- Ephesians 1,1-14
- “almost” a presentation
- my shortly history
- Hymn to Love -
- The Year of St. Paul - Pope Benedict: the 20th Catechesis on Saint Paul
- Salve Regina
- The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible
- Psalm 8
- The Shofar
- Primo Levi : If this a man
- Sacred Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith - Declaration of procured abortion (Pope Paul VI, June 28, 1974)
02 settembre 2014
CREATION AND THE SEVEN-DAY WEEK
(I do not know the author - of course I can not know all of them)
by William J. Bauer, Ph.D
An often-overlooked testimony to the fact of creation is the strange phenomenon of the seven-day week. Almost universally observed in the present world and often observed in the ancient world, it is so deeply rooted in human experience and so natural physiologically that we seldom think about its intrinsic significance.
All the other important time markers in human life are clearly based on astronomical and terrestrial constants. The day, for example, is the duration of one rotation of the earth on its axis; the year is the duration of one orbital revolution of the earth about the sun; the month is the approximate interval between new moons; the seasons are marked by the equinoxes and solstices.
But the week has no astronomical basis whatever! Yet we order our lives in a seven-day cycle, doing certain things on Monday, certain other things on Tuesday, and so on through the week. Furthermore, the common pattern is one of six normal working days, then a day of rest or change, then six normal days again, and so on, with the special day regarded as either the last of the seven preceding it, or the first of the seven following it.
How could such a system ever have originated? Most encyclopedias and reference books treat the subject very superficially, if at all. One can easily find extensive discussions about the length of the year and the length of the month in different eras and cultures, but it is very difficult to locate information about the week. Most of the discussions that do try to deal with it attribute the origin of the week to the use of "market days," pointing out also that the interval between market days was different in different nations, though rarely varying more than a day or so above or below seven days. With the exception of an occasional Biblical scholar, almost none of these writers even considers the obvious explanation—namely, that the seven-day week was established by God Himself, at the beginning!
Every effect must have an adequate cause, and the only cause which is truly able to account for such a remarkable phenomenon as the week is that it was established at creation and has been deeply etched in the common human consciousness ever since. Even if the week is noted in some cultures in terms of regular market days, this still does not explain how the market days happened to cluster around every "seventh" day, instead of every fifteenth day or nineteenth day or something else. Besides, there were various ancient nations whose weeks were quite unrelated to any marketing customs.
A related phenomenon, equally remarkable, is the almost universal significance attached to the number "seven," as a number speaking of completeness, usually with special religious overtones. This number is not "natural" in any physical way. It would be more natural to use the number "ten" (the number of a man's fingers), or the number "twelve" (the number of months in the year), or perhaps the number "365," to represent fullness. Why "seven"? Yet "seven" is everywhere the number of completeness.
Many people believe that the custom of a weekly day of rest began with Moses, when he incorporated Sabbath observance into the Ten Commandments. However, there is considerable evidence that Sabbath observance existed in both Israel and in other nations long before Moses. The Word of God makes it plain that it was established by God Himself, in commemoration of His completed creation, and that it has been observed as a special day, at least by some, ever since. Here is the record:
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them, and on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it He had rested from all His work which God created and made (Genesis 2:1-3).
God "rested" after finishing His work of creating and making all things in the universe in the six days just completed. His rest was not because of fatigue (note Isaiah 40:28), but was simply a cessation of His creative activity.
And then God blessed and sanctified the seventh day! He declared it to be a holy day, a day peculiarly the Lord's Day. The six days had been occupied with His creation; one day should be occupied with the Creator. He frequently referred later to the day as "my Sabbaths" (e.g., Exodus 31:13).
That the children of Adam, even after the expulsion from Eden, continued to regard every seventh day as a day of rest and worship is clearly implied in the story of Cain and Abel.
And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof (Genesis 4:3, 4).
On this particular day, Cain was not tilling the ground, as he normally did, nor was Abel tending his sheep. On this day, they met with the Lord and brought Him all offering.
And what day was that? The phrase "in process of time" is, literally, "at the end of the days" ("process" = Hebrew qets = "end"; "time" = Hebrew yamim = "days"). The day on which they brought their offerings was the day "at the end of the days," and this clearly can be nothing but the seventh day, the day which God had blessed and hallowed.
The story of Noah contains many allusions to the seven-day week. Note the following in Chapters 7 and 8 of Genesis:
"For yet seven days, and I will cause it to rain upon the earth" (7:4)
"And it came to pass after seven days that the waters of the flood were upon the earth" (7:10)
Forty weeks later (280 days—compare 7:11; 8:3, 4, 5, 6) Noah sent forth the dove and the raven (8:7, 8)
"And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove" (8:10)
"And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove " (8:12)
Noah and his family left the ark exactly 371 days, or 53 weeks, after they had entered it (compare verses 7:11; 8:3, 4; 8:14).
Whether these repeated references to actions taken every seven days imply that they all took place on God's rest day is not stated, although it does seem probable. In any case, it is clear that both God and Noah were ordering events in terms of a seven-day cycle.
During the centuries from Noah to Moses, there was little occasion to refer in the Bible to the week as such. However, there do at least seem to be two allusions to it, in the story of Jacob and Leah ("fulfill her week"—Genesis 29:27, 28) and in the story of Jacob's burial (Genesis 50:10).
Whatever form of Sabbath observance might have been practiced by the early patriarchs, it is probable that the long servitude in Egypt caused many to forget its religious significance, even though the weekly cycle was still followed. When the time came for God to redeem His people, however, He began to remind them of its importance. In preparation for the great Passover deliverance, He commanded: "Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread,—And in the first day there shall be an holy convocation, and in the seventh day there shall be an holy convocation to you; no manner of work shall be done in them, save that which every man must eat, that only may be done of you." (Exodus 13:15, 16). It is interesting that, in this preparation for the incorporation of the Sabbath into the Ten Commandments, both the First Day and the Seventh Day were days of rest and worship!
Soon after this, the Israelites were strongly reminded that a seventh day each week was intended to be a day of rest, in the experience of the manna (Exodus 16:4, 5, 25-30), which fell for six days each week and was withheld by God on the seventh. Finally, Sabbath observance was incorporated as the fourth in the array of Ten Commandments recorded for Israel by the very finger of God on tables of stone (Exodus 31:18).
Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work,—(Exodus 20:8-10).
It should be stressed again that the Sabbath observance was by no means established here for the first time. The Israelites, however, were now commanded to remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy, as it should have been since God so pronounced it following the creation. The Lord's holy day may have been neglected by God's chosen people, or even forgotten altogether by most other nations, but it was still God's primeval commandment. At this time, God stressed again that the basis for the commandment was not regional but universal, relating to the entire creation. "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath Day, and hallowed it." (Exodus 20:11). A commandment intended for all people should certainly be obeyed by the chosen people!
With the passing of the centuries, the Sabbath eventually became almost exclusively associated with the religious ceremonies of the nation Israel, even though the Creator had hallowed it originally for all men. When that Creator eventually became man, however, in the person of Jesus Christ, He stressed that it had never been intended as a mere Jewish religious ritual, as the Pharisees had distorted it, but for the good of all men. "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). All men needed to have a day of rest and worship, for their own physical good, and to regularly remind themselves of the great truth of creation, for their spiritual good. And they needed to remember continually that the one who came in to redeem them is also the one who had created them. "Therefore, the Son of man is Lord also of the Sabbath," He said (Matthew 12:28).
It was appropriate, therefore, that after Christ's death and resurrection, Christians from every nation soon began once again to observe one day in every seven as a day of rest, as they heard and believed the gospel of Christ. Now, however, there were two great works of God to commemorate, the completion of creation and the completion of redemption. As Christ had long ago finished the work of creation (Colossians 1:16) so He could now report once again to the Father: "I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do" (John 17:4). This work was climaxed with the great victory cry on the cross: "It is finished!" (John 19:30).
For a time, Jewish Christians continued to participate both in the synagogue services on the seventh day each week (e.g., Acts 17:2) and also in Christian services on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). Eventually, as they were more and more excluded from the synagogue, they observed the Lord's day only on the first day of the week (I Corinthians 16:2), thereby honoring Christ simultaneously as both Creator and resurrected Savior.
There was discussion for a long time (continuing in some degree even today) as to whether Christian churches, once they were completely separated from the Jewish assemblies, should observe the Lord's day on the seventh day of the week, as the Jews did, or on the first day of the week, as the day of Christ's resurrection. Without entering into this particular discussion, the important point to note here is the fact that Christians never even questioned the necessity for a weekly "rest day" on which especially to honor the Lord. That need was taken for granted, regardless of whether the "Sabbath" was to be observed on Saturday or Sunday. ("Sabbath," in Hebrew means neither Saturday nor Sunday, neither seventh day nor first day, but rest day!).
In view of the chaotic state of ancient chronology, there is obviously no way of knowing which day of the modern week is an exact multiple of seven days since God's first rest day. Those Christians who worship on Saturday believe that the Sabbath cycle has been kept intact ever since the creation and so they follow the practice of today's orthodox Jews, who make the same assumption. Other Christians, however, point out that the present Jewish calendar was not established until the fourth century A.D., so there is neither historical nor scientific basis for insisting that our present Saturday was the primeval Sabbath. Some Christian writers have argued that our modern Sunday was the ancient Sabbath and others have maintained that the day of the week on which the Sabbath fell actually changed from year to year, being affected by Sabbaths other than the weekly Sabbath, including one which extended for two days each year. The "long day" of Joshua (Joshua 10:13, 14) also must have affected the weekly cycle in some as yet uncertain fashion. In any case, the important consideration is the fact of a weekly "Lord's Day," rather than the particular day of the modern weekly cycle on which it is observed.
It is significant that the Ten Commandments, representing God's ineffable and unchanging holiness as they do, even though specifically written down in the Mosaic law for Israel's sake, are also written in the consciences of all men (Romans 2:14, 15). Consequently, these commandments were accepted and applied in the New Testament as well (e.g., Romans 13:9; Ephesians 6:2; etc.).
This affirmation is clearly implied for the Sabbath commandment in particular. "For He spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise; and God did rest the seventh day from all His works.—There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God." (Hebrews 4:4, 9). In this passage in Hebrews (verses 1-11), the English word "rest" occurs nine times. All except one of these are translations of essentially the same Greek word (katapausis), implying rest from labor. The exception is in verse 9: "There is yet reserved therefore a Sabbath rest (Greek sabbatismos, derived from sabbaton, "Sabbath") to the people of God." This is the only occurrence of this particular word in the New Testament.
In context, the writer is showing that the ultimate "rest" for God's people, which was typically portrayed by God's rest after creation and which was therefore typified by every weekly Sabbath observance, was not attained in Canaan under either Joshua or David, and was still reserved for the future even after Christ had returned to heaven and the Christian era had begun. Since the antitype is yet future, therefore, the type must still be in operation, just as the animal sacrifices in the temple did not cease until Christ "had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever." (Hebrews 10:12). This fact, combined with the evident fact that all the early Christians continued to observe a weekly "Lord's day," and that nowhere in the New Testament was it stated that "Sabbath" observance should cease, makes it clear that this commandment, like all the Ten Commandments, applies in the Christian dispensation as well as in the Mosaic dispensation, though not with the same applications and penalties that related specifically to the Mosaic ordinances. As a matter of fact, God's people will continue to observe a weekly Sabbath even in the coming kingdom age (note Isaiah 66:22, Ezekiel 46:3).
All of this is the tremendous testimony of the seven-day week and, especially, of the day of rest which marks its boundaries. Its very existence can only be explained by the reality of a primeval six-day completed creation! God desires that we never forget that He is both our Creator and Redeemer, and also that we continually look forward to the eventual fulfillment of all His creative and redemptive purposes, when they are finally consummated in that eternal Rest for all the people of God in the ages to come.
Cite this article: William J. Bauer, Ph.D. 1979. Creation and the Seven-Day Week. Acts & Facts. 8 (9).
THE FLOOD WATERS
Where did God put all the water from the flood? Did he just make it disappear (poof)? The Bible says that the seas retreated in a matter of months (extremely fast)? Did he dig a hole and put the water in some big basin deep in the earth?
First, let's examine exactly what the Scripture says. Genesis chapter seven describes the event of a catastrophic worldwide flood used by God as a judgment for the wickedness of man in the days of Noah. The Bible teaches that the entire world (including the mountains) was covered in water in Genesis 7:20 and this is also mentioned in 2 Peter 3:6 and Isaiah 54:9. The Bible tells us that it rained for forty days nonstop (Genesis 7:11-12) and water continued to rise higher until the mountains were covered (verse 20) for a total of 150 days (verse 24). Therefore, even though it only rained for forty days, the waters continued to rise for a total of 21 weeks.
In addition to the rain, verse 11 describes that, "…the fountains of the great deep burst open" to account for additional water necessary to cover the tops of mountains. Your question comes in at this point. What happened to all this water?
First of all, we are told that after the waters rose for 21 weeks that Noah remained in the ark for an additional 23 weeks. During this time the waters receded. In order to understand this I challenge you to evaluate your assumptions. If you assume that the ocean depths were the same before the Flood as they are after and if you assume that the mountains were always the same height as they are now I can see why you are so cynical in your questioning. Such an assumption is unnecessary considering the effects of a global flood.
A few years ago I was overwhelmed by the affects of flooding in the mid-west. It was incredible what flood waters can do. If the waters of Noah's Flood covered the whole earth, the devastation from a worldwide catastrophe would have caused extreme changes in the earth's appearance. Therefore, there is no reason to assume that the world's topography would have been the same as before the flood. In fact, before the Flood the Bible only refers to "high hills" implying that the mountains were formed at the end of or after the Flood.
A change in the overall topography of the earth after the Flood would also account for the water of the Flood. This is exactly what is suggested in Psalm 104:8, "The mountains rose; the valleys sank down to the place which Thou did establish for them." This verse in the context of verses 6-9 must be referring to the events of Noah's Flood. In verse 9: "Thou didst set a boundary that they may not pass over; That they may not return to cover the earth." This must refer to God's promise not to flood the entire earth again after Noah's Flood. The Psalmist exalts God's power in this awesome Psalm in verses 6 and 7. "Thou didst cover it with the deep as with a garment; The waters were standing above the mountains. At thy rebuke they fled; At the sound of Thy thunder they hurried away." Thus, God simply rebuked the waters that covered the mountains and they went to their "established place" as the mountains rose and the valleys sank.
This explains why the ocean basins are so deep and wide. Mountains higher than Mount Everest are found in the ocean. Somehow, perhaps by continental separation and/or massive plate tectonic movements, the oceans were deepened and widened. Evidence such as the topography of continental shelves, the sea mounts and the great submarine canyons indicate a former lower sea level. It is also important to consider that most of the earth's surface now is covered by water (70 percent) and if the entire earth's surface were leveled out, the waters of the ocean would cover the earth to a depth of 1.7 miles. Therefore, if the mountains rose and the valleys sank, the water of the Flood would have ended up mainly in the oceans.
The truth of Psalm 104 also explains why mountain ranges appear folded as if they rose. Perhaps a drastic collision of tectonic plates could have caused such upthrusting resulting in and further tectonic activity, volcanism, erosion, sedimentation and fossilization, which is apparent in the geologic record. It is also important to consider the geologic fact of fossils of fish on the tops of mountains. I have a water-dwelling trilobite fossil that was found on the top of the Atlas Mountains. Mount Everest itself contains fossils and is composed of water-deposited layers.
So, to answer your question, no, the water did not disappear (poof), but, in a way, God did create a basin to hold the waters of the Flood. Geology confirms that the earth's topography has changed, that the ocean basins have sank and the mountains were once under water and that they have indeed risen just as the psalmist suggested.
01 settembre 2014
GENESIS 22, HEBREWS, AND A HERMENEUTIC OF FAITH
JAMES SWETNAM, S.J.
[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.
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.
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.
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. Footnote
ARCHBISHOP STYLIANOS OF AUSTRALIA - ON PRAYER
Εκδόσεις Αρμός, Μαυροκορδάτου 7, 106 78 Αθήνα
3) The presuppositions and atmosphere for prayer
When the Apostle Peter exhorts us to be "watchful in prayer", he gives us the key to avoid all the hazards which we may face at the outset of the sacred "adventure" of prayer. To be "watchful", that is to be attentive with eyes wide open, is imperative at every moment of our relationship with God and His world. And in our special and direct relationship with Him, which we call prayer, this is particularly the case. Before we even begin to pray there is the danger that we may fall into the trap of "loνe of self". Was this not also the cause of original sin?
When we do not direct ourselves towards the mercy of God, humbled and purified by the awe which the sense of God's immediate presence in the world inspires within us -even if this is invisible- but instead admire ourselves impiously and narcissistically, then our spiritual demise is inevitable. A classic example of a tragic and abominable "shipwreck" at the very hour of prayer (a shipwreck in the middle of the harbour!) is that of the Tax-collector praying together with the Pharisee, found in the well-known narrative of the Gospel (Luke 18:9-14). The condition conveyed to us by the Tax- collector who, beating his breast, did not dare to look up towards heaven, but only stuttered with tears "God have merry on me a sinner", is equalled by the disappointment and shame, if not the indignation, with which the profane behaviour of the Pharisee fills us. He essentially did not pray to God, but to himself. The words of the sacred text point this out with the distinctive observation that "the Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself...".
One can avoid the deadly hazard of "self love" and self complacency by continually remembering one's mortalίty. "As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field" (Ps. 103:15).
"Remembrance of death" was a feature of the more reflective and mystical East, even before the time of Christ, which was spread and maintained in the Christian West up until the Middle Ages, particularly in the Monasteries. The well-known phrase "memento moriu was, compared with any other precept or rule of moral behaviour, the most imperative spiritual slogan. Yet because the "remembrance of death" always involves an element of fear -consciously or sub-consciously, it does not matter- this should not be emphasized too much as a presupposition of prayer. For "fear" may lead one to pray, but prayer due to fear is not free communication with God. Rather, it is a forced action, a solution of necessity imposed by difficult external circumstances, and not by the internal inclination of a grateful child or faithful person. Prayer caused by fear is, so to speak, a "forced presentation" to God as Judge and Ruler.
We can then see that the element of fear can be doubly harmful. It not only distorts the meaning of prayer in that it is no longer free and true communication. It distorts the meaning of God, who is not approached as a Farher. Such a fear which does not allow us to see unaffectedly our correct position and relation to God, cannot be the kind of fear which the Old Testament speaks of as being the "beginning of wisdom" (Prov. 1:7). This clearly refers to the sacred awe which opens our eyes to recognize the true and living God as a Father, allowing us thereby to become "wise" and to have optimism in God. Conversely, fear which is tremblίng before the Judge disorientates us from the source of life. It is therefore only natural that, instead of optimism, this fills us with despair, if not enmity towards God.
It now becomes obvious that we should not look for pure presuppositions of prayer in subjective human imaginations, whether positive or negative. We shall draw these mainly from the word of God itself that is from Revelation. Only then can we be sure that we are based on firm foundations.
Ιn all the books of the Old and New Testament, there is not apparently a more succinct or successful description of God than that which was given by St. John the Evangelist. Ιn saying that "God is love" (1 Jn. 4:8), the "beloved" disciple of course gave the most substantial summary of the major features of God. He does not sίmply present Him as the Father of mercy and compassion, but also as the all-powerful Creator, and as the all-wise Provider and as the all-good Governor of the universe. This is why St. John the Evangelist also explains elsewhere in his writings how he understands the love of God. He sees it not simply as undefined and general good will, but primarily as an active and continuously renewed gift which requires absolutely nothing on the part of humanity, and for this reason precisely it is called "grace". The only thing which Divine love requires is that human beings do not reject it. This is the meaning of the Apostle Pau1's directive "do not quench the Spirit" (1 Thess. 5:19).
When such a love of God is reflected in the conscience of a grateful person, it is natural that he or she will turn with absolute and unreserved confidence to the "Giver of every good thing", without the slightest fear. St. John therefore adds that "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18).
Thus, from the love of God for humankind, the love of human beings for God and all of His creation is derived as the first and primary presupposition of prayer.
Spiritual liberation, coming directly from the grace of God, can reveal to man powers which he did not even suspect after his fall. It gives him the power not only to love God unreservedly for His countless blessings, but also to forgive fellow human beings for any "transgression". The person who cannot forgive a fellow human being cannot claim that he or she loves God. This is true for two reasons. Firstly, because each person remains an "icon of God", even when they may face the greatest bankruptcy or failure in secular terms. Secondly, because, as St. John the Evangelist states, you cannot love God whom you have not seen if you do not love your brother whom you have seen (cf. 1 Jn. 4:20).
Consequently, another substantial presupposition of prayer is forgiveness and reconciliation with one with whom we happened to have some differences. The Fathers stress that, even if we were not to blame for the breakdown in relations with our fellow human being, we must be willing to restore them at every moment, forgetting the wrong that they have done to us. They therefore call this power to forgive "unresentfulness", that is the forgetting of wrongs.
Here we must however make some necessary clarification. Unfortunately, there is often an extremely dangerous misuse of the magnanimity which the Fathers require of the faithful. Today there are people who are not only foolish and hardhearted, but literally shameless and whose hunger for money makes them relentless exploiters of other people. It is well- known that the pioneers in this thoughtless pursuit of money and social promotion were the representatives of the so-called fourth power, the media, so that they could impose themselves unconditionally on all others, including the modern State. By creating a fake world with their own values and their own customs, they are continuously intoxicated by the self-deceit that they are at the centre of the world -sometimes even above the world- with their "cyberspace" which is distinct from any other power. Thus they can easily tarnish consciences and institutions as they please, thereby destroying the peace of unsuspecting citizens, and scandalising those who are either naive or uninformed. When the victim tries to defend his ridiculed reputation, and resorts to the legal means made available by the State, then the professional and established slanderer mobilises the greatest degree of hypocrisy by recalling the forgiveness and tolerance taught by Christ, whom they themselves have never believed nor feared. The height of their hypocrisy and audacity is to believe that they have the right to publicly ask the victim of their cold-blooded crime to forgive them unconditionally, simply because the victim is a Christian.
Yet to forgive such unrepentant criminals indiscriminately is equal to partnership with them and complicity. If we do not bring them back pedagogically, we really help them to become more audacious and to continue their destructive work, thereby creating new victims and increasing hatred. However, in so doing, they not only do damage to others but to themselves also.
Unresentfulness, as a state of being oblivious and forgetful of wrongs, should refer only to a past wrong which was indeed committed, but which is now finished. Not to wrong-doing which remains open and continues indefinitely like a fistula. A person of faith can never remain an apathetic viewer of evil in the world. Nor an indifferent observer of everything profane, leaving all restraining of evil to the supernatural action of God. The Christians know that, for as long as they are in this world, they are living and active members of the "Church militant". And to be a soldier means effort and a specific and unyielding struggle against anything which is contrary to Divine justice. Ιn this struggle, the faithful person seeks neither "revenge" nor to "pay back". For the faithful know that only God is entitled to something like that: "Vengeance is mine, Ι will repay" (Rom. 12:19).
They also know that the Divine will must be promoted at every moment, so that it will prevail "on earth as it is in heaven". Otherwise, the condemnatory verdict of the Apostle Paul would have to apply for all ages: "They have all gone out of the way; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one" (Rom. 3:12). So that an unacceptable defeatist attitude does not prevail due to the complete decline and despair of all in light of the dominance of evil in the world, the Fathers almost always demand together with "unresentfulness", the virtue of "goodness" which is totally dynamic and active.
This dynamic stance and willingness of the faithful in their daily struggle is clearly expressed in the command of Christ, if we remember during the time for worship that we do not have good relations with our brother, then we are to first go and reconcile ourselves with him and then offer our gift at the altar (cf. Mat. 5:24). Yet "conciliation" and "reconciliation" are not a momentary or superficial release from responsibility. Rather it has to do with a deeper mutuality and fraternisation which will allow us to co-exist in the same place and with the same opinion as the other person. This is what is expressed by the two relevant nouns in the Greek language which contain the words for "place" (χώρο) and "opinion" (γνώμη). Only then will the "other" person be the "brother" of whom Christ speaks, and not the unrelated person next door who is euphemistically called a "neighbour". The classic model of prayer which Christ gave to the Apostles speaks only of "brothers". When we address God as "our Father", we are triumphantly stating that this common fatherhood makes us all brothers and sisters from the outset. Fraternisation however does not occur without education, which is pedagogy as well as vigilant and active effort.
Ιn summarising the presuppositions of prayer in fear, love and unresentfulness, we find that we encounter, by another path, the three fundamental virtues of the Gospel: Faith-love-hope. Yet even these three Christian virtues are inconceivable unless the faithful person presupposes, consciously or subconsciously, an unshaken faith in the three following basic dogmatic truths:
a) The creation of the world "out of nothing" (Only in this way is the rue God confessed).
b) The creation of the human person in the "image and likeness of God" (Only in this way can we love and be entitled to love).
c) The original sin (Since the blood of Christ alone could release us from this, we have reason for hope and we are obliged to forgive).
For all of the above, the atmosphere of prayer must always be one of mourning, contrition and repentance. Not of Pharisaic complacency and impious triumphalism. King David's Psalms are the best guide for each praying person. It is he who assures us that "a broken and contrite heart God will not despise" (Psalm 51:17).
And St. John of the Ladder is even clearer and more categoric: "Do not become bold, even if you achieve purity. Rather, move towards humility, and you will become even more bold" (On the sacred and mother of virtues, blessed prayer (Step 28th, 11).
29 agosto 2014
Wednesday, 29 August 2012
MARTYRDOM OF ST JOHN THE BAPTIST
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
This last Wednesday of the month of August is the liturgical Memorial of the martyrdom of St John the Baptist, the Precursor of Jesus. In the Roman Calendar, he is the only saint whose birth and death, through martyrdom, are celebrated on the same day (in his case, 24 June). Today’s Memorial commemoration dates back to the dedication of a crypt in Sebaste, Samaria, where his head had already been venerated since the middle of the fourth century. The devotion later extended to Jerusalem, both in the Churches of the East and in Rome, with the title of the Beheading of St John the Baptist. In the Roman Martyrology reference is made to a second discovery of the precious relic, translated for the occasion to the Church of San Silvestro in Campo Marzio, Rome.
These small historical references help us to understand how ancient and deeply-rooted is the veneration of John the Baptist. His role in relation to Jesus stands out clearly in the Gospels. St Luke in particular recounts his birth, his life in the wilderness and his preaching, while in today’s Gospel St Mark tells us of his dramatic death. John the Baptist began his preaching under the Emperor Tiberius in about 27-28 A.D., and the unambiguous invitation he addressed to the people, who flocked to listen to him, was to prepare the way to welcome the Lord, to straighten the crooked paths of their lives through a radical conversion of heart (cf. Lk 3:4).
However, John the Baptist did not limit himself to teaching repentance or conversion. Instead, in recognizing Jesus as the “Lamb of God” who came to take away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29), he had the profound humility to hold up Jesus as the One sent by God, drawing back so that he might take the lead, and be heard and followed. As his last act the Baptist witnessed with his blood to faithfulness to God’s commandments, without giving in or withdrawing, carrying out his mission to the very end. In the 9th century the Venerable Bede says in one of his Homilies: “St John gave his life for [Christ]. He was not ordered to deny Jesus Christ, but was ordered to keep silent about the truth” (cf. Homily 23: CCL 122, 354). And he did not keep silent about the truth and thus died for Christ who is the Truth. Precisely for love of the truth he did not stoop to compromises and did not fear to address strong words to anyone who had strayed from God’s path.
We see this great figure, this force in the Passion, in resistance to the powerful. We wonder: what gave birth to this life, to this interiority so strong, so upright, so consistent, spent so totally for God in preparing the way for Jesus? The answer is simple: it was born from the relationship with God, from prayer, which was the thread that guided him throughout his existence. John was the divine gift for which his parents Zechariah and Elizabeth had been praying for so many years (cf. Lk 1:13); a great gift, humanly impossible to hope for, because they were both advanced in years and Elizabeth was barren (cf. Lk 1:7); yet nothing is impossible to God (cf. Lk 1:36). The announcement of this birth happened precisely in the place of prayer, in the temple of Jerusalem, indeed it happened when Zechariah had the great privilege of entering the holiest place in the temple to offer incense to the Lord (cf. Lk 1:8-20). John the Baptist’s birth was also marked by prayer: the Benedictus, the hymn of joy, praise and thanksgiving which Zechariah raises to the Lord and which we recite every morning in Lauds, exalts God’s action in history and prophetically indicates the mission of their son John: to go before the Son of God made flesh to prepare his ways (cf. Lk 1:67-79).
The entire existence of the Forerunner of Jesus was nourished by his relationship with God, particularly the period he spent in desert regions (cf. Lk 1:80). The desert regions are places of temptation but also where man acquires a sense of his own poverty because once deprived of material support and security, he understands that the only steadfast reference point is God himself. John the Baptist, however, is not only a man of prayer, in permanent contact with God, but also a guide in this relationship. The Evangelist Luke, recalling the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, the Our Father, notes that the request was formulated by the disciples in these words: “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his own disciples” (cf. Lk 11:1).
Dear brothers and sisters, celebrating the martyrdom of St John the Baptist reminds us too, Christians of this time, that with love for Christ, for his words and for the Truth, we cannot stoop to compromises. The Truth is Truth; there are no compromises. Christian life demands, so to speak, the “martyrdom” of daily fidelity to the Gospel, the courage, that is, to let Christ grow within us and let him be the One who guides our thought and our actions. However, this can happen in our life only if we have a solid relationship with God. Prayer is not time wasted, it does not take away time from our activities, even apostolic activities, but exactly the opposite is true: only if we are able to have a faithful, constant and trusting life of prayer will God himself give us the ability and strength to live happily and serenely, to surmount difficulties and to witness courageously to him. St John the Baptist, intercede for us, that we may be ever able to preserve the primacy of God in our life. Thank you.
SUNDAY OF WEEK 22 OF ORDINARY TIME
COMMENTARY ON JEREMIAH 20:7-9; ROMANS 12:1-2; MATTHEW 16:21-27
IN LAST WEEK’S GOSPEL we saw the disciples riding high. They had, through Peter, acknowledged that Jesus, their teacher and friend, was no less than the long-awaited Messiah-King of Israel. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” It must have been a really exciting moment for them. This, in turn, brought from Jesus a commission of the highest responsibility to Peter and his fellow disciples. Through Jesus, they were to be given the authority of God himself within their future communities. Peter himself is spoken of as a rock, firm and unshakeable, on which the ekklesia, the Church community, will be built.
It is hard to imagine that this was not a moment of particular joy and satisfaction for the disciples. They now were thinking that Jesus, in line with Jewish expectations, would be a glorious and powerful king. And they, of course, as his followers and companions would have a special share in the glory and privileges that went with it. (Later, would not two of them go so far as to ask, rather cheekily and behind their brothers’ backs, for special places in the Kingdom, to sit on the right and left of Jesus?)
However, the euphoria was not to last very long. Very soon after this, “Jesus began to make it clear to his disciples that he was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day.” This, undoubtedly, comes as a terrible shock. This was not at all part of the scenario for the coming of the Messiah! What is worse, the agents of Jesus’ humiliation and death will not be some hostile outsiders (like the pagan and barbaric Romans) but the leaders and most distinguished people of their own community. The elders, chief priests and scribes were the people who formed the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jews in Palestine.
Furthermore, it would happen in Jerusalem, the holy city, the site of the Temple where God dwelt among his people. It might be remembered, however, that Jerusalem was the city where prophets died. (“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you!’ – Jesus’ words to the Pharisees [Matthew 23:37].) The disciples must have felt very disturbed and confused indeed.
So, it is not surprising that at this point, Peter, still flush with his newly-acquired status, takes Jesus to one side, speaking to him almost on equal terms. “Heaven preserve you, Lord! This must not happen to you.” How can this happen to the Messiah-King of Israel? The angry reaction of Jesus must have come as somewhat unexpected, to say the least. Turning to face Peter, Jesus says: “Get behind me, Satan!” These are strong words for someone who just now was being given leadership of the community Jesus would leave behind. It is not to be understood that Peter is literally a demon but the disciple’s words are understood as a real temptation to Jesus to turn away from the path he is to follow. Unwittingly and with the best of intentions, Peter is doing the devil’s work – trying to steer Jesus away from the path laid out for him by his Father. How often have we been such a temptation or stumbling block to others? Perhaps more often than we care to think.
“You are an obstacle in my path, because the way you think is not God’s way but that of a human being.” Peter is seen as an obstacle, a scandal (skandalon, skandalon), a stone in one’s path which causes one to stumble. Ironically, the ‘rock’ which Jesus just now had said would be the foundation of his ‘church’ is now seen as an obstacle to Jesus’ work and mission!
The mind of Christ
Jesus is angry for, though his disciples may have acknowledged that he is the Messiah, they clearly have no idea whatever what kind of Messiah-King Jesus is going to be. They are, as he says, thinking in purely human terms and have not yet got “the mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5).
They shall have to change completely their ideas about what the Messiah is going to be like. He will not be a great political and military leader who will sweep away all of Israel’s enemies. Even after the resurrection they were still thinking in those terms. “We had hoped that he was the one that would redeem Israel”, said the two fellows on their way to Emmaus (Luke 24:21), not realising the irony of their words. “When will you restore the kingdom of Israel?” the disciples asked Jesus as he prepared to leave them at the Ascension.
Yes, Jesus will be a King, but he will be a King of love, a King who will rule by serving. Because he loves and serves them, he will, if necessary, be prepared to die for them, for this is the greatest love that a person can show for his friends. This is not to say that Jesus wants to die on the cross but he is totally prepared to suffer and die, if the service of love demands it – and it will. Ultimately, the disciples will see that the death of Jesus was the source of his greatest glory and power. “When I am lifted up from the earth [on the cross and into glory], I will draw everyone to me” (John 12:32).
The prophet’s lot
The other readings give examples of people who had similar experiences to Jesus. In the First Reading Jeremiah seems to regret that he was called by God to be his prophet. “You have seduced me, Lord, and I have let myself be seduced.” As a result he became an object of people’s ridicule, “everybody’s butt”. Every time he opened his mouth, he had to warn of violence and disaster coming on God’s people. In return he got nothing but insults and derision. He decided he would not speak about God. “I will not think about him, I will not speak in his name any more.”
But that did not work. “There seemed to be a fire burning in my heart… The effort to restrain it wearied me, I could not stand it.” He just had to go on speaking God’s message, which was like a fire in his heart, to his people whatever the cost to himself. It is a situation like this which explains why a person would risk insults, suffering and even death in order to witness to Truth and Love. Many people languishing in jails today for expressing their religious and political beliefs know this feeling. We have seen how political or religious dissidents released from jail show no signs of “conversion” and continue the struggle for human dignity. It is something which those who see life in terms of material comfort and power simply cannot understand.
Paul, in the Second Reading, also knew all about this. He urges his fellow-Christians to offer their “living bodies as a holy sacrifice, truly pleasing to God” and not to “model [themselves] on the behaviour of the world around [them]“. They need a “new mind”, the way of thinking which Jesus had and which Peter certainly did not yet have in today’s Gospel.
Walking with Jesus
Today’s Gospel goes further than just asking us to understand why the glory of Jesus our King and Lord was to be found through suffering and the shameful death of the Cross. There is a further call for us to walk the same road with Jesus. “If anyone (not just the heroic martyr or the saint) wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Jesus is asking each one of us to dedicate our lives in totally loving and serving others even if, at times, this involves misunderstanding, ridicule, pain and even death itself.
It would be altogether wrong to think that Jesus is asking us to lead miserable lives in order to be good Christians, although one gets the impression that some people interpret the passage in that way. To follow Jesus fully, we must be able to see life as he sees it, we must have that “mind of Christ”.
When we have the mind of Christ then we can only see our lives in terms of loving and serving others and not in the pursuit of purely self-centred or even family-centred ambition. When we have the mind of Christ, the whole direction of our life changes. Our whole concept of happiness changes. Jesus is calling us not to a life of sacrifice and suffering but rather to a life of total love and freedom. The person who can go to jail for his beliefs is more free and usually a lot happier than the one who is tied to the pursuit of material things, social position, pleasure and the fear of pain.
“Renouncing oneself” is not a suppression of one’s personality. It is rather to let go of oneself so that one can really find oneself.
This is what today’s readings are saying, namely, that Jesus is calling us to where true success and happiness are. Maybe when we walk the way of Jesus there will be people who criticise us, think we are stupid and even attack us. Yet those who have chosen the way of Jesus again and again confirm that their lives are full of freedom, happiness and peace. Isn’t that what we all would like to experience?