Thursday, January 28, 2010

Some Thoughts on Luke 1:1-4

This week I was hit with a double-whammy of writer’s block as well as some long anticipated home improvement projects that needed my attention. So for the past several days I’ve put off writing for this blog and now I find myself itching to post something…but what to post, I wasn’t sure. Then it came to me that last Sunday’s Gospel triggered a few thoughts in my mind that are worth some brief comments here...

The Gospel opens with these words: “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.” (Luke 1:1-4)

As I heard these words on Sunday, three lines jumped out immediately. The first was this: “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us...”

Luke says that “many” have written accounts of Jesus’ life. Now scholars tell us that, of the four Gospels in the Bible, Mark was written first. Then Luke and Matthew wrote around the same time (possibly Matthew first). And John’s Gospel was written last of the four. So when Luke says that “many” have written, this means that Luke was examining more than just Mark’s account as a source for consideration, but he couldn’t mean John, but he may have had access to Matthew. These two hardly constitutes “many.” So Luke saw his own work as one among “many,” which would include non-inspired writings. In other words, the First Century Christians, and even the gospel writers themselves, did not make clear distinctions between what we now call “inspired” writings and the other works that were being read along side the future “Bible.”

Second we read the words: “…I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down…”

This passage suggests that the author, Luke, made a conscious decision to write the Gospel. Now as believing Christians we accept that this book was divinely inspired. But as Catholics we know that “inspiration” does not mean that God took the hand of the writer and forced him to write against his will. Nor did God whisper in Luke’s ear each syllable to be written until the work was complete. Notice that Luke does not write: “God spoke to me, and I wrote what he commanded.” Instead Luke tells us: “I too have decided to write…”

Third, I would consider the following: “I too have write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.”

Now Theophilus means “lover of God.” Scholars are unsure whether this is an actual name of a First Century Christian to whom Luke was writing, or whether “Theophilus” referred to all “lovers of God” and thus all Christians everywhere. (I rather think the latter). But Luke is clear about one thing, whomever he is addressing is already a believer, for he writes not to convince the reader to believe, but rather “that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.” Having already received the faith and accepted Christ’s teachings, we read this Gospel to realize the certainty of our faith. Luke’s purpose is to edify and build-up an already present belief.

Now let’s take all of these things together: In Luke we see that the Early Christians did not have an official “Bible” and that even the inspired writers did not make clear distinctions about various texts circulating at the time. And the writers did not always make a specific claim to divine inspiration for their own works, and even admitted that their own decision-making and personal inclinations drove them to write. And finally we see that the Bible was written to believers and not as a tool to make converts. We might say that faith came first – the Church grew out of this faith as a Body of believers, and then the Bible. The Bible sprang forth from the Church.

So, this brief passage from Luke, which on its surface is seemingly unimportant and merely a necessary introduction to what follows, is actually a treasure trove of information telling us how the early Church was shaped in Biblical times.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Pray to End Abortion

On this, the anniversary of Roe versus Wade, we offer prayers on behalf of the unborn and also in the hope of ending the horrible and inhumane practice of abortion, which has claimed the lives of tens of millions of our fellow citizens. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them.

In solidarity with the unborn, and with those who this day are participating in the March for Life in Washington D.C. and similar events across the country, we offer our prayers and spiritual blessings that we may advance the pro-life cause and defeat the culture of death.
We also pray this day for others who are threatened by violence and neglect in this world that ignores human dignity and fails to see the Creator's image in every human person. May God's Spirit transform our culture so that our laws reflect His laws and justice can be served.

Prayer to Mary, Mother of Life
O Mary, bright dawn of the new world,
Mother of the living,
to you do we entrust the cause of life
Look down, O Mother,
upon the vast numbers of babies
not allowed to be born,

of the poor whose lives are made difficult,
of men and women
who are victims of brutal violence,
of the elderly and the sick
killed by indifference
or out of misguided mercy.

Grant that all who believe in your Son
may proclaim the Gospel of life
with honesty and love
to the people of our time.

Obtain for them the grace
to accept that Gospel
as a gift ever new,
the joy of celebrating it
with gratitude
throughout their lives
and the courage
to bear witness to it
in order to build,
with all people of good will,

the civilization of truth and love,
to the praise and glory of God,
the Creator and lover of life.

God Our Father, Giver of life,
we entrust the United States of America
to Your loving care.
You are the rock
on which this nation was founded.
You alone are the true source
of our cherished rights
to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Reclaim this land for Your glory
and dwell among Your people.
Send Your Spirit
to touch the hearts
of our nation's leaders.
Open their minds
to the great worth of human life
and the responsibilities
that accompany human freedom.

Remind Your people
that true happiness
is rooted
in seeking and doing Your will.

Through the intercession of Mary Immaculate,
Patroness of our land,

grant us the courage
to reject
the "culture of death."
Lead us into a new millennium of life.
We ask this through Christ Our Lord. Amen!

(From Pope John Paul II's Evangelium vitae)

+ + + +

Prayer to End Abortion

Lord God, I thank you today for the gift of my life,
And for the lives of all my brothers and sisters.
I know there is nothing that destroys more life than abortion,
Yet I rejoice that you have conquered death
by the Resurrection of Your Son.

I am ready to do my part in ending abortion.
Today I commit myself Never to be silent,
Never to be passive,
Never to be forgetful of the unborn.
I commit myself to be active in the pro-life movement,
And never to stop defending life
Until all my brothers and sisters are protected,
And our nation once again becomes
A nation with liberty and justice
Not just for some, but for all,

Through Christ our Lord. Amen!

(From Priests for Life website)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Roe v. Wade: The Legacy of Margaret Sanger

January 22 marks the anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, which legalized abortion in our country. It is a stain on the history of American law. Not only did the High Court overreach by legislating from the bench on this highly controversial issue (a decision best left to the people and the states), but the five Justices who gave us this regrettable ruling made themselves stooges in the advancement of the reprehensible goals of one Margaret Sanger.

Who is Margaret Sanger, you ask?

She is the founder of the American Birth Control League, latter renamed Planned Parenthood, which is the largest provider of abortions in the United States, and a leader in the advancement of abortion rights worldwide. The group makes no apologies for its support of abortion-on-demand and its push for the expansion of a woman’s supposed “right to choose.” However they do not broadly publicize their historic connections to Margaret Sanger and her ideology...and with good reason when one considers her less than admirable motives.

Margaret Sanger was active in the reproductive rights movement in America around the same time the Nazis came to power in Germany with their dreams of building a master race by exterminating the Jews and other “undesirables.” While Sanger rejected the anti-Semitic nature of Nazism she did embrace her own version of eugenics, including the sterilization of those she considered unfit to reproduce and preventing the births of those she saw as a burden on society. She believed in building a superior human race through segregation and controlled breeding.

According to an article written by Sanger entitled "The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda," published in the October 1921 issue of the journal, Birth Control Review, “The campaign for birth control is not merely of eugenic value, but is practically identical with the final aims of eugenics.” Sanger envisioned birth control as her own “final solution” for the ills of society. "Eugenics is…the most adequate and thorough avenue to the solution of racial, political and social problems,” she states.

Sanger spread this propaganda in public speaking engagements across the country including a 1926 speech at a New Jersey branch of the Ku Klux Klan. And in 1939 her organization began what was called The Negro Project which promoted her style of family planning among blacks in the South. She recruited black ministers from the area whom she hoped would more effectively garner support among locals. In a letter to a fellow activist concerning this program Sanger wrote: “We should hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities. The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal. We don't want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.”

Planned Parenthood attempts to whitewash Margaret Sanger’s statements by claiming she was influenced by the culture of her time and that we must view her work within that context. But when one reads statements like, “Birth control must lead ultimately to a cleaner race,” as she wrote in a 1922 work entitled Woman, Morality, and Birth Control, or “Eugenic sterilization is an urgent need...We must prevent multiplication of this bad stock,” as she wrote in the April 1933 issue of Birth Control Review, it is difficult to see past the obvious implications. Margaret Sanger founded her organization with the idea of ridding the world of the poor, the physically impaired, the uneducated lower class, and all those she deemed unworthy to breed.

Planned Parenthood is understandably ashamed of their late founder’s despicable agenda. But is their present mission any less despicable? Consider the fact that 78% of Planned Parenthood’s abortion clinics are located in minority communities. And while blacks make up only 13% of the United States’ population, they comprise almost 36% of all abortions. Sure the rhetoric has changed, but the results are the same. Minorities are suffering worse from the scourge of abortion.

Consider also this statement from Planned Parenthood’s website: “Public funds should be made available to subsidize the cost of abortion [and]…sterilization services for those who choose the procedure[s] but cannot afford [them].” In other words, they want us to pay for sterilizing and aborting the poor of our nation. Margaret Sanger would no doubt applaud this policy statement, as she would also be pleased to know that Planned Parenthood receives its own federal subsidies with nearly one third of its funding coming from government grants and contracts.

Margaret Sanger’s goal of a national policy of “eugenics” may not be written into law, but the reality of legalized abortion, its inherent cheapening of human life, and the taxpayer funding of organizations like Planned Parenthood give to her the next closest thing. Thanks to Roe v. Wade and the culture of death she inspired, an unborn child can be written off as an undesired nuisance and a burden on society.

Margaret Sanger would be proud.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Q&A: Why is Mass boring?

Question: Why is Mass so boring? Many Protestant services, especially among Evangelicals, are filled with upbeat music that is fun to listen to, dynamic sermons featuring slide-show/PowerPoint presentations and even skits acted out on stage. These services are more entertaining and engaging than the Mass. Why doesn’t the Catholic Church offer a more exuberant, lively service comparable to what is found among these other churches? It would seem that the Bible calls for this kind of cheerful, high-spirited worship in passages such as Psalm 66 where we read: “Sing the glory of his name; make his praise glorious!” – In light of passages like this, why does the Catholic Church’s Liturgy seem so subdued? Where is the “glorious” praise?

Obviously the Catholic Church has an “image problem” on this issue. But I would
begin by saying, that our public “image” is not really the motivation in presenting the Liturgy. We are not trying to “give the people what they want” or create an entertaining feast-for-the-eyes-and-ears. We are not engaged in a marketing campaign for Catholicism, trying to “sell” the church to the general public with the Mass as a promotional tool. Nor should we use the Mass merely as a “stage” for our best talent so that they can soak up the applause and the audience feels like they got their “money’s worth” as the collection basket is passed around.

We must remember that the congregation is not an audience watching performers do
their tricks. Rather the Church is filled with worshipers (which includes the priest and the people, the choir and the ministers), ALL of us focused on GOD…not on one another and the talents we possess.

Now I would agree that Psalm 66 definitely has something to say about right worship of God. We should “Sing the glory of his name; make his praise glorious!” (Ps 66:2) And if there is any criticism I might have of Catholics it is that we don’t sing very enthusiastically – we could certainly try a little harder on that point, and perhaps some Evangelical converts would go a long way to boost our singing abilities. But I think singing alone is not the problem. There is a certain style and structure to the Mass that is not the same as an Evangelical service no matter how well Catholics might belt out their songs. We need to focus on the bigger picture of how music and ritual fit together and for that I would point to a later verse in Psalm 66…

“I will come to your temple with burnt offerings and fulfill my vows to you- vows my lips promised and my mouth spoke when I was in trouble. I will sacrifice fat animals to you and an offering of rams; I will offer bulls and goats.” (Psalm 66:13-15)

Keep in mind that the Psalms are a Jewish text, and while the Jews certainly believed that God should be praised with a “joyful noise,” they also had specific rituals they performed such as animal sacrifice, the burning of incense, ritual prayers, ceremonial washings, and so on. In Scripture God gave specific details on how the Jewish people were to carry out these rituals. He told them the proper way to sacrifice lambs or goats, and on which day and by whom these things should be done. He told them how to bake their ceremonial bread and how they should eat it. He told them the words they should say and who should speak them and when. The Jews followed God’s Law and it told them how to worship God as He wants to be worshipped. We should definitely bring our joy and enthusiasm, as the Psalm says, but God also expects certain things from us in the way we worship Him.

Now you may argue against this idea for Christians by saying that Jesus rejected this ritual form of prayer. You may point out that Jesus condemned the Pharisees for following all of these rules and for pushing the details of the Law onto the people. But notice what Jesus actually said about this:

“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” (Matthew 23:1-3)

Jesus was not opposed to laws and rituals in worship. (In fact He condemned the Pharisees for not following the law correctly – they were hypocrites who did not practice what they preached.) Remember too that Jesus Himself followed the rituals of Jewish worship: He went to Jerusalem for holy days and fulfilled His obligation to sacrifice as a Jew; He celebrated the Passover and other Jewish feasts; His parents presented Him at the Temple when He was a child just as the law required. Jesus accepted ritual and the laws that governed worship. He was not opposed to ritual and He submitted Himself to God’s Law even from His birth.

Jesus did not do away with the Law or ritual worship, but He did transform it and gave to it new meaning and purpose. We see this clearly in the Passover meal He celebrated with His disciples on the night before He died. He gave to the unleavened bread and the wine a new meaning and gave it a new ritual context. No longer would it refer back to the Exodus of Moses’ day, now it refers to His death and our exodus from sin. The lamb that is sacrificed and eaten is now His Flesh. The cup of blessing is now His Blood. And we are commanded to repeat the ritual. We are not instructed to invent our own formula or experiment with variations on what Jesus did. We must mimic Jesus’ own actions, and “Do this in memory of me.”

Still we must agree with Psalm 66, that we should enter into this Sacrifice of the Mass with joy and song. And Catholics do have beautiful songs (we could just work on the singing). But we cannot separate this idea of “glorious praise” from the “ritual sacrifice” that is mentioned later in the same Psalm. God has given us a wonderful gift in showing us how to praise and worship Him; we must not assume that we can invent our own forms when God’s way is so clearly laid out before us in the image of Christ.

Now more to the point, sometimes we go to Mass and just can’t seem to concentrate, it is boring, or maybe the singing is bad, or the sermon is not so great, or some other problem with the sloppiness of the service. And while all of these things can be important, they are not nearly as important as the Real Presence of Christ as we approach the altar to receive Communion. We should certainly bring with us joy and song, but we also have an obligation to perform the ritual that Jesus commanded us to do in His memory. Humans are imperfect and sometimes our singing is weak or we get lazy or we are just untalented. The Mass can be done poorly…but it is still the Mass. God still meets us there and comes down to us under the appearance of bread and wine if we follow what He commands us.

Protestant/Evangelical Christians may not understand how Catholics can attend a Mass that seems “boring” or “ritualistic” or just “un-fun.” They may not grasp why Catholics would keep going to a service that lacks the up-beat and exciting drama of Evangelical-style worship. The answer is that Catholics are seeking something other than an emotional high or the excitement of being entertained. The belief in the Real Presence is what makes the Mass a “glorious praise” to God. Sure we would like to have the best possible preacher, and music that is well performed and well sung. But I can do without those things (or put up with less) if I know that Jesus’ Body and Blood are there for me to worship and receive as food.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What did He say...?

I just read an interesting post about Biblical literalism at a site called The Catholic Thing. As the author, Brad Miner, points out, before the invention of the printing press, throughout the centuries scribes copied and recopied the ancient manuscripts that contain God's Word which we now call the Bible. And in that process these scribes may have altered the text in many places by leaving out or adding letters, or substituting words or phrases, or omitting whole passages. One such place is in Matthew 19:23-25. Jesus tells a rich man who wishes to follow Him that he must sell all that he owns and give the money to the poor, then he can follow Jesus. The man turns away, and then Jesus tells His disciples, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God."

But did Jesus say "camel" or "rope"? As the article I mentioned tells us, their is good reason to believe that the scribes may have copied the text incorrectly...

"Now in Greek, the primary language of the Gospel, the word for camel is (depending on how it’s transliterated) kamilon. But Burgess argued (and he is one of many who have) that since the word for rope, kamiilon, is essentially a homophone, the passage actually makes more sense if Jesus is telling his fisherman followers, in whose former trade cords and nets played such a prominent role, to imagine trying to thread a thick, nautical rope through a needle’s eye.
"Others argue that the camel, the largest thing around, made for vivid imagery: big beast, tiny opening. Still others say there was once an actual gate in Jerusalem’s wall called Needle’s Eye. Other ancient cities had such narrow, low-lintel passageways designed to be the only ones left open late and requiring travelers to dismount, unburden their camels, and squeeze through. A security measure. But no archaeological evidence exists to indicate that Jerusalem ever had a Needle’s Eye. More than that, there’s support for the “rope” hypothesis in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke most of the time, in which the words for camel and rope are the same: gml. (As in Hebrew, there are no written vowels in Aramaic.)"

In the end, the meaning of this particular passage remains relatively the same whether it was a camel or a rope. But there are other passages with similar variances that may altar the meaning of the text. And this creates an awkward problem for Christians who insist on LITERAL interpretations of God's Word. If we are unsure of the exact wording then literalism becomes difficult to achieve.

I am reminded here of those "red letter" editions of the KJV Bibles, with the words of Jesus written in red letters to stand out from the otherwise black though Jesus spoke the "King's English." So what did Jesus say? Was it rope or camel? Maybe that word should be in black instead of red...

Also, the original Greek did not use punctuation, or paragraph indentations, or other devices that make reading our printed books so easy. In the original Greek it is difficult to tell sometimes where a sentence begins or ends, or what words are a direct "quote" and what is simply the author interjecting a idea. The quotes that appear so boldy in "red" as those spoken by Jesus, are editorial decisions made by scholars, centuries after the fact trying to sort out the details of correct grammar and punctuation for modern readers.

Thankfully, Catholics have the Church to turn to for assurance of the Truth. As the author ends the piece at the above mentioned website...
"Protestant literalist or sola scriptura fundamentalist might get exercised over this and many other problems in Scripture (the Book of Job alone has hundreds of words scholars are unsure about). But for a Catholic, such phenomena are a part of the historic interaction between God and man, even as we are sure that God has clearly revealed everything we need for salvation in Scripture and has guaranteed necessary interpretations via an infallible Magisterium."

Friday, January 1, 2010

Mary, Mother of God

December 25 began the Christmas Season, the time when we celebrate the nativity of God-made-flesh. During this festive period we mark the changing of the calendar, counting the number of years since the time of Jesus’ birth which happened roughly 2010 years ago. For this reason, January 1 ought to stand out in a very special way during the Christmas Season as it truly denotes the birth-day of Christ within the Church’s liturgy.

And as a matter of fact, New Year’s Day is a holy day of obligation for Catholics, a day when church attendance is required to show our profound gratitude for what God has done in giving us His only Son. So the Christian calendar does commemorate the January 1 birthday of Jesus with due reverence…but not under a “name” or “title” that refers to Jesus as one might expect. Rather it is “Mary, the Mother of God” who is especially remembered on New Year’s Day.

This might beg the question…Why not give Jesus His own birthday without placing such an emphasis on His human mother? Why not give the spotlight to Jesus since He is after all the incarnate God? Why so much focus on Mary?

But the Church’s wisdom in this matter is easily defended…

First it must be remembered that the Church celebrates many saints throughout the year, and most especially we celebrate Mary on several annual occasions as we recognize her unique place in God’s plan for our salvation. Any time we set aside these feast days and special memorials for Christian saints and martyrs, we are in reality celebrating God and Jesus…for it is GOD Who works through the saints and shows forth His grace in their lives. By elevating the saints on their special feast days, we are in fact elevating God, Who works marvelous deeds through them. So whenever we hold up Mary in this way (as we do on January 1) we are really holding up Jesus, whom we see reflected in her life.

But the best reason of all for focusing on Mary during this January 1 holiday is found when we contemplate the infant Jesus whom we find laying in a manger at Christmas. A newborn baby depends exclusively on his parents for his survival. In the Incarnation, God placed Himself in Mary’s care, first for the nine months of her pregnancy, and then throughout His infancy and childhood. He relied on Mary and Joseph for all of His earthly needs and wants as any human child would. Until Jesus reached manhood, Mary and Joseph stood as guardians and protectors of God’s Son.

As any parent knows, when a child is born the parents are flooded with visits from friends and relatives hoping to get a peak at your new bundle of joy. “Can I see him? Can I hold him?” they ask. “How much did he weigh? What color are his eyes? Does he sleep through the night? Does he cry a lot?” The child cannot answer for himself. So we get to know the newborn babe by going through his parents…At Christmas it is only right that we go to Jesus through Mary. We arrive at Christmas, after our journey through Advent and we go to His mother hoping to see Him cradled in her arms.

Catholics are often accused of overshadowing God by focusing too heavily on saints and especially on Mary. But God saw fit to bestow this gift on Mary and make her the His mother. We do well to honor Mary at Christmas and seek Christ where He chose to be found.