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,

Love in Marriage (Magnificat Booklet): A Review

Love is patient, love is kind… yet, despite St. Paul’s clear enumeration of its characteristics, love is – for most of us – somewhat elusive. We try to describe it, we try to live and experience it – but it’s not as easily apprehended by us as we’d like.  Love thrills us, confuses and disappoints us, warms our hearts and speaks to our deepest longings. We think we know what Love is, how it should guide our lives and inform how we treat each other; but we don’t know the half of it. Reading St. Paul’s beautiful First Letter to the Corinthians won’t help our understanding unless we’re willing to take a deep dive into Love’s mystery, and reflect on it honestly and with purpose. But how can we do that, especially if we’re not used to reading the Scriptures, or if Biblical language doesn’t always “hit home” with us? Enter Pope Francis and his Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia: The Joy of LoveThis sweeping document explores the Scriptural, Magisterial and Pastoral implications for living andloving authentically, especially in the context of marriage and family life. It’s an important document, and one that will be studied by theologians and those involved in ministry to families for years to come. For the average layperson in the pew, however, reading any Papal document (especially one over 200 pages long) is a daunting task. Thankfully, that task is made easier with Magnificat’s companion booklet, 

Love in Marriage, Pope Francis on living and growing in love. At a little more than 100 pages, this tiny booklet makes the Pope’s thought and words accessible to everyone. It also unpacks one particular aspect of the Papal document and makes it manageable: the meaning of Love.

Love in Marriage focuses specifically on Chapter 4 of Amoris Laetitia, in which the Pope fleshes out St. Paul’s “characteristics” of Love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, and its implications for how we love as married couples, children, priests and religious, and single people. He begins by acknowledging that the passage is “lyrical” – and certainly its poetic beauty probably leads many Roman Catholic couples to choose it as one of their wedding readings. But a closer look reveals that the Apostle isn’t peddling poetry or “pretty words.” As Pope Francis goes through the brief passage line-by-line, he breaks open its words and introduces us to their deeper meaning for our lives. We learn that the words Paul uses to describe love (patient, kind, not irritable or resentful, hopeful, etc.) go far beyond the “surface reading” we often give them, challenging us to consider our relationships with those close to us as well as people we don’t know, and learning to love everyone as God loves. This reflection on Love is given in the context of a document focused on marriage and family; but Love is our common, human experience, and a way in which we image God. The Pope’s words call us to a deeper understanding of Love, and how each of us can love generously and well, whatever our state in life. For this reason, Magnificat’s companion booklet is an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to follow Christ by learning to love as He does.

The booklet unpacks each section of Chapter 4 by reproducing the Pope’s words, and offering opportunities for reflection. It takes Paul’s characteristics of Love word by word, as the Pope does, and offers readers the opportunity to more fully understand Paul’s meaning. Each section of the booklet begins with the papal text, then provides three modes of reflection: On The Text, About My Life, and To Conclude. Each area of reflection asks specific questions about the meaning of the Pope’s teaching on that section of Paul’s letter, how it applies to my life and relationships, and where Paul’s (and the Pope’s) words about Love lead me in prayer, and in taking positive steps toward acting on Love in my life. Some of the questions are specifically directed toward one’s relationship with a spouse, but can be easily adapted for all of our relationships: between friends, family members, co-workers, and people we meet in the course of our everyday lives. (For example, one question asks “Do I make an effort to think and speak positively about my spouse?” We can easily replace the word spouse with boss, co-worker, best friend – or that person we find it especially hard to love.) The questions help readers to more deeply consider the demands of Love, and identify the areas where we need God’s help to love each other better. Each time for reflection ends with a moment for prayer, first inviting readers to pray with one’s spouse, or within the quiet of one’s own heart – “I want to say: I thank you…I’m sorry…Please…” – and then providing a brief prayer to say alone or together.

Whether one is married, single, widowed, or a priest/religious, the act of speaking a thought or prayer aloud (or in our hearts) is powerful. Every one of us wants to say – needs to say – I thank you…I’m sorry…Please. In our world of noise, distractions, and rough-and-tumble interactions on social media, this moment of reflection on gratitude, sorrow and forgiveness, and asking for what we need – or how we can help another – is a welcome respite. For those of us for whom saying any of these words is difficult, their repetition throughout the booklet (after having reflected deeply on each aspect of Love) is helpful in breaking down our interior walls and leading us toward the healing God wants to give us (and to others through us) with His Love.

Despite its title, Love in Marriage is for anyone who wants to grow in their experience of God’s love, and learn how to better give and receive Love in their relationships. The booklet can be utilized in a number of ways, and would be an excellent diocesan/parish resource for both marriage preparation and enrichment programs. Its study of Love is ideal for young adults discerning their vocation to marriage or priesthood/religious life. It can be used in parish study groups, or by individuals who want to “dip their toe” into the water of Papal documents, and get a feel for how to read Scripture with a reflective heart. The booklet can help each of us to appreciate the call to Love found in every state in life, and how it is lived in marriage and family, consecrated life, and in the lives of those who are unmarried. Love in Marriage is a book for everyone, and it will help its readers to learn to love more openly, more fully, and with greater reliance on God.

In the end, Love isGod Himself, and He’s calling each one of us to follow Him in the way of Love that leads us to an abundant life (Cf. John 10:10 ) here and now – and on the path to an eternal life of Love with Him.

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

The Magnificat Rosary Companion – Booklet Review

During the month of May we pay special honor to Mary. Perhaps, we even pick up those Rosary beads, which we haven’t touched in a while, and give them a go-around. Yet, when it’s been awhile, we can tend to forget how to say all the particular parts of the Rosary. The Magnificat Rosary Companion is here to assist you! This little booklet not only reminds you how to say the Rosary, it also offers meditations on each of the mysteries of the Rosary, accompanied by pictures of art from such masters as Fra Angelico, a 15th century Italian Renaissance fresco painter.

Whether it be the Joyous, Luminous, Sorrowful or Glorious Mysteries, each decade of the Rosary is accompanied by a meditation that places you back in time; experiencing the respective mystery anew. For example, in the second Luminous Mystery, we meditate on the Wedding Feast at Cana. As we read the meditation in The Magnificat Rosary Companion, we learn:

Our parched souls long for ultimate treasures: peace, purpose, meaning, fulfillment, happiness. Yet, the more we drink in the things of the world, the more we remain wrung out, depleted and defeated. Only in Jesus can we imbibe what satisfies our infinite desires. Mary, the Fountain of Hope, leads us to her Son, “the Fountain of all Holiness.”

Rich in content, this booklet will aide you in developing a good habit of saying the Rosary more regularly. Rather than mere recitation (vocal prayer), this booklet enables you to develop your skills when it comes to meditative prayer. The Magnificat Rosary Companion enhances your prayer time, by enabling you to think more deeply about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ!

If you would like to enhance your prayer time, then I highly recommend getting a copy of The Magnificat Rosary Companion. You can get your copy by clinking on this link.

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.

The Work of Bees

In 2011, some of the ancient imagery of the Easter vigil was restored to the liturgy.

On this, your night of grace, O holy Father,
accept this candle, a solemn offering,
the work of bees and of your servants’ hands…

Why mention bees? It is axiomatic in Christian theology that creation and redemption cannot be separated, and in the Easter vigil liturgy those small creatures, the bees, have a role in the liturgical drama of salvation by reminding us with images of that link. Saint Paul, for example, uses images of creation and recreation to signal the effect of the resurrection. “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5: 16-17).

John’s gospel also uses the connection between creation and redemption. The Prologue recalls the poem of creation in Genesis 1: in the very beginning, God created light. And in that same eternal beginning was God’s creative Word, who becomes flesh. The light of Easter, coming from the candle, reminds us of the light of creation and our need to be a new creation.

The language of the liturgy is not (or should not be) didactic or abstract. Its symbolism functions not only to inform but to move us through an appeal to our imagination and affections. In An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870) John Henry Newman distinguished between notional and real assents and observed that in real assents the mind “is directed towards things [rather than mental creations or notions], represented by the impressions which they have left on the imagination. These images, when assented to, have an influence both on the individual and society, which mere notions cannot exert.”

It was a mistake to remove the bees from the Easter vigil. Small they may be, but the mother bees create the wax for the pillar of fire that lights the way out of darkness and into the light of the Morning Star.That same pillar is dipped into the baptismal waters when we welcome catechumens on the path of faith. The imagery of re-creation is difficult to miss.


But now we know the praises of this pillar,
which glowing fire ignites for God’s honor,
a fire into many flames divided,
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light,
for it is fed by melting wax,
drawn out by mother bees
to build a torch so precious…

 

May this flame be found still burning
by the Morning Star:
the one Morning Star who never sets…

 

 

David Hammond teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! While most consider Christmas to have that honor, I think the Easter Triduum takes it – hands down.

In the next few days, the universal Church will celebrate the reason for her existence. We will remember the moments in the life of Jesus that make the kingdom of God our reality. I use the present tense intentionally here because the memory of these events is of a very particular kind – an anamnesis. Such a remembrance implies a making present of the event, as well as a participation in the event. Though we have this experience at every Mass, during the Easter Triduum, we have the opportunity to travel the road of the disciples in the same time frame that they did – over the course of three days. The Easter Triduum is actually one extended liturgical celebration, not three separate ones. For me, the most powerful moments come in the waiting between our times in the church.

On Holy Thursday, we sit with Jesus at the Last Supper. Here, Jesus gives new meaning to the Passover ritual gestures that fulfill God, the Father’s plan of salvation. The sharing of bread, which bonded those present at the Passover celebration, is “My Body”, indicating that the unity of his disciples lies now in His Person, not merely common food. The cup of wine blessed by Jesus is the Cup of Elijah, the Messiah. This cup is “My Blood”, by which Jesus both claims his Messianic identity and indicates the way in which salvation will be won. Furthermore, the cup is shared, indicating the sharing in Christ’s suffering that the disciples will undergo – suffering which will have the same redemptive effect as that of Christ’s own. Thus, we can say with St. Paul, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Colossians 1:24)

We then go off with Jesus into the Garden of Gethsemane. Traditionally, we visit local parishes to visit with the Blessed Sacrament throughout the night – entering into the mind and heart of Jesus, pondering the thoughts and feelings that caused him to sweat blood, staying awake with him as best we can. I always appreciated not having to go to work on Good Friday because it enabled me to truly enter into this moment, and, the next morning, to feel the anticipation of the trial of Jesus to be remembered at the Good Friday service.

tomb mosaicOf course, on Good Friday, we are present at the trial, condemnation, and crucifixion of Jesus, playing our role in His suffering, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Leaving Good Friday service, I am always left with a keen awareness that the tabernacle is empty, that all tabernacles are empty. I must admit, it scares me a bit – to think that Jesus is not here! Yes, I know he is in my thoughts and in my heart, but that makes his presence dependent on me. In the Eucharist, he is here in a much fuller capacity (indeed, the fullest) than I could ever imagine spiritually – and I can feel that presence in front of the Blessed Sacrament. It is a grace far beyond me. With that presence gone, I feel the inadequacy of my own memories of Jesus.

Holy Saturday is a very long day for me. I imagine what it must have been like for the disciples and Mary during that time between the crucifixion and the resurrection. What they hoped for had never been done before – a man would rise from the dead. Plus, the Romans would be after them soon, too. What if this really was the end? What if they had been duped? What was it all for? What if they stopped trusting themselves and their own experience of Jesus? Did he really heal and feed all those people? Could they trust their own memories? What if it was all in their imaginations?

Slowly, the church illuminates with the light of the Easter fire, then pew by pew until the darkness is lifted, and we are bathed in the light of Christ at the Easter Vigil. Halleluah! He is risen! Jesus is the Messiah. He has conquered sin and death. The kingdom of God IS our reality! And we are here, present in this anamnesis, at its founding. We can trust our own memories of Jesus because we have been present to and participated in the Paschal Mystery.

So tell me, is there a more wonderful time of the year?

Carmina Chapp is Associate Director of Online Theology Programs and teaches sacraments and liturgy for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

This post originally appeared on April 14, 2014.

Holy Week, Chrism, and Priesthood

Being a professor of theology, people often ask me for recommendations when introducing the Catholic faith to others. What’s the best book to use? Is there a video I can suggest to someone? For years now, my answer to these questions has been the same. If you want to introduce someone to the Catholic faith, attend as many liturgies during Holy Week as possible. Take Thursday and Friday of Holy Week off from work, and live in church. That’s my advice.

Though, in Western Christianity, we have come to see Christmas as the “high holiday” of the year, theologically speaking, it isn’t. Those three days which celebrate the Lord’s passion and culminate in his resurrection, hence the phrase Paschal (Passover) Triduum (three days), are the Christian “high holidays.” They not only re-present the mysteries of the Lord’s suffering, death, and resurrection, but – if I am to be counted among the saints – they are the story of my salvation. If I am saved, it is because I am mystically joined – through faith and baptism – to Christ on Calvary. St. Paul makes this same point to the Christians at Rome. “[A]re you unaware,” he asks them, “that we who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4). To use another reference, on Good Friday many of us no doubt will sing the African-American spiritual “Were You There?” Well, if I am united to Christ, the answer is “Yes”!

The Sacrament of Confirmation (a.k.a., Chrismation)

Many of these liturgical celebrations are very familiar to us: Holy Thursday’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Good Friday’s Celebration of the Lord’s Passion (not Mass), and the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. Along with the Way of the Cross (Via Crucis) – traditionally celebrated during the day on Good Friday – these are the most well-known and heavily attended liturgical celebrations during Holy Week. There is, however, another Mass during Holy Week that ought to be added to this list. The Mass celebrated during the day on Holy Thursday is known as the Chrism Mass. It is at this Mass that your local bishop will consecrate the oils used for sacraments (e.g., Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, etc.) and liturgical celebrations (e.g., the consecration of a church, anointing of catechumens, etc.) in your diocese throughout the year. It is a rich liturgical celebration, and I would recommend that you find the Mass schedule of your local bishop in order to attend; it is not always celebrated, according to the tradition, on Holy Thursday.

But there is more to attracting one to attend the Chrism Mass than just experiencing something new. Customarily, we are used to commemorating both our Lord’s institution of the Eucharist and the sacrament of Holy Orders at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. This makes perfect sense, since “[o]n the night before he died, Jesus instituted the Eucharist and at the same time established the priesthood of the New Covenant” (Sacramentum Caritatis 23). Further, the celebration of the Eucharist is at the heart of the priesthood itself (see Pope St. John Paul II, General Audience, 9 June 1993). But while the sacraments of the Eucharist and Holy Orders are most certainly intimately linked, the Chrism Mass – more than the Mass of the Lord’s Supper – is a celebration of the priesthood. In addition to the Blessing of Oils, this Mass contains within it a Renewal of Priestly Promises; and the scriptural readings point to the biblical use of oils for consecrating, i.e., ‘setting apart,’ a person for a holy task or office.  

While the Chrism Mass is perhaps the annual celebration of Christ’s institution of the priesthood, it should also remind us of the holy task to which we are all called. It is a celebration of the ministerial priesthood, established in the sacrament of Holy Orders. But it should also remind us all of the priesthood of all believers, established in the sacraments of initiation. All Christians, by virtue of their Baptism, are called to preach, govern, and sanctify in the world; just as those who have received Holy Orders are called to preach, govern, and sanctify in the Church. All Christians have been set apart for this task, and made “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Ex 19:6; cf. 1 Pt 2:9). The ministerial priesthood and priesthood of all believers both participate in the one priesthood of Christ, and together form one Church (see Lumen Gentium 10).

So if you happen to see a priest on Holy Thursday, it would be an appropriate day to thank him for his ministry. Then consider your own call to holiness, and the grace you have received through Baptism in order to fulfill this call. That’s your priestly vocation!

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Reflections on Saint Joseph in St. John Paul II’s Redemptoris Custos

In 1989, Pope John Paul II (a recently canonized saint in the Roman Catholic Church) promulgated Redemptoris Custos, an apostolic exhortation “On the Person and Mission of Saint Joseph in the Life of Christ and of the Church.”  In the Introduction of this document, the Pope notes that, in composing the exhortation, he wished to highlight the centenary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Quamquam Pluries by offering reflections regarding St. Joseph, into whose guardianship the Father entrusted the precious treasures of the Virgin Mary and her son, Jesus.  Additionally, the Pope hoped that his thoughts would evoke greater devotion to St. Joseph, the Patron of the Universal Church and the one who served the Savior in an outstanding way.  

Section I of Redemptoris Custos, which is entitled “The Gospel Portrait”, focuses on Joseph’s marriage to Mary.  The Pope refers to the angel’s annunciation to Joseph that he need not fear to take Mary as his wife, that she is pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit, and that Joseph should name the child to be born – Jesus, that is, God saves. (See Mt. 1:20 – 21)  The Pope notes that Mary was already betrothed, that is, married to Joseph so that the angel’s words to Joseph that he “not fear to take Mary as his wife” meant that Joseph should not hesitate to take Mary into his home, which was, at the time, Jewish practice after a year of betrothal. The Pope explains that before the angel’s annunciation to Joseph in a dream, Joseph was faced with the possibility that Mary had committed adultery.  If this were the case, Jewish Law demanded that Mary be stoned to death and, since Joseph was legally her husband, he would have to cast the first stone at his wife. Before the angel’s appearance to Joseph in a dream, Joseph had resolved his dilemma: he would quietly divorce Mary. However, when Joseph awoke from his dream, he acted in faith; he settled Mary into his home in Nazareth (though this was before the year of betrothal was completed) and awaited the unfolding of the mystery of her astonishing maternity.   

In Section II of his apostolic exhortation, the Pope discusses Joseph as the “Guardian of the Mystery of God.”  With Mary, Joseph assented to the revelation he received concerning the Incarnation of the Word of God and the mission of Redemption associated with it.  The Pope stresses that, by virtue of his marriage to Mary, Joseph was able to enjoy great intimacy with her son Jesus and that, in the shared life of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, the true meaning of family which is  “to guard, reveal, and communicate love” (p. 5*) was eminently evidenced. As the head of his family, Joseph provided for his wife and exercised great fatherly care of Jesus. In regard to Joseph’s latter role, the Pope states

Since it is inconceivable that such a sublime task would not be matched by the necessary qualities to adequately fulfill it, we must recognize that Joseph showed Jesus all the love, all the affectionate solicitude that a father’s heart can know. (p. 6)

Section II of the apostolic exhortation also includes reflections on  the census, the birth at Bethlehem, the circumcision, the presentation in the Temple, the flight into Egypt,  Jesus’ stay in the Temple, and the support and education of Jesus. Because Caesar Augustus had declared an empire-wide census, Joseph and Mary journeyed to Bethlehem, Joseph’s home town.  It was here that Joseph became an eyewitness to Jesus’ birth, which took place, as the Pope describes “in conditions that, humanly speaking, were embarrassing – a first announcement of that ‘self-emptying’ (cf. Phil. 2:5 – 8) which Christ freely accepted for the forgiveness of sins.” (p.7) Also, in Bethlehem, along with Mary, Joseph watched shepherds adore the newborn baby and later witnessed magi from the East pay homage to him. Of note is the fact, as the Pope explains, after Jesus’ birth, Joseph officially inserted the name Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth (cf. Jn. 1:45) into the registry of the Roman Empire. In effect, in this civil way, Joseph secured the legitimacy of Mary’s son.   

Eight days after Jesus’ birth, Joseph met his religious obligation to have his adopted son circumcised.  During the ceremony, Joseph declared that the boy’s name was Jesus. In his exhortation, the Pope explains that “In conferring the name, Joseph declares his own legal fatherhood over Jesus, and, in speaking the name, he proclaims the child’s mission as Savior.” (p. 8) Forty days after Jesus’ birth, Joseph met his fatherly obligation to present his son in the Temple in Jerusalem.  According to the Pope, in this Jewish rite, “Represented in the first-born is the people of the covenant, ransomed from slavery in order to belong to God.” (p. 8) As the Pope notes, since Jesus already belonged to God by virtue of his being the Word of God, while formally fulfilling the Jewish rite, in actuality Jesus transcended it.

After the presentation in the Temple, in a dream Joseph received a message from an angel that King Herod, in fear that the newborn child would usurp his throne, had ordered the mass murder of all boys in Bethlehem two years old or under that age. Given the angel’s instruction to flee to safety in Egypt, Joseph immediately departed from Bethlehem with his family, where he sought asylum until after Herod died.  As the Pope indicates, this experience fulfilled the words of the Old Testament prophet Hosea: “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” (Hos. 11: 1)

After returning to their homeland, Joseph settled his family in Nazareth, a quiet village wherein it was improbable that Herod’s son, Achelous, who, like his father sought to kill Jesus, would succeed in his plot. When Jesus was twelve years old, as was customary in the Jewish religion, Joseph arranged for his family to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast.  After a day’s travel back to Nazareth after the feast, realizing that Jesus was nowhere to be found, Mary and Joseph returned to Jerusalem. Three days later, they discovered Jesus in the Temple conversing with learned Jewish teachers. Jesus’ reply to his mother’s statement that she and Joseph had anxiously been searching for him: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk. 2:49 – 50) was Jesus’ way of communicating to his parents that he understood that his Father in heaven had sent him to earth to fulfill the messianic mission of redemption. After this Temple encounter, Jesus returned to Nazareth and was obedient to Joseph and Mary.  With his wife, Joseph raised Jesus to adulthood. In keeping with a father’s responsibilities, Joseph made sure Jesus was educated in the Law and apprenticed his son as a tekton, a highly skilled artisan who worked in wood, iron and, perhaps, stone.

Section III of the Pope’s apostolic exhortation is entitled “A Just Man, A Husband”.  As the Pope indicates, that Joseph was a just man is most evident in his decision to take his pregnant wife Mary into his home.  In so doing, Joseph chose to protect his wife’s honor and to honor her virginity as communicated to him by an angel who explained Mary’s mysterious pregnancy.  According to the Pope, as a spouse “Through his complete self-sacrifice, Joseph expressed his generous love for the Mother of God and gave her a husband’s ‘gift of self.’” (p. 11) Just as Mary’s motherhood was taken up in the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, so, too, was Joseph’s fatherhood and, as the Pope notes, this was possible as a consequence of the hypostatic union, that is, “humanity taken up into the unity of the Divine Person of the Word-Son, Jesus Christ.” (p. 12)

Section IV of the apostolic exhortation is entitled “Work as an Expression of Love”. Here, the Pope stresses that Joseph’s work as a tekton gave expression to the sanctification of daily life through his labor of love in support of the life of his family at Nazareth.  Referring to Joseph and Jesus’ co-laboring in the carpenter/artisan trade, the Pope asserts:

Along with the humanity of the Son of God, work too has been taken up in the mystery of the Incarnation, and has also been redeemed in a special way.  At the workbench where he plied his trade together with Jesus, Joseph brought human work closer to the mystery of the Redemption. (p. 12)

In Section V of his exhortation, “The Primacy of the Interior Life”, the Pope discusses Joseph’s mature spirituality that enabled him to consistently respond positively to the graces he received in his life as Mary’s husband and Jesus’ father.  In regard to Joseph’s latter role, the Pope stresses that “Joseph experienced … that pure contemplative love of the divine Truth which radiated from the humanity of Christ and the demands of love … required for his [Joseph’s] vocation to safeguard and develop the humanity of Jesus, which was inseparably linked to his divinity.” (p. 14) Furthermore, the Pope reflects upon the fatherly love of Joseph and Jesus’ filial love as mutually beneficial in the ongoing deepening of their relationship.  

In the final section (Section VI) of Redemptoris Custos, the Pope highlights Joseph as the “Patron of the Church in Our Day”. Just as Joseph kept watch over the Holy Family so, too,  he safeguards the Church in its ongoing history. Referring to Joseph’s role in the “economy of salvation” and to him as a model for all Christians, the Pope writes:

Recalling that God wished to entrust the beginnings of our redemption to the faithful care of St. Joseph, she asks God to grant that she [Church] may faithfully cooperate in the work of salvation; that she may receive the same faithfulness and purity of heart that inspired Joseph in serving the Incarnate Word; and that she may walk before God in the ways of holiness and justice, following Joseph’s example and through his intercession. (p. 15)

Conclusion:  

In Redemptoris Custos, Pope St. John Paul II depicts St. Joseph as an icon of faith, that is, one whose life exemplifies what it means to listen to God’s words and, in an unwavering way, act courageously upon them.  Redemptoris Custos marks a watershed moment in reflection on the role of St. Joseph in the history of Christianity.  In this document, the Pope interweaves biblical exegesis and profound theological insights regarding Joseph’s pivotal role in God’s plan of salvation.   In an outstanding way, the Pope highlights St. Joseph as loving father, faithful spouse, laborer, and patron of the universal Church. It is most fitting that the Pope concludes his exhortation with the following prayer:  “May St. Joseph obtain for the Church and for the world, as well as for each of us, the blessing of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

Dr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, is Professor of Theology and Chair of the on-campus Theology Department of Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.

In this essay, all references to Redemptoris Custos (August 15, 1989) – John Paul II are taken from the online document at http://w.2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_15 retrieved on 1.22.2018.

Bibliography:  Gary Caster, Joseph, The Man Who Raised Jesus, Servant Books, 2013; Francis L. Filas, Joseph Most Just: Theological Questions About St. Joseph, The Bruce Publishing Co, 1956; J. . . B. Midgley, Companion to Saint Joseph, CTS Publication, 2002; Pope Leo XIII, Quamquam Pluries: Encyclical on Devotion to St. Joseph, 1889,  Libreria Editrice Vaticana; Joseph, The Silent Saint [DVD], Art and Design, 2008, A&E Television Networks. (Note: In composing the above essay, the author read all texts in this listing and watched the DVD.  Hence, the essay reflects the author’s study of Redemptoris Custos viewed through the lens of insights gained from these other sources.)

 

 

 

Seeking God’s Forgiveness During Lent

Lent is an excellent time for seeking God’s forgiveness via the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In this sacrament, God cleanses us from our sins and reunites us to Christ. Although you may be apprehensive at the onset of disclosing your sins to priest, it is really Christ to whom you are confessing your sins, as the priest is acting in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. You will exit the confessional filled with God’s graces of gratitude, humility, joy and peace.

As a Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) Coordinator for my parish, I work with people coming from other Christian faiths (or even no faith) who wish to consider becoming Catholic. One of the most common questions I get is “Why do Catholics confess their sins to a priest? Why can’t you just ask God directly for forgiveness?” To answer these questions, this video from Bustedhalo.com gives the best answers:

Seeking God’s forgiveness, along with that of the community, brings us back into union with God and neighbor. Lent is the perfect time to do that, as Jesus is at the ready to issue His pardon for our sins. So, make the time to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation in preparation for the Easter celebration. Open your heart, not only to God’s forgiveness, but that of your neighbor as well. By doing so, you will make your Lenten season more fruitful, not just for you, but for those around you. Then, be a witness for others to the saving grace of Christ received in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

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.

This post first appeared on www.virginialieto.com.

In the Image of God

Created in the image of God, human beings are called to eliminate borders and build bridges of understanding while building up the reign of God. Often times we really cannot understand the struggles of others until you walk in their shoe, until you take off your comfortable Uggs and realize that the person that you are thinking of may not even have shoes to begin with. What a privilege it is to wear shoes and to wear so many!

We are one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological  differences. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, wherever they may be.  Loving our neighbor has global dimensions in a shrinking world. At the core of  the virtue of solidarity is the pursuit of justice and peace. Pope Paul VI  taught that “if you want peace, work for justice.” The Gospel calls us to be  peacemakers. Our love for all our sisters and brothers demands that we promote peace in a world surrounded by violence and conflict.

USCCB on Solidarity

It is in embarking on journeys that we are able to understand the Catholic principle of solidarity, to me this is one of the most complex teachings since it calls us to a deeper level of sacrifice.

I challenge myself to one international mission a year. This year there is a possibility to take some students and families to Haiti, Jamaica or the Dominican Republic.  In these journeys, we can access social justice and charity and see through the lens of church our responsibilities to our brothers and sisters, especially those in need.

Last year, we journeyed to Jamaica. I could see through the eyes of my students that they struggled with this concept. The fears, anxieties and struggles were clear. Both groups were able to carry each other and embrace in holiness.

While with the economically struggling people, our new friends in Christ, it was often times hard to really and truly connect based on our differences. Once we were able to breakthrough there were some neat Holy Spirit connections made especially during worship.

Upon returning our hearts were broken for days as we thought rationally that we may never be able to see these amazing new friends again.

As the days go by and we are back in our comfortable shoes and places we might have forgotten the burning of our hearts and may not be affected as much by the heart-breaking poverty.

Solidarity is echoed throughout scripture; we are given a biblical understanding of our responsibility towards the body of Christ and the suffering and joy which one can feel when we experience true solidarity with others. Let’s examine our international relations: our understanding of globalization and borders in conjunction with the human experience.

If one member of Christ’s body suffers, all suffer.  If one member is honored, all rejoice.
1 Corinthians 12:12-26

 

Sherine Green teaches History of Black Catholics in the Church and World Religions for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Ash Wednesday and Forgetfulness

From the perspective of those outside of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions, Ash Wednesday appears odd. On one occasion, I can recall – on the campus of a Catholic college, no less – overhearing undergraduates speculate that ashes on the foreheads of students must be the product of “pledge week” for fraternities and sororities. (Yikes!) Frequently, in the classroom, I would encounter the belief that Christians should always be aware of their need for redemption, and that the practice of distributing ashes one day a year served to undercut what should be a constant mindfulness. In other words, it makes what should be a daily awareness into an annual activity. While I would agree that the disciple of Christ should always be mindful of his/her need for redemption, and Christ’s abundant love for us in bringing it about, the human reality is that we are in need of constant reminding. We forget. And we not only forget because we have poor memories, we forget because we have fallen memories.

If we take the time to reflect upon memory, we should be struck by its power. After all, it is a sort of conjuring. My Nonna (of blessed memory) passed away some years ago, and yet I can recall her image, the sound of her voice, and how the soft skin of her wrinkled hand felt against mine. Every now and again, I will even associate a particular scent with that of her home. It’s difficult to describe but, when prompted by a similar smell, I’ll say to myself: “That smells like Nonna’s house.” The substantial existence of these things has long since gone, but in my memory I experience them again. What a truly marvelous gift we human beings have been given!

Lent is that time of the liturgical year when we especially recall the gospel proclamation of Christ himself: “‘The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mk 1:14-15; see Mt 4:17). During today’s Mass, a portion of this passage is one of two that one might hear when receiving ashes; the other being: “Remember that ‘you are dust and to dust you shall return’” (Gen 3:19). It is a somewhat traditional English translation to render the word “repent” in this verse from the original word “metanoeite,” but the Greek word has a much richer meaning. It is a combination of the words “mind” [nous] and “beyond” [meta], and one could interpret this word rather physically as meaning “take your head and turn it 180 degrees.” In one sense, a better English word than “repent” is “conversion.” What we remember today is that Christ calls us to himself, to live in communion with him, and that this communion requires being attuned to him in heart, soul, and mind (cf. Lk 10:27; Dt 6:5). In short, today Christ calls us to “return to [him] with [our] whole heart” (Jl 1:12).

For the disciple of Christ, this turning of heart and mind should be a daily occurrence, an ever present mindfulness. But all too often, we forget. And forgetfulness often doesn’t happen all at once, but gradually our memories erode like stones by the seashore. Prayer becomes simply rote, then neglected. Reception of the sacraments (especially confession!) becomes infrequent. One’s spiritual life becomes the discrete unit of a time-managed schedule “blocked off” on Sundays from 10 am to noon.

If the above description resonates with you, today Christ is proclaiming his good news to you. This is not because he has waited for the appropriate day on the liturgical calendar to do so (he is always calling to you). But because we fragile human beings need more explicit reminders of Christ’s call to conversion from time to time. We need Ash Wednesday because we forget. We forget that Christ’s love for us calls for our love in response. We forget that our love for him is lived out in a life of prayer, fasting, and charity. And we forget that this life – while not easy – is joyful.

And so today we are reminded of death, so that we may live. We are reminded of our mortality, so that we might enjoy immortality. We are reminded of our sin, so that we might be reconciled to God. We are reminded on this one particular day, that Christ calls us to himself each and every day

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.