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,

On the Third Day

In today’s Gospel reading, Luke 24:35-48, the risen Jesus tells His disciples, “Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day…”  Several times throughout the Gospels Jesus refers to rising from the dead three days after His crucifixion. Saint Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, says, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that He was buried; that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…”  What Scriptures tell us about the Messiah being raised from the dead on the third day? I will answer the question.

Because this is a post, I will keep my response very simple and brief.  Some of the following is discussed in my dissertation, The Septuagintal Isaian Use of Nomos in the Lukan Presentation Narrative, published by ProQuest.

First, numerous Old Testament Biblical passages prophesy the coming of the Messiah—sometimes, more specifically, the Davidic Servant Messiah–and some foretell or imply His bodily resurrection, e.g., Psalm 16, in which the dead Messiah will emerge uncorrupt from Sheol.

Second, Isaiah refers to this individual Messiah as “Israel” (e.g., Isaiah 49), the ideal representation of Israel the nation, Who will restore its tribes.  In Isaiah, the Messiah, Israel, is not to be confused with the wayward nation, Israel, although He represents what it has been called to be.

Third, in Daniel 9:24-27, “the Anointed One, the Ruler,” will come but then will be “cut off.”  Chronologically, the time of His coming and demise seem to harmonize well with the time of the birth, ministry, crucifixion, and death of Christ.

Fourth, Hosea prophesies Israel’s restoration from the exile through atonement, in which the tribes of Israel will be raised up on the third day:

I will go back to my place until they present a sin-offering for their guilt and seek My presence.  In their affliction, they shall look for Me: “Come, let us return to the Lord, for it is He who has rent, but He will heal us; He has struck us, but He will bind our wounds.  He will revive us after two days; on the third day He will raise us up, to live in His presence.” (Hosea 5:15-6:1-2)

Earlier in Hosea (3:5), the prophet specifies that upon Israel’s return to God, they will seek the Davidic Messiah, the royal representative of Israel.  Since the Messiah is an Israelite among the tribes of Israel, and is responsible for their restoration, He also is risen on the third day. Importantly, His resurrection would be understood literally because of the earlier Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah’s personal bodily resurrection.  Hosea 6 also resonates the imagery depicted in Psalm 16 of the risen Davidic Messiah’s life and joy in the presence of God.

Isaiah, a near-contemporary of Hosea, prophesied the Servant Messiah’s (Israel’s) atonement: ’’the Lord laid upon Him the guilt of us all…He gives His life as an offering for sin…their guilt He shall bear” (Isaiah 53).  Moreover, as Israel, the nation’s representative, He raises up the tribes (Isaiah 49). Hence, viewing Isaiah in conjunction with Hosea, the Messiah redeems the nation’s guilt through His own atoning death and restores the children of Israel through His resurrection on the third day.  The atonement and restoration, effected by the Messiah, are inseparable. This makes sense because the Scriptures prophesy both the atoning death and resurrection of the Messiah, and this corresponds to the redemption following the dispersion/exile, and the restoration of the tribes of Israel, both effected by the Messiah Who represents Israel.

Fifth, Jesus insists not only that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, but also that He is the new Jonah, the sign of whom He gives: “Just as Jonah was in the belly of the sea monster three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights” (Matthew 12:40).  (Jesus also refers to the repentance of the Ninevites as a sign.) As Jonah returned from Sheol, the abode of the dead (Jonah 2:2), so too Jesus will return from the dead. Jesus’ self-identification as the new Jonah, along with His own resurrection, corroborates His fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy of Israel’s restoration made possible by the Messiah’s resurrection on the third day.

Mark Koehne teaches moral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology. Programs.

Do You Now Believe? by Pamela Hedrick – Book Review

Pamela E. Hedrick takes me back into the classroom, with her debut book, Do You Now Believe? In this short, yet jam-packed gem, Hedrick schools us on the balance required between faith and reason.

Faith enables reason. But an uncritical faith – a credulity or an unthinking belief that clings to certitude at the expense of understanding – can undermine faith itself and at least slow down the response to the grace of ongoing conversion (p. 77).

What I garnered from reading this book is that many of us have preconceived notions about God and faith, that inhibit us from fully understanding what God wants us to know about Him. It is when we can search beyond our limitations that we position ourselves to understanding God better. It is through this growth of understanding that we experience a transcendence; a conversion. We move from the intellectual to the experiential. We grow in love for God.

Mark and John Help Us Answer the Question: Do You Now Believe?

Hedrick takes us through the Gospels of Mark and John, using scriptural passages, to prove her points. I found this book to be intellectually stimulating; very thought provoking. I began to look at the questions that Jesus asks in these Gospels, from a different perspective. Hedrick has opened my eyes to Scripture, in a way I have not looked at it before. In my opinion, that makes for one treasured professor of Theology, as well as an excellent writer too.

I highly recommend this book for anyone looking to better understand Scripture, from a theological understanding. If you would like to get your copy of Do You Now Believe? then click here.

This review was originally posted at www.virginialieto.com and is reprinted here with permission.

Virginia Lieto teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. She is the author of children’s book Finding Patience and blogs at www.virginialieto.com.

Merton – On the Psalms

The Old Testament Book of Psalms (the Psalter) is a hymn book that was finalized between 500 – 390 BCE.  The Psalms are a collection of religious poems of Israel that were used during liturgical ceremonies originally in the Temple in Jerusalem and in Jewish synagogues.  Thousands of psalms were written but only 150 found their way into the Psalter.  The Psalms represent the work of numerous poets; 83 of these poems bear King David’s name.

The Psalms describe God as the Holy One who dwells in the fullness of life and power.  In Psalm 99, verse 8, for example, the poet declares: “Extol the Lord our God and bow in worship before God’s holy mountain, for the Lord our God is Holy.”   The Psalms also depict God as the Eternal One.  Psalm 90, verse 2, states: “Before the mountains were created or You had formed the earth and its surface, from eternity to eternity You are God.”  God who is eternal is a refuge in times of need..  In Psalm 91, verses 1 and 2, we read: “You who dwell in the shelter of God most High, abide in the shadow of the Almighty, say to the Lord, my refuge, my fortress in whom I trust.”  Additionally, the Psalter claims God as redeemer.  In Psalm 31, verses 2 – 5, the poet prays: “Into your hands I commend my spirit, You who have redeemed me, Lord, faithful God.”

As a Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton chanted his way through the entire Psalter every week of the year.  Merton prayed the Psalms so frequently that their words took up residence in his heart and resounded in his being. The Psalms were Merton’s daily spiritual sustenance.  They were bread for his pilgrimage through life.

Merton wrote several books about the Psalms: Praying the Psalms and Bread in the Wilderness.  In these texts, Merton contends that the Psalms are perhaps the most significant and influential religious collection of poems ever written.  He notes that the Psalms encompass various facets of the human experience of the Divine, including: delight in God’s Law and peace in God’s will (Psalm 1); confidence in God (Psalms 119 – 133); mystical joy (Psalm 41); sorrow for offending God (Psalm 129); and joyful praise and adoration of God (Psalm 117).

When praying the Psalms, one raises one’s mind and heart to God and brings the substance of his or her life to the experience. Merton notes:  “We bring to the Psalms the raw material of our poor, isolated persons, with our own individual conflicts, sufferings and trials.”[i] Merton recommends that one read or recite the Psalms slowly, savoring them, meditating on their meaning, and allowing their life lessons to penetrate one’s being.  Additionally, Merton reflects that “There is … no kind of religious experience, no spiritual need of a person that is not depicted and lived out in the Psalms.”[ii] Merton adds that “God will give Godself to us through the Psalter if we give ourselves to God without reserve in our recitation of the Psalms.”[iii]

The Psalter is canticum novum, the song of those reborn as new creation.  Those who pray these poems glorify God.  The Psalms build a bridge between earth and heaven, for, as Merton declares:  “To chant the Psalms … is to join in the Liturgy of heaven.  It is to praise God with something of the same love with which God is praised by the blessed spirits.” [iv] who are enjoying life in eternity with God who is Love.

Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, Ph.D., is professor of theology and chair of the on-campus undergraduate theology program at Saint Joseph’s College.

[i] Thomas Merton, Bread in the Wilderness (New York: New Directions, 2014) 118.

[ii] Thomas Merton, Praying the Psalms (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1956) 44.

[iii] Merton, Bread in the Wilderness, 64.

[iv] Merton, Bread in the Wilderness, 136.

Where Does Your Loyalty Reside?

Do you truly love God with your whole heart, soul and mind? Or do you place your own agenda first and God’s second? Would you stand by God at all costs, or would you be more likely to give in to temporal needs and pleasure?

In today’s first reading from Daniel, we hear of an interchange between King Nebuchadnezzar and three gentlemen named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These three men refuse to worship the King’s man-made statue, because they know the One, true God and worship Him alone. These three men are willing to put their full faith and trust in God claiming,

If our God, whom we serve, can save us from the white-hot furnace and from your hands, O king, may he save us! But even if he will not, know, O king, that we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue that you set up (Daniel 3:17-18).

Did you catch that one phrase, “But even if he will not…?”  These men know that their fate Shadrach%2c Meshach%2c and Abednegotruly rests in God’s hands and not the King’s hands. If it be God’s will they will be spared. However, if God chooses to let the King’s deeds be carried out, then so be it; for these three men place God’s will first, rather than their own. The King decides to throw them into a fiery furnace. There they meet a fourth figure, a man looking like the son of God.

Unlike Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, how often do we put conditions on God; seeking our own will rather than God’s will for our temporal comfort and pleasure? Do you realize that when we do so, we are actually breaking the First Commandment? Anything that comes between us and God to satisfy our wants and desires means that we place prominence on such things over God, and thus break the First Commandment.  It could be fame, fortune, sex, or even personal security. However, when a person can truly put God first, loving Him with one’s whole heart, soul and mind, as did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, then nothing can enslave the person; not even the threat against one’s life. That is what Jesus tries to teach in today’s Gospel reading.

Where Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego believed that the God of Israel deserved their full faith and trust, Jesus now lays claim to that loyalty in the fulfillment of His mission when He states, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32), where the “truth” is salvation through Jesus and “freedom” is freedom from death caused by sin. Jesus is telling the people that the way to the God of Israel is through Him. However, the Jews are skeptical. For millennia, they have placed their loyalty in the God of Israel. Who was this Jesus, that He should now lay such a claim? Because of their suspicions, the Jews plotted to kill Jesus. All along, Jesus knew what they were doing and why. He closes this teaching with a powerful punch:

Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and am here; I did not come on my own, but he sent me” (John 8:42).  For the Jews to be plotting to kill Jesus, these thoughts of murder go against the Fifth Commandment given to the Israelites by the God of Israel: “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex 20:13). By Jesus’ statement of “If God were your Father…” He is stating that the God of Israel would never condone such evil, and therefore, they do not follow the precepts of the God of Israel, as they so claim. Such thoughts of murder could only come from the evil one. Therefore, the Jews of Jesus’ era were placing their loyalty elsewhere, and not with the God of Israel.

So, here is the big question: Are you like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, yet with the full knowledge of Jesus as the Son of God, and you love Him with your whole heart, soul and mind? Or, are you placing something of temporal value between you and God? Think carefully before you answer this question, and don’t deceive yourself. Then, during this Lenten season, make it to the Confessional and ask Jesus for a heart like that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Virginia Lieto teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. Her new children’s book Finding Patience was recently published (and makes a great Easter gift!). She blogs at www.virginialieto.com.

 

Jesus the Gardener (or Mary of Magdala Is Always Right)

 

Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did now know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Thinking that he was the gardener, she said to him, Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew: “Rabbouni!” (which means teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary of Magdala went and said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her (John 20.14-18).

Few casual readers of the Gospel of John realize that it is rife with riddles, a favorite type of fun for ancient folks. And we all know them even now: “John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’” Jesus to Nicodemus, “you must be born again!” and to the Samaritan Woman: “I will give you living water to drink.” And perhaps the most famous line and most overlooked riddle: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

JG and MMHow can the Word be with and be at the same time? Are the Word and God, in other words, two or one? We are so accustomed to the grandeur, and the received meaning, of the first verse of the Fourth Gospel (4G) that we no longer hear the inherent riddle. Riddles were a popular form of entertainment in the ancient Mediterranean, just as they can be for us today; if we don’t recognize that, we miss a lot of the fun in the 4G.

The 4G relishes the use of riddles, much as the synoptic gospels use parables (of which there are none in the 4G), to “reward” the reader who already “gets it” and to help the readers who don’t see the world around them in a new way. Not only is the wordplay unfortunately and unavoidably often lost in the English translation, the irony is often lost on those who want an either/or answer: to “get it,” one must often be open to a “both/and” solution. The joy is that the riddles themselves, like parables, are designed to help one open us to a new way of seeing the world, often one that is less either/or than both/and.

While most readers pick up on the creation references at the beginning of the 4G, may miss the use of creation symbolism at the end. We begin the end, so to speak, with the creation motif and the final (7th) sign: the resuscitation of Lazarus (11.1-44), again emphasizing the theme of acts of creation, of giving life. Jesus’ resurrection could be counted as an eighth sign, foreshadowed in the seventh and beginning the time of renewed creation. In the 4G, however, the crucifixion and resurrection are one moment, as it were, indicating renewed creation.

That context lies in the background of the 4G’s narration of Jesus’ death on the cross, which is distinct from that of the synoptic gospels. Jesus’ final words here are “It is finished” (19.30), placed to repeat the narrator’s assertion in v. 28, “when Jesus knew that all was now finished” (teleo). The Greek word translated “finished” is best understood not as “ended” but as “brought to completion” or “fulfilled,” and just after Jesus dies, we read immediately that the Sabbath is about to begin (19.31). Jesus’ doing the Father’s work of bringing “life” as he completes stages of that work (see 4.34 and 5.36) and fulfilling it by his voluntary offering of his life “for his friends” ushers in the Sabbath renewal.

This new creation is underlined again in 20.1 as the resurrection narrative begins: “Early on the first day of the week [sabbaton].” The garden setting of the resurrection appearance to Mary of Magdala, like the “in the beginning” and other symbols that open the 4G, points us back to Genesis. When Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener, and that’s a both/and: she is literally wrong but spiritually correct, and that points in itself to a symbolic meaning: the portrayal of Jesus as the new Adam, a motif present in other early Christian literature. Jesus is the Word, fulfilling the creation, and is also the new Adam, ushering in a new human participation in that creation. It’s then a short step to think of the Creator God of the garden, the earth.

Mary’s own awareness comes when she hears the voice of her shepherd speak her name (recalling Jn 10.3). This scene is, without a doubt, one of the most intimate scenes of the Bible that can lead each Christian to ask: by what name does Jesus address me? How do I know Jesus’ voice? And in her great love, Mary does what all of us do: she tries to hold on, to freeze the happy moment in space and time. (“Touch” is a very poor translation.) But Jesus instructs her not to hold on to this experience: she is to be open to the new experience of Jesus not physically present but freed from the  bounds of space and time and so always present in eternal life now in the context of the entire creation, permeating the whole cosmos. The encounter between the risen Jesus and Mary is clearly a message to and by the community: do not only look back at the so-called “historical” Jesus, but be aware of his constant presence now in each other as you live and breathe in the universe. Be aware of the eternal and life-giving presence of the Gardener.

Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

 

Do Not Be Afraid

When we talk about mercy, we should remember that it has one range of meanings when talk about the works of mercy and another range of meanings when we speak about God’s mercy. For God, mercy evokes God’s providence, grace, and love. In this Year of Mercy, and at this particular time, we must be careful using military metaphors, although the Lord is presented as a commander in some of the Psalms, “the Lord of Hosts,” and conflict plays a major role in the book of Revelation. I think that there is something inappropriate about singing Onward Christian Soldiers.

“Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
with the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
forward into battle see his banners go!”

The Church is not an army with generals, crusades, marches, conquests, victories, flags, and banners. During the Korean War in the early nineteen fifties, Joseph Stalin famously asked, when he heard about the Pope’s power, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” In fall 1951, I started kindergarten at Saint Teresa of Avila’s in Brooklyn, New York. We thought the Pope had lots of divisions. It was an Irish-American parish, and the Irish-Americans were feeling their oats.  There was a senator out west named McCarthy. We learned a song I still remember.

“There’s a crimson banner flying, there’s a bloodstained flag unfurled.
For the knights of Christ are marching to the conquest of the world.”

That it is not so, thank a merciful God.

We see this theme in the three readings from the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time. They feature individual persons meeting God, in fear and trembling, humbled, transformed, one on one. Isaiah saw the Lord. “Woe is me, I am doomed! I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah’s lips are burned. “Here I am. Send me.” He prophesied during the momentous Assyrian invasion of 740 B.C. which destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. Do not be afraid.

Paul says, “I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective .  .  . not I, however, but the grace of God that is with me.” He was put to the sword in Rome in 64 A.D., a martyr. Do not be afraid.

In Luke’s Gospel, Peter meets Jesus in a sinking boat. “They came and filled both boats Peter sinking boatwith fish so that the boats were in danger of sinking .  .  .”  Peter saw this and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus replies, in Luke’s Greek, me phobou, “Do not be afraid;” In 64 A.D., Peter was crucified upside down on Vatican Hill in Rome, a martyr. Do not be afraid. This is motif in the Gospel of Luke. The angel told Zachary, me phobou, “Do not be afraid.” The angel told Mary in Nazareth, me phobou, “Do not be afraid.” The angel told the shepherds outside of Bethlehem,” me phobou, “Do not be afraid.”

Military force overwhelmed Isaiah, Paul, and Peter, but they were enveloped in the mercy, providence, grace, and love of God. The important point is that, even if they were caught up in vast and sweeping historical movements, God’s mercy, providence, grace, and love went one on one with them. Do not be afraid. God’s mercy, providence, grace, and love are particular, individual, unique, and personal. Since God sees us as individuals, each one matters. Isaiah, Paul, Peter, Zachary, Mary, and the shepherds matter. So do I, so does Father John, my wife MaryAnn, Desiree, Reid, Molly, Patty, Eban, President Dlugos and his family, each one matters in God’s sight. Do not be afraid.

Let me end with a long quote from a sermon that Blessed John Henry Newman gave to university students in 1833. Note the old-fashioned “thee’ and “thou.” These pronouns refer to you singularly.

God beholds thee individually, whoever thou art. He ‘calls thee by thy name.’ He sees thee, and understands thee, as He made thee. He knows what is in thee, all thy own peculiar feelings and thoughts, thy dispositions and likings, thy strengths and thy weaknesses. He views thee in thy day of rejoicing, and thy day of sorrow. He sympathizes in thy hopes and thy temptations. He interests Himself in all thy anxieties and remembrances, all the risings and fallings of thy spirit. He has numbered the very hairs of thy head and the cubits of thy stature. He compasses thee round and bears thee in His arms; He takes thee up and sets thee down. He notes thy very countenance, whether smiling or in tears, whether healthful or sickly. He looks tenderly upon thy hands and thy feet; He hears thy voice, the beating of thy heart, and thy very breathing. Thou dost not love thyself better than He loves thee. Thou canst not shrink from pain more than He dislikes thou bearing it; and if He puts it on thee, it is as thou wilt put it on thyself, if thou wert wise, for a greater good afterwards. Thou art not only His creature, thou art man redeemed and sanctified, His adopted son, favored with a portion of that glory and blessedness which flows from Him everlastingly unto His Only Begotten Son. Thou art chosen to be His. Thou wast one of those for whom Christ offered up His last prayer, and sealed it with His precious blood. What a thought this is, a thought almost too great for our faith! Scarce can we refrain from acting Sarah’s part, when we bring it before us, so as to ‘laugh’ from amazement and perplexity.

When you meet God, as indeed you already have, and as indeed you will again and again, enveloped in God’s mercy, providence, grace, and love, me phobou, Do not be afraid. Uncle Sam may need an army. You don’t need an army. You do not need a general. Follow in the footsteps of Isaiah, Paul, Peter, Zachary, Mary, and the shepherds. Do not be afraid.

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College and former Director of the Online Theology Program. He is a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Portland.

“A Still More Excellent Way”

Today’s epistle reading features I Corinthians 13:1-13.  Here St. Paul achieves a sublimity and spiritual illumination so excellent that still encourages and enlivens.  This passage surely appears in some odd settings: I’ve heard it read atop Maine’s Mount Agamenticus at a wedding that featured canine wedding attendants, and at Fulton, Missouri’s “Westminster Chapel” (where Winston Churchill coined the phrase “Iron Curtain” in 1946) at a Star Wars-themed wedding.  I Corinthians 13 makes these crazy-train stops because St. Paul’s scriptural language on divine love has become the foundation for our secular, cultural language.  Theologians rightly decry inculturation run amok, wherein cultural values infiltrate and overwhelm the Gospel’s primacy.  The cultural popularity of one chapter—roughly two hundred fifty words translated into English—from St. Paul points to another problem:  the dilution of the Gospel beyond the point of recognition.

These problems stem in part from St. Paul’s own words.  This particular segment

Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous, it is not pompous,
It is not inflated, it is not rude,
it does not seek its own interests,
it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing
but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.

These are precisely the words that wedding plans—Christian and secular alike—adore.  What could be nicer?  For starters, it helps to remember that St. Paul describes here God’s love (with clear implications for understanding the Trinity) from which our loves—Screenshot 2016-01-31 07.02.27spiritual and physical—take their form and vibrancy.  Love without God is bound to fail; only with God’ love—which we experience as grace—do we hope and endure all things. Supporting, enlightening, and justifying this great spiritual reality that is divine love stands the eschaton.  There will come a day when we realize fully and completely the truths by which we live now only dimly and partially seen.

At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror,
but then face to face.
At present I know partially;
then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.
So faith, hope, love remain, these three;
but the greatest of these is love.

Amen indeed—love is the greatest.  We will know this love fully some day, but meanwhile how do we live now?  The eschaton brings to fulfillment the kingdom of God which Christ proclaimed.  From last week’s Gospel (Luke 4), Jesus reads Isaiah’s proclamation of good tidings to captives, the poor, and the afflicted, then sits down announcing “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  In other words, like St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, the Kingdom already exists here on earth.

Constructing the path to this “already, but not yet fully” is St. Paul’s “still more excellent way.”  God’s love, which the Holy Spirit brings us, enlivens our lives and interactions with each other. Any kingdom, and certainly God’s kingdom, necessarily rests on communitarian foundations. So, the more excellent way—an ethic, and the eventual route to God’s Kingdom—necessarily go through and with the Church. In this we benefit from, as St. Paul said, “a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).   Father Michael Sliney, LC, cultivates a burgeoning YouTube and Google+ parish, each post declaring “Thy Kingdom Come!”  Anthony Esolen has written recently a delightful book Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching. Using an impressive grasp of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclicals, Esolen reasserts the Church’s social message for family, Church, and state.  The relationship with God bonds the individual to each of these communities in specific ways.  The key, of course, is to make sure one’s loves are ordered properly.  This happens only with God’s love. Finally, today is the feast day of St. John Bosco, who pursued the “still more excellent way” with working-class boys in mid-nineteenth century Turin, Italy. It was not easy work, but St. John persevered.  A dream at age nine had convinced him God had called him to the vocation.  In the dream John fought a gang of boys, but then a man intervened, calling John to become their leader.  When John protested, the man insisted humility and cheerfulness would win them over.  St. John’s dream, in other words, reaffirmed St. Paul’s “still more excellent way.”  The providential intersection of St. Paul’s epistle and the feast of Catholic youth ministry’s great patron should illuminate our own relationships with God and, through God, with others.

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

The Light Shines in the Darkness

…and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).  Amen!  Today is the feast of the Holy Family as well as St. John the Apostle.    Not surprisingly, today’s readings focus on family images, starting with Sirach’s exhortation to honor fathers and Hannah’s dedication of Samuel to Yahweh, through the Psalmist’s invocation of blessing upon those doing God’s will. St. Paul calls husbands and wives to serve Christ by serving each other.  Luke’s Gospel (2:41-52) retells an intimate, but nonetheless revealing, story of Jesus’ childhood.  Accompanying Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem for Passover, Jesus then stays behind to join the rabbinical discussions in the Temple.  When his parents, understandably distraught, locate him three days later, they find the rabbis astonished by the twelve-year-old’s answers.  Joseph and Mary sweep this aside and implore:  why have you done this to us?  Jesus’ response and the story’s conclusion remain a wellspring of theological and spiritual reflection:

““Why were you looking for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
But they did not understand what he said to them.
He went down with them and came to Nazareth,
and was obedient to them;
and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor
before God and man.”

This Gospel passage provides the basis for the fifth, concluding decade of the Rosary’s Joyous Mysteries.  Jesus’ answer sets the stage for the subsequent Sorrowful, Luminous, and Glorious Mysteries, wherein the Incarnation achieves our salvation, precisely by going through our very human life, even death.  So, even here in the depths of December’s darkness, an oblique reference to Golgotha appears, itself the culmination of the Temple’s own work.

Indeed, as the New Year approaches in what are some of the darkest days of the year (in terms of daylight itself), St. John’s gospel, especially its Prologue (1:1-18), speaks to us ever anew.  In the beginning the Word exists with, and is, God. Through the Word comes light and life, and that Word itself came into the world.  The world does not recognize the occasion’s momentousness, but those who do, receive grace upon grace.  The passage concludes with the astonishing claim that nobody has seen God, but the Son, the Incarnate Word, has revealed Him.  So, again, echoing St. Luke’s passage, amid the darkness of this world, St. John reassures us that great events are underway.

Family life, we know, is much more mundane. Tellingly, Luke informs us Mary kept in her heart all those stories of Jesus’ childhood.  St. John Paul II overlooked neither this detail nor the story’s broader point that this, after all, concerns a family.  In the Holy Family, St. John Paul saw a “house”—a place where we all live—and where we should always be found.  The family, precisely in its inescapable reality and rootedness, provides the everyday location for encountering God’s plan for each of us.

When considered, that is a frightful proposition:  the earthly and the heavenly united…in your family.  Perhaps it is thus no surprise that scholars usually prefer to distinguish clearly between the earthly Synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke and the lofty, heavenly Gospel by John.  It is true that real differences exist between the Gospels. Further, Christians of all sorts choose favorites.  William C. Placher, whose deceptively clear writing masked profound theological reflection, insisted Mark alone came closest to revealing Jesus’ message.  Liberation-minded theologians often prefer Luke for his inclusive vision of the Gospel.  Some of Jesus’ best known parables appear only in Luke:  the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan.  John’s Gospel, as the Prologue indicates, starts not with lowly Nazareth and Bethlehem, but with the very origins of existence itself.  That is quite a difference, but the Church, cognizant of it, nonetheless left it unresolved in the Scriptural canon.

Theologically we would do well to read the Bible with the Church.   When challenged by a Scripturally-informed student, one liberation theologian at a prominent Midwestern Catholic institution once blurted out that “John is so much <<expletive>>!”  Scripture’s diversity can lead to high or low Christologies, over-emphasizing either Christ’s divinity or humanity. John’s Gospel, with its lofty language, casts Jesus as heaven-sent and thApse St Johnus not much concerned with earthly concerns like the poor.  That is a real concern, but Scripture reiterates thoroughly the preferential option for the poor.  On the other hand, St. John—his Gospel and his own story—likewise has enjoyed widespread Christian devotion.  The disciple Jesus loved, John with Mary does not abandon Jesus at the Cross.  He then accompanies Peter to the empty tomb, and in old age he received the visions recounted in the Book of Revelation.  His gospel’s Prologue is still read at the conclusion of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.  And in Rome, Constantine dedicated to St. John, not Facade St JohnSt. Peter, the first Church he built.  The Lateran Basilica stands on what used to be Rome’s outskirts, just inside the Aurelian walls.  In other words, where the Roman people themselves lived.  And there, among those ancient homes and families, arose the church dedicated to the saint whose writings illuminate Christ’s presence in our own families.

 

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

Awaiting the Incarnation

Almost everyone loves babies. And when the baby is the incarnate Lord, making himself completely vulnerable as a helpless infant, we are that much more moved at his coming, his advent, his nativity.

If the author of the Gospel of John knew of these stories, however, he seems to have been relatively unimpressed. And so we look forward to hearing Matthew and Luke’s nativity narrative, repeatedly, and perhaps glance over brief inclusions of passages from John.

And yet it is the Gospel of John that gives us the broadest perspective, and to me the most meaningful context of the incarnation. Matthew looks especially to the import of the incarnation in the context of God’s relationship to his people as revealed in Jewish history, indicated by the beginning of the Gospel, the genealogy of Jesus reaching back to Abraham. While Matthew includes signs of the Roman imperial context, it remains to Luke to place the incarnation squarely in that world, with his elegant and scholarly dedication and his direct signal to “the time of Caesar Augustus.” Both contexts are necessary to explore, and I doubt that the author of the Fourth Gospel would counter either one.

But his interests are broader. The prologue (1:1-18) of the Gospel of John continues a centuries-long discussion in Judaism regarding how it is possible to speak of a God who is both transcendent and immanent, Wholly Other Creator of the universe and yet intimately involved in every creature and to whom every creature gestures. The words used interchangeably for talking about God as present here, God-for-us, varied by the first century BCE; they included Wisdom, Son, Spirit, and yes, Word (logos).

Drawing deeply in his prologue from biblical passages such as Genesis 1, Sirach 24:1-25, Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-30, and Proverbs 8:22-36, this author makes it clear that Jesus Christ is no less than the incarnation of what the Jewish tradition has called God’s Wisdom, God when God is completely for us, especially as Creator of the universe. God’s Wisdom has been revealed before in Torah, in the Temple, in creation, but never so permanently and perfectly as now, in a particular human being. John’s is a Cosmic Advent.

With apologies to my spiritual father Francis of Assisi and his initiation of the living manger scene, John’s is a magnificent image to which I am personally far more attached than to the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. But John’s vision does present a problem: how does one live a cosmic advent every day? How is it manageable or even helpful? How do we put flesh on that imposing vision that this author has given us?

Some practical activities can help draw our attention to the wonder of the Cosmic Advent. We could look at the stars, really take time to look at the stars, and here I must recognize the contribution of my rescue pup Sasha, for whose needs I stand outside at 11pm every night! We could note the phase of the moon each night and marvel prayerfully in the wondrous structure and processes of the universe that result in what we can see at that moment, and we can marvel prayerfully that the savior whose advent we now celebrate is so much more than that.  

But we don’t have to be unceasingly celestial in our gaze to remind ourselves of the glorious interconnectedness and redemption of the universe that Christ reveals (Col 1:15-20). We can at so many moments of the day and night bring our awareness to the “thisness,” as John Duns Scotus and other medieval scholastics would call it (haecceity), of each created being God brings across our paths every day. We can “go small” and practice hospitality to our companions on this planet as best we can. When we do that, we celebrate an unending Advent, as Mary Oliver expresses in her poem “Making the House Ready for the Lord,” which I first encountered in America magazine (Sept. 25, 2006).

Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
Still nothing is as shining as it should be
For you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice – it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances– but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
While the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
As I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.

Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online.