For al least the next two weeks I am directing all posting to the Sunday Stream to discuss the recent Pennsylvania report on clerical child abuse, including its implications for catechetics and Church/parish life. You can jump over to Sunday's stream by clicking here.
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: AMOS 7: 12-15
FIFTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME [B]
USCCB link to all three readings here.
Amaziah, priest of Bethel, said to Amos,
“Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah!
There earn your bread by prophesying,
but never again prophesy in Bethel;
for it is the king’s sanctuary and a royal temple.”
Amos answered Amaziah, “I was no prophet,
nor have I belonged to a company of prophets;
I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.
The LORD took me from following the flock, and said to me,
Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
Today we reach back to the earliest days of prophesying in the classical sense, that is, a man called from his established way of living and filled with the Spirit of God to preach a return to the Covenant of Sinai. Father Lawrence Boadt (see home page) estimates that Amos of Tekoa undertook his preaching in roughly 760 B.C., which is over two centuries before Ezekiel, whose words were proclaimed last Sunday.
One of the more humorous points in Sunday’s text is Amos’ indignation at being called a prophet, for prophets were a common sight around holy places, men who danced and performed ritual prayers. The key point about prophesy before the “classical era” of prophets is the ritual predictability of temple prophets, “establishment characters” in the religion of the day. I strongly recommend that you look at the Book of Amos in its entirety to get a sense of how far the priestly cult and temple observance. In his opening salvo, Amos gives us a picture of city life around the temple filled with religious profanity, a corrupt judiciary, and a gross disregard of the poor. Little wonder his back goes up when Amaziah tells him to take his prophesying elsewhere.
Amos was not a metropolitan man. The text of this book tells us he was a sheepherder and a dresser of sycamores out in the country who was seized by the Spirit to excoriate the sinfulness of Israelite society; the city-country polarity runs throughout much of the Hebrew Scripture. Amos’ preaching crusade demonstrates polemic at its best. He begins by listing the sins of Israel’s neighbors and enemies, a ploy which wins him an eager hearing. Then, at the crest of his diatribe, Amos says, in effect, “let me tell you now about the worst nation on the earth—you!” He lays out an extraordinary catalogue of evildoing coupled with an assault on the blasé attitude of priests and people alike toward fidelity to God and the inevitable punishments down the road.
It is now that Amaziah seeks to quiet him and return him to the hinterlands, but Amos retorts that he himself did not seek this dangerous and distasteful ministry; rather, God had seized him from his flock and told him to prophesy in Bethel, the site of this reading. Implied here, of course, is the fact that God is very unhappy with what has been passing as religion, i.e., the house prophets and the priesthood itself. History does not tell us what became of Amos, and it is possible that he was killed or imprisoned.
Every commentary on Amos devotes great attention to his message, that Israel’s greatest sin is injustice to the poor and those who cannot buy influence. The Covenant and its attendant worship was intended to instill a pleasing brotherhood in the eyes of God. The absence of such a brotherhood was plain to Amos, as his sermons testify, but it was not plain to the residents of Bethel, busy with drinking and consorting with prostitutes. This theme of Amos would be picked up in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians where, writing about the manner of Eucharistic celebration, Paul expresses anger at the segregation of rich and poor at home celebrations. To eat and drink of the Lord’s Supper with such insensitivity was the equivalent of “eating and drinking a judgment unto one’s self.”
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: EZECHIEL 2: 2-5
FOURTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME [B]
USCCB link to all three readings’
As the LORD spoke to me, the spirit entered into me
and set me on my feet,
and I heard the one who was speaking say to me:
Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites,
rebels who have rebelled against me;
they and their ancestors have revolted against me to this very day.
Hard of face and obstinate of heart
are they to whom I am sending you.
But you shall say to them: Thus says the LORD GOD!
And whether they heed or resist—for they are a rebellious house--
they shall know that a prophet has been among them.
The Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990), in its introduction to the Book of Ezekiel, describes the prophet as a pivotal figure in the history of Israel. Ezekiel grasped the integrity of faith in God’s covenant, pure worship, and observance of the Law, but he recognized that Israel’s life of faith would require acknowledgement of changing times and circumstances. He understands a future where the royal arrangement of Israel’s life might no longer be possible, and that the religion of Israel would (and probably would have to) set roots and live by the essence of God’s Revelation throughout the face of the earth, a reference to what would later be called the diaspora of “scattering.” As it happens, our house expert Father Lawrence Boadt (see welcome page) is the JBC’s commentator on Ezekiel, and he observes that “it is little wonder that Ezekiel is often considered the Father of Judaism” as we understand Jewish practice today.” (p. 305)
600 B.C. marked a turning point in Israel’s history. Since the kingships of Saul, David, and Solomon, four centuries of kings had governed Israel, none of whom measured up to the cultic memory of the beginnings of the dynasty. A king of Israel was not a deity, but neither was he a figurehead, either. While he exercised what we might call today statecraft, he was also bound by the Covenant Law and responsible for the quality of religious life, though the day-to-day religious leadership fell to the tribe of Levi (the Levites) and the Temple priesthood. The last of the Israelite kings worthy of the name appears to be Josiah (640-609 B.C.) and Father Boadt goes into considerable detail to explain the reforms undertaken by this remarkable king. Josiah called for (1) abolishment of foreign idols; (2) end of the cult of the stars; (3) end of worship of sun and moon; (4) termination of temple prostitution; (5) renewal of the Feast of Passover; (6) suppression of the Cult of Moloch, in which infant sacrifice was offered.
Josiah’s reforms, listed in 2 Kings, are very similar to the precepts of Deuteronomy (“second law’) and may have inspired the writing of the fifth book of the Pentateuch. But they also give us a grim picture of Israelite observance by the end of the seventh century B.C. The Encyclopedia Britannica’s biography of Ezekiel indicates that the prophet did not serve under the reign of Josiah, but later, under the reigns of Josiah’s successors who could not resist the advances of Babylon. In 597 B.C. Ezekiel, with other priests, was forcibly removed to Babylon, and several years later, after Israelite revolts, many of his compatriots joined him in what is well known as the Babylonian Captivity.
Ezekiel, as a priest, was well respected by his people, but he did not receive his call to prophesy until several years into the captivity. Sunday’s reading describes his call from God received in Babylon, making him the first Spirit-filled prophet to receive his call outside of the confines of the Israelite nation. God announces that he is “sending” Ezekiel to the Israelites—a curious phrasing since Ezekiel was already among Israelites. In this context God speaks as if he hardly knows Israel anymore; there is nothing of “my people” here. The Lord goes on to speak of the Israelites as a rebellious people, and God acknowledges that in their hardness of heart there is a very good chance they might reject Ezekiel’s preaching altogether. Nonetheless, God wants them to know that a prophet has been among them—an intimate presence of God’s spirit and truth—so that they can no longer claim that God has abandoned them.
Scholars who have worked with the Book of Ezekiel find two separate strains of thought. The first—Ezekiel’s early years—was a message that Israel’s neglect of its covenant with God was the cause of its current misery. Or, another way, you brought this on yourselves. Implied in this is the argument that no king—Josiah notwithstanding—can carry the full load of moral responsibility, a critical step toward a deeper sense of moral responsibly. As the years passed, and Ezekiel himself aged, his preaching turned toward consolation and hope. His last preaching is estimated to have occurred around 570 B.C., and he died long before King Cyrus of Persia released the Israelites to return home in 539 B.C.
This reading is paired with the Gospel narrative of Mark 6 in which the preaching and good works of Jesus in his home town are questioned and rejected by his presumed fellow neighbors in faith. One can imagine a literary parallel between the reception afforded Ezekiel when he tells his people that their misery is their own doing, and Jesus’ acting in the role of herald of the new kingdom to people who presumed they knew him. Interestingly, in Luke’s telling of Mark’s account here, he describes how the people tried to kill Jesus. A prophet is not without honor except…etc.
I was not happy with the limited posting I was able to do in June, and I feel like I left a lot of you hanging. One reason for the limited posts is several changes in my circumstances. Back in May I opened a free mental health service in the local Catholic Church here in my town. It is open Fridays all day, and in less than a month the available time slots were full. I am enjoying it very much, but I cannot do anything else on Friday, which eliminates another day I can devote to the Café. I continue to work Mondays at the Catholic Charities Clinic in Eustis, Florida; in fact, I will be driving over in an hour or two.
A second issue is the increasing demand for more reading prior to posting. There are several streams going at the same time which call for more research. Certainly, the Thursday stream on Luther and the Reformation is one; the nature of evil in the Monday Morality stream is another. This year I began commenting on the First Readings on the Sunday Mass, which meant a return to Old Testament studies, a discipline which is not one of my greatest strengths. When I started the Café four years ago, one of my goals was to introduce busy professionals to the best of new religious, catechetical, and theological works. This assumes reading the books first!
A third issue is retirement itself. Having turned 70 this year, I am finding that increasingly friends and family need contact and attention. Again, I am very pleased to become more involved in their lives, but this too devours the hours of the day. On the other hand, all the medical advice for seniors speaks of exercise and interpersonal interactions as means of maintaining a sound mind and a good spirit. This is a time of life to cultivate and enrich the relationships I already have, and perhaps engage in new ones. I know a fair amount of people who have outlived their friends and face their final years in an undesired solitude.
And, I am beginning to feel older. While I continue to be blessed with good health, I am no longer the young buck who could read till 2 AM. If I stay up that late, I will feel it the next day, like a hangover. When I was on retreat with the Trappists two weeks ago, I talked about all of this with a wise monk who reminded me that the senior population brings an example of transition and serenity, and he gently challenged me to stop running around like a chicken with its head cut off.
I have no intention of discontinuing the Café, because aside from the pressures of brewing up new flavors frequently, it is one of the more pleasurable enterprises in my life. Realistically it is probably best to say that the weekly grind of each stream will be tapered back to two weeks instead of weekly. On days when I am on the road, like family reunions, I may post with more spontaneity and less pedantic. Old bloggers don’t die, they just reign it in a bit.
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: WISDOM 1:13-15; 2:23-24
THIRTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME [B]
USCCB link to all three readings here.
God did not make death,
nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.
For he fashioned all things that they might have being;
and the creatures of the world are wholesome,
and there is not a destructive drug among them
nor any domain of the netherworld on earth,
for justice is undying.
For God formed man to be imperishable;
the image of his own nature he made him.
But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world,
and they who belong to his company experience it.
All my sources place the composition of the Book of Wisdom at about 50 B.C. or just before the Christian Era. The work was composed in Greek, not Hebrew, even though the author sometimes speaks in the voice of Solomon, who lived a millennium earlier. Wisdom was written in Alexandria, Egypt, for Jews of the Diaspora or scattering that began at the end of the Babylonian Captivity in 539 B.C. when Jews did not all return to Jerusalem but began settling in other parts of the world.
It is hard to conceive of a city with greater academic riches than Alexandria at the time of Christ; situated in Egypt and energized after the conquest of Alexander the Great around 300 B.C., Alexandria became a universal learning center, remembered for its famous library, the largest in antiquity, established by the Ptolemy dynasty. Marc Antony, by some accounts, gave his bride Cleopatra 200,000 volumes as a wedding present for the library. The goals of its founder in the mid-third century B.C. included assembling a copy of every book in the world; estimates range from 40,000-400,000 volumes. The Romans burned the library probably during the struggle between Marc Antony and Octavian for the Roman emperorship, in about 30 B.C.
A sizeable community of Jews lived in Alexandria, and it was inevitable that their books of revelation and the thoughts of their scholars would fall under scrutiny and serve as the object of heated debate in the forums of discussion in this cosmopolitan setting of writing and research. What critics of Jewish belief attacked most strenuously was the Hebrew understanding of the workings of God. This was probably an extension of the debate over the nature of evil, which continues to the present day. The issue was the question of whether God created evil and suffering in the world.
The response of the Jewish community is the Book of Wisdom, from which our first reading of this weekend is taken. Reviewing the text again, we see the very strenuous assertion that “God did not create death.” In fact, the Wisdom authors are lavish in their praise of God the Creator, proclaiming that all of creation is wholesome and nothing was made to hurt a human being, not even a drug. Wisdom declares that God’s ultimate act was to make man like himself, imperishable.
Critics—then, and five centuries later when St. Augustine compiled a massive analysis of the question in his work on the Genesis creation account—could easily contend that there was plenty of evil in the world and that man was, claims to the contrary, destructible. Jewish and later Christian preachers and thinkers would have to square the circle, so to speak, and this is the purpose of Wisdom 2: 23-24. In Sunday’s concluding lines, the injection of evil into human existence is “the envy of the devil” who introduced death into the world. This model of anthropology is well established in Christian thought, for it removes God from the onus for sin and pain while at the same time making the cross of Christ a cosmic necessity.
When Augustine addressed this question as a Christian bishop in the fifth century A.D., he ran askew on some of the basic point in the Garden Narrative of creation. For our purposes here, I will cite just one. Genesis 3 is very clear on the introduction of evil chaos: “Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the creatures God had made.” Over the centuries interpreters—including my third-grade teacher—have approached this conundrum with the idea that the devil usurped the identity of an earthly creature to counter the perfect intentions of God. To follow the logic of this, one would have to accept the contention that from the beginning there was a being powerful enough to derail the creating Will of God.
The more disquieting attempt at an explanation is the assertion of Sunday’s reading is that God made man in his own nature, an assertion that humankind bears an incredible potency to create. And, looking around about us, we have not exercised it well.
THIS SUNDAY’S FIRST READINGS
FEAST OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST
USCCB link to all three readings
SATURDAY VIGIL MASS: JEREMIAH 1: 4-10 (or the Sunday reading may be used)
In the days of King Josiah, the word of the LORD came to me, saying:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you.
"Ah, Lord GOD!" I said,
"I know not how to speak; I am too young."
But the LORD answered me,
Say not, "I am too young."
To whomever I send you, you shall go;
whatever I command you, you shall speak.
Have no fear before them,
because I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.
Then the LORD extended his hand and touched my mouth, saying,
See, I place my words in your mouth!
This day I set you
over nations and over kingdoms,
to root up and to tear down,
to destroy and to demolish,
to build and to plant.
SUNDAY FIRST READING: ISAIAH 49: 1-6
Hear me, O coastlands,
listen, O distant peoples.
The LORD called me from birth,
from my mother's womb he gave me my name.
He made of me a sharp-edged sword
and concealed me in the shadow of his arm.
He made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me.
You are my servant, he said to me,
Israel, through whom I show my glory.
Though I thought I had toiled in vain,
and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength,
yet my reward is with the LORD,
my recompense is with my God.
For now the LORD has spoken
who formed me as his servant from the womb,
that Jacob may be brought back to him
and Israel gathered to him;
and I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD,
and my God is now my strength!
It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
There are a few feasts in the Roman calendar that override the standard Sunday observance when these feasts fall on a Sunday. All Saints Day, All Souls Day, The Transfiguration (August 6) and the observance of John the Baptist all come to mind. The Baptist enjoys a preeminence in the observance of the saints. In the missal of my youth there were three feasts dedicated to John the Baptist: the vigil of his feast in purple vestments (June 23), the feast itself (June 24), and a separate observance of his martyrdom in red vestments on August 29. In 1970 the Missal dropped the separate day of vigil but maintained this June 24 feast we observe this weekend as well as the August 29 feast of his martyrdom.
John the Baptist is one of the most highly visible characters in the Gospels. Scholarship today continues to examine his origins, his relationship to the Old Testament prophets, his relationship to Jesus, and his impact upon the early Church. Jesus talked of him frequently after John’s martyrdom, challenging his enemies to say publicly whether “John’s baptism is of God.” That Jesus himself submitted to John’s baptism has been a point of some disquiet for some, to the point that the history is retold with high levels of factual certainty, for who of the evangelists would have invented a story highlighting Jesus’ subservience to John and his ritual of forgiveness of sin?
Defining John’s place in salvation in history is not easy. One can argue that he is the last great Old Testament prophet; one can also argue that the prophetic John is the first to announce the Kingdom of God in the fashion that Jesus would use in his own ministry. Although the two readings listed above come from different authors and times, they bear two common features: (1) that God preordains his special servants from their birth, or even in the womb; and (2) God works through his prophets, providing them with strength and success when all odds stack against them.
Did the Hebrew Scriptures cited here predict the coming of John? Jeremiah begins his prophecy around 627 B.C. and holds the record for the longest span of prophetic activity, 45 years. During that time, he would have preached during the final days before the Babylonian exile, when Israel’s kings failed to carry out the reforms required on them to keep the soul of the Covenant with God alive. After the punishments had befallen his people. Jeremiah turned his gaze to “the hope that God would eventually restore his people.” (Boadt, p. 327) But the idea of restoration is multifaceted. Jeremiah gives indications that he sees the power of Babylon as limited, like Egypt’s, and that a better day lie ahead for God’s chosen ones.
But Jeremiah’s later preaching is marked with a new moral stance. Israel had brought suffering upon itself by the ineffectiveness of its kings, whose primary failures boiled down to a failure to keep the Covenant delivered by Moses through the Law. It may have occurred to the prophet that the paradigm under which Israel lived and understood the Law needed a new theological expression. Again, to draw from Father Boadt, Jeremiah came to understand that the Law was not an objective rule carved in stone, but rather that the future would herald a writing of God’s moral commands on the heart of each believer with an accompanying grace of the Spirit to carry forth the personal living of God’s commandments.
Without losing its corporate identity, Israel was being introduced to a personal sense of morality, where fidelity was not the full provenance of the king but of every son and daughter of Abraham. Jeremiah did not live to see the end of the Babylonian Captivity, but if he had, he would have seen a resurgence of a personal responsibility for fidelity to the Law, to the point that Jews cast off wives of foreign descent and rejoiced at hearing the Word once more to the point of deep personal emotion, a post-Exilic time described in detail in the historical Biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
It is not a coincidence that when John the Baptist began to preach and baptize along the Jordan, the crowds recognized him as prophetic, empowered by God’s spirit. John’s preaching cannot easily be connected to any branch of Judaism then in existence, but rather to a more universal call to personal holiness in the forgiveness of sins. St. Luke’s Gospel speaks of John’s words addressed to Roman soldiers as well as Jewish compatriots. The morality of John is highly personal in terms of accountability; he describes the judgment at the end of time as the separation of wheat from chaff, the latter burned in a great fire.
It is unlikely that Jeremiah, or for that matter the author of Isaiah in Sunday’s first reading, had the specific character of a John the Baptist in mind in either of Sunday’s readings. But, given that both Gospels for the weekend Masses speak of the conception and birth of the Baptist in terms of Hebrew history, metaphor, and expectations, it is more likely that as was common in the early Church, Christians identified the profound meaning of Jesus’ message and ministry by a “rereading” of the Hebrew Scripture. The same is true in the fashion that Christians came to understand the Baptist’s identity and role in the proclamation of the Kingdom of God fulfilled in Christ.
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: EZECHIEL 17: 22-24
ELEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME [B]
USCCB link to all three readings
Thus says the Lord GOD:
I, too, will take from the crest of the cedar,
from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot,
and plant it on a high and lofty mountain;
on the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it.
It shall put forth branches and bear fruit,
and become a majestic cedar.
Birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it,
every winged thing in the shade of its boughs.
And all the trees of the field shall know
that I, the LORD,
bring low the high tree,
lift high the lowly tree,
wither up the green tree,
and make the withered tree bloom.
As I, the LORD, have spoken, so will I do.
In reading for the Reformation posts, I came across a description of how young Martin Luther was taught the Bible in school. In 1500 the consciousness of “Bible” was quite different from our sense of a bound, unified collection. For much of our history the Bible, in the public mind and in the catechetics of the age, was a selection of texts that served Church worship and academics. Any text or reading was approached in a four-step process: (1) the literal sense, which in Luther’s day meant how a text applied to Christ; (2) the topological sense, its moral interpretation; (3) the allegorical sense, how the text applied to the Church, and (4) the anagogic sense, the text’s relationship to the end times.
How this method came into being is a complicated story, but by the early medieval era the art of theology was essentially answering these four questions in Scripture texts, with the best responses published in books called “sentences.” The most famous collection, ultimately the definitive collection, was written by Peter Lombard between 1147 and 1151. Any prospective Church scholar was expected to write a commentary on The Sentences of Lombard. Luther himself, as normal for the times, was expected to master The Sentences. The integrity of The Sentences was proclaimed at the Council IV Lateran in 1215. What this boils down to is the medieval method of Biblical study, i.e., the mastery of earlier interpretations summarized by Peter Lombard. Not only was this a grueling exercise for hungry, idealistic young scholars, but a student could only penetrate the interpretations of Peter Lombard and his commentators. In Luther’s monastery—as in most others—monks were forbidden to read the stand-alone Bible, only the ivy-covered interpretations of select sections from previous centuries.
The Renaissance—which encouraged men of letters to examine ancient texts for themselves—and the printing press led to more expansive study of the Bible, but Luther emphasized the freedom of any Christian reader to embrace the books of the Bible as entities unto themselves whereby God might speak directly to the heart of the reader. Luther himself was saved from possible madness when he broke from traditional interpretations and trusted his conscience on his personal interpretation of St. Paul that humanity is saved by the free grace of a forgiving God, and not through arbitrary works to buy one’s way into heaven.
The history of Biblical interpretation brings up the question of how we embrace Biblical texts today such as our first reading this coming Sunday. May we bring our personal insights into “interpreting” what we read in preparation for Mass and direction in Christian living? I would answer that with a qualified yes. The medieval method of Bible study may have been stifling, but at the risk of throwing out the baby with the bath water, it is also true that the Church is filled with the Holy Spirit, so that its collective authority and scholarship serves as something of a safety net to keep the sincere reader in the family of united understanding.
In approaching Sunday’s reading, two projects of importance are examining the relationship of the Ezekiel text with the assigned Sunday Gospel, from Mark 4, and assessing the Book of Ezekiel itself, particularly Chapter 17. The second task might be more formidable than the first, but it is the honest preventative from concocting an interpretation that is little more than empty personal projection.
Since the first reading is almost always from the Hebrew Scripture, some introductory orientation is necessary. The USCCB’s introduction to each book of the Bible, such as an on-line overview of the Book of Ezekiel, gives us the time and the setting, as well as clues to what the sacred author(s) meant to pass along. On the Café title page, I have a link to Father Lawrence Boadt’s 2014 overview of the Old Testament for new readers, and major Catholic publishers such as Paulist Press and Liturgical Press offer individual commentaries on the various books if you are so inclined.
The Prophet Ezekiel preached before and during the Babylonian Captivity (roughly 600 B.C.-540 B.C.). Ezekiel delivered powerful sermons warning Israel that its internal and external conduct together would bring a justified wrath from God in the form of foreign destruction and prolonged exile from the homeland. As the book progresses, and Ezekiel himself is forced into exile, he becomes more apocalyptic, uttering promises of hope for Israel at a time when this virtue was in short supply. If you look closely at next Sunday’s reading, you can see the prophet-poet at work; God will take a tiny branch and plant it on a high and lofty mountain where it will bear much fruit. This is a daring metaphor to put forth in the depths of hopeless slavery.
So why did the Church, in its wisdom, pair this reading with Mark 4? Perhaps because Jesus, six centuries later, makes use of a parable or metaphor remarkably like Ezekiel’s. Jesus speaks of the mustard seed, the humblest of garden sowing, growing forth into a massive tree where various forms of life live safely and profitably under its canopy. The common themes here between the two readings are the unlikelihood or the mysterious process by which small plants become great despite incredible odds, and that these wondrous things will occur in the future after a period of trial. Ezekiel and Jesus preached at different times and at different stages in God’s plan: Ezekiel saw the future as the restoration of Israel, while Jesus has his sights on the Kingdom of God inexorably making its way toward the conquering of the kingdom of evil.
So long as one has taken the time to address the setting of a text and the likely intention of the author, as best as we can determine that, one is free to “ponder these things in one’s heart,” to paraphrase the spiritual life of the Virgin Mary, certainly to a degree much greater than the young monk Luther was permitted to do.
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: DEUTERONOMY 4: 32-34; 39-40
THE SOLEMNITY OF THE MOST HOLY TRINITY [B]
USCCB link to all three readings.
Moses said to the people:
"Ask now of the days of old, before your time,
ever since God created man upon the earth;
ask from one end of the sky to the other:
Did anything so great ever happen before?
Was it ever heard of?
Did a people ever hear the voice of God
speaking from the midst of fire, as you did, and live?
Or did any god venture to go and take a nation for himself
from the midst of another nation,
by testings, by signs and wonders, by war,
with strong hand and outstretched arm, and by great terrors,
all of which the LORD, your God,
did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?
This is why you must now know,
and fix in your heart, that the LORD is God
in the heavens above and on earth below,
and that there is no other.
You must keep his statutes and commandments that I enjoin on you today,
that you and your children after you may prosper,
and that you may have long life on the land
which the LORD, your God, is giving you forever."
Although the Easter Season ended formally at the end of Vespers II or evening prayer last Sunday, May 20, and Ordinary Time [in its seventh week] resumed where it left off on Mardi Gras Tuesday, there is still no shortage of feasts to observe over the next three weeks. In addition to Trinity Sunday this weekend, the Feast of Corpus Christi is observed on Sunday, June 3. The Feast of the Sacred Heart is Friday, June 8, and in 2018 the Feast of St. John the Baptist falls on Sunday, June 24. It is too bad, I suppose, that we can’t spread out the wealth into the dog days of summer to spice up Ordinary Time, but behind each feast is a long and complicated history.
Trinity Sunday deserves considerable attention, because at its face the observance looks like a Feast of God. Presumably this is what every Mass observes, Sundays and weekdays, and as early as 1000 A.D. there was opposition to introducing this feast for universal observance. The first local observances began in Spain and Gaul (modern France) in the 600’s and the 700’s A.D. These regions worried about the ongoing heresy of Arianism, which denied the unity of three divine persons by asserting that God the Father had created Jesus, and thus Jesus could never be equal to God. The thought behind Arianism is still alive today in Unitarian churches, among others; Islamic theology holds a doctrine of one God and does not recognize Mohammed as a divine being.
The French and Spanish clergy preached devotion to God as a Trinity through the end of the Dark Ages, though the doctrine had been defined in the Christological Councils of the fourth and fifth centuries (Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon). By 1000 A.D. a feast devoted to the Trinity was established in the far western reaches of the Church celebrated on the Sunday after Pentecost. Pope Alexander (d. 1077) probably spoke for much of the Church, however, when he discouraged such a feast, observing that if the Church instituted a feast of the Trinity, it would have to observe a corresponding feast of the Blessed Unity as well. Adolf Adam, The Liturgical Year (1981), p. 167. Pope John XXII would eventually establish this feast universally in 1334.
Adams admits that the pastoral understanding of this feast has shifted over the second millennium, and not necessarily for the better. At the time of the institution of the feast on the first Sunday after the Easter Season, Trinity Sunday was a time to look back on the glorious work of all three persons of the Trinity in the glorious work of our Redemption. It was a day to reflect upon the Father giving us his Son, the Son offering his life for us, the Father raising the Son from death, and the Son breathing the Holy Spirit upon the disciples on Easter Sunday night. In other words, salvation was and is understood as a Trinitarian event. In fact, until 1970 Trinity Sunday was considered the final Sunday of Easter.
I should interject here that since medieval times there is a Church Canon requiring all Catholics to receive Holy Communion and make a good confession at least once a year, and this was elaborated to completing these deeds during the Easter Season, i.e., from the First Sunday of Lent to Trinity Sunday. This is what I was taught in 1956, and as a first communicant it was hard for me to picture a guy rushing up to communion at the last Mass of Trinity Sunday. The new code of Canon Law, the 1983 revision, states in Canon 920 that all the faithful are bound to receive the Eucharist annually, optimally during the Easter Season. However, this law is universally regarded as a minimalist bar of sacramental separation. The new code makes no mention of Trinity Sunday.
In medieval times and even down through today the concept of a unified working Trinity was deemphasized in favor of assigning functions to the members of the Trinity. God the Father is creator, God the Son is Redeemer, God the Holy Spirit is Sanctified. There may be a pedagogical advantage to teaching the Trinity in this fashion, but it is not good Biblical theology. As my pastor observed in his sermon last Sunday, the [Holy] Spirit brought order out of chaos in Chapter 1 of Genesis, the first Creation account.
The Lectionary readings for the three-year cycle of the feast of the Trinity oscillate between the glory of the One God and the multiple glories of his manifestations. Our first reading on Sunday is from Deuteronomy; although it is just the fifth book of the Old Testament, it was written much later, perhaps 600 B.C., at a time in history when Israel was actively engaging with cultures and religions of multiple gods. The sacred writer pens a farewell address from Moses shortly before his death with emphasizes the unity of God, to distinguish the One all-powerful God from the panoply of domesticated gods of Israel’s neighbors. There is little hint here on a trinitarian theme, nor should we expect to find one at this stage of God’s Revelation.
The Gospel from Matthew 28 is the first explicit mention of the idea of Trinity. In the closing of this Gospel, often called “The Great Commissioning,” Jesus dispatches his disciples to the corners of the earth to preach and to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Put another way, a candidate for baptism is saved by the intervention of all three persons of the Trinity, which is as it should be.
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: ACTS 2: 1-11
PENTECOST SUNDAY [B]
USCCB link to all three readings
[Note: there are three different sets of readings for Pentecost: the Vigil, the extended Vigil, and the Sunday Mass. I am using the Sunday readings, as many parishes in my experience use the Sunday readings across the board.]
When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled,
they were all in one place together.
And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem.
At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd,
but they were confused
because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
They were astounded, and in amazement they asked,
"Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?
Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?
We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites,
inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia,
Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene,
as well as travelers from Rome,
both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs,
yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues
of the mighty acts of God."
The New Testament authors Matthew, Luke, and John describe the outpouring of God’s Spirit in several settings after the Resurrection. Luke’s account in Chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles is clearly the most dramatic, capturing the imagination of catechists and artists alike. It is not surprising, then, that this account enjoys a place of honor on the feast which concludes the Easter celebration of our redemption. Luke sets this drama on the existing Jewish feast of Pentecost or Shavuot, originally a harvest thanksgiving but later an observance of God’s gift of the Law. Shavuot/Pentecost was one of three “pilgrim feasts” in the Jewish calendar which explains why so many people from distant lands and languages were present when the Apostles began to preach.
Sunday’s text is the introduction to Chapter 2, a chapter which includes Peter’s remarkable sermon and the baptism of the 3000. It is worth reading Acts 2 in its entirety to understand Sunday’s text in its context. The heart of the chapter is Peter’s summary of God’s plan with its fruition in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of God’s saving Spirit upon the face of the earth. If the feast of Shavuot honors the written revelation of God, Peter’s sermon serves up the new revelation embodied in Christ and enfolds Jewish notions of history into the wisdom of the new Kingdom of God.
Our text above begins with the dramatic transformation of the Apostles. It is not clear from the text if anyone except the Apostles visually witnessed anything; the fire appeared “to them” and the wind “filled the entire house where they were.” The odds are that only the Apostles experienced this manifestation and the crowds in the Jerusalem streets were oblivious to it. It was not until the Apostles went into the streets preaching that confusion and amazement moved the crowds; the initial shock was the realization that a polyglot assembly could understand the single language of Galileans.
Luke goes on to elaborate the diversity of this crowd. Over the years I have tended to glaze over this lengthy catalogue of nations and regions as it is read in church each year, but as I examine it now I have much greater respect for Luke’s genius. For one thing, this collage of nations is enormous, from at least three continents. Africa is represented by listeners from Egypt and Libya. Arabia is situated in southwest Asia, and the central power of imperial Rome sat as the crossroads of nearly all civilized lands in what we refer to as Europe. There is mention of Jews and converts to Judaism. In Acts 2:14 Peter will widen the reference beyond Judaism: ““You who are Jews, indeed all of you staying in Jerusalem. Let this be known to you and listen to my words.” The invitation to grace has gone far beyond residents of Jerusalem and Judaea, and even more remarkably, past the established boundaries of Jewish faith.
Acts 2 has raised questions for scholars about its historicity. In my seminary days my professors shared the [not-unanimous] conclusion that while the Book of Acts was written after the Gospel in Luke, putting its composition in the mid-80’s A.D., it utilized earlier material, particularly the earliest evangelizing sermons of the Apostles and very early Church leaders. However, there were also those who believed that Luke was crafting a faith history driven by the needs of the Church of his time, a Church agonizing over its split from Judaism. Was Luke attempting to explain that Christianity’s mission was somehow destined toward a universal mission? If the projected date of composition is correct, the Church had already established itself in Rome for nearly 25 years when Luke penned the Acts.
There is another Biblical point to make regarding Sunday’s reading. In the pre-history narrative of Genesis 11, the world is reported to have spoken the same language, and one group of nomads decided to build a city with a tower to reach the heavens. God thwarted their impudence by casting multiple languages upon them, and the Tower of Babel narrative came to be seen as God’s wrath for the world’s hubris. It is interesting, then, that when the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the world at Pentecost, the citizenry of the entire known world can understand Peter’s preaching in a single language. The scattering of the peoples at Babel is reconciled by the unifying impact of preaching in the Holy Spirit.
The Easter Season of fifty days ends on Pentecost with Vespers or Evening Prayer on Sunday. The following Monday, May 21, marks our return to the green of Ordinary Time, the seventh week, though the new feast of Mary, Mother of the Church, will be observed on Monday next week. The Sundays of May 27 is the observance of the Feast of the Trinity, and Sunday, June 3, is the Feast of Corpus Christi.
NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: Acts 1: 1-11
THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD [B]
USCCB link to all three readings
In the first book, Theophilus,
I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught
until the day he was taken up,
after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit
to the apostles whom he had chosen.
He presented himself alive to them
by many proofs after he had suffered,
appearing to them during forty days
and speaking about the kingdom of God.
While meeting with them,
he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem,
but to wait for "the promise of the Father
about which you have heard me speak;
for John baptized with water,
but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit."
When they had gathered together they asked him,
"Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"
He answered them, "It is not for you to know the times or seasons
that the Father has established by his own authority.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
throughout Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth."
When he had said this, as they were looking on,
he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.
While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going,
suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them.
They said, "Men of Galilee,
why are you standing there looking at the sky?
This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven
will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven."
The Ascension of the Lord was originally celebrated with Pentecost. The early Church understood the unity of Christ’s last supper, death, resurrection, ascension, and gift of the Spirit as a unique and united event in history. The liturgies of the season we call Easter drew from these four five acts of the salvation drama. The Gospels, particularly John, emphasize this unity in a number of ways. John describes a Pentecost event at the moment of Christ’s death on Good Friday, when he “handed over his spirit” to those at the foot of the cross, namely his mother and disciple, i.e. his church.
While the Eastern Church maintained a consciousness of this unity, the Roman West divided the Easter Season into a series of stand-alone events, most notably the feasts of Ascension and Pentecost. This may be due to Sunday’s first reading from the opening of the Book of Acts, where Luke writes of Jesus “appearing to [the disciples] during forty days.” The term “40” in both the Old and New Testaments is shorthand for “a period of time.” There is no way to know how long Jesus remained with the disciples or when he ascended into heaven. Luke and John themselves differ on the time. Luke places the Ascension at forty days after the Resurrection, but John, on Easter Sunday morning, tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him, “for I have not yet ascended to my Father.” He commands her to tell the disciples that he is going to his Father. That very night, however, Jesus appears to the disciples and allows them to venerate his wounds. Regardless of the details, the Feast of the Ascension is sacred as the time when Jesus returns to his Father in glory after rendering his act of perfect obedience upon the cross. The preaching of this event in apostolic times as well as today establishes the Father’s words to the crowd at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved son; listen to him.” Those who professed faith in the Resurrection were comforted and exhilarated at the thought that their unity in Christ in baptism meant that they, too, would take their place in the heavens.
Sunday’s reading is the opening of Acts and makes clear that St. Luke envisioned his Gospel and the Acts of Apostles as a “boxed set,” so to speak. Luke describes the post-Resurrection days as a time of intense instruction through the Holy Spirit during which Jesus elaborated on the Kingdom of God. Luke speaks of multiple appearances by Jesus and “many proofs” that he was alive after his suffering. All the Gospels allude to hesitation and difficulties by the disciples in believing that Jesus had risen from the dead. St. Mark, in the original Greek, states that Jesus “excoriated” his followers for their lack of faith in 16:14.
The synoptic Gospels [Matthew, Mark, Luke] and the Acts of the Apostles agree that at some distinct time Jesus “left” them in a fashion that reflects divine glory. In Sunday’s reading Luke describes Jesus ascending upward until a cloud took him from their sight. The term “cloud” has divine overtones in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. In Exodus 19 God tells Moses that “I am coming to you in a dense cloud, so that when the people hear me speaking with you, they may always have faith in you also.” Before his death Jesus would take Peter, James, and John to a mountaintop where they were enveloped in a cloud, from which the voice of God came forth: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
The Ascension, then, serves as the final seal of God’s love and total acceptance of the mission of his Son, and Jesus’ return to the glory that was his from the beginning. The commentary of the two men dressed in white garments reminds the disciples that they are not simply witnesses to the divine glory, but  participants in the glory of a Christ present but yet to return at the end of time, and  designated prophets to announce this good news to the end of the earth.