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Archive for November, 2012

St. Bede the Venerable

Father of English History 

c. 673 – 735 AD

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Gospel, John 18:33-37  Although Jesus began his public ministry proclaiming that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17) and referred frequently to the Kingdom in conversation and parables, he was careful to never directly claim kingship.  His enemies believed Jesus was making such a claim indirectly in his preaching, but they lacked the clear evidence needed to convict him.  Many others thought Jesus to be the Messiah King whom they believed God would send to usher in an era of prosperity and prominence for the Jewish nation.  When the mother of James and John comes to ask that they receive special positions in the new government, she refers to it as “your kingdom” (Matthew 20:21), not “the kingdom”.  The only instances where Jesus uses the possessive “my kingdom” are during the Last Supper in Luke 22:30 and here in this discourse with Pilate. 

In the first three gospel accounts, Jesus is asked by the Jewish Sanhedrin if he is the Messiah.  In Matthew 26:64 Jesus responds: “You have said so.”  In Mark 14:62 Jesus answers directly, “I am.”  In Luke Jesus replies, “If I say so you will not believe.”  From this they believed Jesus was claiming to be a king who would claim a worldly kingdom.  Only in Luke 23:2 do they mention this claim when bringing Jesus before Pilate.  In the other accounts they don’t bring specific charges but merely state that they have found him deserving of death, a penalty which they were not legally allowed to impose, only the Roman governor.  On meeting Jesus Pilate gets right to the point asking him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  As an astute politician, Pilate had certainly been appraised of the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities, especially after Jesus had just four days previous entered Jerusalem to the shouts of hundreds of people acclaiming him to be the Messiah King.  Others had certainly told Pilate about Jesus and his teaching about God’s kingdom.  He had undoubtedly given thought to whether this was a purely religious issue or if it had political ramifications which would demand his attention.  In the ensuing conversation, it quickly becomes clear to Pilate that Jesus posed no political threat.  “I find no guilt in him,” he informs the Jewish leaders.

In Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion”, four languages are spoken at different times.  Hebrew, the official language of Jewish people, and Aramaic, a variation more common in Galilee, are the two languages most frequently spoken in the movie.  Greek, the language of common people in most parts of the Roman Empire, was used in conversations between Pilate and his soldiers and among other non-Jewish people.  On the point of Jesus’ kingship in Pilate’s conversation with him, however, Pilate addresses Jesus in Latin which, at the time, was spoken only by the elite, the educated and royal class of the Roman world.  Jesus responds in perfect Latin, thus indicating to Pilate Jesus’ nobility.  That was the movie, of course.  What languages were actually used or what Pilate really believed about Jesus…other than believing in his heart that Jesus was innocent…is a mystery of which we have no way of knowing.  The important question is: what leads you to recognize Jesus as King and to place yourself under the authority of Christ the King?

Reading 1, Daniel 7:13-14  As mentioned last week, the book of Daniel recounts the story and visions of Daniel, a Jew deported to Babylon in 605 B.C. who served in the court of the king.  Daniel received a number of visions and was given a gift from God to interpret divine messages.  The Babylonian king trusted so much in Daniel’s ability to interpret dreams and give counsel that he placed Daniel in charge of all of his advisors.  The text of this passage is part of a vision Daniel received during the rule of King Belshazzar.  It was Belshazzar who had used the sacred cups and plates taken from the Jerusalem temple for a party, during which he saw the famous “handwriting on the wall” which Daniel interpreted to foretell the fall of the Babylonian kingdom to Persia in 539 BC (Daniel 5).  This particular vision begins with Daniel seeing the four beasts representing four major world kingdoms which would successively rule large territories encompassing the Jewish state and people.  All these kingdoms will be replaced by “one like a Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven” who “will receive [not take for himself by force] dominion, glory and kingship” in an everlasting kingdom. 

The four beasts are generally interpreted to refer to the kingdoms of Babylon, Media, Persia, and Macedonia.  Babylon was located in the region of modern Iraq.  Media was a major world power NW of modern Iran and an ally of Babylon.  Both were conquered by Persia, modern Iran, under King Cyrus in the later part of the 6th century BC.  Macedonia was the home territory of Alexander the Great who in the 4th century BC conquered the entire region from Greece to India.  At his death, his kingdom was divided among three of his generals, one of whose dynasty, the Seleucids, ruled Jewish territory until the Maccabean revolt which gained Jewish independence in the 2nd century BC.  As mentioned last week, the book of Daniel was actually rewritten a number of times.  The final form of the book was probably written in the time following the Maccabean victory.  Was Daniel’s vision completed, then, with the Maccabees or was the vision also meant for some moment off into the future?  While readers in the 2nd century BC would have interpreted the visions for their own time, Christians have considered the visions applicable as well to Jesus and an everlasting kingdom beyond the scope of worldly powers, as 1 Peter 5:11 says, “To him de dominion forever.  Amen.”

Reading II, Revelation 1:5-8  This passage is part of the initial greeting by the author of Revelation to “the seven churches in Asia” (Revelation 1:4), a region we call Asia Minor or modern day Turkey.  While seven specific communities are later named (Ephesus, Smyna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea), the number seven, symbol of perfection for Jewish people, likely refers to the entire church in all localities.  The imagery here is clearly influenced by the vision of Daniel in today’s first reading.  Alpha and Omega, repeated in Revelation 21:6 and 22:13, are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet.  The phrase “the first and the last” is likewise used to refer to God in Revelations 1:17, 2:8, and Isaiah 41:4 and 44:6.  Today we say “from A to Z” to represent the complete sweep of all possibilities.  Here it refers to the infinite and eternal God.

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St. Isidore of Seville

Schoolmaster of the Middle Ages

c.560 – 636

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Gospel, Mark 13:24-32  Jesus uses imagery familiar to Jewish people regarding a future time of tribulation culminating in victory for God’s people.  This time is often referred to in the scriptures as the “Day of the Lord”.  Of this time Isaiah 13:9-10 states “the stars and constellations of the heavens send forth no light, the sun is dark when it rises, and the light of the moon does not shine”.  Ezekiel 32:7 speaks out against Pharaoh of Egypt: “I will cover the heavens and all their stars will I darken.  The sun I will cover with clouds and the moon shall not give its light”.  Joel 2:10 refers to the Day of the Lord: “The sun and the moon are darkened and the stars withhold their brightness.”  The book of Malachi repeats in 3:23 and 24 the verses of the Old Testament: “I will send you Elijah the prophet before the Day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day.” 

Some Christians are very focused on determining when the Day of the Lord, the time of Jesus’ Second Coming, will take place.  Some have believed they had determined the precise moment, their calculations based on their particular way of interpreting scripture and world events.  There have been dozens, if not hundreds, of such calculations of the Day of the Lord by various Christians over the centuries.  The Catholic Church professes faith in a Second Coming of Jesus, a dogma included in the Nicene Creed which we pray at Mass every weekend.  We do not seek to determine the timing of that Second Coming, however, believing that it is a mystery not even Jesus (“nor the Son”) was given to know.  We do best to focus less on determining the exact time than on being prepared at all times…prepared to stand strong with Jesus no matter what problems or catastrophes beset us.     

Reading 1, Daniel 12:1-3  The book of Daniel recounts visions of Daniel, a Jew deported to Babylonia in 605 B.C. along with Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael, all of whom served in the court of the king.  Prior to the general exile in 587 B.C. when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, there were a few limited deportations of skilled educated people whom the Babylonians thought could be of service to them.  The prophet Ezekiel had also been brought to Babylonia in one of these early deportations in 597 BC.  The king of Babylon placed Daniel in charge of all his advisors, an honor which would arouse considerable jealousy among the king’s advisors who were native Babylonians.

Some sections of the book of Daniel appear to have been written originally in Aramaic, others in Hebrew, and still others in Greek.  Aside from determining the original language, this combination indicates that the book was reworked a number of times over the centuries, probably to reflect faith concerns of each period.  The book is “apocalyptic”, a genre of literature pointing ahead to the Day of the Lord and consummation of history.  It was written to strengthen and comfort the faithful in a time of adversity.  Many of the images from Daniel are also found in the book of Revelations in the New Testament.

The name Daniel means “God is my judge”.  This could refer to God as a judge who determines one’s innocence or righteousness.  It can also refer to God as a protector.  Those who came to the forefront to lead the Jewish people in times of crisis prior to the establishment of the monarchy were called judges.  The name Michael means “Who is like God?” Michael also appears in the New Testament in Jude 1:9 and Revelations 12:7.

Reading II, Hebrews 10:11-14, 18  This text continues the discussion of Jesus as High Priest in comparison to those who held the office at the temple of Jerusalem.  He offered the perfect sacrifice capable of taking away sins.  Participating in his one-time sacrifice celebrated in the Eucharist brings forgiveness of sin and renders unnecessary the sin offerings and sacrifices of Jewish temple ritual.  Using the terms common to Jews who had become followers of Christ in this manner, the author of Hebrews is not encouraging activity in Jewish worship but rather providing his readers with a bridge to move from such rituals to those present in the Christian community.

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Gospel, Mark 12:38-44  A scribe was a person who could read and write, but the training and skills required of a good professional scribe were far more extensive than those basic abilities.  The scribe was not only educated to communicate in his own language but in the languages and alphabets of neighboring countries as well.  In addition to Hebrew, a Jewish scribe would probably be familiar with Egyptian, Sumerian and Greek.  Scribes were employed in the service of government, business and religion.  They helped with correspondence, kept records, wrote and translated documents.  They were familiar not only with languages but with other nations’ history and culture.  They often served kings as counselors, couriers and diplomats and were often given high administrative positions.

The Old Testament was compiled by scribes. Old Testament wisdom literature, in particular, was developed in schools of scribes.  While their sacred writings were important to Jewish people, their religious practice was centered more on the prayers and sacrifices offered at the temple in Jerusalem.  With the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians in 587 BC and the dispersion of Jewish people to many foreign lands, the sacred writings became increasing important as the means by which the Jewish faith could continue to survive.  Jewish people began to be known as “people of the book”.  Efforts were made to expand the ability to read and understand the scriptures to all Jewish men, not just a select group of professionals.  The roots of the synagogue movement date from the time of the Babylonian exile.  Jewish men were taught to read and write.  They gathered to read and discuss the word of God.  Schools were developed to teach Jewish boys to read and write and interpret the scriptures.  When they could demonstrate their abilities in these areas, they were considered sons of the faith, a passage celebrated in the Bar Mitzvah service.  A class of scribes we know as rabbis developed.  They were the theologians of Jewish society, experts in the Word of God and teachers of reading, writing and scriptural interpretation.  Schools of rabbis developed particular ways of interpreting the scriptures.  In time their collected interpretations acquired an authority almost equal to the Law of Moses. 

Scribes in the New Testament era tended to be associated with the Pharisee school of interpretation.  After the destruction of the second and last temple of Jerusalem in 68 A.D., Jewish priesthood disappeared since there were no longer any sacrifices.  The scribes (rabbis) became the uncontested leaders of Judaism and continue to be so today.

The text accuses the scribes of “devouring” the houses of widows.  William Barclay’s commentary says that scribes were to have a trade from which they made their income and could take no pay for their teaching.  That didn’t stop them from receiving gifts…sort of like a waitress who got no salary but lived off her tips.  Scribes commonly showered their attention on individuals of wealth with lengthy blessings and assurances of high places in heaven.  Widows were a particularly easy target.  Religious figures in every age, from priests to TV evangelists, should not use their position as a means for gaining personal prominence, prestige, or treasure.  We are to be servants and use our position to serve.

However before we condemn the scribes for taking donations from widows, we should note that Jesus’ ministry was financed on the inheritance of widows (Luke 8:1-3).  What separated Jesus’ ministry financing from that of the scribes?  I assume it was clear that Jesus’ supporters were financing his ministry and not a luxurious lifestyle.

We come to the poor widow’s donation of two small coins.  Upwards of 100,000 pilgrims passed through the temple of Jerusalem during the week of Passover.  For some, this was the visit of a lifetime, an event represented by the generosity of their donation.  Some came from as far away as Spain or Persia bringing significant contributions from their entire family or Jewish community.  The annual operation of the temple in which thousands of priest were involved in the course of the year depended on these Passover contributions which probably totaled the equivalent of millions of dollars.  As many institutions and organizations today give special recognition to major contributors by putting their names on buildings or lists of “President’s Circle” donors, so the priests in charge of the temple gave special recognition to major donors.  Priests with trumpets were positioned by the collection boxes and blew their trumpets when a sizeable contribution was placed in the coffers.  Today the phrase “to blow one’s own horn” refers to a person who boasts of their own achievements.  To be sure, the poor widow’s contribution of two coins received no fanfare or notice from anyone…except Jesus. 

Reading 1, 1 Kings 17:10-16  Zarephath was located near the Mediterranean about eight miles south of Sidon, well out of Jewish territory.  The people there worshipped Baal.  Baal was the god of rain and fertility for growing crops and raising animals.  Baal was by far the most popular, although not the supreme god, in the Canaanite pantheon of gods.  The popularity of Baal appealed to many Jewish people as well, including King Ahab and his queen Jezebel, who were untrue to God by worshipping other gods and putting more faith in Baal than in the God of Israel. 

During this period in the reign of King Ahab, the eastern Mediterranean region was suffering from a severe drought.  The king’s affinity for other gods was causing significant religious conflict in Judah and its capital city of Jerusalem.  Elijah retreated from there, preferring the peace and quiet of the wilderness across the Jordan River where ravens brought him food for two years.  God then sent him up into the region of Sidon, the main territory of the worshippers of Baal.  When Elijah asked the widow for food and drink, he didn’t tell her he was Jewish, but she figures it out, probably from his clothes and speech, and refers to “YOUR God”, thus indicating she is probably a worshiper of Baal like everyone else in the area.  Did she, as a follower of Baal, believe the promise Elijah gave her from the God of Israel?  Whether or not she believed, she was raised to be hospitable to strangers, in virtue of which she gave the last of her food to Elijah.  She very possibly reflected on the superiority of the God of Israel who provided for her through Elijah while Baal who, as a god of rain and fertility for crops, was obviously not coming through for his people.

Reading II, Hebrews 9:24-28  When we speak of the Sacrifice of the Mass, we must be mindful that Jesus died once for all in the perfect sacrifice.  No further sacrifice is needed.  In the Mass we remember that one-time sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and Jesus, through the words and actions of the priest, extends that sacrifice into the present moment.  The Mass is not a mere remembrance or representation of the Last Supper but rather its continuation, no more locked in coordinates of space and time than Jesus himself.

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 Pope St. Gregory the Great

The Greatest of the Great

c.540 – 604

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