I am taking a holiday break, but I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving. I am grateful to everyone who stops by the Café.
I do have a link from Canada describing the plight of the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Montreal, which I visited this summer. The tourists boosted the Mass I attended, but the article reports that only 5% of English-speaking Catholics attend Mass on a given Sunday. Former Catholics are now the largest religious group in Quebec, according to Montreal's bishop. The U.S. figure is about 25%.
64 Through the prophets, God forms his people in the hope of salvation, in the expectation of a new and everlasting Covenant intended for all, to be written on their hearts. The prophets proclaim a radical redemption of the People of God, purification from all their infidelities, a salvation which will include all the nations. Above all, the poor and humble of the Lord will bear this hope. Such holy women as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Judith and Esther kept alive the hope of Israel's salvation. The purest figure among them is Mary.
Continuing to put forward the development of divine revelation, the Catechism turns to three agents of Israelite history: the prophets, the poor and humble, and women. Having elongated successive paragraphs from Genesis and Exodus on the patriarchs and Moses, para. 64 brings together the entire cast of characters of established Israel. Pedagogically speaking, this summary does present some challenges and it reflects some arbitrary arrangements that might raise an eyebrow here or there.
Given the text as it stands, the first emphasis is placed upon the prophets. The subject of the prophets is probably among the least emphasized and understood in Catholic catechetics, which in turn undercuts our understanding of the Gospels. One of the chronic misuses of the prophetic literature has been the popular tendency to look for messianic predictions at the expense of capturing the broader horizon. In truth, the classical prophets of Israel are unique in history in terms of mission, style, and thought. Some historians credit the prophets with developing the sense of linear time; that is, prophets conceived of the idea that time was purposeful, moving in a set direction, a leap forward from the prevalent sense that time was cyclic. This is how the use of the term prophet has come to mean “forecasting the future.” In truth, the Biblical prophets were the first thinkers super attenuated to the idea that there was a future.
I was pleased to discover that the classic treatment, The Prophets (1961), remains an Amazon best seller. No one in my lifetime has better captured the prophetic mind than the Jewish scholar and philosopher Abraham Heschel, who was invited as a Jewish observer of Vatican II and assisted Catholic bishops in refining liturgical language in speaking of the Jewish faith and tradition.
The age of the Classical or Biblical prophets runs roughly from the eighth century through the fifth century before Christ, give or take. Para. 64 correctly describes the prophets as revealers of hope in expectation of a new and everlasting Covenant intended for all; prophets were indeed forward looking. However, the root of their message goes back to Sinai, when the nation was freshly redeemed by God and the Law was entrusted Israel. Prophets routinely contrasted the new enthusiasm of the desert (or the “honeymoon phase”) with the corruption and indifference of Israel’s growth, its growing dependence upon foreign trade, military ventures, and a city-oriented economy with all the attendant vices and the neglect of true worship.
Of note is the prophetic message of justice. I would be hard pressed to think of a single prophet for whom sins against justice are not a major component. A cursory reading of the Prophet Amos (c. 745 B.C.) reveals a corrupt system where indigent Israelites could not receive fair hearings from bribed judges. Amos’ outline is followed by most of the prophets: a decrying of contemporary evils, a warning to return to the purity of the Sinai Covenant, and a prediction of dire consequences. In Amos’ preaching, this dire consequence was deportation by a strong foreign force, something that did happen in the Exile of 589 B.C.
Israel, in retrospect, believed that the prophets had been filled by the Spirit of God. While most prophets were persecuted in their lifetimes because of their disconcerting message, after the probably last prophet Malachi in 450 B.C., there was a sense of general gloom that there were no more prophets. By Jesus’ day people spoke of God’s Spirit as “quenched.” In fact, the Book of Jonah is a late satire of the prophetic age. Consequently, with the appearance of John the Baptist and Jesus, there was a renewed enthusiasm that the Spirit of God had returned, and nothing in Jesus’ preaching contradicted this hope. “I have come not to destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to bring them to fulfillment.”
Para. 64 goes on to describe the poor as the primary bearers of prophetic hope in future deliverance. This sentence is revolutionary; as it stands, the Catechism asserts that the poorer or more destitute one is, the better able he is to bear hope in God. The theological question here is the meaning of “poor,” particularly in light of Jesus’ later teaching that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. Our catechetics and Sunday sermons tend to fudge this teaching, and not surprisingly. None of the prophets fared well after preaching this same message, as we respond with guilt or more likely, anger that our hard work to support ourselves is supposedly being diminished.
For the moment, I would say that a healthy adult spirituality is built upon vulnerability. We did not have to be born. Our existences are a tribute to nature, unique psychosocial realities, and the intervention of God, who “knew you in your mother’s womb.” In adult life, we tend to expect that with spit and hard work we will always have three hot meals a day. Up until a few years ago, I suspect the middle class in Syria thought the same thing. The Book of Job in the Hebrew Canon is a paradigm of the fragile nature of human existence, and the more intensely we come to appreciate this, our dependence upon God and our ultimate hope in God will increase accordingly.
Finally, we have a cavalcade of famous women from the Hebrew Scripture. Para. 64 does not state that these women are the poor and humble of the previous sentence, though some were. Five of these women enjoy place in the Scriptures as mothers of famous sons. Miriam is the sister of Moses. Deborah is the sole woman judge or leader in the Book of Judges, the period prior to Israel’s reign of kings. Esther and Judith are figures from late Judaism and significant players in the struggles with Israel’s powerful neighbors. Judith of course is remembered for beheading King Holofernes in his bed. Is this assorted citation something of a recognition of the importance of women in the minds of the Catechism’s editors? It is hard to arrive at another conclusion, though the intent is worthy as the Hebrew Scriptures are the product of a patriarchal culture.
Para. 64 concludes with an encomium to Mary, who is described as “the purest” among them [i.e., the noteworthy women of Israel.] Mary’s placement here is interesting, and I believe that she serves as a bridge figure to the New Testament, as Paragraph 65 will take us to the New Testament era. The historical and theological placement of Mary in the divine plan has always been something of a challenge to the Church, from the Council of Ephesus in 432 A.D. on down to Vatican II. If you remember our old friend Xavier Rynne, the Council was uncertain where to place a treatment of Mary in its documentary sequence. Some fathers wanted Mary to have her own treatment, decree, or constitution; but the Council majority voted to include Mary in the Constitution on the Church. Para. 64 has included Mary among the feminine heroines of the Hebrew Scripture, portraying her as “the purest of them.”
63 Israel is the priestly people of God, "called by the name of the LORD", and "the first to hear the word of God",21 the people of "elder brethren" in the faith of Abraham.
Much of this text is drawn from Deuteronomy 28:10, and the phrase “the first to hear the word of God” is now included in the Great Intercessions in the Catholic Good Friday service. In Catholic worship the phrase replaces the most unfortunate description of the Jews as “perfidious,” the official text until well into the 1960’s. Paragraph 63 continues the “rolling out” of God’s revelation in the people of Israel.
The 1993 movie “Gettysburg” portrays the heroics of, among others, a Maine college professor named Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (played by Jeff Daniels) who leads the Maine regimen in a dramatic tactical move to defeat the Alabama forces at Little Round Top. Historians agree that this tactic, which Chamberlain had read in a Greek history book, saved the Union Army from a crushing defeat at Gettysburg. (A clip of Chamberlain’s dramatic moment is available here on YouTube.) The next day Chamberlain is summoned by the Union field commander, Benjamin Scott Hancock, who has now heard of the professor’s feat.
Hancock asked Chamberlain what he taught at Bowdoin College (Maine). Chamberlain replied that “I am a professor of rhetoric and natural and revealed religion.” I found it interesting that Bowdoin’s curriculum of 1863 made the distinction between “natural” and “revealed” religion, given that the 1993 Catechism of the Catholic Church follows something of the same format. For many months, we discussed what man can know about himself and about God from the natural world around us and from the fashion in which man’s capacities have been formed by God.
Revealed religion as understood by Judaism, Christianity, and some other world religions, is another base of information, and this is where we presently find ourselves in the Catechism study. Revelation or revealed religion assumes the natural instinctive understanding of God and reality and proceeds to a deeper realm of divine knowledge that is transmitted in history, data so to speak that would not be available to the mind of even the greatest philosopher. The Judeo-Christian tradition has understood Revelation or revealed religion as God’s interactions with Israel and its Christian sons and daughters of the Apostolic era. The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are the written narratives of the experience with the divine thought and deeds of God.
For this reason, the Catechism—as is true with catechetics in general—begins with encounter with God’s Revelation, and the work of theology in general is understanding and explaining this Revelation to present and potential believers. One of the interesting things about the Bible is the evident hand of theologizing by its composers. The Book of Deuteronomy, the source text for para. 63, is an excellent example of the “rolling out” of God’s revelation in history.
The first five books of the Hebrew Scripture—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—are collectively known as the Pentateuch (from penta, five). In Jesus’ day, the shorthand of discourse for the Scripture would have been “the Law and the Prophets,” though the Hebrew canon of inspired books contained other works as well, such as the Psalms. The Pentateuch is not simply a code of laws; Genesis combines pre-history and early factual history of the age of the Patriarchs, and much of Exodus is the delivery of the Israelites from slavery. The Law as such begins with Moses’ descent from Sinai with the tablets, the essence of the contract between God and his special chosen people Israel.
Deuteronomy is part of this Law ensemble, but it presents something of an advancement in understanding of the Law itself. It is written as a summary discourse delivered by Moses before the entry of the Chosen People into the promised land. Deuteronomy describes the death and burial of Moses, a point that undermines the longstanding belief that Moses authored the Pentateuch. A summary address on the Law and the deliverance of Israel by Moses seems fitting enough. What intrigues scholars is that the Law described in Deuteronomy is evolved some from the earlier texts of the Pentateuch. In fact, the English name “Deuteronomy” means “second law.”
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary 1990 commentator Joseph Bleckinsopp observes that the Deuteronic Law is an effort of special care in the regulation of life, and that there are changes in law governing slavery, for example, and much more in line with what we might call prophetic justice—on the side of the disadvantaged classes. (p. 95) Bleckinsopp goes on to describe Deuteronomy as “the mature formulation” of the Law described in the previous work. Deuteronomy is described as “utopian.” Or what Israel might look like if it maintained full observance of the prophetic vision of Law.
Deuteronomy was composed many years after the events it describes. While precision is never a given in such studies, there seems to be a connection between Deuteronic law and the exile of 589 B.C., when much of Israel was deported to Babylon. The Exile was a time of deep reflection for Israelites, and there is conjecture that Deuteronomy may have been composed during the Exile years or shortly after the return to Jerusalem in 539 B.C. Chastened by the experience, the sacred authors sought to recalibrate the intention of the Law.
Bleckinsopp comments that one of the most important aspects of Deuteronomy is its association between people and land, or as he puts it, “One God, one people, one sanctuary.” It is true that after the Exile the Israelites put great energy into rebuilding the Temple (see the books of Ezra and Nehemiah) as well as in the discovery of the Law and its solemn reading at the Water Gate. In the Sunday Gospel of November 6 this year, the disciples in Luke’s text comment to Jesus about the glories of the Temple, then being expanded by King Herod. Jesus uses their marvel as the point of origin for his description of the horrors of the last days, when one stone would not rest upon another.
It is not surprising, then, that in discussing the Revelation of God to Israel, the Catechism draws from Deuteronomy, which serves as summary piece for the kind of holiness God had longed for in his chosen people.