Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Burning Hearts and Open Scriptures: The Third Sunday of Easter


How do we know that Jesus was someone and something different than the numerous religious leaders or founders of religions that have appeared on the stage of world history over the centuries?  Last week we examined one way that he is different: unlike Buddha, Mohammed, or Zarathustra, Jesus rose from the grave after his death, appearing and talking to his followers at length.  In this week’s liturgy, the Third Sunday of Easter, we examine another remarkable piece of evidence for the uniqueness of Jesus: the fact that his suffering and resurrection were strikingly foreshadowed by the sacred writings of the prophets of Israel, hundreds of years before his earthly sojourn.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

30 Surprising Facts about John Paul II

Picture of me with John Paul II, taken in 2003.
This Sunday is going to be a Pope-A-Poluza.

Pope Francis will canonize two popes, John Paul II and John XXIII. There are also reports that Benedict XVI will be concelebrating the mass with Pope Francis.

That means we will have two living popes concelebrating a mass (one, obviously, a "Pope Emeritus" because there can be only one functioning Roman Pontiff) at which two other popes will be made saints.

Suffice it to say, this is a historic weekend!

Today I spent two hours on the radio program, Catholic Answers Live, discussing the lives of these two men. The show was broadcast live from our school, John Paul the Great Catholic University.

It was great to host Patrick Coffin and the rest of the Catholic Answers team. We were so glad to team up with them for this special broadcast.

It's not every weekend that the person your school is named after is officially made a saint. As you might imagine, there is a lot of excitement at JP Catholic University over what is happening this weekend. In fact, tomorrow night I'll be delivering a special presentation on John Paul II's personal life of prayer. I will also discuss some of the practical wisdom he imparted in his writings regarding how to pray well. In addition, we are having a special banquet next Saturday to celebrate the dedication and blessing of our new campus.

But on to the topic of this post... During today's program I rattled off some surprising facts about John Paul II. I'll be going into his life in greater detail tomorrow night but I've been getting emails asking me for the list I read over the air. I thought I'd just post it here.


Facts about Karol Wojtyla's life

1. He was a key figure in the Polish struggle against the Nazis. He was officially placed on the Nazis “black list” in 1944.

2. He was an accomplished actor and playwrite in Poland before he entered the seminary.

3. He earned two doctoral degrees. He earned one from the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome (also known as the Angelicum) and the other from Jagiellonian University in Poland. His dissertations were entitled, The Doctrine of Faith in Saint John of the Cross, and An Evaluation of the Possibility of Constructing a Christian Ethics on the Basis of the System of Max Sheler.

4. He was a professor at two universities.

5. He published several academic books and essays.

6. He published poems and plays.

7. He made significant contributions to the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

8. Many years after the council, he sheepishly admitted that he wrote a lot of poetry while it was in session: "You know, I wrote many parts of books and poems during the sessions of the Council." (Cited from Weigel, Witness to Hope, p. 172)

9. The young Bishop Wojtyla made a lasting impression on the famous 20th century theologian Yves Congar. Congar wrote in his personal diary: "Wojtyla made it a remarkable impression. His personality dominates. Some kind of animation is present in this person, a magnetic power, prophetic strength, full of peace, and impossible to resist." (cited from Weigel, Witness to Hope, p. 168)

Facts About the Historic Papacy of John Paul II

1. JPII was the first non-Italian pope since the 16th century and the first Polish pope in history.

2. His papacy lasted 26 years, 5 months, and 17 days--the third longest papacy in history!

3. He was the most widely traveled pope in history. His papacy took him on 104 apostolic journeys to 129 different countries. In fact, he traveled more than 725, 000 miles. That's, roughly, thirty times the circumference of the earth and three times the distance of the earth from the moon.

4. He was named Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” in 1994.

5. He was an accomplished linguist. He was able to speak several languages fluently. The exact number varies in the literature but they likely included, Polish, Slovak, Russian, Italian, French, Spanish, German, Ukrainian, English, and Latin. Some lists substitute Portuguese instead of Russian here.

Still, this was only the tip of the iceberg of his linguistic abilities. He also had amazing facility in many, many other languages, including Japanese and Tagalog. Stunningly, at the Easter Vigil in 2004, an event watched by millions on live television around the world, John Paul II addressed the crowds in 64 different languages. No, that wasn't a typo, you read that correctly--sixty-four! (See Weigel, The Beginning of the End, p. 353).

By the way, I can personally testify to the fact that he knew English. I had a private audience with him and we had a conversation in English (see the picture above).

6. He played a decisive role in the downfall of communism in eastern Europe.

7. He presided over the largest public event in history, namely, a eucharistic celebration in the Philippines during World Youth Day in 1995. Somewhere between 4-7 million people attended.

8. He spent about 1,000 hours outside the Vatican.

9. He had one of the most prolific pontificates in history, publishing, 14 encyclicals, 15 apostolic exhortations, 11 apostolic constitutions, 45 apostolic letters and 28 motu proprios.

10. He wrote five books as pope, the last was published posthumously in 2005, including, Beyond the Threshold of Hope (1994), and autobiography and Gift and Mystery (1996), Roman Triptych (2003), Get Up, Let Us Go (2004). These were all translated into many, many different languages. For example, Crossing the Threshold of Hope alone was translated into 5 (five!dozen languages.

11. He was the first pope to have a book on the New York Times "Best Seller List". (And no one bought up all his books so as to manufacture this accomplishment, as some other writers have been known to do!)

12. His CD has gone “platinum” (over 1 million sold). It's not full of original songs. It's not a book on tape. It's just him praying the rosary.

13. He held 1,165 general public audiences, drawing a total of 17.7 million people.

14. He established diplomatic relations with 83 countries.

15. He created 231 new cardinals and presided at the ordination of 321 bishops.

16. He published the first official Catholic catechism since the Council of Trent.

17. He proclaimed more saints than all of the other popes since the Council of Trent combined! The standards for beatification and canonization were set at Trent. By 2005, 2,343 men and women had been beatified and 785 canonized as saints. John Paul II was responsible for elevating more than half of those—1,342 and 483, respectively.

18. He was seen by more people than any other person in history.

19. At his funeral there were 75 heads of states (presidents, princes, etc.). The population of Rome doubled during this event. People waited over 24 hours to see him lying in state. And while St. Peter's Square was filled to capacity, it was completely silent.

20. He was beatified May 1, 2011.

21. He will be canonized (made a "saint" in the Catholic Church) on April 27, 2014.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

"Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them": The readings for Divine Mercy Sunday

In the Catholic liturgical calendar, this Sunday--the first Sunday after Easter--is known as "Divine Mercy Sunday". Not surprisingly, God's mercy and the forgiveness of sins is a major theme in the readings that will be proclaimed.

Let us take a look.

FIRST READING: Acts 2:42-47
They devoted themselves
to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life,
to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone,
and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles.
All who believed were together and had all things in common;
they would sell their property and possessions
and divide them among all according to each one’s need.
Every day they devoted themselves
to meeting together in the temple area
and to breaking bread in their homes.
They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart,
praising God and enjoying favor with all the people.
And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
The first reading from Acts 2 describes the earliest Christian community's life after Pentecost. Although there are many fascinating aspects of this reading (e.g., the significance of the early Christians going to the temple), for our purposes I'd like to highlight the way Luke presents the first Christians committing themselves to four specific activities.

But before I do that we need to read this passage in context to really understand why this passage is relevant for Divine Mercy Sunday. Although it is not given in the lectionary selection, it is important to note the way the early church's life is depicted as an outworking of the Christian response to Peter's first sermon. 

Specifically, in Acts 2 Peter proclaims:
"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." (Acts 2:38)
The passage from Acts read this Sunday describe the way the earliest converts lived after they embraced his invitation to faith. Immediately following Peter's sermon, we read the following:
So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles... (Acts 2:41-42)
The last verse there is where the lectionary selection for this Sunday begins.

In other words, the life of the early church described in the first reading is presented as a response to Peter's announcement of Divine Mercy; God has offered forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ and the first believers receive this through baptism. They then live in such a way that expresses their reception of God's mercy.

Specifically, this is spelled out in their devotion to four things. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Testimony of Peter and John: The Readings for Easter

Holy Mother Church offers us Readings from Scripture this Easter Sunday that comprise an elegant review and statement of the whole Gospel message.  In particular, they focus our attention on the Resurrection, the Eucharist, and the relationship between the two.

1.  The First Reading is Acts 10:34a, 37-43:

The Easter Vigil Readings: A Celebration of Covenant

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

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

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Good Friday Homily on Jesus the Bridegroom on Zenit!

Hey, everybody, check out this Good Friday homily on Zenit News about my new book
 on the Passion of Christ: Jesus the Bridegroom: the Greatest Love Story Ever Told

Let us pray for one another as we prepare to celebrate the great day that "the Bridegroom [was] taken away" from us (Mark 2:20). 

Have a blessed Triduum.

The Good Friday Readings and the Priesthood of Christ

(Holy Thursday commentary is below; scroll down if you are looking for it.)

Every year on Good Friday, we read St. John’s account of the Passion from John 18-19.

One of the themes that runs through this reading is the Priesthood of Christ.  I’ve traced this theme through the Good Friday Readings in previous years.  Here, I repost my earlier comments with some additions, especially concerning the First Reading:

There is priestly language already in the First Reading, from Isaiah 52 & 53, the famous “Suffering Servant” Song:

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Crucifixion in the Ancient World and Why Jesus Died This Way (Good Friday Post and Podcast)

Click below to listen to our special Good Friday podcast. Also be sure to come back tomorrow and Sunday for special podcasts on Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday! 

Crucifixion: History, Archaeology, and Why Jesus Died This Way (Good Friday Podcast)(Right click to download)

Today we meditate on the crucifixion of Jesus. In places around the world, images of the Christ crucified will be contemplated and venerated. Indeed, the image of the cross is quite familiar to us. It is part and parcel of Christian iconography.

Perhaps, it is too familiar.

Put frankly, the cross has in many ways been sanitized. Of course, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) offered a kind of corrective to this, depicting this form of ancient execution in gruesome detail. Indeed, this caused a great bit of controversy.

Some have even claimed that the film exaggerated the violence of Jesus’ death. For example, some complained that the scene of the scourging, a vicious punishment carried out prior to crucifixion, was unrealistic.

Such complaints reveal just how “safe” Christian art has made Jesus’ suffering. A look at ancient sources reveals that this sentence was indeed brutal. Describing the scourging of another first century man named Jesus—Jesus ben Ananias—Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, relates how his bones were “laid bare” (B.J. 6.304). (See also Goodacre's piece defending the film's depiction here).

Ancient Accounts of Crucifixion

The reality is, crucifixion was ghastly. Here I can only offer a brief treatment of the evidence. The fullest study is written by Martin Hengel.1 I’d also recommend Joe Zias’ fine overview here. In addition, be sure to check out Mark Goodacre's fine podcast on the topic.

Josephus describes crucifixion as “the most wretched of deaths” (B.J. 7.203). The second century writer Origen calls it the “utterly vile death” (Commentary on Matthew 27:22). Cicero was horrified that any Roman citizen should crucified—in fact, he wrote that even the mention of the cross was too offensive to be mentioned:
But the executioner, the veiling of the head and the very word cross‘ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears. For it is not only the actual occurrence of these things or the endurance of them, but liability to them, the expectation, indeed the very mention of them, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man. (Pro Rabirio 16)
Seneca pointed to crucifixion to make the case for suicide. He made the case that no one would fault a person facing such a death for choosing to take their own life in order to avoid having to endure such a death.
Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all? Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long drawn-out agony? He would have many excuses for dying even before mounting the cross.” (Seneca, Epistle 101 to Lucilius).
(Note the implicit reference here to the effects of the scourging prior to crucifixion—the body is “already deformed” when fastened to the tree.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The "Billy Graham of Scandinavia" Announces His Conversion to Catholicism

As hundreds of thousands of people in the US alone prepare to join the Catholic Church this Easter, a high-profile conversion has been rocking the largely-secular Swedish culture.  Rev. Ulf Ekman, Sweden's most prominent evangelical pastor, leader of the nation's largest mega-church, announced a few weeks ago that he has decided to become Catholic.  A full interview with a Swedish newspaper is available here.

Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper


So we are soon to begin the Triduum, this profound reflection on three earth-shaking events which form the pillars of our salvation: Eucharist, Crucifixion, Resurrection.  The Readings for the Holy Thursday Mass focus on the continuity between the ancient Jewish Passover and the institution of the Eucharist.  As the Passover was the meal that marked the transition from slavery to Egypt to the freedom of the Exodus, so the Eucharist is the meal that marks the transition from slavery to sin to the glorious freedom of the children of God.

1.  Our First Reading is from Ex 12:1-8, 11-14:

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Blast from the Past: Colbert vs. Ehrman

With Colbert's big new promotion in the news, I thought I'd revisit this blast from the past. I wonder if we'll see any further discussion of historical Jesus issues on The Late Show.

I, for one, certainly hope so.

Friday, April 11, 2014

E.P. Sanders' endorsement of Ben Meyer's book

I was just re-reading the introduction of E.P. Sanders' landmark book, Jesus and Judaism, and came across a quote that I had forgotten about. It concerns one of my favorite books about Jesus ever written--a book I am sad to report is often overlooked. . . though not by Sanders:
"Ben Meyer's description of The Aims of Jesus is the riches and best nuanced one that I know, and it will be necessary to return to his recent book in discussing points along the way and in the conclusion."--E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, 47
How's that for an endorsement?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Jesus' Triumphal Entry, the Descent into Hell, and the Coming of the Messiah (Palm Sunday, Year A)

On this coming Sunday, the Church will bring us to what may be one of my favorite Masses and my favorite sets of Scripture readings in the entire liturgical year: Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, popularly known simply as ‘Palm Sunday’.

With the Palm Sunday readings, the Church ushers us into the climax of the liturgical year in the celebration of Holy Week. This is the last Sunday feast before the beginning of the Triduum, which will climax in the celebration of Easter (Latin Pascha), what the Catechism calls the “feast of feasts” (CCC 1169).

As you may recall—especially if you have young children who need to be held the entire time the Gospel is being proclaimed!—this is one of the longest sets of readings in the entire liturgical year. (A word of advice: don't lock your knees :) For on this Sunday, the Church not only commemorates the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem six days before the Passover; she also lays before the faithful the complete account of Jesus’ Passion and death, according to one of the Synoptic Gospels (This year, Year A, it is Matthew’s account.)

Given the sheer number and length of readings for this Sunday, it should go without saying that I can’t give a full analysis of them all. (Whole books have been written just on the Passion! In fact, I just published one myself.) Instead, I simply want to focus our attention on the Jewish roots of Jesus' Triumphal Entry, and show how Jesus fulfills Zechariah's prophecy of the Messiah in his Triumphal Entry, the Last Supper, his Passion, and even his descent into Hell.

Jesus Fulfills Zechariah's Prophecy of the Coming of the Messiah
Unlike other Masses, Palm Sunday contains two proclamations of the Gospel. The first is from Matthew’s account of Jesus Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem:

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

"I'm Back!": The Raising of Lazarus, 5th Sunday of Lent

Unlike the other Gospels, John recounts only a limited number of miracles of Jesus, which he designates as “signs,” a rare term in the other Gospels.  Although John tells us of only a few miracles, he describes them in much greater depth than the other gospel writers do.  This is quite evident in this weekend’s Gospel reading, in which we get a very lengthy description of all the events surrounding the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead.

Beale on Eschatology

“[T]he apostles understood eschatology not merely as futurology but as a mindset for understanding the present within the climaxing context of redemptive history. That is, the apostles understood that they were already living in the end-times and that they were to understand their present salvation in Christ to be already an end-time reality. Every aspect of their salvation was to be conceived as eschatological in nature.

--G. K. Beale, “The Eschatological Conception of New Testament Theology,” in Eschatology in Bible and Theology: Evangelical Essays at the Dawn of a New Millennium (ed. K. E. Brower and M. W. Elliot; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 18–19