• Ascension Now: Implications of Christ’s Ascension for Today’s Church by Peter Atkins (Liturgical Press, 2001)
• The Ladder: Parable-Stories of Ascension and Descension by Edward Hays (Ave Maria, 1999)
The clearest answer is the official one: Jesus Christ is present in the Eucharist in his body and blood, humanity and divinity, under the forms of bread and wine. The church teaches that this presence is not a metaphor, it’s a reality. Real.
But how do we arrive at this idea? Jesus himself promises to be with us “always, to the end of time.” He promises to be present when two or more gather in his name, in the forgiveness of sins, and in the suffering world: “' 'Whatever you did for one of these least . . . you did for me' ” (Matthew 25:40). Jesus promises to be really present in many ways throughout the gospel. He’s most explicit about being with us, however, in one profound way: “Take it; this is my body” (Mark 14:22). “I am the bread of life. . . . Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:35, 54).
|A COPTIC Orthodox icon of the Last Supper.|
Needless to say not all accepted this teaching, which influenced the reaction of the Reformation movement. Luther viewed the Eucharist as a “co-existence” of Christ and the physical elements. Calvin saw it as a symbolic meal. Zwingli called it an occasion of grace depending not on the minister’s actions but the faith of the recipient.
In 1965 Pope Paul VI reiterated that Christ is present in prayer, works of mercy, preaching, teaching, sacraments, and uniquely in the Eucharist, “a way that surpasses all others” (Mysterium Fidei, no. 38). The Second Vatican Council affirmed Christ’s Eucharistic presence in the consecrated elements, the proclaimed word, the minister of the sacrament, and the worshipping assembly. In 1982 the World Council of Churches took a big step toward unity in the Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry documents in which participating denominations agreed that the Eucharist involves “real change” in the elements and necessitates “real change” in the participants.
• Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20; John 6:22-59; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
• Mysterium Fidei, Encyclical of Pope Paul VI on the Holy Eucharist
• World Council of Churches, Unity: The Church and Its Mission, with links to documents including Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry
• "Why do Christians believe Jesus is God incarnate?" by Alice Camille
• 101 Questions & Answers on the Eucharist by Giles Dimock, O.P. (Paulist Press, 2006)
• The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World by Monika K. Hellwig (Paulist Press, 1976)
PRAYER is the food of faith, as one theologian put it. Christians have sought the best way to feed their faith since the disciples first asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus offers a lot of advice about how to pray in other places: Pray in secret and don’t call attention to it. Pray in groups especially when you need spiritual support. Pray often, pray briefly, and don’t multiply fancy words. Ask for what you need and you’ll get it. Pray when faced with bad spirits and difficult cases. Be watchful and prayerfully alert in times when fear may cause you to be weak.
Jesus also offered parables about effective prayer: Pray with humility and honesty, like the tax collector rather than the self-congratulating Pharisee. Be persistent in prayer, like the widow before the judge. Forgive your brother or sister before you offer your gift at the altar. Finally, Jesus gives his insistent friends a prayer that does all these things. Early Christians found it so useful they were urged to say it three times daily in the late 1st-century book of the teaching of the apostles known as the Didache. Today the “Our Father” is also prayed at every Mass, in the Liturgy of the Hours, in reciting the Rosary, and in many other devotions.
The early church father Tertullian called the Lord’s Prayer the perfect summary of the whole gospel. The heart of the prayer is an invitation to God to make the kingdom coming a present reality. The fulfillment of that kingdom is the end of all need, so we pray for what mortals need most: provisions, pardon, and protection. The prayer begins with “you” statements and ends with “we” petitions. That makes sense because faithful people must begin with submission to God’s will before we can anticipate its fulfillment in our present needs. God’s will first; then ours.
The petitions don’t imply that God has to be informed of what we need. Rather they express our confidence that God will address our needs. Jesus instructs us to begin our prayer intimately, calling on God with the familiarity of a child. Knowing the Holy Name of God presumes intimacy: In the ancient world, such knowledge gave you a certain inside track in a relationship. Invoking the kingdom to be realized “on earth as it is in heaven” brings the will of God directly into human experience. Everything about this prayer invites God to bring this world ever more closely in line with the new creation promised in Jesus.
• Matthew 5:44; 6:9-13, 33; 7:7; Mark 9:29; 14:32-38; Luke 11:1-13; 18:1-14; John 12:27-28
• The Lord’s Prayer; a presentation by Father Dennis Hamm on the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer
• The Greatest Prayer by John Dominic Crossan (HarperOne, 2010)
• The Three Greatest Prayers: Commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Apostles Creed by Saint Thomas Aquinas (Sophia Institute Press, 1998)
As with most questions of this nature, the answer begins with a clarification: Belief is reserved to matters that pertain to doctrines of the faith. So while the church has no teaching for or against extraterrestrial existence, Catholics are not obliged to believe or disbelieve it.
That may sound like faint approval for devotees of E.T. and Area 51, but actually the institutional church has shown a keen interest in this topic. Call it the “Galileo Effect”: The church does not want to be caught on the wrong side of this particular fence a second time. In 2009, the International Year of Astronomy, the Vatican went out of its way to demonstrate the proper spirit. At the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the Vatican grounds, a conference was held with 30 astronomers, biologists, geologists, and religious leaders to discuss the possibility of life on other planets. Atheists were included on the list of presenters. So were people from the organization SETI (“search for extraterrestrial intelligence").
|ARTISTS RENDITION of Kepler 22-b, an Earth-like
planet 600 million light-years from Earth.
Even before the conference, in 2008 the pope’s chief astronomer (yes, he has one), Jesuit priest and head of the Vatican Observatory José Gabriel Funes, issued his now-famous declaration through the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano: “Just like [sic] there is an abundance of creatures on earth, there could also be other beings, even intelligent ones, that were created by God. That doesn’t contradict our faith, because we cannot put boundaries to God’s creative freedom. As Saint Francis [of Assisi] would say, when we consider the earthly creatures to be our ‘brothers and sisters,’ why couldn’t we also talk about an ‘extraterrestrial brother?’ He would still be part of creation.”
Obviously theologians would have a stake in this topic. When the 4th-century Doctor of the Church Saint Athanasius wrote, “The Son of God became man so that we might become God,” it never would have occurred to him to ask if “man” implied humanoids only. Because Christianity is grounded in the hope of salvation for humankind based on a very specific creation story, it makes a difference whether God rescues anthropologically unique beings on this singular planet or universal life on a grand scale. Did Jesus die to save human beings on earth, or does the Cosmic Christ redeem the universe (remember we worship him as Christ the King of the Universe) in ways we have yet to appreciate? Inquiring theologians want to know.
• Job 38:1-7; Proverbs 8:22-27; Daniel 3:52-90; John 10:16; Ephesians 4:10; Hebrews 1:2; 11:3
• Theology, Christology, Anthropology by the International Theological Commission (1981)
• Christianity and Extraterrestrials? A Catholic Perspective by Marie George (iUniverse, Inc., 2005)
|ICON of Saint John the Baptist.|
John is unique in the story of salvation. He’s the inter-testamental lynchpin: part Hebrew prophet, part Christian missionary. His strange diet and dress, his preference for the wilderness, and his stern message of repentance puts him in a class with folks like Elijah, Amos, and Isaiah. He doesn’t, however, simply talk about the coming of Emmanuel. He has the distinct advantage of being able to point him out to the crowds: “Behold, the Lamb of God!”
John’s life begins in typical Bible-hero fashion with a miracle-birth story. That is the way scripture bookmarks a life and says: “Pay attention!” as with Isaac, Moses, Samuel, and Jesus himself. We know that John’s life is peculiarly interwoven with that of Jesus from the moment he leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary and her burgeoning womb are present. John, inheriting the priesthood of his father Zechariah, abandons institutional religion to become a never-ending prophet of Advent, announcing “Prepare the way of the Lord!” to all who will listen.
At the same time it’s often pointed out that John never concludes his ministry to become a disciple of Jesus. Even after he declares who Jesus is, he continues to preach and baptize. Later in prison John seems concerned that his own message of repentance or damnation seems discordant with the “mercy and forgiveness” gospel of Jesus being reported to him. He has to ask: Are you the one who is to come, or should we keep looking?
If John is uncertain of his role at times, so were plenty of other people. King Herod is afraid of John and twice as scared of Jesus after he puts John to death. He thinks Jesus may be John’s reincarnation. When Jesus asks his disciples what people are saying about him, they admit that some folks can’t tell him from John, and both John’s and Jesus’ followers got them confused with Elijah.
The fact that John never ceased his ministry even after Jesus started his reminds us that only a few of John’s followers transferred their allegiance to Jesus. The school of John dies hard: His disciples are still practicing their sect in the time of the early church. That is why the late-entry Gospel of John takes pains to subordinate John to Jesus, as when John declares: I am not the Christ. He must increase, and I must decrease.
• Matthew 3; 11:2-15; 17:10-13; Mark 1:1-11; 6:14-29; 8:27-30; John 1:6-9, 15-42; 3:22-30; Acts 13:24-25; 18:24-26; 19:1-7
• "John the Baptist: Preparing the Way" by Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, O.P., Scripture from Scratch, 1999
• John the Baptist: Prophet and Evangelist by Carl R. Kazmierski (Liturgical Press, 1996)
• John the Baptist: Prophet of Purity for a New Age by Catherine Murphy (Liturgical Press, 2003)
The word of God continues to be expressed in prophecy and wise teaching. Such divine self-revelation can lead to miraculous doings, as in the time of Moses, Elijah, Elisha, and Jesus. Or it can be heard through powerful oracles that begin, “Thus says the Lord,” told by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and most of the “minor” prophets. It’s heard more softly but no less empathically in the teachings and parables of Jesus. Because God’s word contains divine intent, it’s meant to evoke change in those who hear it—just as divine words divide day from night, create a path through the Red Sea, or heal a blind man.
With oracles, however, the effect of the Word depends on the freedom of the human will to accept or deny it. When God’s word acts upon matter, it moves. When God’s word encounters the human person, he or she is free to remain unmoved and unchanged. As the psalmist says: If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts! (Psalm 95:7-8).
• Genesis ch. 1; Deuteronomy 5:5, 22; 10:4; 1 Samuel 3:7-18; Psalm 33:6-9; 95:7b-8; Sirach 42:15-43:33; Isaiah 28:13-14, 23-29; John 1:1-5, 14; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:1-4
• The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum
• The Power of Words, by Alice Camille (videotaped parish talk)
• The Names of Jesus (Threshold Bible Study) by Stephen J. Binz (Twenty-Third Publications, 2004)
• God’s Word Is Alive by Alice Camille (ACTA Publications, 2007)
The short answer to this question: “A lot.” There are 73 books included in the Bible used by Catholics. By one estimate, the word “God” appears 3,358 times in those books and the word “Lord” another 7,736 times. So where to begin?
God wants to be known by humanity and is constantly reaching out to us to make that possible. From God’s stroll in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8) right through to God’s definitive revelation in the person of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit, God is involved in a constant process of communication with humanity.
How can we get a better idea of what God is like? The Letter to the Romans gives us one place to start: Take a good look at God’s creation: “Ever since the creation of the world, God’s invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what God has made” (Romans 1:20). The wonders of the natural world give us hints of God’s qualities. Be sure to stay in touch with the beauty of God’s creation by making some time for a walk in the woods, a weekend of camping, an evening of gazing at the night sky.
Above all, we learn about God through Jesus because he lived with and as one of us. When we look at the testimony of scripture, we see that Jesus represents the fullness of God’s revelation to humanity. As the Letter to the Hebrews puts it: “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son . . . who is the refulgence [radiance] of his glory, the very imprint of his being” (Hebrews 1:1-3). Or, as Jesus himself explained to the apostle Phillip: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
By his example Jesus shows us that God possesses and expresses the noblest of qualities to perfection—truth, beauty, justice, mercy, grace, goodness, compassion—in a word, love. In fact, Jesus lived and suffered as one of us because, in the well-known quote from John 3:16, “God so loved the world.” What greater love is there than “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” as Jesus did (John 15:13)?
We also know God through the gift of the Holy Spirit, who appears throughout Hebrew scripture—beginning with the second verse of Genesis where the Spirit, in the form of a “mighty wind,” hovered over the waters. Midway through Hebrew scripture we find the psalmist’s plea, “Do not drive me from before your face, nor take me from your holy spirit” (Psalm 51:13).
The Holy Spirit appears in many passages in the New Testament. Jesus promised to send his followers a Helper or Comforter who would be with them always (John 14:16), and in the “great commission” at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, one of the lynchpins of Christian faith in the Trinity, Jesus says, “Go, therefore,and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
The Holy Spirit comes to the forefront in the Acts of the Apostles, most famously at Pentecost, when members of the early church “were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues,as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” (Acts 2:4).
While the Bible does indeed provide us with a great variety of testimony to the manifold, mysterious, and wonderful nature of God, in our human experience getting to know God doesn’t happen all at once. It is a lifelong process that unfolds in spiritual reading and reflection, prayer, and in our interactions with others—in “fellowship,” to use the church term.
Fellowship happens when we gather to worship, surely, but also in our homes and offices and in all our daily interactions with others, both casual and intimate. When we interact with a sense of God’s presence, even when there are only “two or three” of us, we know that Jesus is there with us (Matthew 18:20).
Perhaps one of the most useful of the many titles found in the Bible for God is Immanuel or Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14), which literally means “God-with-us.” That conviction, firmly rooted in our hearts, may be all we ever need to know about our loving God.
• See pt. 1, sec. 1, ch. 2 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “God Comes to Meet Man,” for a description of God’s interaction with humanity
• For children ages 4-9: Images of God for Young Children by Marie-Helene Delval, illustrated by Barbara Nascimbeni, Eerdmans, 2010
This phrase appears in the less commonly prayed Apostles’ Creed (not in the Nicene Creed usually recited at Mass), which may account for why more pew-sitters don’t question them. After all, church teaching defines hell as the place of the damned. Why would Jesus visit those who cannot be saved?
|ICON of Jesus descending into hell (detail).|
The answer lies buried in scripture, as it often does. Theologically, hell derives from an earlier conception of Sheol (Hebrew) and Hades (Greek). Whatever you call it, ancient ideas about the afterlife weren’t pretty. There was no life after death in the ancient reckoning: just an underworld of disembodied bare consciousness without volition or motion. Forget everything you know about Judgment Day: the good, the bad, and the boring were all presumed to end up in the same spiritual substrata of uselessness. The dead were called shades, literally shadows of their former selves. Unable to will or to act, they simply moldered together and lamented their lost opportunities.
In the great epic writings of the ancients, heroes often visited the underworld looking for answers, vanquished enemies, or old friends. They might talk to them but they couldn’t offer any assistance. The story of Jesus is different. A wonderful homily for Holy Saturday found in the Liturgy of the Hours’ Office of Readings says it all: “Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness . . . because the King is asleep. . . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him . . . ‘I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead’ ” (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 635).
The idea that Jesus went to the dead first with the good news of the Resurrection is not a fabrication of early homilists. John’s gospel claims: “The hour is coming and is here now when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (5:25). Luke picks up the theme in Acts, and Paul alludes to it in his letters. The First Letter of Peter says that after being put to death Christ “went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient” and that “the gospel was preached even to the dead” (3:18-19; 4:6). So that answers the question: Jesus went to the dead first to bring good news to those who needed it the most.
• Psalms 6:6; 88:2-13; Matthew 12:40; John 5:25; Acts 2:24-31; Romans 8:11; 10:7; 1 Corinthians 15:20; Philippians 2:10; Ephesians 4:9; Hebrews 2:14-15; 13:20; 1 Peter 3:18-19; 4:6; Revelation 1:18
• Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction by Terrence Nichols (Brazos Press, 2010)
• Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament by Philip S. Johnston (IVP Academic, 2002)
|ICON of Sophia, the Wisdom of God of Kiev.|
IN THE BIBLE, Wisdom refers variously to smart decision-making, wise teaching, a body of literature, one particular book, a remarkable woman, and the person of Jesus. But let’s start at the beginning. Wisdom is originally presented as a divine attribute: an aspect of God to be imitated by those made in God’s likeness. Like other divine characteristics—love, justice, mercy, truth—God desires to share wisdom with us. Solomon is right to pray for it. The Holy Spirit imparts seven gifts to those fully initiated into the church; wisdom is at the top of the list, followed by understanding, knowledge, counsel, courage, reverence, and wonder in God’s presence. Wisdom comes first as the grace that assists in the practice of all other virtues.
The Bible explores this important aspect in many ways. In Hebrew the word refers to practical instructions on how to live: how to run your household and business, how to worship, and how to deal with your neighbor. These wisdom teachings frequently take the form of two-line sayings that are easy to remember, like proverbs. They may tell you what to do in positive terms, what not to do in the negative, or contrast the actions of a fool to one who is wise.
Five Old Testament books deal primarily with this kind of instruction: Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon. This grouping came to be called “Wisdom literature” or the Wisdom tradition, from a school of teaching very popular in the Near East in the five centuries before the time of Jesus. It was a period when the Jewish community was scattered farther than Israel and was heavily influenced by Greek ideas. Much wisdom literature was written in Greek, using the word sophia for “wisdom.” It’s easy to see how Sophia would become personified as Lady Wisdom, a woman worth winning. As students of the wisdom school were young men, courtship would be an attractive metaphor for attaining wisdom.
As a divine attribute, Wisdom was involved in the creation of the world and was an active principle in its design, as Proverbs 8 describes. John’s gospel defines another presence in that event: the preexisting Word of God, which linked Jesus to Wisdom. Saint Paul emphatically identifies Christ as the wisdom of God. The wisdom God once shared through messengers and media is now a Word delivered in the flesh.
• Job 28:12-28; Proverbs 1:20-33; ch. 8; 9:1-6; Wisdom chs. 7, 8, and 9; Sirach ch. 24; Isaiah 11:2-3; John 1:1-18; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Colossians 1:15-20
• From Earth’s Creation to John’s Revelation: The INTERFACES Biblical Storyline Companion by Barbara Green, O.P., Carleen Mandolfo, and Catherine M. Murphy (Liturgical Press, 2003)
• Wisdom’s Many Faces by R. Charles Hill (Liturgical Press, 1996)
• Wisdom Christianity from The Bede Griffiths Trust
That is a question believers of every generation have asked and have had to answer in their lives. If we look at the testimony of nearly 2,000 years, we see that the responses have been varied and many. Some believers lived out their faith in communities of vowed religious or clergy. Some have been missionaries, others monastics or even hermits.
The great majority of Christians since Christ, however, has practiced their faith in what we could call “everyday life,” whether married or single, working in a job, caring for a home and children, or living a life of service in some other way. Those of us who take these paths are challenged by our faith to be “in the world but not of it.”
What does that mean? The words of Jesus and the gospel stories that depict him in action are timeless guides, as relevant today as when they first happened. Jesus lived and taught values and priorities that we can use to guide our own choices today. Here are a few of the most fundamental values:
First things first and eyes on the prize
“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Matthew 6:33). Here’s all a Christian really needs to remember about following Jesus, today or in any age. We only have so much time and energy to give to the world, and life is indeed short. If we put other goals ahead of our spiritual aspirations, we may find we run out of time before getting around to being the disciple we had always meant to be.
Need further convincing? Try these passages on for size:
• Mark 8:36 (There is no profit in gaining the world if you lose your soul along the way)
• Mark 4:14-20 (Cultivate the Word carefully so that it can bear fruit in your life. Watch out for distractions!)
Keep it simple: Begin and end with love
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40).
• Matthew 7:12 (Dust off the Golden Rule and practice it.)
• Matthew 5:43-44 (Everyone loves their friends, nothing special there. Try loving and blessing your enemies!)
Service is the path to greatness
“Jesus summoned them and said to them, 'You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant' ” (Mark 10:42-43).
Don’t believe you are up to the job? Just ask for help:
• Luke 11:9-10 (Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened.)
Finally, for further inspiration, check out the biblical prophets. Here’s an example from one who knew how to boil things down to the essentials: “What the Lord requires of us is this: to act with justice, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).
• The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis has been inspiring Christians for centuries. Learn more and pick up a copy today.
The scholar E. P. Sanders has the most quotable quote on this matter in his book Jesus and Judaism: “Jesus proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God, but it was the church that arrived.” To some folks’ reckoning, that’s a bit of a letdown. Although kingdom coming is a realm where every tear is wiped away, the concrete manifestation of the church at any point in history might just as often give you reason to cry. We’re reminded that the church is made up of people who maintain the freedom to behave as saints or sinners—not perfected souls saved and freeze-dried on the spot.
So when we say that Jesus established the church, we don’t mean Jesus laid down the blueprint for Vatican City. Some of us were taught that Jesus instituted the sacraments—complete with gospel references where each ritual was literally installed. It’s more accurate to say that the church, which practiced as many as 22 sacraments and as few as three at various moments in its history, finds theological grounding for its present seven sacraments in the ministry of Jesus.Trying to draw straight lines from Jesus to contemporary church practice sometimes makes us crooked. Few of our present practices fell from heaven as is.
My theology professors used to point out that Jesus commissioned the disciples to go and proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth. But he never told them how to do that organizationally, much less across 20 centuries and counting. Institutions develop as the best vehicles for stability and continuity for something that is meant to last. Leaders must be found, formed, and empowered. Teachings must be agreed upon for universal availability. Practices must be set, membership identified, rules defined. Institutions are great for holding things and people together.
Institutions do have their downside: They tend toward inflexibility and self-preservation and are notoriously resistant to change. Which is why the original “people of the Way” identified in the Acts of the Apostles sometimes have to get out of the way to let the Spirit blow on through.
Matthew 10:1-10; 16:13-19; 28:16-20
John 13:1-17, 31-35; 15:1-17; 17:1-26; 21:15-17
The Second Vatican Council’s document on the church (Lumen Gentium)
A Short History of Christianity by Stephen Tomkins (Eerdmans, 2006)
Although ubiquitous now, the image known as Divine Mercy is a relative newcomer on the Catholic devotional scene. It originated with Maria Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938), Poland’s “Apostle of the Divine Mercy.” With only three years of formal education, Maria Faustina was hired as a domestic servant while a teenager. But the “bright lights” she’d seen in prayer from a young age continued during her employment, eventually drawing her toward religious life. Entering the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, Maria Faustina served as cook, gardener, and doorkeeper—jobs reserved for the humblest members of a community. For the next half dozen years she continued to experience visions, prophecies, and “internal stigmata”: a spiritual sharing in Christ’s sufferings with no physical mark.
In 1931 Sister Faustina had a vision unparalleled by those that had gone before: She saw Jesus clothed in white, one hand raised in blessing, the other at his breast. From his body two radiant streams flowed, one red, the other pale. Faustina felt called to recreate this image with the signature “Jesus, I trust in you.” Her spiritual director procured an artist to reproduce what she saw in her vision. Pope John Paul II canonized Faustina in 2000 and established the Second Sunday of the Easter season as Divine Mercy Sunday in accordance with her revelation, heightening the familiarity of this image.
In the gospel for this same Sunday, the Octave (eighth day) of the Easter celebration, Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit to disciples who had so recently deserted their Lord in his darkest hour—a gift brimming with mercy when you think about it. An additional reading for this feast reminds us of “the water and the blood” that flowed from the side of Jesus on the cross. The beams of red and white light radiating in the Divine Mercy image are thought to be reminders of these signs. The white light recalls the water of baptism, which by the mercy of God redeems us from original sin. The red light represents the cup of the Eucharist, Christ’s blood shed for our redemption.
On Divine Mercy Sunday we recall how the compassion of God restores us to life through these sacramental actions. What was once revealed to a humble Polish nun in this benevolent image remains a moving portrait of the ever-present mercy of God, radiating relentlessly from the heart of Christ.
• How to recite the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy
• Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska (Marian Press, 2003)
• Faustina, Saint for Our Times: A Personal Look at Her Life, Spirituality, and Legacy by George Kosicki, C.S.B. (Marian Press, 2010)
• John Paul II: The Great Mercy Pope by George Kosicki, C.S.B. (Marian Press, 2006)
• The Chaplet of Divine Mercy in Song [audio CD], the Marian Helpers and others (Marian Press, 2005)
The key word is believe. The doctrine of the Incarnation is a belief, not a piece of evidence. No one can prove to you that Jesus is "one in being with the Father," and if they say they can, you ought to cross to the other side of the street.
The term "Son of God" is key to the Christian theology of Incarnation. In Hebrew scripture, "son of God" denotes a person with a special relationship to God. In the New Testament the term describes the unique relationship of Jesus to God. In the Jewish sense, then, angels are sons of God. So are the whole people of Israel and the king of the nation. Finally, Jews post-biblically began to refer to the anticipated Messiah as son of God. None of these Jewish usages implied a divine nature, only a privileged relationship.
In Christian usage the title is first applied to Jesus because he saw himself that way. God is his Father: It's repeated often enough that we might just as easily say Jesus saw himself as God's son. But did he mean "son" in the Jewish sense or the later Christian doctrine? We don't know. Clearly the gospel writers and Saint Paul used the title after Jesus' resurrection appearances to say something more about Jesus than anyone had claimed before.
Here's a brief rundown of how the term evolved for early Christians. First, they understood that Jesus views himself as the "Son in whom [God] is well pleased"—as testified by a heavenly voice at the accounts of his baptism and Transfiguration.
Next, they saw Jesus as the anticipated Messiah; as good Jews they used "son of God" for that awaited figure.
Third, as the church moved into the Gentile world, concepts like "messiah" began to lose their meaning. The world outside Judaism wasn't waiting for a saving hero. But the pagan world did employ "son of God" to refer to heavenly beings of various sorts. The term was a better fit to describe what Christians meant by Jesus.
As the church fathers mined scripture in search of understanding, they drew together traditions of prophecy, Wisdom, and Divine Word (the Logos) to see Jesus as sharing in the divinity of God both before his human birth and afterwards. At the Council of Nicaea in 325 Jesus was declared begotten of God before time began and "one in being with the Father."
• Genesis 6:2; Exodus 4:22; Deuteronomy 32:8; 2 Samuel 7:14; Job 1:6; Psalm 2:7; Jeremiah 31:9; Hosea 11:1; Matthew 5:45; 7:21;11:25-27; 16:16; 26:63; Mark 1:1; 14:36, 61; Luke 10:21-22; John 1:1-18; 11:27; 20:31; Romans 1:3-4; Galatians 4:6; 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10; Hebrews 1:2-4
• Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate), Second Vatican Council, 1965 (especially no. 4)
• The Reality of Jesus: An Essay on Christology by Dermot A. Lane (Paulist Press, 1977)
• Tradition and Incarnation: Foundations of Christian Theology by William L. Portier (Paulist Press, 1994)
The church preserves many glorious mysteries—and some knotty other ones as well. The siblings of Jesus fit into the latter category. Eleven times the New Testament refers to brothers/sisters of Jesus. Some are named: James, Joses, Simon, and Judas. James, “the brother of the Lord,” will play a significant role in the Jerusalem church, according to the Acts of the Apostles, and is mentioned with some deference by Saint Paul. The precise number of such siblings or what became of the rest of them after Jesus’ Crucifixion is unknown.
Curiosity alone would lead us to seek more information about potential relatives of Jesus (and their descendants!). The real issue is the conflict between the church’s teaching on the perpetual virginity of Mary and the possibility of a larger family. The Greek words adelphos and adelphe mean just what English does by “brother” and “sister.” That is not a generic reference to kin or cousins, as is often suggested.
The trouble lies in that Hebrew doesn’t make such fine distinctions about degrees of consanguinity: Members of the same clan were regarded broadly as brothers. James and Joses, listed above as brothers of Jesus, are called sons of another Mary later at the cross. It’s also hard to understand why Jesus would commend his own mother to one of his disciples at the cross if she had other living children who might care for her.
The church fathers proposed that Saint Joseph had had a previous marriage which provided him with children. That would make the siblings of Jesus not children by Mary at all. There is no proof for or against this theory—although a manuscript called The Infancy Gospel of James from around 150 A.D. builds on this interpretation. Like the linguistic fix, the half-sibling theory offers a way to reconcile scripture with doctrine.
Most big-gun Catholic scripture scholars (and some Protestant ones) subscribe to one of these explanations or avoid the discussion in their commentaries altogether even while addressing these verses. A few, like Jesuit Jerome Neyrey, admit simply that the New Testament authors apparently believed Jesus had brothers and sisters. If we take their word as historically accurate, that doesn’t affect the teaching about the Virgin Birth of Jesus but does emphasize his divine origins.
• Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), the Second Vatican Council—see Chapter 8, “The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the Mystery of Christ and the Church”
• Redemptoris Mater (On the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Life of the Pilgrim Church), encyclical letter of Pope John Paul II
• Mary in the New Testament: A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars, Raymond E. Brown, ed. (Fortress Press, 1978)
• Mary 101: Tradition and Influence by Mary Ann Zimmer (Liguori Press, 2010)