This is the eighth in a series of Saturday articles on the early Church.

Saturday, 1/1/11

8th Saturday

The Split off of Half of Christianity into Arianism

The most pivotal event in Christianity’s history came in 315 with Rome’s emperor issued the Edict of Milan, recognizing Christianity’s right to exist. Before then government employment had been closed to Christians, but after Constantine’s conversion high offices were only open to Christians. The earlier Christians had been the offsprings of martyrs, and they were unhappy at finding their gatherings crowded out by job seekers. They opted to swell the dessert hermitages around Anthony and Pachomius. They wanted to find the God they could not connect with in their noisy assemblies.

Back in the cities things were changing for Christians. Differences that had been suppressed in persecution times now came into the open. The situation was similar to what happened in 1980 with the death of Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito. His strong rule had suppressed the differences between Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims, but with him gone their pent up antagonisms broke out. By granting  Christians freedom Constantine gave them freedom to fight with one another.

In 320 Alexander who was the bishop of Alexandria received troubling reports about one of the city’s pastors. Father Arius, at age seventy, had been telling his congregation that while Jesus had been a good man, he was not the Son of God.This had Bishop Alexander summoning a synod of priests to weigh the statements Father Arius had been making. They concluded that his views were heretical. The clearest thinker among the priests was Bishop Alexander’s secretary, Father Athanasius. In quoting the first chapter of John’s Gospel, Athanasius pointed to Scripture’s clear teaching that the Word was God, and the Word became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.

Emperor Constantine, who had counted on Christianity's being a force for bringing elements of his empire together, was angered by the emergence of this dispute. Considering the differences to be only an idle debate over words, he commanded Arius and Bishop Alexander to stop debating the matter. But with Father Arius finding strong support in Syria, which was Egypt’s long-time trade rival, his movement mushroomed. Father Arius retired to Nicomedia, a suburb of Byzantium, where Bishop Eusebius became his strong supporter. Father Arius’s heresy, coming to be known as Arianism, spread through the east.

In 325 Emperor Constantine summoned the bishops in his empire to Nicea, a suburb of Byzantium, and he commanded them all to agree to what has come to be known as the Nicean Creed. The following year with the death of Bishop Alexander, Athanasius became the bishop of Alexandria, but all was not quiet.

After they were away from the Emperor’s fearful presence many of the bishops who signed the Nicean Creed complained about its wording. It said that the Son was of one substance with the Father, and those bishops were saying that since “substance” was a Geek philosophical term, it could d not be a matter of faith. (Rome now wants to renew that controversy by altering the creed's wording “one in being with the Father” to “consubstantial with the Father.”)

In the year 330 Emperor Constantine moved the seat of his empire from Rome to Byzantium, renaming the city Constantinople. Living in the east, he came under the influence of Arianism.


 

For everyone else in the world New Years celebrates the creation.



This is the last day of the year, and many people see the old year out with parties when they dress up, and where they blow horns and beat on pans. These customs have deep, pre-historic roots.

In the 1970’s American Catholics were poled as to what feast days they wanted to keep as holy days of obligation. Most people wanted to keep New Years Day as a holy day of obligation, and that was a surprise, because most of them were not sure what the day celebrated. Their attachment to the day came down to them from ancestors who lived before humanity learned how to read and write.

What we find in studying prehistoric peoples in Africa, Asia, and America is that New Years recalled the creation of the world. Oddly enough, most peoples believed that at the beginning everything was chaos, and creation consisted in God or a number of gods bringing order out of chaos.

Even our Bible shared that ancient view. In its opening words it says, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth the earth was a formless wasteland. The original Hebrew words for “formless waste land” was tohu-bohu, which sounded like clothes being spun around in a dryer.

In Japanese lore the gods came down on Mt. Fuji from where they pushed back chaos, creating a holy place where people could live. With Hindus and Buddhists the gods came down on Mt. Meru. In the legends of Iraq it was a struggle between male and female gods that bought forth a world we could live in.

Tonight, if you make merry, you might bring to mind the thought that like people for thousands of years back you are recreating the original chaos out of which we pray God will bring holy orderliness.

In telling us that the child Jesus became strong the Gospel tells us he had been weak.


 

We know little about Jesus before he appeared as a man of about thirty. Our Gospel today gives us a slight peak behind the curtain of those private years. It says, “The child grew and became strong in spirit.”

Now, if he grew and became strong in spirit, it follows that he must not  have been fully strong in spirit before that. If we jump ahead in Luke’s Gospel to where he talks about Mary and Joseph finding a twelve year old Jesus in the temple, the accounts concludes by saying, “Jesus advanced in wisdom and age.” So, he had room for advancement.

Now, part of Jesus was the only Son of the Father, but that part of him  did not cancel out his being thoroughly human. As a human he was able to advance in wisdom as the years went by. Our Roman Catholic Church differs slightly from some Orthodox churches where they downplay Our Lord’s humanity.

Just how he could be both God and man is a mystery, but it is a mystery we must embrace. We must believe that when he prayed in the Garden of Olives, saying, “If it is possible let the chalice pass from me” his humanity was fiercely tempted to try escaping dying for us.

For ancient people's New Year's Eve represented the chaos before creation.



This is the last day of the year, and many people see the old year out with parties when they dress up, and where they blow and beat on noise makers. These customs have deep, pre-historic roots.

In the 1970’s American Catholics were poled as to what feast days they wanted to keep as holy days of obligation. Most people wanted to keep New Years Day as a holy day of obligation, and that was a surprise, because most of them were not sure what the day celebrated. Their attachment to the day came down to them from ancestors who lived before humanity learned how to read and write.

What we find in studying prehistoric peoples in Africa, Asia, and America is that New Years recalled the creation of the world. Oddly enough, most peoples believed that at the beginning everything was chaos, and creation consisted in God or a number of gods bringing order out of chaos.

Even our Bible shared that ancient view. In its opening words it says, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth the earth was a formless wasteland. The original Hebrew words for “formless waste land” was tohu-bohu, which sounded like cloths being spun around in a dryer.

In Japanese lore the gods came down on Mt. Fuji from where they pushed back chaos, creating a holy place where people could live. With Hindus and Buddhists the gods came down on Mt. Meru. In the legends of Iraq it was a struggle between male and female gods that bought forth a world we could live in.

Tonight, if you make merry, you might bring to mind the thought that like people for thousands of years back you are recreating the original chaos out of which God brings holy orderliness.

Don't let the sun go down on your anger.



In the First Reading St. John writes, “Whoever says he is in the light, yet hates his brother, is still in the darkness. He walks in darkness and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eye.”

That passage reminds me of a guy named Jack who could not control his anger with other drivers. He would swerve this way and that to get away from ones he couldn’t stand, and that got him five tickets for reckless driving. Rather than pay the fines he went to driver re-education schools. Then, instead of learning something from the schooling, he convinced himself that the courses had made him such an expert he could make any moves he wanted when other drivers made him mad.

There is a lot to the old saying that you should never let the sun go down on your anger. If you allow it to linger in your mind it sets up its own repeating system. That has your gripe surfacing over and over day and night.

One time a bishop showed me a letter someone wrote against me, and my resentment, and my dislike for the letter writer became something like a song I couldn’t get out of my head. 
When I ran into a gentle fellow after Mass, asking him for advice, he surprised me. His company had just laid him off after nineteen years. He said Hail Mary’s over and over to cool his resentment. He said it was an urgent task, because he was afraid his resentment cold somehow poison his family.

The Feast of the Holy Innocents turns out hearts to all suffering children.



In Chapter Two of his Gospel Luke described how when the child Jesus was forty days old Joseph and Mary brought him to the temple where he was recognized by Simeon and Anna. Luke followed that by relating, “When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.”

If it happened that way it could not have happened the way Matthew described it.e He H He told us that the Holy Family remained in Bethlehem for up to two years before they went down to Egypt, staying there for years, then going to settle in Nazareth for the first time.

This is a hard, but necessary, thing for people to grasp: the incidents related in Bible stories are often not factual. Though not factual, they are true in that they convey true concepts. When Matthew and Luke sat down to write their Gospels they settled on the stories going around that backed up the message they were writing their gospels to teach.

The story of the massacre of the babies in Bethlehem cannot be fitted into Luke’s Gospel;  and, there is a good chance it never happened. The Jewish historian for those years, a man named Josephus, didn’t approve of Herod, and he wrote about all the heartless things King Herod did; but he makes no mention of such a massacre.

The story of the slaughtering of the Innocents is there to turn our attention and pity to such children as those who are victims to AIDs, Cholera, and starvation. That is what this feast is meant for. It should make us protectors of today’s innocent ones.

St. John symbolizes the importance of holy pepple in our Church.




    Today, in honoring St. John, the Beloved Disciple, we note the passages where he is contrasted with St. Peter. At the Last Supper, when John was lying against Jesus, Peter instructed him to find out from Jesus who his betrayer would be.

In today’s Gospel they ran together to the tomb of Jesus. John ran faster than Peter, but then he waited to let Peter go in first.

Next we see them together when they breakfasted with Jesus by the Lake of Tiberius. Jesus took Peter aside to give him charge over his sheep. Then, when Peter asked what John’s role would be, Jesus answered, “What if I wish him to remain until I come?”

In each of those instances John recognized Peter’s authority, while Peter recognized John’s deep relationship with Jesus.

The lesson for us there is that we must have respect for the authority of Church leaders, while they must have respect for good peoples' closer relationship with the Lord.

We honor the Holy Family by being family to the lonely.



A picture of Mary, Joseph and Jesus together in the stable turns our thoughts to family life. We call this day the Feast of the Holy Family, but on this day, going beyond Jesus, Mary and Joseph, we thank God for what wonderful things our families can be.

The First Reading from the Book of Sirach supplies us with a grand list of benefits that come to those who are good family persons. They atone for their sins, and are helped at avoiding sins. When they pray they are heard. They store up riches in heaven. They in their turn will be gladdened by others. They will live long lives.

Those rewards are particularly meant for young people. But what family life can old people have? Well, instead of grieving over being neglected, they must get out of their selves. They must restore family cheer to others who are alone.

Once when someone standing nearby told Jesus that members of his family were waiting to see him, Jesus told them that his family was very large. He said it included all men and women, old and young, who attempt to live according to God’s law.

Look around you. All the people you see are God’s children. He loves this one, that one, and that one too. He appreciates it no end when you become a brother or sister to any  lonely ones who are his children.

The First Monasteries and Convents


7th Saturday

How Monastery Life and Convent Life Got Their Start in the Egyptian Desert

The birth of monastic life came in an abandoned Roman fortress in the Egyptian dessert between the Nile and Red Sea. St. Pachomius organized their rule in 325; but his inspiration came from St. Anthony, who since 285 had been living as a dessert hermit. It was St. Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria who told us the stories about Anthony and Pachomius. Athanasius, was the bishop of Alexandria in Egypt; and in his stormy tenure as bishop of Alexandria from 327 to 373, he was often driven out by the winds of politics in the Roman Empire. It often had him taking refuge with Anthony and Pachomius, and eventually he wrote a detailed account of the prayer and work of those dessert saints. His Life of St. Anthony became a great hit in Rome, and with copies of it being made, it gave birth to monastery and convent life in Europe.

St. Anthony at age twenty, in 265 A.D. was a wealthy young Egyptian who was struck by Christ’s invitation to another rich young man. He felt Christ as asking him to sell what he had, to give to the poor, and follow his Savior. For twenty years he stayed with civilization, serving the poor, but in the year 285 he felt called to live with God in complete solitude. For this he retired for twenty years to that abandoned fort where he subsisted on what nomads threw over the walls to him.  

As was the case with Origen fifty years before, Anthony, as an educated Egyptian, embraced the outlook of the Greek philosophers. Following Zeno and his Stoics, he strove to strengthen his soul by denying his flesh. Readers of the biography composed by St. Athanasius were particularly thrilled by accounts of his battles with demons who came to him in animal-like forms.

Although he wanted to be alone with God, many disciples settled as hermits near Anthony, taking from him the practice of praying each day from the Book of Psalms. In time one of the hermits, Pachomius, came to feel that a Christian life lived to its fullest called for the constant practice of mutual love, something not to be found in the life of hermits.

Pachomius had his monks coming together at set hours of the day to chant the Psalms. Bishop Athanasius enjoyed joining in singing the Psalms during periods when church politics banished him from Alexandria. What made Athanasius so much at home with the monks was the way they shared his detestation for the Arian heresy that gave no reverence to Christ as the Son of the Father. 

Pachomius refused when St. Athanasius’s offered to ordain him priest, but he welcomed priests into his monasteries, calling on them to perform a new role. He asked them to make themselves available for private confessions for the monks. Up to then the Sacrament of Reconciliation had only been utilized in cases where large groups of people were being welcomed back into communion with the universal church.  Pachomius, though, saw its use as a God-given program for ridding souls of their persistent sins.

It cannot be clearly authenticate, but it is said that Mary, a sister to Pachomius, was the first to establish convents that mirrored the activities of the monasteries.

St. John asked us to consider the Second Peson of the Trinity before he became man.



 Our Gospel for Christmas Eve is one we have read several times lately. Laying it aside, I’d like to comment on Chapter One of John’s Gospel. It reads like a page from a philosophy manual, but that is no reason to scorn it. John was the Beloved Disciple who rested against the chest of Jesus at the Last Supper. In telling the story of the coming of Jesus John chose to pass over the Christmassy stories of angels and shepherds, choosing instead to focus on the supreme mystery of the inner life of the Trinity.

He began by saying, “In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

What was the Word that was there from the beginning? Why did John begin by speaking of the Word?

Well, John was living in a Greek world where religious thinking was dominated by a belief  in a God that pervaded all of nature. Their name for that God that was present all through nature was the Logos, which is Greek for the Word. Now the Greeks believed the Logos to be present through all nature, much as we speak of Mother Nature pervading the universe. But there is an important difference between the beliefs of those Greeks and our beliefs. They did not think of the Logos as having any existence outside of the universe.

John’s opening sentence differs with the Greeks in that. Of the Word John wrote that he both was with God, and was God.

In an effort to picture the Word’s position, Paul, in his Letter to the Colossians says the Word is “the image of the invisible God.” And the Letter to the Hebrews state that he was the "imprint" of God's  
being.

St. Thomas Aquinas took those Scriptural passages to be saying that the Word is God’s mental picture of himself. He is his “brain child.” God’s mental picture of himself was so pleasing and so complete that by never wavering it came to be a person apart from the Father.

Jesus will rule forever.



Our first reading today contains the Messianic prophesy that was dearest to the Jews. David had decided on building a temple, and the prophet Nathan at first told him to go ahead with it; but he later told David that God told him he had David’s son in mind for building the temple.  Then, so that David’s feeling’s would not be hurt, Nathan relayed to him God’s promise that his family would rule forever. The actual words were, “Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever.”

The Jews took this promise to mean that in spite of whatever great sins they might fall into, God would always keep Jerusalem free. Four hundred years after David, when the people were carried off as slaves to Babylon they thought that God was guilty of unfaithfulness. Even today ultra conservative Jews feel that God’s promise to David will keep them safe.

We feel that God keeps his promise by raising up Jesus. Gabriel told Mary that her offspring would rule over the house of David forever.

The miracle of life developing in a mother's womb.



The Gospel brings back for us the meeting of the freshly conceived Marry with Elizabeth who was in her sixth month. Their meeting gives us the opportunity to look anew at the wonderful condition of carrying a baby.

Sixty years ago I was vacationing with a couple who had two young daughters. The mother, Jane, was laughing over a mother-daughter chat she had with little Pattie. Pattie wanted to know where babies came from, but when Jane gave her a clinical description of the process Pattie just got angry with her. She said, “Nobody could believe that!” I am with Pattie on that. It is unbelievable.

We had at St. Paul’s a lady named Louise Fields, and Louise had been a nurse in the delivery room at St. Vincent’s for forty years. I asked her if when she watched the first child come out into the world, if she thought it was an unbelievable miracle.

“Yes, Father. I thought the first child was a miracle from God. And with the last of a very long line of them I saw born on my final day, I saw it as the same wonderful miracle.   

The Bible says, “You knit me in the womb” and it says, “I am wonderfully made.” These are grand things to think about. They make God so real for us.

Our souls long for the Lord.



Our first reading is a maiden’s love song, and it leaves people wondering how it could have gotten into the Bible. But St. John of the Cross, whose feast day we celebrated December 14th, thought of it as the most spiritual of all the books of the Bible.

John of the Cross saw his soul as the song’s maiden. He saw Jesus as the beloved of his soul, and he cried out,

O my dove in the clefts of the rock,
in the secret recesses of the cliff,
Let me see you,
let me hear your voice,
For your voice is sweet,
and you are lovely.”

It would be well for us if we could honestly make those sentiments our own, if we could tell Jesus, “Your voice is sweet, and you are lovely.”

If we actively pursued a deeper love for Christ we could make those sentiment s our own. Once twenty or thirty years ago when I was planning their wedding ceremony for a winsome young lady and her bulky mechanic of a groom, the young lady demanded we use this reading in their wedding Mass. Love made her see her hulking young fellow as a gazelle who came leaping over the hills to her.


We can pretend that Mary's father, Joachim, overheard the angel.



In what is called “Method Acting” you become part of a scene by practice empathy, that is, you get inside a person whose role you are playing. If you were a method actor playing the role of Mary at the Incarnation you might start off by imagining yourself as Mary, laundering some floor length garments, or lugging water from the well. Then, as Mary you would experience a wild surprise at being accosted by the angel.

I for one would not be able to play the part of Mary. Perhaps some of our young nuns could do it.

If I had to play a role in this scene, I would invent one for myself.  I’d make a try at being  Mary’s father, Joachim.  I could imagine myself as Joachim hoeing the ground in a nearby vegetable plot. The scene he glimpses would be one he would take to the grave with him.

He’d be gasping, “The angel is talking to my daughter. He is saying she is full of grace. Yes, I suppose she is, but for an angel to say that. Why has he come to us here?”

A resident in our nursing home came back to the sacristy after my Mass yesterday. She had a question. “Father, was Joseph and Mary’s marriage an arranged marriage?”

I said I supposed it was. Most marriages back then were arranged marriages. I bring up her question here because it reminds us that Joachim had complete authority over Mary.

If Joachim happened to be listening in he would be telling himself, “The angel is telling Mary she has found favor with God. He is saying she will bear a son. How can that be? I have given her permission to offer her virginity to God.”

Following on with the scene before him, Joachim would saying something like, “Her Son will rule over the house of David forever. Why, gracious, gracious me!”

“So, she is going to leave us for a while as she goes to visit our cousin Elizabeth. I don’t like her taking that trip, but my daughter has agreed to it. She is telling the angel that she is the Lord’s handmaid. Good for you, daughter. I am his servant.”

When Joseph was in a terrible bind he waited for diretion from God.



Our Gospel calls Joseph a “righteous” man. My generation was more comfortable with a translation that said, " he was a just man.” We had been accustomed to calling Joseph, “That just man.”

Today’s Gospel presents Joseph as being just in two senses.  First, as regards Jewish legal observance he was just. The law would not allow him to take possession of Mary’s child-to-be, when it was obvious to Joseph that the child belonged to the male who had had relations with Mary.

In a more important way Joseph showed himself to be a just man by refusing to publically put Mary away, causing pain to that wonderful young woman.

When someone has a moral dilemma I like calling it a bind. Joseph was in a bind. My mother’s way of describing being in a bind was to say, “You’re damned if you do. You’re damned if you don’t.” From the way he agonized over Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph became  our patron saint for people who are in a bind.

Often young people make decisions that put their parents in a bind. One of my sister Peg’s eight daughters decided on skipping a church wedding. She went ahead with her plan of having a girlfriend who was a notary public do the ceremony under the stars. Rather than lose their relationship with their head-strong daughter my sister and her husband brought their upset stomachs and their broken hearts to  that wedding. 

With no confssions for sins and with Roman persecutions the 200's were the terrible twos for our Church.


6th Saturday

(I didn't post one of these articles last Saturday)

Christians in the 200’s Suffered from Severity

When the third birthday comes, and the terrible twos are past, mothers sit back, thanking God its over. When I come to the year 300 in this history I’ll be happy about getting past the terrible 200’s with their persecutions and their severe church behavior that strayed from Our Lord’s forgiving ways.

The Roman policy for dealing with the illegal Christians was set by Emperor Trajan in 95 A.D.  Like our “Don’t ask, don’t tell” rule for dealing with gays in the military,  Trajan would let Christians alone as long as they did not make a public denial of Rome’s gods. But now and then an emperor or a local governor chose to challenge Christians to make their beliefs public, and that would bring on a season of persecutions and deaths followed by years of peace.

The severity of our Churchmen in the 200’s can be seen in the demands they made of adults preparing for Baptism. Their standard catechumenate consisted of three years of training and trials to strengthen converts for standing up to temptations and persecutions. The American practice we were familiar with in the 1900’s was so much easier. We had would-be converts taking six months of instructions from a priest with whom they developed a pleasant relationship. That was the case with Claire Booth Luce and Monsignor Fulton Sheehan.

With the French bishops at Vatican II calling for “Ressourcement” to bring our practices back in line with those of the early church, we came up with a mild form of the catechumenate in our Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or the R.C.I. A.. We are happy with the way it introduces converts to a full sampling of the Catholic family, rather then to just a relationship with just one priest.

 A key function of our R.C.I.A. is preparing converts for frequent confessions. There was nothing like that in the catechumenates of the 200’s. They were three-year-long boot camps that drilled converts in preparation either for martyrdom or for angelic lives with no opportunities for absolution if they fell into sin.

From that time I'll mention three. churchmen: Origen, Hippolytus, and Tertullian. Each of them developed his teachings while he was director of a catechumenate.

Origen was a man, buried in studies through his youth, but when his father was beheaded as a Christian, Origen had to make a living for his eight siblings. He opened a school with classes in Geometry, Astronomy and Philosophy, but his academy was best known as Alexandria’s catechmenate.

If you pick up Origen’s writings you will sense an odd approach to living a spiritual life. His thinking was based on Plato’s understanding of human nature, whereas ours is based on Aristotle’s. The difference comes from Plato’s holding that our souls were created before our bodies, while Aristotle thought of bodies and soul created together. Plato’s followers are known as “Idealists,” Aristotle’s as “Realists.”   

The bishop of Caesarea invited Origen to teach in his diocese, and as part of that he  insisted on ordaining him priest. Origen’s own bishop in Alexandria objected so strongly to his being ordained elsewhere that he would not let him return to his academy. Origen travelled to Rome, broadening his acquaintance with Theological thinking, and making him an admirer of the tradition-based preaching of Hippolytus.

Hippolytus, by busying himself with tracing our Baptismal and Eucharistic rites back to Peter and Paul, had made his writings into a valuable source for Jerome and Augustine and others. They often referred back to his  “Apostolic Tradition.”

With no copy of that valuable document surviving the Barbarian Invasions, Catholic writers through the Middle Ages found such references as tantalizing.  But happily for us, a Coptic translation of the Apostolic Tradition turned up in upper Egypt in 1950; and it was of great use to the bishops of Vatican II when they went about bringing our Liturgy into line with what is was in the early Church.

In 220 Hippolytus differed openly with Pope Callixtus when the pope extended absolution to sinners guilty of adultery. So, when a sect of rigorists chose Hippolytus as their pope he went along with it for a time. Later, though, he asked for pardon, and he joined the pope in exile and death.

With Tertullian, Catholic intellectual life in the mid 200’s saw a shift from Greek speaking Alexandria to Latin speaking Carthage. Tertullian, supplied Catholicism with its Latin vocabulary, including such basic words as the Trinity. As the leader of the catechumenate in Carthage, Terutullain had been relatively lenient, allowing Christians to serve in the army, and agreeing with those who provided a public conferral of the Sacrament of Penance for heretical sect members. However, after he joined a group of  Montanists who believed they were directly channeling the Holy Spirit he went over to their unforgiving disciplines.

The genealogy of Jesus, Son of Abraham, Son of David



Fifty years after the Resurrection the Pharisees began calling on all Jews to reject Jesus on the grounds that he had set aside their nation’s most precious traditions. They said he did that by mingling with unclean Gentiles.

In rejecting their assertion Matthew wrote his Gospel, demonstrating that the sacred traditions of the Jews all led up to Jesus. He is the direct descendant of Abraham and David.

In Jewish literature, both sacred and profane, genealogies were never historically accurate. Their word for a genealogy was a toledoth, and it could be more fiction than fact. Matthew gave fourteen generations covering the eight hundred years between Abraham and David; fourteen generations for the four hundred years between David and the Babylonian captivity; then, fourteen generations for the six hundred years between the Captivity and Jesus. His the names for the ancestors of Jesus are different from those in the genealogy Luke gave us. Then, where Matthew has twenty-eight generations between David and Jesus, Luke had forty.

The Bible gives us no explanation for Matthew contorting history to give us those three sets of fourteen names, but it could be that Matthew was catering to an old Jewish superstition.  If you take the three sets of fourteen to actually be six sets of seven, then Jesus, on coming at the beginning of a new set of seven, would come at the point where a perfect being was thought to emerge.   

It is interesting that Matthew’s genealogy should include three women: Tamar, Ruth, and Bathsheba. They introduced foreign strains into the blood of David, the greatest Jew of them all.

Though the mountains may fall, and the hills turn to dust, yet the love of the Lord will stand.



In the first reading Isaiah tells us that the Lord will always be here for us. Isaiah quotes God as saying, “I have sworn not to be angry with you, or to rebuke you. Though the mountains leave their place and the hills be shaken, my love shall never leave you.”

We should respond to God’s assurance by singing a modern hymn on the same idea.

Though the mountains may fall and the hills turn to dust,
Yet the love of the Lord will stand.
As a shelter for all who will call on His name,
Sing the praise and the glory of God.

Could the Lord ever leave you?
Could the Lord forget His love?
Though a mother forsake her child,
He will not abandon you.
 
Though the mountains may fall and the hills turn to dust,
Yet the love of the Lord will stand.
As a shelter for all who will call on His name,
Sing the praise and the glory of God.

Should you turn and forsake Him,
He will gently call your name.
Should you wander away from Him,
He will always take you back.

Though the mountains may fall and the hills turn to dust,
Yet the love of the Lord will stand.
As a shelter for all who will call on His name,
Sing the praise and the glory of God.

Today's radings lead us into the mystery of all things coming from God



In the first reading Isaiah says, “Let justice descend, O heavens, like dew from above.” And he says, “Let the earth open and salvation bud forth.”

In those verses Isaiah mixes notions of justice and dew, salvation and natural budding forth. Now, those things would seem to be of entirely different orders, with dew and spring buds being of the natural order, while justice and salvation are of the spiritual order. But, for God those two orders are in no way alien to one another.

Further on in the reading Isaiah quotes the Lord as saying, “I am God, there is no other.”

I am not sure where we are going with this, but it might lead us back to greater wonder before God. The first chapter of John tells us, “All things were made through him, and without him nothing was made.” That verse might lead us to the realization that water and vegetation and all the beauty the eye can see came from God. But today’s reading goes beyond that. It tells us that intangibles like justice and love come from him.

John’s Gospel goes on to say that life itself came through the Word of God, and this life is the light of the world. In saying that the “light of the world” comes from him, John might be saying that all our energy, physical and mental, is God’s creation. It’s something to think about.

St. John of the Croos taught us how to find peace by nipping our desires.



At forty-nine, St. John of the Cross died on December 14 in 1591. That day the  Church lost its clearest explorer of the depths of the spirit, but most of the world still has no idea of what it has lost.

I once tried reading John of the Cross’s “The Ascent of Mount Carmel,” and the one idea I bought away from it was that for two-thirds of the way John was in step with Siddartha Guataamo, the first Buddha who lived in northern India in 600 B.C. .

Siddartha’s spiritual life began with his attaining enlightenment. John of the Cross’s spiritual life also began with his attaining enlightenment; but he gave it the name of “peace.” For both of them, that state could only be attained by giving up desires.

So, both said our greatest need is for personal peace, and they agreed that it can only be attained by nipping all desires. So, two-thirds of the way they were in full accord; but they differed completely in the third stage of their quest.

What motivated Siddartha to give up desiring was his coming to the conclusion that his existence was unreal, that he was only an illusion. From that he went on to conclude that as an illusion he had no business desiring anything. With that, he gave up desiring, and he was filled with a resignation he took for true enlightenment.

What motivated John of the Cross to give up desiring was his coming to feel  God’s love for him. As a spiritual director of Carmelite novices, he drilled his novices in the need to nip each and every desire that popped into their heads. He brought them to see such discipline as the only way to fully open their arms to God’s love. Along he way they came to see that all unhappiness results from frustrated desires, so unhappiness and frustration could be avoided by not allowing any desires to lodge in their hearts. 

I read John of the Cross’s book in the fall of 1950, and I made a sustained effort at nipping desires. I wouldn’t let myself dwell on the thought of having a good day for a ball game or for having meat loaf at dinner, or a letter from home; and I had some success with my efforts. But, I didn’t stay with John of the Cross’s recommendation for peace through nipping desires. I only stayed with it long enough to see that it would work for any serious person who brought him or her self to make the effort.

Jesus would not get tripped up on questions of authority.



Our Gospel opens with the chief priests and elders asking Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things?”  It might help for us to know what things they were asking about. There were two things Jesus did just before that. One of the things was driving the sellers out of the temple. The other thing was that he welcomed the blind and the lame into the temple.

Most of the temple worship had to do with laying sacrifices on the fires of the altar. Women had to sacrifice a pair of doves for their cleansing after childbirth. Specified  sacrifices of either lambs, goats or oxen were prescribed as atonement for thieving or manslaughter, or other major crimes. Ideally the offender would bring an animal from his own holdings; but the priest might well judge the animal blemished. In such a case the offender could buy a replacement animal from the dealers in the temple. And, one might suspect that the priests received a cut from the dealers.

So, while Our Lord’s distaste for the dealers must have come from the noise and disturbance the animals were causing, he probably objected as well to the double dealing behind the deals.

The chief priests and elders were also objecting to Jesus welcoming the blind and the lame. They would have seen the handicaps of those people as permanent impurities that made them unfit for entering the temple.

They were not ready to argue a case in favor of letting dealers in while keeping the handicap out. They instead wanted to get him on overstepping his authority. Jesus cleverly turned around the confrontation by forcing them to speak to John’s authority, and he had them. If  they said John’s authority was from God he would ask why then they had not believed John. If he said John’s authority was a mere human thing, the crowds would hav tuned against them, because they saw John as a saint.  

John the Baptist, Poster Boy for Advent


Sunday, 12/12/10

Our major seminary rector was a little man. His degrees were in Philosophy, and he gave us a monthly talk about practical matters. Father Kielt liked golf and a good dinner, and a friendly chat; but only in moderation. In his talks to us he spoke about answering letter, acknowledging gifts, putting up with boring people. The evil against which he warned us most often was dissipation.

He never defined dissipation, but I took it to be the dulled edges of our abilities that resulted from too much of things. Too much partying, too much joking, too much quarreling, too many sensual indulgences all lead to dissipation.

John the Baptist was Father Kielt’s favorite Bible person, and he was always urging us to be like John the Baptist. How would we imitates John as he appears in today’s Gospel?

Unlike a reed swaying in the wind we would have lives based on firm principles. Unlike someone dressed in fine clothing, we would not be concerned with making a good show of ourselves.

We would prophets. They would be men who live in such close contact with God that they are capable of speaking for him.

When we came to this chapter in our study of Matthew’s Gospel in the Seventh Grade I asked the kids how would they use this Gospel as a guide for being like John the Baptist. The consensus among the kids was that they would not like to be like John the Baptist.

John the Baptist, the Promised Elijah


Saturday, 12/11/10

Our printing of the Old Testament concludes with the words of Malachi, “Lo, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day.”

The disciples and some others, seeing the appearance of Jesus to be the promised “day of the Lord” wonder why the prophesy about Elijah coming first hadn’t been fulfilled.

The Second Book of Kings had told the story of Elijah being taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot, and people thought of him as waiting off stage, prepared for a new coming. They were all waiting for his grand re-entry.

Jesus disappointed them by saying Elijah had already come. He was saying that figuratively speaking, John the Baptist was Elijah. We have this exchange in Matthew, Chapter Seventeen. Jesus had already spoken on the subject in Chapter Eleven when  he said John was Elijah for those “willing to accept it.”

From this incident we learn that Our Lord does not want us to always take the Bible literally. It speaks through allusions and hyperbole, as when he told us to cut off our right hand or pluck out our right eye if they behaved offensively. Each of them was just a figure of speech.

The First Psalm Gives the Theme for All 150 Psalms


Friday, 12/10/10

It is a bonus day when, for our Responsorial Psalm, we have the very first Psalm from the Book of Psalms. You might look upon it as the whole of the Book of Psalms all there in four short verses.

The first verse tells us that we will be happy if we don’t listen to bad, cheap advice, if we don’t tag along with trouble makers, we don’t confine ourselves to complaining.

The second verse tells us we happy people like to think on the values of family life, private property, and good reputations that the commandments are there to guard.

The third verse tells us that people whom live that way are have secure futures like those of trees planted by fresh streams, bringing forth happy days like abundant fresh fruits.

The fourth verse tells us things do not go as well for the wicked. They are like the yellow hulls of grain that are blown off in the torch light of night. They will have no lasting future. The Lord does not watch over them the way he looks over the future of the just. 

Advent asks us to imitate John the Baptist but how can we do that?



We all want to be good people, or at least, we all want to be thought of as good people.

Today’s Gospel points a way for us to be good people, and to be thought of as good people by Jesus. 

The Gospel tells us we can be great if we conduct ourselves the way John the Baptist conducted himself.  The trouble is, much of the way he conducted himself isn’t open for us to copy. Like, he lived alone in the dessert, raising no family, living on locusts and wild honey. Most of us wouldn't know where to find those things.

So, we must ask, “What was there about John that we could copy in line with becoming very good people?”

One priority of John’s that we might go along with was his undemanding way of dealing with others: it contrasted with what he demanded of himself. All he told tax collectors was to not look for more than what was coming to them. All he told soldiers was not to bully anyone. What he told the rest of us was to give a coat away if we have coats enough.

The one bit of John’s great attitudes that we might try over and over to imitate was the contrasting ambitions he had for Jesus and himself. He said, “He must increase while I must decrease”

On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception we honor Mary's goodness.



In 1854, in defining the Doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception Pope Pius IX said that Mary was sinless from the first moment of her being, and so what we celebrate today is our dear relationship with a person who is goodness through and through.

Modern Theologians do not go along with the picture of original sin that was was planted in my mind in grade school days. I had pictured original sin as a big black mark o my soul that was washed away by the water of Baptism. That has not been the Church’s teaching.

Listen to paragraph 19 of the Dogmatic Constitution On The Church in the Modern World. “The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. The invitation to communion with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being.”
  
Far from being buried in sinfulness at our conception, from the first moment of our being we are called to communion with God. And communing with God is a supernatural activity which only those in the state of grace are capable of.

Today we call to mind the people we have known who were good through and through. That could be children, grandmothers, young teacher, gallant young men. We should then make an attempt at isolating the qualities that made those souls precious, then somehow predicate them of Mary on the feast of her Immaculate Conception.

St. Ambrose made an emperor of a Jesus who had had no where to lay his head.



The life of St. Ambrose makes for quite a story. Born in Rome around the year 335, he and his brother and sister were introduced into the three-year-long catechumenate, preparing them for Baptism; and while his sister was baptized, choosing to live as a nun, he and his brother put off Baptism indefinitely. It was often the way in the first centuries to have Baptism for boys put off till after they had sewn all their wild oats.

A student of literature and law, Ambrose became the governor of northern Italy while residing in Milan in daily attendance on Emperor Valentinian who made Milan his capitol.

In 375 Auxentius, the Arian bishop of Milan died, and Emperor Valentinian commissioned Ambrose to get the city’s Catholics and Arians together to find if they could agree on the choice of a new bishop for Milan. While people were expressing opinions the voice of a child rang out demanding, “Ambrose must be out bishop.”

Ambrose accepted, receiving Baptism the next day, and being consecrated bishop the following day. As bishop he saw an immediate duty to be performed. He had to restore the reverence for Christ that had been taken from the people during twent-five years of being administered to by an Arian bishop.

Ambrose hit upon an effective scheme. In the imaginations of the people he would turn Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament into an emperor. Ambrose commanded the people to give to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament all the honors they gave the emperor. People would have to kneel before him, and bow at the name Jesus. Only the finest linens and purest gold could be used for articles coming into contact with the Blessed Sacrament.

The scheme worked. It restored reverence for Christ, but it changed other things as well. Up to that time if people taking part in the Sunday ritual closed their eyes they would have imagined themselves reclining with Jesus and John at the Last Supper. They could imagine they heard Jesus saying, “Join with me in this Pleasing Gift.  As I Offer myself to the Father you must make offerings of yourselves. The Eucharist isn’t only the consecrated host. It is the pleasing gift of ourselves which all of us make together to the Father.

Jesus performs a cure proving he can forgive sins.



Our Gospel story is familiar to us all, but that should not prevent us from taking a fresh look at it.  Mark tells us this incident took place in the synagogue at Capernaum. That synagogue’s foundations are still there. They measure about thirty by forty. On this day the half circle of seats behind the podium were taken up by scribes from Jerusalem. They had been sent there to find some damning evidence against Jesus.

With the size of the crowds Jesus was drawing, the scribes had needed the ruler of the synagogue to make a path for them through the crowds outside.

The ruler then opened the synagogue’s ark, which was like our tabernacle at the front of the synagogue, and he handed Jesus the scroll from Isaiah. As Jesus was explaining the Scripture passage to the assembly a disturbance was heard from above. Looking up, everyone saw dust and straw falling from the ceiling. They next saw a clear opening in the ceiling, and it was followed by the appearance of a man being let down on a sack suspended by ropes at its corners.

Undisturbed, Jesus went on with his words on the Scriptures, seemingly not joining everyone else in staring up at the faces of the sick man’s friends. But when the man on his mat came down in front of him, Jesus said, “As for you, your sins are forgiven.”

His words brought discontent almost all the way around. The men who had opened that hole in the roof  had wanted nothing but a cure, and the crowd in the synagogue shared that reaction.

There were two parties who welcomed Our Lord’s words. The delegation from Jerusalem were delighted, because Jesus had given them grounds for convicting him of blasphemy. They were murmuring, “Only God can forgive sins, and this man, by claiming the power to forgive sins is guilty of blasphemy. He has put himself on a level with God.”

I think the other party welcoming Our Lord’s words was the paralytic himself. Jesus had read the man’s heart, where he saw that the man was blaming his affliction on his own sinfulness. Having Jesus lift that burden from him meant more than it would have meant for him to regain his mobility. At least, I think that was so.

To set the record straight, Jesus turned to the Scribes, telling them that God would not give him the power to cure paralysis if he had been lying about forgiving sins. The people all were saying that would be so, so the Scribes too had to agree that if Jesus could cure paralysis that would show that God had given him the power to forgive sins.

Looking right at the paralyzed man hanging there in front of him, Jesus spoke, “I say to you, pick up your stretcher and walk.” With that the man hopped down, gathered up his bedding, and went off, with everyone shouting about how good God is. 

A smorgasbord of spiritual nourishment



Taken together the readings today present us with a smorgasbord of spiritual nourishment; and as we pass along its laden table we are saddened by all that we must leave behind.  Let’s try taking a quick sampling of all this rich fare.

Isaiah Eleven tells us that the family tree of Jesse, David’s father, would from its gnarled roots bring forth a great prince unlike any other monarch. Hhe would be noted not for power and splendor, but for wisdom, understanding, openness, fortitude, knowledge and fear of the Lord. He will be the Prince of Peace.

Where people choose to go along with this Prince of Peace the wolf figuratively will be the guest of the lamb, and the leopard will lay down withe the young goat.

With televisions giving us heartbreaking films of a Haiti devastated by Cholera and of a South Africa with nurseries full of children infected with HIV we long for a fulfillment of the Responsorial Psalm’s promise. It says,  “He shall rescue the poor when he cries out, and the afflicted when he has no one else to help.”

In his Letter to the Romans Paul pleads. “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another.” That would be a prayer we could offer for the party leaders of our country, and for this world’s sectarian leaders.

In the Gospel we see John the Baptist who is the Church’s “poster boy” for Advent. This is a time for preparing the way of the Lord, and John’s whole life was devoted to preparing that way. We used to talk of a man or woman as being “A straight shooter.” Our straight shooters never carried a gun, but they were people who never even thought of swerving from the right thing to do. John the Baptist is a straight shooter. He tells  us to make straight paths for the Lord by ridding our lives of all dark and shady deeds.

Passing on the Christianity of Jesus and the Apostles

http://www.usccb.org/nab/120410.shtml
Saturday, 12/410

5th Saturday

“That Grand Old Man” Polycarp Passed on the Teachings of Jesus and the Apostles

I gave the title Resssoucement to this history, because I will be mostly speaking of the need for keeping our beliefs and practices in line with those of Jesus and the Apostles. In St. Irenaeus we come to the one person who most clearly embraced that priority. A contemporary of St. Justin, Irenaeus was away in France in 165 A.D. when Justin was put to death in Rome.

Irenaeus was from Smyrna where he spent his boyhood at the feet of  Polycarp, a saint who had spent his boyhood at the feet of the Apostle John. To the last of his days Irenaeus delighted in telling stories he had heard from “That grand old man Polycarp.” The lessons Jesus and the Apostles taught came clearly alive in those stories.

Smyrna was an ancient trading partner of Lyons, France; and as a man in trade  Irenaeus made his way to Lyons, but something else kept him there. The Christian community, recognizing his solid spirituality, repeatedly turned to Irenaeus for guidance. in difficulties they were having with Pentecostal groups  known as Montanist. After Irenaeus brought the factions to abide with each other’s differences, and all of Lyons chose him for their bishop.
Lyons had become a settled church, but Irenaeus was not left there. His skills in dealing with people drew the attention of Rome, and the pope asked him for help in dealing with groups that were straying from orthodoxy.  

The descendents of Peter and Paul had to contend with insistent newcomers who were urging new gospels on them. These groups were being called Gnostics, which was Greek for knowing ones. A three-year-old great niece of mine had her own way of rejecting anything we told her. She’d assert, “I know, I know.” If she were Greek that would be, “Gnosco, gnosco.”

Irenaeus spent several years visiting Gnostic groups, leaving us a hundred pages of noted on what they were saying. My grasp of his presentation has me seeing Gnosticism as similar to Astrology. Where Astrology claims to find meaning transmitted to humans by the positioning of stars and planets, Gnosticism purports to be in communication with angels they picture as guiding the stars and planets.

Gnostics called the creator of all life in the lower areas of orbiting planets the Demiurge, while they were in communication with spirits in the unlimited outer space which they called the Pleroma. Speaking of Jesus the Gnostics said, “The Lord himself spoke at times from the Demiurge. . . . But they themselves, indubitably, unsulliedly, and purely had knowledge of the mysteries.”

Irenaeus wrote, “It is in the power of all to contemplate clearly with the tradition of the Apostles manifested throughout the world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the churches, to demonstrate the succession of these men. . . Since, however, it would be very tedious to reckon up the succession of all the churches we will indicate that tradition derived from the apostles of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul. It is a matter of necessity that every church should agree with this church.”  


Francis Xavier was a man who did all he could for the Lord.



The Basques have a reputation for being fiery people, and Francis Xavier in his forty-six years lived up to that reputation. As a student at the University of Paris he was a snob, objecting to other well born Spaniards associating with Ignatius Loyola whom Xavier saw as over aged limping ex-soldier. But after he fell under the spell of Ignatius, he revered him so highly that when writing to Ignatius in later years Xavier always knelt in reverence for him.

Seven fine men accompanied Ignatius from Paris to Rome; and after their Company of Jesus had won approval from the Pope, Ignatius dispatched his holy soldiers to posts all over the world. Xavier was thirty-five when the King of Portugal appointed him as nuntio to the Far East. It was a position that gave him complete secular and religious authority.

Anyone hearing about it might think Xavier travelled too much in the ten years leading up to his lonely death on a Chinese island. But his commission from the pope, the king of Spain, and his superior Ignatius all required him to travel everywhere. 

For three years among the Portuguese at Goa in Southwestern India his practice was to go through the streets ringing a bell each day gathering children for religious study. From Goa he went to Ceylon, and from there to southeastern India. Next to the tip of the Malay peninsula, and from there to an archipelago east of Borneo. It was on Celebes that he met a Japanese convert to Catholicism, and this man accompanied Xavier to the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. Soon after his efforts in Japan ended its leaders closed the country to foreigners. But when Catholic missionaries came there three hundred years later they found some descendants of Xavier’s Catholics: people who honored the mother of Jesus, and who owed obedience to the bishop of Rome.

Xavier’s fiery nature at times led to excessive behavior. He called for an inquisition to be set up for the unruly sailors at Goa, and he burst into Buddhist temples, smashing their sacred images. Jesus said that rather than have us lukewarm he would have us hot or cold, and Xavier was hot.
 

By following the Srmon on th Mount we build our lives on rock.



Our Lord’s words about building on rock rather than on sand has me remembering a time in Korea when I helped two young fellows build their house. Peter and Paul were refugees from North Korea where they had learned how top do all kinds of jobs at a great Benedictine farm up there. Fled to the south, they both claimed to be thirty-two years old, since in the south anyone up to thirty-one was eligible for the army. They got young wives, and they ran a radio and photography business out of the one room they rented.

For building their house they dug eight four foot post holes, finding a stream boulder to wedge down in each. After erecting uprights they went to the black market for an immense roll of American communication wire which I helped them weave into a network between the uprights. We plastered wet mud over the network, finishing it off with whitewash.

When it came time for thatching the roof Peter had to take his wife out to her parents’ village to have their first child, so I hung around, getting into Paul’s way. We finished the job just before the coming of a typhoon. And the rock foundation kept the new house standing. Peter and his wife out in her parent’s village had worse luck, with a stream from the mountains taking out the village, leaving Teresa to have her baby up on the mountainside. But she and Peter and the baby came through it well enough, because they had built their lives on the firm rock of Christ’s teaching at the Sermon on the Mount.