How to Read the Bible

My principal goal with this web page is to encourage myself and others to encounter Jesus in the liturgy through the Scriptures.  Finding him in Scripture, especially in the Gospel, leads us from a vague awareness of God to a lively, specific awareness of who Christ is and how he wants to transform our lives.  The danger is that we hear the Gospel read at Mass and it might as well have been in a foreign language, because we aren’t paying attention.

I have found writing these pages to be a practice helpful for opening myself to the word of Christ.  I hope they help you too.

Today I want to talk about some other little methods I have found helpful.  These might be helpful for priests who will preach on the Sunday Gospel—and also helpful for those in the pews who want to get more out of the Sunday Gospel than they can get from their priest’s homilies.

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Read the Sunday Gospel each day.  Make it part of your daily ritual.  My family tries (and often fails) to read the coming Sunday’s Gospel every day at the end of dinner.  You could also do it at breakfast or lunch, or before bed, or before you come from work in the evening—whenever.

Just read it.  A danger is that we are so caught up in our own concerns that we can’t hear Christ speaking.  I imagine it would be especially tempting for priests preparing homilies to jump ahead to their own concerns.  I tell my seminarians the liturgical gesture I most dislike is when the priest reads the Gospel, then shuts the book before preaching: “Enough of what he says—now for what I say!”  Instead, we need to open the book, read it without any agenda, let it speak to us before we begin to speak.

It may be helpful to read it out loud, just to slow yourself down a little.

With repetition, you notice details you hadn’t noticed before, funny little things you’d skipped past.  The message also begins to sink in, the seriousness of Christ’s word to you.  When you get to Sunday Mass, your ears are ready.

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Spend some time, maybe ten minutes, with a short passage, such as the Sunday Gospel.

Sandro Botticelli - The Virgin and Child (The Madonna of the Book) - Google Art Project.jpgIt’s good to read long passages too.  I recommend starting from page one, whether of the whole Bible or of the New Testament, and just reading it all, getting a sense of the whole.  Then do it again.  That’s very good.

But it’s good too to spend extended time with a short passage.  Even ten minutes is much more time than you usually spend with a paragraph.  Read it once.  Read it again.  Let a passage strike you, and sit with it a little, roll it over.  Then go back and read through again, and pull out another line.  Then move to another thing.

Don’t be systematic, just be determined to find out what it’s saying.

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There’s a method of Scripture reading (that’s all “lectio divina” means: reading the Bible) where you pick one word and stick with it.  That’s fine—but from homilies I hear, I think it’s often misused.

This isn’t random word association.  You don’t hear there was a lake, and that reminds you of fishing with your grandpa, and that reminds you of playing cards with your grandmother, so you meditate on “lake” and then think about what time at “the lake” meant for you as a kid.  To do that is precisely not to listen to Scripture.  Imagine tuning out like that when a friend is talking.

Instead, you should be looking for words that encapsulate the meaning of the passage.  To do that, it’s helpful to return to the passage, to move from word to word.  Again, you don’t want to close the book,  and dive into what you think.  You want to find what Jesus is saying.  That means looking at the book, again and again.

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Spas vsederzhitel sinay.jpgDig into the weird stuff.  If there’s a metaphor that seems strange, don’t gloss over it.  If there’s an idea that seems odd, or a funny word choice, think about that.  Jesus, and his holy writers, inspired by the Holy Spirit, choose their words deliberately.  They’re not always speaking literally, but they chose those words for a reason.  Be surprised.

To that end, I also recommend Bible software.  I love “e-sword” on my computer, and the “i-sword” app on my phone.  The most basic setting allows you to click on an English word and find the Greek or Hebrew behind it.  My Greek is okay, my Hebrew is non-existent.  But the point isn’t that you’re an expert at those languages.  The point is that the dictionary entries for those words can help you dig into what’s being said.  Look at where the words come from, what images they are evoking.  Dig into the meaning of the words Jesus uses to speak to you.

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Finally, learn to pray “Alleluia.”  In Hebrew it literally means “Praise the Lord,” but a great author says, the way we use it, it is more like we are cheering, “The Lord is here!”

Hear his voice.

What methods do you use to dig into Scripture?  Please comment and tell us!

 

Twenty-Eighth Sunday: Because He is Good

Wisdom 7:7–11, Psalm 90, Hebrews 4:12–13, Mark 10:17–30

This Sunday’s Gospel is the Rich Young Man.  Mark’s version is too rich for this short space.

File:Hoffman-ChristAndTheRichYoungRuler.jpgThe drama heats up when Jesus names the commandment: “You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.”  Matthew and Luke both report the same ordering of commandments: the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth, then back to the fourth, “honor your father and mother,” the positive good that undergirds the negative prohibitions of the other commandments about neighbors.

But Mark has Jesus throw in one more: “You shall not defraud.”  That is not one of the Ten.  In fact, in the Greek version of the Old Testament, that word appears only twice.  One is in the prophet Malachi: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who DEFRAUD the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.”

Jesus sees to the man’s heart.  The prophets just spell out what was implicit in the law.  Theft and false witness are the main issues.  But Jesus challenges him: have you “defrauded the hired worker in his wages”?  Have you covered your theft behind a hidden false witness?  (Have we?)

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Jan Luyken's Jesus 16. The Rich Ruler. Phillip Medhurst Collection.jpgThe man responds, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.”  Perhaps he is lying.  Or perhaps Jesus is showing him that even if you follow the Law exactly, “You are still lacking in one thing.”  In fact, the deeper issue beneath the Law, the issue the Law protects but does not exhaust, is love.  As Jesus points out at the beginning, the deeper issue is what we think is “Good,” whether we know that nothing “is good but God alone”—and therefore “no one” is good until his heart is fixed on God alone.

“God alone” is why we must not steal, bear false witness, or defraud the hired worker in his wages.  But “God alone” means, too, that we must be willing to go beyond the law, sell everything, and follow Christ.  Why does the man cling to his possessions?  Why do we?  It is a question of whether we know what is truly good.

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File:"Blasts" from The Ram's Horn (1902) (14597788930).jpgThe other time “defraud” appears in the Old Testament is earlier on, at the very beginning of Moses giving the Law, when he talks about divorce: “If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not defraud her of her food, her clothing, or her marital rights” (Ex. 21:10).  And in Mark, this story comes immediately after Jesus has talked about what Moses said about divorce.

These things are all tied together.

Fascinating that this story ends with him saying “no one who has left . . . mother or father . . . for my sake . . . will not receive . . . children.”  There’s lots else he’s saying—lots of issues beyond marriage.  But fascinating, because in the previous story (last Sunday), he has just said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother,” and in the story right before that (two Sundays ago) he said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me,” and right after he talked about marriage he said, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

It is all about what we leave and what we receive, in Jesus’ name, and for his kingdom.  No one is good but God alone—yet in God’s name we must receive the whole world anew.  We must not “defraud” God’s kingdom of the love it deserves.

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There is an innocence in this receiving.  Thinking about the reading this week, I was fascinated by a funny juxtaposition.  When Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” the disciples “were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, Then who can be saved?”  “Exceedingly astonished” is a lot (and it’s a good translation).  The disciples’ argument seems to be that if the rich can’t be saved, no one can!

File:Hans Leimbacher (attr) Lasset die Kindlein zu mir kommen.jpgBut the very next thing is that Peter says, “We have given up everything and followed you.”  The disciples have already done exactly what Jesus asked the rich man to do.  Why, then, are they so amazed?  I’m not sure.

The best I can come up with—let me know what you think!—is that for once, the disciples are doing something right.  But they are doing it right because they have not done it self-consciously, not as the Pharisees. It’s not that there’s a law of poverty, and the disciples follow it, and say, “Wow, look at us, we are the greatest!”  (Though we know they are tempted to think that way.)

It sounds more like this is the first time the disciples have even noticed that they gave up everything.  It suddenly dawns on them, after they have been “exceedingly amazed” at Jesus’ demand on the rich young man, “Hey, wait a minute . . . we did that, didn’t we?”

They didn’t do it because it was the Law.  They did it because Jesus was good.  They didn’t do it for their self-righteousness—they did it because “No one is good, but God alone,” and as Peter said a chapter before, at the Transfiguration, “It is good [beautiful] that we are here,” I wish I could make a tent and stay here.  Jesus says, “That’s right, it is good.  Follow me, not so you can be good, but because I am.”

Are there places in your life where you haggle over Jesus’ demands, because you forget how good and beautiful he is?

The Gospel of Family

Searching the Scriptures

I recently heard a Thomist I respect tell priests that they need to plan non-Biblical “doctrinal” homilies, because the Lectionary doesn’t hit the important points.  I think he’s wrong about that.  Especially this past Sunday.

Our Gospel was on marriage.  It is shocking how directly Jesus speaks into our current “issues”—and how much more deeply he speaks than anyone else.  (It is not sufficiently noticed that John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is nothing but a meditation on Scripture: and it hits everything.)

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The Lectionary’s choices for first and second reading are fabulous.  The first reading, naturally, is the passage from Genesis that Jesus quotes: Adam says, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh . . . .  That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh.”  (The ancient Hebrew doesn’t have quotation marks.  Today, we tend to assume that “That is why” is the narrator commenting on Adam’s words.  Traditionally, they thought those too were Adam’s words: his prophecy about marriage.)

The Second reading is the beginning of the seven-week tour of Hebrews with which we fill finish this Year of Mark.  It is not about marriage.  But it is about flesh: Jesus “was made lower than the angels” so that he “might taste death for everyone,” and become “perfect through suffering,” and thus call us “brothers.”

What is important about these readings is how they portray family as a matter of both “flesh” and relationship.  When Adam calls Eve “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” he is using an Old Testament expression that has nothing to do with sex.  It is what Jacob’s uncle Laban calls him (Gen 29:14), what Abimelech says to “the house of his mother’s father” (Judges 9:2), what the tribes of Israel say to David (2 Sam 5:1, 19:13), etc.  It means “she is my sister,” family.

So too when in the very next verse “the two of them become one flesh.”  That’s not a euphemism for sex.  It’s an enduring state of relationship.  And it is a relationship that is both flesh and person.  They become entirely one: family.  So too Jesus becomes one of us: family, our “brother.”

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In the Gospel, there are three things to note.  The first, of course, is the prohibition of divorce.  “The two shall become one flesh.  So they are no longer two but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”  Again, it’s not talking about sex: that fleshy union doesn’t last long.  Rather, it’s talking about becoming family.  Once that is joined, there is no breaking it.

Catholics don’t just “oppose” divorce.  We don’t believe in it.  It isn’t possible.  You can’t stop being married any more than you can stop being brother and sister, or father and son.

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Love as I have loved

But second, notice that Jesus goes beyond the prohibition.  “Because of the hardness of your hearts he [Moses] wrote you this commandment.”  Lately there has been a lot of talk in the Church about mercy and divorce.  In fact, Moses’ mercy was to let them divorce and remarry, slowed down a little but not much by the “bill of divorce.”  Moses couldn’t do anything about their hardness of heart, and when hearts grow hard, marriage becomes impossible: because it’s not just “flesh,” it’s a relationship.

But Jesus is God.  He can do something about our hardness of heart.  Human mercy can offer external helps, but often all we can do is give up.  Jesus, “made perfect by suffering,” can give us the strength to get through our struggles.  He can soften our hardness of heart.  That’s what grace means.

Marriage is a central issue for Christian faith because we see this softening of hearts “take flesh.”  It’s for real.  Jesus can actually help us.

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And that might be (third), why the next paragraph has Jesus saying, “Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”  Children are in a state of becoming.  They have begun the path to adulthood, but they still have a long way to go.

The only way to live marriage is to realize that God isn’t finished with me yet.  He is still at work, transforming me, building me a natural heart, teaching me to love.  Marriage, and all of family, is a life-long project of being transformed by the grace of Jesus Christ.  It is, in fact, the most tangible, fleshly example of how Jesus has made himself part of our family, and ourselves part of his family, and is sharing with us his sacred heart.

The failure of liberals and conservatives both is to think that the way we are now is the final word.  Unless we realize that we are still children, we can never grow up to the kingdom of God.

What transformations is family demanding of you?

 

Twenty-Sixth Sunday: The Threat of Destruction

This Sunday’s Gospel speaks on two levels.  First, it tells us what to do.  Then it talks about the consequences.  Last things first:

Albrechtsminiator Wien um 1435 Kreuzigung.jpgIn this Gospel, Jesus three times threatens “Gehenna, the unquenchable fire.”  The last time, he adds “where their worm [or maggot] does not die.”  (The reference for this passage, “Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48,” looks like the Lectionary is hiding something, but vv. 44 and 46 are where some early-modern versions of the Bible repeat the line about worms.  Our verse numbers were invented by a French Protestant in the 16th century: they have no authority.  The older authorities don’t repeat that line: like our Lectionary reading, they have it once.)

It needs to be repeated: Jesus is not the nice guy in the Bible.  Nowhere in the Bible are the threats as awful as from the mouth of Jesus.  “Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” is the last verse of another supposedly nice-guy part of the Bible, Isaiah—but Isaiah is talking about dead bodies.

People think Jesus sweeps in to tell us to stop worrying about hell.  The real Jesus, the Jesus of the Bible, is the main one in the Bible who does tell us about hell.  Jesus is our merciful Savior—but “nice guy” is a mischaracterization.  It is Jesus who reveals the eternal consequences of sin.

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The two verses that follow our Gospel suggest that fire is inevitable.  The question is whether the fire is ours, or burns against us.  We will all face God, but will we be with him or against him?

Gehenna is from the Hebrew for “Valley of Hinnom.”  In the Old Testament, that’s where people sacrificed their children to the fire of the pagan god Moloch.  Later, it’s also where the people of Jerusalem threw their sewage.

Here’s another way to think about it.  Without Jesus, hell is inevitable.  In life we live among those who throw their children as sacrifices to Moloch—in abortion, yes, but also in all the ways that we tear one another apart.  The world worships Moloch.  Making peace with the violence of this world doesn’t change that it promises only endless hatred and destruction.

And then we die, and are thrown on the trash heap.  And yet our soul, the form of that dead body, lives forever.  After death is not some happy soul-world apart from the body.  Without Christ, after death we face only the eternal decay of the bodies which are ourselves.

What a wretched man I am, says St. Paul.  Who will save me from this body of death?  Who but the crucified.

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ISpas vsederzhitel sinay.jpgnterwoven with these threats of Gehenna—which Christ does not create, but from which he alone can liberate us—are warnings about us causing little ones to sin, and our hand, our foot, our eye, causing us to sin.  Notice first the parallel: just as our hand might cause us to sin (or more literally, cause us to stumble), so we can cause others to sin.  And death is better than that.  Because Christ can save us from death, but not if we choose to embrace sin instead.

This is a classic passage where people say Jesus exaggerates—and therefore claim we can ignore various other things he says.  “Oh, he doesn’t mean that, he’s an exaggerator!  You don’t cut your hand off, do you!”

But notice, “If your hand causes you to sin.”  Does your hand cause you to sin?  In fact, no, it doesn’t.  You as a person might be able to cause another person to stumble, but it is never your hand that causes you to sin.

There is hyperbole in this story, but it’s not that Jesus doesn’t want us to cut off what causes us to sin.  It’s that he wants us to find what really causes us to sin—like the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.  Cut those off, says Jesus, or face the eternal death of worm and fire.

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But what is sin?  The first half of our Gospel, and the first two readings, say sin is not about team spirit.  “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”  In your name, but does not follow us.  Jesus says, focus on me, not on your team.

So too, anyone who gives you a cup of water because you belong to Christ will be rewarded, anyone who causes little ones to stumble would better die.  The focus is on Christ.  Back off of all your secondary concerns, and ask what leads to or away from Jesus.

So too in the first story, from Moses’s Book of Numbers, the elders receive the Spirit in the tent—but if the Spirit comes to those outside the tent, Moses says, don’t oppose them.  Yes, seek the Spirit in the tent, in the Church—but don’t oppose those who somehow receive it before they’ve reached the tent.  Your salvation is in the Spirit and in the tent, not in your hatred of those outside.

And James warns us that riches are “impending miseries,” because if we live for this world and not for Christ, we will die as this world dies.  Instead, we should treat the people around us as we would treat Christ: always look to Jesus, see no one but Jesus alone, even in this world.  Never look to the world.

What violence in your life threatens eternal death?

Twenty-Fourth Sunday: Temptations

We need to understand—and doubt—our motivations.

File:Henry Ossawa Tanner - Jesus and nicodemus.jpgI’ve been reading the desert fathers, especially lately through the first volume of the Philokalia.  They make much of the line, “All that is in the world is the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life,” which they take to be parallel to the three temptations of Christ.  (Dostoyevsky loved the Philokalia, and I think it’s the source of his Grand Inquisitor, which is also a meditation on this theme.)

Lust of the flesh (hunger for bread, and hunger for sex) is one of the temptations that corrupts us.  But so too is lust of the eyes (the desire for power and wealth) and the pride of life (the desire for recognition).  Scripture and the saints warn us to be more aware—more vigilant and sober, the Philokalia says—about the ways we are tempted.

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This past Sunday’s first reading, from Wisdom, has “the wicked” plotting to attack “the just one.”  One theme is that God will defend the just one.  But the other theme is that he is “obnoxious” to the wicked.  The problem is, the voice of Christ is often obnoxious to us: not only when he condemns sex (the American Church seems to understand that sex is important), but also when he calls us to fast, and to renounce wealth and power and the cult of fame and recognition.  Frankly, I think this is a root cause of why so many conservative American Catholics hate the Pope: “he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training.”  (Which is not to deny that there are reasons to oppose what some people report the Pope says.)

James continues to excoriate us, with that same wisdom from the Philokalia: “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?  Is it not from your passions?”  The roots of all kinds of conflicts are in our disordered loves.

James sums up his argument with a nice turn.  “You do not possess because you do not ask.  You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”  We need to love God as both means and ends.  We need to ask God for what we want, instead of trying to get it through violence and disorder.  But we need God to be what we want.  The suffering of “the just one” is from people who want bad things and use bad means to get them; by the just one’s sufferings, he proves what he wants and how he will try to get it.

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In our Gospel, we have skipped ahead a chapter from last week, skipped the Transfiguration (which has its own feast) and a powerful exorcism, and skipped ahead to the next time Jesus proclaims his coming death.

File:Christ Giving His Blessing.jpgWe have two short paragraphs.  First he says he is going to be killed; then the disciples argue who is greatest, and he tells them to receive a child.  This story is not in Matthew.

Mark gives a nice bridge between the two.  In response to his predicting his death, “They did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.”  Then he questions them, and says “What were you arguing about on the way?”  They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.

They are presented with a mystery as deep as the Cross—and they ignore it, and talk about something else.  And they turn from the wisdom of God to their own wisdom: they don’t ask Jesus, they talk about themselves.  How quick we are, too, to hear the mysterious wisdom of God—and shrug it off and go back to human concerns.

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In Matthew, the disciples ask Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” and he says, “Unless you turn and become like children.”  That’s good stuff.

File:Lippi, pietà del museo horne.jpgBut in Mark, they don’t ask Jesus (and they don’t mention the kingdom of heaven, just “who is the greatest?”)  And here, Jesus doesn’t tell them to become children, he tells them to receive children, and to be servants.

Here again is that wisdom of the Philokalia.  They need to cast out their worldly desires, and desire not to rise in status, but to become greater servants.  In that service, he tells them to set their heart on him: “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me.”  Look for Jesus, serve Jesus, love Jesus, work only for Jesus.  The child here is a symbol of casting off earthly desires: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes (power and wealth), and the pride of life (recognition).  Only in that conquering of the world can they learn to long for Jesus, and to be identified with Jesus.  And only in casting off worldly glory can they learn to receive everything from Jesus, even when they have grasped nothing for themselves.

What false loves tempt you away from Jesus?

 

 

 

Twenty-Fourth Sunday: The Poverty of the Cross

If, as the ancients said, Mark is Peter’s writer, then Peter’s profession of faith is central to Mark’s Gospel.

Both Matthew and Mark say that Jesus asked, “Who do people say . . . who do you say that I am?”  Both have Peter answer.  Both then say, “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly,” Peter rebukes him, and he says, “Get behind me, Satan”; then he tells the disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”  Much of these events is word-for-word the same, even in the narrative (not just because they remember Jesus’ words); one evangelist is using the other’s writing.

File:Christ giving the Keys of Heaven to St. Peter by Peter Paul Rubens - Gemäldegalerie - Berlin - Germany 2017.jpgBut Matthew has a passage Mark does not.  Matthew’s Gospel has, first: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven”; then: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”; and third: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  Big verses.

Nineteenth-century liberal Protestant scholars used this difference to discredit the papacy: Mark is primitive, therefore “real” Matthew made all this stuff up.

Now, I believe the Gospels are true, the very foundation of Christianity.  Matthew is Gospel truth.  But it must be said: I heard two homilies this Sunday, and both talked about Peter’s profession while sweeping under the rug all that stuff about the Cross.  Mark is correcting Matthew, in the sense that he doesn’t let us get carried away in triumphalism.

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Mark isn’t so primitive.  He adds little details.  Matthew says they’re going to the “district” of Caesarea Philippi; Mark, with his typical eyewitness details, says this happened in the “villages” of that district.  Matthew just says they were there, Mark points out that it happened on the road.

And Mark adds, when Jesus speaks about the cross, “He said this openly,” and that when he rebuked Peter, he was “looking at the disciples,” including them.  Mark has something to say.

File:Cimabue 012.jpgWhat he has to say is that Peter got it wrong.  Yes, Jesus said those words about Peter’s leadership.  But Mark’s version of the story emphasizes that, though they knew to call Jesus “Christ,” they didn’t know what that meant.  Fine to profess Jesus Lord—do you know that it means the Cross, both for him and for you?

Mark even reorders the final words, about the Son of Man coming in glory.  Matthew announces that it will happen: “For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.”  Hurrah!

Mark subordinates that coming to Peter’s shame: “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”  How awful to deny Christ.  And that’s the center of this Gospel.

 

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The first reading is always picked for the Sunday Gospel; here we get Isaiah, “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard.”

The second reading, however, is going through something in order—we’re three weeks into a five-week tour of James—and now we get: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?”

Crucified with Christ

First: those two readings match the two statements Jesus makes about being Christ.  First, he has to suffer: “I gave my back.”  To profess Jesus is Lord is to profess him as that Lord, the Suffering Servant.  But then Jesus says we have to bear our own cross: no good to profess him Lord unless we join him.

Second: in Isaiah and that first paragraph after Peter’s profession, he says the Messiah is poor.  He unites himself not to our power, but to our weakness; we ourselves must find him on the Cross, not in earthly splendor.  But in James and that second paragraph, he says that he is for the poor: James’ central image of “works,” throughout the letter, is caring for the poor: “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day.”  Jesus says, “whoever loses his life for my sake”: give it all away.

Third, the reason is our faith that God will protect us: In Matthew’s commendation, Jesus says, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”  But in both Matthew and Mark, when Peter denies the cross, Jesus says, “You are thinking not as God does, but as man.”

But, “See,” says Isaiah, “the Lord GOD is my help.”  “He is near who upholds my right.”  We can afford to suffer, to be poor and for the poor, because we believe the Lord is strong, and he is with us.

Where do you rebuke the Cross?

Twenty-Third Sunday: Believe in the Resurrection

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus heals the man who is deaf and cannot speak.

We are back into Mark (I am sorry to have missed last week—thirty-six hours down with food poisoning plus being on the road).  Again we have Mark’s curious attention to detail.  Matthew the accountant tells this story in two verses, Luke, with his own bunch of stories to add, tells it in one.  Mark takes six or seven.

File:Healing of Aeneas.jpgOnly Mark gives us the detail that Jesus “put his finger into the man’s hears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned,” just as only Mark will tell us, in the next chapter, about the blind man who at first thinks people look like trees.

Only Mark tells us the Hebrew word Jesus says, “Ephphatha, be opened,” just as only Mark tells us that he said “Talitha cumi, which means, little girl, I say to you, arise.”

Mark is the shortest gospel, but don’t be deceived: Mark isn’t short on details.  And though Matthew and John are ascribed to members of the Twelve, and Luke makes much in his introduction of finding extra stories, Mark seems to have an inside line.  I like the ancient tradition that says Mark was Peter’s scribe, relating Peter’s intimacy.

I don’t mean to waste time on trivia, but I do think it helps us fall in love with the Gospels if we appreciate the special richness of each one.  I have found it helpful in my own Gospel reading to flip back and forth, seeing how the stories differ, to see the special emphasis each evangelist is giving us.

***

Helpful, too, to lean into the strange details.  The first verse seems boring: “Again Jesus left the district of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis.”

Except that the previous story is about the Syro-Phoenician woman—“yes, Lord, yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”—a powerful story about Jesus’ complex love for the people outside Israel.  And Sidon is twenty miles north—deeper into Phoenician territory—than Tyre (and Mark usually says “the region of Tyre and Sidon,” so when he says “the region of Tyre,” he seems to be saying Jesus was in Tyre, not Sidon).  In this one verse, Jesus is going deeper into missionary territory.

So too with Decapolis, which is the opposite, eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, furthest from Sidon and not the western shore of Capernaum, where he spends most of his time.  In fact, the Decapolis, too, is pagan, Greek territory.  These locations—precious details, in Mark’s spare Gospel—speak of Jesus’s mercy.

***

Meister von Müstair 002.jpgSo too the physicality of the healing.  Jesus touches the man, puts his fingers in his ears and spits on his tongue.  He groans.  We’re tempted to over-spiritualize Christianity, to say that bodies don’t matter.  Jesus does want to heal our souls; it is lest they subordinate love of God to this world’s gifts that here, again, he “ordered them not to tell anyone”; but Jesus is incarnate, and we look forward to the resurrection of the body.  We pray not to a far-away spirit, but to the Word made flesh.

Funny how this healing works.  “He put his finger into the man’s ears.”  Perhaps it is just to be near them, that would be rich in itself.  But then he says, “Be opened.”  It seems like he plugs the man’s ears himself.  Is it too much of a stretch to imagine Jesus, soon to be crucified, uniting himself to the man’s disability, somehow becoming part of it, so that he himself can release it?  So too his spit shares in the man’s clumsiness of mouth.

One more: the Greek word here for “deaf” is literally “chopped” or “blunted.”  Sometimes in the New Testament it clearly means deaf; sometimes it clearly means unable to speak.  The word here for speech impediment is “difficulty of words.”  Interesting how closely hearing and speech go together.  If we cannot hear, we cannot speak.  Lord, restore my hearing, so I will have something to say.

***

File:Masolino, resurrezione di tabita.jpgOur first reading, from Isaiah, has God restoring his creation.  The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap, the mute sing, the deserts burst forth with streams.  God did not make the physical world so it would end in futility; he made it to end in the resurrection of the body—and in the resurrection of man all creation is resurrected.  He who made it will restore it.

But our reading from James turns this healing to human relationships, indicting those who prefer the rich to the poor.  It seems to me that we in the American Church need to hear these readings; it seems to me Scripture and Tradition speak an awful lot about the poor, and American Catholics are awful quick to shrug that off as irrelevant.  (Walker Percy jokes that we will have a schismatic “American Catholic Church,” with the Latin Mass, “Property Rights Sunday,” and the red white and blue raised at the consecration.  Look out.)

Why do we prefer the rich?  Because we think God cannot heal.  We think we need to stick up for ourselves, and we think those who are weak are useless.  We prefer the rich because we don’t believe in Jesus.

Do you believe in the Resurrection?

Twenty-First Sunday: Everything in the Eucharist

Phew, there’s a lot of mess in the Church right now.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/15/Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-28-_-_Judas_Receiving_Payment_for_his_Betrayal.jpgThe only answer has to be, not lay review boards, not “transparency,” not blog posts–those things might help, but they aren’t the real solution–but Peter’s words in this Sunday’s gospel: “Master, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.” And we have to realize that, as at the end of the Bread of Life discourse in John 6, “Many of Jesus’s disciples who [are] listening [say], This saying is hard, who can accept it?” and “As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”

Having once pledged our life to Jesus is not enough.  Having been in the past “a good Catholic” (whatever that means) does not mean we will stay–in fact, the Council of Trent said it is a heresy to believe that no one falls away, and Jesus “knew from the beginning” that some who were following him at the time would later not believe, and even betray him.  The further we follow Jesus, the harder and the more mystifying it will be. We have to turn and turn again, always to accompany, not some favorite public figure or ideology or “culture” (whatever that means), but “him.”

***

Our first two readings brilliantly lead us into this dynamic.  Joshua says, “If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve. . . . As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  We need to say that every day.

The good news is that “the people answered” by looking back on all the Lord had done for them, and returning to him.  The Psalm response sums that up: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” Why do we follow Jesus? Because he is good, and we have been blessed to taste and see his goodness–and all that tasting and seeing culminates in the Eucharist.

***

Ephesians 5 gives us one amazing application.  (I tried to write a separate post on it, but I am on vacation with my family, and even my main Sunday post is getting finished late.)  The reading is a little subtle. We might be tempted to read the Jesus part out and make things really practical: wives are supposed to submit, husbands are supposed to lay down their lives.  Alright, but:

Gaulli Conversion (2006 2 1).jpgSomething that’s been striking me recently about St. Paul is that he always talks about Jesus.  We can talk for hours about Church politics (see above, on “lay review boards,” etc.–but consider any other conversation) without ever uttering the name of Jesus, or even making oblique reference to him.  But once you pay attention to it, it’s amazing, wonderful, how Paul never says anything without talking about Jesus.

Is he talking about marriage, or about Jesus?  Of course he is talking about marriage–but his deeper point is to say, whatever you do, do it in the name of the Lord.  Relate everything to Jesus. He’s not just saying, Jesus is one nice example of what self-giving love means–now go and be self-giving.  He’s saying, whenever you think about being a husband, a wife, or anything else, think nothing but Jesus. WWJD is a bit over-simplified compared to Ephesians 5, but it’s on the right track: nothing but Jesus.  “This a great mystery: but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church.”

***

And so we come to the conclusion of John 6.  Yet again, John is bringing other things into the context of the Eucharist.  In this chapter, he turns the feeding of the 5,000, (then, more subtle, a rereading of the Exodus and what it means to do God’s work and receive his help), “isn’t this the son of the carpenter?”, the Last Supper, and now Peter’s confession of faith–all things in the other three Gospels–and he spins all of them into the context of Eucharistic adoration.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/69/V%26A_-_Raphael%2C_Christ%27s_Charge_to_Peter_%281515%29.jpgThere is a direction to this narrative.  The miracles proclaim his divinity, “isn’t this the son of the carpenter” proclaims the Incarnation, last week’s section focused directly on the Eucharist–and now we hear what it means to follow him.  All summed up in the Eucharist. We learn who he is, we encounter him in the Eucharist–and he says, whenever we go to Mass or adoration, “Do you also want to leave?” And so the Eucharist is our Fiat, our “Thy will be done,” our embrace of his word and his plan–and his Church, built on Peter’s profession of faith.  When we go to the Eucharist, we say, yes, Lord, I accept the Bible, I accept faith, I embrace my membership in the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church–and I embrace the call to think about marriage, and everything else, in terms of, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”  “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

And we realize the source of all our strength, our only possibility, is in the Son of God–”We have come to believe and are convinced,” the chapter ends, “that you are the Holy One of God”–the one who ascends and descends, the one who alone unites humanity to the Father.  There is no other way.

Where are you looking for solutions outside the Eucharist?

 

Twentieth Sunday: Craunch

Last week I said John’s Gospel rereads the other Gospels.  In the second part of the Bread of Life Discourse (John 6), we saw John revisiting the “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son” scene, but in a Eucharistic context.  This week, we move on from the Incarnation to the Eucharist itself.

File:The Last Supper - So-called Hours of Philip the Fair (c.1495), f.96v - BL Add MS 17280.jpgThe other three Gospels give us the Last Supper: “This is my Body.  This is my Blood.”  John skips that—we know that.  Instead, at the Last Supper, he gives the washing of the feet and then the great prayers, culminating in the prayer for unity.  He’s showing us the meaning of the Eucharist.

But here in John 6, it’s the reverse.  John knows that we already know about the Last Supper, and about the Mass.  But he wants us to dwell in it.  We have a kind of Scriptural Eucharistic Adoration, a prolonged time of gazing on the mystery we celebrate at Mass.

(Jesus said lots of things, lots of places; there’s no need for the Evangelists to make things up—but they do choose which things to present, to help us understand.)

***

File:Die letzte Kommunion des Hl Franziskus von Assisi.jpgMostly, he insists on the insane mystery of it.  On one side are massive statements about the consequences of the Eucharist: “Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”  “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”  “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood . . . I will raise him on the last day.”

Those are extraordinary claims.  Resurrection has a special force.  It’s a claim, first, about Jesus himself: to say that he can raise the dead is to assert the highest power in the universe.  And he doesn’t say, “I will ask my Father,” but “I will raise him.”

We’ll see that Jesus has higher things to give than the resurrection of the body—but the body is part of it, and it’s something that prevents us from turning everything into little metaphors.  No, he says this bread contains absolute divine power.

***

But the other thing he says is that he is talking about bread.  (It’s not bread: it’s Jesus, who can raise the dead.  But he comes in the form of bread.)

File:Icon 03048 Spas-vinogradar. Vtoraya polovina XVIII v. Ukraina.jpgThere’s a progression of words for “eat.”  There’s the normal eating word, which we’ve seen a lot lately.  But then there’s another one, that we’ve also seen, like cattle.  That comes up again when he says, “My flesh is true food.”  It’s not a vague spiritual word, it’s the coarse word of the crowds gobbling barley loaves: this is eating stuff.

And then there’s the famous “trogon.”  My old Greek dictionary uses the word “craunch” (instead of “crunch”).  I don’t know where that “a” comes from, but I love it.  It’s not a spiritual word.  It says, look, it’s going to be in your mouth, and your teeth are going to hit it, and it’s going to make noise: craunch.

John emphasizes the same thing with dialogue.  “The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’  Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh . . . .”  They don’t say, “Oh, what an interesting metaphor,” they’re upset.  And he doesn’t say, “oh, no, you’ve misunderstood, the eating thing is just a metaphor,” he says, “Craunch.”  This Incarnation stuff is serious.

First he says, “you’d better eat [a normal way] or you will have no life.”  Then he says craunch, craunch, craunch.  “Who crunches my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will resurrect him.  My flesh is what you eat, like you gobble barley loaves.”

***

The deeper point is “eternal life” and, even deeper, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”  “Remain” might be John’s favorite word.  It too is a Eucharistic adoration word.  Dwell here, stay here, live with me.  “I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me [craunch] will have life because of me.”  I want to be your substance, your very life.  Discover my mystery in the Eucharist.  You don’t get life except by receiving me, in my fleshy breadiness.

***

File:Félix-Joseph Barrias - Woman Receiving the Eucharist - Walters 371343.jpgThe other two readings take this crunchy earthiness back to the spiritual.  “Wisdom has . . . dressed her meat, mixed her wine. . . . Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed.”  The Eucharist is the wise meal, and it is the meal that gives us wisdom itself as our food, so we can live by wisdom.

And in Ephesians we read, “live not as foolish persons but as wise. . . . Do not get drunk on wine . . . but be filled with the Spirit”: let the Spirit be your wine.  And as the drunk sing, so you will be “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks [eucharisting] always.”  Our drink is not earthly, but spiritual.

And yet it comes through the earthiness of the Incarnation and the Eucharist: through Christ alone.

How do you keep alive the centrality of the Incarnation and the Eucharist, of Christ and Christ alone?

Nineteenth Sunday: Bread of Life

We continue with the Bread of Life discourse from John 6.

Ferdinand Bol - Elijah Fed by an Angel - WGA2360.jpgIn the first reading, Elijah is out of strength.  But the Lord gives him bread from heaven, and then he can walk forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God.  “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!”

But the New Testament always transforms the bodily things of the Old Testament into spiritual, or rather, moral things.  Our reading from Ephesians tells us we have been sealed with “the Holy Spirit of God” “for the day of redemption,” and therefore should put away “all bitterness, fury, anger, shouting,” etc., and “be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving . . . as God has forgiven you in Christ.”

We always say the journey is too long for us, we don’t have the strength to be like Christ.  And that’s true!  But he gives himself to us—“handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God”—so that, by receiving him as our bread, we can take on his way of life.  Only because we are fed with the bread of heaven.

***

John’s Gospel rearranges things to give us deeper theological perspective.  For example, in a couple weeks we will read his version of Peter’s proclamation; in the other Gospels, Peter just proclaims him Lord, but John puts it in the context of the Eucharist.

So too this week we read how John incorporates the line, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?”  He puts that into the context of the Eucharist, too.  “The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven,’ and they said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph?  Do we not know his father and mother?’”

John is attentive, first, to the Incarnation.  His Gospel begins, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”  So too here, first, he brings us to the clash of how he can be “son of Joseph,” member of their community, and also say, “I have come down from heaven.”  In fact, he pauses for much of our reading today, steps away from the Bread, and just talks about the Incarnation.

Jesus says a funny thing, “Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.”  You’d expect it to be the other way around: “everyone who listens to me comes to my Father.”  But John picks which of Jesus’s words to use to emphasize his divinity.  No one comes to the Father except through him—and so the Father always draws us through Jesus.

***

This is the way of the Incarnation.  Our first two readings help us understand.  On the one hand, we need to love God with a strength beyond our own, to reach to him with the Spirit of God.  Because of sin, I don’t love God all that much.  Even without sin, I could never know him the way he wants me to know him.  He wants to give us way more than our human nature can reach.  That is the work of God.

But he always gives it to us—in our way, according to our nature: that is the work of man, of Jesus Incarnate.  That’s why I corrected myself above: I call this web site “The Catholic Spiritual Life,” but a great Thomistic author says, we don’t have a spiritual life, we have a Christian life.  We can’t love God in some disembodied way, as if we were pure spirits.  That wouldn’t be us loving God, and thus it wouldn’t be true love.  So our reading from Ephesians talks about all those very practical things: not grumbling, being compassionate, etc.  There is no other way to love God.

***

Христос у точилі. Кінець 17 ст.jpgEphesians talks too about Jesus becoming “a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.”  On the one hand, Jesus teaches us—and enables us—to love God in a human way.  His sacrifice is not in the Temple but on the Cross.  It is the sacrifice of pure human love—or rather, of God loving through human flesh.  Paul stretches the language of “sacrifice” by taking that Temple language and applying it to ordinary life.

But on the other hand, Jesus also gives us a Temple activity.  He becomes bread so that we can offer him, his flesh, on the altar.  We eat that flesh, we become that flesh, we take it into our flesh and make it flesh in our ordinary lives—but we also offer that flesh on the altar as our sacrifice.  Jesus unites communion and sacrifice, God and man, worship and ordinary life, love of God and love of neighbor, bread and flesh and God.

And so he becomes “the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. . . . And the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

How could your life be more Eucharistic?