A Burning Faith

Reflection Paper on Hebrews. Dancing with Jesus from Fear, through Faith, to Fire.

banner image become all flame

JMJ

The Assignment was a Reflection Paper on an assigned text, to be an oral presentation of around 7 mins. From all of the Epistle to the Hebrews I selected 10-12, the portion “on faith”. By way of process, I started with a five page paper that was (mostly) scholarly and was, in no way, reflection or tied to personal experience. A trial run was 12 mins. I trimmed it back to 8ish an then it was still not reflective. Adding in a thread about vocation and recent events in that sphere seemed to tie it all together and require yet another edit to get it down to 8 mins.

GOD IS A CONSUMING FIRE. (Hebrews 12:39). It sounds like a threat for the sinners. It is rather a promise of love for us, and of salvation. In our vocational journey, we must move with Christ from fear, in faith, to fire. 

Last year we read Pope Benedict’s Introduction to Christianity. He said the Christian faith is a description of the world as it really is: how God designed and intended things to run. To say Credo is not (only) to say something about God, but also to say something definitive about how the world actually is. Having made the foundational move to Credo, having given our assent to the doctrines, we must live (act) as if they are true. 

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb 10:31). Who has so fallen? “The Lord will judge his people” (v 30). The writer speaks of us. It is we who have fallen into the hands of God! And it’s fearful to be here. 

You here in this room know that you can try and run away from God, but he will find you anyway. God waits for you to respond in faith.

Faith is the important word. In Greek, it’s pistis. This is how the Greeks begin the Creed at liturgy: “Pisteo”.  In Latin we say “Credo”. Pistis is also used to say “by faith” here in Hebrews. In Latin, though, the translation uses a form of “Fideo”. We’ve broken this Greek “Pistis” thing into two Latin parts: a credo or “I believe” – I assent to this teaching – and a fideo or “I trust”. Picture the Greek word Pistis as breathing. Then we can imagine the Latin words breathing in at “Credo” and then breathing out at “Fideo”.

Has anyone pushed you away from your vocation? Has anyone tried to derail your process or tell you you’re not really worthy? 10:36 says “For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised.” We don’t receive the promise unless we endure unless we push to do the will of God! In fear we are tempted to become “those who shrink back and are destroyed, but” by God’s grace we can be found among “those who have pistis and keep their souls.” (v 37). Our faith calls us beyond fear,  deeper into God. 

You all feel this call. You KNOW we must do something! Doing is our Fideo. We must act as if our hope is real – even when we cannot see it.  Discernment is an action verb!

Everyone listed in Chapter 11 of Hebrews is acting by pistis: even though they are not getting what God promised in the future, they are acting as if they had it already. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses. 

Rahab… Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets… And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised… (11:31ff)

Faith is this action. Acting as if the world really is what God says it is even when it seems otherwise. 

Remember how Cardinal Ratzinger described faith (he means both the “fideo” as well as the “credo”): we cling to the cross but the cross is not tethered to anything: we are floating over the abyss of unbelief on a plank of wood.

God is doing something in our life and we must (in pistis) not only assent to  let him do as he wills (Credo) but we must also participate in it (Fideo). He has given us what we need to work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). JUST DO IT.

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of God: but Christians assert that God is love. We also know love hurts like the Cross. We don’t know why, yet we struggle forward. And Chapter 12 now brings this all home: we are surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses (12:1b). Every action in the arena of life, in the arena of our vocation, is watched and cheered on. 

Hebrews urges us not to reject hard struggles, but to act in pistis even so, assent and push forward to the God of love. From the saints and angels around us, we can hear a great deafening roar as the Race Set before us begins “CREDO! (YES!) FIDEO! (YES!) GO!” (And the crowd goes wild!) COME ON! AGAIN!

And, rushing forward we find at the end of 12 what we saw at beginning of my talk: here is why it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of God: he is a consuming fire! 

We will not arrive at Ordination Day on a sea of clouds and golden sunbeams, but rather Paradise is only in the eternal wildfire of Divine Love that burns away our dross, that purges away our sins, that leaves us free and clear to embrace God as fully as he wishes to embrace us. How do we dance in Pistis to this end? How do we prepare? 

The Fathers use the image of metal in a forge: as it heats up, the metal never burns as such, but we can see the fire take root, filling the metal with itself, glowing. The Eucharist is the fire. Prayer. Our actions of Credo and Fideo. We commune with God and, little by little, we begin to take on his fire.

Here’s a story from the Desert: 

Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, insofar as I can, I say my prayers, I keep my little fast, and I pray and meditate… Now what more shall I do?” The elder stood up and stretched his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of flame, and he said to him, “If you wish, become all fire.”

We have fallen into the hands of our God. He is a consuming fire – for all of us – for the sinners and the saints. He is nothing but love, forever embracing, forming, sustaining, enfolding. 

We can dive right in – in pistis – and we will live forever in the fire. He is love: both our source and our proper end. Having set out for him as the end of our race we dare not turn back. That would be to act without pistis.

 Or we can try standing outside the fire in fear, always running away from God. In which latter case we will burn out in that omnipresent conflagration of love. Forever.

Rather, Love, brothers and sisters. Love now & here. 

Be ready for Love to come. Be Love to others.

Become all fire.

St John Application Questions

JMJ

THE ASSIGNMENT WAS to do one of several application questions from the Ignatius Study Bible for the Gospel of John for the assigned chapters (2, 7, 12, 17). The study questions for the Ignatius Study Bible are amazing. The study guides can be downloaded for free in PDF format here.

2:15–16. What attachments do you have that Jesus might want to drive out of your heart (his Father’s house)?

The therapist, my spiritual director, and I are working on my attachment to “being liked” or, rather, my attachment to the fear of being disliked. I write it negatively like that because it’s actually an attachment to the fear: you know, the adrenaline, the safety of being secretive, the chance to blame others (who have done nothing) for my own inaction. Yes, being liked is nice, but it’s not really what I want: the safety of being disliked is much better. 

When I was in High School then-President Regan reinstated the Draft and we all had to register for the draft, even though it wasn’t yet being used. I was obligated to register when I became 18 and I was required to register or else I would not qualify for any federal student aid or loans. (Back in those days such aid made college actually possible.) I had intended to register as a Conscientious Objector but the reason was not one of pacifism: rather just cowardliness. I didn’t want to go into the army. As much as I can (now) construct an argument for Christian Pacifism, it was only my attachment to fear that made sense out of this in High School. This is a passion I live with and, with God’s grace and the help of more than a few mentors I’m learning to drive this out of the Temple. This is not to say God can’t use even this for a blessing: if I hadn’t chickened out of some vocational process along the line I might, even now, be a Methodist minister somewhere. God can use even my fear of follow-through. But better to make an offering wholeheartedly than to set hands to the plough and then back away.

7:24. What does Jesus mean by judging here? How does he want you to judge? What should you be judging?

“Never deny, seldom affirm, but always distinguish.” So runs a Dominican saying which I’ve heard from my spiritual director as well as from the late Bishop Robert Christian, OP. The Greek for “distinguish” here is “krino” and Jesus is saying we should “distinguish by righteous distinguishing”. Between Augustine and Aquinas we come to think that no one (usually) does evil because it’s evil but rather because they believe it to be good. The working definition of evil, then, in many of the western Fathers of the Church is to prefer a lesser good to a greater one. Yes, it’s good – perhaps even good enough – but it’s not the highest good that can be achieved here. When I hear Jesus asking us for some “righteous distinguishing” he’s commanding us to go for the highest good. Yes, it’s good to obey the Sabbath, but making a man whole is better, right? Righteous! This seems to apply to many of our “cultural war” discussions and might teach us something. Yes, someone outside of the Church might prefer X to Catholic Teaching – but the Church should bring them to the higher good. At the same time we, as Catholics, should understand that (at the moment) the “outsider” is doing what they think is the highest possible good: they need to have their sights raised ever higher.  This is the same for me: taking 20+ years to apply certain parts of Orthodoxy /Catholicism to my life because I thought I was good enough rather than striving to be as perfect as God is perfect, for the Highest Good.

12:3–5. What does Judas’ question imply about Mary’s generosity? When have you criticized (or been criticized by) someone for being generous? What was the outcome of the criticism?

Judas says Mary’s generosity is misplaced. The implication is that she should have given the money for a “better use”. My job as Director of Outreach at St Dominic’s includes the function of Parochial Almoner: this process of “be critical re:generosity” is a daily part of my life! The questioning goes both ways: because parishioners can both give uncritically and also be critical of my disbursements. The constant process of confusing “getting rid of my junk” with “generously giving to the poor” is hard to work with and yet – even though I have to try and redirect the junk to other places – it also must be discerned as their own sincere actions.

The other side of this equation is folks who want to keep better track of our generosity to others. Now, to be fair, I’m not giving away my money. I’m here to facilitate the charity of others. So, they have some right to ask questions about where the money goes. So, again, I have to assume they are doing the best they can: my own charity is in how I act to them. 

The rest of this question is “What was the outcome ?” and it’s a learning curve for me: my boss has asked me to be transparent with the whole process so I’m finding ways to provide education and to not-judge at the same time. 

17:14–17. How does the saying “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy” apply to your own relation with the world?  To which of the two do you—in your heart of hearts—belong? How do you know that?

While I hope that one day there will be a final answer to this, it is not – yet- “unwordly” enough for me. Two weekends ago a mutual friend introduced me to someone from St Louis whom I had previously known only online. Within a few moments, we were small talking very well in what – I realized later – should probably be categorized as “near occasion of sin”.  For someone who could read the code, we were using it might have been heard as scandal, but it all sounded normal and polite with a good bit of laughter. I found myself wondering why there was always this meaningless and yet near-sinful patter like that just beneath the surface. 

One of my (American) Eastern Orthodox heroes is the late Fr Seraphim Rose (1934-82). He was raised as a member of the Methodist church and drifted into atheism and vaguely eastern “spirituality” but, eventually, joined the Russian Orthodox Church in 1962. By the time of his death 20 years later he had become a monk and was recognized as an Elder in that tradition, a spiritual father or “Staretz”. A story is told of one night a youth retreat at his monastery (in Platina) played a trick on him: serving vanilla ice cream as a special treat to the monks, the kids gave Father Seraphim a scoop of mashed potatoes. He ate the potatoes as thankfully as the other monks eating the ice cream. Although this is sometimes recounted as proof that he had “no attachment to food”. I think it embodies other Christian virtues: unwillingness to accuse others, joy in what one is given, and the blessing celebrated by a simple act of thanksgiving for all that is. I’m not there yet: I’d still complain. To cycle back to the first question, I’m still inclined to enjoy the ice cream more (eat dessert first) out of fear that I might miss out on something good. This is something to keep working on and pray gets set right in time.

Textual Echos of Priesthood

The assignment was to discuss the ways that “priesthood” is echoed in the Gospel of Luke. I didn’t quite buy it. I was left either writing a paper I could not support or, else, ranting a bit. I tried to do a middle course and follow Thomas Aquinas: take the opposing position seriously and then state my objections and my own argument for my position.

JMJ

The Church has traditionally seen in Christ a threefold ministry or office. These functions, prophet, priest, and king, are called the “three munera” from the Latin munus which means “office”. These roles can be seen beginning in Adam and recurring through the Old Testament until they are fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah. In 1 Corinthians 15:45, Jesus is called the “Last Adam”. As the new Adam, we should see Jesus fulfilling the functions traditionally assigned to Adam but lost in the Sin of Eden. “Fulfilled” here means not only that they were prophesied in the past, but also that they are “filled up” in Jesus in a way that they were not previously. The Messiah fulfills (to a superfluity) all that is needed. When we see Adam and what he is described as doing in Eden, before the Fall, we see Man as we were intended to be. Christ is that man.

A comment in The Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture sidebar notes that “modern biblical scholarship has generally been skeptical that Christ is portrayed as a priest in this and other Gospel passages”, although recent scholarship has opened up some to this reading. The present writer numbers himself among the former, “modern” group that does not see. In this paper, we will be concerned with the munera of priest, but there will be more of a struggle than an exploration. Hebrews, especially in Chapter 7, presents a full argument on the priesthood of Jesus (“after the Order of Melchizedek” v.17, etc). Does the Gospel of St Luke (and all the Gospels generally) contain textual echoes of Christ in the role of priest in the way that, primarily, we see him most clearly in the book of Hebrews?

A book we referred to often in the previous class is of some help here. Bible Basics for Catholics by John Bergsma helps us trace the role of priest, prophet, and king through the different covenants in the scriptures.

Bergsma sees priesthood in the verbs used to describe what Adam does: “What else does the Bible tell us about Adam? Genesis 2 tells us that God planted a garden in Eden and placed Adam there “to till it and keep it”. There’s a bit of a word play going on here. In the Hebrew language, this phrase is literally “to serve (it) and guard (it).” It is uncommon to find these two verbs together in the Bible. We will not find them together again until much later, in Numbers 3:7-8 where are the two verbs – “serve” and “guard” – together describe what the priests do in the place of worship. For the ancient reader, Adam’s commission “to serve and guard” in the garden would have had a priestly sound to it.” (p 20-21.)

Adam is appointed by God to name the animals, which Bergsma sees as part of Adam’s Kingly function. Orthodox theologian, the late Fr Alexander Schmemann, sees this naming as also part of Adam’s priesthood also. Like Bergsma, Schmemann understands naming as a revelation of the very essence of the thing. Naming, then, is a eucharistic act: when Adam says, “this is an elephant” or “you are a dog” it is as constitutive as when Jesus or our pastors say, “This is my body.”

“The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God—and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.” (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973, p15.)

In these two descriptions, we can see three different priestly functions – speaking (to bless, to name), serving, and guarding (or keeping). Blessing and naming is, in fact, one of the things Jesus does most – not only in Luke but in all the Gospels. If one includes healing and exorcism under the rubric of “blessing” then almost the entire record of Jesus work is, by this light, priestly. This abundance of blessing seems to be a primary argument for these echoes of priesthood in the text.

While blessing, serving, and guarding are functions of priesthood in the Church, are these three verbs an argument for priesthood of Christ?

Bergsma notes that priesthood is a bit harder to find (p. 128). “Jesus’ role as priest is harder to see, but he says it is there. For example, he cites the Pharisees challenge Jesus for breaking their Sabbath rules about rest. Jesus replies, “Have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? (Mt 12:5) Jesus points out that priests are allowed to work on the holy days; in fact, they have to. The implication is that Jesus himself is a priest and has priestly rights.” In the footnote to this section (p. 175) the reader is directed to p. 108 of Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth: from the baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. Finding nothing on that page, I read the entire section (pp 106-112) entitled, “The Dispute Concerning the Sabbath”.

The passage is a sort of dialogue with another text, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (1993), by the late Rabbi Jacob Neusner. The Pope Emeritus is analyzing the Rabbi’s response to Matthew 12:1-8 where Jesus is questioned about his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. This event is also recorded in Luke 6:1-5. At issue is the question of violating the Sabbath by work. In Luke, Jesus says that David and his companions ate the bread reserved for priests so – sometimes – situations may require that laws change (or be broken). “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”. In Matthew, Jesus’ reply notes also that priests work on the Sabbath without actually breaking the Sabbath. Both readings can seem to indicate that Jesus is claiming priestly dignity (either to eat the bread of the presence or to work on the Sabbath) for himself and his disciples. The Rabbi thinks the issue of violating the Sabbath is not the point. “What troubles me, therefore, is not that the disciples do not obey one of the rules of the Sabbath. That is trivial and beside the point” (p.107). The issue is one of authority, but not priestly authority.

Over the course of the textual conversation, though, Rabbi Neusner and Pope Benedict come to the conclusion not that Jesus is a priest, but something altogether more than a priest. As the conversation between the Pope and the Rabbi continues the Rabbi comes to the conclusion that Christ is putting himself the place of the Torah itself and then asks, “Is your master God?” (p. 110). Christians would reply to that question with a strong affirmation. Indeed there is something more than a priest here. In one sentence on p. 108 of the Razinger text the Rabbi is quoted as saying that Jesus and his disciples now “stand in the place of the priests” but it is not as priests that they stand there rather it is replacing the priests. I think that’s why Bergsma and others find “Jesus’ role as priest is harder to see”: he is so much more than a priest or a prophet that those are eclipsed. While these functions are present in the Messiah, it’s as God-Man that he moves through the text. He is fulfilling the older priesthood – making it something more by the fact that he is not a priest, but God.

We – as his church, as human beings, need the munera all broken out. The Catechism, in ¶871-913, gives a full description of the priesthood of Christ and how the Laity participates in all of its functions. Ordained ministers are called specific types within this general class. Thus Jesus, as God, offers us (his Church) participation in his Divine-Human Messiahship in the form of the munera in the Church. To see the fullness of Christ in liturgy, one would want to see a Mass served in the presence of a Bishop (“pontifical” Mass) by presbyters and deacons together with the fullness of participation from the laity. There are all the baptized orders of the Church (laity, bishops, priests, and deacons) present the fullness of Christ’s body in action. So Christ, in the Gospel, does something more than priests do. In his Sacrifice on the Cross or giving us the gift of His own Body and Blood at the Last Supper we see Christ as a king (Bishop), as a leader (Presbyter), and also as a servant (Deacon). He’s not a priest as 1st Century Jews understood this – or at least I do not see it – but he is God doing these things.

This leads to one other issue with such a reading, especially in the context of St Luke: Why would Luke be using a typography from the Jewish Scriptures? Luke is generally seen pointing to Christ as a Gentile writing for other Gentiles. If the Messiah is presented as “filling up” the role of a priest, would it not make more sense for him to use the typography of Greco-Roman sources? Making references to obscure Jewish hints (even ones available in Greek) seems to miss the mark. Mind you, it would be very surprising to see them, but if the argument is for Jesus to be a priest, wouldn’t the evangelist take the culture of the intended audience into account? Are those hints even there in the Greek, though?

To go back to Genesis and the command to Adam in the garden, the Hebrew words cited by Bergsma from Genesis 2:15 are to work/serve עָבַד avad – Strong’s #5647 and to keep שָׁמַר shamar – Strong’s #8104. (I’m citing Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible which numbers each Greek and Hebrew root word used in the Bible and makes it possible to find other occurrences of the same word or words.) In the Septuagint they are translated into Greek. They are to work ἐργάζομαι ergazomai – Strong’s #2038 – and to keep/guard φυλάσσω phulasso – Strong’s #5442. These two Greek words are not found together at all in the New Testament. There is a whole rabbit warren of interesting verses linked with each of those words individually, but none of them tie to priesthood or directly to Jesus.

What might be going on with the arguments that some make, seeing priesthood for Christ in the Gospels? One possibility may be the perceived need to see everything Catholics do in the text. “Where is that in the Bible?” is a common question addressed to Catholics by both Protestants and non-Christians. We must remember ¶108 in the Catechism.

Still, the Christian faith is not a “religion of the book.” Christianity is the religion of the “Word” of God, a word which is “not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living”. If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, “open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures.”

We do not follow the letter of the text. We do not need to find “our stuff” in the literal content nor are we under obligation to do so! That said, the present writer is not willing to dismiss the argument entirely: only to say it’s not textual. There are other arguments based on “textual echoes” as was presented in our last class (viz taxes). Is it possible to “hear” what might be in the mind of a 1st Century Jewish or Gentile listener? Or only possible to suggest it? It seems only the latter – even though it might be a great support for one’s argument. Yet this is not infallible: there is a “textual echo” argument, for example, which implies the story of the Centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5–13, Luke 7:1–10) indicates blessing a same-sex relationship. Such textual echoes seem, to this writer, to depend less on the text and more on the ears of the hearer.

Another – and to this writer’s mind better – argument might be the Holy Spirit and the Catholic practice of contemplating on the scriptures. Again, in ¶108, “the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, ‘open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures.’” As a reader prays in the Spirit and meditates on the scriptures, by God’s grace things may unfold in the mind to help further understand the content. Although these are perfectly valid – coming from the same Spirit that wrote the scriptures and formed the mind of the contemplator – they are not in the text but are rather the fruit of contemplation which may be passed on for the edification of others if they find it useful. In that light, while the present writer doesn’t find this material useful, others may be blessed by it.

There are places in the New Testament where Jesus is described as a priest: the Epistle to the Hebrews is foremost. But the Gospels seem to be concerned with proclaiming him as God. Jesus spends much of his time blessing and naming: exorcising, healing, and pronouncing clean. While these are the actions of a priest, they are also the actions of the Incarnate God in his person. He doesn’t need a priest to mediate the actions and doesn’t need to be a priest in himself. This enriches the prayer life also, but – perhaps – in a way more akin to Occam’s razor, it is the “more simple” reading here. Why is Jesus not subject to the purity laws or to restrictions around Sabbath? Because he replaces the Torah by fulfilling it – as Rabbi Neusner asks (Ratzinger, op cit p.110), “I ask again – is your master God?” Yes.

In closing, Pope Benedict’s book cited this meditation/dialogue from the Rabbi on pages 104-5. He cites the Talmudic tradition that there are 613 commandments in on Sinai (the Talmud says there are 365 “do not’s” or negative ones, coinciding with the number of days in the solar year, and there are 248 positive commandments or “do’s”, a number ascribed to the parts of the body). These were condensed, in various steps, down to the greatest commandments. The rabbi then notes that Jesus reported all this. He did not subtract anything but – Rabbi Neusner adds, perhaps saying more than he knows or wishes to say – Jesus did add something: “Himself.”

Whose Image is This?

The assignment was to present answers to some study questions for Matthew Chapter 22 (RSVCE – 2nd Edition) in the Ignatius Study Bible. The Study Guides can be downloaded free here. Since this wasn’t a written paper, this text is more the general idea of my presentation, which went over my 20 allotted minutes. The questions are in bold below.

JMJ

If politics are allowed play into my online discourse – social media or blogging – often it can cause distress for friends on left and right: traditional Christians who try to live out the faith (as Catholics, Orthodox, or Protestants) can seem too far to the right for some secular liberals and yet – at the same time – too far to the left for secular conservatives. 

Jesus says his kingdom is not of this world – as the Christian is called to be in this world but not of it. This does not mean Jesus kingdom is not here, active and now: only  that it’s a different pattern than the worldly ideas of rule.

Jesus walks us through several of these sorts of oppositions in Matthew’s 22nd Chapter. 

He takes on Jew and Gentile, Pharisee and Sadducee, and sacred vrs secular. None of these are “the right way” to view the Tax Question. Let’s take a look at that passage (Matthew 22:15-22)

The Study Bible asks

What is the malice in the collaboration between Pharisees and Herodians in asking Jesus the question about paying taxes?

To get the answer (What was the malice?) we need to answer these questions first: who were the Pharisees? who were the Herodians?

The Pharisees were the “rabbinic” party of Judaism. It might surprise you to hear me say that on our modern “liberal/conservative” spectrum they were the liberals. The reason I say this is because they believed that man could – with God’s help – interpret the scriptures. That is to say that one did not need to take the scriptures literally, at face value. One could read into them for meaning, looking beneath the literal meaning of the words for greater clarity. 

The Oven of Akhnai

The Sages taught: On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute? The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning.

Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion?

Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.

It’s that last part that is important. The “liberalism” is that humans can “triumph” over God and tell God what the law should be. The Pharisees were among those who practiced this process of interpretation. There are several places in the New Testament where Jesus is debating with various Jewish leaders and says their interpretation is not the correct one and then – as God – he offers the truth. 

However, in our later chapter here (34-40) Jesus, being asked about the greatest commandment takes sides with one Pharisee over another! For there were two great schools of thought in interpretation, each named for a prominent rabbi, the “house of shammai” and the “house of hillel”. Rabbi Shammai (50BC-30AD) said the greatest commandment was to Love God (etc) and the second commandment was to keep the Sabbath. Rabbi Hillel (110 BC-10AD) said the same about the first commandment, but the second was to love your neighbor. Jesus – that is God – side with Hillel here. 

(Think about those who questioned Jesus repeatedly about Keeping the Sabbath! Perhaps they are from the school of Shammai?)

On the other hand, Jesus sided with Shammai on the question of divorce: Hillel said it could be for anything, even burning the dinner. Shammai said only for infidelity.

Anyway, the Pharisees were the party of “interpretation”. Remember that. It’s not that interpretation is wrong – it’s part of our tradition! But one still must have the right interpretation. 

The Pharisees are (generally) in opposition to the Sadducees, not only on theological matters, but also in terms of politics: the Sadducees have the temple priesthood and are the upper class. While the Pharisees are educated, solidly established in society, they are (generally) closer to the people, they are the Rabbis in the local synagogues, the teachers that are “on the street” as it were.

The Pharisees were looking for the Messiah to come and liberate the people of Israel. As we have discussed here in Class they were expecting political liberation from the Son of David: another king, another leader (perhaps like the Maccabees?) that might move them into their own political sphere. 

But who were the Herodians? Here I tripped up a lot in my research. To be honest I thought I knew who they were (the party supporting the line of the Herods) but that was not exactly right. I mean, it was, but yet…

So first off they were pro-Herod. Yes. Herod the Great and his children were the client kings under the Romans. They were Jew-ish… but they were not Judeans. They were from Idumea.  

 You may remember from the OT class that Judas Maccabee led a campaign against the Idumeans (and others) in 163 BC.  Josephus reports the Idumaeans were forcibly circumcised. (A.J. 13.257–258)

So.. they are Jew-ish, but they are not, perhaps, quite as fullheartedy faithful as more-willing converts.

Some of the sources I looked up indicated that some Herodians wanted the King to establish a theocracy in Israel. The Wiki cites Tertullian (Adversis Omnes Haereses [1,1)) saying that some even thought Herod was the Messiah!

Since Herod is the Roman Client King, they support the Romans (at least indirectly) and so they are what we would call Hellenists, although we’re not talking about Greeks now. They are “secularists” who want to get along with the secular power to protect their self-interest.

So here’s some folks claiming the Messiah has already come – from outside of Israel. They have reason to not like Jesus. 

And they are aligning with the Pharisees – who clearly don’t think Herod is the Messiah! And the Pharisees have no reason to align with the Romans… or their supporters. But “politics makes strange bedfellows” yes? Or even religious politics. 

So the question… Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Is set up so that Jesus can offend the one party by saying no – whilst pleasing the other. Or, reversing the parties – by saying yes. The pro-Rome party wants you to say yes… but the pro-People party wants you to say no. This would be rather like the SSPX signing up with “Catholics for Choice” to oppose the Pope…

That’s the real malice: their alliance shows they hate Jesus more than they adhere to their own theo-political points. Hypocrites (v 18) is the exact right word here.

Jesus answer, as our NT textbook lets us know, can mean either:

  • One should pay nothing to Cesar because everything belongs to God
  • one should pay the emperor because he is God’s representative
  • one can pay Caesar but recognize that his authority is relative and that loyalty to God takes precedence.

The Dominican Sister who wrote our text thinks it’s the last one, but I think it’s more like a combination of the first two: 

In the Greek Jesus looks at the coin and asks “whose icon is this?” He uses the Greek word eikon which is used in the LXX in Genesis 1:26 to describe man made in God’s image. So… whose icon is on the coin? Yes, it’s Caesar, but whose icon is Caesar? Gods. 

Render to God… how?

I was disturbed by the “application question” the Study Bible asked here. Or, rather, I was disturbed by what seem to be the assumptions behind the question:

How honest are you in paying taxes to the local, state, and federal governments? ( a good question, but then….) What excuses do you make to yourself to avoid paying taxes? 

The Study Bible seems to think everyone is going to have excuses to make? Why make that assumption?

After working in the tech industry for most of the last 25 years, I’m over exposed to “libertarian” ideas. But our current situation, viz a vis covid, leaves us with a more-pertinent ongoing meditation on how our individual actions can effect the common good. This was the gist of the article Dcn Fred sent us just before Christmas. 

Taxes fit into this category: there are some who would object to taxes because of immoral uses crafted by government, but Jesus doesn’t seem to question the morality of the Caesar’s gov’t at all. 

There’s a prayer offered at every Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox tradition, for “our rulers and our God-protected army.” This phrase is also used in daily personal prayers.

Even under Stalin. There’s some mystery there, somehow, we get the Gov’t God wants us to have for the working out of our salvation.

Whose icon is this? This is something about everything belongs to God… and so we render everything to God. Yet somehow, through the mystery of Mediation, even this pagan emperor oppressing us is participating in God’s exercise of Authority.  We pay taxes to Caesar, but to God – and so our roads are built, the army maintains the peace… and we can continue to pray for God’s kingdom to come.

How generous are you in contributing to the financial support of the Church?

I don’t believe in claiming my donations to the Church on my  taxes. That feels like bragging. But I believe that the scriptures teach us to start at 10% and give until you’re not doing things you’d otherwise want to do. 

But it’s not all going to the Church. The Church Fathers suggest that it’s better to give to the poor directly… John Chrysostom suggests setting up a room in your  house to let the poor sleep in. He calls it a “Christ Room” since that’s who is really sleeping there. He says, “You have a place set apart for your wagon, but none for Christ who is wandering by? Abraham received strangers in his own home (Gn 18); his wife took the place of a servant, the guests the place of masters. They did not know that they were receiving Christ, that they were receiving angels.”

THIS sort of charity is what Jesus is talking about in the Parable 

What is the “wedding garment” that the guest has failed to wear? We’re all in the feast, right? I mean that’s the point of the first section: we are at the banquet because God sent his agents (evangelists) out to grace everyone. 

St Theophylact of Ochrid says, “The entry into the wedding takes place without distinction of persons, for by grace alone we have all been called, good and bad alike; but…

Now that we’re in… what do we do with the grace of God? How do we change our lives and the lives of those around us?

The Saint continues…  “the life thereafter of those who enter shall not be without examination, for indeed the king makes an exceedingly careful examination of those found to be sullied after entering into the faith. Let us tremble, then, when we understand that if one does not lead a pure life, faith alone benefits him not at all. For not only is he cast out of the wedding feast, but he is sent away into the fire. Who is he that is wearing filthy garments? It is he who is not clothed with compassion, goodness, and brotherly love. “

Finally, this points us to the kind of Love Jesus is talking about at the end of Chapter 22.

What does it mean to you to love God with your whole heart, soul, and mind? What do you do to demonstrate that love?

What does it mean to love your neighbor as you do yourself? How do you love yourself? How does that apply to the way you love your neighbor?

I mentioned that, among the Pharisees, this twofold reply indicates Jesus siding with Rabbi Hillel, that loving one’s neighbor is the second greatest commandment as opposing Rabbi Shammai. 

There is a story about a gentile who was exploring religion and he went to Shammai and said, “I am interested in the God of Israel. If you can explain the Torah to me while standing on one foot, I will consider this…” and Shammai beat him with his cane and chased him away.  Then the man went to Hillel and asked the same question. The elder stood up and, holding his foot in his hand, said, “What you would not have done to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary, now go study.”

In this reply, he not only showed the heart of God’s law – love of neighbor – but he also reproved the other Rabbi – who, even as annoying as this question was should not have beat the man coming to him for wisdom.

So Jesus and Hillel, together, saying love of neighbor is the heart of the Law of God. And loving God taken as – somehow – the outcome of this love of neighbor. There’s some element of mystery here that we cannot understand in this life. But in some way, my loving service to my neighbor is loving service to God. And, likewise, my loving service to my neighbor is God’s serving them. 

The charitable man is both God’s action in service and – at that same moment – serving God.

I’m least likely to succeed at this. And daily this fact comes to me. Some of you know that over the summer I took a new job, leaving the word of tech after so long and becoming the Director of Community Services at St Dominics. The old-school title of “the guy who does the charity stuff” is “Almoner” from the word “alms”. I’m the Parochial Almoner, thus. 

Even with other people’s money, I cannot love fully. I spend my days wondering if I’m being lied to and who might be trying to pull one over on me. It’s only in our food ministry – and in the ministry at Most Holy Redeemer where I volunteer – that I can fully give myself over. It is such a blessing to feed people – even the people who may already have food! But to be open in hospitality, to know that somehow in feeding the poor at the door, I’m feeding God who feeds me… who enables me to feed the poor! This great exchange of God for God, this feeding of those who need food, the care of the smallest sparrow that God has – through me! Through me! His most unworthy servant – through me nonetheless – this is God’s grace in my life. 

So in loving you I am loving God and loving myself – it all becomes one process, one action, one outpouring of God’s love. (For, certainly, it is God who is loving here, not me.) To the conservative, giving away all this money makes us too liberal. C.S. Lewis once gave a pound coin to a beggar and his companion remarked, “You know he’s just going to buy a beer with that.” And Lewis replied, “Funny, so was I.”  We love without expecting a return. That’s how God loves us.

And yet – and yet – it’s not only the poor that need love, or, more to the point, not only the fiscally and physically poor who need loving. There are other types of poverty and we must show charity to them as well. This is where we are too conservative to our liberal friends. It is not love to let someone do whatever they want if what they want it to damn themselves. How do you love in a way that leads people to God – and away from their sins?

Here is another place where I am not yet mature enough in my faith, but our Holy Father calls us to accompany folks to God. 

OK, Let’s Try Plan B

JMJ

The assignment was to write a “reflection paper” on two chapters of God and His Image: An Outline of Biblical Theology by Dominique Barthélemy, OP.

As this broken bread, once dispersed over the hills, was brought together and became one loaf, so may thy Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into thy kingdom.”
The Didache, retrieved on 12/2/21.

Barthélemy’s chapter 8, Preservation or Re-creation?, speaks of the conflict between the pessimism of the priest’s point of view and the optimism of the prophet. But when the author laid out the argument for God wanting to destroy the Temple (pp. 184-191) my mind went to the above prayer from the Didache. It is the earliest recorded Eucharistic liturgy of the Church. Most scholars believe it to have been composed by 90 AD, but some date it to the 2nd Century. At 90 AD, it could have been prayed by some of the Apostles themselves! The common Eucharistic loaf (leavened bread) is composed of grains that were once scattered in the fields “over the hills” but now they are united and the community asks that the Church be united together in the same way. Yet this prayer is said over the broken bread, ready to be dispersed to the congregants and, in those days, taken by deacons to distant folks and the sick, etc. The bread is brought together in one, consecrated in the Eucharist but then scattered again out into the world, seeding the kingdom everywhere.

The author speaks of the time for “this people, or rather the remains of this people to give birth to the “remnant”, the germ that is to be raised up to give birth to another people.” God wills to see the religious and political institutions of Israel destroyed, like the master builder who destroys the scaffolding that now does no more than conceal the definitive building…” (p.192)

I have a sort of “Plan B Bias”. When I read the scriptures I see God warning Israel (or Noah, or Adam & Eve), and then, when they fail to heed the warning, God punishes folks. Then there is a Plan B. However God always knew what would be the outcomes of human freedom and so, as I learned in RCIA and must constantly remind myself, there is no Plan B. God is always working out his purpose, always from the point of view of someone aware of all things in all times and places. God warns Israel not in the hope of possibly turning them away but in full knowledge of where they are going! As Barthélemy says so pointedly, God wants to destroy the temple! (p.190)  This so he can scatter his people like grain on so many hillsides! To make this work, though, they have to become his people first. 

This chapter walks us through that process: the need for an “impossible intimacy” (p. 171) and the steps he takes to bring the people to himself. Most importantly is the creation of an “Us” (p. 180ff) by means of ritual and telling the stories over and over to the children. The author highlights the way a father is told to tell his children “We were slaves under Pharoah…” and Barthélemy says, “Note that ‘we’ includes the father of a twentieth-century generation as well as past or future generations. This ‘we’ and ‘us’ is common to all generations of Jews who remember that ‘we were Pharoah’s slaves’. The ‘we’ refers to this same people who are actually alive now.” (ibid) The website My Jewish Learning confirms this, speaking of an almost sacramental reenactment in at Passover: “ The Ritba (Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Ishbili, 1260-1330) stresses that every single individual must see and look at himself as though he had been a slave in Egypt and as though he went forth to freedom.’ Whereas the Hagaddah (the Passover table liturgy – DHR) frames in the plural its earlier comment that God redeemed both our ancestors and us, the obligation to see ourselves as former slaves is articulated in the singular. On Pesach, the Ritba suggests, it is not enough to speak of our communal liberation from slavery; rather, we must each experience this redemption also as a personal journey.”  Retrieved on 12/2/21.

This creation of a specific people, structurally enforced by being “condemned to liberty” as we read in Chapter 4, sets up a fully-resilient identity of faith so that the people of “Israel, dispersed among various empires, could never offer sacrifice to the powers in which those empires believed.” (p. 70) This is the strong seed, the strong remnant that was dispersed among the nations to grow. There is no Plan B, the God who did this knew, all along, how Israel would get – how all people get. The Temple Structure, the whole covenant was structured to bring the people together, to attach them to God in intimate connection. Israel was to be a “covenant of the people and light of the nations” (Isaiah 42:6, Jerusalem Bible). My Plan A/Plan B bias would say that God tried to get the 12 Tribes to line up behind the covenant but they failed to be a “holy nation” so Plan B happened, but Barthélemy’s writing makes me open up to a flight of historical contemplation: that the first step was the creation of a People. Actually, the final goal is the salvation of all who seek it (knowing that some won’t even bother). God is seeking everyone. So the People of Israel are dispersed, first to Babylon – where they learn to get on without the Temple. Then, fully armed with Rabbis, these “slaves of God alone” (p. 85) are dispersed around the known world to discover “righteous Gentiles” and “God Fearing” proselytes. These communities become “the germ that is to be raised up to give birth to another people,” they are the first people that Paul and the other Apostles evangelize. When they get to a new community, God-fearing Gentiles and Jews who speak Hebrew in prayer become the linguistic bridge to the locals, ready to share the Good News and whisper translations to those who come to listen to the Apostles preach. Evangelism ensues. The only plan there ever was is working.

The inward focus needed to become a people is first though. There are parallels in the Church as well. Bishop Barron says hunkering down is good, “But we should also be deft enough in reading the signs of the times, and spiritually nimble enough to shift, when necessary, to a more open and engaging attitude.” (Word on Fire, “The Benedict Option and the Identity/Relevance Dilema”, Retrieved on 12/3/21.) It is in “hunkering down” (Barron’s term) that we find the strength, grace, and identity needed to go out. This is a question of formation both for the community and for individuals. This is why we’re in school before being ordained: so that, being formed, we can go out “to the margins” as Pope Francis says to draw others into the Kingdom.

For my personal formation, the Plan A/Plan B thinking I mentioned arises from a certain Protestant apocalyptic dispensationalism which was popular when I was growing up in the South: the Jews failed to accept Christ and so the mission to the Gentiles was born. Commenting on Matthew 11:28, the Scofield Reference Bible (very popular in the world of my childhood) says “the rejected King now turns from the rejecting nation… It is a pivotal point in the ministry of Jesus.” Retrieved on 12/2/21.  And while I knew this isn’t Catholic teaching, it was such a strong part of my upbringing that I am constantly surprised by new ways it has remained hidden. Barthélemy’s writing offers a unique antidote, allowing me to contemplate the Bible as one story, one plan of salvation without any sense of replacement theology or various dispensations. Israel is God’s people scattered across the hills and gathered into one loaf in the Messiah, broken and shared and dispersed again in the Church. 

As the Church is composed of Gentiles grafted into Israel, those “who form the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16) I found myself wondering if there was a parallel between how God treated Israel at this time and what is happening to the Church today. I thought of Father Ratzinger’s (as he then was) oft-quoted comments about the “Church of Tomorrow”:

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision… The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution…

When Father Joseph Ratzinger Predicted the Future of the Church, from Aleteia, retrieved on 12/2/21.

But the earlier part of the comments is not so often quoted:

“The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith. It will not issue from those who accommodate themselves merely to the passing moment or from those who merely criticize others and assume that they themselves are infallible measuring rods; nor will it issue from those who take the easier road, who sidestep the passion of faith, declaring false and obsolete, tyrannous and legalistic, all that makes demands upon men, that hurts them and compels them to sacrifice themselves.“ 

(Ibid.)

Those highlighted lines parallel the various types we can imagine among the people of Israel dispersed among the Gentiles. There were some who just accommodated themselves to the new world, forgetting all their father taught (if they were ever taught). There are some, though, who became too legalistic and judged others, forgetting grace entirely. And finally, there is the rightful reaction to the legalism of the second group that, unfortunately, goes on to throw out the baby with the bathwater, becoming“spiritual but not religious” versions of the group that forgot the faith entirely. 

As Father Ratzinger predicted, we can see all of these people around the Church today. We can also say that we were slaves of Pharoah in Egypt – but Egypt is here and now, our sins and the World System around us and some of our co-religionists blend into the world, or become too legalistic, or opt for a Catholic flavor of spiritual but not religious. We should want to be gathered again to God so we strive to become “those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith.” We can hunker down, but we need to be ready, as Bishop Barron said, “reading the signs of the times, and spiritually nimble enough to shift, when necessary, to a more open and engaging attitude.” The only ingathering that really matters is the final gathering into the kingdom and we want to bring as many as we can!  Ending where we began, our Plan A must be to humbly pray the final prayer of the Didache liturgy: “Be mindful of thy Church, O Lord; deliver it from all evil, perfect it in thy love, sanctify it, and gather it from the four winds into the kingdom which thou hast prepared for it.” 

The Blogpost of the Paper of the Book of the Prophet Haggai

JMJ

By way of introduction the paper below was presented to the class with a few added jokes – including the bad pun in the above header image. At about the half-way point in writing the paper, I had a realization about the content and had to do a rewrite. I presented this to the class honestly, noting my misreading in the context of the presentation. These observations are added after the content of the paper below.

Background

Haggai’s prophecy begins with a date – a very traceable date. To this writer, a calendar nerd, that’s a very pleasant thing: In the second year of King Darius (reigned from Sept 522 BC), on the first day of the sixth month. The footnotes in the Jersualem Bible (hereinafter JB) indicate that we are discussing August of 520 BC. In that year 1st Elul in the Hebrew calendar, so, by conversion 27 August on the Gregorian Calendar projected backward). (Haggai 1:1). The last prophecy is on 24 Kislev (17 December) of the same year  (Haggai 2:20) so the exact timeline is very clear.

Haggai is the 1st prophet to arise after the exile (notes, Great Adventure Bible p. 1242; JB p. 1257) and he also gets to actually see the result of his preaching (like Jonah in Nineveh). Haggai is traditionally regarded as a member of the Sanhedrin in Babylon. “In reference to the Men of the Great Assembly who directed the Jewish community in the Land of Israel in the early years of the Second Temple, the Talmud notes that “among them were several prophets” (Megillah 17b), an implicit reference to Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi.” ( retrieved on 5 Nov 2021) In addition to his status as a prophet he has three rabbinic decisions or “matters of the law (or halakhah)” linked with him (see here retrieved on 5 Nov 2021). 

Historical Situation

After 70 years of captivity in Babylon, the people have returned to Jerusalem, Babylon had fallen to the Persians. Cyrus, the King, being “roused” by Yahweh lets the people go home. (Ezra Chapter 1:1 JB).  The prophet was born in exile in Babylon came to Jerusalem  Things seem to have started out ok – they have built their “paneled houses” (Haggai 1:4) and planted gardens, but something is wrong.  The people suffer harassment from the Samaritans who feigned support, but – joining in league with the Returnees – they became saboteurs on various projects and agents provocateur creating social havoc, turning the people against the plans of the leaders (Ezra 4:1-5). Finally they “reported” the project to various political rulers in order to get the whole thing stopped (Ezra 4:6-23). “Thus the work on the Temple of God in Jerusalem was brought to a standstill; it remained interrupted until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.” (Ezra 4:24)

The people are uneasy “Reflect carefully how things have gone for you. You have sown much and harvested little; you eat but never have enough, drink but never have your fill, put on clothes but do not feel warm. The wage earner gets his wages only to put them in a purse riddled with holes. The abundance you expected proved to be little. When you brought the harvest in, my breath spoiled it… The sky has withheld the rain and the earth withheld its yield. I have called down drought on land and hills, on wheat, on new wine, on oil and on all the produce of the ground, on man and beast and all their labors.” (1:5b-6, 9, 10-11 JB) See also 2:16-17

Problems Addressed

The people are building their own houses but not the Temple. They are concerned with their own safety instead of trusting in God. “While my House lies in ruins you are busy with your own, each one of you.” (1:8b) The people are not doing this out of a sense of personal gain, but rather for fear: they want to get their lives in order lest something else should happen. There is also a sense of discouragement because of the actions of the Samaritans: social chaos and ineffective leadership lead to low morale which, in turn, gives rise to acedia. 

Audience

The people of Jerusalem, returning exiles, as well as “Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, high commissioner of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest” (Haggai 1:1) and “Then the prophets Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo began to prophesy to the Jews of Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel who was with them.” (Ezra 5:1).

His message is two-fold. The primary one, noted in all resources I checked, is “build my temple!” but I think there’s something else going on here. As noted the issue is the low morale created by the neighbors, the leadership, and a lack of an overarching sense that God sent them home (as he promised). The oracles of Haggai are filled with proof that God is here: I am with you (1:13, 2:4) my spirit remains among you, do not be afraid (2:5) I will give peace (2:9) I intend to bless you (2:19).

The prophet has to say “go do XYZ… because God is with you and he will help you do it!” HE spends a lot more time saying “God is with you” than “go do XYZ”, even though XYZ (rebuilding the temple) is the important action that is needed. It’s not possible to do so without faith though, so – “Have faith, God is with you…” The prophet says this not only to the people but also their leaders: “But take courage now, Zerubbabel-it is Yahweh who speaks. Courage, High Priest Joshua son of Jehozadak! Courage, all you people of the country!-it is Yahweh who speaks. To work! I am with you-it is Yahweh Sabaoth who speaks-and my spirit remains among you. Do not be afraid! (Haggai 1:4-5).

Efficacy

Both greatly effective and not. And yet… “Now Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and all the remnant of the people, paid attention to the voice of Yahweh their God and to the words of the prophet Haggai, Yahweh having sent him to them. And the people were filled with fear before Yahweh… And Yahweh roused the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, high commissioner of Judah, the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and set to work on the Temple of Yahweh Sabaoth their God.” (Haggai 1:12,14). Haggai is one of the few Prophets who lived to see his dream fulfilled. (You Can Understand the Bible, P. Kreeft p 158). 

God begins to bless the people from the beginning of the rebuildling: Reflect carefully from today onward (from the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, from the day the foundation of the sanctuary of Yahweh was laid, think carefully) if grain is still short in the barn, and if vine and fig tree, pomegranate and olive, still bear no fruit. From today onward I intend to bless you.” (2:18-19)

At the same time, though, the predictions of the prophet regarding the King, himself, seem to be a bit off. ‘I am going to shake the heavens and the earth. I will overturn the thrones of kingdoms and destroy the power of the kings of the nations. I will overthrow the chariots and their charioteers; horses and their riders will be brought down; they shall fall, each to the sword of his fellow. When the day comes-it is Yahweh Sabaoth who speaks- I will take you, Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, my servant-it is Yahweh Sabaoth who speaks­ and make you like a signet ring. For I have chosen you-it is Yahweh Sabaoth who speaks.” (2:22-23) There is no restoration of the Kingdom here and no sign of all nations being overthrown. This prophecy, along with the promises 2:9 seem not yet to happen. The new glory of this Temple is going to surpass the old. In fact, the few elders who were alive in the before-times, remember the glory of the former Temple (built by Solomon) and weep. (Ezra 3:12) And yet…

Reading these prophecies as Messianic, and leading us to the New Kingdom of God, the whole thing makes sense in Jesus:  the new glory of the temple (“the temple of his body” John 2:21) far surpasses the glory of the old temple. And even the physical structure being built here is suddenly filled with God’s very presence as Christ enters it and teaches there. 

What does it mean that Zerubbabel will be a “signet ring”? This is a title for the Kings of Judah, indicating the closeness of the King to God and his plans. However in Jeremiah 22:24 we read of the last king, “even if Coniah son of Jehoiakim, King of Judah, were the signet ring on my right hand, I would still wrench him off. I will deliver you to the hands of those determined to kill you…” The connection was broken. 

This man, the grandson of King Jeconiah of Judah, forms a connection between the pre-exilic kings and the line of “common folks” that runs through the people until we reach Joseph and Mary in the New Testament. If “signet ring” means “sign of the kingship” then this link between the common tradespeople of Galillee and the last Kings of Judah is that signet. The final prophecies of Haggai, though not fulfilled in the prophet’s lifetime, are fulfilled in Jesus. 

Additional resource used: The Collegeville Bible Commentary: Old Testament, Dianne Bergant, Robert J. Karris, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 1992. The general introduction to post-exile prophets (pp 571-577), and the article on Haggai (pp 592-599), both by Mary Margaret Pazdan, O.P.


Observations

Reading the prophet’s text alone (and following many commentaries online and off) it seems the issue is that the returnees from Babylon got to Jerusalem and built their own houses – but ignored God’s house. God got angry and cursed them with bad crops (etc) and sent them a prophet to tell them to build the Temple first. Then everything got going in the right order. However in reading the context provided in Ezra, Chapters 1-6, I realized that the issue was not that the Jerusalemites were being selfish, but rather they were acting without faith: the neighbors were being schmucks and so the Hebrews were retreating into their homes. God sent them a prophet to say, “Get out there and claim this land – it’s yours, I gave it to you.” Once they started acting in faith, at that moment their fortunes changed. The main thrust of the prophet’s teaching is not “you lazy, selfish, impious people…” but rather “God is with you! Be not afraid!”

It seems that this teaching is applicable to all of us.

Reflection on Balaam’s Praise

JMJ

מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל

How fair are your tents, 0 Jacob! How fair your dwellings, Israel! 
– Numbers 24:5 (Jerusalem Bible, 1968)

The chant “Ma Tovu, Ohehlecha Yacov” is often used at the beginning of the Friday Evening synagogue service. The congregation chants slowly and gently, as if chewing on a text for meditation. Sung in Hebrew, to a traditional tune, it seems almost like a line of the Psalms. The quoted text, though, is from a gentile: Balaam, who is called a prophet in Numbers. He would not have spoken in Hebrew – although the tex is recorded thus. What is sparking the writer’s interest though is that Balaam uses the name of God. In the Jerusalem Bible (1968) this is driven home by rendering the name of God as “Yahweh” in the text. This translation also notes when Balaam uses “Shaddai” (almighty). Balaam’s later history is not so good: in Deuteronomy, he is slain for his leading the Israelites astray. In Revelation, Balaam is described as a stumbling block, showing King Balak how to seduce the people. Without regard to the historicity of the text, it’s interesting that, despite conflicts in later sections, the final form of the story included in Numbers posits a major prophetic revelation outside of Israel.

Balaam is one of several important speakers in the Bible who are not members of or ancestors of Israel: Job, Balaam, Jethro, Melchizedek, and King Cyrus are each given very important functions in the story of the Hebrews. Collectively these seem to add a depth of complexity to Israel’s identity as “the Chosen People”. God is clearly working through other nations as well.

What does it mean that the Jewish scriptures allow for this Gentile to know the Name of God? Genesis 4 says that Enosh was the first to invoke the name of God – Yahweh is mentioned by name in Genesis 4:26 of the Jerusalem Bible – but the same Chapter puts the divine name first in the mouth of Eve. According to an article on Wikipedia, which the writer quotes with some trepidation, the Divine Name occurs 165 times in Genesis.

The implication seems to be that the knowledge of the Divine Name is spread throughout the human family and we need only be reminded of it.  Israel seems, thus, to foreshadow the Church is in the world as “the Sacrament of Salvation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church ¶780), with Israel serving as a sacramental of the Name. The term is taken on purpose for a sacramental is more of a reminder of the thing, than a mystical conveyance of the thing itself. Balaam singing “Ma tovu…” then becomes a prayer of the Gentile. “Israel, you are so beautiful: you call me to remember the true God.”

Balaam knows he can say nothing but what Yahweh tells him to say. He can say neither more nor less (Gen 22:20, 22:35, 22:38, etc), even though Balak asks him to curse Israel. Balaam says, “How shall I curse one when God does not curse? How shall I denounce when God does not denounce?” (23:8) Although only tangentially related to this essay, we might well ask the same thing today regarding the Saints of the Church whom we are asked to curse in the name of political correctness.

The Prophecies of Balaam are now of note: “See, a people dwelling apart, not reckoned among the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob? Who can number the cloud of Israel? May I die the death of the just! May my end be one with theirs!” (Gen 23:9b-10). God promised to make Israel’s children to be numbered like the sands of the sea. Balaam is seeing the measuring rod by which all nations are judged. They are a people “dwelling apart”. In fact, the boundaries of the nations are based on the numbers of Israel (Deuteronomy 32:8). 

I have seen no evil in Jacob / I marked no suffering in Israel. / Yahweh his God is with him; / in him sounds the royal acclaim. (Gen 23:21) His God is with him – but His God is our God as well. As I noted, they are the sacramental of the name. 

Now Balaam becomes “the man with far-seeing eyes.. one who hears the word of God.” (24:3-4a, 15-16a) and he sees what God commands. Yet the prophecies in chapter 24 are Messianic! A Gentile is making these prophecies of the coming king. A hero arises from their stock, he reigns over countless peoples. His king is greater than Agag, his majesty is exalted. (24:7) I see him-but not in the present, I behold him-but not close at hand: a star from Jacob takes the leadership, a scepter arises from Israel. (24:17) Again this seems to underscore Israel’s position as among the nations of the world by virtue of this coming king. Here it is being confessed by someone not from the Twelve Tribes and so adding importance. Even those “out in the world” recognize our importance. 

If Israel serves as a sacramental of the Divine Name in the world then the ways others know the name mark moments of grace present and active. Melchizedek can bless Abraham because they both know the same God – even though Abraham is seemingly closer to God (in terms of their relationship) than the priest-king. Jethro knows of Yahweh (Ex 18:10), so that Moses can be ready when the Burning Bush happens. Rahab’s awareness of God (Joshua 2:8ff) opens her eyes and heart to helping the Hebrew spies. In various ways, these Gentiles serve as sacramentals for Israel: reminding Israel of his duty to God, or reminding Israel of God’s faithfulness.

These passages call out to the present writer because he has journeyed long in other paths, seemingly rejecting God. These passages seem to be signs of hope!  God can speak through these other people and traditions. This is echoed in writers from the Eastern Orthodox tradition who can hear Christ in the “old testaments” of other religions, for a good example, see Christ the Eternal Tao by Fr Damascene, a very “traditionalist” Orthodox Monk. This book is a favorite of the present writer as it bypasses syncretism yet shows well how God used another religion to prepare for Christ.  Likewise, Missionaries, when meeting a new people, search for connections in the local culture so that the Gospel can be preached using local signposts. 

As noted, in later books of the Bible Balaam is not a “good guy”: quite the opposite. So it’s clear that having the right ideas about God (at least sometimes) does not prevent one from going astray. In fact, it might be argued that Balaam’s nearness to what Israel was learning about God made it easier for them to follow him into his own errors. We cannot heed every word of every person outside the faith who uses the Divine Name. It is not those who say to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Mat 7:21).  There are a lot of shenanigans caused by people who use the Name of Jesus or Christ. A Course in Miracles is a good example of how bad things can get if one is outside the faith and just misusing the faith left and right! Yet Balaam shows us it is possible for someone outside to be “connected” (even if for a moment). His song is still sung in the Synagogue. 

If Israel is seen as a sacramental of the Divine Name, a reminder that God is “the One who Is” or “the Existing One” as he is named by the Byzantine liturgy, all of us can sing, How fair are your tents, 0 Jacob!  Israel has shown us all the way to the Tabernacle of God. Balaam, though, indicates that even it is possible for those outside the community to be faithful in their own way. They can – on occasion – even be used by God to show the community her own mistakes. It could be possible for God to use non-Christians to correct our missteps. 

Psalm 7×7

JMJ

Sicut Patres Nostri
of Huw, A Lament sitting on the dock of the Bay

AS OUR FATHERS before us
So we sit by the waters
As by Babylon of old
by the waters of the Bay
Do you remember us, Lord?

The Saints have told us
Of your faithfulness, your love
Your power
You came with them to defeat their enemies
You swept before them in victory
That the Gospel might triumph
But we reap a different harvest
As we are despised not for your love
But for our victory
Their statues are toppled
Their names slashed
And your Name then slandered
Do you remember us, Lord?
We retrench and advance
but you do not go with us
And we fail
Do you remember us, Lord?

Our Fathers told us
Of days recently passed
Millions gathered in the park
Rosaries waving, families praying
Cameras filming
Yet now we cannot get permits
To pray without masks
To walk without harassment
To save children
Do you remember us, Lord?

We know naught happens but you allow it
Naught comes to pass but your will
Our semantics quibble over
Permissive or possitive
But it comes from you
Make us to know our sins
Give us contrition
That we may repent
Send us here our purgatory
That we may be purified

Our Fathers have told us that it was by your might
Trusting too much in princes hoping in strength
Did we fail in your name
Failing to offend those who offend you
Because of their power?
Have we forgotten our way?
Our new weakness your ancient Gospel
Our new death the way to renewed resurrection
Do you remember us, Lord?

Our Lord spoke to us saying we would not be loved
We would be rejected and hated for his Truth
Which is only ever Love
The world rejects us because of our sins.
Our pride in our power.
Have we forgotten you, Lord?

Your weakness is our strength
Trusting the might that was ours formerly
We lost our way in Babylon
And here, we mourn by the waters
The Bay laps our feet as we pray

We have sinned against heaven and before you
As our Fathers repented so do we
And as bread is lifted and cup is raised
Again. The work of human hands.
Show us the light of your love
That we may know the way
That we may walk with you
That we may know the way to walk
That the world may see you
As we see you
That the world may know you
As we know you
As you know us

We will praise you
Not for our power but for our weakness
Which is like yours
Weak even to death
Not for our passage of laws
But for our love winning hearts
When you then sweep before us in victory
Your Gospel will triumph
Even to resurrection
And we reap your harvest
From a world craving your love
That men may see our good works
And praise you
And we will know you then as you are
Again as you are always
Amen. Amen.

Bicameral Minds on Perelandra

JMJ

JULIAN JAYNE’S EPIC 1976 WORK, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind argues that the human mind had a major evolutionary change as recently as 3,000 years ago: that the left and right brains used to talk to each other and that this conversation could be perceived as an external voice, as the voice of God. This stoped about 1,000 Before the Christian Era. Jaynes suggests this is the real origin of all religion – the human brain talking to itself. He further posits that the evolutionary opening-up of this conversation (so that it became more unified) resulted in our modern mind – the way our “internal conversation” is all “internal”. Except in cases of certain mental illnesses, we don’t think of or experience the various voices in our head as anything but our own consciousness. The change 3,000 years ago left us hungering for that directive voice in our head. This is a very cursory view of the theory, but the book is worth a read: it explores everything from Homer to the Hebrew Prophets and modern experiments.

Perelandra, CS Lewis’ meditation on man, woman, and the fall, presents a different idea of this bicameral conversation in a prelapsarian culture on Venus. A man and a woman are situated by God (Whom Lewis named Maleldil) on a planetary Eden. A tempter and a defender are sent from Earth to mix things up. Ransom, the protector, encounters the Eve of Venus or the Lady, as she is called in the book, just in time to begin the battle with evil. The story plays out in a different way from our own Eden story. There’s much else to meditate on and there’s spoilers below this paragraph: if you’ve not read it you should – you may want to pass this post by. That said, though, we’re going to focus on the bicameral conversation and implications for our human, earthly faith.


As Ransom begins to interact with her he finds the Lady strange and somewhat childlike, even silly. She grows wiser, even as he watches! She seems to be constantly growing more mature. She is somehow plugged into the Holy Spirit in an active, two-way conversation. At times this conversation is very present, pulling her full attention away from whatever is before her. At other times the conversation is somehow under the surface, but it’s always available to her awareness but never intrusive. When Ransom says something about Earth or our history – forgetting that the Lady has never been to Earth – suddenly she understands. “Maleldil is telling me…” she says when he asks her how she knows. Maleldil tells her about space travel and Mars. Other things, which are deemed less important, Maleldil does not share with her even when she asks.

The Lady of Perelandra is fully engaged in what Jaynes would call a Bicameral Conversation- except it’s actually God she’s talking to. It can be somewhat frustrating for the reader: there’s no plot device that this ongoing conversation cannot trigger. Deus ex machina except it’s actually Deus himself, not a machine. You keep waiting for her to stop talking to Maleldil and to become an active part of the book. It’s as if there’s someone outside of the sphere of reality that is interfering with what could otherwise be an excellent book about good and evil, women and men. One keeps expecting her to pull out of the conversation or perhaps to grow up. Maybe later she will mature and God will let her stand on her own? But by the end of the book – when the evil has been destroyed and she has not fallen as our first parents did – the conversation is still going. She has become infinitely wiser and yet God still whispers in her ear.

Even reading the book several times, this conversation with someone offstage constantly annoyed this writer. Why was this character – and her husband as well – so immature, even at the end of the book when they were infinitely wiser? By “immature” here what is indicated is there’s a sense where the characters in this constant conversation with Maleldil have a sort of crutch in the mind of the reader: can she (later they) not make decisions on their own? Are they condemned to be children forever? Even when they are sitting on their thrones triumphant, Lord and Lady of their own world, Maleldil is whispering in their ears about what should be done next, about what choices can be made, about how to live. Even when the “good guy” makes choices he seems to be able to do so on his own without little whispers in his ear.

For our first session of class this semester, studying the Old Testament with Wendy Biale, we were asked to read the opening parts of God and His Image: An Outline of Biblical Theology by Dominique Barthélemy, OP. In discussing Eve’s Fall, Barthélemy notes that “it seems to me to be neither at the moment when Eve began to doubt, nor when she committed the act, but when she left herself open to the fascination of the doubt, when she entertained the doubt. It was precisely then that she became responsible; at the moment when she began to dwell pleasurably on the eventuality, on that doubt which touched on the motive of the divine command, when she let her mind play with what the serpent suggested. It was not the fact of having heard, it was not the fact of having acted, it was the fact of having lent her ear willingly, of having reflected and dwelt on the possibility, of having as it were forgotten in that moment all her daily experience of God’s dealing with their lives, of God’s dealing with creation, and having preferred instead the most unlikely eventuality, which was at the same time the most terrifying: that she might be sport of God… There we have that fragile second when there is indeed still real liberty of choice and then, an instant later when there is liberty no longer. Although nothing has been done, one has toyed with and welcome the idea that it might possibly be done. And in this toying, the decisive element takes the form of a sort of crazy attraction to what is worst.” (Emphasis added.)

What Eve did was to push God away for a moment to think on her own to make up her own mind. She knew what the command was but, having embellished it on her own above and beyond God’s command to not-eat (we shouldn’t even touch it, she added) Eve takes the place of God in her own mind, “wait, maybe I have this wrong”. Sin occurs exactly in that moment where we say, “Everyone hush! (Including you, God…) Let me think for a moment.” In that moment of silence we seem to automatically drift to the worst possible reading.

Even in that moment of Eve thinking on her own – or attempting to – God was still there for the Word can never be silent, but Eve, having made the choice to pull out of the conversation, kept going. The end result was that her tuning device, if you will, could no longer pick up that station and neither can any of her children. Even for us, with the restorative grace of Baptism and continual fortification of the Sacraments, the channel is always just-slightly-enough out of tune. We pick up part of the conversation with care, and none with ease. And now our psychologists posit that the ability to do so, at all, is a sign of devolution at least if not outright mental illness.

So, for the modern or post-modern reading Lewis’ story now, the Lady seems forever childish precisely because we have no way of imagining what that ongoing conversation would be like. We may, for moments, tune in: hands held up in silent prayer and bliss before the exposed Eucharist, the joyful awe of the conception of our children, the peaceful bliss of Viaticum, but it seems painful to sustain, like a holiday that has gone on too long and we only want to get back to regular work just for the sheer normalcy of it all.

Is it possible to sustain it longer? Can we offer to God our on-going conversation? We are not sinless like Eve or the Lady of Perelandra. We are off a different sort, now, but maybe. We have different offerings: stumbles, pricks in the flesh, weak joys, half-baked ideas, spiritual blog posts generated in off moments in parking lots. We might be able to offer these to God as a sort of firstfruits to see if they can be blessed. The normal process is to suddenly cry out for help as we sink beneath the waves, but Peter first said, “If it’s you, call me to come to you…” We might be able to sustain the action more and more each time, with practice. Pray for strength, make the essay with grace, fail and try again. Eventually, it may be possible to pray for the enter tire morning commute. As the Catechism points out, “praying” is the relationship itself. It’s not the particular words we use or the rites, it’s the relationship. It’s not something you can do sometimes. When one is married, one is married always. The only reason to pretend otherwise (even in the house, first thing in the morning) is to prepare for adultery. You’ve already done it in your heart at that point.

As with other relationships, this one starts out small. We cannot sustain it: even though we are designed for it, we are not strong enough. By grace we can be brought forward, able to hold on longer. After a while we may be able to sustain a portion of a holy hour or a walk in the park aware of being In the Presence.

Jaynes seems to be right in that our mind used to, at one point, be better tuned to this conversation. It may even be the Left and Right brains as he theorizes. It follows that having severed the connection in Eden millennia ago, the whole physiological and psychological process would continue to break down. Even in evolution it is true, “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” It is possible to imagine that 3000 years ago something else broke.

But by grace, we can begin to repair the instrument.

At the end of Perelandra the Lady and her Lord, having triumphed over the temptation, are enthroned and ruling over Creation is a way that humans have not been able to do since our First Parents fell. As a result, everything is disordered – even the creation itself groans under the weight of our initial misstep. On Perelandra the human beings became as gods in their own right. We only do so by grace and, mostly, after death. We have literally no experience of what this would be like. As this writer noted his frustration with the childishness of the Perelandran Lady, so he must also note his sadness that he cannot be so childlike. As this writer finds her on-going conversation with God to be a sort of crutch, so he can only limp along, on hobbled feet, sad that his pride will not let him have such a crutch. Yet it is so in hope: for filled with grace it is possible that healing can come. One day, Maleldil may be telling me.

It was precisely in her willingness to keep listening to the conversation that the Lady of Perelandra was able to avoid what was, indeed, the only pitfall: trying to stand on her own, apart from the Ground of Being that is God himself. He is not a crutch so much as the very thing we stand on at all, where the Word is the act of standing, and the Holy Spirit is the power to stand. We would not be without beingness Himself. We pretend otherwise at our own peril.

St Louis & Adelphopoiesis

JMJ

By way of Introduction: this paper was for Church History with Dr Kevin Clarke. The assignment was to imagine I was teaching RCIA at a parish named for a “controversial” saint. A member of the class raises an objection to that saint, how do I respond? Further, the same person feels that (pick a common objection from Church history) is very important and wants me to address it. Some possible examples were the Inquisition, the Crusades, etc. As I did not understand the reasons people disliked King St Louis that was my pick for the Saint. I had decided to go with dispelling a common myth about “the Burning Times” (which didn’t happen) when, as I was writing the paper, the CDF dropped a document. The Responsum triggered a memory of reading bad history – John Boswell’s Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe – and I pictured my RCIA challenger citing Boswell’s quotations of actual church liturgies and asking why we couldn’t do these rites now. The assignment limited me to 2,000 words with a 200 margin either way. I made it at 2195, but my first draft of the St Louis section was 3,000 words long. There is so much more to say about St Louis and the Talmud! But the accusation of Islamophobia seemed more realistic a question at this time as much as the question about same sex unions seemed more realistic in San Francisco today than the one about the Burning Times. This is how papers are born, I guess.


SPEAKING ABOUT THE BIG statue of St Louis riding a horse on Art Hill in St Louis, MO, Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation in that city  says “If we’re not honest about our history we will never be able to dismantle the systems of oppression that we are living under.” (Haaretz 28 June 2020) Dislike for St Louis the king is focused in St Louis the city, there are echoes of the protest in other places. The objections to him are that he was antisemitic and anti-Isalm. We will have time tonight to look at the issues around Islam. 

The crusades are the entirety of the argument for the “Islamophobia” of our Patron Saint. Louis was fighting Muslims. It is very easy to see this as a badge of what we understand to be racism today. It carries quite clear marks of it: fighting Muslims because they are Muslims. This idea of branding as evil all Muslims because they are Muslims is one we should oppose. But it’s not one that we can use against Louis. 

Our patron saint is renowned for his piety, his charity, and his bravery. He is also known for his skills as a governor and a diplomat. He is devoted to his wife. An article in Christianity Today says he called his wife a “girl of pretty face, but of prettier faith” which I really like, but I can’t find a source for that anywhere else for that quote. The Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent says he always followed his mother’s advice  I would rather see you dead at my feet than guilty of a mortal sin. And they cite him as saying The peace and blessings of the realm come to us through the poor. He took his family with him on the crusade. The Church teaches Louis’ holiness in that she has named him a Saint. 

Beggars were fed from his table, he ate their leavings, washed their feet, ministered to the wants of the lepers, and daily fed over one hundred poor. He founded many hospitals…. a man of sound common sense, possessing indefatigable energy, graciously kind and of playful humour, and constantly guarding against the temptation to be imperious. (Catholic Encyclopedia)

Our secular age teaches us “religion” and “everything else” are different categories. This was not so for King Louis IX: there are times when we want to say he was “acting religious” when, in fact, he would not see it that way. Founding hospitals and feeding the poor are works of charity, certainly, but they are also acts of government. They are “secular”. But not in France at this time. For another example, while he was on Crusade, he allied with some Muslims – helping out some Muslim kingdoms if they would help him. He also reached out to the Golden Horde, pagan Mongols who were part of the invasion/migration from the east seen as enemies by all the peoples in Europe and the Middle East. These could be seen as political choices. But they are also religious.

In the 21st Century, we see Louis as a “Christian King” of “the Nation of France” while imagining 13th Century France to be the same as today: a cultural and economic center, diverse and largely “like us”. That is, we think of 13th Century France as a secular state ruled by – almost by accident – a Catholic King, just as we may elect a Catholic President or a Masonic one. However, France was not a modern, secular state ruled by a leader who was accidentally (if very piously) religious. Pick up a copy of Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX, by Andrew Willard Jones (Emmaus Academic, 2017). There’s an entirely different worldview here: one where the whole understanding of things is religious.  

Muslim states today and in Louis’ time work in the same way: systems where “sacred” and “secular” are woven as tightly together as they were for Louis’ France. Yet we often imagine them as mirrors of our modern, secular way of life where there just happens to be a Muslim veneer as we have a Christian one. We visualize the Muslims of the Middle Ages in their peaceable kingdoms attacked by Christians from the west. The image is one of trying to win converts by the sword. 

Yet Louis was not out to convert Muslims. Neither was the war about eradicating their religion, nor one of territorial expansion. St Louis’ crusade was one of liberation

In Syria, Muslims had conquered some Christian towns and were enslaving the people there. Louis decided (on advice from allies) to conquer some Egyptian towns and hold them for ransom: to make a trade. This is very much a modern war tactic, still: Israel traded Palestinian prisoners for one soldier in  2011. It’s secular politics, sure, but this also sounds like the charism of the Trinitarians who were always Louis’ spiritual advisors: To the Glory of the Most Holy Trinity and to Ransom Christian Captives. We might wonder at the means the King chose for his ends, but see the weaving of political and religious here: how hard it is to dissect them. He is fighting “systems of oppression that we are living under” using the best means of his day – diplomatic alliances (even with “bad people”) and ransom.

Jones offers a very brief account of a conflict between Louis and some bishops asking him to enforce some declarations of excommunication. The king said he would look into the issue and enforce it if the action was just. The bishops replied that to let him investigate that way would be to “give the king cognizance of what pertained to [the Bishops]” – letting him snoop in on religious matters. But Louis replied that for him to act without first determining the justice of the matter would be to “give [the bishops] cognizance over what pertained to” the king. The idea of “church and state” is not valid when we look at Louis’ France. Louis is not imposing Catholic ideals on a secular order, but rather embodying the ancient idea of Sacred Kingship as a Catholic. The State is seen as sacral, as part of God’s plan for working out our salvation. Louis acts as a Catholic king, sacramentalizing his actions. 

Viewing Louis through our modern eyes we miss something of what CS Lewis called (in his The Discarded Image, 1962) the Medieval Synthesis “the whole organisation of their theology, science, and history into a single, complex, harmonious mental Model of the Universe.”  Lewis thinks of this Model as sharing equal standing with Aquinas’ Summa and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The three form a Map for a reality we can no longer see or even imagine in our world. We can see, though, these three pillars of this reality – the Summa, the Comedy, and the Model of reality – as manifestations of our Catholic Faith. 

Catholic means whole. Our faith seeks an integral whole. One of the ancient Eucharistic Prayers, going back to the 2nd Century (maybe the 1st) refers to the bread as coming from grain “scattered on the hillsides” and gathered into one loaf (Didache). We like things in separate boxes not touching each other: the work box, the God box, the leisure box. Life can’t be divided that way. My life is not 8 hours of customer service for a website and then a couple of hours for God. I’d break: and so will all of us. So will our world if we divide it only further. Catholicism seeks to bring it all together into one loaf to offer it to God in thanksgiving (Eucharist).  Let us ask for the intercession of our Saint Louis to help us see the world we are seeking to offer to God, not cut up into parts, but offered as one whole in Christ.

——

Rabbi Talve said, “If we’re not honest about our history we will never be able to dismantle the systems of oppression that we are living under.” It’s important to realize that we are part of the “oppression” she indicates: the idea that Christianity is the fullness of God’s Truth and that we – as Christians – are not only morally obligated to act as such, but that we believe in our hearts that doing so will make everything better for everyone – including those who reject our ideas or Truth. Allowing the world to drift away from Christ’s Kingdom through our inaction or because we’re afraid of what people will say allows things to fall apart.

The question we received was about John Boswell’s 1994 book, “Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe” wherein he posits the idea of a liturgical tradition of blessing same-sex couples. These rites exist: they are called “Adelphopoiesis” or “brother-making”. Common in the whole church until the 14th Century,  continuing in the East until the 20th, the rite is a blessing whereby two people of the same sex adopt each other as siblings, usually two brothers but sometimes two sisters. Boswell argues that the rite of Adelphopoiesis was a cultural continuation of the sexually intimate (mostly male) couples of ancient Greece and Rome. He implies that the Church simply adopted this cultural practice and that modern opposition to such couples is a relatively recent development in theology. The book includes English translations of the rites.

This week the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a document called a Responsum (Response) answering a Dubia (doubt or question). This document was called, Responsum of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding the blessing of the unions of persons of the same sex, and it was answering the question, “Does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?” The Responsum never says “Adelphopoiesis” it reads as if whoever posed the original question was holding the book and asking, “Can we do these rites?” Tl:dr Negative. Then the fewmets hit the windmill.

The use of Adelphopoiesis rites in the past to bless what we would call “gay relationships” assumes that our ancestors had these relationships to bless.  Boswell makes a leap many moderns do assuming (with a wink) that these were obviously sexual unions, even though this goes against the teachings of the Church. Boswell reads our modern assumptions into the past: a person’s identity is based on their desires. This is a type of what CS Lewis called “Chronological Snobbery” in Surprised by Joy: we know better than our ancestors about things like sex and know more about our ancestors than they did – especially in areas like sex. We know that when those people did these things they really were doing what we do even if they didn’t have the words for it. Critics of Boswell point out the use of these rites as political tools, ways to cement family alliances, and also ways to officially recognize reconciliations between opposing factions. Theological critics point out the historic teachings of the church on sexuality.

The modern idea of “sexual desire = identity” trips us up. If one’s desire defines oneself then should not the Church allow for the self to be celebrated? The theological response to that question is not our topic tonight but it is important to see that it is a new question

While there were women and men engaging in such actions, some arguing them to be good or neutral, the idea that these actions constituted a different type of person is very new – only about 100 years old. David F. Greenberg’s 700-page tome, The Construction of Homosexuality (University of Chicago, 1988) argues that  “homosexual” is a category that we have now as a result of the rise of market economies. Greenberg suggests the idea of “gay” is very modern. The only thing more recent than “gay” is “straight” which was formed in reaction to gay as a label. In 2014, First Things magazine published an article called “Against Heterosexuality” that rehashes much of this: worth a read.

Try reading ancient writers commenting on the morality of sex without reading  our ideas of identity into them. Paul did not condemn “alternative identities” nor did Jesus ever talk about “gay relationships” because those things did not exist as social categories. We cannot imagine their silence to indicate their approval any more than we should imagine their silence on television to be a sign of approval of Game of Thrones. Jesus and Paul discussed sexual sin.

This idea of “sin” is one that causes great concern in today’s society. It seems to be one of the “systems of oppression”: simply a way in which the church tries to control people. In fact, many Catholics seem to believe this as well. 

The Church sees her teachings on the human person as liberation. Being “honest about our history” includes being honest about the history of human sin. We remember that the Church’s teaching is freedom is not the ability to do whatever one wants but rather the ability to do the good. As Catholics, the culture of do whatever you will is the system of oppression from which we seek liberation.