One of the traditional devotional services of Good Friday has been some form of a Friday vigil, most likely between 12 PM and 3 PM, built around the seven last words or addresses of Jesus as he hung upon the cross. Such services are often celebrated in an ecumenical or interfaith setting. I sometimes wonder if the participants give pause to reflect upon how truly different the words of Jesus are recorded across the four Gospels. Mark records only the “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” (buttressed by the author of Hebrews 5:7-10, who describes how Jesus offered loud cries and tears to God and Matthew’s account that Jesus in fact died with a loud scream.)
But the scenario of the cross is recorded somewhat differently in the other two evangelists, Luke and John. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus has full cognizance of what is going on around him. While carrying his cross, he stops to deliver a foreboding message to weeping men. As he was being crucified, Jesus seeks forgiveness for his tormenters on the grounds that “they know not what they do.” Later, raised on the cross, Jesus proclaims a thrilling prophesy to the repentant thief, “This day you will be with me in paradise.” And Jesus, at the moment of his death, makes the dignified pronouncement of self giving, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
In John’s account Jesus uses his final hours on the cross to the full. He makes provision for his mother to be cared for by John—interpreted by many scholars as the formulation of a new community. He seeks wine, and when he had drunk it, proclaimed, “Now it is finished.” (Recall Mark, “I shall not drink wine again until I drink it anew in the Father’s kingdom.”) In John’s Gospel Jesus validates the full arrival of God’s kingdom, and to mark this new kingdom and its first members, Jesus at the moment of his death hands forth his spirit, i.e., the Holy Spirit. Even after his death, Jesus continues his work; the soldier’s lance releases a torrent of blood and water that presumably splashes Mary and John with the water of new baptism and the blood of the Eucharistic bond.
It becomes clear, then, that each evangelist brings a unique facet of Jesus to his Gospel, and certainly to the passion and resurrection narratives. Thus, to meet the spiritual needs of catechists as well as instructional ones, I recommend several books you may find helpful in this highly charged time of the Liturgical Season.
The Catholic Church lost perhaps its greatest native son biblical scholar when Father Raymond Brown died, relatively prematurely, at age 71 in 1998. The author of many detailed and scholarly works on the New Testament, Father Brown nonetheless found time to summarize his lengthy works into eminently readable reflections and summaries easily comprehended by the general reading public. I cite two of them here. A Crucified Christ in Holy Week is a 71-page essay which elaborates to much greater depth the differences in the Passion narratives I alluded to above. This work is presently available on Amazon Prime for two-day delivery or used at very reasonable rates.
The partner piece to this work is Father Brown’s A Risen Christ in Eastertime, again a brief, 95-page summary of his research into the Easter narratives, also available on Amazon Prime. The Resurrection accounts in each Gospel can only be understood in light of the Passion narratives that precede them, and the author connects each of the Easter narratives to the theological portrait of Christ presented throughout a particular Gospel.
For a more advanced overview of the Passion and Resurrection I heartily recommend Francis J. Moloney’s The Resurrection of the Messiah, which also unites the Passion narratives with the subsequent Resurrection accounts. This 200-page work is also available through Amazon Prime. (See my review of this work on April 22, 2014 at the book’s site.) This work so impressed me that I determined to return to Resurrection study and I will be presenting a workshop on the Easter narratives at the NCEA Convention on Thursday, April 9, in Orlando.
In studying the Passion and Resurrection narratives over the years I have been amazed at the very strong influence of the Hebrew Scriptures upon the evangelists, notably in the Passion/Resurrection matrix. It is hard for me to understand how we can teach the New Testament Jesus of Nazareth without a substantive understanding of the Old Testament, notably its history, law, prophesy, apocalyptic, and wisdom literature. The other evening, at a chancery meeting of catechist instructors, the point was made that catechists and teachers look upon required Hebrew Scripture study as a necessary evil, and little more. The books I have cited here make a strong case that if we do not know the Jewish heritage of Jesus and the texts that shaped his faith outlook, we are essentially pontificating about a Jesus we know nothing about.
My old seminary classmates reunion is going very well. We watched the Washington Nationals beat the Houston Astros, 7-5, in a spring training game. Today we are headed out to see the Nationals play the Atlanta Braves at the Disney Sports complex. Everyone was well oiled and no one got seriously sunburned; also, the group worked vigorously at rehydrating, if you get my drift.
Today I am pleased to pass on to you a different format. This is an intriguing lecture by Sister Mary Angela Shaughnessey, President of St. Catharine College in Bardstown, Kentucky. She is a professor, author and practitioner of civil law, specializing in legal issues involving Catholic schools. This 2013 YouTube presentation addresses many of the issues I referred to earlier in the week about changes in Catholic school teachers’ contracts and many other very pertinent issues in your work. I hope this is useful and thought provoking.
Our feature presentation.
See you tomorrow!
All In the Family...Or NotRead Now
As I was down for the count yesterday, I did not do any writing but I did browse for material for our Saturday “Books and Apps” discussion. I found one staring me in the face, my own diocese’s website for the questionnaire on the Synod of the Family. From various news reports I see that this survey is not available everywhere, so I enclosed a link, and on the chance you wish to get involved here, you could hypothetically log in with my parish, Church of the Annunciation. At the very least, it would make my pastor scratch his head.
I actually have looked at this questionnaire several times. In the best of all worlds a participant would have read the Lineamenta or summary of the 2014 Synod of Bishops. I have a separate link for this because my diocesan link is not working. (Moreover, my computer crashed twice this AM as I tried to enter the Diocesan home site.) The Lineamenta is written in a language that may be foreign to those unfamiliar with “the Roman way,” as they say. If you find it hard to follow, you are not alone. Roman documents never get to the point easily. There are numerous references to previous popes, or “our predecessors of happy memory.” A number of previous documents are standard fare for inclusion by name, partly to lay historical groundwork for what is to come, but also as a subtle reminder that those difficult encyclicals such as Humanae Vitae better get their day in court. Documents typically go on to address the unique circumstances of our day and the need for Holy Mother Church, ever wise but ever young, to bring its wisdom to (insert issue.) By George, I think I could write one of these.
What made the last Synod, the mother of the Lineamenta, so noteworthy, was the range of topics included under the umbrella of the family. For the first time in memory there was the mention of such matters as single parenting, divorced and remarried Catholics, and homosexuality. If you plan on tackling the questionnaire, remember that the health of the nuclear family—mom, dad, kids—is the target here. The Church seems to be asking how it may become more pastorally helpful in the nurturing of families, or to use Pope Paul VI’s memorable phrase, “the domestic Church.”
My main problem is the very format of this questionnaire. My diocese is using “Survey Monkey,” which advises participants to allow from one to two hours for completion. That’s a lot of time. The survey requests participants to get into the Roman way of looking at things. The very definition of “family” is, at the least, culturally confused. I won’t insult your intelligence by enumerating contemporary problems facing the family, but to answer the questionnaire one must in a sense advise the Church on what these problems are and, more to the point, how to solve them.
I have been thinking for a while here about a nice way to say this, but I think the blunt truth is that what we have is an unworkable survey instrument. It troubles me to say that; I have felt some guilt in not having concluded mine because this is the first time in my lifetime that such an opportunity has been offered to all the faithful (if you live in the right dioceses, that is) and I think I do have a few thoughts that might be helpful.
Some history here might be helpful. For many centuries, including all of the Medieval ones, the university was the “academic engine” of the Church. Issues of faith and morals were discussed and argued in an academic setting. If the pamphlet wars, expulsions, and other rough house of medieval university life are any indication, such matters were discussed with considerable passion. But popes and kings turned to the great faculties and the academic giants for theological input on the issues of the day. With the increased power of the papacy after the Council of Trent (1547-1563), the influence of the university declined as the Roman curial household took greater overview of faith and morals.
The advantages of the Medieval university system were many. Among them was what we would call today “peer review.” A more basic advantage was the very competence of the participants, who for starters spoke the languages of scholasticism, logic and Latin in which all research and teaching was done. It seems to me that the Synodal questionnaire might have better gone to the theological academics of the major Catholic universities around the world, who certainly know the language and the landscape of theological research in the present day.
To put this questionnaire out to the Catholic public in its present form risks either disinterest or discouragement. Without a doubt anyone reading these words has something of value to contribute; some may be in considerable emotional and moral disarray and would jump at the opportunity to put this on paper for consideration by a special meeting of pope and bishops ostensibly called for this purpose. A shorter, more user-friendly, instrument should have been composed for this purpose. If the goal of the Church is indeed to help families, communicating in the common language would be a great place to start.
I first encountered historian Paul Johnson about 25 years ago; I was considering teaching college and came across his Intellectuals (1988, 2007), a collection of essays on famous thinkers of modern times—Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy, Sartre, etc. This morning I stumbled upon an Amazon reviewer’s observation of this book: “Johnson's thesis is quite simple: the revolutionary thinkers whose ideas have shaped intellectual history over the past 250 years were, for the most part, lousy human beings.” That was my impression of his work as well, and over the years I kept my eyes open for more of his writing. Shortly I came across Johnson’s A History of Christianity (1975, 2005); I sent a copy to my old history professor at UCF with a note, “He takes no prisoners.” This narrative extends to 1975; it is a compelling read, even if blunt and probably disconcerting to the theologically innocent.
About three years ago my diocese asked me to teach a program on world religion. As luck would have it, I came across A History of the Jews (1987). Again, despite its size (587 pages) and the complexity of ages and cultures in the story of the Jewish journey, this narrative is a splendid example of what I call “a historical sweep,” an overview which draws the reader into further study and, in this case, profound meditation. As another Amazon reader put it, “As a non-Jew I found this a moving and disturbing work.”
Hopefully most catechists and educated Catholics have had some exposure to the problems of using the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures as historical sources per se. It is certainly true that some Biblical authors have provided data that stands the test of non-theological or secular historical analysis even though Biblical authors wrote as faith interpreters or theologians. The historical reality of Moses, Solomon, David and the sacred buildings of worship are just as accessible to an atheist as to a fervent believer, though the interpretation of such data would be considerably different.
Johnson is a historian, not a theologian (though certainly a humanitarian). Yet, his opening 80-page summary of the meaning and significance of the Scripture gives the reader a dynamic sense of flowering faith consciousness and explains what Israel did believe through its first millennium. Israel’s faith, like later Christianity’s, developed its self-consciousness from historical experience and theological insight. For Christians in particular, Johnson has made the sacred texts themselves more accessible by providing this historical and organic overview.
For Johnson the Israelites “became Jewish” in the years around 590 B.C., the time of the Babylonian Exile. “Israel” was no longer an entity of tribes. Ten of the twelve had in fact died out. Life after the Exile would be different in multiple ways. In 539 BC some Israelites returned to Jerusalem. A number stayed in Babylon and, if the histories of Ezra and Nehemiah are correct, lived reasonably well in this foreign land. Other Israelites migrated to other lands, and seemed to have received some measure of acceptance in the burgeoning Roman Empire.
The impact of this Diaspora or “scattering” cannot be understated. As seen in the writings of later prophets and wisdom literature such as Job, Judaism became a religion of internal conscience rather than tribal adherence. Emphasis upon the written Scripture and the religious/legal teaching tradition became monolithic and replaced the high temple worship, which became impossible at any rate after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 and again in 135 A.D. The double disasters in Jerusalem put an end to any hope of a lasting Christian-Jewish coexistence, as Jewish thought and became more conservative and isolated of necessity while Christianity was expanding and developing its doctrines till well into the fifth century.
The Jews of the Diaspora found themselves at the mercy of local governments, churches, and the mob. Jews in Babylon, Constantine’s Rome, Byzantium and the Islamic Kingdom (which spread from the Balkans all the way around the Mediterranean to France) were subjected to a variety of persecutions for a number of reasons. Some were doctrinal; others had more to do with what was perceived as the Jewish penchant for clannishness and a distancing from the societies in which they found themselves. The evolution of misunderstanding to contempt to violence was a common experience of Jewish life. In 1140 Venice became the first principality to create a ghetto or enclosed zone in which all Jews were ordered to live.
Johnson observes that through the Dark Ages and well beyond, the penchant for scholarship, discipline, and a wholesome lifestyle won the Jews some measure of local respect. In an age where money lending at interest was a Catholic sin, Jewish law permitted the practice of usury with gentiles and made the economic medieval revolution possible. Because of frequent persecutions and the need to relocate, Jews tended to keep their assets liquid in bullion, jewels, etc and were not without the means to fuel a banking economy. Shortly after 1800 a British Jew, Nathan Rothschild, set ground for the largest bank in Europe, the House of Rothschild. England stands out as one of few nations hospitable to Jewish life and faith.
Johnson chronicles the development of the concept of Zionism, a land where Jewish peoples could live independently and freely. But nineteenth and twentieth century events—World War I, the Russian Revolution, anarchy—led to a new wave of hatred and scape-goating. The horrors of the Nazi regime are fairly well known to the most casual reader of history, but Johnson emphasizes the complicity of the German citizenry (ostensibly Christian) in the unspeakable crime of the Holocaust. Johnson pauses here (pp. 508-515) to reflect upon the spiritual/psychological state of the death camp inmates and the intensity of hatred by the guards. He laments that even after the deliverance of the camps, the anti-Semitic blood lust was not satiated but shifted to the Middle East.
As I wrote yesterday, from an honest Christian vantage point, about the worst thing that can be said about Jewish life is its inability to accept the divinity of Christ. This makes Judaism no more heretical, so to speak, than heretical Arian Christians who for periods of time were the largest Christian block in Europe. For that matter, how many Catholics today believe in the divinity of Christ or the Real Presence? The story of the Jewish people is as much a narrative of those around them, notably of the ability to cultivate self-deception and justify the basest of human degradation. As Catholics we are the blood siblings of the Jews; to deny this is not simply to abandon our God-given identity but to create the circumstances for the incubation of new outrages. Johnson’s work is a sine qua non for all Christians, not just ministers.