Holy Wednesday

“Morning after morning he wakens my ear to hear as disciples do.”

-Manuel Aliaga

I serve as a Lector in my parish, which has a large immigrant population.  A couple of days ago—Palm Sunday—at the Spanish noon Mass, I was charged with proclaiming the first reading, from the book of Isaiah (50:4-9)—which this year is also Holy Wednesday’s first reading.

“The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue,
that I might know how to answer the weary,
a word that will waken them.”

As I was reading before the assembly, a thought flashed across my mind, thinking of all of those unfamiliar faces who, this Sunday, were packing even the lobby area in our church.  Many of them were perhaps weary, coming to Mass for the first time in months, even years, caught by exhausting workweeks and difficult family situations, possibly carrying on their backs an ever-growing ancient thirst, an old hunger, which they could barely call by name anymore.

Perhaps they came inspired by sleepy memories from their childhoods long ago and far away, going to Mass with their siblings, all in their Sunday best, holding their palms, being sprinkled with holy water, singing the songs, visiting Grandma and their cousins after church.

Many of these unfamiliar faces might be hoping, wholeheartedly, to find this Holy Week at least some spiritual rest and nourishment in this beautifully blessed parochial oasis. Many possibly come moved by the desire to fulfill their annual obligation, and then continue their arduous journey, knowing that they were well fed and taken care of. How can we help them never forget that the living waters that flow at the center of our parish community are available to them every week, every day?

I kept proclaiming the first reading, and another instant thought came to me, this time about my ministry as a Lector:

“Morning after morning he wakens my ear to hear as disciples do;
the Lord GOD opened my ear;
I did not refuse, did not turn away.”

My ear was indeed being awakened.  I was hearing, with the rest of the community, “as disciples do”.  I was reading and I was listening to the proclamation of the book of Isaiah—who speaks about the Suffering Servant—together with my suffering brothers and sisters, familiar and unfamiliar.  I was there with the weary, the thirsty, and the hungry, as one more among them, aware of my own need for sustenance. And we were all being fed by the reading’s beautiful images.

Just like my brothers and sisters in the pews, I also bring with me ancient memories about many Palm Sundays, Good Fridays, Easter celebrations, with family and friends.  They build and sustain my identity as a Catholic Christian. As a father and as a minister, I now help my children, and the many other children participating in our parish life, build up their own memories.

As I continued reading, the text referred more explicitly to the Suffering Servant:

“I have not rebelled,
have not turned back.
I gave my back to those who beat me,

my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
My face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.”

Our Lord knows what it means to be weary, hungry and thirsty, like all of us do. Perhaps during his Passion He had flashbacks of his childhood, Mary and Joseph, going to the Temple, hearing stories about their time away in Egypt, his neighborhood friends, his teen years.  Perhaps he contemplated how it all led Him to the fulfillment of His mission. He followed our steps so that we may follow His. He became one of us so that we become one with Him. He traveled the road before us, and we—as His disciples—are to listen to His voice, wake up, arise, and follow Him.

Ah, but the Word that awakens us is a double-edged sword that cuts deep into our hearts.  There is no listening, no rising and following him, without letting his Word uncover everything that leads us away from His ways.  There is no discipleship without our saying Yes! to His call to root out, with hope and the aid of His grace, anything that might lead each of us away from His love.

“He who has dipped his hand into the dish with me is the one who will betray me,” declares Jesus in today’s Gospel.  Before sharing table, let us prepare ourselves for His mercy. Let us listen, repent, and abandon our evil ways. Let us be prepared to share table with Him.

Manuel Aliaga teaches History of Latino Catholics in the Church for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology program.

Humanae Vitae and the Words of Christ in Scripture

“God did not make death, nor does He rejoice in the destruction of the living.  For He fashioned all things that they might have being; and the creatures of the world are wholesome, and there is not a destructive drug among them…”  (From this month’s first liturgical reading, Wisdom 1:13-14).  Hmm….

Today marks the 50th year anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, written by Blessed Pope Paul VI, 1968, about which the U.S. Catholic Bishops state that it “provides beautiful and clear teaching about God’s plan for married love and the transmission of life.”  That it does, including reaffirmation of the Church’s constant and arguably infallible teaching (according to the Ordinary Magisterium, the conditions for infallibility of which are presented in Lumen Gentium 25) concerning its condemnation of abortion, sterilization, and contraception.  In addition, Humanae Vitae foretells that, if the Church’s teaching on contraception is ignored, then we, society, would see the following.  First, widespread contraceptive use will “lead to conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality.”  Second, men will lose respect for women and treat them selfishly.  Third, widespread contraceptive use will be a dangerous weapon among those public authorities who are unconcerned with moral vision and obligation.  Fourth, increased use of contraception will lead people to think that they have unlimited dominion over their bodies.

Of course, with the exception of couples who reaped the benefits of fidelity to the teachings of Christ’s Church on sexuality (of which Pope Paul VI also spoke), the world—including many in the Church—dismissed the wisdom of Humanae Vitae and plunged more deeply into the darkness of corruption and sin.

“What came to be through Him was life, and this life was the light of the human race.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:3-4).

So what does the Light of the world, Jesus Christ, have to say about contraception and abortion in Scripture?  Surprisingly to many, and strikingly, some very strong words. Dei Verbum and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (110) assert that to discover in Scripture the sacred author’s intention, “the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture,” among other things.  Perhaps in error in ascertaining these conditions, a common mistranslation in the Bible occurs in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 5:20 and the Book of Revelation 9:21, 18:23, 21:8, and 22:15, in which the word pharmakeia or its cognate is most often rendered sorcery, witchcraft, magic spell, or magic arts.

Pennyroyal

In the ancient Greco-Roman world—not unlike the Ancient Near East—practicing magic was prevalent.  It involved the use of evil spells, curse tablets, contraceptive and abortive potions (specifically, often herbal drinks, pastes) and, less often, generally deadly poisons (all called pharmakeia), amulets, and love potions.  The contraceptive and abortive potions were numerous and highly demanded; examples were silphium and acacia to contracept, and pennyroyal tea to abort.  Written documentation of contraception and abortion go back to nearly 2,000 B.C.  In Scripture, one example of a sterilized, contraceptive act apart from pharmakeia is in Genesis 38:6-11.

In antiquity, pharmakeia was the Greek word for these potions, and their users typically distinguished between contraceptive and abortive blends, although they both were categorized as pharmakeia.  These were commonly and more effectively used methods to contracept and abort, and so were representative of contraception and abortion in Scripture.  Church Fathers and early ecclesial documents, such as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, also refer to and condemn these anti-fertility practices.

In Scripture, to refer to this as generic magic or sorcery misses the specificity for which pharmakeia was intended.  In the Old Testament, contraception and abortion also were practiced in this way.  In the reading from Wisdom above, the Greek words for “destructive drug” are pharmakon olethru.  This may refer to both deadly poison and abortive potion, since its immediate context refers to the integrity of creation and generation of life, over and against death.  Exodus 22:17, because of its feminine identification and overall context, and Malachi 3:5, because of its context, also are likely references to contraception and abortion, or at least to sorcerous activity (keshef in Hebrew) that includes them.

The immediate context of the above references to Galatians and Revelation was condemnation of common sins that centered around sexual immorality, murder, and idolatry.  Idolatry was frequently associated with temple prostitution and its consequences.  So, in Galatians, Saint Paul condemns acts of sinful nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lewdness, idolatry, pharmakeia, and several more.  The context here, and in the following, does not favor pharmakeia meaning the much less frequented administering of deadly poison to members of the general population, and this overtly homicidal meaning would be particularly redundant on those lists that include murder.  Pharmakeia may have been that broadly intended—referring to contraceptive and abortive potions and occasional administration of poison—but probably meant the former restrictively.  An exception is Revelation 18:23, in which pharmakeia seems to refer specifically and metaphorically to deadly poison.

So, the translation probably should read as follows in Revelation.  Rev 9:21 lists murders, contraceptive and abortive potions (pharmakeion), sexual immorality, and thefts.  In Rev 21:8 and 22:15, the risen Jesus Himself condemns certain representative sins.  Rev 21:8: “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the sexually immoral, the ones using contraceptive and abortive potions, the idolators, and all practicing falsehood—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning Sulphur.  This is the second death.”  Rev 22:15: After pronouncing eternal blessing on the righteous (see 22:11 and 22:14), Jesus, the Alpha and Omega, declares, “Outside are the dogs, the ones using contraceptive and abortive potions, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolators, and all who love and practice falsehood.”

Why would Christ condemn contraceptive and abortive potions?  Simply, I think He does so because marriage is a profound, intimate union (Genesis 2:24), procreation is a divine blessing and mandate of this union (Genesis 1:28) for those who are able, children are a gift (e.g., Psalm 127:3), and children in the womb are acknowledged as really alive and sacred (e.g., Psalm 139:13-15, Jeremiah 1:15, Luke:1:39-45).  To deliberately sterilize sex, or worse—murder an unborn child—is a serious offense against God and the human person.  I think Humanae Vitae is just beautifully and boldly echoing the divine and exalted plan for married love and the transmission of human life.

 

Mark Koehne teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Programs,