The Holy Family

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner!

JMJ

The assignment was a 7 minute homily on a specific feast in the Advent/Christmas cycle. My assigned day is Holy Family Sunday (which is actually a Friday this year).

Be available to be someone’s chosen family.

WHAT IS THE MOST INTIMATE thing you can do with someone in public? Any guesses? 

It’s eating together. Sharing food is the most intimate thing you can do.

We eat together with our families and our most intimate friends. Yes, we might also eat together at work – team building is important! Dates. Proposals. Business deals. We do these all over food (and drinks, of course).

We see this every day, downstairs, at the Lima Center where guests need not only food but also love, social interaction, and simple human decency.  Come for our famous Chicken Adobo and showers, but stay for the feeling of being one of the family.

As a devotion, the Holy Family enters the Church recently: Showing up in France in the 18th Century. It doesn’t catch on for nearly 200 years, becoming a feast for the whole church only in 1921. 

It’s one of those curious feasts that does not mark an event or date, but rather an idea. The devotion was intended to show families how to be.

Paul calls the steps here:

Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, Bearing with and forgiving one another…  in love… and the peace of Christ

This does describe Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, but Paul is actually telling us how to live in our own families. 

Who would not want to gather around a table with a family like this? 

 The Holy Family devotion arose at a time when the family as we knew it had been destroyed by the industrial revolution. Gone were the days when multiple generations lived and ate together, caring for each other. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph would not have known themselves as a “nukular family” but as part of an extended tribe of support. They become a good aspirational image for how the family could be – despite the changes of the 18th and 19th centuries. 

But what of now? 

San Francisco is a city of broken families. Not only divorce – although certainly that. From the Gold Rush to the Tech Booms, people are called to the City by the siren song of the Petshop Boys.

Go West! 

Everyone goes west. 

Not always happily: sexual choices or drug issues cause families kick out their children. Wives leave their husbands. 

Families crash and break up on one rock or another and the flotsam and jetsom end up here, eating alone. 

Walking away from the past, hopes are high. 

Yet, the dark side is here, too: when things don’t work here, the westernmost city, where else is there to look for  “​​compassion, kindness, and patience”?  

San Francisco had at one time the highest suicide rate in the country (today it’s Las Vegas).

Sociologists see two types of families: “Birth Families” and “families of choice”. San Francisco author, Armistead Maupin, calls them “Biological Families” and “Logical Families”. He suggests folks come to this city – mostly alone – and weave new, Logical Families together to replace the Biological ones back east, in the past. 

What shall we – the Church that dines weekly (or daily) with the Holy Family – do about the flotsam and jetsom? Not just at homeless ministries, but in our homes.

When Christ calls us to welcome the stranger do we imagine them at our family table? 

My Catholic faith has been blessed and strengthened by two Brothers in the Knights of Columbus. Their families have welcomed me into their homes, especially at holidays and family events, helping me at difficult times, and making me feel included. I’m honored their children call me Uncle Huw! 

Is there someone in the pews for you to invite home? Do you have room around your table for a new aunt or uncle from St Dominic’s?

Let me and my Catholic extended family invite you to see the Holy Family as a model for us to be someone’s family in this city of singles. Try weaving Maupin’s phrase, “Logical Family” with one of the Greek titles for Jesus, “The Logos” the word. That’s where “logical” comes from, anyway.  Mary and Joseph are – literally – a family of Jesus’ sovereign choice, the Logos family. 

In the Holy Family we have a beautiful family of choice to emulate. 

Joseph embodies the virtues of strength, family support, and courage, Mary, full of grace, is courageous as well, and loving: a Jewish woman who keeps her home orderly so her husband can raise their son in the faith and traditions of Israel. Jesus is a stranger, not theirs and yet fully their own. And Jesus, one of us in all ways except sin, is almighty God living in humble obedience to his chosen parents. 

When making me part of their Logical Families, my Brother Knights model the Holy Family for me – for all of us.  

We can, through the Holy Family’s intercession, consecrate ourselves as new Logos families gathered around larger tables. Not only at Christmas but year-round. Our Holy Families of Choice can become the places described in the psalm:

Where we can eat the fruit of our handiwork and be blessed.

Extend an invite. Go blessed!

We can choose to build huge, intimate families of uncles and aunts for our children, including us all in the arms of faith and love around our dining tables and around this table where the God of all Love, of all community, of all family, gives himself to us, body, blood, soul, and divinity. 

Let us eat together with God, inviting all the world with us around this Eucharistic Table. 

There’s plenty of room here.

Let us all be the Holy Family!


Jesus does go on, doesn’t he?

Other Brands Are Available

JMJ

This is an assignment for my Homiletics class. Randomly picks out of a hat, as it were, it’s a coincidence that these are the readings for last Sunday. Yes, these homily assignments are extremely on-brand for me.

The Readings for the 27th Sunday, Tempus per Annum (C2)

Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you.

Luke 17:9-10a

THERE WERE SIX months when I tried my vocation as a Benedictine Monk, 8000 feet above sea level in the Colorado Rockies. 11 inches of snow on May 1st, 2016 and our traditionalist monastic practice seemed to go on forever, like the snow. 

4:30 wake-up, Matins at 5. 45 mins for meditation. The offices of Lauds, and Prime, then a house meeting where we planned out the day. The 3rd hour was sung, then Mass. Then coffee. 

Father Abbot seemed happy for any pious excuse or extra devotion to maximize our liturgy. It kept growing longer.

One day as I was struggling, trying to pray through this telescoping dreamscape of liturgy, a thought came to me:

Remember: you’re a monk. What else do you have to do today?

That was the right idea! I relaxed into the deep end of liturgical traditionalism and began – anew – my monastic struggle in earnest.

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

The psalmist is not calling us to a beginning but rather into the middle of an ongoing story. The people of Israel are already on their journey. They have heard God’s voice several times.

If today you again hear his voice, harden not your hearts again. Nor tomorrow for that matter.

Jesus speaks of beginnings in our Gospel: Mustard seeds are tiny. Yet, elsewhere, Jesus says the mustard seed grows into the largest of trees and the birds of the air live in the branches.

But here? Jesus does go on, doesn’t he?

When a servant finishes one chore, does the master say, “Good job! Come chill out with me!” No. When you’re done with that, the master says to you, here’s another thing to do. And another. There will be rest when I’m done with you.

If you’re married, is there any time you get to say, “For a few moments I shall pretend I’m not married…”

No. There is not.

When we first give our lives to the Lord, we can imagine a one-and-done deal. But the Christian life is not like that at all. There is no minimum for success.

Jesus wants to be the Lord of our entire lives: our sexuality, our piety, our emotions, our politics, our friendships, our social media, our reading, our media consumption, our clothing choices.

Not a day passes when at least once, or more often more than once, Jesus says, “Huw? You forgot to give me that bit over there.”  Yet, when I hear his voice, often my first response is O, now hold up a minute God…

Jesus reminds us today that – like marriage – there is no time in the Christian life when you can pretend you’re not called to holiness,  no time to pretend you’re not in a deeply personal relationship with your Lord; no time to pretend you’re not a Christian. 

We all can recognize when such pretending happens: it’s called sin. We harden our hearts like that all the time. Rejecting his call. Refusing his love. Refusing to share his love with others.

Don’t.  If you hear his voice do not harden your heart!

Jesus reminds us of beginnings, but if a mere seed of faith can move blueberries, imagine how much more power there is when the tree is fully grown and providing shade and home for birds! Even then, Jesus reminds us to say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done only what we were obliged to do.”

If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

In today’s 2nd Reading, Paul calls Timothy – and us – to “stir into flame the gift of God.” We must – by faith – stir our cooling embers back to full flame. Ask God what is needed and he will show you where to gently puff on the coals, where to stir, where to rake back the ashes.

And when you ask, don’t turn away from what God has for you next! It’s always your salvation. It’s always for your healing. He’s always calling us forward to holiness and sainthood. But, it is work!

Give yourself – entirely – to Jesus again. Invite him at Communion Time to be the Lord of your whole Life again.

Plant your mustard seed then let it grow.

Remember. You’re a Christian. What else do you have to do today?

Whose Wedding?

JMJ

The assignment was a five-minute homily on the stated passage. We began with the exegetical work in an earlier post.

Scripture: John 2:1-11

Today, Jesus, the Bridegroom of the Church, is calling us to our wedding feast.

A CHALLENGE has come to me three times: in two podcasts and a book. The podcasts are Every Knee Shall Bow and The Bible Project; the book has the very dry title, Elements of Homiletic. The challenge is to read each story or passage in the Bible in such a way as to see the whole Gospel message. Keeping that in mind let’s look again at this wedding story.

Mary is at a wedding to which Jesus and his disciples are called. The bridal families are out of wine and Jesus asks the servants to fill up some jars with water. Jesus changes water into wine. 

Problem solved: Everyone’s happy. 

St John the Evangelist has left some strategically ambiguous openings which allow us to read this wedding as a meditation on our life in Christ.

Notice, first, that Jesus and the disciples are “invited to the wedding”. That’s us – we’re all invited. “Disciple” means “Student”, beginners or advanced, we are all disciples together. If you are here today – even if you’re not yet Catholic – you’re a disciple.

There is another symbol for us: the jars standing empty. We’re called to this feast and we come – beginner or advanced – because recognize that we are empty. There is a God-shaped hole in us craving to be filled.

Any disciple’s first step is turning to God. It’s a step we must take every day as we are all weak. To turn to God is to repent.  The scriptures and Church Fathers call us to weep tears of repentance. We can imagine these tears poured out as the water poured into the jars. 

John says those jars are for “ceremonial washing”. We can think, also, of Baptism when the Church responds to our repentance with the living water of Baptism. 

This is also true each time we are reminded of our Baptism in the confessional. The Byzantine rite refers to confession as the “grace of a second baptism”. Combined with these living waters, our tears become joy.

Did you ever notice that the bridal couple stays off-screen? We never meet them. No name is mentioned and they have no words to say. 

Who does St John want us to imagine is getting married here? 

Mary says, “They are out of wine”.

Jesus asks, “What has that to do with me?”

Mary commands, Do whatever he tells you…

Two wedding guests seem to act as if they are the family at the wedding: as if Jesus is the groom and somehow responsible for the wedding. If Jesus is getting married, then, who is the bride? 

One more thing to notice: the Bible is full of wedding imagery! The Church follows the tradition begun in Ancient Israel (carried in St Paul and the book of Revelation): the intimacy of Matrimony is a sign of how God relates to his people. John, as a storyteller, allows us to see Jesus fulfilling those images. 

Look at the reading again and see: 

Jesus is God coming to his wedding with his people. We are the disciples called to the feast, no longer as students or penitents but as the bride.

The steward says to the groom, “We’ve had good wine already, but you have saved the best wine for last”. 

It is as if the Steward – and through him, the Guests, all of God’s people – are saying that the covenant of the Torah, the first wine, was amazing, and yet suddenly we’ve been given more than we ever dreamed to ask for.

Jesus and his disciples are called to the wedding feast here in this text and, in a few minutes, He will call us to a deeper union with him here at this altar.

This is no mere reception hall – not a feast with Jesus – but a chance to enter into communion with him so deep that we can only compare it to the mystery of marriage. 

Our Savior draws us here into the deepest intimacy of the Holy Trinity. 

Jesus here gives himself like a groom to his bride in fulfillment of the Covenant. 

Hearing this call, this is why we’ve come. If you’re not Catholic yet, you’ve heard it too. Come, see me after Mass! 

All is prepared. Come to the wedding feast and change your life into wine.

Word count: 713

Showing your work

JMJ

For the first assignment in homiletics we were to read the book Elements of Homiletic: A Method for Preparing to Preach by Otis C. Edwards. Then we were to put the method in play using a randomly assigned Gospel pericope. My passage was the Wedding At Cana, St John 2:1-11. The method, by the way, is quite easy to walk through. It sets one up quite well for writing a homily.


THE ASSIGNED TEXT is the Gospel for the 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C). It follows after the Sunday commemorating the Baptism of Christ although that story is abbreviated in Year C, combining a reference to Jesus’ action with the people’s Baptism.  “After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized…” (Luke 6:21). This makes a usable link between these two Sundays because of baptism references in the Cana story.

The first reading for this Sunday is Isaiah 62:1-5 As a young man marries a virgin,  your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you. This connects with the marriage reference in the Gospel and refocuses the imagery around being the People of God rather than a specific wedding.

The second reading is I Corinthians 12:4-11 on the different gifts of the Spirit. There might be a connection to follow from Living Water rising up in us to the New and Better Wine, though Pentecost (are these men drunk?) to the Church. 

This story does not appear in other Gospels.

Three things in this story opened up for me: the bride and the groom never appear as actors in the story. The groom is spoken to in verse 10, but never gets any action or words of his own. The bride does not appear at all. (Interesting to note since this is an option at weddings.) Jesus, however, is spoken to as if he were the groom and Mary the mother of the Groom. “There’s not enough wine,” said the Mother to the Groom. “Fix it.” Are we (the readers/hearers) the bride? 

Second, the opening words, on the third day. The Greek can be read as a direct translation of the Hebrew for Tuesday (Yom Shlishi), which reading I rather like. The Complete Jewish Bible actually says, “On Tuesday” here. That said, “Some random Tuesday before Passover…” is not a likely reading. Makes a good “fun fact” though.

My former (Episcopal) pastor noted this phrase in a homily once saying “The only time this phrase gets used in the Bible is to refer to the Resurrection.” He took that to mean the Cana story is only a mystical meditation on the fictional (in his mind) resurrection. The sermon made me angry at the time, but the notes to the Orthodox Study Bible indicate that the phrase sets a “resurrectional tone,” showing that “the marriage of God and His Church will be fulfilled in Christ’s Resurrection”. That turns it into an interesting meditation. Using the Catena App, there are not many commentaries on this phrase. St Bede says it indicates the Third Age of the world (from Creation to Moses, from Moses to Jesus, and from Jesus on). 

This linking of Marriage, Resurrection, and Baptism seems to be the important place if “the entire Gospel” is to be in this – and every – pericope. (Edwards, p. 50 in the Google Play edition).

Finally, the reference to Jewish purification rituals in verse 6. Traditionally such washing had to be done in “living water” which means the ocean, a river, stream, a spring, etc, or from rainwater. Wealthier Jewish homes may have a dedicated pool (called a mikveh) for use by the family. Jewish laws require a certain amount of “living water” to be used but other “normal” water can be brought into contact and – thus ritually purifying all the water to make it acceptable for the ritual. Among other uses, the mikveh was traditional for a bride (and sometimes the groom) to use before the wedding to be in a state of ritual purity. A mikveh requires about 140 gallons of living water or water that had otherwise been purified. (Source retrieved on 9/11/22.) It’s possible the jars are standing empty because the Bride has been to the Mikveh before the wedding. 

Images I’m seeing here: 1) Jesus drawing superabundant life (Wine) from the previously empty jars used for purification after his own baptism. 2) Jesus as Groom and us/church as bride. 3) Post conversion (the baptism last week’s reading) baptism in the Holy Spirit leads to a deeper union with Christ. 4) There’s something interesting about the use of “living water” in a mikveh and Christ promising streams of living water rising up with the believer (John 7:38). The Greek in 7:38 is the same phrase for “living water” in the LXX for Jeremiah 2:13. 

There are several possible messages here: 1) draw a line from the marriage of bride and groom through the Isaiah passage to Christ and the Church; 2) use verse 10 and speak about Jesus as the fulfillment of the covenant; and 3) from baptism in last Sunday’s Gospel to (if you will) living wine as a fulfillment in the charisms of the holy spirit. There’s also a longer, more “lectio” type message that could weave all these together fruitfully over a longer presentation. 

Atonement Homily

The assignment: Drawing from the doctrine of atonement expounded by Anselm, Aquinas, and Dr Margaret Turek’s Atonement, you are to give a homily on this subject to adult parishioners.

JMJ

GOD HATES SIN. It’s perhaps an uncomfortable claim for we are aware that we sin although, perhaps, we tapdance around that awareness so as not to disturb ourselves much. Because God loves his creation and because sin has marred the beauty God gave us he has destroyed the power of sin to destroy us. This is the doctrine of atonement.

That word, atonement, may make us as uncomfortable as a discussion of sin. This discomfort may be related to the same tapdance of avoidance though: only if we are sinners do we need atonement. Pope Benedict has suggested that we trivialize sin and thus downplay our own need for redemption – and so we also trivialize the action of Christ on the Cross.  (Atonement, 13.)  

Today, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart opens up our meditation on Atonement as an act of love. Let’s take a look at the alternative prayer offered by Liturgy of the Hours for Morning Prayer (Vol 3, p. 639)

Father, we honor the heart of your Son
broken by man’s cruelty
yet symbol of love’s triumph,
pledge of all that man is called to be.
Teach us to see Christ in the lives we touch,
to offer him living worship
by love-filled service 
to our brothers and sisters. Amen.

We’ll move through bit by bit. 

The heart of your son, broken by cruelty

The cruelty mentioned in the prayer is our rejection of God. That rejection is sin in its totality. There may be individual sinful actions, but sin is a rejection of God and the love and dignity he offers us (Atonement, 51, 89ff). We are made for God and we only find our full happiness in him. Sin is any attempt to find or root our being elsewhere. Sin wounds us and our neighbor, but all sin is, primarily, a rejection of God. Any step away from that fullness – our proper end – is sin because we step away from God himself. (See also, Catechism  ¶1849, ¶1850). Sin is real. This rejection of love is the cruelty spoken of.

God allows us to experience the results, the natural consequences of our sin (Atonement, 52). We suffer a loss of God, of a proper relationship with others and the world, and – eventually – we suffer death. Even these consequences wound God who wants so much more for us. 

St Anslem starts us on this journey, asking “Why God Became Man?” Seeking to explore answers to Jewish and Muslim critics in his day (late 11c). In our rejection of infinite love, we incur (and continue to incur) an ongoing infinite debt that corrupts even our attempts to repay it. Anselm teaches that it required a human person to pay our a human debt, else humanity would have been beholden to whoever paid for us. Yet it needed to be God who did so because it was an infinite debt and only an infinite God could have paid it. So, uniting God and Man in himself, God the Son dies on the Cross to pay the debt of all humanity. In this action, he purchased us for himself and we are beholden only to God – as it should be. We can most clearly see the wounding of God’s heart on the Cross, and yet we can see something else as well. We need to see deeper into this action than just “purchase”: for in the act of atonement on the Cross, indeed the entire Incarnation, God the Holy Trinity has done something unexpected (Atonement, 130)

The Church sees love’s triumph in the Crucifixion. Even on the Cross – where we “did something to God”, it was a death by his own initiation, his own handing-over as the Eucharistic prayers say.  God’s sovereign action is always the initiator (Atonement, 29): even our own actions are not mere reactions to God’s love but an act of his grace engendering in us a response. God is love. All that he does is because of the love that he is. Even his hatred of sin – his passionate hatred of the distance we ourselves have placed between us and him – is his love in action. Like a human lover, this puts God in a vulnerable position, at risk of being hurt by our rejection. But, unlike a human lover, God keeps pushing forward in love despite being wounded (Atonement, 35). Remember that Jesus is God the Son. He is showing us the love of the Father in this action on the Cross. What we see in Jesus’s love for us is his filial imaging of the Father’s love for us. Like Father, like Son!  As the Father allows us to wound and slay the Son, the Heart of God breaks in the depth of his love for us. And his hatred for sin manifests as we slay his Son, the engendered response to his love rises in us, becoming the restoration of our relationship with him.  (Atonement, 106)

On the cross, Jesus was made to be “sin for us” ​​(2 Corinthians 5:21) and by allowing the perfectly pure Son to experience the natural consequences for our sins God restored us to him. This is the masterstroke against sin, for by the cross those consequences of rejection, pain, and even death become the pathway of the Father’s love to us. (Atonement, 129, footnote 97) As Jesus surrendered perfectly to God’s will, even the worst parts of our world of violence and sin become ways in which God can (and does) reach us. The Eastern Church says Christ has “trampled down death by death.” That’s why the Sacred Heart, wounded by cruelty, is the symbol of love’s triumph.

And so, the prayer says the heart of Christ is the pledge of all that man is called to be. We are called in the Son of God to contemplate the Father. We are called to share the love of God. But there is more. Our heart must become like his: ours must be broken, too. 

We are called, in the closing words of the prayer, to see Christ in the lives we touch, to offer him living worship by love-filled service to our brothers and sisters. We are called to serve others, and to risk in that action the same rejection that he risks; our hearts will also be broken by cruelty as we call others to the divine plan of love. (Atonement, 222 ff) 

Participating in the infinity of God’s action, we become humans paying human debt fully. Our pain, our suffering, in Christ, becomes part of the ongoing action of Atonement. Speaking at Fatima, Pope Benedict said, “entrust to him every setback and pain that you face so that they become – according to his design – a means of redemption for the whole world. You will be redeemers with the Redeemer, just as you are sons in the Son.” 

Lord of the Sabbath

JMJ

The assignment: Your essay will address two questions: Who is Jesus of Nazareth? What insights are gleaned from his words and deeds: his baptism, his temptations in the wilderness, his Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer, his “I AM” sayings, etc.? What can we understand about Christian discipleship in light of the person and mission of Jesus?

OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST himself declared what he was, what he had been, how he was carrying out his Father’s will, what obligations he demanded of men.” (Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics, Office of Readings, Feast of Sts Philip & James, Liturgy of the Hours, Vol 3, p.1811). Where does Jesus tell us who he is? How can this help form Christians today?

Finding the answers requires listening to Jesus in his context. We will look briefly at our Lord’s teaching on keeping/breaking the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8) walking with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to understand our Lord’s meaning more deeply, using Chapter Four of the Pope’s Jesus of Nazareth, Vol 1 (hereinafter, JoN). This chapter is a dialogue with another author’s work, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (1993), by Rabbi Jacob Neusner. Benedict explores the Rabbi’s reactions as Jesus is questioned by Pharisees about his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. The Rabbi provides Jewish ears and a Jewish voice. 

In the understanding of Rabbinic Judaism, doing any sort of work on the Sabbath is a violation of the Torah. How the disciples keep Sabbath is important in all the Gospels. Pope Benedict notes on page 106 “Jesus’ statement that ‘the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath’ (Mk 2:27) is cited as evidence, the idea being that it represents an anthropocentric view of reality, from which a ‘liberal’ interpretation of the commandments supposedly follows naturally. It was, in fact, the Sabbath disputes that became the basis for the image of the liberal Jesus.” The liberal Jesus tosses out (or ignores) the commandments. “Jesus’ liberal understanding of the Law makes for a less burdensome life than ‘Jewish legalism.’” (JoN p. 109)

Jesus replies that priests work in the Temple on the Sabbath without actually breaking the law, adding “[S]omething greater than the Temple is here.” (Matthew 12:6 – RSVCE).  He says, “The Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (v. 8) This is not a case of the “liberal” Jesus freeing us from all Moses’ laws. Benedict finds, along with Neusner, there is a different focus here, a revelation of who Jesus is.

We are eavesdropping on a conversation between Jewish voices: Jesus was using Jewish words in Jewish ways and those words were being heard in Jewish ways as well. In this light, we should keep in mind something different about the Sabbath and observing it in the Jewish context. Jesus is not tossing out rules. Rabbi Neusner hears it this way:

God rested on the seventh day, as the creation account in Genesis tells us. Neusner rightly concludes that “on that day we . . . celebrate creation”. He then adds: “Not working on the Sabbath stands for more than nitpicking ritual. It is a way of imitating God”. The Sabbath is therefore not just a negative matter of not engaging in outward activities, but a positive matter of “resting”.

JoN, p 108

Further drawing out resting, Benedict reads the verses immediately preceding chapter 12. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11: 28-30). The Pope pulls the reader back a bit to see the full context of the story. We don’t often read the picking grains story together with the preceding verses, but the wider angle on giving rest and then a conversation about resting on the sabbath shows us that these verses are all part of the same story. Pope Benedict lets us see in the wider context that Jesus is not just saying, “Hey, you don’t need to follow these sabbath rules anymore.” 

Neusner agrees that Jesus is shifting the point of focus from the Temple. “[T]he holy place has shifted, now being formed by the circle made up of the master and his disciples” (JoN p 108). The Rabbi comes to the conclusion that Christ is putting himself in the place of the Torah and then asks, “Is your master God?” (JoN p. 110). 

Hearing this as a Jewish conversation wrapped in the wider context provided by earlier verses, we can see that Jesus is claiming in his person to grant Sabbath rest. He is “Lord of the Sabbath”. That is to say he is claiming to be God and by following him his Disciple obeys the law of the Torah in a more direct way. By resting in Jesus we are “Sabbath Resting” not only on the 7th day, but always. 

For a disciple, following Jesus is not a matter of ignoring the moral code, but rather expanding the code, making it personal. When the covenant was written on Sinai, God’s living fire burned the stone (Exodus 31:18), destroying what was not needed and revealing the laws that have been for all time.  In the New Covenant, the law is written on our hearts. Now God’s living fire carves it out on our hearts: destroying in our lives what is not needed and revealing what has been the law for all time. Our hearts become living stones of God’s Temple (1 Peter 2:5).

Pope Benedict cited this meditation from Rabbi Neusner on pages 104-5: by Jewish tradition, there are 613 commandments given on Sinai which have been condensed, in various steps, down to the greatest commandments regarding God and neighbor. The Rabbi says Jesus taught all this faithfully. But, he notes, Jesus did add something: “Himself.” To the Rabbi’s eyes, Jesus has added himself to the story, replacing the Temple and the Torah. He is claiming to be God openly which his audience of 1st Century Jews – and Jews today – can hear. For the disciple today Jesus has unveiled himself as the central part of the entire Biblical story. 


(992/1000)

Colossians

JMJ

THE ASSIGNMENT was to read a selected book of the New Testament (in my case, The Epistle to the Colossians) and answer selected questions. A five-page paper was assigned as well as a 10-12 mins presentation.

What Problem is Being Addressed?

This depends on who is writing and when. Is this letter written by Paul (mid-50s to early-60s), by a disciple of Paul but in Paul’s name (50s – 70s), or is it “in a Pauline style” but much later (-90s?)? If it is by Paul or a disciple the issue could well be the same. If it is from a later date the content and reasons are different. Please note that sources are listed at the end of the paper.

Those who say the letter is pseudonymous point out that there are multiple terms used in this letter not used in other letters. Additionally, it does not fit into the accepted chronology of Paul’s writing: “This means Paul would have written Colossians sometime before his Letter to the Romans, creating the difficulty that Romans often betrays less development than Colossians with regard to some key concepts such as “body of Christ,” the relation of baptism to resurrection, and emphasis on Christ’s future coming.” If this text is from a later period then all of what follows is to be seen as didactic (here are some rules to follow) rather than pastoral (there are some problems so let’s talk). The author is creating a “Pauline slapdown” for their community rather than helping any local Christians deal with issues. Thus the argument seems to be, “Paul already had to deal with stuff like this 20 years ago and he did this… so y’all fall in line.” The unknown author seems to be making claims in support of some specific parties in a local church over other parties. (All the preceding is summarized from Havener.) Our class text indicates that the author wants to “… respond to the challenge presented by ‘the philosophy’ (2:8), and… to provide some support for Epaphras (1:7)…” 

Considered as actually from St Paul, though, this letter is very interesting! It is traditionally paired with Philemon. The text does respond to some cultural challenges and a good bit of encouragement for a congregation of new Christians.  The text is also part of a one-two punch delivered to Philemon and addresses issues on interpersonal relationships in the new community.

Assuming the text to be what it claims to be, the issue is one of how to live as Christians in the culture. Kreeft and our textbook both think that the issue is some sort of Jewish legalism and proto-Gnosticism. Other scholars suggest that there is more a sort of two-way pressure: from the Pagan side there was Epicurean philosophy as well as the normal Roman Paganism (worship of the Roman gods). From the Jewish side, there is legalism – a pressure to follow the full scope of Jewish religious laws. 

I find these two sides pushing images makes more sense to me than thinking most (all?) of the pushback was from the Jewish community: certainly as Catholics that we are challenged both by the culture of the secular world (our local Paganism) as well as by other religions. We are also challenged by the legalism within our own tradition. More on that in a few moments though! 

Main Message

God is in control; that is to say, “Christ is in Control.” The opening passages of this letter (Colossians 1:12-20) are a hymn from the early Church. We also sing this at Vespers on Wednesdays. Christ is described in a great number of titles, each listing Christ as the top of some theological category. All of the sources refer to this hymn as describing the Cosmic Christ. 

This Cosmic Christ is presented as a counter to “philosophy” as well as to local paganism, on the one hand, and, on the other, as in opposition to adherence to the law itself. It is our being (through baptism) in Christ that means we are no longer subject to the Jewish law or the superstitions of the Pagan world. We no longer need to dig into mysterious/occult ways, since Christ is the culmination of all mysteries.

Theological Insights

1) The Cosmic Christ

The hymn in 1:15-20 gives a number of titles and descriptions to Christ that are very much beyond the “carpenter’s son of Nazareth”:

He is the image of the unseen God and the first-born of all creation, for in him were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and everything invisible, Thrones, Dominations, Sovereignties, Powers- all things were created through him and for him. Before anything was created, he existed, and he holds all things in unity. (etc)

“The hymn… makes clear that Christ is the ruler of the cosmos;… [and]has a very high view of the divinity of Christ, but it is a step in the development of doctrine, not its completion…” (Smiles)

2) In Christ (ἐν Χριστῷ) 

The expressions “in Christ” and the variations “in him/ whom” and “in the Lord” appear extensively in Paul’s writings, some two hundred times… In Colossians, in Christ (and the variations) occurs nineteen times. …Paul used (in all of his writings – DHR) fourteen compound words beginning with sun, the preposition translated “with.” Three of them are found in Colossians, co-­buried (2:12), co-raised (2:12; 3:1), and co­-quickened (2:13). (Martin)

One could be tempted to read “in Christ” as a mere psychological or spiritual “identification” with Christ, but the Catholic understanding of “in Christ” implies the doctrine of theosis or divinization and it means that the believer participates in Christ fully by Grace. There is a mystical way in which the believer is being Christ or mediating Christ in the present situation. 

¶1691 “Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.”

¶1692 The Symbol of the faith confesses the greatness of God’s gifts to man in his work of creation, and even more in redemption and sanctification. What faith confesses, the sacraments communicate: by the sacraments of rebirth, Christians have become “children of God,” “partakers of the divine nature.” Coming to see in the faith their new dignity, Christians are called to lead henceforth a life “worthy of the gospel of Christ.” They are made capable of doing so by the grace of Christ and the gifts of his Spirit, which they receive through the sacraments and through prayer.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section III “Life in Christ”

Kreeft points out that the main argument is “(1) Christ is divine. (2) And you are in Christ. (3) Therefore, ‘if then you have been raised with Christ… set your minds on the things that are above not on the things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God’ (3:1-3).” Paul spends most of chapters 2 and 3 walking the reader through the implications.

3) Jesus’ Primacy Over the Powers

Jesus is cited as head over all things, therefore we do not need to submit ourselves to any spiritual “others” such as angels, elemental powers, etc. Is Paul addressing worship of local deities or some proto-Gnosticism? Most of the sources think there’s something like Gnosticism going on here. Paul uses the term “Philosophy” (love of wisdom) in 2:8. Greco-Roman paganism had “taboo” days where certain things could not be done. Many superstitions command “do not touch” and “do not eat” so the contents in the Epistle do not need to refer to Judaism alone. What, exactly,  is Paul referring to? At this great remove, we might be unable to know for certain, but there are many examples today of people who make Christ one of a “pantheon” in their spiritual-but-not-religious way.  Paul is saying that’s not following Jesus who is higher than all other beings. This is the prime insight, really, of the entire letter. In Christ is our Hope, and our action, our life, our one true religion.

4) Relationships in the Home in theory and practice.

Jesus’ primacy is not only a theological or spiritual claim: we must act as if it’s really real. Paul points out that the Cosmic Christ has implications in the home noting that contrary to the abusive family structures common in the Roman world, the Lordship of Christ requires our families to change. The Bible Project makes it clear that the way a Roman Pater Familias ran his home was nothing like a Christian Father exercising his headship in Christ.  What Paul describes would not be very recognizable to the “secular” Roman world.

Then Paul gives an example in the relationship between Philemon and his slave Onesimus. Paul does not demand the political overthrow of a system, but the change he makes in the relationship between a Roman Master and a Roman Slave will, eventually, change even our country. But we know the laws are only part of the work: it is still hearts that must be changed. 

5) Comments on Legalism

Legalism (which will not save us) is part superstition and part politics. The legalism mentioned in the Epistles is usually referring to circumcision, dietary laws, and the sabbath, but as I noted Roman Paganism has such rules as well. Today we practice a sort of reverse legalism rather than evangelism. Paul wants us to change hearts and relationships, to win souls for Christ. He doesn’t give us new rules for the household, he shows us how love plays out. Paul wants the Colossians and – especially? – Philemon to do the hard work of changing hearts – their own hearts and others. Following rules does not save us. 

How often in our modern world do we try to change laws to make people comply with Christian morality rather than doing the hard work of changing hearts?


Further Notes (for speaking)

Paul is writing a letter of encouragement. He has been visited in prison by his friend Epaphras – who founded this community – and he has sent a letter to them by the hands of Tychicus and Onesimus. Now, Onesimus is the slave of one Philemon, a member of the Colossian community. Paul is also sending a personal letter to Philemon to ask for some special favors.

The church in Colossae may meet in Philemon’s house.

The Colossians are facing cultural pressure to conform from two different directions: the Pagans in Colossae as well as from the Jewish Community. Are these Jewish Christians or Jewish Jews? Well, at a certain point in time there was no division here. If this letter is written by Paul in the middle of the 1st Century the Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah are worshipping in the Synagogue along with the Jews who do not believe. The practice seems to have been for Jews to meet on Friday night and Saturday for Sabbath and then, after the Havdala service, marking the end of Sabbath, Jews who believed in Jesus as Messiah gathered with Gentiles for the Eucharistic supper. (Keonig)

I would like to suggest that Jews outside the community may have wondered at Jews eating with Pagans. We can imagine the conversation being something like this:

Why do you eat with them late Saturdays?
Um…
Are they righteous Gentiles?
Oh yes!
Oh, then they should come to synagogue, at least. They can sit in the back. You know they should keep Kosher, though…
Hey, you know… brothers… if you tried to blend in more, it would be easier for all of us. Just pretend you’re Jews…

Additionally, Paul was addressing a Church arising in a pagan culture and needed to move Christians from their own cultural assumptions towards a more Christ-centered life. Paul believes that, in baptism and through the Holy Spirit, the Christians are endowed with the grace to make this change in their lives.

There are mystery religions as well as normal Roman paganism (worship of Jupiter/Zeus, etc). In this world, they would imagine Jesus to be just another deity. One Anglican scholar has noted that while there were miracle-working Rabbis in Jewish tradition, there were no such cases in Pagan culture. That Jesus was a miracle worker would, in Pagan eyes, imply that he was divine. He would be in danger of just getting added to “the list”. (Dix.)

Paul’s letter of encouragement says Jesus is more than all that. Jesus is everything.

Legalism was (at one time) the idea that following the law would save us. Paul says it is Christ who saves us and urges us to live into that (to act in trust – fideo – on our beliefs – credo). What do we do to “outsiders” though? We could evangelize them, but we often take the shortcut: to pass laws that make them obey our morality even if they are not part of the faith. We feel much safer in a society with a veneer of Christian uniformity. Integralism is legalism in reverse: sure, we have faith. We save the law for the outsiders.


Sources:

Jerusalem Bible,  1968, Doubleday.

The Feast of the World’s Redemption: Eucharistic Origins and Christian Mission. John Koenig, 2000.

Jew and Greek, a Study in the Primitive Church, Dom Gregory Dix, 1953.

New Testament (New Collegeville Bible Commentary) Daniel Durken, series editor. Article on Colossians, Vincent M Smiles; article on Philemon, Terence J. Keegan, OP.

New Testament (Collegeville Bible Commentary) Robert Karris, OFM, general editor. Article on Colossians and Philemon, Ivan Havener, OSB.

You Can Understand the Bible, Peter Kreeft.

Bible Project. Video introductions to Colossians and Philemon.
Poster Summary for Colossians.
Poster Summary for Philemon.

Colossians, Philemon, by Ernest D. Martin (Believers Church Bible Commentary). Retrieved on 3 Mar 22.

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.”