Thursday, February 27, 2014

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Trust in God the Father alone: The Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

In the beautiful encyclical letter, Lumen fidei, a letter begun by Pope Benedict XVI and finished by Pope Francis, faith is contrasted with idolatry.

The temptation of that sin was great, the popes explain. Why?
In place of faith in God, it seems better to worship an idol, into whose face we can look directly and whose origin we know, because it is the work of our own hands. Before an idol, there is no risk that we will be called to abandon our security, for idols "have mouths, but they cannot speak" (Ps 115:5). (Lumen fidei, no. 13)
Faith involves "risk". Better said, it involves trust.

As Lumen fidei explains, faith involves recognizing that God himself is faithful. The encyclical cites St. Augustine, "Man is faithful when he believes in God and his promises; God is faithful when he grants to man what he has promised" (Lumen fidei, 10; citing Augustine, In Psal. 32, II, s. I, 9: PL 36, 284).

This quote essentially sums up the message of the readings this Sunday. Let us take a closer look at them.

Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me;
my LORD has forgotten me.”
Can a mother forget her infant,
be without tenderness for the child of her womb?
Even should she forget,
I will never forget you.
Zion here is an image for the people of God. In context, Zion is in mourning because of the suffering of the exile. Zion appears to have been left abandoned.

In other passages, Isaiah describes the future hope of a return to Zion of both God and the exiles. Yet, awaiting that future day, it seems that in the interim Zion has been cast aside.

Here the Lord speaks with great love for his people, using the language of maternal love. The exile resulted from Israel's infidelity, not God's. The LORD has not forgotten his people or his covenant.

And, yet, during the time of suffering, that is exactly how it can feel. The psalmist will famously cry out, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Ps 22:1).

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Tolerance of Paganism

David Bentley Hart, in Atheist Delusions, writes about the kind of religious culture early Christians left behind when they accepted baptism:

"Quite apart from their more revolting ritual observances, however, the religions of the empire were— to a very great degree— contemptible principally for what they did not do, and what in fact they never considered worth doing. Occasional attempts have been made by scholars in recent years to suggest that the paganism of the late empire was marked by a kind of 'philanthropy' comparable in kind, or even in scope, to the charity practiced by the Christians, but nothing could be further from the truth (as I discuss below). Pagan cult was never more tolerant than in its tolerance— without any qualms of conscience— of poverty, disease, starvation, and homelessness; of gladiatorial spectacle, crucifixion, the exposure of unwanted infants, or the public slaughter of war captives or criminals on festive occasions; of, indeed, almost every imaginable form of tyranny, injustice, depravity, or cruelty. The indigenous sects of the Roman world simply made no

Thursday, February 20, 2014

VIDEO: Pope Francis speaks to Protestant Charismatic Group

Pope Francis begins speaking at about 31:30.

Thomas Aquinas on John 6:53 ("the flesh is of no avail")

The Bread of Life discourse in John 6 has Jesus emphasize over and over again that it is necessary for believers to "eat his flesh" and "drink his blood".

Is this passage about the Eucharist?

There are good reasons for thinking so. First, the imagery of "eating" Jesus' "flesh" and "drinking" his "blood" seems closely linked with the Last Supper, the only other place where such language is clearly used.

In addition, the sermon follows shortly after the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, a story that is clearly meant to be linked with the Last Supper in the Synoptic Gospels. In Matthew, for example, Davies and Allison find 9 parallels which occur in order in Matthew 14, the feeding of the five thousand, and the account of the Last Supper in Matthew 26[1] They conclude: “It seems to us evident that Matthew intended 14.13–21 to be closely related to the institution of the Eucharist.”[2] 

But what about Jesus' words at the end of the sermon: "it is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail"? 

The Zwingli, the Protestant Reformer, famously argued that these words make the eucharistic reading untenable. 

Thomas Aquinas, however, would not have been convinced. Here's his interpretation:
It is obvious that the flesh of Christ, as united to the Word and to the Spirit, does profit very much and in every way; otherwise, the Word would have been made flesh in vain, and the Father would have made him known in the flesh in vain, as we see from 1 Timothy [1 Tim 3:16]. And so we should say that it is the flesh of Christ, considered in itself, that profits nothing and does not have any more beneficial effect than other flesh. For if his flesh is considered as separated from the divinity and the Holy Spirit, it does not have different power than other flesh. But if it is united to the Spirit and the divinity, it profits many, because it makes those who receive it abide in Christ, for man abides in God through the Spirit of love: “We know that we abide in God and God in us, because he has given us his Spirit” [1 John 4:13] And this is what our Lord says: the effect I promise you, that is, eternal life, should not be attributed to my flesh as such, because understood in this way, flesh profits nothing. But my flesh does offer eternal life as united to the Spirit and to the divinity. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” [Gal 5:25]. And so he adds, The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life, i.e., they must be understood of the Spirit united to my flesh; and so understood they are life, that is, the life of the soul. For as the body lives its bodily life through a bodily spirit, so the soul lives a spiritual life through the Holy Spirit: “Send forth your Spirit, and they will be created” (Ps 103:30).
--St. Thomas Aquinas, Ion. 6.993


[1] (1) “And when it was evening” (14:14; 26:20); (2) “reclined” (14:19; 26:20); (3) “having taken” (14:19; 26:26); (4) “the bread” (14:19; 26:26); (5) “he blessed” (14:19; 26:26); (6) “having broken” / “he broke” (14:19; 26:26); (7) “he gave to the disciples” / “having given to the disciples, he gave to them (14:19; 26:26); (8) “they ate” / “eat” (14:20 26:27); (9) “all” (14:20; 26:27).

[2] W. D. Davies and Dale Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (ICC; London: T&T Clark, 1991): 3:481.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Loving Your Enemies: The 7th Sunday in OT


This Sunday’s Readings include some of the best known—and hardest to practice—passages from the Gospel, including Jesus famous command to “turn the other cheek.”  Biblical scholarship can only go so far in elucidating some of Jesus’ challenging commands; beyond that, we need the saints. 

1.  Our Readings start off showing the continuity between Jesus’ teachings and the Old Testament, quoting a section from Leviticus (19:1-2, 17-18):

The LORD said to Moses,
“Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them:
Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.

“You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen,
do not incur sin because of him.
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the LORD.”

The Book of Leviticus is the heart of the Pentateuch from the point of view of literary structure.  It is typically the first book

Monday, February 17, 2014

Did Origen lay aside the "Rule of Faith"?

Origen (d. circa A.D. 254)
This evening I have been reading essays in S. Mark Heim, Faith to Creed: Ecumenical Perspectives on the Affirmation of the Apostolic Faith in the Fourth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991). The book has a lot of interesting material. Here, however, I'd like to look at a claim made by one of the authors about Origen.

In his contribution, "The Nicene Creed and the Unity of Christians," E. Glenn Hinson makes the following assertion:
"Both Clement and origen professed to approach Scriptures by the rule of faith. Origen himself expressed the necessity in terms of the diversity of opinions, not only about trivial but also about important matters, among professed Christians. He was quick to note, however, matters on which the church had no clear tradition, and he was capable of setting aside the church's rule of faith if he thought Scriptures allowed it." (p. 125; emphasis added)
I was stunned by the last line. As the author provided references in a footnote--though no quotations!--I was quick to examine the sources cited.

To be clear, as is well known, like other early writers, Origen insists that proper biblical interpretation must be consistent with the "rule of faith", which seems to be another way of talking about ecclesiastical authority.

In fact, the rule of faith is closely associated with apostolic succession:
. . . so, seeing there are many who think they hold the opinions of Christ, and yet some of these think differently from their predecessors, yet as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles, and remaining in the Churches to the present day, is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition. (De princ., Preface, 2; ANF 1).
It seems to me that the idea of the "rule of faith" is problematic for those who believe in the Protestant Reformation's affirmation of sola scriptura, so I can understand why a Protestant scholar would love to find Origen departing from it.

I was eager to see evidence that Origen did that. 

Let's just say I was underwhelmed.

Some of the sources cited make absolutely no comment relating to the rule of faith. Those that do seem relevant appear completely misunderstood by Hinson.

For example, Hinson cites this from Origen's Matthew commentary:
Let others, then, who are strangers to the doctrine of the Church, assume that souls pass from the bodies of men into the bodies of dogs, according to their varying degree of wickedness; but we, who do not find this at all in the divine Scripture, say that the more rational condition changes into one more irrational, undergoing this affection in consequence of great slothfulness and negligence. (Comm. Matt. 17; ANF 9]
How in the world does this illustrate that Origen dispenses the rule of faith? It is "strangers to the doctrine of the church" who get Scripture wrong! Origen's point is that to get Scripture right, one must not be a stranger to the church's teaching.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Surpassing Righteousness of the New Law: The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sin leads to sadness, holiness leads to happiness. That pretty much sums up this Sunday's readings.

More specifically, the lectionary selections focus on the Law of the Lord and its fulfillment in Jesus. Whereas our secular society views divine law in terms of restricting freedom, the readings actually, in a sense, reveal how freedom is found in fulfilling the law. In fact, in the Gospel we find how Jesus is bringing about a "better righteousness", making it possible for us to even transcend the standards of the Old Testament law.

Let's unpack this idea by looking at the readings. . .

THE FIRST READING: Sirach 15:15-20 
If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you;
if you trust in God, you too shall live;
he has set before you fire and water
to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.
Before man are life and death, good and evil,
whichever he chooses shall be given him.
Immense is the wisdom of the Lord;
he is mighty in power, and all-seeing.
The eyes of God are on those who fear him;
he understands man’s every deed.
No one does he command to act unjustly,
to none does he give license to sin.
The Book of Sirach

The First Reading is taken from the book of Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus), which is only found in the Catholic Bible. It was originally written in Hebrew and translated into Greek around 132 B.C. Of course, this means it is also one of the last books of the Old Testament to be written.

I consider it one of the great tragedies of the Reformation that this book is largely unread and unappreciated by most non-Catholic Christians. In many ways, this book is the greatest anthology of wisdom literature in the Old Testament, a kind of mature reflection on older books such as Proverbs. Among other things, the book is full of all sorts of practical wisdom aphorisms. Some of my favorites include:
"A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter:
he that has found one has found a treasure." (Sir 6:14)

Do not find fault before you investigate; first consider, and then reprove. 8 Do not answer before you have heard, nor interrupt a speaker in the midst of his words. 9 Do not argue about a matter which does not concern you, nor sit with sinners when they judge a case. (Sir 11:7-9) 
Speak, you who are older, for it is fitting that you should,
but with accurate knowledge, and do not interrupt the music. 4 Where there is entertainment, do not pour out talk; do not display your cleverness out of season. (Sir 32:3-4)

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Church, Temple, Lighthouse: The Fifth Sunday in OT

The Readings for this Sunday remind me of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, which I’ve had the privilege of visiting a couple of times in the past few years.  This beautiful church is built on a hillside and is easily visible from much of the modern city of Nazareth.  The architect designed the dome of the basilica to look like a lighthouse, symbolizing the light of Christ going out to all Nazareth and the rest of the Galilee region, in keeping with the theme of last week’s Gospel, “Those walking in darkness have seen a great light.”

The theme of light continues in this Sunday’s Readings, in which Jesus calls the people of God, the Church, to be a kind of lighthouse or beacon calling the whole world to the safe harbor with God.

1. The First Reading Isaiah 58:7-10:

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Join Me in Saginaw this Tuesday and Wednesday

 I will be in Saginaw, Michigan, this Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, Feb. 4-5, speaking at 6pm at Holy Family Church.  On Tuesday I'll be giving my talk, "How to Get through the Bible in an Hour!" (complete with stick figures!), and on Wednesday, "The Seven Sacraments in the Gospel of John."