Good Friday

Today is the day that the creatures hang the Creator upon the cross; the effect kills the Cause; the subjects slay the King.  Today is also the day that speech must turn to silence in order grasp the mystery of the death of God. Today is the day that sin takes its final strike at the heart of God in an attempt to usurp His throne completely.  Today can be summed up by these words of Patrick F. Kirby:

They drove the hammered nails into his hands,
His hands that shaped the hot sun overhead;
Then all prepared to return to their own lands,
Glad in the knowledge God at last was dead.

“Now Babel can be built, and none deny!
In its cool gardens shall we take our ease;
Nor need we fear the everseeing eye,–
Our gods shall be whatever gods we please.

“Ishtar shall guard us, mother of all men,
And Bel rejoice us when the winds blow spiced
From Indus.  Wine and song shall glad us then,–
We never loved this wistful, pallid Christ!”

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The Wisdom of Humble Faith

Jesus’ condemnation of the self-righteousness of the people of his time in today’s Gospel reminds us of the wisdom of faith content by whatever provisions the Lord has chosen to give.  Unlike the Ninevites, who repented from their sins simply by the words of Jonah without witnessing any miracles, the contemporaries of Jesus refused to repent even though he was among them working miracles day in and day out.  While one group profited from the words of God delivered through a prophet, the other group turned from the Word of God and rejected his grace that would humble their hearts.  The faith of Nineveh accepted whatever little revelation God was willing present to it and received such revelation with great humility.  The faith of Jerusalem doubted all the revelation that God was granting them and rejected Jesus’ revelation with its pride.  Allow Alexander Pope’s Universal Prayer to guide our own faith life today so that, with the humility the Ninevites, we may receive whatever little the Lord chooses to reveal to us with humility in faith.

Father of all! in every age,
    In every clime adored,
By saint, by savage, and by sage,
    Jehovah, Jove, or Lord!
Thou Great First Cause, least understood:
    Who all my sense confined
To know but this—that thou art good,
    And that myself am blind:
Yet gave me, in this dark estate,
    To see the good from ill;
And binding Nature fast in fate,
    Left free the human will.
What conscience dictates to be done,
    Or warns me not to do,
This, teach me more than Hell to shun,
    That, more than Heaven pursue.
What blessings thy free bounty gives,
    Let me not cast away;
For God is paid when man receives,
    To enjoy is to obey.
Yet not to earth’s contracted span,
    Thy goodness let me bound,
Or think thee Lord alone of man,
    When thousand worlds are round:
Let not this weak, unknowing hand
    Presume thy bolts to throw,
And deal damnation round the land,
    On each I judge thy foe.
If I am right, thy grace impart,
    Still in the right to stay;
If I am wrong, oh teach my heart
    To find a better way.
Save me alike from foolish pride,
    Or impious discontent,
At aught thy wisdom has denied,
    Or aught thy goodness lent.
Teach me to feel another’s woe,
    To hide the fault I see;
That mercy I to others show,
    That mercy show to me.
Mean though I am, not wholly so
    Since quickened by thy breath;
Oh lead me wheresoe’er I go,
    Through this day’s life or death.
This day, be bread and peace my lot:
    All else beneath the sun,
Thou know’st if best bestowed or not,
    And let thy will be done.
To thee, whose temple is all space,
    Whose altar, earth, sea, skies!
One chorus let all being raise!
    All Nature’s incense rise!

The Need for Service

The strangest part about the readings of the beginning of the liturgical year is reminder and warning about the end of the Church here on Earth.  And yet, this is not too strange since that small beginning of the entrance of little baby Jesus is best recognized by the magnitude of its ending at the final fulfillment, that which we call the Second Coming.  Throughout all of this, we must learn to realize that the Second Coming is not a separate even; rather, it is a fulfillment of that single event still in progress from the moment those words reached Mary’s humble ears.

For this reason, the season of Advent is not merely a return to historical longing and fulfillment by Jesus, but it is our own entrance into the mystery of God Incarnate, God becoming flesh, entered into history, and made it His own, as we profess daily in The Angelus, “…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  This dwelling among us means that God has made Himself subject to suffering and death.  In other words, God knows the human condition, and He knows it most intimately.

And so St. Paul writes, “You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed”. (Rm 13:11)  Indeed, we shall know neither the hour nor the day that we will be called to stand in front of that Son of God, as the Gospel tells us.  We must not put down our guard and sleep our earthly lives away.  We must live lives faithful and worthy of Christ.  For on that last day, we cannot say to him “Lord, you have no clue what it is like to live a short life, to suffer, to mourn, to love, to lose, and to die.”  And yet again, on that last day we cannot say to the Lord that the eternal One, the Lord Who exists outside of time and space, cannot possibly be sympathetic or empathetic of our own human condition since God is not only sympathetic to our own humanity, but our God literally lived it.

No, my friends, we will have no excuses once we greet our God on that last day.  It will be the Son of God who judges, and he lived a human life from the womb of His mother to the stone tomb.  In his living that human life, the Gospels tell us, he encountered numerous people from different positions in society, as we all do. Then on the end of days, from his countenance shall be seen every single human face since all are his brothers and sisters.  And we shall have to raise our heads to those faces, the innocent faces of children, the worn-out faces of the poor, the tear-filled faces of parents who weep for their children lost at war, the embittered faces of our enemies.  We shall have to raise our heads to that countenance, and a voice shall come from it that will say, “What you did, or did not do, for the least of my brothers.”  That voice will not die or fade away.  It will fill our eternity.  If we are able to raise our heads with the confidence of the forgiven sinner towards that countenance of the Son of man, it is only because we have taken heed of St. Paul’s calling to us: the hour now for you to awake from sleep.

Recognizing this truth will demand that our families, schools, and communities take care to form us into people whose lives are worthy of Christ.  The life worthy of Christ is one that serves others and not the self.  And this formation recognizes that these virtues founded upon love of neighbor cannot be built overnight, nor are they formed by short periods of engagement and detachment.  Indeed, the love of and for our brothers and sisters, especially the most vulnerable in our communities and world, is a life-long habit of virtue that we will need to constantly work on in order to have growth.

Actions and Words

Jesus’ parable of the two sons teaches us an extremely important lesson in what it means to follow Christ.  The verbal rebellion followed by complete obedience by the first son is contrasted with the verbal obedience and failure to act by the second son.  Jesus’ adversaries recognized that it is the first son who truly loves his father, since he has carried out the task that was asked of him.  So, Jesus seemed to question them by this story, are the teachers of the Law who claimed such noble love for God and yet fail to do His will that truly love God? Or, are the prostitutes and the tax collectors, those who received John, Jesus’ predecessor, who delivered the message and commands of God and allowed the message and commandments to transform them who are the true lovers of God?

It is curious that some of us think that Christianity solely means taking on the identity of ‘Christian’.  I think we all know what Christ thinks of such ‘lip-service’ mentality.  To nominally claim Christianity does not mean that we are Christians.  To to be Christian involves following the radical calling of Jesus, often demanding that we abandon worldly attachments and relationships in order to follow him.  This means that we will need to be personally transformed, brought to conformation with the virtue of Christ, which will lead us to serve one another.  We will leave comfort behind in order to follow Christ, but this is the only way for us to be Christians.

Thus, it is not only the sacrament of Baptism that identifies us with Christ, but rather all of the other six sacraments also work to help us live our Christianity.  Why? It is because following Christ forms a new relationship between us, the disciples, and God, which allows us to understand that following Christ will mean having to carry a cross.  This is what it means to be conformed to Christ; insofar as Christ understood this both of himself and of his mission, we therefore must also understand this.  In this sense, each sacrament merits a particular kind of grace in order for us to be able to take on the task that God has reserved for us.

Once we grasp who Christ truly is and what he wants of us, we will have to answer his question, “Which of the two did his father’s will?”  Will we, imperfect Christians as we are, be like the first son; we may not like what God has called us to do but we do it anyway?  Or will we be like the second son; we wear a Christian identity, we readily advertise this identity to others, but we refuse to forgive when forgiveness is asked and we only see human dignity in those whom we favor?  Let us pray that God gives us the strength and courage to be like that first son.

Happy Thursday, friends.

 

Jesus: The Son Of God, Part 2 of 2

In part 1 of this posting, I pointed out what God meant to first-century Palestine Jews and what they saw in the title “Son of God”.  I will use James DG Dunn and NT Wright, two conservative and traditional New Testament biblical scholars, as primary sources to tackle the task at hand.

Whether or not Jesus thought of himself as the Son of God is a question that raises a lot of difficulties for Christology scholars.[1]  However, given that we have no recorded autobiographical text of Jesus, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive way to make an argument in favor of either position.  Yet, Dunn argues that we can hope to penetrate into the mind of the first-century Palestinian Jew named Jesus, however implicitly through his words and actions, to learn of his own sense of divine sonship.  Dunn and Wright conclude that any movement that suggests that Jesus thought of himself as a divine person sharing in the divinity of God is ludicrous and does not take into account the historical context and development of the New Testament texts.  On the other hand, it is not altogether moot for us to approach the question “did Jesus ever claim his divine sonship?” since we have enough evidence from to the scriptural text, as well as other historical works, to insist that Jesus saw himself having an eschatological uniqueness in his relationship with God.

One argument for the self-knowledge of Jesus as having an eschatological uniqueness is his addressing of God as abba in the Gospel writings.  Dunn insists that this piece of evidence is a good starting point insofar as this way of addressing God was not very common in the Jewish tradition of Jesus’ time.  When Jesus addressed God as abba, it seems that there is an intimacy striking of someone familiar to the subject who is the object of his affection in a very familial way.  Distinctively, and worthy of noting, is when Jesus taught an adaptation of the Kaddish, where he addresses God as abba instead of the traditional ‘Lord of the world’ as how these prayers normally begin.  Further, Dunn points to Paul’s usage of abba as something distinctive for the Christians as another piece to the argument since, as Dunn argues, “had it been in common usage within any other large group or class within Palestine or Judaism Paul could hardly have thought of it in this way, as a distinguishing mark of those who shared the Spirit of Jesus’ sonship, of an inheritance shared with Christ.”

Yet, the question remains why it seems that Jesus saw himself as the great I AM in the gospel accounts, most prominently in the Johannine text.  Here, we find that the historical argument from the Johannine scripture is moderate, if not weak, for the self-knowledge of Christ as the Word of God, born before all ages.  In fact, Dunn, citing C.H. Dodd, argues that much of what is said about the person of Jesus as the pre-existent being proceeding forth from the Father in the Johannine tradition is a literary product of the author’s meditation or sermons.  This is the result of comparing the synoptic and the Fourth Gospel, which provides us with various sayings and affirmations that Christ made about himself which are present in the Johannine tradition, but are not present in the Markan, Matthean, and Lukan traditions.  This means that Jesus did not see himself as the very God of Israel who created all things from the beginning and to restore it to its former glory.

Conclusions

First century Judaism was situated amidst a variety of religious beliefs that saw god in various ways.  For the Jews of this time, God was seen in a twofold manner: the One existing before all things Who created all things and Who has called Israel to be his people and offer Himself to them as their God.  All of these religious traditions, along with Judaism, saw the title son of God in a variety of different ways.  Some pagan religious traditions and myths saw the title as a conferring of divinity by god himself to the one he has chosen, or that a god as copulated with a human being to give birth to a demi-god and so forth.  For Judaism, son of God is used in reference to one who lives in a holy manner and who has kept the Law of the Lord.  Accordingly, this title is used of various persons, as well as to refer to Israel and the Israelites themselves.

With this in mind, we do not think that Jesus thought of himself as the Son of God in the manner that modern Christians think of this Christological title.  There is little evidence to suggest that Jesus thought of himself as the same substance (homoousios) as that One God who created Heaven and Earth, and Who called Israel to be His people.  What little evidence we do have of this exists only in the Johannine tradition and, when placed side by side with the Synoptic traditions, does not provide a good enough argument for us to insist that Jesus understands himself as the Son of God with the same understanding that the Nicene Creed claims of him.  Yet, this in no way negates the expression of faith that the Nicene Creed claims of Jesus.  Instead, we must remember that the Nicene Creed is an extended proclamation of faith expressing in a more coherent manner what the early Christians understood by claiming Jesus as the Son of God.


[1] Cf. James DG Dunn “Christology In the Making”  and NT Wright “The Resurrection Of the Son of God”

 

Jesus: The Son Of God, Part I of 2

God According To First-Century Judaism

In chapter nine of his work titled The New Testament and the People of God, the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright argues that first-century Judaism’s belief can be summed up as creational and covenantal monotheism.  Surrounded by various beliefs in divine beings like Epicurean gods who are as far away as possible from their own world and a Stoic god who ends up being synonymous with nature itself, the Jewish tradition saw their God as a kind of combination of both and yet utterly different in His nature and relationship to Israel than the two.  For the Jews, YHWH was not only the One who interacts within the created world, but is the One Who has created all things.  We can find evidence of this throughout the part of the biblical text we now call the Old Testament.  Take for example chapter 40 of the Book of Isaiah where YHWH is praised for His mighty powers and wonders that He has done, and the many Psalms that sing of YHWH’s glory and mercy.  Indeed, for the Jews of Jesus’ time, the belief in YHWH can be summed up in that daily Jewish prayer: “YHWH is our God, and YHWH is One”.

Classic Jewish monotheism’s belief in God was twofold.  First, this Jewish tradition believed that God was first in the order of existence, was One, and created all things; and second, that God called Israel to be His chosen people.  Because of this, God was seen as completely other than the world, but also is continually active within the world.  This is a God who is to overthrow the pagan gods and powers of those nations belonging to these pagan gods.  And in His vindication, He will free His people from oppression of these pagan worshipers, as well as show the nations His glorious name.

Son Of God In First-Century Palestine

James DG Dunn reminds us that whatever we may say about Jesus’ title ‘Son of God’, we cannot claim that first-century Christians had the same understanding as our own Nicene profession of this title in mind when they posited it of Jesus.  Divine sonship was not something novel to the Early Christians.  In fact, the title ‘son of God’ was a title ubiquitously used in reference to many people in the time of Jesus.  Take for instance the various attributions of divine sonship to the legendary heroes of Greek mythology, like Dionysus and Heracles.  Or take for another instance where the title ‘son of God’ is found throughout the scriptural texts as being attributed to Israel, Israelites, and the king.[1]

Divine sonship, or attribution of divinity, in the first two centuries of Palestine is liberally used when talking about men for numerous reasons.  First, we need to understand that early Christianity was not inhibited by a fear of attribution of divinity to men because they did not approach the predication as modern day Christians approach it.  Dunn tells us that when this predication is used in these first centuries “in reference to individual human beings it could denote anything from a righteous or pious man, one who lived in close accord with the divine, to a heavenly or semi-heavenly being, including or the way particularly kings and rulers and especially wise or gifted or inspired men.”[2]  As a result, those who are seen as “son of God” are not necessarily seen as, to borrow Nicene terms, begotten by God from before all ages and consubstantial with God.  Rather, these men are seen as people who reflect the goodness of God through living their lives in accordance with the divine law.

Drawing from various evidence of the ancient world, Dunn argues that because of the variety of beliefs about the divine and humanity that when the ancient people spoke of someone as being “son of God,” it is not positing anything about a divine relation insofar as their natures are concerned; instead, it is a reflection of the person’s relationship to the divine in terms of their living out the divine mandates.  This leads Dunn to conclude that “there is little or no good evidence from the period prior to Christianity’s beginnings that the Ancient Near East seriously entertained the idea of a god or son of god descending from heaven to become a human being in order to bring men salvation, except perhaps at the level of popular pagan superstition.”[3] Thus, we can reasonably conclude that first-century Christians did not understand Jesus’ divine sonship as contemporary Christianity does.


[1] Ibid. 15 – Here Dunn provides the reader with a list of Old Testament text ranging from Ex. 4:22  where Israel is called God’s firstborn son to II Sam 7:14 where God tells David that his descendent will be a king who will be a son of God.
[2] Ibid. 18
[3] Ibid. 22

The Message and the Messenger

Today’s Gospel really highlights the current state of affairs.  Allow me to dive a little bit into the Gospel itself, then I will explain what I mean by that first sentence.

Four things to understand from the current Gospel reading:

1. In Jesus’ time, any Jewish usage of “this generation” is generally not a good one.  “This generation” almost always referred to the people contemporary to the prophets, and they’re normally doing something wrong or acting in some inappropriate way that is detrimental to their relationship with God.

2. For Jesus, the elite of his time and their rejection of the Gospel message reminds him of petulant children who refuse to join in any kind of games, no matter how joyfully they’re played or how gravely they’re carried out.  This leads to the next point.

3. The message of the Kingdom of God was preached in two very different ways.  The adroit comparison between John the baptist and dirge children sing for another tells us that the Baptist’s way of delivering God’s message was quite serious and stern.  On the other hand, the comparison is made between the merry games of children and Jesus’ own delivering of God’s message as a bit more “relaxed” and less unbending.  Yet, in both instances, the petulant children refused to “mourn” and “dance” all the same.

4. This leads us to conclude that it was the message that was rejected and not the messengers themselves; although the rejection of the messengers would come as a natural consequence if the messengers fully exemplify the message.

The current generation is no different from Jesus’ contemporary generation.  We would like to pretend that if the message of Christianity is delivered in a different way, a “more loving” way, that we would take in every word.  But nothing is further from the truth.  We do not wish the message to be delivered in a more loving way, we simply wish the message to be changed to fit our own wants and wishes.  John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have all delivered the Gospel message in very different ways because their personalities are so different, but their message is one and the same: love God first, love the Church, and love your neighbor.  While there is an overwhelming number of us who praise Francis, how many of us would readily admit that we place God before all else in our lives, that we love the Church as we should, and we love our neighbors as God intends for us to love them?  Unlike Jesus’ time, we may embrace the messenger of the Lord (although there will be a time soon where we will reject Francis for being too Catholic, I suspect), but like those of Jesus’ time, we are still rejecting his message, even if it is delivered by a loving man.

Let us then resolve to be better Christians by joining the baptist to mourn and Christ to celebrate.

Have a blessed Friday, friends!