In Defense of Bad Priests

Eamonn Clark

I recently prepared third graders for their First Holy Communion. Going through the story of the Last Supper several times, I noticed that they had a fascination with a certain Apostle… You guessed it – Judas. A fascination with such a character is understandable, as it seems rather out of place in a story which one would think is supposed to be exclusively upholding models of virtue. This is not unlike the very grown-up temptation to expect moral perfection from Catholic clergy. After all, they are supposed to be models of virtue, right?

Yes, they certainly are, and extra scrutiny is rightly deserved because we do indeed have the fullness of truth and grace available to us. But here are the facts. Our Lord chose losers, dummies, and wicked sinners as the foundation of His Church. Of the original Twelve, ten were ambitious cowards. One of those ten was also arrogant (Peter). The eleventh was just ambitious (John). And the twelfth one was a greedy traitor. (Later on He would also call a terrorist to this elite group.)

The place to start looking at the failure of any priesthood is a comparison with the first four failed priesthoods, and the first successful one: Adam, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and Melchizedek, respectively.

Adam was the high priest of nature, called to guard and serve the Garden of Eden and his wife Eve at his own expense. He ought to have put himself in front of her and the serpent, but he shrinks away from his duty. He stands next to her (as Eve “turned to her husband” to give him the fruit) and watches this calamity take place. The serpent goes after Eve first, because he knows that she is easier to trick and that she might be able to trick her husband. When confronted by God, Eve blames the serpent, and Adam blames Eve: there is no responsibility taken.

The Devil often seeks to harm God’s priests through the very people they are called to protect. In this case, Adam’s own fear and self-interest allow his beloved to fall, and then she takes him with her – for what husband would want to have a wife estranged from him, as Eve surely would have been without Adam following her into sin? And yet they become estranged from each other anyway, needing to hide themselves with the flesh of animals… The first time blood is shed in Scripture, it is to cover up the sins of our first parents. A sign of things to come, for sure.

The next failed priesthood is Aaron’s. While Moses is busy with spiritual matters on Mount Sinai, the people grumble against him. The patience required to receive the Covenant is too spiritual for them, and so they threaten to leave the mountain in protest. Aaron is concerned about such a loss of numbers – he is afraid of what Moses will think. He has the people give him their gold, and he makes for them an idol which provides them with the experience of God they wanted: an unchallenging, unspiritual, ungodly experience. But the people are happy, and they stay put for a while, high on their own erroneous ideas about the worship of God. Aaron saved the day. When Moses returns with righteous fury, Aaron explains, like Adam did before God, that it was not his fault – it was the people’s and the furnace’s. More shirking of responsibility. (Moses gives them the proper experience of the god Aaron made for them when he ground it down, threw it in the water, and made the people drink. Like a good priest, he teaches them that a dead god gives even less life than water: it cannot save.)

Unlike Adam, Aaron’s ambitions were totally worldly. Instead of trying to become like God as a direct opponent, he simply wants to be the hero of God’s chosen people. Aaron wants just a little bit too much of their attention… He is not really after the gold, but what lies behind the gold – the esteem of men. That is what gives gold its value, after all.

Nadab and Abihu were Aaron’s sons. They violated the code of the Lord’s sanctuary by bringing unholy fire into the Tent of Meeting. This strange fire was deeply repugnant to the Lord, and so He slew them where they stood. Our Lord will only have sacred heat and light dwell within His holy place. Though profane fire may sustain bodily life, only sacred fire can sustain the life of grace.

The first successful priesthood is that of Melchizedek, whom Abraham meets after his battles. His is a totally spiritual and eternal priesthood, offering bread and wine and accepting the tithes owed to him for his work. He does not ask for money, he simply receives it. He is a priest not because of his family stock, like the Levites, but because of his charity. He gives to God first, then he receives what is rightfully his from men. He does not go looking for greatness: he simply is great.

Judas wraps up all of the failures of earlier priests in himself and makes them even worse. He is unwilling to do the work of a priest, putting himself in the place of Christ over and over again for the salvation of souls, standing in the way of the Devil’s reach of the weak, even though he would not have been alone in this task, unlike Adam. He trades the incarnate Lord not for the esteem of men, but for money itself. The purifying fires of the grace welling up in the Eucharistic Lord are traded for the fires of the foundry which purified the silver he would take as payment for his betrayal and would later throw into the Temple to try to buy back that grace. He takes into his body the blessed fruits of that very first celebration of Holy Mass which he was simultaneously endowed with the awesome power himself to perpetuate, as a recapitulation and elevation of Melchizedek’s priesthood, and then invites in the Devil to contradict it all. Though the accidents of bread and wine sustained Judas’ bodily life, the spirit within him died because of the rejection of the grace within the Lord’s Body and Blood – true food and true drink which preserve from everlasting death.

What greater human evil is there than the evil found in Judas on Holy Thursday? And yet that very night, Our Lord bowed before him to wash his feet, and He even personally called him “friend.” It is not unfair to say that, in a way, God loved Judas more than anyone else in human history, for there has never been a fouler human being to love. In the midst of this supreme wretchedness, Christ left us a memorial of His own greatness.

We know how the human story turns out. Judas despairs of the very mercy he was shortly supposed to be empowered to bring to others in the sacrament of confession. He attempts to slay himself (though perhaps did not succeed, and received even more time to repent), as if the death of the Lord had not been enough payment for his sin… No, Judas saw himself as so great that he believed his sin was unforgivable. “What a fool I have been,” he uttered. Yet this foolish failure brought about the culmination of our very redemption. Without Judas, there is no Passion, Death, or Resurrection. There is also not the greatest condescension of love ever shown by God. Deicide is not therefore justified, but God’s choice to allow a bad priest to exist in the Church is.

Meanwhile, Peter weeps in contrition and makes amends with “the man” he denied knowing, within earshot and within hours of having heard this prophesied. He left that “strange fire” in the courtyard, from where he watched the Lord shiver in the cold and dark of the prison cell, and he leaves the slave girl before whom he cowered in fear. Behold, the Prince of Apostles, who would eventually learn that taking up the sword is better left to those who persecute Christ than those who defend Him, and who would finally end his life as a willing victim upon a cross. The priesthood of Peter was in as sorry a state as the priesthood of Judas; the difference was repentance. Yet again, Our Lord shows his greatness through the failures of one of His hand-picked dispensers of grace.

The Church on Earth is institutional and hierarchical by nature, because human beings require such an order so as to avoid repeating the tragic error of the men of Babel who tried by their own powers to cooperate to reach up to Heaven. The Church on Earth is also sinful by nature, because it is populated by human beings – even in its hierarchy. It has been so from the moment of its inception, and this is by design. No, God does not want bad clergy in the same way He wants good clergy, but He does want to permit them to exist for now. He knew Judas would betray Him, and He knew all the clerical pedophiles, heretics, and antinomians of our own day would do the same. While they betray the Lord by selling Him for popularity or money, as they shrink from their duty to stand in front of Satan and then blame the weak or the natural insufficiency of their means, as they profane the Eucharist through indifference toward it, they repeatedly show the power of Christ in His Church: even through all this, there is victory waiting.

There has always been a crack in the foundation, there has always been chaff in the wheat, and yet there has always been grace available through these men nonetheless, as it is God’s own power which is the source of their priesthood and thus the source of their power to give grace – “ex opere operato.” God shows His majesty in the midst of this weakness and wretchedness. And sometimes He even brings these men out of their shameful disgrace and elevates them to the profoundest heights of sanctity, a feat which must be marveled at. There is true hope of Heaven for every bad priest in this world. Christ calls each of them “friend.”

Perspective is important. “There is nothing new under the sun,” as Qoheleth reminds us. We would do well to recall more frequently the beginnings of the Church to understand Her challenges today. (A reading of the disturbing history of ancient Israel would help too.) Whatever cleric is the object of concern – parish priest, celebrity priest, local bishop, curial official, pope… If there really is sin there, realize that it is just business as usual. The Barque of Peter has always leaked in the storm while the inept crew runs about helplessly, and yet it continues to float safely toward the harbor. Our Lord can guide it even in His sleep.

Let’s pray and fast for all priests, especially those who need it most.

Our Lady, Queen of the Clergy, pray for us!

 

Main image: Pope John XII, who was killed in the act of adultery by a vengeful husband

Sancti Obscuri – St. Porphyrius (September 15)

Jacob Gruber

​If you were asked off the top of your head to name five saints of the Catholic Church, who would come to mind? St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Padre Pio, or St. Francis of Assisi? Perhaps St. John Paul II or Mother Teresa? But what about St. Euphemia or St Paphnutius? Surely St. Iphigenia made it somewhere on the list?

​If these latter names don’t ring any Church bells for you, this new column may be right for you. It’s no secret that we have “saint celebrities.” If you’ve lost an item, you think to pray to St. Anthony, not St. Abundantius. If you want help in discernment, you probably prefer St. Therese’s roses to St. Rosalia’s. But what about these other saints? Don’t they have something to teach us, to inspire us with, to remind us?

​This new column, “Sancti Obscuri,” will look at different saints who, for one reason or another, have become obscure to the modern Catholic imagination. The posts won’t be exhaustive, considering how historical obscurity tends to coincide with a paucity of source material. But if these forgotten men and women have received the crown of sainthood, then they have a story worth hearing. (They know something of Thomas Jefferson’s exasperation in this old “Simpsons” episode, “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington.”)

Our first “sanctus obscurus,” St. Porphyrius, shares a feast day with Our Lady of Sorrows on September 15. In his life, however, he would not have known what to do with a celebration of a “Lady of Sorrows.” By profession, he was a comedian, a mimic, a famous jester. He was a prevailing voice of the remnant of paganism in the post-Constantine Roman Empire, offering to those who hadn’t accepted Christianity a sufficient mockery of its tenets. People expected comedy and corruption from him, certainly not conversion. Yet, as we will see, he was a man who, within a day, went from mimicry to martyrdom, profanation to profession. Before we tell his story, some background is in line.

His story begins best with the story of Julian the Apostate, who, given the spoiler alert in his name, didn’t care for Christianity very much. In the years following the death of Constantine the Great in 337AD, a barrage of complicated politics had plagued the leadership of the vast Roman Empire. Fast forward a couple of decades, and in 361AD one “Flavius Claudius Julianus,” a nephew of Constantine, arose as sole emperor. His reign was to be short (only 20 months), but not without activity.

Although Christianity for almost 50 years had enjoyed political freedom and support from the emperor, the rule of Julian loomed as a serious threat. Though he was a Christian for the first 20 years of his life, he came to reject the Lord and choose instead the “way of Helios” (see his Letter 47). Julian the Apostate envisioned a return to the Roman paganism of old, a religious atmosphere marked by highly syncretistic polytheism, unified, as it were, under the banner of being ‘not Christian.’

When Julian heard of the fame of Porphyrius the Mimic whose specialty was mocking Christians, he had him brought in to entertain the royal court. Everything was set up for a successful show. The audience was eager to be entertained at Christianity’s expense, and Porphyrius had put together a special play; he was going to mock the Mystery of Baptism.

The show was a riot, eliciting raucous laughter to be sure. Things seemed to be lining up perfectly. The climax of the action involved a mock-baptism scene with fake clergy dressed in liturgical garb immersing the “catechumen,” Porphyrius, into some water.

He ceremoniously pronounced that he would now be a follower of Jesus Christ, “in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” before being immersed. But something happened when Porphyrius entered the water. Submerged in that moment, Porphyrius felt the summons of actual grace, a call to serious conversion. Coming out of the water, he announced his decision to all present that he wished to be a Christian and would no longer mock the Living God. But, while he had his metanoia, the emperor was simply annoyed. The Roman Martyrology sums up best what happened next:

“Forthwith, by order of the emperor, he was struck with an axe, and thus crowned with martyrdom.”

​Struck with the extraordinary work of divine grace, he managed to get struck also by the work of human anger. Having given over his heart to Jesus, he gave his head to the emperor. Thus is the story of the great Martyr Porphyrius. Once a jester before secular courts, he was to become a martyr in the heavenly courts.

​As for Julian the Apostate, his hopes for a revival of Roman paganism would not find widespread success. In 363AD, following Julian’s military death, Emperor Jovian took the emperor’s throne and restored the faith of the Roman Empire to Christianity.

​Suppose St. Porphyrius hadn’t slipped into obscurity in modern spirituality. Comedians and performers would have a ready patron, and the whole Church would have a better sense of God’s poetic justice. As it is, let us at least take the lesson to have sincere reverence for the truth and all holy things even when it puts us in rather difficult situations. Don’t forget to invoke his intercession every September 15!

May St. Porphyrius pray for us, and teach us true reverence for the Lord!

The Very Bad Christology of Fr. James Martin, S.J.

Eamonn Clark

No doubt most readers will be aware of the furor surrounding Jesuit Fr. James Martin’s latest book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. Since the issues with the book have been beaten to death – though not to a definitive conclusion – they will not be treated here. An item which has gone nearly undetected by comparison, though perhaps deserving much more treatment than his very bad book, is the very bad Christology which Fr. Martin has been publicly espousing recently.

This past Holy Week, Fr. Martin preached on the 7 Last Words of Christ prior to the Good Friday liturgy at the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington D.C. The Archdiocese reported as follows:

The sixth phrase, “It has ended; it is finished,” is usually interpreted by scholars to be the fulfillment of God’s will, said Father Martin, but he suggested that it can also be interpreted as a resignation, with Jesus saying, “I have done all I can do.” He may have wondered whether the apostles would carry on His work after He died, and be unsure if the great project of His ministry was coming to an end, Father Martin explained. But even if Jesus didn’t yet know how His project would continue, “The Father had other plans,” Father Martin said.

Further on:

Lastly, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Father Martin said his favorite theological question to think about is whether Jesus knew what was going to happen on Easter Sunday before He died. While the answer to the question is a mystery, “the one thing we do know,” said Father Martin, is “He desires only to do the Father’s will,” and in the Garden of Gethsemane, He reached the “ultimate decision point.”

Anyone who has read the Gospels will at this point be reaching for an explanation. Doesn’t Christ speak many, many times about His Resurrection and what will happen after He leaves the Apostles? Doesn’t He show He has foreknowledge in other instances as well? Yes, but it is not for no reason that Fr. Martin has taken his position. He has seen a true difficulty and is attempting to resolve it.

LifeSiteNews ran an article which originally commented on the content of the Good Friday talk (although it has since been edited). Fr. Martin decided to attempt to defend himself in the combox.

He is fully human. With a fully human consciousness. (Which means he would have had knowledge only of what a human person could know.) And fully divine. With a fully divine consciousness. (Which means he would have had the knowledge of the Father.) It’s a great mystery of how those two natures participated together. But to imply that I was denying his divinity is absurd. Feel free to read “Jesus” and “Seven Last Words.”

I don’t want to be too hard on Fr. Martin’s comment, as it was only in a combox, but there is a lot to investigate here. Why does he say “consciousness” and not “nature,” or “intellect,” or “hypostasis”? “Consciousness” is very vague and could lend itself to various interpretations. Also, why does Fr. Martin use the phrase “human person” and then make a contradistinction with “the Father”? Surely, he would admit that Christ is not a human person, but a Divine Person (the Son, not the Father) with a human nature, yes?

Now let’s add one more piece to this puzzle.

Fr. Martin recently took to Twitter (on August 20th, 2017) to explain the interaction between Christ and the Canaanite woman (Mt. 15: 21-28, Mk. 7: 24-29), which was the Gospel reading of the day:

Gospel: Today we see Jesus’ human and divine natures: he learns from the woman that his ministry extends to all, and he heals her daughter.

And then later that day, after receiving numerous rebukes from people who did not agree that Jesus learned about the scope of His salvific mission – the very purpose of His existence – from a mere creature, Fr. Martin responded with:

The most popular heresy in the Catholic Twitterverse is Docetism. It betrays a fundamental fear of any indication that Jesus was fully human

Seeing as Fr. Martin here uses the “h-word” as a defense against people who disagreed with his exegesis, do we not have the right to examine what he is saying in as serious a way as he treats the matter of an accusation of heresy?

But it was an exchange with Massimo Faggioli, a well-respected church historian, during which Mr. Douthat randomly tweeted “Own your heresy,” which sent things over the edge…

Calling [a theologian] a “heretic” is like calling a journalist a plagiarist.  These aren’t funny punchlines to be taken lightly.  They are attacks on one’s faith, and for theologians possible career-enders…

I’m disgusted with the facile use of words like “heresy” and “schism” and “apostate,” passing itself off as defenses of the faith.

All this from the same piece – and these are just some highlights.

Seeing as Fr. Martin is not tolerant of the lax use of these words, even in Twitter fights, shall we investigate what is at stake in his recent comments?

The Council of Ephesus proclaimed Mary as “theotokos,” or “God-bearer” – the Mother of God. This was defined against the doctrine associated with Nestorius (whose relationship with the doctrine is actually quite complicated), which was that Christ was both a human person and a Divine Person loosely united together. This meant that there are really two separate beings or “whos” in Christ: Jesus the human person, and the Person of the Son. Nestorianism was condemned again 20 years later at the Council of Chalcedon. In short, Nestorianism is definitely a heresy, and no Catholic can argue otherwise.

A view which splits Christ into two persons – not merely two natures – could account for several puzzling items. (After all, heresy usually makes matters simpler than they really are.) How is it, for instance, that a woman could really be “the mother of God” if Christ is fully human and is being born according to His humanity by which He is her son? Are His divinity and humanity the same? Of course not (although Eutyches, condemned at Chalcedon, tried something like that solution to this problem). Nestorius could easily explain this – Jesus the human person was born, God the Son was not, even though He was united with Jesus. A similar solution might be given to the problem of the death of Christ. How can God the Son die? The Nestorian answer is that, in every sense, He did not. There is no need for the complex subtleties of the communicatio idiomatum on this account.

Some kind of Nestorian Christology could also explain a strange verse in Scripture which is, frankly, very confusing and frequently misunderstood. It is Mark 13: 32, where Christ speaks of His return: “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of Heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (Matthew 24: 36 is identical, although many ancient Matthean manuscripts lack “nor the Son,” for what it’s worth.)

How to explain this? Certainly, we would not say that the Person of the Son does not know “the day nor the hour,” as He is God in the same sense the Father is God. Could the Gospel writers be suggesting that there are future contingent things that Jesus “the Son (of Man?)” just does not know as a human being and needs to learn, even if God the Son knows them as God? What else would account for this strange utterance of the Lord? Perhaps Fr. Martin’s comments are not so off-base…

Fortunately, this exact issue was settled a long, long time ago, in the year 600 A.D. to be precise. There had been folks – the “Agnoetae” – who picked up on exactly this verse and ran with it. They suggested that Jesus, in His humanity, did not possess the fullness of knowledge He possibly could, as if God the Son had held back some secrets. Pope St. Gregory the Great thought this to be problematic and weighed in on the matter (Denzinger 248). Shall we go through the text?

(But) concerning that which has been written: That neither the Son, nor the angels know the day and the hour [cf. Mark 13:32], indeed, your holiness has perceived rightly, that since it most certainly should be referred not to the same son according to that which is the head, but according to his body which we are . . . . He [Augustine] also says . . . that this can be understood of the same son, because omnipotent God sometimes speaks in a human way, as he said to Abraham: Now I know that thou fearest God [Gen. 22:12], not because God then knew that He was feared, but because at that time He caused Abraham to know that he feared God. For, just as we say a day is happy not because the day itself is happy, but because it makes us happy, so the omnipotent Son says He does not know the day which He causes not to be known, not because He himself is ignorant of it, but because He does not permit it to be known at all. Thus also the Father alone is said to know, because the Son (being) consubstantial with Him, on account of His nature, by which He is above the angels, has knowledge of that, of which the angels are unaware.

Gregory suggests that perhaps Christ is speaking figuratively, just as we figuratively attribute some characteristic to a thing on account of that thing causing that characteristic in us. His non-Scriptural example is a “happy day,” which is happy because it makes us happy. On this account, Christ “does not know” because he does not make us know. Christ attributes the knowledge to the Father, since God the Father does have the knowledge, but since God the Son is consubstantial with the Father, this would also mean God the Son has the knowledge. Basically, Christ is condescending to the disciples’ poor understanding of His nature – they don’t know him as God the Son, consubstantial with the Father. (cf. Mark 10: 18, Luke 18: 19 – “Why do you call me good? None is good but God alone.”)

 Thus, also, this can be the more precisely understood because the Only-begotten having been incarnate, and made perfect man for us, in His human nature indeed did know the day and the hour of judgment, but nevertheless He did not know this from His human nature. Therefore, that which in (nature) itself He knew, He did not know from that very (nature), because God-made-man knew the day and hour of the judgment through the power of His Godhead. . . . Thus, the knowledge which He did not have on account of the nature of His humanity – by reason of which, like the angels, He was a creature – this He denied that He, like the angels, who are creatures, had. Therefore (as) God and man He knows the day and the hour of judgment; but on this account, because God is man.

Here, Gregory gives a better explanation. He says that Christ knew “the day and the hour” in both His human and Divine natures, but He did not know from His human nature. This account would lead a reader (or listener) to understand that “the day and the hour” are not able to be known by natural inference. In other words, “flesh and blood will not reveal this to you” (cf. Mt. 16: 17). Also, as with the first explanation, Christ is speaking to the disciples according to their present understanding of His nature (and in this case His knowledge specifically) – they think He has a human knowledge derived from human learning, sometimes supplemented by Divine inspiration such as the prophets had. They do not yet have a full Christology – that must wait until Pentecost. Of course, we must be careful to avoid an implication of dishonesty in Christ’s words. Rather, He uses a rhetorical device which simply allows the truth to remain obscure.

Finally, we have a startlingly aggressive condemnation of Agnoetism from Gregory:

But the fact is certainly manifest that whoever is not a Nestorian, can in no wise be an Agnoeta. For with what purpose can he, who confesses that the Wisdom itself of God is incarnate say that there is anything which the Wisdom of God does not know? It is written: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . All things were made by him [John 1:13]. If all, without doubt also the day of judgment and the hour. Who, therefore, is so foolish as to presume to assert that the Word of the Father made that which He does not know? It is written also: Jesus knowing that the Father gave him all things into his hands [John 13:3]. If all things, surely both the day of judgment and the hour. Who, therefore, is so stupid as to say that the Son has received in His hands that of which He is unaware?

Gregory draws out an implicit Nestorianism in the Agnoetist doctrine. If there is really one being and Person, Jesus Christ, the incarnate Person of the Son, with two distinct natures united in that one subsistent being, then the knowledge of the Son must overflow into the knowledge of the human intellect due to the unity of subsistence which obtains. That knowledge would of course be gradually bestowed according to the natural capacity of the human faculties of Christ, which is why Luke can say, “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” (Luke 2: 52) As an infant, the human Jesus really did not know “the day and the hour,” but once His natural capacity to receive this knowledge grew, it immediately accessed that knowledge (cf. CCC #472).

The Catechism also has something to say about Agnoetism, though it does not condemn it by name (#473-474)… The letter from Pope St. Gregory the Great is also cited in the footnotes:

But at the same time, this truly human knowledge of God’s Son expressed the divine life of his person. “The human nature of God’s Son, not by itself but by its union with the Word, knew and showed forth in itself everything that pertains to God.” Such is first of all the case with the intimate and immediate knowledge that the Son of God made man has of his Father. The Son in his human knowledge also showed the divine penetration he had into the secret thoughts of human hearts. By its union to the divine wisdom in the person of the Word incarnate, Christ enjoyed in his human knowledge the fullness of understanding of the eternal plans he had come to reveal. What he admitted to not knowing in this area, he elsewhere declared himself not sent to reveal.

Here we have a fine summary of everything wrong with Fr. Martin’s Christology. There is clarity of language, first of all, and there is also an affirmation of the fullness of Christ’s human knowledge due to His human nature’s union to the Person of the Son. This human knowledge consists, then, not only in what a human being could know from experience and study. It also contains, as far as is possible for Christ’s human nature, all that God the Son knows, including the secrets of human hearts, the meaning and extent of His own visible mission (contra Fr. Martin’s exegesis of the interaction with the Canaanite woman), all that pertains to the truth of God and His laws and His Scriptures, the “day and the hour” (contra the original application of Agnoetism), that He would rise from the dead and successfully send out the Apostles (contra Fr. Martin’s Good Friday sermon), and all other future contingent events. While a Jesus who walks by faith and not by sight is more relatable, that is not the Christ of reality.

What can we say of our Jesuit? I too, like Fr. Martin, am concerned with the rash use of words like “heresy.” (I suggest that a general resurgence in the use of the classical terminology of theological censures is appropriate, and I will apply some of that language here.) In the strictest sense, Agnoetism seems not to be heretical (hæretica), as it does not immediately contradict a divinely revealed and defined dogma (like Nestorianism itself does), but it is erroneous (erronea) or next to error (errori proxima), as the truth it contradicts is immediately or at least eventually deduced from a defined dogma (contra Nestorius) and a certainly known natural truth (that Christ’s unglorified human nature was capable of knowing “the day and the hour,” and such like particular things). An Agnoetist must either deny what is clear from the dogma defined against Nestorius, or he must deny the natural truth about the possibility of Christ’s human knowledge. For this reason, it is not strictly appropriate to call an Agnoetist a heretic, even though it is difficult to conceive that what is being denied is the naturally certain truth. (Gregory of course thought Nestorianism was much more likely to be the root.)

I do think, however, that Fr. Martin has made it clear that he is indeed an Agnoetist.

I would certainly welcome a response from him denying this accusation and explaining his position with more clarity than he has done in the texts I have quoted.

We need to pray for our high-profile priests. Clerics who gain fame live a constant high-wire act even more than the average parish priest. If the downfall of Fr. Corapi has any lesson for celebrity priests, of whom Fr. Martin is the contemporary paradigmatic example, it is this: a priestly ministry which is more about conferences, books, and special events than it is about the sacraments and other characteristically priestly acts is in big trouble. Recall then-Father Corapi’s very sad words when he announced he would be leaving priestly ministry…

I didn’t do very much of that [sacramental work] quite honestly in the twenty years that I did minister . . . 90 percent of what I did in the past did not require ordination. Speaking through social communication—radio, TV, so forth—that’s not ministry, strictly speaking. My particular mission was speaking, writing, and teaching—not so much in the sacraments, but outside of them, in conjunction with them. So what I’m going to be doing in the future is pretty much the same thing.

I do not know if these words ring true with Fr. Martin, but I do sincerely hope he goes “back to basics” to avoid a similarly disastrous end. That might mean sacrificing some of the limelight – or all of it.

Comments are closed.

 

Main image: a fresco in Santa Maria Maggiore (Rome), a papal basilica built in honor of the Council of Ephesus (source: https://www.touritalynow.com/italy-travel-guide/rome/basilica-di-santa-maria-maggiore)

The Grotesqueness of the Mass and the Problem of Evil

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I would like you to imagine the classic love story. You know the one: The daring knight rescues the damsel in distress from the fiery dragon. The details really don’t matter. All the story needs, seemingly, is a knight, a dragon, and a princess. However, it seems that there is one other element needed in the story, and that is the element of danger. For the story to work, the knight must triumph in the end, but only after a battle in which he might have lost. And this seems to be true, not just from our perspective, but from the perspective of the princess as well.

I mean, if the story is to be believed, the princess loves her knight, and love seems to include a desire for the beloved to be safe from harm. Yet, imagine how the princess would feel if the daring knight, instead of facing the dragon in hand to hand combat, camped a mile away from the castle with a sniper rifle, killed the dragon from a safe distance, and then waltzed in to pick up the princess. A bit anticlimactic isn’t it? Don’t we all feel, as much as we might not like to admit it, that if we were the princess, we’d prefer our beloved risking it all to save us? Don’t we, in a secret place in our heart, want our knight to be scarred?

Now, I’m not going to try to understand the motivation for this desire. I don’t know where it comes from, I only know that it seems true that we have it. But, I do think it has to do with what comes after the knight’s daring rescue. While the knight and princess gallop away on a snow white stallion, isn’t there already a natural bond forged by their shared experience of the dragon? If the knight had faced no danger and suffered no injury in his battle with the dragon, wouldn’t the princess, as much as she loves her knight, feel estranged from him? Wouldn’t she ask herself, “Does he understand what the dragon did to me?”

I have often had that question about my relationship with God. Knowing how much my sin has hurt me and made me despicable to myself, and reflecting on the glory and perfection of God, I sometimes have asked myself, “Does He understand what sin did to me?” The answer God gave me at the cross, and continues to give me every day in the Mass is, “Yes, because sin has done it to me too.” There seems to be a deep psychological reason that the bread and wine are consecrated separately in the mass: We want a God who knows what it feels like to have his blood separated from his body, in the same way that we have spilled our blood living in a broken world. Of course, we want a God who is all-powerful, who triumphs over sin and death, no denying that, but we also want a God who bleeds in the process. We want our God to carry the same scars we do.

That is “the grotesqueness of the mass.” In the mass, as a continuation of the eternal sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God makes himself vulnerable to us, so that He can share in our weakness. Our suffering becomes the point of encounter with God. In the mass, God enters our brokenness, our loneliness, our anger, our numbness. That is the horrible beauty of the Mass and the cross: that the hour of good’s triumph over evil is when good is weakest. It is when God looks most like a man. God suffers with us, in order to make Himself capable of being understood by His creatures who have so long suffered under sin, that they are unable to comprehend a life of love without suffering.

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And yet, we know that this is not the end. God chose to suffer not just to meet us in our suffering, but to bring us out of it. We have hope that there is a love that transcends suffering, and though, in our broken human condition, we can’t experience it now, (or at least, our experience of it is limited,) our hope in God is that some day we will. That is why the problem of evil (Why does a good God allow suffering in the world) is not so much a problem as it is a recognition of our broken selves. As fallen men and women, our experience of our own brokenness makes us want others to have experienced our suffering. This is not because we are evil and sadistically want others to suffer, but because we want to know we are not alone. The cross not only gives us that reality, but also the hope for something more: something we cannot fully comprehend now, but something we know we’ve been missing. Evil exists because in our broken state, we need evil to help us recognize the good. In the evil of the cross, we see the ultimate good, and that ultimate good gives us hope for a good without evil, a love without pain, a final victory over sin.

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Post by: Niko Wentworth

Main image: The Deposition from the Cross, Bl. Francis Angelico, 1434

Adventures in Liturgy: Funeral, or Celebration of Life?

Recently, I was distributing Holy Communion during a Mass of Christian Burial. The coffin was to my immediate right, and the family of the deceased to my immediate left. The Communion Procession was moving in an orderly fashion, when suddenly there was a bottleneck. When I looked up to see what was happening, I couldn’t believe my eyes: having just received Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, people were greeting members of the immediate family who were sitting in the front row. I was stunned! I whispered quietly, “Please keep moving, you are blocking the other communicants.”

How did we get here? Answering this question is simultaneously simple, and equally complex. While one may say people no longer know how to act properly in public, I propose that there are other realities at work as well.

The General Introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals states, Christians celebrate the funeral rites to offer worship, praise, and thanksgiving to God for the gift of a life which has now returned to God, the author of life and the hope of the just.[1] Our worship, whether at a funeral or many regular parish Masses, has become so anthropocentric, that we have lost a grip on the reality that we gather to worship, praise, and thank God; instead we often make ourselves the source, center, and end of our liturgical celebration. At a funeral, we gather not for a celebration of life, but to encounter the mercy of God and the promise of eternal life found only in Christ.

Secondly, we live in a world without sin. To admit that there is sin in the world and that we are sinners does not mean that we are bad people. To admit that we are sinners and that there are acts that are objectively right or wrong, proclaims that we are human beings who need to be redeemed through the Paschal Mystery of Christ. Death is a consequence of sin. The Church through its funeral rites commends the dead to God’s merciful love and pleads for the forgiveness of their sin.[2] To admit that we are sinners is to acknowledge that the deceased, and all those present, is truly human, and that God alone is the healer of our pain, and the source of forgiveness.

Death is very hard, and the reality of separation from those we love most dearly is heart wrenching. At the rite of final commendation and farewell, the community acknowledges the reality of separation and commends the deceased to God. In this way it recognizes the spiritual bond that still exists between the living and the dead and proclaims its belief that all the faithful will be raised up and reunited in the new heavens and a new earth, where death will be no more. [3]We have come from God and we are returning to God: our origin is a reality, and to return to God our goal. Is this basic reality present to the minds and hearts of believers today? While life is to be lived and lived to the fullest of the potential God has given us, do we keep before us that our time on earth is not what gives us meaning, but rather that we are destined for God? The preaching, life, liturgy, and catechesis of the Church needs to proclaim loudly that our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.[4] A celebration of life fails to lead us to embrace our true citizenship.

If the Liturgy truly forms our faith and shapes our living, our approach to death and the Rites of Christian burial may reflect more accurately that we believe that all the ties of friendship and affection which knit us one throughout our lives do not unravel in death.[5]

Post by: Fr. Jordan Kelly, O.P.

Main image: A Funeral at Ornans, Gustave Courbet, 1850

[1] Order of Christian Funerals, hereafter OCF, #5.

[2] OCF, #6.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Philippians, 3:20.

[5] OCF, # 71.

First Fridays: Leviticus 23

“The LORD said to Moses, ‘These are the festivals of the LORD which you shall celebrate at their proper time with a sacred assembly.’”

So begins the Old Testament reading for today. Following this introduction, the reading continues with God pronouncing the major feasts that would make up the Jewish calendar: The Sabbath, the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Offering of First Fruits, Festival of Weeks, the Festival of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Festival of Tabernacles. It may seem that this list of Jewish festivals may not appear to be particularly relevant to the modern Christian. After all, we don’t celebrate these feasts; so why did this passage and others like it make its way into our lectionary? What can we take away from them?

One reason why these readings are important to us is the historical background which they provide us about our ancestors in faith and the religious culture into which our Lord was born. The present is shaped by the past, so learning about the lived experience of those who preceded us and how they kept their traditions alive gives us a blueprint for doing the same today. For example, that the Festival of Weeks is a celebration commemorating the wheat harvest in Israel does not seem to be of utmost importance to the modern Christian. However, knowing that the Festival of Weeks was also known as Pentecost because it fell 50 days after Passover, in the same way as the Christian Pentecost follows 50 days after Easter, and that apart from being a harvest celebration, it commemorates the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai, allows us to enter into the liturgical importance of this festival. Understanding the relationship between the giving of the law at Sinai, and the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost allows us to see the gradual fulfillment of salvation history and the slow unveiling of God’s love throughout time.

But for this post, I don’t want to talk about the rich theological insights a close study of each of these festivals would give us. There are others who have done a much better job than I could. Interested readers could do no better than to check out the Berit Olam commentaries published by The Liturgical Press. Rather, I want to focus on the general theme present throughout the entire narrative, (which in the reading is presented in a redacted form.) That is, the elements of time and space, and how they are ordered to the worship of God. If you look at Leviticus 23:1-44, there are several phrases that you would find repeated multiple times. “The Lord said to Moses, speak to the Israelites,” “The appointed festivals” or “sacred assemblies,” “Do no regular work,” and “lasting ordinance for generations to come” and “Wherever you live.” I want to concentrate on these repeated phrases as revelatory of the kind of relationship God wants the children of Israel to have with Him and with each other. Finally, after looking at these, I want to address the seemingly out of place verse of Leviticus 23:22 which I think is central to the passage.

To begin, it should be noted that Leviticus 23 begins a new “section” in the book of Leviticus. The previous “section” dealt with the conduct of the priests, and now we have seemed to move on from that to norms of general conduct for all the Israelites. How fascinating that the first directive God gives to His people is a calendar! Even before the seemingly paramount sections on rewards for obedience and punishments for disobedience (Leviticus 26), God gives very specific instructions for when to celebrate liturgical feasts. Furthermore, the passage makes it clear that this is a divine command. “The Lord said to Moses, speak to the Israelites,” is repeated several times, reiterating how the giving of the calendar of feasts comes from God Himself. In fact, the chapter ends with God saying, “I am the Lord your God,” using the divine “I am” with which he first identified Himself to Moses to underline the sacred nature of the festivals just commanded. Furthermore, the repetition of “lasting ordinance for generations to come” and “wherever you live” reflect the universality of these commands. These commands hold true, not just for the small group being spoken to, but for all of God’s people, wherever and whenever they are.

It is because of this that we hear repeated the command to do “no regular work” (in other translations, servile or laborious work). Is this command given because God disapproved of the work they Israelites did? Of course not. God commands that sacred days be days of rest as a reminder that these are not normal “work days.” They are days that we rededicate ourselves to the work of the Lord, that is, prayer. Just as God “rested” on the seventh day after the work of creation, we rest after our participation in that unfolding work of creation to remind ourselves of what that work is ordered to – God.

And that is what I think this passage reveals the most about God and about ourselves. Our work is ordered to our rest, which is itself ordered towards our relationship with God. As human beings, we are transcendent creatures. We have limited needs like any other animal; we eat until we aren’t hungry anymore, we sleep until we aren’t tired anymore, we seek shelter from the elements, and all the other basic necessities. But we also have unlimited transcendent desires. We have a desire for beauty, for companionship, for wholeness, for infinite joy. That is, we have a desire for God. God led the Israelites out of Egypt and he gave them the calendar of feasts not to satisfy their basic animal needs, but their transcendent human needs. God gave the Israelites a calendar of feasts and directions of how to celebrate them even before He finished leading Israel into the Holy Land because it was given to them for the purpose of worship, and so their time in the land and their use of it must be ordered to that purpose.

Do we find this to be the reality in our lives today? Do we order our time and our space to that reality? How often do we find our work encroaching into our time with God? How often are we tempted to skip prayer or even just healthy social activities in order to get work done because we think that is what is expected of us? Could you imagine what kind of a society we would be if our calendars were arranged around preserving the sacredness of the day of rest? Imagine if employers arranged work schedules in a way that not only provided employees with sufficient “days of rest” but also such that they could participate with dignity in community activities (both religious and other healthy communal gatherings.)

It is to that point which I think the, seemingly out of place, verse of Leviticus 22:23 is ordered. “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.’” This is the “gleaning law” of ancient Israel, which essentially stated that those who owned and worked farmland ought not be so exacting in their harvest that those without land wouldn’t be able to find food should they glean from the field. In a passage about liturgical feasts, why would this command be placed in the exact middle? It’s true, the Festival of Weeks is a harvest festival and so making a point about harvesting is not completely out of place here, but it still seems a little strange.

However, reflecting on the idea that our time and resources are ultimately ordered to the service of God, we might find religious significance in the gleaning law. In some sense, the gleaning law made it possible for the poor to participate in the festival. It ensured that there would be food available after the harvest for those who begged in order to fulfill their basic needs. The poor would not have to worry if taking time off from their job for the festival would impact their ability to fill their needs. Just as a farmer has a right to collect the fruit of his labor from his field but not be so exacting that there is none left for others, an employer has a right to his employees time (for a fair wage of course,) but not to be so exacting in his demands that an employee does not have time or energy left for religious and community oriented activities in a respite from “regular work.”

As a reflection, we might ask ourselves, do we keep the “gleaning law” in our own lives? Do we ensure that every day we have several periods of time protected from the encroachment of our daily demands, our regular and laborious work? Do we use that time to concentrate not on our basic animal needs, but our transcendent human needs? What “mini-festivals” do we have planned in our day in which our focus is on prayer to God and charity towards our neighbor? Is our time away from the office ordered towards these higher things, or is it only a brief respite to prepare for the next day on the job? Essentially, do we work to live, or are we living to work? With these thoughts in mind, thanks be to our God, who takes care of our needs so that we can use this time on Earth to grow closer to Him!

 

Post by: Niko Wentworth

Main image: The Gleaners, Jean-François Millet, 1857, oil on canvas

Did God Really Try to Kill Moses?

Remember all those times in Scripture when God gets so upset with His chosen specially representatives that He actually tries to kill them? You shouldn’t… It is not a frequent occurrence, and it arguably doesn’t even happen when Moses departs from Midian on his way back to Egypt. Let’s see two translations of the relevant passage and then dig in:

24 At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to kill him.25 Then Zippo′rah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26 So he let him alone. Then it was that she said, “You are a bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.[1]

24And it happened on the way at the night camp that the Lord encountered him and sought to put him to death. 25And Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched it to his feet, and she said, “Yes, a bridegroom of blood you are to me.” 26And He let him go. Then did she say, “A bridegroom of blood by the circumcising.”[2]

When Moses departs Midian for Egypt, he is met at night by “the Lord,” who tries to kill “him.” Moses’ wife circumcises her son and touches Moses’s (or somebody’s) “feet” with it. She makes a declaration, and the Lord no longer seeks to kill Moses. This passage is so incredibly ambiguous and dense it is not possible to offer any definitive interpretation, but it is clear that it plays an important role in the Book of Exodus nonetheless by providing an example of how important covenants are to God.

These verses are incredibly peculiar for many reasons. One of these is the form of pronouns used. “Exodus 4:24 does not identify the direct object of the verbs ‘met’ and ‘kill.’”[3] Willis also explains that 4:25 does not say whose feet it was to whom she touched the foreskin. Is there some point to this ambiguous language, or is the reader somehow expected to know to whom the pronouns refer? Verse 26 repeats, seemingly unnecessarily, what was said in verse 25 about the bridegroom of blood.

Some more puzzles… Why would the Lord try to kill Moses or his son? If it is really the Lord, how could he fail? What is the nature and meaning of Zipporah’s actions and words? The questions are endless, and so too are the opinions of how to answer them.

At least it seems clear that the attack was related somehow to circumcision. But what exactly is the connection? What is the meaning of circumcision in the Old Testament?

“Great indeed is [the commandment of] circumcision, for there was not the slightest delay concerning it granted [even] to the righteous Moses.”[4] This rite was an all-important event. This cannot be understated. What baptism is to Christians, so circumcision was to the Jews. It began very early in their history and grew into a detailed ritual with manifold meanings. “Circumcision must have been widely practiced in the pre-exilic period. . . It was apparently in the period following the Babylonian exile that circumcision assumed great importance for the Jews, being one of their most distinctive religious rites, along with Sabbath observance.”[5] Eventually, it took on at least 3 distinct spiritual meanings, referenced elsewhere in scripture – circumcision of the heart, of the lips, and of the ears, which would indicate some spiritual good.[6]

However, in his whopping 214-page summary of the various positions on this passage, J. T. Willis points out that J. Coppens argues that while the most popular position regarding the text is that God wanted to slay Moses because of the failure to circumcise his son, it does not work.

“Coppens contends that this interpretation does not make sense, because (1) Moses had two sons; why would he have circumcised only one of them? (2) This son would be approximately forty years of age at this time, but the text presents him as an infant. (3) Why would Yahweh want to kill Moses, whom he chose and sent to deliver his people? Others understand this passage to mean that according to Midianite custom, Moses should have been circumcised just before his marriage; Yahweh wishes to kill him because he neglected this custom; Zipporah saves Moses by substituting the circumcision of their son for the father.”[7]

As will be shown, the ambiguity and strangeness of the passage allows it to elude any definitively authoritative interpretation. As Alter says, “This elliptic story is the most enigmatic episode in all of Exodus. It seems unlikely that we will ever resolve the enigmas it poses. . .”[8] Again: “Exodus 4:24-26 is among the most enigmatic verses in the entire book of Exodus. The episode is not framed in time or space, nor does it seem to be related to its context. Moses is “on the way,” but to where we do not know. The narrative concerns a meeting that seems to happen at night. This is no ordinary meeting but sounds not unlike the meetings of Jacob at Bethel (Gen 28:10-22) and Penuel (Gen 32:22-32).”[9]

24 At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to kill him.

The earliest Jewish commentators decided that it could not be God Himself trying to do the killing. “For, not only did that seem quite unlikely in the larger context, but it would have hardly been appropriate for God to ‘seek to kill’ anyone-if He sought to kill someone, then that someone would be killed!”[10] The Septuagint uses the expression “angel of the Lord,” and this is affirmed by several other ancient translations, including the Targum Onqelos, the Targum Neophyti, and the Fragment Targum (P), which refer to the assailant as “an angel of the Lord,” “the Destroyer,” and “the Angel of Death,” respectively. The Book of Jubilees also refers to him as a wicked angel.[11]

One ancient Jewish commentator says, “At the time that Moses had said to Jethro, ‘Give me Zipporah your daughter as a wife;’ Jethro said to him, ‘Accept this one condition that I will tell you and I will give her to you as a wife:’ He said: ‘What is it?’ Jethro said to him: ‘The son that is born to you first will be given over to idolatry [and, hence, not circumcised], those [born] thereafter can be given to the worship of [your] God:’ He accepted this condition … For that reason did the angel seek to kill Moses at the inn. . .”[12] This would seem to make some sense in light of the verse that just preceding which speaks of the firstborn being put to death as punishment for disobeying the Lord (4:23). “This dire threat [in verse 23], to be fulfilled in the tenth plague, also inducts us to the narrative episode that follows in the next three verses, in which the Lord seeks to kill Moses, and the blood of the firstborn intercedes.”[13]

The inn is specifically mentioned, and perhaps this is significant. “[In the inn or] ‘resting place,’ it probably does not mean a building, but the place where they rested for the night, whether under a tent, or in the open air.”[14] “And so, when, along the way, he [Moses] sought to take care of their lodgings and as a consequence neglected the matter of circumcising his son Eliezer, ‘… the Lord met him [Moses] and sought to kill him’ [Exod. 4:24] .”[15] Kugel opines in a footnote on this passage, “Why would the Bible mention that this incident took place ‘at the inn’ unless it was to hint that the inn had something to do with the reason for the attack? Hence, this interpreter reasons, Moses, in taking care of finding an inn, neglected something more important. Note further that the Hebrew word for ‘inn’ (malon) sounds like the verb for ‘circumcise’ (mill), perhaps suggesting a relationship between the two in the story.”[16]

Ancient Christian authorities also have diverse opinions on the correct interpretation of this passage, which is no surprise. “We must also inquire who that being was of whom it is said in Exodus that he wished to kill Moses because he was setting out for Egypt. And afterwards, who is it that is called the ‘destroying angel,’ and who also is he who in Leviticus is described as Apopompeus, that is, the Averter. . .”[17] Augustine asks, “. . . [Whom] did the angel wish to kill?”[18] Augustine’s answer to this question is Moses’ son. He does not say which one, Gershom or Eliezer. He solves the problem of the missing antecedent by a reference to another text that does the same thing. “For the [87th] psalm begins at that point and had not said anything about the Lord or about that city whose foundations were meant to be understood when the psalm said, ‘Its foundations are on the holy mountains.’ But because of what follows, ‘the Lord loves the gates of Zion,’ the foundations, either those of the Lord or of Zion – ‘of Zion’ yields the better sense – are understood as the foundation of a city.”[19] However, Augustine admits that anyone who states that it is Moses who is the object of the threat “should not be strongly opposed.”[20] He appears to have had a strange translation in front him though, for he says of the following verses, “She does not say that ‘he drew back from him’ because she circumcised the infant but that ‘the blood of circumcision stopped.’ Not that it flowed but that it stopped – in a great mystery, if I am not wrong.”[21] We may say, without shame, that it is very possible that the great Augustine is indeed wrong.

Ephrem the Syrian has something to say about the circumcision, or lack thereof, that precedes the episode. “From the day [the Lord] spoke with him on Horeb, he had not been united to his wife, who was distressed; and she was under judgment because she had not put full faith in his word. [Moses] blamed her for keeping his son from being circumcised.”[22] These two reasons are why the angel appeared, he argues. If Moses had returned to the Hebrews, who had continued circumcision even in such perilous conditions for their children, he would be ridiculed for not having circumcised his son who was safe. Ephrem also states that it was the angel’s feet to which Zipporah held the freshly cut foreskin. Ephrem further comments, “He married Zipporah who bore him two sons: one he circumcised, but the other she did not let him circumcise. For she took pride in her father and brothers [who were uncircumcised], and although she had agreed to be Moses’ wife, she did not wish to adopt his religion … She thus allowed one to continue on the circumcision of Abraham, while forbidding the other [to be circumcised], through whom her father’s tradition of the foreskin would be preserved.”[23]

25a Then Zippo′rah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it…

Jerome and Augustine both see typological significance in the second verse of the passage. “As regards Moses, it is clear that he would have been in peril at the inn, if Zipporah, which is by interpretation ‘a bird,’ had not circumcised her son and cut off the foreskin of marriage with the knife which prefigured the gospel.”[24] It is to him then, a sign of celibacy. Augustine sees circumcision not just as a sacrament of the Old Law, but a prefiguration of baptism.[25] Even more specifically, he sees the flint as Christ. “Christ was the rock whence was formed the stony blade for the circumcision, and the flesh of the foreskin was the body of sin.”[26]

There are still many questions in this verse to be answered, or at least to be asked. “Whose feet are touched with the bloody foreskin? Perhaps Moses’s, but it could be the boy’s, or even the Lord’s. The scholarly claim, moreover, that ‘feet’ is a euphemism for the genitals cannot be dismissed.”[27] (The translation “touched Moses’ feet” is indeed a dynamic translation which has chosen an interpretation to help solve the ambiguity.)

25b – 26 …and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”So he let him alone. Then it was that she said, “You are a bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.

Regarding specifically the exclamation “bridegroom of blood,” Cohen offers some thoughts. “Her thrusting of the foreskin at the feet [vatagga’ leraglav] of her husband is indicative of the fearful haste she felt impelled to employ and her profound anger at Moses for having endangered their son’s life. She verbalizes this anger in the problematic cry, ‘ki hatan damim attah li [literally: For a bridegroom of blood you are/were for me].’”[28] Cohen says that this condemnation was probably the expression of Zipporah’s anger that by threatening the life of their child (either Gershom or Eliezer) he acted irresponsibly. This could have been the last straw in what she had already seen as a strained marriage due to their differing religions. Her exasperated exclamation would be somewhat more understandable if this is so.

A very important question that has not yet been asked is: what is the meaning of physically touching the “feet” with the foreskin? Was it not enough to remove it? Perhaps there is some connection between this action and Abraham’s request in Genesis 24:2, which is followed by an oath about marriage. This is especially possible if “feet” really is a euphemism. Could Zipporah be indicating something of an oath by her action? Could she be atoning for some failure to uphold her marriage oath (which would presumably at least implicitly indicate the adequate provision for the protection of potential children), either on her part or on Moses’, as has been discussed? The 26th verse certainly requires that marriage be considered in the interpretation of the pericope.

As for the oddly repetitive language between vv. 25-26, the Anchor Bible offers a relatively simple solution. “The redundancy of vv. 25-26 should not disturb us. De Groot (1943: 14) compares 1 Sam. 4:21-22… So Exod. 4:26 should probably be translated ‘then she said’ or ‘that was when she said.’ The repetition in vv. 25-26 may simply put an emphatic end to the narrative, like 1 Sam 4:22.”[29]

Circumcision was one of the most sacred rites and responsibilities of the Jewish people during the time of the Exodus narrative. Eventually it became a distinctive mark of a Jewish man that he was circumcised on the eighth day. If Moses, the one who would become the prophet to whom there has arisen no equal after his lofty vocation was given to him at the burning bush, would neglect somehow in fulfilling this obligation to his own son then certainly there must be some kind of punishment, or at least an attempt or threat of punishment. Exactly how that punishment was enacted and exactly what Zipporah’s reaction was will be left open for interpretation until the end times. However it came to pass though, it is clear that such an enormously perplexing event is important, precisely because it is so perplexing. There would not be nearly as much interest in an ambiguously worded pericope were it a relatively boring one. Instead, there is immense attention paid to it by Biblical scholars since before the time of Christ because it seems that God would have His chosen servant – or that servant’s son – be put to death. (We see here a parallel with Abraham’s own son coming close to death because of his human father.) It is possible that the rest of salvation history, let alone the Exodus narrative, depends on Zipporah’s swift action. On this reading, God takes the sign of His covenant with Abraham so seriously that He is willing to put the “convenience” of His previously designed plan for salvation at risk.

Perhaps, not unlike the Abrahamic sacrifice of Isaac prefiguring the Cross, this episode may do the same. Just as God allowed for Isaac to be spared and had some other sacrifice made instead, here God allows for Moses’ son (or for Moses himself) to be saved but accepts the foreskin of his son in his place. Eventually, Jesus will accept his Father’s sacrificing of him, and he will let the Angel of Death attack him, with nobody able to make any other fitting sacrifice to take his place.

A final take away… Promises are important. When we marry someone, for example, we make a solemn promise with that person to love them as a husband or wife ought to. When God makes a promise, it is always of the most serious kind. It is even more serious than human life, as our reading from Exodus today shows: God would take the life of his servant Moses, or perhaps Moses’ son, to show just how much he meant what he swore to Abraham about circumcision when He said that one who was not circumcised on the eighth day would be cut off from His people. God would even risk the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery for this consistency and fidelity to His own word. This should inspire us not only to take our own promises more seriously, but it should tell us to take God’s promises more seriously. How lucky was the world that Zipporah cut the foreskin in time? How much more prudent would it have been though, for Moses to have made sure his son was properly circumcised according to the law. We must take the New Covenant seriously and abide not only by the Church’s moral teachings which articulate the New Law in the Spirit but also by the precepts of the Church: attending Mass every Sunday and on all holy days of obligation, providing for the financial needs of the Church as we are able, receiving Communion at least once a year during Easter, and going to confession once a year as well. If we neglect these things, are we counting on luck to save us just before we die? Perhaps we will have time to repent at the end of our life, but perhaps not. Do not count on the swift action of a Zipporah, count on fidelity to the New Covenant starting right now.

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

 

[1] The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

[2] Alter, Robert. “Exodus.” The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, 330-332. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2004.

[3] Kugel, James L., and James L. Kugel. 1998. Traditions of the Bible a guide to the Bible as it was at the start of the common era, 518. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

[4] The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 629. “Circumcision.” Vol. I. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006.

[5] Ibid., 630-631

[6] Willis, John T. 2010. Yahweh and Moses in conflict the role of Exodus 4:24-26 in the book of Exodus, 69. Bern: Peter Lang.

[7] Alter, Robert. “Exodus.” The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, 330. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2004.

[8] “Exodus.” In The New Interpreter’s Bible, 718. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005.

[11] Kugel, James L., and James L. Kugel. 1998. Traditions of the Bible a guide to the Bible as it was at the start of the common era, 517. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

[10] Ibid., 518

[12] Ibid., 519

[13] Alter, Robert. “Exodus.” The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, 330. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2004.

[14] Bishops and Other Clergy of the Anglican Church, and F. C. Cook. The Holy Bible: With an Explanatory and Critical Commentary, 268. Vol. I. London, 1871.

[15] Kugel, James L., and James L. Kugel. 1998. Traditions of the Bible a guide to the Bible as it was at the start of the common era, 518. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Oden, Thomas C. “Exodus.” In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 31. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 32

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Kugel, James L., and James L. Kugel. 1998. Traditions of the Bible a guide to the Bible as it was at the start of the common era, 519. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

[24] Oden, Thomas C. “Exodus.” In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 33. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Alter, Robert. “Exodus.” The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, 331. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2004.

[28] Cohen, Jeffrey M. 2005. “HATAN DAMIM– THE BRIDEGROOM OF BLOOD.”. Jewish Bible Quarterly, 12433 (2).

[29] “Exodus.” In The Anchor Bible, 220. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964.

Main image: Mount Horeb… By Mohammed Moussa (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Why Thomas the Apostle was so Skeptical

The Apostle St. Thomas Didymus (“The Twin”) was conveniently absent for the first Resurrection appearance to the rest of the Eleven. (Jn. 20: 24-29) Then he famously insisted on seeing and touching the wounds of Jesus, which he then got to do 8 days later. This reading comes to us every year at the close of the Easter Octave to commemorate the event. Let’s take a look.

Aside from “telephone” conspiracy theories (which ultimately don’t allow for any sensible understanding of what happened in 1st century Palestine nor of the text of the Gospels), there are usually three alternate explanations for the supposed Resurrection.

  1. Mass delusion.
  2. A spiritual resurrection proclaimed as if it were a physical one.
  3. The body was stolen and the disciples lied about it (the story that “circulated among the Jews”).

Each of these have plenty of issues, of course. Leaving aside #3 (which has the largest problems of motivation among the 3, and it ultimately just destroys the trustworthiness of the entire text), #1 and #2 do not explain the skepticism of Thomas. Why was he not part of the delusion or vision of the spiritually risen Christ from the beginning? How was he incorporated into it?  What sense does recounting Thomas’ separate physical encounter make given such scenarios? There is no good answer.

There is a fourth alternative. It is the scenario, in fact, which Thomas had in mind when he questioned the claims of his friends.

He clearly doubted that they had seen the Risen Christ… But he did not doubt that they had seen someone. It just does not make sense that he would think all his friends would lie.

The words of the Gospels are careful. If you see some little detail that is added, you can be sure it is an important detail… The author went out of his way to add it. Paper was expensive in the 1st century – no Kinko’s, remember – and drafting the Gospels would have involved the most serious attention to what was going into the text. And of course, this is all under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That being said, in this passage we do not find the Apostle called plain old “Thomas.” We also don’t find “Thomas the Scientist,” or “Thomas the Physician,” or “Thomas the Skeptic.” We find “Thomas called Didymus,” or “Thomas the Twin.”

Why add that detail?

Thomas thought Jesus had a twin who until that time had been in hiding. He figured the supposed Resurrection was part of a massive scheme of some sort, like the tricks he and his own twin brother would have undoubtedly played as children but with an agenda far larger. It may even be the case that Thomas’ brother had died, and that one time Thomas was confused for him, no doubt producing a similar effect of shock and confusion and joy in the mistaken person or persons.

This also makes sense of Thomas’ startling insistence on seeing and touching the wounds, as he knew that this would be the best way to show that it was actually the same person who died on the Cross. (There was a recent movie based on this theme. Spoiler alert.) No mere man could walk around with those wounds! The others had been shown the wounds (Jn. 20: 20), but it does not seem they had “double-checked” as Thomas wanted to do by completely verifying that they were the same kind of wounds that one would get from a crucifixion rather than being some serious paper cuts.

This incident with Thomas the Apostle, then, also preemptively answers the Muslim objection to the Resurrection, which is simply the “twin claim” in reverse: Jesus had a look-alike who was killed. (The Muslims, however, wave their hands over the inconvenient parts of the New Testament though, so it matters little. If every clear bit of evidence from the text is a corruption, then there can be no efficacious textual demonstrations.)

All this can also help shed light on the slight differences in Christ’s appearance before and after the Resurrection. Mary Magdalene and the men walking to Emmaus didn’t recognize Him at first. While identical twins can usually be told apart on close inspection, they are mistaken for each other easily. Jesus must have looked quite different indeed – unlike a twin, but close enough to His old appearance that one would be able to see that it is really Him. This is certainly not a twin – no one would dare try to pull off such a stunt unless he did indeed have an identical twin.

Perhaps seeing the Risen Christ was like running into a grown man you had been friends with in childhood… different, but the same. With the Risen Christ, the flesh-cloak of Adam’s sin has been shed so that the man Jesus, the New Adam, could be as glorious as the Divine Person He embodies. (See Gen. 3:21, Rom. 5:12-18) Yet He keeps the wounds, as if to be in solidarity with us and to remind us of His suffering, in addition to proving He has risen.

The Scriptures are wiser to objections than we are ourselves. That is not only because God understands us better than we do ourselves, but also because the Resurrection actually happened… That removes the need for creative thinking and gives the writer of the text the freedom simply to say what really happened.

St. Thomas Didymus, pray for us!

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: The Incredulity of St. Thomas, Caravaggio, c. 1601-1602

Intercession and Science

Once in a while some zealous atheist, agnostic, or deist will throw down a challenge: “If God answers prayers, we should be able to prove it with an experiment. But we see no statistically significant difference between groups of sick people who are prayed for and groups who are not. Therefore: A) there is no God, or B) we can’t be sure if there is a God, or  C) God does not involve Himself with us.”

It seems like a strong argument at first. If God really does respond to intercession, then we ought to be able to observe that response in contrast with a lack of response corresponding to a lack of intercession. Intercession is an action, healing or whatever response is or would be an equal and opposite reaction, while on the other hand whatever is in motion tends to stay in motion – those who are sick or in need will continue to be so unless they are helped.

There are some problems with this argument.

First, let’s take a look at the Temptations of Christ (Mt. 4:1-11)… It is Lent after all.

  1. Turn stones into bread – Jesus could solve world hunger and win over all the crowds this way. (Jn. 6:26 – “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”) He responds, “One does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”
  2. Fly around Jerusalem – Jesus could publicly manifest Himself with abundant clarity in a way that would leave everyone in awe. (Mt. 16:4 – “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign…” And in the same chapter, v. 17 – “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.”) He responds, “You shall not put the Lord thy God to the test.”
  3. Make a compromise – Jesus could rule over the Earth without the Cross, without the public ministry, and generally without much effort. (Jn. 18:36 – “My Kingdom is not of this world.” And Lk. 24:26 – “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”) He responds, “Get away, Satan! For it is written, ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve.'”

Christ’s Temptations provide the first major counterpoint to the skeptic, which is that God is not primarily concerned with making this life easy for us. We are promised that we will receive whatever we ask in His Name (Lk. 11:9, Jn. 14:13), but we are also promised trouble and suffering, the acceptance of which is even a condition of discipleship (Mt. 10: 16-39). These two promises do not square with each other unless we see that Jesus does not mean we will be given whatever material convenience we want, like a genie would do for us, but that we will be given every spiritual gift truly suited for us for which we pray sincerely. Virtues are the goods which truly help us.

Furthermore, God is wise to our tests and designs (Jn. 2:24). And no, He does not care to play along. A mysterious kingdom needs a mysterious road to lead to it. The New Jerusalem is nothing like the New Rome. Citizenship in the one is gained by unyielding faith in a crucified carpenter as God Incarnate, while in the other citizenship would be gained by simple obedience to an opulent and benevolent dictator.

Let us consider another passage, Mk. 9:14-29, where Jesus heals a possessed child. The crowd gathers, and the boy’s father explains the damage the demon has done over the years… “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus does not take kindly to the word “if”: “‘If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Then we are given the famous line, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” Jesus rebukes the spirit and tells his disciples that this kind of demon only comes out “through prayer.”

This episode gives us an insight into the project of the public ministry – it is not primarily about fixing people’s inconveniences, it is about fixing people’s souls. Jesus waited to do a good deed until the boy’s father manifested faith… This was His prerogative, since He came to draw people away from the world to Himself. The Christ did not open a miraculous hospital, or an infinite soup kitchen, or an infallible psychic hotline; rather, He told people to beg for God’s forgiveness (Mt. 4:17), to sin no more (Jn. 8:11), and to extend faith in God to Him as well (Jn. 14:1). Fixing people’s earthly problems were and are for Christ merely a means to an end: moving people to repentance, conversion, discipleship, and finally perfection in union with Himself and the Father. Just because we don’t get exactly what material convenience we want, when we want, how we want it, does not mean that God does not exist or concern Himself with us. When He doesn’t give worldly help, even when asked sincerely, it’s because He knows that to give us some particular opportunity to forsake the world and cling to Him in abandonment to His will is better than to give us what we’re asking for. (Remember the dichotomy of promises!)

We are not in the same position. It does not belong to us to help others conditionally to the same extent as God because we do not have the same privileged insight into people’s souls that He has, and even if we did we would not always know how best to use that knowledge. Sometimes we can be quite sure that withholding some help will be good for another – like when we allow a child to “learn the hard way” – but by and large we have a duty to provide basic goods for others we encounter and are able to help. We do need to open hospitals. We do need to run soup kitchens. (No psychic hotlines, however.) In fact, we would never be able to show love for each other without the opportunity to do these kinds of selfless acts.

So, can we test God’s response to prayer and prove with statistically significant results that He does indeed answer them? As it turns out, we actually can. Anyone who prays earnestly and frequently for help to become virtuous and holy will become virtuous and holy. And you can survey the lives of the saints and see that this is indeed how they prayed.

I will now teach you a short but powerful prayer which if you repeat often and with sincerity will change your life radically by changing you radically: “Oh Lord, help me to become a saint as soon as possible and at any cost to myself! Amen.”

Don’t be afraid to have this prayer answered.

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

 

Main image: screenshot from the film Aladdin (1992)