuse scandals -- the "reform pope" was actually Benedict XVI, and much of what Francis is now doing amounts to running plays crafted on his predecessor's watch.
It's nice to see Benedict getting credit where it is due to him.

Read the whole thing here, which also talks about Francis' Marian devotion, the persecution of Christians in India, and the role of Catholics in the protests in the Ukraine. 

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, December 04, 2013

"He Will Baptize With Fire": The Readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent

This Sunday as we continue to prepare for Christmas--for the coming of the Lord--the lectionary has us reflect on the gift Christ comes to bestow upon us: the Spirit of the Lord.

Here's a brief commentary on the Sunday readings

FIRST READING: Isaiah 11:1-10

The Messiah as "the Branch"
On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,
and from his roots a bud shall blossom.
Here we have a prophecy that played a pivotal role in the development of Israel's messianic hopes. While the term "messiah" is not specifically used, ancient Jews clearly linked this passage to such expectations (cf. 1 Enoch 49:3, which links the passage to the Danielic "son of man"; cf. also later rabbinic tradition, Gen. Rab. 97; Ruth Rab. 8:2). Many of the themes that appear were clearly associated with the messianic age (e.g., the age of justice, the inclusion of Gentiles, etc.)

Specifically, the prophecy here alludes to the apparent non-fulfillment of God's promise to David. Let me explain.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Logos Software Releases Verbum Plus Libraries!

I am pleased to share news that Logos Bible software is releasing an awesome update to their Catholic package, "Verbum", which now includes even better libraries and features!

I've been given a sneak peak and, let me just say, this is incredible!

If you're a Catholic who is interested in studying your faith, you need this software.

Upfront, I should tell you the following:
1. If you owned an older Verbum library you do not lose anything by upgrading.
2. There are many more books and features than I am able to mention here in these new Plus packages.

Nevertheless, here's a brief overview. . .

(By the way, here's the link to the Black Friday Deal.)

Better tools to study the lectionary

The first thing I love about this update is that Logos is now helping users better navigate the lectionary. When you first open the software you can now immediately see the readings of the day (or another day if you wish - just click a date on the calendar).

You can also have numerous tools open up alongside of the readings (e.g., commentaries, writings from the fathers and doctors, references in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, etc.).

This is going to be hugely helpful. Right now I'm setting my preferred commentaries up. One of them will certainly be the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament by Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch. I'll also be using Thomas Aquinas' Catena Aurea, my JPS Torah Commentary Series, Word Biblical Commentary, and Hermeneia series--among other things!

A Fantastic "Catholic Topical Index"

But even more awesome is the new Catholic index. Logos has assembled an incredible list of terms and concepts, including, "Eucharist," "Absolution," etc. For example, select "filioque" and you will immediately be taken to a list of biblical passages, writings from the fathers, and other important resources.

Basically, you have every theoloical source on the topic at the click of your fingers.

Let's just be clear about what this means: I've got virtually every major work by every major early church father at my finger tips. If I'm looking at "baptism", I can quickly search and find every key statement made by the fathers and doctors of the Church. I can also see every time magisterial sources talk about it, including, the Catechism, Church Councils, etc.

You can even get every papal encyclical going back to 1740!

All these resources are tagged and linked together. It's simply stunning!

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:

Monday, October 07, 2013

Free download: "The Bible and the Rosary: How to Hear the Word of God in Prayer"

Today is the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. In honor of the occasion the St. Paul Center is offering a free download of a talk I gave earlier this year at a popular-level Catholic conference on the topic.

The talk is a bit biographical and laced with (my attempt at) humor. I hope you'll enjoy it.

The Bible and the Rosary (FOT 2013) by Michael Barber

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Lessons in Faith and Faithfulness (Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time)

"By faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God [Vatican II, Dei Verbum 5]. With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer. Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, 'the obedience of faith' [cf. Rom 1:5; 16:26]." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 39.
What exactly is faith? How is it lived out? These are the lessons taught to us in the Scripture passages read from the lectionary this Sunday. Let us look at them in some detail.

The First Reading: Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4

Habakkuk was a prophet in the late seventh century B.C. In his day, the destruction of the southern kingdom of Judah was imminent. The Book of Habakkuk explains that God's judgment is about to befall Jerusalem in the form of the conquering armies of the Babylonians, who would destroy the city and the temple and carry the Jews off into exile.

In chapter one he laments the injustice he sees all around him, calling out to the Lord:
"How long, O LORD? I cry for help
but you do not listen!
I cry out to you, "Violence!"
but you do not intervene.
Why do you let me see ruin;
why must I look at misery?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and clamorous discord. (Hab 1:2-3)
Although it is not read in the lectionary, the next verse describes "the law" as "paralyzed". This seems most likely a reference to God's Law. In short, the prophet seems to indict his own people for failing to remain faithful to the Lord. Indeed, Jeremiah, a contemporary of Habakkuk announced a similar message (cf. Jer 7:3–6; 9:1–6; 12:1–4; 15:10; 20:7–8; 22:3, 13–17).

Habakkuk seems to indict the Lord: how could he abide this situation?

The Lord makes it clear that while the prophet may be tempted to think his prayers have gone unheard, this is simply not the case. God explains: "I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told" (Hab 1:5).

What is the Lord about to do? He is about to use a Gentile nation--Babylon--to bring his recompense. 
Then the LORD answered me and said:
Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets,
so that one can read it readily.
For the vision still has its time,
presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;
if it delays, wait for it,
it will surely come, it will not be late.
The rash one has no integrity;
but the just one, because of his faith, shall live." (Hab 2:2-4)
God is not working on Habakkuk's desired timetable but this does not mean the Lord has ignored the injustices taking place. Justice will come. The vision of judgment "will not disappoint". It may seem as if it "delays" but "it will not be late".

The critical lesson one must learn is to trust in the Word of the Lord: "the just one, because of his faith, shall live" (Hab 2:2-4). The righteous one will have life so long as he has faith.

This passage is famously used by St. Paul to illustrate the importance of faith (cf. Rom 1:17).
 However, it is important to point out that faith here is more than mere "intellectual assent". The Greek word for "faith" here has a range of meaning; i.e., it can simply mean "believe". But for Paul saving "faith" is more than just intellectual knowledge.

James makes this point crystal clear; even the demons believe in God, i.e., they have "faith" inasmuch as they intellectually assent to his existence (cf. James 2:19).

Actually, in Greek the term translated "faith" may best be understood in terms of "faithfulness". In light of this Habakkuk's meaning is made more clear. Habakkuk condemns the unfaithfulness of his people. Yet, though God's people are unfaithful to the Law, God himself remains faithful. He is faithful to his Word.

God will make good on his promise to carry out judgment; and those who live by faith--i.e., faithfulness--will live.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 95
--> The psalm used for the Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 95, is a psalm that is used regularly in the Liturgy of the Hours (the Divine Office). It draws heavily from Israel’s wilderness experience, once again highlighting God's faithfulness in the face of Israel's unfaithfulness. Once again, the reader is urged to fidelity to the Lord.
R. (8) If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us sing joyfully to the LORD;
let us acclaim the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us joyfully sing psalms to him. 
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Come, let us bow down in worship;
let us kneel before the LORD who made us.
For he is our God,
and we are the people he shepherds, the flock he guides. 
R. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Oh, that today you would hear his voice:
"Harden not your hearts as at Meribah,
as in the day of Massah in the desert,
Where your fathers tempted me;
they tested me though they had seen my works." 
Its opening reference to singing to the Lord God, described as the “Rock”, evokes Deuteronomy 32. In fact, Psalm 95 appears as part of a collection of psalms (Psalms 90-100) that all appear to draw upon or allude to this important passage in some way or another.

Specifically, the invitation to praise God and its declaration, “For the Lord is a great God” (Ps 95:3) evokes the opening of the Moses’ Song: “Ascribe greatness to our God” (Deuteronomy 32:3). The psalm also evokes the sea imagery of Exodus 15: “The sea is His, for He made it” (Psalm 95:5).

The reference to the "rock of our salvation" likely alludes, however, not only to Deuteronomy 32 but also to miraculous rock that gave Israel water. Interestingly, St. Paul explains in the New Testament that the "rock was Christ" (1 Cor. 10:4). 

Of course, in the story of the miraculous rock we also hear about Israel's grumbling against the Lord and lack of faith. Indeed, the rock itself ultimately was the scene of Moses' own failure to trust in the Lord.

Psalm 95 ends with the recollection of Israel’s disobedience in Exodus 17.

Set in the context of the exile, which Habakkuk announced, Psalm 95 calls upon Israel in the wilderness of the nations not to forget the works God has wrought in the past, while at the same time, giving rise to the hope of a future miraculous deliverance.

The Second Reading: 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14

In the Second Reading, St. Paul exhorts Timothy to faithfulness, noting that faith itself is not merely the result of human effort. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him" (no. 153). 
I remind you, to stir into flame
the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.
For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice
but rather of power and love and self-control.
So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord,
nor of me, a prisoner for his sake;
but bear your share of hardship for the gospel
with the strength that comes from God.

Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me,
in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit
that dwells within us.
Here we can note two things. First, Paul recognizes the "faith" and "love" are found "in Christ Jesus". Faith is not merely a human virtue; it is a supernatural virtue that is only possible through union with Christ. These are to be guarded as a "rich trust" and can only be maintained "with the help of the Holy Spirit".

In short, to view faith as the result of human effort is to misunderstand it. Faith is ultimately "a grace". Again, the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this point beautifully. Under the subheading, "Faith is a grace", we read:
When St. Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus declared to him that this revelation did not come “from flesh and blood,” but from “my Father who is in heaven.” [Matt 16:17; cf. Gal. 1:15; Matt. 11:25]. Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him. “Before this faith can be exercised, man must have the grace of God to move and assist him; he must have the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, who opens the eyes of the mind and ‘makes it easy for all to accept and believe the truth.’” [cf. Vatican II, Dei Verbum, no. 5]
Let our prayer be that of the man in Mark 9:24: "I believe; help my unbelief!”

Second, Timothy has been established by Paul in his ministry through the laying on of hands. Here we have one of the earliest texts identifying what would later be understood as the sacrament of Holy Orders. Timothy hasn't simply been appointed for ministry because of his natural gifts; he has been given a supernatural gift to empower him to fulfill his ministry. 

Timothy is called upon to persevere in the midst of adversity but he is not to do this without divine assistance: his faithfulness will be the result of the working of the power of the Spirit "that dwells within us".  

Gospel: Luke 17:5-10

The Gospel begins with the apostles petition: "Increase our faith!"

Jesus goes on to explain, however, that even a little bit of faith goes a long way. Indeed, all he needs is for us to have "faith the size of a mustard seed". With that, great things can be accomplished:
The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith."
The Lord replied,
"If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
But notice that "faith" here is not simply "belief". In other contexts this saying is related to confidence in prayer (cf., e.g., Mark 11:23-24). In Luke 17 Jesus is not simply speaking of practicing a form of "name-it-and-claim-it" spirituality. (Nor is that really in view elsewhere but I digress). Here Jesus describes "faith" in terms of "faithfulness":
"Who among you would say to your servant
who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field,
'Come here immediately and take your place at table'?
Would he not rather say to him,
'Prepare something for me to eat.
Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink.
You may eat and drink when I am finished'?
Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded?
So should it be with you.
When you have done all you have been commanded,
say, 'We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.'"
To the apostles' request, "Increase our faith", Jesus responds with a teaching about doing "all you have been commanded".

Faith is ultimately not simply "believing in". Faith entails faithfulness. Faith is a gift, but it also entails a human response; it is a human act made possible by God's grace (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no 154).

That I think is the point of the readings this Sunday. In fact, the subtext is that God is faithful even though we are not. Let us turn to him and ask him for his grace so that we may be faithful ourselves.  

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Church Fathers on "Works of the Law"

Michael Bird has been writing on patristic interpretation of Paul's phrase "works of the law" (ergōn nomou), noting that some link the term to the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament (here, here). Bird mentions that this interpretation is found in Ambrosiaster, Jerome and Pelagius.

I cover the history of interpretation of this phrase whenever I teach Pauline Epistles and thought I'd share some what I give to my students here.

The view that "works of the law" relate to the ceremonial precepts is found as early as Origen:
“One should know that the works which Paul repudiates and frequently criticizes are not the works of righteousness [opera iustitiae] which are commanded in the law, but those in which they boast who keep the law according to the flesh; that is, the circumcision of the flesh, the sacrificial rituals, the observance of Sabbaths and new moon festivals [cf. Col 2.18]. These and works of a similar nature are the works by which he says no one can be saved, and concerning which he says in the present passage, ‘not on the basis of works; otherwise, grace would no longer be grace.’ For if anyone is justified through these, he is not justified gratis. But these works are by no means sought from the one who is justified through grace; but this one should take care that the grace he has received should not be in him ‘in vain’ [cf. 1 Cor 15.10] . . . So then, one does not make grace become in vain who joins works to it that are worthy and who does not show himself ungrateful for the grace of God. For anyone who sins after having attained grace becomes ungrateful to him who offered the grace.”—Origen, Commentary on Romans 8, 7, 6. Cited from Thomas Scheck, Origen and the History of Justification: The Legacy of Origen’s Commentary on Romans (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 48–49.

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: