January 23, 2017




Thursday, 20 October 2016 

Prayer, adoration, and acknowledging that we are sinners: these are the three paths which open a Christian to the knowledge and understanding of the mystery of God. Pope Francis reflected on this theme during his homily for Mass at Santa Marta on Thursday, 20 October.
The Pontiff’s reflection was inspired by the words of Saint Paul to the Philippians (3:8), taken from the day’s Gospel acclamation: “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ”. In the day’s first reading (Eph 3:14-21), Paul asks that the Ephesians may likewise receive “the grace” to “gain Christ”. It is about “a step in prayer”, Francis explained. Indeed, Paul teaches the Ephesians “this path”, and prays on his knees: ‘I bow my knees before the Father… that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man’”.
What the Apostle is calling for is the “grace to be strong, strengthened, through the Holy Spirit”. However, why would he wish “that the Ephesians be strengthened through the Holy Spirit?”. Paul responds: it is so that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith”. This “is the core”, the Pope said. However, the Apostle “does not stop there, he continues: [it is so] ‘that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints’”. And this is the understanding which the letter to the Ephesians gives to this original explanation: “to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge”.
“Paul, in this prayer”, Francis said, “goes forward and immerses himself into this sea, this bottomless, shoreless sea, an immense sea which is the person of Christ”. Thus, “he prays that the Father may give to the Ephesians — he prays for us — this grace: to know Christ”.
Yet, how does one “know Christ” in such a way that He is the “true gain”, before whom “all other things are refuse”? Through the Gospel, the Pope said. Indeed, Christ “is present in the Gospel”: therefore, by “reading the Gospel we know Christ”. And “all of us do this, at least when we hear the Gospel when we go to Mass”. Of course, we can also know Jesus “through the study of the catechism: the catechism teaches us who Christ is”. All of this, however, “is not sufficient. In order to be able to understand ‘the breadth and length and height and depth’ of Jesus, we first must enter into a context of prayer, as Paul did, on bended knee: ‘Father, send me the Spirit to know Jesus Christ’”.
Thus, understanding goes beyond the superficial, and penetrates into the depths of the mystery. The Pope observed: “We know the Child Jesus, Jesus who heals the sick, Jesus who preaches, who performs miracles, who dies and resurrects. We know all of this, but this does not mean we know the mystery of Christ”. Indeed, it deals with “something very profound, and for this reason prayer is necessary: ‘Father, send me your Spirit in order that I might know Christ’. It is a grace. It is a grace which the Father gives”.
In addition to prayer, Francis spoke of the need for adoration. Paul, in fact, “not only prayed, he adored this mystery which surpasses all understanding, and in a context of adoration asks for the grace that ‘to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations’”. This is therefore “an act of adoration, of praise: to adore”. This is because “one cannot know the Lord without this habit of adoring, of adoring in silence”. The Pontiff observed that this practice is not always found in the Christian life. “I believe, if I am not mistaken”, he said, “that this prayer of adoration is the [prayer ] least known by us, it is the one we do the least”, as if it were a “waste of time before the Lord, before the mystery of Jesus Christ”. Instead, we should rediscover “the silence of Adoration: he is the Lord and I adore him”.
In short, “in order to know Christ, it is necessary to have self-knowledge, which means having the inclination to blame yourself”, recognizing that, before God, “I am a sinner. But, no, I am a sinner by definition, since you know all the things I have done, and what I am capable of doing”. In this respect, Francis recalled the passage from Chapter 6 of Isaiah, in which the prophet, at the moment in which he sees “the Lord, and all the angels who adore the Lord”, exclaimed: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips” (v. 5): in other words, the Pope said, he admits to being a sinner. Therefore, “one cannot adore without blaming oneself”.
In the end, “in order to enter into this bottomless, shoreless sea, which is the mystery of Jesus Christ”, these three attitudes are necessary, the Pope concluded. The first is “prayer: ‘Father, send me the Spirit so that he may lead me to know Jesus’. Second, adoration of the mystery, to enter into the mystery, to adore. And the third, to blame yourself: ‘I am a man of unclean lips”. From here there is the hope that “the Lord may give us this grace which Paul asks for the Ephesians, and also for us; the grace to know and gain Christ”.

Icon of the conversion of Saint Paul

BENEDICT XVI - (2COR 1,3-14.19-20)


BENEDICT XVI - (2COR 1,3-14.19-20)


Saint Peter's Square

Wednesday, 30 May 2012 

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In this series of Catecheses we are meditating on prayer in the Letters of St Paul and we are endeavouring to see Christian prayer as a true and personal encounter with God the Father, in Christ, and through the Holy Spirit. At this meeting today the faithful “yes” of God and the trusting “amen” of believers enter into dialogue and I would like to emphasize this dynamic by reflecting on the Second Letter to the Corinthians. St Paul sends this passionate Letter to a Church which has called his apostolate into question on several occasions and opens his heart so that those to whom he is writing may be reassured of his fidelity to Christ and to the Gospel. This Second Letter to the Corinthians begins with one of the most exalted prayers of blessing in the New Testament. It says “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor 1:3-4).
Indeed Paul lived amidst great trials, he had to pass through much difficulty and affliction but he never gave in to discouragement. He was sustained by the grace and closeness of the Lord Jesus Christ, for whom he had become an apostle and a witness, putting his whole life into Jesus’ hands. For this very reason Paul begins this Letter with a prayer of blessing and thanksgiving to God, since in his life as an Apostle of Christ he never, not even for a single moment, felt deprived of the support of the merciful Father, the God of all comfort.
His suffering was appalling, as he says in this very Letter, but in all these situations, when it seemed that there was no way out, he received consolation and comfort from God. He was also persecuted for proclaiming Christ and even thrown into prison, but he always felt inwardly free, enlivened by Christ’s presence and keen to proclaim the word of hope of the Gospel.
So it was that he wrote from prison to Timothy, his faithful collaborator. In chains, he wrote, “the word of God is not fettered. Therefore I endure everything for the [God’s] sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which in Christ Jesus goes with eternal glory” (2 Tim 2:9b-10). In suffering for Christ, he experiences God’s consolation. He writes: “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Cor 1:5).
So, in the prayer of blessing that introduces the Second Letter to the Corinthians, the theme of affliction stands out next to the theme of consolation. This should not be understood merely as comfort but especially as an encouragement and an exhortation not to let oneself be overcome by trials and tribulations. The invitation is to live every situation united to Christ, who takes upon his shoulders the whole burden of the world’s suffering and sin in order to bring light, hope and redemption.
So it is that Jesus makes us capable in our turn of consoling those experiencing every sort of affliction. Profound union with Christ in prayer and trust in his presence, lead to the readiness to share in the suffering and troubles of our brethren. St Paul writes: “Who is weak, and am I not weak? Who is made to fall, and am I not indignant?” (cf. 2 Cor 11:29). This sharing is not born simply from kindness, nor solely from human generosity or an altruistic spirit; rather, it stems from the consolation of the Lord, from the steadfast support of the “transcendent power [that] belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4:7).
Dear brothers and sisters, our life and our journey are frequently marked by difficulty, misunderstanding and suffering. We all know it. In a faithful relationship with the Lord, in constant, daily prayer, we too can feel tangibly the consolation that comes from God. And this strengthens our faith, because it enables us to have an actual experience of God’s “yes” to man, to us, to me, in Christ. It makes us feel the fidelity of his love which even extended to the gift of his Son on the Cross. St Paul says, “for the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God” (2 Cor 1:19-20). The “yes” of God is not halved, it is not somewhere between “yes” and “no”, but is a sound and simple “yes”. And we respond to this “yes” with our own “yes”, with our “amen”, and so we are sure of the “yes” of God.
Faith is not primarily a human action but rather a freely given gift of God which is rooted in his faithfulness, in his “yes”, which makes us understand how to live our life, loving him and our brethren. The whole history of salvation is a gradual revelation of this faithfulness of God, in spite of our infidelity and negation, in the certainty that “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable!”, as the Apostle declares in his Letter to the Romans (11:29).
Dear brothers and sisters, God’s way of acting — very different from ours — gives us comfort, strength and hope because God does not withdraw his “yes”. In the face of stressful human relations, even in the family, we often fail to persevere in freely given love which demands commitment and sacrifice. Instead, God does not grow tired of us; he never wearies of being patient with us and, with his immense mercy, always leads the way and reaches out to us first: his “yes” is absolutely reliable.
In the event of the Crucifixion he offers us the measure of his love which does not count the cost and knows no bounds. St Paul writes in his Letter to Titus: “the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared” (Tit 3:4). And because this “yes” is renewed every day, “it is God who... has commissioned us; he has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Cor 1:21b-22).
Indeed, it is the Holy Spirit who makes God’s “yes” in Jesus Christ constantly present and alive and creates in our hearts the desire to follow him so as to enter totally into his love, one day, when we will receive a dwelling-place in heaven not built by human hands. There is no one who has not been touched and called into question by this faithful love, which is also capable of waiting even for all those who continue to respond with the “no” of rejection or of the hardening of their hearts. God waits for us, he always seeks us out, he wants to welcome us into communion with him to give to each one of us fullness of life, hope and peace.
The Church’s “amen” is grafted onto God’s faithful “yes” which resonates in every action of the Liturgy. “Amen” is the answer of faith that always concludes our personal and community prayers and expresses our “yes” to God’s project. We often respond to prayers with our “amen” out of habit, without grasping its deep meaning.
The word derives from ’aman, which in Hebrew and in Aramaic means “to make permanent”, “to consolidate” and, consequently, “to be certain”, “to tell the truth”. If we look at Sacred Scripture we see that this “amen” is said at the end of the Psalms of blessing and praise, such as, for example, Psalm 41[40] “But you have upheld me because of my integrity, and set me in your presence for ever. Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! Amen and Amen” (vv. 12-13).
Or else it expresses adherence to God at the moment when the People of Israel return full of joy from the Babylonian Exile and say their “yes”, their “amen” to God and to his Law. In the Book of Nehemiah it is told that after this return, “Ezra opened the book [of the Law] in the sight of all the people; for he was above all the people; and when he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God; and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen’, lifting up their hands” (Neh 8:5-6).
From the outset, therefore, the “amen” of the Jewish liturgy became the “amen” of the first Christian communities. Indeed the Book of the Christian liturgy par excellence, the Revelation to John begins with the “amen” of the Church: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen” (Rev 1:5b-6). This is what it says in the first chapter of the Book of Revelation. And the same Book ends with the invocation “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).
Dear friends, prayer is the encounter with a living Person to listen to and with whom to converse; it is the meeting with God that renews his unshakeable fidelity, his “yes” to man, to each one of us, to give us his consolation in the storms of life and to enable us to live, united to him, a life full of joy and goodness, which will find fulfilment in eternal life.
In our prayers we are called to say “yes” to God, to respond with this “amen” of adherence, of faithfulness to him throughout our life. We can never achieve this faithfulness by our own efforts; it is not only the fruit of our daily striving; it comes from God and is founded on the “yes” of Christ who said: my food is to do the will of the Father (cf. Jn 4:34).
It is into this “yes” that we must enter, into this “yes” of Christ, into adherence to God’s will, in order to reach the point of saying with St Paul that it is not we who live but Christ himself who lives in us. Then the “amen” of our personal and community prayers will envelop and transform the whole of our life into a life of God’s consolation, a life immersed in eternal and steadfast love. Thank you.

January 21, 2017

COMMENTARY ON ISAIAH 8:23-9:3; 1 CORINTHIANS 1:10-13,17; MATTHEW 4:12-23

Sunday of week 3 of Ordinary Time

COMMENTARY ON ISAIAH 8:23-9:3; 1 CORINTHIANS 1:10-13,17; MATTHEW 4:12-23

THERE ARE THREE DISTINCT PARTS in today’s Gospel reading:
a. Jesus, the light of the nations and the fulfilment of Hebrew Testament prophecies.
b. A call to total conversion, to live in that light
c. Early responses to the call.
After the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus moves up north to Galilee. It is his home province. It is where he will begin his public life.
John’s “arrest”
A note about John’s “arrest”. The verb in the original Greek is paradidomi, which literally means to “hand over”. This is a theme word which goes right through the Gospel:
John the Baptist was handed over – and executed (by King Herod)
Jesus was handed over – and executed (by both Jews and Gentiles – he died for all)
Many of Jesus’ disciples were handed over – and some were executed (mainly by Gentiles).
And this “handing over” has been happening to disciples ever since and down to our own day. Paradoxically, persecution can always be the expected result of living the Gospel of truth and love.
At the consecration during every Eucharist, the celebrant says: “Take this all of you and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you.” “Given up” is perhaps a less than ideal translation of the Latin tradetur which means “will be handed over” and is the Latin equivalent of the Greek verb paradidomi. So, in the Eucharist, the Body of Christ is also “handed over” to us. And we, in turn, collectively as the Body of Christ in the Christian community are expected to continue that handing over of ourselves in the service of the Gospel and the promotion of the Kingdom.
Nazareth Matthew says that Jesus left his home town of Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum, a town in Galilee, which, he tells us, is on the shore of the Sea of Galilee “in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali”. This reminds the evangelist of a prophecy from Isaiah which Matthew now sees being fulfilled.
At this time Galilee did not seem an obvious choice for the Messiah’s mission. It was regarded as a ‘remote’ province. (“Can anything good come from Nazareth?”, Nathanael asked with some surprise and cynicism.) It was a rebellious region where even Jews were not noted for their observance of the Law.
Yet the prophecy suggests that the Light of the World is to be found in Galilee. Galilee, of all places, is to be the light of the nations? Not for nothing do we speak of a “God of surprises”!
But it is precisely in this Galilean town of Capernaum that Jesus, the Messiah, begins his mission. His preaching is summed up in one deceptively simple sentence: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” ‘Preaching’ would be better translated ‘proclaiming’, making an announcement of Good News.

Good News
What is this “good news”? The Greek eu-angelion, from which comes the Latin evangelium, is translated into modern English as “gospel”. This is a variant of the earlier ‘God-Spel’ or ‘good news’.
And what is this good news? The Good News is that the “Kingdom of Heaven” is near. “Kingdom of Heaven” can be a very misleading term. To many, it may be identified with “heaven”, the “place up there” where we hope to go to after death, if we have behaved ourselves.
In fact, it is important to be aware that the term in this context has far less to do with a future life than with our life here in this world. The other gospels speak more directly of the “kingdom of God” which, in fact, is what Matthew also means. However, Matthew’s gospel was written for a Christian community consisting primarily of converted Jews. In their tradition, they were very reluctant ever to use the name of God directly and so Matthew throughout his gospel speaks of God in indirect ways. One way is to use the term “heaven” or to use the passive voice of a verb, e.g. “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them.” He does not say by whom they are forgiven but God is clearly understood.
Again, “kingdom” for us suggests the territory ruled over by a king. The Greek word the evangelists use is basileia  from the word basileus  which means a king. Basileia is better translated as ‘rule’, ‘reign’ or ‘kingship’. It indicates more the power of being a king than the place over which one is king. To be in the kingdom, then, is not to be in a particular place, either in this life or the next. Rather it is to be living one’s life – wherever we are – under the loving power of God. It is to be in a relationship of loving submission to one’s God and Lord and to be in an environment where values like truth, love, compassion, justice, freedom, commmunity, and peace prevail.
‘Repent!’ The way to enter that relationships is, in Jesus’ words, to “repent”. This is the response to Jesus’ call. ‘Repent’ usually means to be sorry for, to regret some wrong actions we have done in the past. Jesus, however, is asking for much more than that. It is a call, not to wipe out the past, which is really not possible, but for a change of direction from now on and into the future. The Greek word which is rendered by many translations as ‘repent’ is metanoia. This word implies a radical change in one’s thinking; it means looking at life in a completely new way, making what is now sometimes called a ‘paradigm shift’. This new way of seeing life is spelt out through the whole of the Christian Testament.
It is only when we begin to make this radical change that we begin to become part of that Kingdom, that we begin effectively to come under the influence of God’s power in our lives. We begin to see things the way God sees them and our behaviour changes accordingly.
The call is not just to be sorry for past sins and not to do them any more. There has to be a complete change of direction, a deep involvement in doing God’s work. That work involves working with others for an end to poverty and destitution, to hunger and joblessness, to communal and religious hatred, to rampant greed, ambition and shameless consumerism and to create a world of love and care – the special attributes of God.
The kingdom has not yet arrived. There is still much to be done – right here where we live.
And it is a message not just for Catholics or Christians but for people everywhere. The Kingdom goes far beyond the boundaries of the Church and the Kingdom is being realised in many ways in places where Christianity has yet to penetrate. About 80 percent of the world’s population does not know the Gospel of Jesus but that does not mean that the values of the Kingdom are absent. We must learn not to see Christianity or Catholicism in sectarian terms – ‘them’ and ‘us’. The message of Jesus is a vision of life for all humanity and should be communicated as such.

First partners
After his preaching, Jesus finds the first partners for his work. They are not Pharisees or Scribes, not scholars or influential members of the community but fishermen, who may have been quite illiterate. (In the sense that they could not read or write, although they may well have been steeped in the oral tradition of their Jewish faith – knowing their Hebrew Testament much better than most of us know our New Testament!)
It is significant that the call takes place right in their working place. The initiative for the call comes from Jesus. “I chose you, you did not choose me.”
For them it means a metanoia, a complete break in their lifestyle. There is a complete letting go.
“Immediately they left their nets and followed Jesus.” They put their total trust in Jesus, leaving behind their only means of livelihood, not knowing where it would all lead. Jesus himself had already taken this step in leaving Nazareth, his family and his livelihood as a carpenter.
From now on their life would consist not in worrying what they could get and keep but in service to their brothers and sisters, especially those in greatest need.
At the same time there is no evidence that they lived in destitution or want. Leaving the tools of the only way of life they had known was to choose to lead a simple lifestyle, only having those things necessary for their sustenance and their work, the new work Jesus was calling them to do.
Their security now came from the new lifestyle they were inaugurating, life in a mutually supporting community, where the needs of each one were taken care of. This, in effect, brought a life of greater material, emotional and social security than is found in our individualistic, competitive, rat-race style of survival.

One great family
They separated from their families not because they did not love them but because, as disciples of Jesus, they realised they belonged to a much larger family. They were learning not only to love their own but to love especially all who were in need of love, care and compassion.
In the beginning, their first concern may be family members (early on, Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law) but later on they will give priority to those in greater need, non-family members, foreigners, total strangers, even enemies. To follow Jesus is to belong to a much bigger family.
In the Second Reading, too, Paul warns against divisions in the Christian family. It seems that the Christians in Corinth were dividing into factions and identifying themselves with various community leaders: “I am for Paul”, “I am for Cephas (Peter)”; even “I am for Christ”. It is clear that such divisions are harmful. All can only be for one person, the One who suffered, died and rose for them, the One in whose name all of them were baptised – Jesus their Lord.
We have, unfortunately, many such divisions among Christians today – “I am a Catholic”, “I am an Anglican… a Lutheran… a Methodist… a Presbyterian…” The list is, alas, endless. This is not the kind of family that Jesus intended. Such a dysfunctional family is not in a good position to give effective witness to the Good News of truth and love and fellowship which Jesus prayed for at the Last Supper (John 17).
Today’s call is asking us not just to fit Jesus into our chosen way of living but to fit ourselves into his vision of life. In doing so, we are not making a sacrifice; we are on to a sure winner where we can only gain.

January 17, 2017




[Lecture given at the Pontifical Biblical Institute on November 5, 2003 at the conclusion of his academic teaching]

One of the key texts in the Old Testament, both in its own right and as viewed by Christian authors, is the account of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham in Genesis 22,1-18.  Footnote The present essay will attempt: 1) to understand the meaning of Genesis 22,1-18 (Part I); 2) to study how the Epistle to the Hebrews interprets Genesis 22,1-18 (Part II); 3) to outline how Cardinal John Henry Newman’s book, A Grammar of Assent, may justify a faith-centered hermeneutic with regard to the exegesis of the first two parts of this paper (Part III).Footnote 
 Part I: Genesis 22,1-18
The sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham has proved a veritable storm center in the later history of biblical criticism. Footnote With the coming of the Enlightenment the sacrifice has often been viewed as an immoral action.  Footnote But such condemnations are normally based on a view of Abraham’s decision to sacrifice Isaac which is divorced from its context. In the way in which Genesis 22,1-18 is customarily interpreted as part of the canonical text of the Old Testament alone or of the Old Testament and the New Testament together in various religious traditions, the verses present no insuperable difficulty in this regard. Footnote
There are three broad headings which seem to commend themselves in a brief discussion of the implications of Genesis 22,1-18 within the canonical text of the Old Testament: 1) Covenant; 2) Sacrifice; 3) Faith. Taken together, these three headings provide a convenient way of entering into the text.
A. Covenant
For a proper understanding of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac it is crucial to keep in mind the covenant setting of the canonical text. V. 1 states that God is “testing” (ebr.: nsh, gr.: peirazein) Abraham. That is to say, God is arranging a test to discover if his son is “faithful” (ebr.: n’mn, gr.: pistos). Footnote The text of Genesis 22 is the climax of a progression involving call, promise, covenant and oath.  Footnote The call is found in Genesis 12,1-3, and consists of elements involving blessings: 1) a blessing which involves a land and nation (vv. 1-2a), 2) a blessing which involves a dynasty (v. 2b), and 3) a blessing which involves the entire world (v. 3 with v. 2).  Footnote These three elements seem to correspond to the three covenant episodes presented in Genesis 15, 17 and 22. Footnote In Genesis 15, the episode with the divided animals represents a covenant in which Abraham’s descendants will live as a nation in a particular land. In Genesis 17 the emphasis is on Abraham’s great “name”, i.e., there is question of a dynasty. And in Genesis 22,16-18, the climax, there is question of a blessing to all nations. Footnote Thus Genesis 22,1-18 can be viewed as the culmination of Abraham’s life as it is portrayed in the canonical text of Scripture. Afterwards he enters into the story only in relation to the death of Sarah (Genesis 23) and the marriage of Isaac (Genesis 24). His definitive life and destiny in terms of his relation with God are outlined in Genesis 22. Footnote The oath sworn by God to Abraham can be considered the concluding high point in the series of covenant episodes. Footnote It incorporates, so to speak, the successful outcome of Abraham’s test into the blessing given to all nations, so that Abraham’s faith is now a part of the destiny of his offspring. Footnote
The context of the covenant in Genesis 22 is fundamental for ascertaining the precise point of the passage. For Abraham is being tested with regard to his faith in God and his pledge to give him the blessings involved in the covenant despite the apparent contradiction of his command. Further, Abraham must have been aware that this was a test, that he was being faced with a cruel dilemma in which his filial affection was secondary. What was at stake was not only the meaning of his God-centered existence but the meaning of the God-centered existence of Isaac and of all who were to be descended from him. Footnote The command from God to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, in other words, was a deadly serious affair for Abraham and for God. Footnote
That the command of God to Abraham was a serious affair for God as well as for Abraham has perhaps not been sufficiently noted. For in ordering the test God is implicitly endangering the whole enterprise of His covenant with Abraham. In terms of the story, God is waiting to see the result of Abraham’s free reaction to the test: a refusal by Abraham to sacrifice Isaac would show that Abraham had not passed the test of his faith. Footnote Hence the covenant enterprise and everything associated with it would, presumably, collapse, and salvation history would have to take a radically new turn.
B. Sacrifice
A second major perspective according to which Genesis 22 should be interpreted is that of sacrifice. Sacrifice here is tied in with the place in which the action of Genesis 22 occurs. There is ample reason to take the place (“Moriah” [mryh] in v. 2) as Jerusalem. Footnote If this is so, then Genesis 22 becomes the basic Old Testament text for the understanding of animal sacrifice as practiced in the temple of Jerusalem. This, in turn, would solve the puzzle as to why so little is said in the Pentateuch about the meaning of such sacrifice.  Footnote The principal type of sacrifice indicated in Leviticus and Deuteronomy is the whole burnt offering (ebr.: ‘lh, gr.: holokautôma, holokauston). Footnote This is precisely the type of sacrifice which Abraham is called on to make of Isaac and actually does make of the ram at Genesis 22,2.13. Footnote
The relevance of sacrifice in the interpretation of Genesis 22 has not always been given the importance it should. This lack of attention to the dimension of sacrifice distorts the interpretation of Genesis 22 which must have guided generations of faithful readers in Israel. Further, this lack of attention distorts the possible relevance which Genesis 22 should have for the modern reader of the canonical text. By showing exactly how sacrifice can have a purchase on human existence as personified in Abraham, Genesis 22 is of crucial importance in the understanding of God’s revelation as contained in the Bible.
C. Faith
The perspectives involving covenant and sacrifice indicate the centrality of faith in Abraham’s response to God. Covenant and sacrifice are focused on God as He manifested Himself to Abraham (covenant) and as Abraham replies to God’s command (sacrifice). It is faith that motivates Abraham. Footnote To have faith is to treat God as reliable (ebr.: h’myn, gr.: pisteuein), to trust Him, to believe that He will faithfully and lovingly keep His promises and honor His obligations. Footnote Because Abraham’s faith was based on his covenant with God, he was aware of what was at stake, and was cognizant not only of what was expected of him (obedience) but what God expected of himself (fulfillment of the promises): Abraham’s faith was a type of knowledge. And it was this knowledge which enabled Abraham to withstand the test God had prepared for him: Abraham knew that God would somehow provide a solution to what, outside the realm of faith, was an insoluble problem. In other words, Genesis 22,8 (“God will Himself provide a lamb for a burnt offering”) is to be taken not simply as the anxious words of a distraught father to a questioning son, but as an expression of certainty based on faith.
In seeking the relevance of Genesis 22 for the reader of today, faith is thus the crucial element. It is this element which provides the basis for the religious significance of the original text for any application of that significance to a world contemporary with a reader of any time. Footnote Hence any attempt to read Genesis 22, if it is to come to grips with the core relevance of the text for the contemporary world, has to be based on Abraham’s faith.
But there are two basic ways in which Abraham’s faith can be approached by the contemporary reader. The reader may so stand with regard to the text that he or she is inside the loop of Abraham’s faith, or outside it. That is to say, the reader may share Abraham’s faith insofar as possible as Abraham lives the events portrayed in Genesis 22, or the reader may be simply an onlooker of the events portrayed. Right here is the crucial hermeneutical challenge of Genesis 22.
There is nothing within the text which will force the reader to opt for a reading in which he incorporates Abraham’s faith into his own life. The stance here has to be dictated by the reader’s own free choice. God’s freedom in calling Abraham and in putting him to the test and Abraham’s freedom in responding to this call and test are mirrored in the freedom which every reader enjoys before the text as it stands. But this is not something peculiar to Genesis 22; it is a choice which faces every reader of the Bible. It is the peculiar merit of Genesis 22, though, which sets forth the choice in all its starkness.Footnote 
 Part II: The Epistle to the Hebrews and Genesis 22
The Epistle to the Hebrews pays particular attention to Genesis 22. This attention can serve as a guide in understanding how the early Christians interpreted this key text in their search for understanding the reality of Jesus Christ.
A. Hebrews and the Faith of Abraham
Hebrews singles out Abraham’s faith in its understanding of Genesis 22:
17By faith Abraham, in the act of being tested, stands as offering Isaac, that is, he attempted to offer up his only son in sacrifice, he who had received the promises, 18he to whom it had been said that
In Isaac will your seed be named,
19having concluded that God was able to raise from the dead, and as a result he received Isaac back as a symbol (Hebrews 11,17-19).Footnote
The text is theologically rich. “Faith” (pistis) is highlighted. In Chapter 11 of Hebrews faith is attributed to a variety of Old Testament heroes, and is described in 11,2-3.6. Footnote
The word “offer [in sacrifice]” is used twice in v. 17. The first use is in the perfect tense (prosenênochen, “stands as offering”), i.e., Abraham’s sacrificial stance is the chief point of Genesis 22 which the author of Hebrews wishes to choose as the basis for his understanding of the whole text. The second verb is in the imperfect tense (prosepheren, “attempted to offer”). This conative imperfect describes how Abraham was “in the act of being tested” (peirazomenos). The terms of the testing are made clear: he was offering up his “only son” (monogenê) as “one who had received the promises” (ho tas epaggelias anadexamenos). The promise in question is specified: “he to whom it had been said, ‘In Isaac will your seed be name’” (pros hon elalêthê hoti en Isaac klêthêsetai soi sperma). These remarks indicate that the author of Hebrews has read the text of Genesis 22 with care, and has set out the parameters of the test with precision. What follows is a remarkable interpretation of the reasoning behind Abraham’s faith in God: “having concluded that God was able to raise from the dead” (logisamenos hoti kai ek nekrôn egeirein dunatos ho theos).
The apparently matter-of-fact way in which the author of Hebrews attributes belief in the resurrection from the dead to Abraham should not distract one from realizing the implications of what is being affirmed. First of all, Abraham’s inference would seem to be plausible, given his previous belief in the birth of Isaac from his own “dead” body and Sarah’s “dead” womb.  Footnote In view of Abraham’s heroic faith, there is nothing forced or artificial about the exegesis. If God’s promise of offspring through Isaac (v. 18) had to be believed without qualification, and the command to sacrifice Isaac was, for Abraham, required by God, then belief in the resurrection would seem to a possible, indeed, perhaps even the only possible inference. Secondly, the attribution of belief in resurrection from the dead to Abraham is remarkable. He stands at the very fountainhead of Old Testament belief and practice, and this belief and practice is traditionally understood as being agnostic with regard to resurrection from the dead.  Footnote Here, a Christian writer who had clearly reflected long and deeply on the Old Testament antecedents to his Christian faith clearly states that Abraham believed in resurrection from the dead. Footnote Thirdly, if Abraham’s interior attitude in sacrificing Isaac is to be understood as being paradigmatic for the interior attitude of all subsequent Old Testament worshippers, this is a startling statement about what the author of Hebrews regards as implicitly standing behind all Old Testament sacrifice. The author of the epistle seems to be attributing this attitude, at least implicitly, to all those offering sacrifices in the Old Testament.
What seems to be happening in Hebrews 11,19 is that the author of Hebrews, guided by his faith in the resurrection of Christ (cf. Hebrews 13,20), is extrapolating this belief into the world of Abraham. But the extrapolation is perfectly in keeping with the words of the Old Testament text, i.e., it does no violence to the parameters of the text as it stands. Further, in the context of Abraham’s presumed heroic faith in God there is nothing out of character for such a belief on Abraham’s part. The second part of Hebrews 11,19 confirms the view that the author of Hebrews was thinking of the restoration of Isaac with relation to the resurrection of Jesus, for he states that the restoration is a “symbol” of the resurrection of Jesus. Footnote
B. Hebrews and the Oath Sworn to Abraham
Hebrews alludes to the sacrifice of Isaac at 6,14 with a citation from the text of Genesis 22,17. The context of Hebrews is revealing:
13For God, having made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater to swear by, swore by himself, 14with the words: With blessing shall I bless you, and with increase shall I increase you. 15And thus, having endured, did Abraham receive the promise. 16For men swear by that which is greater; and at the end of every controversy among them comes the oath as a confirmation. 17Thus God, wishing to show more clearly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable nature of his design, intervened with an oath. 18The purpose of the oath was that, through two unchangeable things in which it is impossible that God lie, we have a strong source of comfort, we who have fled, so as to lay hold of the hope before us (Hebrews 6,13-18).  Footnote
These six verses, Hebrews 6,13-18, are cited to support the exhortation of the author of Hebrews that the addressees show the necessary diligence and concern to imitate the heirs of the promises and receive the promises through faith and endurance. Hence the presence of the introductory “for” in v. 16.
That Genesis 22 is in the mind of the author of Hebrews is seen, not only from the citation of v. 17 of that chapter at Hebrews 6,14, but also from the allusion to the oath of Genesis 22,16 in Hebrews 6,13. This suggests that for the author of Hebrews the oath has a close relation to the blessing and multiplication of Abraham’s offspring. The precise content of the “two unchangeable things” mentioned in Hebrews 6,18 is much canvassed. Footnote The text at Hebrews 6,13-14 would seem to furnish the first step towards an answer: the “two unchangeable things” are the oath of Genesis 22,16 and the promise of Genesis 22,17. They are juxtaposed in Hebrews just as they are juxtaposed in Genesis. The words of the promise speak for themselves with regard to the content: they have to do with the multiplication of Abraham’s progeny. Footnote The oath serves to reinforce this promise, so that when Abraham receives the promise at the conclusion of his heroic show of patience at the call to sacrifice Isaac (6,15) the promise has been reinforced by an oath. Abraham is thus portrayed as having received the promise. But it is clear from the way the author of Hebrews uses the verbs epitugchanô (6,15—cfr. 11,33) and komizô that even if Abraham had received epitugchanô (6,15—cfr. 11,33) the promise reinforced by an oath, he had not received (komivzw) the thing promised—progeny (cf. 11,13.39). Footnote The mind of the author of Hebrews is revealed by the fourth and final use of komizô: at 11,19 the author says that Abraham received (komizô) Isaac after the attempted sacrifice “as a symbol” (parabolêi). In other words, the thing promised to Abraham at the sacrifice of Isaac—progeny—is received only with the coming of Christ: Christ himself is that progeny.
If the content of the promise to Abraham is Christ, then the oath sworn to Abraham by God is an oath which at the most profound level is reduced to a symbolic action foreshadowing the definitive granting of the thing promised which is Christ. That is why the author of Hebrews emphasizes the oath sworn by God to Jesus at the moment of His resurrection (cf. 7,20-21). This is the oath which was foreshadowed by the oath of God at the sacrifice of Isaac and which results in the actual granting of that which was promised in connection with this oath: definitive progeny. Christ is the definitive progeny promised by Abraham, and the oath at Christ’s resurrection is the oath of which the oath to Abraham was a symbolic foreshadowing. Footnote
By identifying the oath of Psalm 110,4 with the fulfillment of the oath of Genesis 22,16, and by placing the oath in the explicit context of the multiplication of Abraham’s seed, the author of Hebrews has brought about a profound transformation in the nature of this seed. For the true and definitive offspring of Abraham is effected not through his physical child Isaac, but through His spiritual offspring Jesus Christ of whom Isaac was a “symbol” precisely with regard to Jesus’ resurrection (and, in the context of Hebrews, also with regard to the accompanying oath of Psalm 110,4). The author of Hebrews thinks that this offspring can be best described by evoking the Old Testament figure of Melchizedek in the context of whom Jesus Christ emerges as the definitive high priest. As the high priest according to the order of Melchizedek Jesus Christ replaces the Levitical high priesthood which had heretofore given identity to Abraham’s descendants (cf. Hebrews 7,11). This new high priest is the Son of God Himself (Hebrews 7,3). Footnote He is the source of the definitively better hope which is the cause of the addressees’ encouragement. The one through whom God made the ages (Hebrews 1,2) is the one through whom God definitively blesses and multiplies Abraham’s offspring. Through Christ’s risen priesthood a new people has come into being (cf. Hebrews 7,12), one coextensive with the entire human race. Through a Son who transcends time, Abraham’s offspring is extended to all men who have ever lived and who will ever live—to those who existed before Abraham as well as those who existed after him. This is the way the author of Hebrews understands the meaning of Genesis 22,17, with its promise that God will bless and multiply Abraham’s offspring.
C. Hebrews and the Relevance of Faith
Just as the reader is faced with the choice of a hermeneutic when confronted with Genesis 22, so the reader is faced with the choice of a hermeneutic when confronted with the interpretation of Genesis 22 in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The reader may opt to share in the obvious faith the author of Hebrews had in the Christian relevance of Genesis 22, or he may not. That is to say, the reader may opt to be a participant in Christ’s role and in Abraham’s role in Genesis 22 as seen by the author of Hebrews, or he may opt to be a spectator. Right here is the crucial hermeneutical challenge of Genesis 22 as presented in Hebrews.
Every reader of Hebrews comes to the text with a certain set of presuppositions, just as every reader comes to Genesis with a certain set of presuppositions. And such presuppositions determine in large measure the reader’s choice of a hermeneutic. A Christian who lets his Christian faith enter into every facet of his life will identify automatically with the Christian author of Hebrews. For such a believer identification with the faith of Abraham as presented in Genesis 22 will be subsumed into the faith of the author of Hebrews in the Christ who gives to the story of Genesis 22 a new dimension. According to the interpretation of the author of Hebrews, with the coming of Christ the account in Genesis 22 assumes a more profound meaning: the faith of Abraham becomes a faith in the power of God to raise from the dead, and the oath made to Abraham finds its fulfillment in the oath made by God to Jesus at the moment of His resurrection so that His earthly priesthood can become a heavenly priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek, that is, a priesthood which transcends human limitations.
One final, crucial truth about the faith of Abraham as seen by the author of Hebrews should be noted: the obedience of Abraham is rewarded by God with the gift of Isaac as symbol of the resurrection of Jesus. Thus the faith-trust of Abraham enters into the Providence of God in achieving the role of Christ as high priest for all of humanity. According to Hebrews 11,17-19 Abraham received Isaac back “as a symbol” (en parabolêi), Footnote that is, he received Isaac is a symbol of the eschatological reality which is the risen Christ.  Footnote Abraham reasoning is expressed in Hebrews 11,19a: “. . . having believed that God was able to raise from the dead”. Then the text goes on to say, “whence (hothen) he received him back as a symbol” (Hebrews 11,19b). Footnote In other words, Abraham’s trust (Hebrews 11,17), which leads him to posit belief in God’s ability to raise from the dead (Hebrews 11,19a), is rewarded not only with the gift of Isaac but with the gift of Jesus who is prefigured by Isaac. Since Hebrews 11,17-19 is found in a section in which faith is presented as resulting in God’s becoming a “rewarder” (misthapodothês—cf. Hebrews 11,6), the inference is to be made that the supreme gift of the resurrection of Jesus and all that follows from it is in a sense a “reward” for the faithfulness of Abraham who has passed the test imposed by God. Footnote Thus the oath of God as the final act of Genesis 22 contains something new for the author of Hebrews: the role of Abraham’s faith enters into the gift of the risen Jesus and hence into all that the risen Jesus implies for humanity, as outlined above.  Footnote God has taken cognizance of Abraham’s covenant faith and has responded in the language of His own covenant loyalty. And He has done so in a way which was completely unexpected.
There is one final step needed to sketch a satisfying hermeneutic of Genesis 22 and Hebrews: the preconceptions which prompt the Christian believer to believe in a Christian interpretation of Abraham’s faith must be explored.
 Part III: The Preconceptions of Christian Belief and Cardinal Newman’s Grammar of Assent
 No one approaches any written text without preconceived ideas. And if this is true of any written text in general, all the more so is it true of a religious text such as the Bible. And in particular it is true of Genesis 22 and the Christian interpretation of Genesis 22 in the Epistle to the Hebrews. It was argued above that the only proper way to approach the interpretation of Genesis 22 is on the basis of its place in the larger context of Scripture. For the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham was intended by the author of Genesis 22 to be understood in a much broader context than the text itself. Footnote And this broader context takes in such fundamental questions of religious cult and morality that Genesis 22 frequently serves as a focus of discussion on man’s relations with God. Footnote Given the fundamental nature of the questions involved in Genesis 22, it is impossible that the reader not approach the text with certain preconceptions. These preconceptions may be of a believer or of a non-believer. But whatever their nature, they are present, and their presence, since it inevitably involves subsequent interpretation of the biblical text, should be taken explicitly into account.
It was argued above, in dependence on the basis of a contemporary hermeneutics, that hermeneutical stance is a matter of choice: one chooses one’s approach to a text. Footnote But this choice is not made in a vacuum of values: one’s preconceptions are inevitably the basis for one’s choice of hermeneutical stance. Hence the choice of one’s hermeneutical stance must be investigated in the light of one’s preconceptions.
It is in this context that it seems appropriate to introduce John Henry Newman’s An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. Footnote The book was finished in January of 1870. Footnote The core insight which enabled Newman to bring the book to a conclusion is the core insight of the book itself—that the act of assent of the human person is not the result of a reflex act which is called certitude, but the act of assent which is the result of a variety of contributing causes working together in what he calls the “illative sense”. Footnote The illative sense, for Newman, is the personal use of reason about some concrete matter. Footnote He insists on the personal nature of any such use of reason. Footnote As authorities for this view he cites Aristotle and Scripture. Footnote Given the personal nature of any such use of reason with regard to some concrete reality, the role of conscience in religion is for Newman unavoidable:
Our great internal teacher of religion is . . . our Conscience. Conscience is a personal guide, and I use it because I must use myself; I am as little able to think by any mind but my own as to breathe with another’s lungs. Conscience is nearer to me than any other means of knowledge. Footnote
The use of the word “knowledge” in the last sentence should be noted: conscience, in matters of religion, is a means of knowledge. From this it follows that Scripture is not merely a collection of abstract truths, but an authoritative teaching.
And the whole tenor of Scripture from beginning to end is to this effect: the matter of revelation is not a mere collection of truths, not a philosophical view, not a religious sentiment or spirit, not a special morality . . . but an authoritative teaching, which bears witness to itself and keeps itself together as one, in contrast to the assemblage of opinions on all sides of it, and speaks to all men, as being ever and everywhere one and the same, and claiming to be received intelligently, by all whom it addresses, as one doctrine, discipline, and devotion directly given from above. Footnote
This view, of course, is the result of Newman’s own exercise of conscience as a means of knowledge. He comes to the judgment above about the whole tenor of Scripture as a result, in part, of the personal guidance of his conscience, and to this judgment he gives real assent. Footnote And he concludes his book by showing his own reasons for believing in the Catholic Church as God’s providential gift to be accepted by faith, Footnote a faith, however, which is associated with an accumulation of probabilities which yield the certitude which results from the legitimate use of the illative sense. Footnote 
The present study began in Part I with a presentation of Genesis 22 with all its attendant challenges to interpretation. Because of its explicit connections to covenant and cult, an exegesis was advanced based on the acceptance of that covenant and cult as part of the religious dispensation whose written record is the Old Testament. The proper response to Genesis 22, it was argued, is one of faith mirroring the faith of Abraham. This interpretation of the propriety of faith was occasioned by the content of Genesis 22, not mandated. It was argued that the acceptance of Genesis 22 in a spirit of faith was the result of a hermeneutics of free choice.
In Part II an interpretation given to Genesis 22 by the Epistle to the Hebrews was suggested. This interpretation revolved around the faith of Abraham and the oath of God sworn to Abraham following the successful outcome of his test. The faith-inspired interpretation given by the author of Hebrews was seen as a function of faith in Jesus Christ. And the propriety of a reading of the text accompanied by faith was proposed. Again, this faith was seen as the result of a hermeneutics of free choice. The Old Testament faith of the believing Jew was subsumed into the New Testament faith of the Christian.
Finally, in Part III, an attempt was made to ground this hermeneutics of exegetical choice on a hermeneutics of exegetical preconceptions. John Henry Newman’s A Grammar of Assent was invoked to show that the “illative sense” proposed by the author was a key factor in understanding the preconceptions of a Christian believer (in the case of Newman, of the Catholic believer). Because of the importance of conscience in the formation of the preconceptions which underlie the Christian’s act of faith, the role of moral choice is evident here as well.
Thus, when all is said and done, it is the person who is responsible for the exegetical stance adopted for the interpretation of a given text of Scripture, first with regard to the preconceptions which govern his choice of an exegetical approach to a given text, and then with regard to the choice itself. It is clear that Genesis 22 portrays Abraham as a man of faith; it is clear that the Epistle to the Hebrews portrays Abraham in Genesis 22 as a man of faith and presents Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of that faith. But whether the exegete will put himself into tune with this faith is a matter of his own choosing, a choosing both remote and proximate.
In attributing hermeneutical stance to personal choice one should not neglect the bias built into the biblical text itself: the text itself is an invitation to believe as its authors believe. It is clear from the way Genesis 22 is framed, and from the way that the Epistle to the Hebrews enters into a development of Genesis 22 in terms of Jesus Christ, that the authors of these texts are believers and have written the text for other believers, actual or potential. The author of Hebrews speaks frequently of “we”, i.e., “we believers” (cf. 1,2; 2,3; 3,6; etc.). He believes, and writes to others who believe. At the most profound level, these texts call for participation in the faith of those portrayed, not simply a contemplation of that faith. As Kierkegaard remarks about the biblical passage involving the widow’s mite (Mark 12,41-44), acceptance of the story on its own terms, i.e., presupposing the faith of the widow, transforms the gift “into much”. This faith-challenge is the challenge of Genesis 22 in its Old and New Testament guises as well.
. . . that sympathetic person who accepts the book and gives to it a good place, that sympathetic person who, by accepting it, does for it through himself and through his acceptance, what the treasury did for the widow’s mites: hallows the gift, gives it significance, and transforms it into much. 

January 16, 2017

St Francis quote




Paul VI Audience Hall

Wednesday, 11 January 2016

Dear Brothers and Sisters, Good morning!

In the month of December and in the first part of January we celebrated the Season of Advent and then Christmas: a period of the liturgical year that reawakens hope in God’s people. Hope is a basic human need: hope for the future, belief in life, so-called “positive thinking”.
But it is important that this hope be placed in what can really help you to live and give meaning to our existence. This is why Scripture warns us against the false hopes that the world presents to us, exposing their uselessness and demonstrating their foolishness. It does so in various ways, but especially by denouncing the falsehood of the idols in which man is continually tempted to place his trust, making them the object of his hope.
The prophets and scholars in particular insist on this, touching a nerve centre of the believer’s journey of faith. Because faith means trusting in God — those who have faith trust in God — but there’s a moment when, in meeting life’s difficulties, man experiences the fragility of that trust and feels the need for various certainties — for tangible, concrete assurances. I entrust myself to God, but the situation is rather serious and I need a little more concrete reassurance. And there lies the danger! And then we are tempted to seek even ephemeral consolations that seem to fill the void of loneliness and alleviate the fatigue of believing. And we think we can find them in the security that money can give, in alliances with the powerful, in worldliness, in false ideologies. Sometimes we look for them in a god that can bend to our requests and magically intervene to change the situation and make it as we wish; an idol, indeed, that in itself can do nothing. It is impotent and deceptive. But we like idols; we love them! Once, in Buenos Aires, I had to go from one church to another, a thousand meters, more or less. And I did so on foot. And between them there is a park, and in the park there were little tables, where many, many fortune tellers were sitting. It was full of people who were even waiting in line. You would give them your hand and they’d begin, but the conversation was always the same: ‘there is a woman in your life, there is a darkness that comes, but everything will be fine ...’. And then, you paid. And this gives you security? It is the security of — allow me to use the word — nonsense. Going to a seer or to a fortune teller who reads cards: this is an idol! This is the idol, and when we are so attached to them, we buy false hope. Whereas, in that gratuitous hope, which Jesus Christ brought us, freely giving his life for us, sometimes we fail to fully trust.
A Psalm brimming with wisdom depicts in a very suggestive way the falsity of these idols that the world offers for our hope and on which men of all ages are tempted to rely. It is Psalm 115, which is recited as follows:
“Their idols are silver and gold, / the work of men’s hands. / They have mouths, but do not speak; / eyes, but do not see. / They have ears, but do not hear; / noses, but do not smell. / They have hands, but do not feel; / feet, but do not walk; / and they do not make a sound in their throat. / Those who make them are like them; / so are all who trust in them!” (vv. 4-8).
The psalmist also presents to us, a bit ironically, the absolutely ephemeral character of these idols. And we must understand that these are not merely figures made of metal or other materials but are also those we build in our minds: when we trust in limited realities that we transform into absolute values, or when we diminish God to fit our own template and our ideas of divinity; a god that looks like us is understandable, predictable, just like the idols mentioned in the Psalm. Man, the image of God, manufactures a god in his own image, and it is also a poorly realized image. It does not hear, does not act, and above all, it cannot speak. But, we are happier to turn to idols than to turn to the Lord. Many times, we are happier with the ephemeral hope that this false idol gives us, than with the great and sure hope that the Lord gives us.
In contrast to hoping in a Lord of life who, through his Word created the world and leads our existence, [we turn to] dumb effigies. Ideologies with their claim to the absolute, wealth — and this is a great idol — power and success, vanity, with their illusion of eternity and omnipotence, values such as physical beauty and health: when they become idols to which everything is sacrificed, they are all things that confuse the mind and the heart, and instead of supporting life, they lead to death. It is terrible to hear, and painful to the soul: something that once, years ago, I heard in the Diocese of Buenos Aires: a good woman — very beautiful — boasted about her beauty. She said, as if it were natural: ‘Yes, I had to have an abortion because my figure is very important’. These are idols, and they lead you down the wrong path, and do not give you happiness.
The message of the Psalm is very clear: if you place hope in idols, you become like them: hollow images with hands that do not feel, feet that do not walk, mouths that cannot speak. You no longer have anything to say; you become unable to help, to change things, unable to smile, to give of yourself, incapable of love. And we, men of the Church, run this risk when we “become mundanized”. We need to abide in the world but defend ourselves from the world’s illusions, which are these idols that I mentioned.
As the Psalm continues, we must trust and hope in God, and God will bestow the blessing. So says the Psalm: “O Israel, trust in the Lord.... O House of Aaron, put your trust in the Lord.... You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord.... The Lord has been mindful of us; he will bless us” (vv. 9, 10, 11, 12).
The Lord always remembers. Even in the bad times he remembers us. And this is our hope. And hope does not disappoint. Never. Never. Idols always disappoint; they are make-believe; they are not real. Here is the wonderful reality of hope: in trusting in the Lord, we become like him. His blessing transforms us into his children who share in his life. Hope in God allows us to enter, so to speak, within the range of his remembrance, of his memory that blesses us and saves us. And it is then that a Hallelujah can burst forth in praise to the living and true God, who was born for us of Mary, died on the Cross and rose again in glory. And in this God we have hope, and this God — who is not an idol — never disappoints.

January 14, 2017

John the Baptist.


Sunday of week 2 of Ordinary Time


TODAY WE BEGIN again the Sundays in the Ordinary Season of the year. On most Sundays, we will be following the gospel of Matthew. However, today’s Gospel reading is from John.
Our readings speak about two things:
– the identity of Jesus, and
– the mission of Jesus.
We need to know who Jesus is, if we want to be his disciples. We also need to know what his mission is, if we want to be good disciples. Because a good disciple is also an apostle. By definition, a disciple is a follower; an apostle is the bearer of a message from a superior. The Christian disciple not only follows the Gospel of Jesus but also helps others to hear and accept it.

Who is Jesus?
Who is Jesus? We see him today simultaneously in the role of Lord and Servant. Today’s Gospel speaks about Jesus being baptised by John the Baptist. As Jesus approaches, John announces to some of his own disciples: “There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Why is Jesus called by this strange title, the Lamb of God? It refers back to the origins of the great Jewish feast of the Passover. According to the tradition, God had been urging the Pharaoh to let God’s people leave Egypt. There had been a series of plagues but each time Pharaoh reneged on his promise to do so. The final and most terrible plague involved the slaying of every firstborn child in Egypt.
In order that the Israelites might not be punished, they were told to smear the doorposts of their houses with the blood of a lamb. When God’s angel struck, he passed over the blood-painted houses of the Israelites and their children were spared. They had, in effect, been saved by the blood of the lamb.
Pharaoh acknowledged defeat and finally said he would let the Israelites go. (He will go back on his word once more and with disastrous results for him.) On the night before the Israelites left, under the leadership of Moses, they had a final meal which included the eating of a roast lamb. (The same lamb whose blood had been painted on the doorposts of the house.) The lamb then becomes the sign and symbol of the liberation of God’s people from slavery and oppression.
This great event of the Exodus, the Going Out, was and is commemorated in the Passover meal which Jesus celebrated with his disciples at the Last Supper and which is still celebrated by Jews worldwide. (The Passover meal is now also being observed unofficially by many groups of Catholics and other Christians during Holy Week.)

Jesus the eternal Lamb
But for us – and this is John the Baptist’s meaning – Jesus is the new Lamb which brings freedom and liberation from the oppression of evil and sin. He sacrifices himself to take away our sins.
Through his death he liberates us. It is no coincidence that Jesus’ sacrificial death took place at the Passover. He is the new Pasch; he is the Lamb who both sacrifices himself and is sacrificed to liberate us. And it is his Blood poured out that is the sign of our salvation.
Jesus can do this because he is at the same time our Lord and our Servant. Because he is our Lord, he can take away our sins; because he is a servant, he sacrifices his life for us. And he is not only our servant, he is our friend. As he told his disciples at the Last Supper, the greatest love a person can show is to sacrifice one’s life for one’s friends and he insists that his disciples are his friends not servants. Even more, Jesus is our Brother.

Jesus and John
John the Baptist also speaks of Jesus in the same way. He says: “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.” Now we know that John and Jesus are related. And we know, from Luke’s gospel, that John is older than Jesus by about six months, yet he says that Jesus ranks above him and existed before him.
John appears first proclaiming the Kingdom of God. But Jesus precedes John in dignity and status. Because, before John was even conceived in his mother’s womb, Jesus, the Word of God, already existed.
So John says, “I did not know him”. How come he does not know his own cousin, although he makes clear statements about him? Why does he not know his cousin? Of course, he knows Jesus while at the same time he does not know him. For at first he did not know the real identity of Jesus. Jesus is not only his younger relative. Jesus is his Lord and his God.

Son of God
When did John know? When, he says, he “saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself [at first] did not know him but the one who sent me to baptise with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit’.”
And then he makes his declaration of faith: “I myself have seen and have given witness that this is the Son of God.” Jesus is Lord and God. (In this first chapter of his gospel, John gives all of Jesus’ titles: Word, Son of the Father, Lamb of God, Son of God, Messiah [the Christ], Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Joseph, King of Israel, Son of Man.)
And yet, this Jesus Lord is standing in the river water, together with many sinners. He is God but he has come to serve us, to love us, to liberate us, to mingle with us, to be one of us. And he asks us to work with him in the same way – to be in the world and to serve the world, to serve all as brothers and sisters.
Jesus as servant The First Reading also speaks of Jesus as servant. “Israel, you are my servant.” The Lord “formed me in the womb to be his servant”. And what is the work of this servant? His work is to “bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him…” (In the Reading it is Isaiah who is being spoken to but the words clearly are now applied to Jesus – and by implication also to us.)
But it is not enough to bring just the Jews back to God. “It is too small a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel…” Much more, as Isaiah continues: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus is the Light of the whole world. He wants every single person to experience his salvation.
He wants every single person to enter the Kingdom of God. He wants every person to experience the truth, the love and the freedom of the Gospel. The mission of Jesus is to bring all the people of the world back to God, their Creator, their Beginning and their End.

Our common mission
The mission of Jesus is also our mission. We cannot be good disciples of Jesus if we are not also good apostles. To be a good Christian necessarily entails being a good evangeliser. Our duty is not only to save our own souls and “go to heaven”. Our duty is also to share our faith with others, help them to know Jesus and his Gospel, and to experience directly the love of God.
Where can we do this? In our homes and families, in our working places, in the area covered by our parish.
Let us pray that God will help us to work together with Jesus to establish his Kingdom in the whole world and especially in that part of it where we live out our lives.