• 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)
Prayer is a spiritual art, so prayer forms differ according to the artist. The Encyclopedia of Catholicism lists three general categories: vocal, mental, and passive. Vocal prayer is anything that uses words—spoken, recited, or sung. It can utilize composed or spontaneous prayers. The psalms and the liturgy of the Mass are two examples of vocal prayers. Mental prayer, by contrast, is silent prayer involving the imagination. The guided-imagery method of Saint Ignatius of Loyola and the prayerful reading of scripture (lectio divina) are samples of mental prayer. Passive prayer is also known as contemplation. You don’t control or generate it; you relinquish all to it. In return the mystical encounter awaits as a pure gift of God. Passive prayer can be ecstatic, as Saint Teresa of Avila experienced it. It can also relate to suffering, as it did for Teresa’s friend Saint John of the Cross.
Another way to envision prayer-forms are two categories Franciscan friar Richard Rohr suggests: mental prayer and body prayer. The vocal and mental forms outlined above fit into Rohr’s idea of mental prayer. Body prayer by contrast means “to pray from the clay”—the vessel of the self formed from clay and divine Breath. That includes spiritual activities as diverse as walking a labyrinth or the Stations of the Cross, making a pilgrimage, praying with rosary beads, tai chi, or yoga. Depending on your level of participation in passive prayer mentioned above, these could be mental prayer or a full-body experience.
The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia gets more explicit, listing 16 prayer forms. The first bunch are communal: public (shared prayer), Eucharist (the source and summit of the faith), scripture (where God speaks), and the Divine Office (psalm-led prayer on behalf of humankind). Tre Ore, the least familiar on this roll call, is a Trinity prayer in which one hour is given to silent adoration, one to reflection and writing, and a third to group-sharing.
The MCE list includes the familiar: personal prayer, spiritual reading, silent listening, recitation (e.g., rosaries, litanies), mental prayer, contemplation, and examination of conscience. It also explores the idea of recollection (bringing God to mind throughout the day); meditation (guiding the intellect and reason); affective prayer (involving emotions); and journaling as an interactive mapping of the spiritual journey.
These prayer-forms are by no means a complete list. Consider them a place to begin.
• Numbers 6:24-26; the Psalms; Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 1:46-55, 68-79: 2:29-32
• A downloadable “User’s guide on the ways to pray” by Linus Mundy
• “Find Your Spirituality Type” quiz by Roger O'Brien
• “What's the difference between saying ‘set’ prayers and prayers in my own words?” by Alice Camille
• “How is the Mass ‘prayer’”? by Alice Camille
• Prayer and Temperament: Different Prayer Forms for Different Personality Types by Chester P. Michael and Marie C. Norrisey (Open Door, 1984)
• The Breath of the Soul: Reflections on Prayer by Joan Chittister (Twenty-Third Publications, 2009)
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)
Roman Catholicism is a Bible-grounded religion and couldn’t be otherwise. Granted, Catholics don’t espouse the sola scriptura ("scripture alone") angle of Martin Luther: along with scripture, Catholics and many other Christians weigh the authority of the tradition which collected, preserved, and promoted the holy writings to begin with. In no way does this cheapen our relationship to the Bible itself. From sacraments to catechisms, everything we do and believe is steeped in scripture.
Vatican II said it best: “The books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully, and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures” (Dei Verbum, no. 11). We believe the Bible was written, edited, and selected under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that both Testaments are so inspired, and that God is their author in an ultimate sense. It should be noted that the word “author” in Latin has wider range than in English and means “producer” more than writer. That means God worked with the Bible’s human authors, called “true authors” in Dei Verbum, using their skills to bring these truths to light. The human writers weren’t simply taking dictation but were genuine collaborators in the message they rendered.
Our understanding of scripture has evolved, obviously: Justin Martyr (100-165) described the evangelists as mere stenographers. Second-century apologist Athenagoras said God used scripture writers “as a flautist might blow into a flute.” In the same period, however, Origen was writing about “illumination” of the writer’s mind rather than a complete mental invasion. He also considered levels of inspiration and the possibility of error in both Testaments owing to the authors’ humanity. Errors in the text, it should be said, would not contradict our present understanding that there is no error in “the truth which God . . . wished to see confided” there for the sake of our salvation. Acknowledging such historical or prescientific miscalls is a far cry from saying the Bible is either factually accurate with every word or altogether poppycock.
Augustine allowed for inaccuracies and how literary form shapes divinely inspired truth. Fellow 4th-century citizen John Chrysostom said if God’s Word could come to earth in human flesh as Jesus, it could likewise “condescend” to the forms and humble talents of human authors. Thomas Aquinas called inspiration “something imperfect” within the larger category of prophecy. The imperfection, no doubt, resides as much in the hearer as in the writer.
• 2 Samuel 23:2; Matthew 1:22-23; John 20:30-31; 21:24-25; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 1:1-2; 4:7; 2 Peter 1:19-21; 3:15-16
• Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum
• The Scripture Documents: An Anthology of Official Catholic Teachings ed. and trans. by Dean P. Bechard (Liturgical Press, 2002)
• Listening to God’s Word by Alice Camille (Orbis Books, 2009)
|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)
It’s always easier to speak from experience, in which case the best reply to this question would come from Doctors of the Church Hildegard of Bingen (recently named) and Catherine of Siena as well as other saints like Francis of Assisi, Bernadette of Lourdes, or any number of folks on the biblical record like Jacob, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Peter, Paul, and John of Patmos, who wrote the Book of Revelation.
|ICON of Hildegard of Bingen|
From me, you can get a definition. Visions are understood to be the product of God’s self-communication. As Carmelite Father John Welch puts it, all of Christianity depends on divine revelation, so the hop to visions is not all that unusual for people of faith. Nonetheless it is an extraordinary event that can be expressed in words, ideas, or images. It may have a physical dimension but is more often experienced in the imagination or intuitive understanding.
Visions that include a tangible dimension are considered extremely rare. Juan Diego got an image on tilma cloak from Our Lady of Guadalupe. Philip Neri experienced a globe of fire entering his chest that literally broke his ribs and enlarged his heart. Francis of Assisi had his stigmata. Most visions don’t have that kind of corporeal aspect, and mystics themselves often mistrusted them if they did. “Imaginative visions”—Joan of Arc described hers this way—are often attributed to factors like youth, an elementary religious education, or psychological simplicity. Consider how many mystics had their experiences as children, like those of the Virgin Mary at Fatima, Portugal in 1917.
Mystics agree the most reliable visions are intellectual or intuitive; these are less likely to be distorted by unreliable human senses. Mystics are also the first to say that visions are not the goal of the spiritual life. Most mystics had their visions early and moved into a greater interiority of spiritual communion with God after that. In that sense the vision achieved its purpose along the spiritual journey as a boost upward into something richer and more useful—the point being, for the saints and for the rest of us, that we shouldn’t measure ourselves against these experiences or hanker after them. If even visionaries found them dispensable, they are clearly not prerequisites to grace.
Although faith is based on revelation, church teaching leaves the matter of specific visions open to question. Visionaries in modern times are subject to investigation by church authorities and may be deemed credible—but their experiences are not made matters for doctrinal acceptance for believers. Most of us have inexplicable episodes when we perceive things we have no way of knowing and yet do. If we pay attention, we might see more than we think.
• Genesis 32:23-33; Isaiah 6:1-8; Ezekiel 10; Daniel 7:13-18; Acts of the Apostles 9:1-9; 10:9-16; the Book of Revelation
• The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena, "dictated by her, while in a state of ecstasy, to her secretaries, and completed in the year of our lord 1370"
• Our Lady of the Lost and Found: A Novel of Mary, Faith, and Friendship by Diane Schoemperlen (Penguin, 2002)
• Mystics and Miracles: True Stories of Lives Touched by God by Bert Ghezzi (Loyola Press, 2002)
I can say this about polytheism in the Bible: It’s there. The worship of many divinities leads to the central conflict for the prophets: Which God is to be Israel’s God? Just because Abraham steps out of the polytheism of his ancestors into a radical covenant with the God YHWH doesn’t mean he, or his heirs, stop believing in the existence of other deities. They simply choose to cast their lot with the God of many promises: land, descendants, and future. YHWH will be their God, and they will be his people.
|WILLIAM Blake's Ancient of Days.|
Many names for God are used in the Hebrew Bible. YHWH (pronounced “Yahweh”) is the name Abraham and Moses are given to identify God. God is also called El, a common Semitic word (among Israelites, Arabs, ancient Akkadians, and others) for divine beings both as the generic el and the proper name El, the father of all of Canaan’s gods. El occurs 286 times in the Old Testament. When used to refer to Israel’s God, it’s usually added to another term: for example, El Bethel, the God revealed to Jacob at Bethel. Shaddai, the almighty “God of the mountain,” was an even older name for God that shows up in poems in the Books of Genesis, Numbers, Job, some psalms, and Ezekiel. That Israel’s God would be identified with Mt. Sinai isn’t surprising, given the centrality of the covenant with Moses.
God has many names in scripture, but did Israel worship more than one God? Yes, to their shame, if the Books of Samuel, Kings, and prophecy are taken seriously. Baal-worship is the bane of the prophets, and Jeremiah asserts the women of Jerusalem chased after “the Queen of Heaven,” so goddesses were in the mix, too. The Book of Deuteronomy warns against the sun- and moon-worship practiced by the Amorite and Phoenician peoples, and King Josiah had to end sacrifices to heavenly bodies in 2 Kings 23.
Scholars of the biblical creation story have viewed it as a systematic subjugation of other gods: the Persian belief in the uncreated light (Day 1); Baal who brings forth rain and growing things (Days 2 and 3); all heavenly bodies including the Egyptian sun god Re (Day 4); primeval sea monsters of Mesopotamian mythology (Day 5); and humanity, whose purpose is to share creation’s stewardship with God in dignity rather than bear the yoke of the gods as in the stories of other deities (Day 6). Most ancient creation stories speak of divine rest; only in Israel’s story is humanity invited to share in it with the institution of the Sabbath (Day 7). It could be argued that none of that needed to be written if there weren’t a significant attraction to polytheism in ancient Israel.
• Genesis 1:1-2:4; Joshua 24:1-24; YHWH: Exodus 3:4-15; Shaddai: Genesis 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; 49:25; Exodus 6:3; Numbers 24:4, 16; Psalms 68:15; 91:1-2; Ezekiel 1:24; 10:5
• The Collegeville Pastoral Dictionary of Biblical Theology ed. by Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. (Liturgical Press, 1996): entries on “God,” pp. 383-386; “El/Elohim,” pp. 243-244; “Yahweh,” p. 1111-1114; “Names,” pp. 665-667
• The Names of God in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: A Basis for Interfaith Dialogue by Máire Byrne (Continuum, 2011)
No is the wrong answer to the question, Do Catholics believe in evolution?; while yes is too small a response. What Catholics believe is a matter of creed and doctrine. The church teaches as doctrine that God is the Creator, but the how of creation is not doctrinally determined. The church doesn’t uphold evolution as an element of faith: i.e., believe it or walk the plank. Catholic teaching allows that God may have chosen to create the world through the process of evolution. We believe truth has integrity; there can be no contradiction between scientific truth and the religious kind. Theology and science are not in competition but are complementary adventures in understanding. So if a thing is true, it’s naturally true for people of faith.
|CHARLES DARWIN (1809-1882) published
On the Origin of Species by Means
of Natural Selection in 1859.
The church is more emphatic on matters like creationism. This position claims evolution is completely incompatible with divine creation literally described in Genesis. Scientific creationism, an offshoot, goes so far as to say that biblical truth is the only science acceptable to Christians. Catholic theologian John Haught replies that not only does this stance deprive science of its legitimacy, but such ideas trivialize the Bible by reducing it to a biology lesson.
The church’s view of evolution has itself evolved. In 1950 Pope Pius XII affirmed that evolution did not contradict faith so long as the immediate creation of the human soul by God was not at issue. Pope John Paul II showed similar caution about the soul becoming a “simple epiphenomenon” of living matter—a result of the physical body, not something supernatural and infused in the body by God.
Pope Benedict XVI did not hesitate. Before his papacy in 2004, he stated: “While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of the first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5-4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution.” In 2009 the pope also said God was “not only involved in the origins of the universe but continually sustains the development of life and the world” and “is the cause of every being and all becoming.”
• Genesis chs. 1-2; Proverbs 8:22-36; Wisdom 7:17-22; John 1:1-5; Acts 17:24-28; 1 Timothy 4:4-5; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 11:3
• “Evolution and God: Darwin and Theology 150 years after The Origin of the Species” by Aloysious Mowe, S.J., Woodstock Report, June 2009
• Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life by John F. Haught (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010)
• Christianity in Evolution: An Exploration by Jack Mahoney (Georgetown University Press, 2011)
• Theologian and biological scientist Dr. Celia Deane-Drummond of the University of Notre Dame will deliver the 2012 Albertus Magnus Lecture on “Human Uniqueness Reconsidered: Human Evolution and the Image of God,” Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 7:00 p.m. in the Auditorium of the Priory Campus of Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois just west of Chicago. More information . . .
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
Ah, the scent of conspiracy clings to this topic! It's as if once upon a time a file of scrolls marked "Potential Bible Texts" awaited discovery. Then alas! A self-appointed gang of doctrinal purists raided the place, selecting 73 approved texts. The remainder were burned, buried, or banned. From what were they trying to protect us, we wonder?
The reality is less glamorous. The Bible, like most else in the realm of organized religion, was formed by a process we call tradition. Scripturally, tradition includes the original events that inspired someone to tell the story, as well as the oral and written accounts that ensued. Each was told and retold, reworked and edited over generations until it attained its now-familiar form.
For Israelites, split into two monarchies for centuries, some stories were treasured by the northern kingdom and others by the south. Some texts were produced by dispersed Jews in foreign lands and others by those living in Israel. Around the surprisingly late year of 100 A.D. the rabbis got serious about collecting these texts and determining which should be "in" and which "out" of the accepted pool of scripture. Legends of divine intervention surrounding the formation of the Hebrew Bible abound, but chances are the process included some slogging through manuscripts and heated arguments: "Is this text really helpful to all Jews everywhere?"
The New Testament is a product of similar forces. Far-flung Christian communities compiled gospel sayings, and letters from Saint Paul and other leaders were scattered across the known world. When Peter and Paul were martyred in the mid-60s, it became more urgent to get the story of Christianity standardized. Formal gospels were written. Collections of letters were gathered. Changes and additions crept in with frequent copying. Each community doubtless had its favorites. Although new texts were circulated for a few centuries, by the year 367 Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, listed the 27 New Testament books we use today as the authorized canon. Church councils debated the contents of both testaments beyond his lifetime, but Athanasius's New Testament stuck.
In finalizing the New Testament, the criterion was simple: Earlier is better. Eyewitness testimony was favored, and texts clearly written in the second century or beyond were not seriously considered. Some texts that didn't make the cut of canonicity from both Hebrew and Christian writings are still widely available. While certainly interesting, reading them adds credibility to the selection process of tradition.
Sirach 44:1-49:16; Hebrews 11:1-12:2; 1 John 1:1-4
For everybody who didn't get the memo: Biblical authorship is tricky. It can't compare to contemporary authorship, defined against forgery and plagiarism—and in favor of copyrights and royalties. Scripture writers didn't claim rights over their work. They didn't seek fame or a livelihood for their efforts. Ancient writers sought to establish the mantle of authority, rather than authorship, for what they set down. So they often wrote under the auspices of existing schools of thought. To the ancients that was not skullduggery; that was how it was done. The contemporary filmmaker who pays "homage" to earlier directors that contributed to his or her vision is invoking a similar liberty.
In the Old Testament, scholars presume four schools of writers contributed to the five books of the Bible commonly known as the "Law of Moses." The authority of Moses is invoked, but even the rabbis don't hold that Moses penned Genesis through Deuteronomy. In the same way, three generations are believed to have contributed to the Book of Isaiah—one being the 8th-century B.C. prophet himself, whose scroll was extended by later students and admirers. Many Hebrew texts were added to or edited by later compilers in this way. But it's in the New Testament that authorship gets really interesting.
Saint Paul was the first contributor to what would be known one day as the New Testament. He wrote a generation before there were gospels, so his early witness to Christian beliefs and practices is quite valuable. Most Catholic and many Protestant scholars hold at least seven of the 14 letters attributed to Paul to be authentically his: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Romans, and Philemon. If you read them in that order, you get the style, personality, theology, and viewpoint of a single unique letter-writer.
Three other letters are routinely classified as Deutero-Pauline. This means they reflect Paul's ideas but also reveal another hand, perhaps a student of his. The Deutero-Pauline letters are: 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians. Three more letters are hotly debated but widely regarded as non-Pauline. These are the so-called Pastoral Letters: Titus and 1 and 2 Timothy. A 14th letter once credited to Paul, Hebrews, is now universally regarded as by another author.
Truth is truth, no matter who says it. Because the authorship of Paul's letters was debated even by the church fathers, who nonetheless put them in the Bible, we might honor their assessment that the words are God-inspired, even if their author sometimes remains a mystery.
The Pauline letters are best read chronologically: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Romans, Philemon, 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians, Titus, and 1 and 2 Timothy. Read the Acts of the Apostles for background.
A historical introduction to the Pauline Epistles
How to Read the Bible by Richard Holloway (W.W. Norton & Company, 2007)
Paul the Letter-Writer by Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, O.P. (Liturgical Press, 1995)
Sooner or later thoughtful people will ask this question. The Old Testament, or Hebrew scriptures, can be viewed as the spiritual history of the human race. After the first ten chapters of the Book of Genesis, this history focuses specifically on one community, the people Israel.
We follow their story through good times and bad, when they prove faithful and especially as they are spectacularly unfaithful to their destiny as the people of God. The story includes families that fail to love one another; leaders who lead their people into hellish circumstances; prophets who speak for God in an attempt to avert catastrophe; wise ones who teach the truth; and brave ones who do what's right despite the cost. In other words, it's a familiar story that recurs in every generation.
The New Testament, or Christian scriptures, can't be appreciated apart from this earlier saga. For example, Isaiah foretells the birth of a Prince of Peace; the gospels announce the birth of Jesus. Symbols or types contained in the Old are re-presented in the New (the Ark of the Covenant reveals and conceals the Divine Presence in precious materials; Mary of Nazareth bears the Son of God in her own body).
Perhaps the most compelling illustration of how the Testaments fit together is the relationship between the Creation story in Genesis and the opening of the Gospel of John. "In the beginning . . . God created the heavens and the earth," Genesis intones. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," John declares.
In both of these beginnings a world springs to life as a result of the Divine Word. In each instance God's Word assumes material form and roams about. In Genesis the glorious beginning winds up in tragic defeat as humanity falls into sin and becomes vulnerable to suffering and death. In John the rather humble beginnings of God's-Word-among-us lead to triumphant reversals: Sin is defeated and death loses its sting in redemption.
Throughout the twin stories of the Testaments we hear about God's mercy and love and the constant striving of God to rescue us from our self-inflicted misery. As the rabbis say, the whole Bible can be boiled down to four words: We sin. God saves. Those last two words transform our history into the history of salvation.
Isaiah 9:6-7 and Luke 2:1-14; Exodus 37:1-9 and Revelation 12:1-5; Genesis 1:1-31 and John 1:1-14
The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible by the Pontifical Biblical Commission
Invitation to the Old Testament and Invitation to the New Testament by Alice Camille (ACTA Publications, 2004)
Biblical Literacy: The Essential Bible Stories Everyone Needs to Know by Timothy Beal (HarperOne, 2009)
This question betrays an assumption I wouldn't be hasty to make: that God doesn't call people to prophecy now. Certainly classical biblical prophecy has a closed membership. It's tempting to say prophets ended when the Bible did, but that implies they were fixtures of the biblical period, which they weren't. Prophets occupied a narrow niche of Bible history from the 9th to the 4th centuries B.C. No distinct office for prophecy existed earlier, when patriarchs and elders led their tribal communities. Prophets appeared when Israel's priesthood and monarchy were up and running to balance (and apply brakes to) those institutions when necessary. Prophets so often contradicted those in power that they seem like professional protesters camped outside the gates of government and organized religion.
This stance may have led to the demise of their role after both kingdom and Temple collapsed during the exile of the Israelites to Babylon. After Israel returned home, the office of the prophets was never quite the same because the institutions they addressed weren't either. The monarchy of Israel never recovered—unless you count the Herodian kings, which most Jews didn't. The priesthood got back on its feet for a few centuries before the second Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., which ended it. In those waning centuries minor prophets plied their trade of speaking for God, but they gave way to another group of truth-seekers known as sages, who produced the Wisdom tradition (including the biblical books of Proverbs, Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon, among others). The role of the sages eventually morphed into the Sanhedrin. The voice of challenge ceased to be heard.
Yet the New Testament holds traces of that voice: in John the Baptist, who looks and sounds like Elijah; in Anna, who inhabits the Temple and is an early evangelist of the child messiah; and in the casual mention of Philip's prophetic daughters in the Acts of the Apostles. In fact, traces of prophetic speech and action have surfaced in every generation since that time, though the title has been retired. The ancient prophets were men and women who believed they spoke for God. Do we imagine that God has nothing further to say to us?
Ezekiel 3:17-21; Matthew 23:29-34; Mark 13:9-13; Luke 13:33-34; 21:12-19
The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann (Fortress Press, 2001)
Four Modern Prophets by William M. Ramsay (John Knox Press, 1986)
If you attend Mass regularly you'll notice certain books hold prominence of place in the gathering. These over-large and often decorated volumes contain Bible passages appointed for public reading by trained readers (lectors) and are called lectionaries.
Each lectionary organizes readings according to the feasts and seasons of the church year. In this way we hear about the birth of Jesus at Christmas, the Passion during Holy Week, the ministry of Jesus during other times of the year, and so on. The Sunday lectionary contains three years' worth of readings:
—Cycle A follows Matthew's gospel with Old Testament passages chosen to parallel its themes.
—Cycle B is organized around Mark's gospel—although Mark is so short that John's gospel supplements the year.
—Cycle C coordinates Luke's gospel with Old Testament readings.
(The Gospel of John isn't slighted; it's used in all three years for special feasts when thematically appropriate.)
In between the Old Testament and gospel readings on Sundays, an additional New Testament passage is selected from a letter of Saint Paul or another apostle and read continuously across the Sundays until it's finished. During the Easter season the Old Testament reading is replaced by a passage from the Acts of the Apostles or the Book of Revelation.
There's also a daily lectionary that runs in a two-year cycle (Years I and II) pairing gospel passages with continuous readings from Old or New Testament books. Saints' days have their own appropriately chosen optional readings, and an additional lectionary has passages suitable for baptisms, weddings, funerals, and other occasions.
Why do we have lectionaries? For one thing, they provide breadth. Catholics can hear a fairly broad amount of scripture in a few years' time. Not every Bible verse is covered by the lectionary, but a surprisingly comprehensive reading can be achieved by the daily Mass-goer.
Another practical reason for lectionaries is that they save time: The preacher doesn't have to scramble looking for passages on forgiveness for every Rite of Reconciliation, for example. Finally, it keeps preachers honest: They can't default to their favorite themes but must treat scripture in its fullness.
Lectionaries have existed in one form or another since Christianity's Jewish roots in the synagogue. These tools have proven the test of time.
Nehemiah 8:1-12; Psalm 119; Luke 4:16-21; Hebrews 4:12; James 1:19-21
The New American Bible organized by daily lectionary readings
Journeying with Mark (also available for Matthew and Luke) by Jennifer Christ (Paulist Press, 2005)
God's Word Is Alive: Reflections on the Lectionary Readings by Alice Camille (ACTA Publications, 2007)
The testimony of eyewitnesses, not necessarily apostles, was valued in compiling the Christian record. It becomes tricky, though, because New Testament materials weren't definitively selected until the 4th century. That's a long way from the generation of eyewitnesses and required sifting through hearsay, because many texts were not initially attributed to anyone. Authorship, therefore, was not as important as authority. Who wrote the testimony wasn't as critical as who was discerned as the original source.
Take Mark. His name didn't appear in the gospel later attributed to him. And who is "Mark" anyway? Not one of the 12 apostles. Paul had a companion John Mark mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles and several letters. Another Mark is described as close to Peter in the First Letter of Peter. It's possible this is the same person, in which case his testimony derives from an eyewitness and another early source.
Matthew's gospel followed, employing Mark heavily (55 percent of Matthew comes from Mark) and sharing another unknown source (25 percent) with Luke. But who combined these sources with additional material for the final version is uncertain. The apostle Matthew, a.k.a Levi the tax collector, is unlikely. Why would an apostle copy from a non-eyewitness rather than write from memory? Also, this gospel is quite rabbinical in style. A former rabbi or scribe was most likely the final compiler. He may have taken the unique material (20 percent) from sayings attributed to the apostle Matthew.
Luke borrowed from Mark (over 40 percent) and shared material with Matthew. But 35 percent of Luke came from somewhere else. The biblical Luke was a Syrian physician converted by Paul, so at best his story comes to us thirdhand. Even Paul was not a first-generation apostle. Scholars are divided as to whether this Luke was responsible for both Luke and Acts; the arguments are intriguing either way.
Few would attribute the last gospel directly to John, son of Zebedee. It was written very late in the 1st century, when the apostles might be presumed dead. Its authorship could be traced to a community taught by the apostle, or by another well-known Christian teacher named John in Asia Minor at the same time. Many scholars attribute the gospel and letters of John to a group rather than an individual. Ninety percent of this material is unique to the fourth gospel.
• Mark 1:1; Luke 1:1-4; John 21:20-25; Acts 1:1-2; Acts 12:12; Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11; 1 Peter 5:13
• “Who really wrote the gospels, and why should we care?” by Felix Just, S.J.
• Four Portraits of Jesus: Studies in the Gospels and Their Old Testament Background by Elizabeth E. Platt (Paulist Press, 2004)
• The What Are They Saying About . . . series: WATSA Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John by various authors (Paulist Press)
Salvation is the one big idea in the Bible. Without it you’ve got just another large dusty book from antiquity. Salvation history traces the pattern of events in human history that reveal God’s saving plan. The “Reader’s Digest” version would be something like this: God’s covenant with Abraham; Israel’s deliverance from Egypt; the giving of the Law to Moses; Israel's entry into the Promised Land; the monarchy of King David; and the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Salvation history culminates in the New Creation awaiting us at the end of time.
What we mean by salvation is another matter. The Hebrew term for it denotes “to make wide or sufficient.” Unrestricted passage is the result: liberation from obstacle or impediment. Sin constricts human possibilities and God makes them wide and free again. When we say “our God is the God who saves,” we’re saying human liberation in a sinful world is only possible through divine intervention.
Early saving events in scripture are mostly military or political. Above all they’re physical: God saves folks from tangible dangers. That sets up the expectation that the God who delivered us yesterday will rescue us tomorrow, if need be. Salvation is not a dead fact but a living proposition. In time, biblical salvation takes on a spiritual aspect as well. We need saving not only from national enemies and seraph serpents but from the consequences of our own choices. Salvation comes to imply the rescue of the whole person, body and spirit. Ultimately, what we need is to be ransomed from death—so God extends the divine rescue all the way to the tomb.
Theologians say salvation is from something and for something. We’re saved from sin and death and for eternal life with God. The opposite of being rescued, of course, is drowning, perishing, being lost. In the wilderness of human choices leading in all directions, we can appreciate how we might wander so far that the only hope of rescue is a helicopter from above dangling its rope ladder over our heads. God’s saving power arrives in human history not unlike that helicopter. Once we understand that, it’s easy to see that all of human history is salvation history—even the parts that never made it into the Bible.
• Psalm 51; Isaiah 65:17-25; Jeremiah 17:14; 31:31-34; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Luke 1:68-79; 9:24; John 3:16-21; Acts. 16:30-31; 1 Thessalonians 5:8-10
• Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), November 21, 1964
• “The Nature of Our Salvation in Christ: Salvation as Participation and Divinisation” by Damien Casey
• What Are They Saying About the Universal Salvific Will of God? by Josephine Lombardi (Paulist Press, 2008)
• Salvation Is from the Jews (John 4:22): Saving Grace in Judaism and Messianic Hope in Christianity by Aaron Milavec (Liturgical Press, 2007)
Ah, here's a word we should be asking about! Discipleship means "student," from the Latin discipulus. But that's deceptive: Today's student doesn't have to crack a book to qualify-just show up. That never would have flown in ancient times, when disciples lived with their teachers night and day and imitated their actions as well as listening to their words.
Discipleship has a wonderful evolving meaning between the two Testaments. Originally it described Israel's relationship with God. The Lord was the nation's ultimate teacher through the instructive power of the Law. The psalms frequently record Israel's pleading: "O Lord, teach me your ways!" Because God dwelt in the midst of the nation in the Jerusalem Temple, the people did share quarters with their Teacher.
Later, the prophets had protégés of their own: Elijah with Elisha or the school that added to Isaiah's writings. The sages of the later Wisdom tradition rooted instead for the domestic school: fathers teaching sons and mothers daughters. The Wisdom Woman, a personification of divine wisdom in Proverbs and the Book of Wisdom, called disciples to herself as well.
A natural progression existed between the roles of student and instructor. Disciples lived with their teachers until they were ready to become rabbis or prophets themselves. So it was startling when Jesus came along and made permanent disciples of his followers. "You have only one teacher and father in heaven," he told them. (Saint Paul later rejected the idea that Christians could "belong to" anyone but Jesus.) That harked back to the early design of God being the nation's sole instructor.
Another distinguishing feature of Jesus' disciples is that he chose them, not the other way around. Jewish disciples generally picked their own rabbis, as you might choose a college or major for yourself today.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Jesus' invitation to discipleship was that it took place in the ordinary context of life-a fisherman's workday-not in a religious setting like the Temple. It required an immediate response. Discipleship then deepened "along the way" with Jesus, as the past with its possessions and priorities were gradually relinquished in favor of a radically new life.
Deuteronomy 4:1; Psalm 25:4-5; Proverbs 1:20-33; Ecclesiastes 12:9; Isaiah 2:3; 48:17-19; Matthew 4:18-22; 23:8-9; Mark 8:34; Luke 10:1-20; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17
To Live in Christ: Discipleship, by Robert Fabing, S.J. (Paulist Press)
Can You Drink the Cup? by Henri Nouwen (Ave Maria Press)
This question is a little like asking, "To whom must I listen: my mother or my father?" For those who view scripture and tradition to be separate—or even in opposition, the answer may be surprising. “Sacred tradition, sacred scripture, and the teaching authority of the church,” says Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s document on divine revelation, “are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others.”
Let me ask the question in another way: Which came first, scripture or tradition? Our impulse is to answer, "Scripture, of course!" But in reality, tradition did. Where did scripture come from, after all? Centuries of prophets, sages, and evangelists wrote down the community's experience of God as it unfolded through revelation, ritual, and history. Lots of things got recorded, many of which are not included in our Bible today.
Which brings us to the second level of tradition: Some group of people had to sift through piles of traditions to determine which would be included in the "canon" of scripture (authoritative texts) and which would not be binding on the community for the future. Jewish teachers made that determination for the documents known as the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. A later group of Christian leaders made that decision for what would become the New Testament. As Dei Verbum puts it, “Through . . . tradition the church's full canon of the sacred books is known.”
So in a nutshell, teachings became traditions and were later selected by leaders whose authority itself was determined by tradition. These leaders in turn shaped the scriptures we have today. In the most meaningful sense, then, scripture is the very heart of tradition.
To separate scripture from tradition as if they were alien concepts is to misunderstand the origin of scripture. If the Bible had dropped from the sky as is, cover to cover, you could talk about scripture as your sole authority. But without tradition, there would be no scripture, and the reading of scripture itself has contributed to ongoing development of tradition.
Luke 4:16-21; John 1:1-5, 14; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21; Hebrews 1:1-3; 4:12
The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) of the Second Vatican Council
Scripture in the Tradition: Milestones in Catholic Theology by Henri de Lubac (Crossroad)
I hesitate to stamp Bible-reading as an obligation. We resist things that oblige us to do something, whether it's brushing our teeth or paying taxes. So let me speak not only as a catechist but also as a 30-year Bible-reading Catholic: Don't do it because you have to. Do it because it's the most wonderful choice you can make for your life!
This will come as a relief to new Bible readers: If you attend Mass regularly, you're more familiar with the Bible than you imagine. The lectionary—the book of readings used at Mass—covers a cross section of passages from the Old and New Testaments. So even though the stereotype claims that Protestants know their Bibles and Catholics don't, active Catholics may have a more comprehensive appreciation of scripture than some fellow Christians, who tend to focus on specific sections according to their denomination's (or pastor's) inclinations.
As far as personal reading goes, the idea of opening to Genesis, page one, is probably what makes many people shrink from the idea. You don't have to read scripture cover-to-cover (though kamikaze readers like me may enjoy the challenge). Some folks will appreciate support for the journey: Many parishes now sponsor Bible study or faith-sharing groups precisely for that reason. If private meditation works better for you, consider subscribing to a scripture journal that offers a daily guide through selected material.
You may also want to take baby steps in: There are page-a-day books geared to the five-minute reflection approach that provide a great introduction for beginners. It's like taking a swim class: Sign up at the level that suits your present skill and go from there. No one expects you to dive in at the deep end!
The Bible is the Mt. Everest of books; you won't conquer it at once, and it will take training to reach the exotic parts, like Maccabees or the Book of Revelation. But within a year you'll be surprised how much more comfortable and fit for the journey you are. Start today. "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4).
Lectionary based: "Exploring the Sunday Readings" (Twenty-Third Publications)
Examines one book per issue: God's Word Today journal (Twenty-Third Publications)
Explorations by themes: Threshold Bible Study
A page-a-day, geared to the current year: A Book of Grace-Filled Days (Loyola Press)
CatholicsRead program: Bible study and resources from the Catholic Book Publishers Association, www.catholicsread.org/.
God's Word Is Alive by Alice Camille (Chicago, ACTA Publications, 2007)
A timely question, give that some folks have been predicting the coming of Judgment Day, a.k.a the Apocalypse or End of the Word, lately. That is nothing new of course.
Hebrew prophets warned of the “day of the Lord, the great and terrible day” (Joel 3:4) as early as the 8th century B.C. Jesus didn’t deny the reality of a final reckoning. The gospel evangelists detail several end-time scenarios. Saint Paul certainly anticipated that Jesus would come again and put an end to the world’s nonsense and infamy. Later epistle writers continued to predict an expiration date for human history that included a final evaluation, and the last book in the Christian Bible, Revelation or the Apocalypse, is a long meditation on how good and evil will be ultimately discerned and treated accordingly.
The first thing to remember: No one can anticipate future events, Jesus said, because even he was not given the knowledge of the day or the hour of judgment (Matthew 24:36). So that settles all present and future debates for Christians. Anyone who claims to know the day is kidding themselves or swindling the rest of us.
The second biblical point is that the primary purpose of the Day of the Lord seems to be judgment, not destruction: God will one day hold humanity in general and Israel in particular accountable for its actions. By Israel the prophets referred originally to the community of Israelites, not the modern nation. The New Testament, however, speaks of a New Jerusalem and a “reconstituted Israel,” as biblical scholars put it, composed of all who believe in the true God, whether Jew or Gentile. Destruction is only part of divine judgment to the extent that our actions warrant it or draw it down.
Another part of judgment is that some of us, presumably, will benefit from this process. The “sheep,” as they’re known in the Gospel of Matthew, will actually have a good day on the Day of the Lord because they will find themselves justified and rewarded rather than condemned.
That brings us to the most important idea to keep in mind about Judgment Day: Those who are doing what they should be doing now have nothing to fear later. Matthew provides the J. D. checklist: feed the hungry, give the thirsty water, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned (see Matthew 25:31-46). The church supplies a handy list of “things to do while waiting for the end-times,” known as spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
• Isaiah 2:4, 11; 13:9-13; Joel 2:1-14; 3; Amos 5:18-20; 8:9-12; the Book of Zephaniah; Malachi 3:19-24; Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 17:24-37; 1 Corinthians 1:8; 3:10-15; Philippians 1:6, 10; 2:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; 2 Peter 3; the Book of Revelation
• “An Introduction to the Interpretation of Apocalyptic Literature” © by John W. Carter
• What Are They Saying About New Testament Apocalyptic? by Scott M. Lewis (Paulist Press, 2004)
• What Are They Saying About Paul and the End of Time? by Joseph Plevnik (Paulist Press, 2009)
The short answer: certainly not all of them. The identity of the composers of the entire Psalter, like most other questions of biblical authorship, is complex and possibly unknowable. Some 73 of the 150 psalms claim David’s authorship; a few of them are more likely to be by the historical king than others, in the view of most scholars. The Book of Psalms we have today is a compilation reflecting generations of liturgical songwriting—much like the centuries-long contributions to the hymnals we use at Mass today.
Let’s start with David. Was he a composer of psalms at all? The Bible tells us he was a shepherd, soldier, lover, and skilled player of stringed instruments. Not every musician writes their own music but in the cycle of stories about David (1 Samuel 16 through 1 Kings 2:11) he does chant a few songs: an elegy on the deaths of his troubled King Saul and friend Jonathan and another for his general Abner. Psalm 18 is also inserted into the text of 2 Samuel and attributed as “sung” by David.
We also know David danced freely and showed great interest in liturgical matters like the return of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and building a suitable Temple for the Lord. It’s conceivable that a man of his talents and interests might have written hymns for ritual use or at least commissioned some to be written. David’s patronage may have been enough to render him the godfather of the Book of Psalms.
Our present Book of Psalms has five divisions: Psalms 1-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90-106; and 107-150. The deliberate way these divisions and their ending doxologies parallel the five books of Moses makes scholars suspect they were imposed later when those books became available after the Babylonian exile; that includes the “footnote” after Psalm 72 that states: “The prayers of David ben Jesse are ended.”
Similarly, subtitles were later added to many psalms linking each one to an event in David’s life: Psalms 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 56-57, 59, 60, 63, and 142. Scholars view these subheadings as having little historical value. (If you’ve seen ABBA’s Mama Mia! or Across the Universe done with Beatles' tunes, you know that any group of songs can be arranged into a story with a bit of creativity.) Dating the psalms has proven rather hopeless. Psalm 29 may be the oldest, predating the monarchy of Israel. Others may be as late as the post-exilic period 500 years later.
• “From Lamentation to Jubilation: Praying the Psalms in Daily Life” by Jane Redmont
• “Praying the Psalms” by Lawrence S. Cunningham
• Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness by Nan C. Merrill (Continuum, 2007)
• Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit, 2nd ed., by Walter Brueggemann (Cascade Books, 2007)
Story is to be read as story: a narrative that seeks to tell us something. Ancient storytellers didn’t share our modern preference for the historical event: Truth remains true whether it occurred in time or not. It’s a mark of our mortal self-absorption that we’re partial to what happens in history and reluctant to contemplate what belongs to eternity. The Genesis writers were collectors and arrangers of stories already being told in the oral tradition of Israel. They didn’t erase the seams of their sources but allowed them to stand side by side to enhance understanding through the appreciation of truth’s complexity. We see traces of these collections in the discrepancies, repetitions, and variant points of view. Here are a few of the truths these storytellers hoped to assert and preserve:
1. God is the ultimate source of everything, and therefore God alone is to be worshipped.
2. The sad history of humanity is that we steadily refuse to worship God alone.
3. God’s word is an event: When God speaks, things happen.
4. Humanity is also given the task of naming reality and sharing in dominion over reality.
5. God creates the world by establishing order out of confusion—literally cosmos from chaos in the Greek rendering. God calls this original order “good” and “right.”
6. Sin contradicts the divine will. It’s the choice we make for chaos that is neither good nor right.
7. Our freedom to choose makes us “like parent, like child.” It’s the basis of our relationship with God and lifts us above all other creatures.
8. Our choice against God’s will leads to the alienation from God that is the burden of sin. We carry this burden through history until God fully restores our relationship.
It would be pretty hard to get more truth from a story than that!
• "God's Beloved Creation" by Elizabeth Johnson (America 184 no. 13:8-12)
• “Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation,” message of Pope John Paul II for the World Day of Peace, 1990,
• Collegeville Bible Commentary Old Testament Volume 2: Genesis by Pauline A. Viviano (Liturgical Press, 1985)
• Genesis: A Commentary for Students, Teachers, and Preachers by John J. Scullion (Liturgical Press, 1992)
• And God Said What? An Introduction to Biblical Literary Forms by Margaret Nutting Ralph (Paulist Press, 2003)