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Why would a global pandemic happen? Is God doing this?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 13, May 2020 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Scripture
COVID mask
The crucifixion testifies that God isn’t “doing this”: God is suffering this with us.

This question was raised, sheepishly, by a friend who considers herself a progressive-thinking Catholic. She doesn’t imagine God as a big punishing dude on a throne, exacting vengeance for humanity’s crimes—which are considerable, when you think about it. She’s been thinking about it: counting ways that maybe we “deserve” a global reckoning. We destroy rainforests, fill oceans with floating continents of plastic, poison the soil, make the air unbreathable, contaminate freshwater with hazardous waste. We torture Creation to make a buck, while the gap between rich and poor widens. Honestly: why wouldn’t God “do this”?

It’s not a stupid question. It’s an ancient biblical question: is human suffering a measure of divine wrath? Is God “pleased to crush us with infirmity,” to restore balance to a celestial justice we’ve disregarded?

The biblical character of God does seem to exact justice by means of catastrophe: The expulsion of humanity from Eden. The great flood in Noah’s time. The ten plagues visited on Egypt. Israel’s trials in the desert due to relentless ingratitude. Babylonian exile. Sequential occupations by Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Egypt, Greece, Rome. The death of Jesus “for the sins of the world” can be viewed as ringing evidence that God expects satisfaction for offenses against divine justice. From this perspective, human suffering is the currency in which God is to be paid.

Some routinely see God’s wrath expressed in famine, war, and disease, as when half of Europe’s population died in the Black Death, or the 1918-1920 Spanish flu infected one in three people worldwide. AIDS has claimed 35 million lives and counting, causing some to point to divine judgment. Yet at least once a century, flu season results in a million deaths. The odds of getting cancer across a lifetime are roughly one in two for men, one in three for women.

The biblical story of Job objects to drawing clean lines between human guilt and periods of devastation. Job is just; why would God punish him? The book argues that the why of suffering is a mystery best left to God. The more meaning-laden question may be: when suffering comes, what will we make of it? Jesus refused to blame a blind man or his parents for this misfortune. The crucifixion testifies that God isn’t “doing this”: God is suffering this with us. The cross invites us to take all our pain and to consecrate it to God’s benevolent purposes. God redeems human misery and, indeed, saves the world. That’s a promise.

Scriptures: Genesis 3:1-24; 6:5-13; Exodus 7:14-11:10; Deuteronomy 11:26-32; Jeremiah 15:1-4; Isaiah 53:4-12; Book of Job; John 1:1-14; 9:1-40

Books: Job - Study Set, by Kathleen O’Connor, (Liturgical Press, 2012); Through the Dark Field: The Incarnation Through an Aesthetics of Vulnerability, by Susie Paulik Babka (Liturgical Press, 2017)

Is Jesus the Messiah?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 03, July 2019 Categories: Scripture
Jesus the Messiah
Isaiah upgrades salvation to universal dimensions: all nations have a stake in the coming Messiah.

The word MessiahHebrew for “anointed”—has a complex history. Between Messiah and Christ—Greek for “anointed”—lies a thousand years of evolving expectations. Best to review those before addressing the age-old Christian query: Why don’t Jews, reading the same ancient texts, accept Jesus as “Messiah”?

Scholar Raymond E. Brown cautions that messiahs aren’t the only saviors in Israel’s history. Moses, the judges, Nehemiah and Ezra, even young Queen Esther are identified as savior figures. Anyone divinely appointed for the work of rescue is a savior. Israel’s in need of frequent rescue, so the Bible contains a lot of saviors.

The gallery of saviors gains new candidates in the era of kings. Anointed to lead at God’s command, Judah’s kings are messiahs in a nationalistic sense. They don’t save the world; and they only keep the nation safe for their particular generation. Contrast them with the kings of northern Israel, who are viewed more skeptically. Then recall that southern Judah writes the Bible. 

Messianic kingship reaches its height with Judah’s second king, David. His line is endowed with an everlasting, rollover anointing. The salvation coming from David’s house, however, doesn’t extend to the afterlife. Nor is it universal. Davidic kings won’t “save the world”: they’ll keep Judah safe. The problem is, they don’t. Soon after David, Judah is ruled by a string of monarchs who disregard God’s guidance. Two centuries in, the prophet Isaiah views his king Ahaz as gone totally off the rails. 

Isaiah reboots messianic hope. While linked to David’s line, the Messiah will be loyal to God and establish justice and peace. Eden-like conditions will be restored. Isaiah upgrades salvation to universal dimensions: all nations have a stake in the coming Messiah. The prophecy adds a sober note: this Messiah will come in humility and go the way of suffering. Other prophets embrace Isaiah’s vision. 

Messianism undergoes a third overhaul after Babylonian exile and the monarchy’s extinction. Without kings, can there be a Messiah? Biblical history has a big hole in it between the 5th and 1st centuries B.C. By the time of the gospels, it’s clear that anyone still dreaming of a Messiah wants to see David’s kingdom restored and a better world for Israel ensured. Jesus reaches back into prophecy, embracing the image of a suffering servant who saves much more than a precarious political situation. That’s a Messiah few were waiting for, and perhaps few find attractive today.

Scripture: Genesis 49:9-12; 2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89:20-38; Isaiah 7:10-17; 9:1-6; 11:1-9; 52:13—53:12; Zechariah 9:9-10; Mark 8:27-30; Matthew 2:1-6; John 7:25-31, 40-52

Books: Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus, by Richard Horsely with John Hanson (Harper & Row, 1985)

The Death of the Messiah, From Gethsemane to the Grave, by Raymond E. Brown (Yale University Press, 1998)

What are beatitudes, and why are they so important?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 15, June 2019 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Scripture
Beatitudes are assurances that we’re on the right track.

The simplest understanding of beatitudes is that they’re a form of congratulations. If words were awards, beatitudes would be blue ribbons. Most people associate this term with THE Beatitudes, the famous blessing lines of Jesus—“blessed are the peacemakers,” etc.—delivered at the Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew’s gospel) or on the Plain (in Luke’s account). But beatitudes are found in the Old Testament also, in psalms and wisdom writings. Apart from the sermons, other New Testament beatitudes appear in John’s gospel, letters of James and Peter, and even the Book of Revelation.

To appreciate how beatitudes operate, we might compare them with commandments. The well-known Commandments in the Decalogue tell us bluntly which actions to take or evils to avoid. Commandments speak in imperatives (“Honor your father and mother”) or issue orders (“You shall not kill”), and their sole justification is in the authority of the God who set them in stone. Only incidentally may commandments offer a rationale for keeping them. For example, we’re told to honor our parents so that we may have a long life in the land up ahead. This stick-and carrot approach is not to be misread: promised land or not, the mandate to respect elders still stands.

By contrast, beatitudes are assurances that we’re on the right track. They don’t instruct so much as highlight the reward of certain behaviors. As Sirach extols the happiness of a husband with a good wife, he reminds us why it’s great to choose the right mate: “A loyal wife brings joy to her husband, and he will finish his years in peace.” Before we frown at the lack of reciprocity, please note that Ben Sira, author of these instructions, ran a boys’ school and had no reason to describe the joy of wives who choose the right guy—not that many had the option. Beatitudes recall that keeping the Sabbath doesn’t just make God happy; who doesn’t want a day off?

The two most famous lists of beatitudes aren’t identical. Matthew includes nine attitudes that lead to happiness: things like poverty of spirit, a hunger for justice, meekness. In contrast, Luke speaks of real poverty, actual hunger, public humiliation in his list of four blessings, and balances that list with four corresponding woes, or old-world curses. They warn us that choosing vice over virtue leads to misery on the far side of that decision.

Scripture: Exodus 20:1-17; Pss 1:1; 41:1-4; 65:5; 84:5; 106:3; 112:1; Sirach 25:8-9; 26:1; Isaiah 56:2; Matthew 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-26; John 13:17; James 1:12; 1 Peter 3:14; Revelation 16:15

Books: Blessings for Leaders: Leadership Wisdom from the Beatitudes, by Dan Ebener (Liturgical Press, 2012)

What’s So Blessed About Being Poor? Seeking the Gospel in the Slums of Kenya, by L. Susan Slavin and Coralis Salvador (Orbis Books, 2012)

What’s the difference between a psalm and a canticle?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 08, December 2018 Categories: Scripture
Book of Psalms
King David, traditionally considered the author of the whole book of psalms, is internally attributed with at least 73 of them.

Our term psalm comes from a Greek word literally meaning the twanging of a harp or plucking of a stringed instrument. Canticle derives from the Latin word for a little song. As both definitions suggest, we’re talking about sung material, particularly sacred songs. The main difference between the two is not style, but placement. Psalms are found entirely within the Book of Psalms. Canticles are songs located anywhere else in Scripture.

The psalm collection, known as psalmody or the Psalter, contains musical directions that indicate at least a third of the 150 poems within the book were intended for stringed, flute, or harp accompaniment. Some were apparently set to music everyone knew: read notations like “the hind of the dawn” the way our hymns might recommend “Finlandia” or “Pange Lingua”. The word selah appears 71 times in the collection. We don’t know what it means, but the choir certainly would have. Internally, some psalms also carry subtitles that distinguish them as songs, hymns, or prayers. This doesn’t imply the others are not songs or prayers. It’s just that these entered the collection with these titles, the way “The Lord’s Prayer” is obviously not the only prayer of Jesus included in the gospels. In the Jewish Bible, the entire collection we call psalms is known by the Hebrew word for hymns. The bottom line is there’s no indication any of these poems were intended merely for recitation, as we often do.

King David, traditionally considered the author of the whole book of psalms, is internally attributed with at least 73 of them. (Other manuscripts ascribe 84 to David). The others bear the names of other composers. Biblical evidence suggests David was a poet, composer, and musician, not to mention the organizer of the liturgical cult of the Temple. If he didn’t actually compose half of the Psalmody, he was its primary original sponsor.

Canticles have a broad authorship. Song of Songs, AKA Canticle of Canticles, was traditionally ascribed to King Solomon. The subject matter is a series of love songs, which suited Solomon’s reputation as a renowned lover. However, most scholars see multiple and later author involvement. Important Old Testament canticles include those attributed to Miriam, Moses, Deborah, Hannah, and Judith. New Testament canticles include the Benedictus of Zechariah, the Nunc Dimittis of Simeon, and of course the Magnificat of Mary. More recent canticles include those of Francis of Assisi and John of the Cross.

Scripture: Exodus 15:1-21; Deuteronomy 32:1-44; Judges 5:1-31; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Judith 16:1-17; Song of Songs; Luke 1:46-55, 67-79; 2:29-32

Books: Psalms: Songs From a Pierced Heart, by Patricia Stevenson, RSJ (Sisters of St. Joseph, 2012)

Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness, by Nan Merrill (Continuum, 2008)

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Who were the women at the cross?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 03, August 2016 Categories: Scripture,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Church History

Who were the women at the cross?

The women who were present at the crucifixion of Jesus are an intriguing mystery. Several were named Mary. In the shared tradition of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, the women don’t approach the cross. They stand "at a distance," probably for the usual reasons: Women tried to be invisible in public. And they would have reason to fear their treatment by Roman soldiers.

Mark, who writes first, doesn’t give us a precise number of how many women looked on from a distance. He names only three: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome. While not an original disciple, Mark offers an account reputed to be from Peter. Only John's late gospel records specifically the presence of Mary, mother of Jesus. All the women there, according to Mark, had been with Jesus since Galilee.

The names James and Joses provide a clue about one of the Marys at the cross. These men are mentioned elsewhere in Mark among four "brothers of Jesus"—possibly cousins of some degree. This makes their mother an “aunt” of Jesus, present to comfort his mother. Mary may have been a family name, the way I have four relatives named Paul. John’s account lists a Mary identified by her husband Clopas rather than by sons. Both Marys could be the same person.

Like Mark, Matthew references four brothers/cousins of Jesus: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. In Hebrew, "Joseph" and "Joses" are the same name. At the crucifixion, Matthew mentions James and Joseph as sons of a certain Mary. Matthew verifies the presence of Mary Magdalene and also the mother of Zebedee’s sons James and John. To harmonize Mark and Matthew’s narratives, Mark’s Salome is often identified as Zebedee’s wife.

In Luke’s crucifixion story, the Galilean women are described among "acquaintances" of Jesus standing at a distance. None are named. 

John locates the women directly at the foot of the cross. His list includes the mother of Jesus, his mother's sister, Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Without punctuation in the Greek, however, it’s not clear whether Mary wife of Clopas IS the sister of Jesus' mother, or two separate women. John says Jesus gives his mother into the care of a beloved disciple. Tradition claims this is John, making him the lone male disciple present. Other scholars identify Mary Magdalene as the beloved disciple who took Mary home, since only women are known to have remained near the cross.

Scripture: Mark 6:3; 15:40-41; 16:1; Matthew 13:55; 27:55-56; 28:1; Luke 23:48-49, 55-56; 24:1-11; John 19:25-27; 20:1

Sources: The Characters of the Crucifixion – Joseph Fichtner, OSC (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000); The Passion and Death of Jesus (DVD and audio CDs)– Raymond Brown (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press/ Ewloe Clwyd, Wales: Welcome Recordings, 2015)

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Is the Bible infallible?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 03, August 2016 Categories: Scripture,Doctrines & Beliefs
Is the Bible infallible?
Biblical truth is sometimes a matter of historical record, but always a matter of revelation.

The reliability of Scripture is an important issue. Let’s start with a basic Catholic position: The Bible is true. And some of it really happened. In other words, our understanding of Scripture has to address not only whether it’s true but how it’s true. Biblical truth is sometimes a matter of historical record, but always a matter of revelation. These texts were produced to impart the lived tradition of believers. If you trust in the God of Israel and commit to the way of Jesus, the Bible is a primary means of exploring the truths of your faith.

Does this imply that the Bible contains no mistakes? Obviously, ahistorical sections won’t necessarily square with “the facts” as we appreciate them archaeologically. Plus the Bible’s pre-scientific origins frequently betray a sense of the world we moderns flatly reject. The ancients’ lack of concern with historical method and complete innocence of scientific principles place sacred texts like Scripture in the category of mythos, or “higher truth.” This creates a dilemma for modern folk, who rely on science to “tell us the truth” about reality. Our ancestors used storytelling to convey what’s genuine and reliable.

Should we expect discrepancies between the cultural and scientific sophistication of writers who lived 2,500 years ago and today? Absolutely! Nonetheless, antique perceptions of the world don’t jeopardize the sacred writers’ transformative revelation: that God is creator, redeemer, and sanctifier of us all.

Vatican II explained the Bible’s validity in this way: "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, 11). This careful statement underscores that the truth we need for our ultimate rescue from sin and death is entirely and safely transmitted by these sacred stories.

Catholics view Scripture as a collaboration between inspired authors and the Holy Spirit. Wherever human beings are involved, naturally, human limitation can’t be far behind. Early church fathers such as Origen and Augustine accepted biblical inaccuracies and literary exaggerations as a natural feature of God’s full partnership with the sacred authors. Thomas Aquinas accepted “something imperfect” in any prophetic work for the same reason. Acknowledging pre-scientific miscalls and literary license is a far cry from insisting the Bible must either be inerrant or bogus. For believers, truth is bigger than history or science.

Scripture: Baruch 3:36-37;John 1:1-3, 14; 14:6; 20:30-31; Romans 1:19-20;2 Corinthians 4:6; Ephesians 1:9-10; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 1:1-2; 2 Peter 1:19-21; 3:15-16

Books: The Inspiration and Truth of Sacred Scripture – Pontifical Biblical Commission (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014); Biblical Fundamentalism: What Every Catholic Should Know – Ronald Witherup, PSS (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001)

Where is Moses buried?

Posted by: Jennifer Tomshack   🕔 Tuesday 20, October 2015 Categories: Scripture,Church History
Serpentine Cross on Mount Nebo in Jordan
The Serpentine Cross on Mount Nebo in Jordan.

According to the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ journey from Egypt to the Promised Land ended just short of him entering it—on Mount Nebo in what was then called Moab and what is today modern Jordan. The Israelites—so close to their final destination—camped “in the valley near Beth-peor” (Deuteronomy 3:29), a small lush area northeast of Mount Nebo that is known today as Ayun Musa (“Springs of Moses”).

God told Moses that he would not cross the Jordan with his people and commanded him to go to the top of Mount Nebo—which overlooks the Dead Sea, the Jordan River valley, and Jericho—to view the land of Israel. (Today, on a clear day, Jerusalem is visible from Mount Nebo’s promontory.) Moses died and was buried in the vicinity, but even at the time of the writing of Deuteronomy, the exact place of his tomb was unknown.

Joshua was anointed by Moses to be his successor. After Moses died, Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan and into the Promised Land. The crossing point has been identified as the ford directly opposite Jericho known as Bethabara, or Beit ‘Abarah (“House of the Crossing”).

Centuries later, according to 2 Maccabees, just before the Babylonian invasion of Israel, Jeremiah hid the Ark of the Covenant (the chest containing the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written) at Mount Nebo in a cave and sealed the entrance. The location of the lost Ark is, of course, a matter of great conjecture.

In the 4th century, Christians built a church at Mount Nebo that has been expanded into the large basilica there today, which houses a collection of Byzantine mosaics. Outside the sanctuary is the Serpentine Cross, which commemorates Christ’s crucifixion and the bronze serpent God instructed Moses to erect to stop a plague (all who looked upon the serpent were spared death).

Ancient Moab was the home of the Ammonites. Known as the Plains of Moab in the Old Testament and Peraea in the New Testament, it includes the lands east of the Jordan River and along the Dead Sea in the western part of modern Jordan, where today more than 100 biblical sites important to Jews and Christians have been identified and protected. Moab is where Jacob wrestled with an angel, where Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt, where Job suffered and was rewarded for his faith, and where Elijah ascended to heaven. And it is where Jesus was baptized by John.

In the 20th century, American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. prophetically referenced Moses gazing from Mount Nebo at the Promised Land he would never reach in King’s last speech before he was assassinated. The speech is popularly called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”

Scripture: Deuteronomy 3:27-29, 34:1-6; Joshua 1, 3; 2 Maccabees 2:4-8; Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14

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Mary's parents aren't mentioned in the Bible. How do we know their names?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 30, June 2015 Categories: Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Scripture
Joachim and Anne

You're right: the names of Mary's parents, like everything else said about Mary before the biblically related story of the Annunciation, belongs to the realm known as church tradition. Think of family stories narrated year in and year out until they're as much legend as they are history. It becomes hard to separate historical aspects from mythological ones. With such stories from family or church tradition, determining the strictly factual elements of the saga may miss the point of the telling. The truth of most stories is larger than history, and seeks a higher meaning.

Stories about Mary's parents satisfy our curiosity for "the rest of the story," or the familiar story from a fresh point of view. Think of modern stories like Ahab's Wife, that retells the classic Moby Dick from the perspective of one who awaits the vengeful captain onshore; or The Red Tent, that presents the biblical patriarch Jacob through the experience of his lesser-known wives. Extra-biblical writings like The Protevangelium of James and The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew are likewise attempts from later centuries to fill in the gaps regarding Mary's back-story. Where did this remarkable woman come from? How did she become the one known for all time as "full of grace"?

As the story goes, Joachim and Anne are as virtuous as they are childless, giving two-thirds of their resources to the temple and to the poor. They long for a child and pledge to give their offspring to the Lord if their prayers be answered.

After Joachim, from a priestly family, is denied the chance to bring his offering to the temple—his childlessness is ridiculed by the high priest as a sign of God's rejection—Joachim retires to the territory of shepherds in shame, afraid to return home. There he meets an angel who promises him the birth of a highly favored daughter and is urged to meet his wife at the golden gate of Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Anne at home receives a similar angelic messenger, and rushes to the gate to meet her husband. Their kiss at the gate is rendered in popular art of the Middle Ages.

Joachim and Anne keep their promise, delivering their daughter Mary into the service of the temple at the age of three. In this way we learn how Mary is prepared for her unique life of purity and grace.

Scripture: Matthew 1—2; Luke 1—2

Books: The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden, edited by Rutherford H. Platt (New York: Penguin Books, 1974); In Quest of the Jewish Mary by Mary C. Athans (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013)

What does Jesus have to say about family?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 06, January 2015 Categories: Scripture,Church History
Holy Family icon

Biblical family values sound similar to a 1950s American nuclear household setting. The creation story says that a man and woman leaves their parents in order to form a new unity. Yet "Honor your father and your mother" is the nucleus around which Hebrew tradition positioned its model of family dynamics. There's a certain tension in these ideals: how do we make a clean break with the original family while still living up to the obligation to honor those ties? Every modern marriage struggles to juggle these conflicting priorities.

The Mosaic tradition was built on a system that gave the eldest father, or patriarch, authority over the clan, including the power to bless or curse its members for the future. This gradually led to laws permitting divorce in circumstances of male displeasure with the union. Children had to obey their parents in terms described at length in the wisdom tradition: "Children, pay heed to a father's right; do so that you may live." The mother's influence isn't left out of the equation: "For a father's blessing gives a family firm roots, but a mother's curse uproots the growing plant." (Sir 3:1 and 9) Children had the responsibility to care for aging parents, but parents had the duty to discipline, instruct, and protect their children.

In between Moses and the later sages, the prophets showed less interest in family dynamics and more in social justice and fidelity to Israel's God. When Jesus began his teaching ministry 1200 years after Moses and a century or two after the wisdom sages, his emphasis seems rooted in prophetic concerns: the poor and the sick, the outcast and the sinner. When Jesus speaks of family, it's often to translate it into new terms. Jesus prefers to identify with the child rather than the way of the powerful patriarch. Mother and sister and brother are not primarily ties of blood but of loyalty to the word of God. The goodness parents show to children is a fraction of what God has for us. The teachings of Jesus won't necessarily strengthen families but will serve to tear many apart. In fact, following Jesus may involve choosing his way over the way of family altogether— an idea forcefully expressed as "hating" family. This family of faith is poignantly illustrated at the cross, where the disciple receives a new mother, and the mother a new child. The Jesus family isn't just a contradiction of ancient family patterns. It's a total transfiguration of the ideal.

Scriptures: Gen 2:24; Deut 5:16; Prov 31:10-31; Sir 3:1-16; 7:18-28; 26:1-18; 30:1-13; 42:9-14; Mk 9:36-37; Lk 8:19-21; 11:27-28; 12:49-53; 14:25-26; 18:29-30; Jn 19:26-27

Books: The Gospel of the Family - Cardinal Walter Kaspar (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2014)

A Christian Theology of Marriage and Family - Julia Rubio (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2003)

How do you figure Transfiguration?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 11, August 2014 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Scripture

This question engages Scripture scholars and casual gospel readers alike. The Transfiguration is easy enough to describe: Jesus the teacher and miracle worker is suddenly and visibly changed on a mountaintop. He is revealed to his three closest disciples as a heavenly-connected personality claimed by a celestial voice as the Beloved Son. Jewish scholars also note that the other two heavenly beings appearing with Jesus—Moses and Elijah—shared with Jesus special roles in the age to come because of their unique end-of-life celestial "translations". This event seems more like the metamorphoses of gods familiar to Greco-Roman mythology than the Jewish tradition, however. So what's it doing in the New Testament?

First thing to note: Gospel Greek deliberately avoids the term metamorphosis in this account, an attempt to sever any "pagan"
comparison. The brilliance of Jesus' face recalls the radiance of Moses after his mountaintop communication with the Divine. The enveloping cloud also echoes the Sinai experience, and Peter's suggestion of booths or tents evokes the Tent of Meeting where Moses later encountered the Holy Presence. The simultaneous appearance of Moses and Elijah, representatives of Law and Prophecy, serve as firm anchors to the Hebrew story. No reference outside the tradition is intended or necessary.

But what are we to take away from this event? Scholars offer three possibilities. One is that this event, first noted in Mark and later retold in Matthew and Luke, is Mark's misplaced resurrection story. Early versions of Mark did not include the resurrection narrative, so this story might have been intended to foreshadow the hope of Easter. The second idea is that this story is a theological reflection of the first-generation church: a symbolic way of reconstructing what Jesus meant to them—and to us. He is the New Moses, the ultimate Prophet, the Teacher-Messiah anticipated by both Moses and the prophets.

The third theory is that the Transfiguration is a private vision Peter had—perhaps on the feast of Tabernacles or Booths while reading the appropriate Scriptures—in which the truth about Jesus "came together" for him, before or even well after Easter. Both the gospels and the Second Letter of Peter suggest that Peter had a special understanding of this event that carried with him into anticipation of the Second Coming of Jesus. Saint Paul goes further to declare that we will ALL be transfigured if we keep our sights trained on Christ.


Scripture: Mk 9:1-13; Matt 17:1-13; Lk 9:28-36;Deut. 18:15; Exod. 24:15-16; 34: 29, 35; Lev. 23:42; 2 Kgs 2:11; 2 Cor 3:18; 2 Pet. 1:16-18; see also Jn 12:28-30

Books: Rooted in Detachment: Living the Transfiguration - Kenneth Stevenson (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007)

Seeing the Word: The Transfiguration (The Saint John's Bible series) - (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010)

What do we know about Saint Joseph?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 12, December 2013 Categories: Scripture,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Church History
ICON of the Holy Family.
Almost nothing; the New Testament pickings are slim. The Gospel of Mark eliminates Joseph from the story, beginning its narration in Jesus’ adulthood. John’s gospel mentions Joseph once in passing. Luke tells the infancy story from Mary’s perspective, making her the principal actor. The Gospel of Matthew alone highlights Joseph’s role in salvation history. It is here we meet Joseph the dreamer who, like his namesake in the Book of Genesis, learns heaven’s purposes for him while he sleeps.

We can fill in some blanks from what’s known about Jewish customs of the 1st century. Marriages were enacted as early as 13 for males, 12 for females. Nothing in the gospels betrays Joseph as an older man, a widower, or theologically better suited to be Mary’s chaste guardian than her husband. That the earliest gospel calls the adult Jesus “son of Mary” rather than Joseph, however, suggests his father was absent, dead, or suspect. This resonates with Mary known to be with child before the marriage, and/or that Joseph was dead by the time Jesus grew up. Luke and John prefer to call Jesus “son of Joseph,” restoring respect to his patrimony. Luke adds pointedly, “As was thought.” When the family of Jesus comes around during his ministry, his father is conspicuously absent.

Jesus is called a carpenter and carpenter’s son, which is how we know his father’s occupation. The last time Joseph makes an appearance in the story is when Jesus is 12 and goes missing in Jerusalem. Mary remains in the company of Jesus until the Crucifixion, when her care is transferred to the beloved disciple, confirming that Joseph is already dead.

In Matthew’s portrait we encounter Joseph the righteous man who, understandably, does not want to marry a woman who turns up pregnant without his participation. Of two possible legal solutions—exposure to violent punishment or quiet divorce by paperwork—Joseph chooses the gentler. Then heaven intervenes and gives him consequential second thoughts. He takes Mary into his home and gives her his full protection. That is an enormous concession to the divine will, especially given the church’s insistence on Mary’s perpetual virginity. We always want more from Joseph. He’s already given quite a lot.

Genesis 37:5-11; Matthew 1:18-25; 2:13-23; 13:55-56; Mark 6:3; Luke 1:26-27; ch. 2; 3:23; 4:22; John 6:42

The Life and Prayers of Saint Joseph by Wyatt North (Wyatt North Publishing, e-book)

The Mystery of Joseph
by Marie-Dominique Philippe, O.P. (Zaccheus Press)

What is the Roman Catholic view of work?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 23, January 2014 Categories: Mission & Evangelization,Scripture,Doctrines & Beliefs

Consider what we’re doing right now. You want to learn something. I need to earn something. What you learn and I earn in this exchange is good for both of us and by extension for our families and communities and our employers. It honors the dignity of the human need to grow and produce, contribute and participate. In that sense, God, who spent the first six days of the world working and who made us in the divine image, gives us the vocation of work as our contribution to the ongoing creation of the world.

CATHOLIC teaching supports the dignity and
well-being of workers, including their safety.
Credit: GRP Technique & Service, Dresden.

People often think of work as that dreaded something they have to do. The church teaches that work is a human right and also a duty. It’s good for individuals and good for society—that is, it serves the common good. Three conditions are imperative for the dignity of labor: that what is produced is not more important than the person producing it; that work contributes to the unity of society and doesn’t tear it down; and that workers have a say in what they’re doing and the conditions under which they do it.

If that sounds incompatible with certain present economic formulas, that's because it is, or can be. Here church social teaching meets and debates with the marketplace. Since the time of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter Rerum Novarum, Catholic social doctrine has emphasized that economies ruled strictly by supply-and-demand, exalting product-derived wealth over every other consideration, are not compatible with Christian principles. People have obligations to each other: to work hard and honestly and to make their best contribution to their employer, coworkers, and community.

At the same time, the employer has responsibilities, too: for workers’ safety and welfare, to pay a just wage which provides a fair living for employees and their families, and to permit the organization of unions. The state likewise owes the worker legal protections. Workers are not means to an end; rather, their dignity is the end, and that’s safeguarded only when their livelihood is.

Catholic social teaching rejects a pure market standard; insists on a living family wage; questions great compensation disparities between the highest and lowest salaries in an organization; challenges discrimination in hiring and wages; is concerned with workplace conditions; and addresses the right to nonsalary benefits like accessible health care. In Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical On Human Work, written on the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, he examines not only the dilemmas of the modern corporate world of work but also explores the spirituality of work as it enhances shared human life.

Genesis 1:27; 2:1-3; Deuteronomy 24:14-15; Psalm 62:11; Matthew 6:19-21, 24; 20:1-16; Luke 10:7; 12:16-21; 1 Timothy 5:18; 6:8-10, 17-19

On Human Work (Laborem Exercens) by Pope John Paul II

From the Heart of the Church: The Catholic Social Tradition by Sister Judith A. Merkle, S.S.N.deN. (Liturgical Press, 2004)
Spirituality@Work by Gregory F. Augustine Pierce (Loyola Press, 2005)

Does God get angry?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 01, April 2014 Categories: Scripture,Doctrines & Beliefs

Does God have emotions like ours? As God is the great Unseen, it's impossible to guess. What the Bible does reveal is that Jesus, the divine Son, enjoyed the full complement of human feelings while in our human midst. These included love and friendship, pain and fear, amusement and frustration, and certainly anger. The righteous anger of Jesus is demonstrated in several memorable events, like the cleansing of the Temple, the rebuke of Peter with the words "get behind me, Satan!", or the denunciation of the "whitewashed tombs" of the Pharisees and scribes whose religious example was largely hypocrisy.

The Bible does have a lot to say about what we popularly describe as the wrath of God. While it's easy to interpret that as divine outrage, it's properly understood as an expression of divine justice. Because we get even when we get mad, it's not instinctive for us to imagine that God is simply about the business of restoring justice by means of judgment. We're convinced God must be "punishing" us because he's really, really mad. In the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, God's wrath is directed sometimes at the enemies of God's people and sometimes at the people themselves—depending on who's in the wrong. Historical books like Joshua, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah hold plenty of examples of God's wrath, sometimes described as a future "day" when divine debts will be settled.

Job mentions God's wrath nine times; the psalms refer to it 25 times. The theme of divine wrath is developed most powerfully in the prophetic tradition, where it comes up 85 times. Even Isaiah, the prophet of soft themes like “Emmanuel” and the faithful servant, mentions God's wrath 17 times. Meanwhile Ezekiel, who never shrinks from wild expressions, brings up divine wrath 28 times.

Compare these numbers with the gospels, where God's wrath is mentioned exactly four times over four accounts—a dramatic reduction. While Pauline letters return to the wrath theme 15 times, many of those refer to judgment rendered to those who trust in the law, which they cannot hope to fulfill, rather than Christ, who bears the burden for us. Revelation, the big book of judgment, mentions divine wrath a relatively slender 13 times and restoration at least as often. The Wisdom tradition (Proverbs, Sirach, Wisdom) and later writings contain references to wrath, but it's often that of kings, criminals, and family members as much as of God. The biblical bottom line seems to be that God's anger is nothing to worry about. God's justice, however, is a much greater concern.

Exodus 32:10-12; 34:6-7; Joshua 22:20; 1 Samuel 28:18; Isaiah 63:3-6; Matthew 3:7; 16:21-23; 23:13-36; Luke 21:23; John 2:13-25; 3:36

A Faith That Frees: Catholic Matters for the 21st Century by Richard Malloy (Orbis Books)
A Worker Justice Reader, edited by Kim Bobo (Orbis Books)

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What’s the purpose of fasting?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 07, March 2014 Categories: Scripture,Doctrines & Beliefs

Religious Fasting
Survival requires us to eat and drink. When we refrain from these most basic activities, it reminds us that "we do not live by bread alone." Fasting provides you with an opportunity to affirm your faith in God's providential care. It's the most direct act of faith you can make.

Fasting as a spiritual practice falls into the category of sacrifice, which has a long biblical tradition. Ancient peoples gave over the first fruits of their harvests and the choicest animals of each herd in seasonal, ritual sacrifices to God. These were sometimes burned, sometimes consumed by the priests (who were landless and had no other source of income), and sometimes shared with the entire community in celebration of the abundance God provides. As in other acts of religious sacrifice, fasting takes something away: in this case, the prerogative to sustain yourself at will. Surrendering this freedom for a predetermined period of time fortifies humility and reminds you of your vulnerability and weakness.

Fasting stirs you to contemplate justice. Many in this world go without food routinely. How might you respond to their need with charity, in service, or by changing systems and choices?

Fasting motivates you to pray in a deeper, richer way. The spirit of humility and the call to almsgiving that self-denial initiates in you enhances your prayer. It removes the barriers of false pride and possessiveness that can diminish prayer or make it superficial. Fasting makes you ready to get real with God.

Nobody enjoys giving up the freedom to eat, even when it's a short-lived preparation for a medical procedure or a voluntary "cleanse" of the body. Because you don't want to do it, it's regarded as a penitential practice. It enables you to enter into solidarity with the sinner as well as your hungry sisters and brothers. Just as you're tempted to break the fast and eat, others are tempted to actions that are personally or communally destructive. Resistance is a symbolic resistance for the sake of those who are led into temptation.

Deuteronomy 8:3; 1 Samuel 7:6; 2 Samuel 1:12; Ezra 8:21; Joel 1:14; Jonah 3:5-10; Luke 4:3-4; Acts 9:9

Fasting by Carol Garibaldi Rogers (Sorin Books)
The Spirituality of Fasting: Rediscovering a Christian Practice
by Charles M Murphy (Ave Maria Press)

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What does the Bible say about discipleship?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 04, December 2008 Categories: Scripture

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)

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Why should I read the Bible?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 25, August 2008 Categories: Scripture

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).

Scripture periodicals
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,

God's Word Is Alive by Alice Camille (Chicago, ACTA Publications, 2007)

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