Archive | April, 2009

He Set His Face- Luke 9:51-62

25 Apr

I. Witness to the First Spring

Spring is a time of transition, a season during which most day-to-day changes are barely perceptible. Days lengthen by mere minutes at a time and the chill of winter leaves with a struggle, but by the beginning of summer the cold and limited hours of sunlight are distant memory. I write these first lines of this article five days after the spring equinox on the Feast of the Annunciation. Today is nine months ahead of the celebration of Our Lord’s birth, which originally coincided with the Roman winter solstice festival. In  the northern hemisphere, Christmas therefore occurs near to the date of least daylight. Amid the cold and dark of winter, we recall that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (1)

Appropriately, the Annunciation is celebrated in the middle of Lent. The name of this ecclesial season is rooted in the medieval English lencten, for spring. (2) Like English, other languages have since evolved separate words for Lent and for spring. For example, in contemporary French Lent is carême while spring is printemps, literally meaning “first time.” In Spanish Lent is cuaresma, signifying forty days. In the same language spring is primavera– the first spring, from the Latin prima- for first and -vera, “of spring”, from where the word vernal stems. (3)

Nine months before the Nativity, the Holy Spirit came upon Mary, an unknown Jewish virgin, and incarnated the eternal God in her womb in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, with the Annunciation, the light of the Son, still hidden from the light of the sun, took on our human form. At least two traditions exist as to the date of the Solemnity of the Annunciation, March 25. More obviously, this feast precedes Christmas by exactly nine months, the approximate length of a human pregnancy from conception to full term. The other possibility is that March 25 coincided with the commemoration of the death of Jesus in the early Church. (4)

Either tradition for dating the Annunciation point to a crisis. Jesus’ death was a disaster; He was not only executed as a common criminal between two thieves in a manner reserved by the Romans for their non-citizens, but more humiliating yet, Jesus was abandoned by His closest friends who fled out of fear. Moreover, the tragedy of the Cross was highly planned by the religious leaders of Israel at the time. St. Mark’s Gospel reveals that, very early in Our Lord’s public ministry, the Pharisees and Herodians, traditional enemies of one another, began to conspire to kill Him. (5) In contrast with the gradually escalating plot to put Jesus to death, nobody could have anticipated the announcement of Gabriel to Mary: “Hail, Favoured One! The Lord is with you… Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name Him Jesus.” (6)

The mystery of the Incarnation is placed within the series of crises that characterize Jesus’ earthly life. Yet God’s utterance of Himself in human flesh, the inauguration of the First Spring signalled by the Archangel Gabriel, which left Mary “greatly troubled,” (7) is rightly understood as a joyful mystery. Mary did not plan her conception of Our Saviour, nor was she capable of foreknowing the events to follow in her relationship with her Son: His birth and infancy that started in a manger in Bethlehem, the presentation of the infant Christ in the Temple to the prayerful prophetess and widow Anna and to the aged Simeon, who predicted that Jesus would be “a sign [to] be contradicted,” (8) the child Jesus lost in Jerusalem and found in dialogue with the teachers of the Temple, His Galilean ministry, death, and miraculous Resurrection and Ascension. All of these mysterious crises of the Gospel are interconnected. Some are joyful, while others are sorrowful, or glorious (9), but all arose because a woman favoured by God welcomed and pondered God’s plan to embrace our humanity (10), although Mary could not have anticipated all the consequences of her “yes.”

Most poignantly, Mary’s discipleship- her free choice to co-operate in God’s Incarnation- becomes our incentive to follow the same path. Our discipleship, initiated by our Baptism, entails our acceptance of moments of joy and of sadness, especially of those events that defy our control. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta is a disciple of recent memory who experienced the distress of distance between herself on earth and God in Heaven. She was given little indication of God’s presence during most of her adult life, but Mother Teresa countered her suffering and aridity with even greater devotion to prayer and to small acts of love.  Two other saints of the same name also faithfully worked the harvest in the Lord’s vineyard (11), uniting themselves to the Christ who cried out from the Cross, “My God… Why have you forsaken me?” (12), such that Dominican Friar Timothy Radcliffe wonders whether it is “dangerous to be called Teresa.” (13) From her spiritual desert about three months before her death from tuberculosis, Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote:

Even while I sing of the happiness of heaven, the eternal possession of God, I feel no joy; I sing only of what I want to believe. Sometimes, it is true, a tiny ray of sunlight illuminates my darkness, so the trial ceases for an instant, but then the memory of this light, instead of bringing me joy, makes my darkness deeper yet… It would seem that nothing is keeping me from taking flight [toward Heaven], for I have no great desires if not to love until I die of love. (14)

Ste. Thérèse’s namesake, St. Teresa of Ávila, was travelling astride a donkey towing a carriage of supplies destined for Burgos, a town where she hoped to establish a new monastery. In the perilous Spanish countryside, a wheel broke on the wagon. Teresa fell from her donkey and into a puddle of mud. Disgusted, she looked toward heaven and lamented to God, “It’s no wonder you have so few friends, when you treat them so badly!” (15) Fervent prayer gradually helped St. Teresa to moderate her impulsive character. Her humanity, with its weaknesses and upset carriages, became a focus of St. Teresa’s contemplation, a conversation with God with its timely moments of humour. St. Teresa of Ávila made Christ’s Incarnation her own, so much that she was able to pray in her waning years, “God, save me from somber saints.” (16) As witnessed to by the lives of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Sts. Thérèse of Lisieux and Teresa of Ávila, our Christian lives are an encounter with Christ in flesh and blood. We must therefore invite our First Spring who dwells among us into the depths of our humanity, with all its limitations, darkness, disasters, and unforeseen circumstances. Timothy Radcliffe concurs that

God comes to us as we are. Human beings only flourish by passing through successive crises. We do not simply grow, like cabbages effortlessly unfolding into their vegetable fullness. We mature by enduring little deaths and resurrections. First there is the wrenching crisis of birth, when we must lose the security of the womb if we are to see our mother face to face. Then we must be weaned from her breast, forgo the intimate nourishment of her body, so that we may sit at table and enjoy the deeper communion of conversation. We must go through the rollercoaster of puberty, the flood of hormones transforming our bodies and confusing our minds, as we settle into adolescence. The day comes when we must leave home and find our independence, so that we may love as equal adults. Finally we shall face the crisis of death and find ourselves fully at home in God, at the journey’s consummation. Becoming human is just one crisis after another, as we break through into an even greater intimacy with God and each other. (17)

Our journey- our “becoming human”- must therefore be connected to that of the fully human Christ. On Palm Sunday, we welcome Jesus into Jerusalem: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in Heaven and glory in the highest.” (18) Less than a week later, we join the mob that calls for Jesus to be crucified. Jesus is the scapegoat for our denial of God, our pride, and our failed humanity, yet He goes willingly to His death for us. Our salvation is made possible by Jesus’ free gift of His own life by which our sin and death is transformed into glory.  At Golgotha, Jesus accomplishes His redemptive mission on a Cross, but He had intended to set out for Jerusalem, where prophets went to die, long before His Passion. Almost ten full chapters of the Gospel of Luke are devoted to that travel narrative.

II. He Set His Face

According to St. Luke, the decisive voyage of Jesus and of His disciples to Jerusalem began “when the days for His being taken up were fulfilled.” (19) This section marks a sudden transition in vocabulary in Luke. The last twelve verses of Chapter 9 of the third Gospel are uniquely Lucan, although the author’s language used to relate Jesus’ departure from Galilee is rare in the Synoptic Gospels. St. John refers often to when Jesus will be “lifted up.”  (20) Jesus tells Nicodemus that He “must… be lifted up” (21) just as Moses raised a bronze serpent on a pole in the desert. While John 3:14 indicates that Jesus will die by crucifixion, the Johannine Gospel’s Greek diction and the context of this verse point toward a more profound significance: all disciples of Christ for all time are included in the salvific plan of a loving God.  Our Paschal mystery is joined to that of Jesus; as our Lord died, rose again, and ascended into Heaven, we are invited to partake in the same promise. Five times in three separate chapters, John employs the Greek verb hypsothenai, the infinitive of “to be lifted up,” or its conjugated forms. (22)

Hypsothenai, a Johannine substitution for the Septuagint rendering from the story in the Book of Numbers of Moses’ bronze serpent that was merely placed on the pole, implies that Jesus will be glorified by being “lifted up” on the Cross. Had  it been an event separate from the rest of His life and ministry and from that of His disciples, Jesus’ death would have been anything but glorious. On the contrary, Christ’s Passion was allowed for a reason- “God so loved the world” (23)- and occurred to fulfill an objective, “so that everyone who believes Him might… have eternal life.” (24) This literary motif is repeated each time St. John writes of Jesus being “lifted up.” After Jesus had predicted His death and then emphasized that He had been sent as the Father’s ambassador- “I say only what the Father taught Me” (25)- He continues: “the One who sent Me is with Me. He has not left Me alone.” (26) The same Father who is with the Son is with us. The next verse establishes God’s purpose: “Many came to believe in Him.” (27) Here, the salvation of the “many” new believers is implied. Four chapters later, John twice uses the verb hypsothenai as in 3:14. Again the universally saving aim of the Passion is reiterated: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to Myself.” (28) Only a God, our “light” who loves us so deeply as to create the world and then to take our form in it to redeem us could make the Cross intrinsically glorious. In addition we are called to participate in God’s plan to bring all people to eternal life: “Believe in the light, so that you may become children of the light.” (29)

The Lucan Gospel, in a similar call to discipleship to that in John, uses an analogous Greek word to the  Johannine hypsothenaianalempseos, usually translated as “being taken up,” but whose definition is closer to assumption into Heaven. (30) Whether one is lifted or assumed into Heaven, each of these terms connotes the extraordinary, yet still possible. Hypsothenai does not appear in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, whereas analempseos appears only once, and Elijah is the only person in the Hebrew Scriptures to have ascended to God in this way. (31) Enoch’s Heavenly reception is also unusual, but a different expression than that related to Elijah’s ‘assumption’ is used, which is reflected in Hebrew and in Greek, as well as in English: “Enoch walked with God, and he was no longer here, for God took him.” (32) This verse strongly suggests that Enoch entered Heaven body and soul, as did Elijah, but some ambiguity persists; Enoch could have been especially virtuous, and the writer of Genesis may therefore simply have meant to convey that he had enjoyed a special intimacy with God. (33)

Regardless of the language from the Biblical stories of the entry of Enoch, of Elijah, and of Jesus into Heaven, in each case God’s miraculous power is demonstrated within a wider context of Divine honour conferred upon the faithful. This fits well within the Lucan theme of discipleship that is integral to that Gospel’s journey to Jerusalem narrative. Eight chapters earlier in the same Gospel, Gabriel’s last words to Mary are that “nothing will be impossible for God.” (34) Mary, proto-disciple, is held by Catholic dogma to have been assumed body and soul into Heaven. Although the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is not reported in Scripture, this teaching is based on the Church’s apostolic tradition. (35) Jesus went similarly to His and to Our Father. Christians call this event the Ascension of the Lord to differentiate between an act of God’s own power from an act of God upon a created being, like Mary in the case of her Assumption. (36) Luke, though, makes no such distinction in terminology in 9:51. Jesus’ Ascension, linked to His Passion and His Resurrection, gives to us the gift of eternal life, thus the exceptional becomes possible; His corporeal ascent into Heaven, coupled with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, completes the singular movement of our redemption realized by the love of Our Lord for His disciples.

Caught up as we are in God’s love, our discipleship places important responsibilities upon us. Life in Christ- our pilgrimage to Jerusalem and on to Calvary with Him- necessarily means self-sacrifice on our part on an everyday basis. Jesus had said “to all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.'” (37) The same Lucan chapter concludes with the same message. Even elements of ourselves that are inherently good, for example our familial lineages and nationalities, must be made subordinate to our faith. I am part German, part French, part Irish, and a very small part Ojibway (38)- yes, but I am firstly a Christian disciple.

That lesson is taught to two men who are especially close to the Lord, the Apostles James and John. Jesus sends “messengers ahead of [Himself]” (39) into Samaria, home of the vile people who had once interbred with the Assyrians and were hostile to the Jews. (40) Predictably, Jesus’ scouts are rejected in Samaria, but this instance signals the first major expansion of the Christian fellowship. Shortly therefter, Jesus would commission “seventy-two others” (41) who would likewise face poor reception in some of the towns that they visited. James and John react inappropriately to initial Samaritan inhospitality, although they accurately recall Elijah’s summons of Heavenly fire upon two captains of Samaria and upon their men. (42) These two Apostles are named “Boanerges” in St. Mark’s Gospel, and many “sons of thunder” (43) walk among us to the present day- well-meaning Christians whose passion is misdirected and whose mercy is lacking- but these people, myself included on occasion, resolve to continue along Christ’s way, supported by the prayers of the Church. Jesus rebukes our hardness of heart, but at the same time through forgiveness we move forward “to another village.” (44)

Anyone who aspires to discipleship in Christ must therefore be determined to bear witness to the Gospel against all obstacles, including persecution and even death. Again, Jesus shows us the way by example; Luke writes that “He set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (45) Those who had dared so far to follow this Prophet would have been unnerved by His latest itinerary, and James and John, two of Jesus’ stalwarts, had failed immediately in their retaliatory response to ill treatment in Samaria. Jesus, though, was not to be halted by the Samaritans, foreigners by blood and by creed who would generously accept the Christian way later (46), but just as His ministry had begun with His rejection in Nazareth, His hometown, it would end with His betrayal, denial, and death at the bidding of His  very own. (47) However, Our Lord assents to His destiny with full confidence in the Father who will conquer death itself on the last day.

Still more boldly, Jesus appeals to us to accompany Him to Jerusalem as a “people [who] love the LORD,” (48) in words attributed to King David. Those “who seek the face of the God of Jacob” (49) will find it- bruised, disfigured, and struggling beneath the weight of a heavy Cross. Some will bravely approach Him amid the taunts of His executioners. They will be consoled, as in the women of Jerusalem or Mary the Mother of God. Another, St. Veronica, will reach forth to wipe the Holy Face and will receive its precious image on the cloth. (50) Many will scatter from terror from our evil in most gruesome display, fixed to a tree. Alas, God transforms that tree into a source of life. Our Via Dolorosa, led by the Face of Christ, becomes our Easter joy, the answer to King David’s question: “Who is the King of Glory?” (51) Jesus, Our Saviour and “LORD of hosts is the King of Glory,” (52) His glory and now ours. Thus He is the “reason for our hope,” (53) as St. Peter instructs us.

God’s extravagant mercy makes His gift of new life to us possible, so our response of Christian discipleship should be equally demanding. To emphasize three traits of Jesus’ followers- a willingness to serve, the proclamation of the Kingdom over slavish adherence to  rituals, and the prioritization of the Word of God even above one’s family- St. Luke introduces two new literary techniques to His Gospel in the final six verses of Chapter 9: hyperbole and chiasm. A literal interpretation of this section is  therefore unsuitable. For example, by saying that “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest His head,”  (54) Jesus does not teach that one who desires to follow Him should be homeless and destitute, but that His disciples ought to be willing to go anywhere that they are sent. Verses 59  and 60 are not intended as a criticism of the Jewish custom of burying one’s deceased parents, which was considered an extension of the Commandment to honour one’s mother and father. (55) Instead, it is probably meant as a warning against spiritual death, a force greater than physical death to those held captive by religious practices, however important, that are not God-centered but are self-centered. (56) Finally, blood relationships are held in high esteem, even in consideration of Jesus’ third rejection of a prospective disciple who asks to “say farewell to his family at home.” (57) Christ turns this man away thus: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.” (58) Jesus’ reference is most likely to an ancient Palestinian plow, driven by unwieldy oxen whose operator kept one hand on the plow while directing the oxen with the other. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary explains, “If the plougman [looked] round, the new furrow [became] crooked.” (59) Thus, any steward of the Good News, like the ploughman, should strive for a straight furrow by looking with joy to future duties.

Luke is the only evangelist to present the teachings of 9:57-62 as a triplet of “hyperbolic proverbs.” (60) These verses are absent from Mark, and Matthew parallels only the first two potential disciple vignettes. (61) Luke’s fondness for threes is again reflected in the structure of these stories. Also, in the author’s time as well as in our own, hyperbole was used for humour and to encourage thought beyond “staid” though long-standing paradigms. (62) Most of us are familiar with the pleading of a frustrated parent or other authority: “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times!” Jesus adopts a similar hyperbolic teaching style in this passage from Luke.

The Lucan Journey to Jerusalem also follows a literary pattern known as a chiasm, which is named for the Greek letter Chi- pronounced ‘ky’- from where the letter X of the Roman alphabet derives. (63) This character forms a central cross, or its halves can be understood as mirror images of one another. Other disciplines share the same concept. For example, in chemistry two molecules whose three-dimensional structures are mirror images of one another and that cannot be superimposed are called chiral after the Greek root cheir, for hand, since human hands also mirror each other and are non-superimposable. (64)

Chiasm in Scripture is not original to Luke’s Gospel. Genesis’ account of Noah, of the flood, and of God’s promise never again to destroy His creation by such a deluge is one of the first Biblical examples of this technique’s usage. Literary chiasms are built symmetrically around a central focus- a crossing point or mirror. In Genesis, we are reminded of God’s blessing upon the righteous: “God remembered Noah.” (65) Luke’s travel narrative chiasm intersects over five verses:

Some Pharisees came to [Jesus] and said: “Go away, leave this area because Herod wants to kill you.” He replied, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and I perform healings today and tomorrow, and on the third day I accomplish my purpose. Yet I must continue on my way today, tomorrow, and the following day, for it is impossible that a prophet should die outside Jerusalem.'”

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were unwilling! Behold, your house will be abandoned. But I tell you. you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.'” (66)

Due to length, the full chiastic structures of Genesis, cited from Denis O. Lamoureux of St. Joseph’s College at the University of Alberta, and of Luke, found in Charles H. Talbert’s exegetical work, “Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel,” are included in this article’s endnotes. (67) Nevertheless, the central ‘mirror’ passage of the Lucan Journey to Jerusalem clearly indicates the goal of Jesus’ earthly life. By our Baptism we are made heirs to the  same vocation as that of the Christ.

Lord Jesus, first proclaimed as the Incarnate Word by Gabriel to Mary, You were determined to fulfill God’s plan to save us. You set out from Galilee for Jerusalem. There, You, our First Spring died for our sin, trusting in Our Father’s power to raise You to life anew. You have dispelled our chill and darkness. Now we are asked to walk with you beyond death to the everlasting Resurrection. We pray with confidence that You might give us the strength of the Holy Spirit to embrace the joys and challenges of discipleship in Your Name. Amen.

In this Easter season, let us go in the peace of Christ. Alleluia, alleluia!