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The Seventy- Luke 10:1-24

24 Dec

Back on 25 March 2009, I began my last post on a section of the Gospel of Luke with a flashback to the Annunciation, the event recounted in the opening chapter of Luke when the Angel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she would bear a son, Jesus, “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32). Gabriel’s message is one of great joy: “Hail, favoured one! The Lord is with you,” yet Mary is said by Luke to be “greatly troubled” by it (vv 28-29). This episode ends with Mary’s joyful acceptance of God’s will for her: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (v 38). At those words, though, in characteristically Lukan fashion, Gabriel exits the scene and Mary is left alone. The joy of the occasion is combined with anxiety. Throughout Luke’s Gospel, the experience of discipleship is one of joy amid crisis.

That combination of joy and of crisis is again at the forefront at the close of Luke’s infancy narrative. As the prophetess Anna exhibits the mark of a true disciple by her ceaseless prayer in the Temple, Simeon, even while he blesses the Holy Family who has come to Jerusalem to present the Child Jesus to the Lord, predicts ominously: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35). Joy abounds as the anticipated “redemption of Israel” (v 25) is fulfilled by the Incarnation of the Son of God, yet from a young age Jesus knows that He “must be in [His] Father’s house” (v 49). He must complete His mission that will culminate on a cross in Jerusalem, the city upon which the Lukan Gospel is focused. Christ’s Passion and death on that cross, though, will not be the end. At Emmaus the Risen Jesus opens the hearts and minds of His fearful disciples to the Scriptures (Luke 24:32, 45) and to His presence “in the breaking of the bread” (v 35).  Then, as He ascends to the Father, Jesus directs His disciples back to Jerusalem where they will receive the Holy Spirit and will be sent forth as His witnesses (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:8, 2:1-4). Thus begins the mission of the Church.

Like the earthly life of Our Lord, the era of the Church has been marked by joy and by crisis, and like the early disciples in Luke’s account we must orient ourselves toward the Holy City. Indeed, as Christ set His face toward that goal (Luke 9:51), we must set ours toward the Heavenly Jerusalem. We are promised success in our Christian vocation, even while on earth we await the eternal bliss of heaven. Our earthly joy in God’s presence is intrinsic to our divine call to discipleship, a mission of which none of us are worthy. Simon Peter, the first of the Twelve chosen by Jesus to follow Him according to Luke, encountered his own sinfulness on the shore of the Lake of Gennesaret (Luke 5:8). Peter’s sorrow, fear, and incomprehension in the presence of the holy are transformed by Jesus into joy and reassurance as the Rock of the Apostles is sent forth: “From now on, you will be catching [people]” (v 10).

Jesus, though, is not content to send only Peter in His stead; twelve Apostles are selected “to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:1-2) Jesus clarifies that the mission of the Twelve will be demanding; they are to “take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor food, nor money, and… no one” is to “take a second tunic” (v 3) Our Lord’s commissioning of the Twelve begins Chapter nine of the Gospel of Luke. In that chapter, the Twelve grapple with the Messianic identity of their divine Master (vv 18-21). This Messiah predicts His death twice in the same chapter (vv 22 43b-45), leaving His Apostles confused and frightened. Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James, and John in a tremendous theophany in which the Son of God is affirmed by His heavenly Father: “This is my chosen Son; listen to Him” (v 35). However, even the Transfiguration unmistakeably points toward Jesus’ “exodus” (v 31); the Gospel’s climax, Jesus’ death outside Jerusalem, is again vividly foreshadowed.

Even the most fervent disciple would find the demands of fellowship in this Messiah difficult. After the awe-filled Transfiguration, the Twelve experience repeated failure in living the mission that they were sent to accomplish. Commissioned to heal the sick, they are not able to cure the demoniac child; their faith is no greater than that of the “faithless and perverse generation” (v 41) to which they belong. Jesus’ command to take nothing with them and to rely on God’s providence is neglected as the disciples clash over which one among them is greatest (vv 46-48). Instead of welcoming the outcast– they were to enter into the houses of the people on their way and build Christ’s kingdom of peace– they exclude the foreign exorcist (vv 49-50). Jesus, though, presses on.

Our Lord is determined to reach Jerusalem, although the road to the Holy City is arduous. It traverses the land of the hated Samaritans (vv 51-56). To follow Jesus requires the subordination of one’s earthly priorities– the security of one’s home, one’s family, one’s comfort in familiar surroundings and activities, and even one’s life (vv 57-62)– to discipleship of and in Christ. Jesus knows the difficulty of the task He entrusts to His disciples; this mission must conclude in self-sacrifice so that God will fill our emptiness with the glory of His resurrection. The path of Jesus leads us to the Cross if we are willing to accompany Him. Christ will not be deterred in accomplishing His salvific goal, nor does He stop at the call of only Twelve Apostles. Instead, Jesus expands the vocation of the Twelve to the whole Church, symbolized by the group of seventy[-two] first mentioned at the outset of Chapter Ten of the Gospel of Luke. There, Jesus sends these seventy “ahead of Him in pairs to every town” (Luke 10:1) with similar yet more expansive instructions to those with which He sent the Twelve in the preceding chapter of the same Gospel:

Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves. Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals, and greet no one along the way. Into whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this household.’ If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him, but if not, it will return to you. Stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered to you… Do not move about from one house to another. Whatever town you enter and they welcome you, eat what is set before you, cure the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand for you.’ Whatever town you enter and they do not receive you, go out into the streets and say, ‘The dust of your town that clings to our feet, even that we shake off against you.’ (vv 3-11)

These verses are not mere repetition by Jesus or by the Evangelist, although they do represent a typically Lukan couplet motif together with Luke 9:1-5. For example, the list of forbidden articles and activities in Luke 10:4 is similar to that in Luke 9:3: neither the Twelve nor the Seventy are to bring money or a sack in which to carry it on their journeys. The “walking stick” proscribed in 9:3 is substituted for a sanction against greeting other persons “along the way,” while instead of instructing the disciples not to “take a second tunic,” as in 9:3, in 10:4 Jesus says to the Seventy, “Carry… no sandals.”

Despite differences in wording and in order between the prohibitions in Luke 9:3 and 10:4, the message of both verses is essentially identical: discipleship in Christ requires total reliance on God, thus detachment from three sources of material security, whatever temporary good these might yield. The first of these sources is financial gain, symbolized by money and the sack in which to store it. The second, represented by the walking stick or by greeting people “along the way,” is adherence to a particular place or dependence upon particular people for happiness. The third source is attachment to goods– not only to clothing– indicated by the tunic or by the sandals.

Firstly, by these orders to His two sets of disciples, the Twelve and the Seventy, Jesus does not advocate destitution. In fact, Our Lord affirms in Luke 10:7 that “the labourer deserves his payment.” To deny the remuneration due a worker is a grave injustice: “Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:4). Secondly, neither does Jesus teach against close interpersonal relationships, or against a desire to serve in a specific environment. From my own perspective of religious life, for instance, I am frequently asked by friends, relatives, former students, and confrères alike whether I would want to return someday to our Basilian community in Colombia in which I last served over two years ago. I respond to such questions that I would go without reserve if called to serve there again. In six months in Cali, the people of our Congregation’s parish and school there taught me about true poverty: out of their material nothingness came a deep joy and faith that filled my comparative void and that continues to sustain me spiritually to this day. By the grace of God, though, I have also experienced great joy in Basilian community, whether in Edmonton, Cali, Windsor, or Toronto. I am open to service in any apostolate to which I am appointed, and I pray that this might always be so. Thirdly, by barring His disciples from carrying a second tunic or sandals, Jesus does not teach that to be well-attired is contrary to Christian fellowship. He does, though, urge simplicity of a pilgrim people. Money, friendship, a place to live and to work, and physical belongings are all necessary, but a Christian disciple must not regard these passing earthly goods as greater than the enduring good that awaits us in heaven.

Perhaps Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical Rerum Novarum, on Capital and Labour, puts this message best. Following an affirmation of the right of the worker to a just wage, Rerum Novarum continues:

The Church, with Jesus Christ as her Master and Guide, aims higher still… The things of earth cannot be understood or valued aright without taking into consideration the life to come, the life that will know no death.[1]

The valuation of eternal life over any finite earthly good is at the core of Jesus’ instruction as He commissions the Twelve and then the Seventy. Elsewhere in the Gospels, the same message is proclaimed even more clearly: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Matt 6:33).

Upon sending forth the Twelve as well as the Seventy, Jesus stresses confidence in God over material possessions and even over other persons who might welcome His disciples along their way. The same instructions are conveyed in similar vocabulary and order, yet one ought not to dismiss as insignificant the true differences between Jesus’ words at the commissioning of the Twelve and of the Seventy. For example, Jesus’ more urgent exhortation to the Seventy in Luke 10:2, “the harvest is abundant but the labourers are few, so ask the Master of the harvest to send out labourers for His harvest,” is entirely absent from His directions to the Twelve in Luke 9. The following verse, a warning to the Seventy that they will be “like lambs among wolves,” also is not paralleled at the beginning of Luke’s previous chapter. However, comparable orders to those in Luke 10:1-16 are given by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.[2] No parallel of any of Luke’s sending of the Seventy is found in Mark’s Gospel. Some sayings in Luke 9, such as Jesus’ mandate to the Twelve, are much less detailed than in Luke’s following chapter: “Whatever house you enter, stay there and leave from there. And as for those who do not welcome you… shake the dust from your feet in testimony against them” (Luke 9:5). In Luke 10, this directive is more expansive; the Seventy are to accept and to return the hospitality of the “peaceful person” (Luke 10:6)– literally the “son of peace”[3]– and the proclamation of the imminence of the “Kingdom of God”[4] (vv 9, 11) is to follow whether or not the disciples are welcomed in the towns through which they travel.

These noteworthy discrepancies between the beginnings of Luke 9 and 10, and parallels or lack thereof between Luke 10:1-16 and passages in the other Synoptic Gospels, suggest that Luke’s accounts of the commissioning of the Twelve and of the Seventy stem from different sources. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all share the account of the sending out of the Twelve, although Matthew’s version of this pericope is arranged differently than those of Mark and of Luke.[5] In cases where a passage is included in all three Synoptic Gospels or in Mark and either Matthew or Luke, most Biblical scholars assume Markan priority– that is, that Matthew, Luke, or both used Mark, whose Gospel is held to have been the first to have been written, as their documentary source about the life of Christ.[6] Material shared by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, known as “triple tradition,” makes up approximately five hundred verses, or about three quarters of Mark, forty-five percent of Matthew, and forty-one percent of Luke. Moreover, ninety-one percent of Mark is also paralleled in Matthew, in Luke, or in both of these other Synoptic Gospels. While these parallels in wording and often in arrangement between the Synoptics can be explained by Markan priority, this theory does not account for “double tradition” material, found in Matthew and in Luke but not in Mark. These nearly two-hundred-fifty verses of double tradition, of which Mark could not have been a source, comprise almost a quarter of the Gospel of Matthew and over one fifth of the Gospel of Luke. A majority of scholars theorize that the origin of this double tradition is a non-extant document called “Q,” after the German word quelle, which means “source.” Chief among many arguments against the Q hypothesis by a strong minority of Scripture scholars is that Q, a theoretical written collection of sayings of Jesus, compiled from oral tradition and probably lacking Nativity and Passion narratives, has yet to be discovered.

Nevertheless, double and triple tradition agreements among Matthew, Mark, and Luke have led to widely accepted theories such as Markan priority and Q. In addition to material paralleled in multiple Synoptic Gospels, though, many verses and entire passages in Matthew or in Luke are unique to these Gospels. About thirty-five percent of the Gospel of Luke is uniquely Lukan, while one fifth of the content of Matthew is found in no other Gospel. Such a vast amount of uniquely Matthean or Lukan material is unlikely to have been the result of these evangelists’ independent additions to source documents available to both of them; more plausibly, Matthew and Luke employed in their composition written and oral sources not accessible to the other author. Matthean source material can be abbreviated “M,” and Lukan source material “L.”

M and L content are important to the distinctive order and structure of the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke, respectively. In the case of Luke 10, a verse of material found only in Luke begins both a new chapter in that Gospel and a new pericope: “After this the Lord appointed seventy [-two] others whom he sent ahead of him in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit” (Luke 10:1). Such verses as this, which represent clear breaks between pericopes, are called seams. Matthean seam verses, including the evangelist’s adaptation of Old Testament texts, are more often M content than are Lukan seams comprised of L text.  In the Gospel of Matthew, M material seams follow particular formulas, two examples of which are “fulfillment citations” and use of contrast between the sayings of Jesus and the commandments of the Old Testament. Matthean fulfillment citations, wherein events occur to fulfill “what the Lord had said through [a] prophet,” introduce or conclude six pericopes between Matthew’s infancy narrative and the beginning of his account of Jesus’ nascent Galilean ministry.[7] The latter form of Matthean seam is found six times in a section of the Sermon on the Mount often called the “antitheses,” in which Jesus cites a tenet of Mosaic Law, prefaced by the phrase, “You have heard that it was said…” Then, Jesus interprets each statute for His own audience: “But I say to you…” Here, Jesus is not portrayed as abolishing the Law, but, as Matthew writes, in fulfillment of it (Matt 5:17). Thus, like Matthew’s fulfillment citations, the so-called antitheses– not true antithetical pairings of Moses’ Law and Jesus’ teachings, as if Jesus were attempting to supersede the Torah, but Rabbinic applications of the Torah to the social situation of Jesus’, or more likely Matthew’s, hearers– present Jesus in continuity with Israel’s religious and legal tradition.[8]

Unlike Matthew, Luke’s inclusion of Old Testament citations is rare, as are L material seams as opposed to M seams in Matthew. Where L seams occur in Luke, their break from the preceding pericope and led into the subsequent text are subtle. For example, Luke 10:1, an L verse, continues on the theme of the demands of discipleship presented in the triplet of proverbs in Luke 9:57-62. Discipleship is the central thesis through to Jesus’ blessing of the seventy in Luke 10:23-24. Nevertheless, Luke 10:1 is a break from the texts that precede and succeed it. Luke 9:57-62 and 10:2-16 is shared by Matthew and is therefore Q material with important Lukan modifications.

I turn now to the final four verses of this sequence of Q sayings in which Jesus condemns towns whose people have not accepted His message. Those towns, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, are contrasted with Tyre and Sidon, cities that would have repented readily given the same opportunity to hear Jesus as were the three Galilean communities. Especially in comparison with the larger pagan centres of Tyre and Sidon, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum were small fishing villages near the shore of the Sea of Galilee in the first-century C.E.[9] Jesus’ denunciation of these particular communities for their rejection of His preaching of God’s Kingdom, then, as opposed to larger towns where He had been, seems quite harsh. Of these villages, Capernaum is alluded to most often in Luke– four times (4:23, 31; 7:1; 10:15).[10] It was, despite its small size, a main centre of Jesus’ teaching ministry. It had presumably had more opportunities than other villages in its vicinity to reject Jesus. Evidently from Luke’s account, Capernaum had developed a worse reputation than other nearby villages for declining to receive Jesus’ Gospel of the Kingdom. Thus, it draws the starkest condemnation: “As for you, Capernaum, ‘Will you be exalted to heaven? You will go down into the netherworld’” (Luke 10:15). As poor as Capernaum’s reputation may have been, though, it was not, even for Luke, entirely depraved. Jesus’ first miracle there according to Luke is well-received; the people of Capernaum recognize Jesus’ authority (Luke 5:32) and rapidly spread the news (v 37) of His healing of a demoniac (vv 33-35) and teaching in their synagogue (v 31). Luke mentions Chorazin only once in his Gospel (Luke 10:13), while he refers to Bethsaida twice (Luke 9:10, as site of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and 10:13). Why, then, such insignificant villages draw such a scathing rebuke in Luke 10:13-16 remains a mystery. Nonetheless, the message of this pericope is clear: Jesus’ human disciples, whether the Twelve or the Seventy, have been given divine authority to herald the inauguration of God’s kingdom. To fail to heed their message is to reject Christ, and therefore whoever rejects the Son of God, mediator between the divine and human as He is fully both, rejects God the Father.

If one reads no further than Luke 10:16, the tone of the Lukan account of the mission of the Seventy would suggest their utter failure. If those sent “ahead of [Jesus] to every town… He intended to visit” (Luke 10:1) had been unable to elicit repentance in three tiny fishing communities, their success would have been even less likely in larger towns, yet the Seventy return to their Lord rejoicing: “Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name” (v 17). Their joy is not inappropriate; the Seventy recognize that their power to exorcise demons comes from Christ (Luke 9:1). However, Jesus warns them, “Do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20) Insofar as Jesus’ disciples have been empowered to participate in bringing to fulfillment the reign of God on earth, it has already been established in Christ. Satan, cast in Luke 10:18 as the “adversary”– the “prosecuting attourney,”[11] writes John L. McKenzie, of late Old Testament prophecy and wisdom traditions– has already fallen “like lightning from the sky” (v 18). Jesus’ disciples are promised that they will conquer even “serpents and scorpions,” and that nothing will harm” them (v 19). This promise is not a prediction by Jesus or by the evangelist of an end to persecution of Jesus’ followers. That has yet to occur, and if this latest “century of martyrs”[12] is any indication, maltreatment of Christians is on the increase. Instead, Luke’s message is that Jesus has provided for His disciples’ eternal welfare. Although Satan’s tyranny is still very much active in the world, it will be brought to an end with the eschaton, a process that is already underway.[13]

Following his admonition of the Seventy, newly-returned from their successful mission of evangelization, Jesus takes His turn to rejoice in prayer. McKenzie notes that Luke 10:21-22 parallels Matthew 11:25-27 almost exactly, with one important Lukan addition: Luke “alone mentions the rejoicing of Jesus in the Spirit.”[14] This allusion to the Holy Spirit is characteristic of Luke and of Acts.[15] At Jesus’ Ascension in Acts, the Apostles are reminded of our Lord’s own Baptism “with the Holy Spirit.” That Baptism is then conferred upon them; in the Holy Spirit they are to be Christ’s witnesses “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) Luke often presents the Holy Spirit together with the Father and the Son. Three examples come to mind of this Trinitarian tendency of Luke: The first is his account of Jesus Baptism, during which the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus while “a voice from heaven,” that of the Father, declares that in His Son He is “well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)  The second is the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), in which some consider the cloud (v 34) to be a reference to the Spirit, and the voice that says, “This is my chosen Son” (v 35), to be that of the Father. Jesus is present, of course, as a man. The third instance in Luke of the presentation of the whole Trinity in the same pericope is in Luke 10:21-22. Here, Jesus’ praise of the Father for His revelation to the “childlike” (v 21) is prefaced by Christ’s joy in the Holy Spirit.

These and other Lukan texts have therefore been used to support Trinitarian theology and in particular the divinity of the Holy Spirit. These dogmas, universal among Christians today, were disputed questions in the fourth century. The Council of Constantinople in 381, drawing especially upon the theology of the Cappadocian Fathers, Sts. Gregory Nazianzen, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nyssa, affirmed that the Spirit is equal in divinity to the Father and the Son. Although St. Basil never cited Luke 10:21 specifically in his formative work De Spiritu Sancto to argue that the Holy Spirit is divine, this verse is used liturgically to this day by various Christian churches on the feast day of Sts. Basil and Gregory Nazianzen.[16]

Another pertinent feature of Luke 10:21-22 is the identification in these verses between Jesus and divine wisdom.[17] Jesus and “anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him” (v 22) are alone able to know the identity of the Father. Moreover, the Father has chosen through the Son to reveal “these things” not to the “wise and learned” but to the childlike.” These verses recall the wisdom texts of the Old Testament. For instance, Sirach 51:1 reads, “I give you thanks, O God of my Father; I will praise you, O God my saviour!” Additionally, the prophetic tradition contains warnings about the limits of human wisdom compared to that of God, as in Isaiah 29:14b: “The wisdom of… wise men shall perish, and the understanding of… prudent men be hid.” God alone can reveal wisdom to humankind, for God alone is wisdom. Christ is at once wisdom’s mediator and wisdom incarnate. God will fill the humble disciple with His own wisdom. In this sense Luke points us toward God, wisdom and giver of wisdom to those who turn to Him: “To him who lacks understanding, I say, ‘Come, eat my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed! Forsake foolishness that you may live; advance in the way of understanding.” (Proverbs 9:4-6) At the same time as we, who lack understanding of God’s ways, are called to turn toward God, we have been supremely blessed like no other people: God-wisdom has become for us a human being. Thus we can say as our Lord said to His disciples: “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it” (Luke 10:24)

I began this article by recalling the Annunciation, a moment of great blessing told by Luke, and I conclude on this day before Christmas, another such moment. The announcement to Mary that she would bring Christ our Saviour into the world was at the same time a joyful and a troubling mystery. Likewise, the discipleship in Christ to which we are continually called brings with it experiences of blessing, of struggle, of joy, and of crisis. Let us pray as we celebrate our Lord’s Nativity for those who struggle in their faith, and for the persecuted, that they might be truly blessed. Let us also pray for those whose encounter with Christ, wisdom of God, who comes to us as a baby in a manger and will come again, has impelled them to proclaim the Gospel with joy. We, the disciples of Christ after the Twelve and the Seventy, await with this same joy the blessing of God that lasts forever. Amen.

[2] See Matthew 9:37-38, 10:7-16. The sayings of Jesus to His disciples found in Matthew differ in arrangement from those in Luke 10.

[3] John L. McKenzie, “The Gospel According to Luke,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, 2:143 (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968).

[4] Matthew parallels these “Kingdom of God” sayings found in Luke 10:9, 11. See Matthew 10:7, although note that Matthew prefers “Kingdom of heaven” to Luke’s “Kingdom of God.” See Philip P. Kapusta, “The ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ Versus the ‘Kingdom of God:’ Two Kingdoms, or One?” Accessed 24 December, 2010.

[5] Colleen Shantz, “Redaction Criticism and the Gospel of Matthew,” Class Notes, SMB 1501 HS: Introduction to the Study of the New Testament, University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 28 January, 2010. Unless otherwise noted, these course notes are my source for definitions (especially double and triple tradition, Q, M, and L content) and figures I discuss in this section, such as the percentages of triple and double tradition found in each of the Synoptic Gospels.

[6] Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 4th ed. (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 94.

[7] These pericopes are the birth of Jesus (Matt 1:18-25) visit of the Magi (2:1-12), the flight of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to Egypt (vv 13-15), the massacre of the infants (vv 16-18), the Holy Family’s return from Egypt (vv 19-23), and the beginning of the Galilean ministry (4:12-17). Seam verses (also fulfillment citations) are Matthew 1:23; 2:6, 15, 18, 23, and 4:15-16.

[8] Anna Wierzbicka, What Did Jesus Mean? Explaining the Sermon on the Mount and the Parables in Simple and Universal Human Concepts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 65.

[9] McKenzie, “The Gospel According to Luke,” 2:143.

[10] Bible Gateway, “Keyword Search Results: Capernaum,” Accessed 23 December 2010.

[11] McKenzie, “The Gospel According to Luke,” 2:143.

[12] H.W. Crocker, Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, a 2,000-year History (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001), 377.

[13] “Eschaton” is from Greek, referring to the “last things”; the term is synonymous with the end times.

[14] McKenzie, “The Gospel According to Luke,” 2:143.

[15] Ibid. Luke and Acts are held to have been written by the same author.

[16] “Readings for the Feast of St. Basil the Great,” This site lists Catholic as well as Orthodox and Anglican liturgies and prayers. Roman Catholics celebrate the feast of Sts. Basil and Gregory on January 2; otherwise this feast is observed on June 14.

[17] D. Rebecca Dinovo, “Developing a Biblical Sophia Christology.” http://www.franciscan-anglican. com/Sophia.htm#_ftn12. Accessed 24 December 2010.

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!


The Christ of the Valley- Luke 9:37-50

26 Dec

Mountaineering presents several challenges, especially concerning the necessity to properly acclimatize to changes in altitude before attempting to scale the world’s highest peaks. Climbers begin a regimen of repeated ascents into thinner air, and progressively longer stays at the higher level, followed by descents to a lower camp, weeks prior to reaching the summit. Persons who live in high-altitude urban centres have been studied for their adaptation to lower atmospheric pressure; these people have been found to have elevated red blood cell counts, hence more concentrated hemoglobin, which enables greater efficiency of oxygen exchange and transport in the bloodstream. (1)

Fatigue, particularly under physical exertion, may result from a rapid transition to higher elevations. By May of 2008, I had been living in Cali, Colombia, for over four months, and had become accustomed to the warm, oxygen-rich air about one thousand metres above sea level. Then, I accompanied a Basilian seminarian over five days in Bogotá, the world’s third-highest national capital city at 2 600 metres. A picturesque colonial-era district, la Candelaria, is downhill from Casa Annonay, our Community’s house in Bogotá. Therefore, I found the return climb, though only moderately steep, quite strenuous because of the altitude and, relatedly, the colder and drier climate than that of Cali. During a visit to another Basilian house in Medellín, a city spread over three mountain ranges, my experience was similar to that in Bogotá. The ascent on foot to Medellín’s monument of the crucified Christ, El Cristo, had left me both out of breath and amazed at the endurance of the seminarian with whom I had visited that city.

In my reflection on my time in Colombia posted in May of this year, I constructed a metaphor between Colombia’s mountainous terrain and our own spiritual lives. St. John of the Cross described a similar concept of spiritual topography in his untitled poem that begins with the phrase, “I went out seeking love.” In the quest to find love, St. John said that we must sink “so low, so low.” In the depths, one encounters the Lord, the experience of whose presence John of the Cross wrote, “I flew so high… that I took the prey.” (2) God, St. John implied, is both Love and lover, and while He is the sought-after prey on high, God is to be found in the lowlands, where He has come to meet us as a servant and as a human being.

St. John of the Cross’ poem highlights the paradox that is the contemplation of eternal life, which words fail to express adequately. However, St. John’s use of vivid contrast between high and low is part of tradition dating back to the early Church. Notably, all three Synoptic Gospels both precede and succeed Jesus’ Galilean ministry with references to the Palestinian landscape. The public ministry of Jesus is introduced by the proclamation of John the Baptist, who quoted from the prophet Isaiah:

A voice crying out in the desert:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight His paths.
Every valley shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ (3)

Likewise, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all conclude their Galilean ministry narratives with the passage between the Transfiguration and Jesus’ decisive turn toward Jerusalem. In all three Synoptic Gospels the relation to Israeli topography is present there, though more subtly than in the preparatory exhortation of John the Baptist. After the Transfiguration, Jesus, Peter, James, and John decended from the mountain and were met by “a large crowd.” (4) Therefore the reader is taken by Matthew, by Mark, and by Luke from a place of prayer, or of teaching in St. Matthew’s Gospel specifically, into a setting of service. Although the Matthean, Marcan, and Lucan accounts all include the descent of Jesus and of the three Apostles from the mountain following the Transfiguration, they provide different amounts of detail about and attach divergent meanings to the discussion that took place as the four men retuned to the valley below. The Gospels of Mark and of Matthew show the disciples questioning whether Elijah ought to have come again before the Anointed, as the scribes had taught according to a long-standing view in messianic Judaism. (5) While Our Lord’s Transfiguration had foreshadowed His Resurrection, that event had more importantly foretold Jesus’ death also. The disciples, though, focused on Christ’s Resurrection such that, according to Matthew and to Mark, Jesus reminded them that firstly “the Son of Man… must suffer and be treated with contempt.” (6) As with Elijah, the Jewish authorities would do “with [Jesus] whatever they pleased, as it is written.” (7)

Fear does not enable Peter, James, and John to interpret the first prediction of the Passion and the Transfiguration completely. Consequently, Jesus’ explanation of the prophecy about Elijah’s second coming is only partly understood as an allusion to the recently-executed John the Baptist. (8) The Passion of Jesus, ahead of the Resurrection, will fulfill that which had been written about both John the Baptist and Elijah. None of the Synoptic Gospel writers mention the disciples’ fear as they descended the mountain, but it is clear that the previous events had clouded their judgement and comprehension of the unfolding circumstances. God had enjoined Peter, James and John to “listen to [Jesus],” His “chosen Son,” (9) but these three most prominent Apostles were incapable of hearing the Word fully, because they were so intensely afraid of Jesus’ eventual suffering and death.

Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke does not place the fear-driven discussion between the Apostles after the Transfiguration, but transposes this story to his post-Resurrection narrative. On the road to Emmaus, the disciples would recall Jesus’ teachings as they realized the presence of the Risen Christ among them: “Were not our hearts burning within us while He spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” (10) Only at that point, with the purpose of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem accomplished, did the fear of the disciples begin to be transformed by Our Lord into faith and strength, just as death had been changed into life by His Passion and Resurrection.

St. Luke also tends, more than the other Gospel authors, to specify the passage of time at important junctures in Jesus’ life. For example, eight days pass between the Nativity and the circumcision and naming of Jesus. (11) Our Lord is twelve years old when He is found in the Temple (12), begins His ministry at “about thirty years of age” (13), and spends forty days in the desert, during which He is tempted by the devil. (14) The Transfiguration, Luke writes, occurs eight days after the first prediction of the Passion. (15) Then, “on the next day,” Peter, James, and John “came down the mountain” and were immersed in the multitudes of people. (16) A single day would have been little time for them to adjust to the tremendous effects of Jesus’ Transfiguration and of His prediction of His Passion. Rendered silent by the simultaneous joy and sadness of these events, the three Apostles must not only descend a physical mountain to be met by a “needy world” (17) that will not allow them to rest, but their negotiation of the mountain, in the spiritual and emotional senses, also requires proper acclimatization.

Compared to Mark and Matthew, Luke usually takes more time to relate important stages in the life of Christ, but before Jesus begins His final journey to Jerusalem that Luke spreads over almost ten full chapters, the author of the third Gospel in Canonical order tells of four separate  incidents in only fourteen verses, and he omits details found in Matthew and in Mark. (18) In an accelerated fashion uncharacteristic of Luke, Jesus’ friends are taught four critical lessons about discipleship, all of which are related to the mercy of God and to the Cross, the ultimate manifestation of that Divine mercy. (19) According to Scripture commentator Fred Craddock, discipleship depends upon our reconciliation with the Cross as a necessary part of the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ. (20) The four stories in this short section of Luke’s Gospel- the healing of the boy with an evil spirit, the second prediction of the Passion, the teaching about who is greatest in God’s Kingdom, and the foreign exorcist- involve four separate instructions about the essential features of a Christian disciple, all qualities shown to be lacking in the Twelve as they were about to set out for Jerusalem. Craddock writes:

The four subunits are really vignettes in which the disciples are revealed as lacking in power (vv. 37-43a), in understanding (vv. 43b-45), in humility, and in sympathy (vv. 49-50). No wonder Luke devotes over nine chapters to the journey to Jerusalem: preparation of the disciples, including the reader, will take time. (21)

From the perspective of a teacher of Holy Scripture, Fred Craddock incisively connects the four parts of this transitional passage of Luke’s Gospel to the reader. We are as much disciples of Jesus as those who were written about in the Gospel. This form of spirituality is somewhat common; some religious orders, for example the Jesuits, are renowned for their training of Biblical readers to picture themselves in the passage they are reading. We become in such exercises integrated into the Scriptural narrative at the same time as God’s word becomes an inseparable part of us. This method of learning the Scriptures may be enormously beneficial, although one must not approach Biblical role-play too proudly.  Temptation exists, especially for professional interpreters of the Sacred texts, to put ourselves in the position of the teacher instead of in that of the student. Therefore, Craddock warns us:

The tendency among us who share these texts with others is to assume the place of Jesus for ourselves and to place our listeners in the role of disciples. That is, we speak Jesus’ words of correction, reprimand, encouragement, and instruction to others rather than listening to them in the role of disciples. (22)

Our first lesson, then, as disciples of Jesus is to rely entirely on God in times that we experience our own powerlessness. These occasions, as in the Lucan context of the healing of the boy possessed by a demon, are unavoidable. The day after the Transfiguration, a man approached Jesus from a great crowd of people. His son was worn out by recurrent convulsions. He had been screaming and “[foaming] at the mouth.” (23) The father pleaded desperately with Jesus, “I begged your disciples to cast [the demon] out, but they could not.” (24) Jesus’ reaction to the man’s predicament probably surprised those who were present: “O faithless and perverse generation, how long will I be with you and endure you? Bring your son here.” (25)

Luke does not specify the object of Our Lord’s exasperation, unlike Matthew, in whose Gospel the disciples are privately chided for their lack of faith. (26) In the Gospel of Mark, the father of the demoniac child is on the receiving end of Jesus’ stern admonishment, although he is not entirely faithless but admits, as we ought also, to his struggle to trust fully in God. He then asks for God’s assistance, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (27) Luke’s phraseology is both more eloquent and no less ambiguous than that of Mark. In the Lucan Gospel, Jesus’ challenge to believe in His power is directed more at us as Christian disciples than at any of the first-hand witnesses to the healing of the sick boy. (28)

Although the three Synoptic Gospel authors essentially agree that a spirit was responsible for the child’s symptoms- the belief in demonic possession was common in first-century Palestine- discrepancies exist between the Matthean, Marcan, and Lucan accounts. Matthew, for instance, writes that the boy was a “lunatic”, while he refers to demonic possession only later. (29) This indicates that the child’s condition, probably epilepsy, was not only culturally associated with evil spirits but also with the phases of the moon. (30) The word ‘lunatic’ appears only twice in the New Testament, both times in the Gospel of Matthew. (31) An explicit challenge of the disciples’ faith- Jesus said to His followers that even faith the size of a mustard seed would have sufficed to cure the boy- is also unique to the Matthean Gospel. (32)

Mark’s depiction of the epileptic boy’s healing begins with the disciples, tired, confused, and saddened by Jesus’ first predictions of His death, surrounded by the multitudes and arguing with the scribes. (33) The placement of this episode immediately after the Transfiguration and the ensuing discussion about the meaning of rising from the dead are thematically consistent with the preceding series of events. Mark portrays the cure of the young demoniac as more of a resurrection from death than strictly a healing of one who is ill. Jesus cast out the malevolent spirit and commanded it never to return to the child. Mark describes the demon as “deaf and mute,” (34) a possible allusion to those on the verge of spiritual death who cannot hear the word of God or who are silenced by fear so deeply rooted that it disables faith. Therefore, this exorcism served also as a warning to the disciples in the early Church not to allow fear of death to dull their faith in the Resurrection.  This current runs throughout the Marcan Gospel. When the Risen Christ appears to the Eleven, some of them have still not believed “those who saw Him after He had been raised” (35) that Jesus had indeed been restored to life. Moreover, Mark is the only evangelist to observe that many of those who saw the exorcism of the demoniac child thought that “he [was] dead,” because he had become “like a corpse” before Jesus “took him by the hand, raised him, and he stood up.” (36)

Jesus also underscores the importance of prayer in driving out the demon: “This kind can only come out through prayer.” (37) Similarly, we ought to pray for the dead and for the severely ill. Our Lord’s Passion began with prayer in the Garden. We should follow Him in praying that God’s will be done over our own. (38) Our Father’s will that permitted Jesus to die on the Cross also raised Him from death. Through Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, Satan, the lord of demons, has been cast out, but our path to salvation began especially with the Son of God at prayer in Gethsemane.

St. Luke stresses the significance of prayer, too, although in this Gospel Jesus did not directly associate the exorcism of the epileptic with the need to pray, as He did as per St. Mark. Instead, according to Luke only, Jesus was at prayer during the Transfiguration itself. (39) The disciples descended from the mountain into the valley, a place of service in Luke’s Gospel. As such, Luke distinguishes himself from Mark and from Matthew by his heightened level of human concern.

Like Matthew, Luke challenges the faith of the disciples more than that of the father of the ill child. St. Luke alone adds the word “perverse” to Jesus’ criticism of His generation’s disbelief. (40) This adjective refers to Israel’s ongoing faithlessness from the Mosaic era, hence Moses’ injunction against the “fickle”, “perverse and crooked race” of Israelites in Deuteronomy. (41) The same human infidelity will result in Jesus’ death, therefore Luke’s diction in 9:41 functions as a flashback to Israel’s deliverance under Moses and, more pertinently, as a flash forward to our deliverance from our own listless faith by the power of Jesus Christ. (42)

Death is a prominent theme in the story of the healing of the epileptic in the Gospel of Luke, as it is in the Matthean and Marcan Gospels. However, as he makes the literary transition between Jesus’ Galilean ministry and His journey to Jerusalem, Luke accentuates the human nature of Our Saviour. As the ideal human being, Jesus is best shown by Luke to be the most empathetic toward humankind. Only Luke identifies, in the words of the epileptic’s father, that the boy is the man’s “only child.” (43) Jesus thus relates especially to the boy whose father pleads with Him from among the crowd of people. Our Lord, hidden by the multitudes, is once again singled out as the only Son of God the Father.

For a second time in Luke’s Gospel- the first had been the raising of the widow’s son at Nain- Jesus raises the only child of a desperate parent from death or near-death. (44) Perhaps the strongest allusion to death in the Marcan and Matthean narratives of the healing of the young demoniac is the reference, omitted by Luke, to the seizures that cause the boy to fall into fire and water. (45) Although such an interpretation is speculative, St. Luke may not have mentioned the fire and water, possibly suggestive of the afterlife, or of hell and of Heaven, respectively, in the ancient Jewish understanding of the universe, since he wrote to a Gentile audience that would have been less aware of  Hebrew cosmology of the time. (46) Nevertheless, our knowledge of “how the heavens go” (47) is subordinate to our call to love and mercy toward others, in keeping with Jesus’ teaching in His Sermon on the Plain, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (48)

In His mercy, Jesus raised the epileptic child and, in a Lucan addition to both Mark and Matthew that again highlights God’s love for humanity, He “returned [the boy] to his father.” (49) Jesus’ act brings to mind His own Resurrection, as well as our own; we also hope, because of the saving mercy of God, to be returned to Our Father in Heaven. The rising of Christ to life, then is the greatest of all miracles and the sum of all God’s great works. (50) Because of His Resurrection we, too, have a chance to be raised from death. We must, though, remain attentive to the instruction of the miracle worker instead of becoming infatuated with the works themselves, as was a temptation of the first disciples and is for every Christian to the present age.

For that reason, in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the priest welcomes the congregation and introduces the epistle reading with the exclamation, “Wisdom! Be attentive!” (51) Jesus prefaced the second prediction of His Passion similarly: “Pay attention to what I am telling you. The Son of Man is to be handed over to men.” (52) The disciples, Luke writes, failed to understand Jesus’ words, and they reacted fearfully. (53) When Jesus had spoken about His Passion and Resurrection for the first time, no explicit mention of fear nor misunderstanding on the part of the Apostles was made by St. Luke. (54) Prior to His entrance into Jerusalem, Jesus would again refer to His upcoming death, but the Twelve would show none of the fear to be expected of them considering the temporal and geographical proximity of the events of which Our Lord would speak. Luke says of the Apostles at the third Passion prediction only  that “they understood nothing… and they failed to comprehend what He said,” (55) but their fear is conveyed openly ten chapters earlier.

At the beginning of Chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel, the twelve disciples had been sent out by Jesus. Their first attempt at work away from the physical presence of their Master had been successful, as “they went from village to village proclaiming the good news and curing diseases everywhere.” (56) Peter had been able to vocalize the Divine revelation he was given as to the identity of Jesus, the “Messiah of God,” (57) but by then the conversion process from disciples to Apostles was underway. The Twelve, perplexed by two predictions of the horrific death of the Son of Man, the first without reference to His Resurrection (58), were to be broken under the weight of their own powerlessness and lack of understanding. They could no longer bear their daily cross attentively (59); all their human wisdom was for naught. The confidence of the Twelve was shattered by the prospect of their Lord’s suffering and execution in the worst way possible. In their weakness, the Apostles looked for a scapegoat among themselves, instead of accepting their share in the humiliation of Christ. In response, Jesus placed a small child before them, a symbol of the humility expected of a Christian. (60) He then instructed us, His disciples, with a message shared by all four Gospel writers:

Whoever receives this child in My name receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives the One who sent Me. For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest. (61)

Jesus was preparing His Apostles for a time when they would face ostracism and persecution. He had already been run out of his hometown, Nazareth, for His preaching in the synagogue to which the people had reacted angrily. (62) Our Lord had entered our human exile, a world where the innkeeper had turned Him away before His birth, yet the shepherds had joyfully received their King, born in a lowly stable. (63)

Later on, Jesus took a child from the crowd and placed it among His disciples. Then a foreign exorcist came to John’s attention. This man, John argued, did not belong to those closest to Jesus, although he was able to cast out demons in Christ’s name as were the Twelve. (64) Jesus responded thus to John’s exclusivism, “Do not prevent him, for whoever is not against you is for you.” (65) St. Luke, writing to a Greek-speaking Gentile audience, again shows his inclusiveness in a time when the early Chrisitans were both dying at Roman hands and being excluded from the Jewish synagogues. St. Matthew substitutes the story of the foreign exorcist with that of the payment of the Temple tax (66), but the message is essentially the same: the disciples will come to be considered outcasts. Therefore, anyone who does the work of Christ should be actively welcomed into our community of believers. Following Fred Craddock’s paradigm for interpretation of this section of Luke’s Gospel, the last of four teachings to Jesus’ followers between His Transfiguration and journey to Jerusalem is on Christian sympathy- we ought to regard ourselves as foreigners, in the footsteps of the Redeemer who leads us forth from the manger over high and low lands to Jerusalem and to the Cross.

Lord Jesus, You called Your Apostles into the valley from the mountain on which You were transfigured. May we learn Your way of service and accept our physical, emotional, and spiritual low points so that You may raise us to the height that is the Resurrection. Through our work in Your name, may the valleys be exalted and the mountains of our pride be made low. As we celebrate Your birth among us as a human being and await Your coming in glory, grant us, Lord, Your power, understanding, humility, and sympathy as we work for the good of all Your people and promote the growth of Your Church. Amen.

God’s blessings to all in this Christmas season and a Happy 2009 to all!


Transfiguration- Luke 9:23-36

25 Oct

Transfiguration Icon, OConnor House, Windsor, ON

Transfiguration Icon, O'Connor House, Windsor, ON

There was a certain person who, by loving Me with his whole soul, learned the things of God and inspired many by the wonders of the things he spoke…To some I speak of ordinary things, to others special things; to some I appear in signs and figures, while to others I reveal mysteries in a flood of light…For it is I alone who teach the Truth, Who search the hearts- no thoughts are hidden from Me- I, the Prime Mover of all actions, giving to everyone as I see fit.

– Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, III.43.4

The Apostles Peter, James, and John were privileged witnesses to the Transfiguration of Jesus, an extraordinary revelation of God’s presence, but more importantly this event began with Jesus in prayer. (1) Chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel opens with the first attempt at apostolic ministry by the Twelve. Upon their return, Jesus retreated with them to Bethsaida, a small fishing village. (2) After the feeding of five thousand people, as a recurring theme in Luke Jesus is again said to have been “praying in solitude” with his disciples in the background. There, Peter is able to vocalize the revelation he had received from above, that Jesus is “the Messiah of God.” (3)

However, the Twelve grasped only part of the Lord’s message; while the Son of God had indeed come to deliver the world from death, the Son of Man had come into the world as a servant who was to suffer the consequences of our sin only to conquer it. Jesus promises a share in His victory to all who freely partake in His Passion:

If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. (4)

St. Luke is the sole synoptic Gospel writer to emphasize the “daily” commitment to participation in Christ’s suffering that is required of His disciples. (5) While this world values economic success and material accumulation, Jesus warns us that one might possess all the earthly riches possible, yet forfeit the most valuable of all- the Kingdom of Heaven. Those who are unwilling to deny themselves- who are too proud to recognize God’s primacy and supremacy- will be, as Jesus says, “ashamed of [Him] and of [His] words” when the Son of Man, who redeemed us by His Cross, appears “in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” (6) Our Lord then concluded His first clear foreshadowing of His Passion and invitation to discipleship- a daily sharing in the Cross- with another prediction that further confounded His already shaken followers:

Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Kingdom of God. (7)

With some significant variations, the Gospels of Matthew, of Mark, and of Luke all include this verse. To emphasize the approaching end of time and the divinity of Christ, St. Mark writes of Jesus’ forecast of the coming of the Kingdom “in power” (8), whereas St. Matthew records Jesus’ reference to Himself as “the Son of Man coming in His Kingdom,” (9) suggesting a less eschatological slant in the Matthean Gospel (10) in favour of a greater accent on the extension of the Lord’s reign over the earth through the Church.  Luke is the most ambiguous of the three synoptic Gospel authors in his allusion to God’s Kingdom that occurs between the first prediction of Christ’s Passion and the Transfiguration. Since Luke’s Gospel continues into the Acts of the Apostles, its author probably intended an allusion to Jesus’ institution and sustenance of the early Church, especially considering the time of heightened persecution of Christians during which the third Gospel was likely written. In this respect Luke would have been in closer agreement with Matthew than with Mark. Furthermore, had Luke written his Gospel after A.D. 70, which Scripture scholars Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch admit as a strong possibility, he could have been referring in particular to that year’s sacking of Jerusalem that dispersed the Jews, “[marking] a turning point in salvation history that [signalled] the expiration of the Old Covenant Kingdom and the definitive establishment of the New.” (11) This view is supported by Jesus’ earlier words to the crowds that followed Him from Capernaum: “To the other towns also I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God, because for this purpose I was sent.” (12) On the contrary, Hahn and Mitch provide a cross-reference from Luke 9:22 to the first letter to the Thessalonians, in which St. Paul urges the Christians of Thessalonica to live lives of gratitude, of purity, and of charity, while they pray for the dead and await Christ’s Second Coming with hope:

Indeed, we tell you this, on the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from Heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore console one another with these words. (13)

Paul deals more directly with the Parousia in this and other letters than do any of the Gospel writers.  (14) Matthew ends his Gospel with Jesus’ promise to “be with [us] always, until the end of the age.” (15) This first book of the New Testament Canon most consistently portrays Jesus as “God with us.” (16) In this respect the ‘Emmanuel’ Gospel differs from that of Mark or of Luke. The latter two evangelists tend to be in closer agreement with  each other than with Matthew both in their presentation of Jesus to a largely Gentile audience as a servant who willfully submits to and redeems human suffering and defeats death itself, (17) and in the order of the events in each of the Gospels. (18) Each author’s reasons behind his inclusions or omissions are subject to speculation among scholars. St. John, whose literary style and theological development are radically different from those of the synoptic Gospel writers, implies that questions concerning the meaning of Jesus’ prediction that some disciples would live to experience the end of time ought to be of secondary importance to Our Lord’s call to discipleship. Jesus responds thus to Peter’s inquiry about “the disciple following whom [He] loved”: “What if I want him to remain until I come? What concern is it of yours? You follow me.” (19)

Less pointedly, Jesus communicates this same message just prior to the Lucan Transfiguration narrative. In the first twenty-nine verses of Chapter 9, Luke intertwines his identification of Jesus and that of His Apostles. The initial ministry of the Twelve, followed by Jesus’ first prediction of His Passion and by His Transfiguration teach us two core values of discipleship: compassion and patience. Both words derive from  the common Latin root “pati“, which means “to suffer [or] to endure.” (20) Our daily Cross is therefore put before us as the essence of discipleship, just as Jesus’ death is the precondition for our salvation.

Patience is a notably difficult virtue to practice contemporarily. We are bombarded by brief technological sound bytes and increasingly respond to a constant drive toward individual achievement. As a result, patience and the ability to engage in conversation, whether among people or with God, becomes diminished. Yet the Transfiguration is all about patience, conversation, and prayer. St. Luke most clearly emphasizes that Jesus “went up the mountain to pray,” and that He was transfigured while in the very act of prayer. (21) Nowhere does the Lucan account of the Transfiguration involve a monologue; Jesus is always in communion and in conversation with the other figures who are present.

Only Peter, John, and James were chosen from the larger crowd of disciples to climb the mountain, the usual place of prayer in Luke. (22) These three Apostles watched the Transfiguration, which showed the intimacy of the Trinity in prayer. They also exclusively saw the appearance of Moses and Elijah alongside Jesus. Questions might arise, then, as to God’s justice in singling out these three men while leaving the majority of jesus’ disciples in the valley below to grapple with the gloom of His pre-announced death. God, at times, confounds all human notions of justice. In addition, according to Luke “about eight days” pass between the first prediction of Jesus’ Passion (23), so conceivably, as they were invited up the mountain to pray, even James, John and Peter had been confused and saddened by the prospect of their Master dying at the hands of “the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes.” (24) After witnessing such a foretaste of Jesus’ victory over death as the Transfiguration, one would expect the three most prominent Apostles to have an increased understanding of the purpose of Christ’s ministry but as they descended the mountain  they were unable to speak of the events above, and their comprehension of their mission and of that of Jesus was as uncertain as before they had seen Our Lord transfigured. (25) The Apostles, like us, would come to see the justice of God only in the context of His mercy in Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection in which we are also called to participate.

Besides the analysis of God’s justice in the announcement of Jesus’ forthcoming death to all followed by the selection of only three men to observe the Transfiguration, the section between the first Passion  prediction and the ascent of the mountain abounds in symbolism, especially in references to other passages in the Bible. For example, the Lucan inclusion of a timeline in which these events took place- “about eight days” (26)- is generally accepted as foreshadowing of the period between the Passover subsequent to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and His Resurrection. Jesus rose from the dead on the day after the first Sabbath following the Passover. (27) While this is the most accepted explanation for the approximately eight-day lapse prior to the Transfiguration, there may also be a connection to the octave between the birth of a male child and his presentation to a priest to signal the completion of the mother’s purification under Jewish law. (28) Pertinently, Matthew and Mark differ from Luke on the number of days- six in the first two Gospels, which recalls the six days in which God created the world, as per Genesis (29)- and on the exactitude of the interval between the first mention of the Passion and the Transfiguration. (30) Although St. Luke frequently  refers to Jewish customs and history, his accomodation of mainly Gentile readership enables him to be more ambiguous than St. Mark and especially St. Matthew about dates and timelines. Nevertheless, all three synoptic Gospel writers agree on the presence of Peter, James, and John where Jesus was transfigured. (31) St. Hilary argues that Jesus’ choice of only three Apostles to accompany Him on the mountain is an allegorical comparison to the three sons of Noah- Shem, Ham, and Japheth- from whom the human race decended after the flood. Likewise, Peter, James, and John were to be witnesses to the spread of the Christian faith; they were to bring Christ, the salvation of humankind, to the world. (32) If, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, our Christian initiation that echoes Jesus’ Baptism is “the mystery of the first regeneration,” then “the Transfiguration is ‘the sacrament of the second regeneration’: our own Resurrection.” (33)

From now on we share in the Lord’s Resurrection through the Spirit who acts in the sacraments of the Body of Christ. (34)

In the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist, the Body of Christ- the Church- celebrates her unity but recognizes the divisions that do exist, most sadly between the many denominations of baptized Christians. While we hope for an end to this disunity, there is also discord between fellow Catholics that must be overcome if the Church is to become an even greater example of the transfigured and risen Christ to the world. In the Eucharistic Prayer during Mass, the priest repeats Jesus’ words of consecration, drawn from the Gospels of Matthew and of Mark:

…Take this all of you and drink from it: This is the cup of My blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of Me. (35)

Luke’s mention of only three Apostles in his Transfiguration account is perhaps emblematic of similar tensions between the “you” and the “all”, or, in the diction of the Gospels, the “all” and the “many” (36), that have persisted since the time of the early Church. Dominican Friar Timothy Radcliffe proposes a solution to this problem. “With some hesitation,” Radcliffe categorizes the Church’s members as either “Kingdom Catholics” or “Communion Catholics”, grouped according to the two periodicals that attempted to explain “the agenda of the [second Vatican] Council.” (37) Radcliffe writes:

Some Catholics see our Church as primarily the People of God on pilgrimage toward the Kingdom. Others see us as primarily members of the institution of the Church, the communion of believers. Most of us find ourselves to some extent in both models but tend more toward one or [the] other understanding of the Church… As Roman Catholics, we need both sorts of identity, and… the tension between them is fruitful and dynamic.

…First of all we must look at the nature of this polarization, [which] is usually seen in terms of the division between the left and the right, between liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists. This is only partially accurate. Western society, and increasingly the whole globe, is deeply marked by this polarity and because we are members of that society then it colours the way that Christians see divisions within the Church… But this sort of dichotomy is also deeply contrary to our faith, and we are called to transcend it. (38)

St. Luke declares that the Transfiguration began with prayer. The three Apostles then saw Jesus’ face “changed in appearance [while] His clothes became a dazzling white,” (39) but they understood poorly that this extraordinary manifestation of God was also a call for their conversion; the future leaders of the Church would eventually learn to transcend worldly divisions in the interest of true evangelism. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke uses the same Greek root to describe the light that blinded Saul on the road to Damascus as the word employed to characterize Jesus’ clothes after the Transfiguration. (40) Despite his impulsiveness, Peter captures perhaps the most significant message of the Transfiguration: “Master, it is good that we are here.” (41)

Two points are evident from Peter’s words. Firstly, he comprehended in part the glorious event that he saw, which foretold the everlasting glory that would come after Jesus had accomplished his “exodus” in Jerusalem. (42) Secondly, Peter, like the other Apostles, presumably had a thorough knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures. St. Peter suggested that three tents be constructed, one each for Jesus, for Moses, and for Elijah. Luke then comments that Peter “did not know what he was saying.” (43) In a sense, the Transfiguration was, as Peter thought, a time of celebration, but he did not want the joy of the occasion to end. Thus, Peter ignored the purpose of the conversation between  Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, that Jesus’ route to triumph had to pass through His death in Jerusalem. (44) He recalled the Feast of the Tabernacles, hence his reference to the tents- in Greek “σκηνάς”, transliterated as “skenas”- that are written about in the Pentateuch. (45) In fact, three feasts are mentioned in the same chapter of Deuteronomy: the Passover, evoked by Jesus’ coming “exodus” in Jerusalem, the Feast of Weeks, which is similar to the Christian celebration of Pentecost fifty days after Easter, and the Feast of the Booths or Tabernacles. (46)

Other than his connection between the Transfiguration of Christ and the great Jewish feasts of the Old Testament, St. Luke makes two more Trinitarian references in this narrative. The first is the presence of the three Apostle Peter, James, and John, and the second, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is in the voice of the Father, in the human person of Jesus the Son, and in the cloud that symbolizes the Holy Spirit. (47) Elsewhere, St. Luke’s use of people and of numbers is connected to an important message. For example, Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah, therefore He is the One who hears and fulfills both the law, symbolized by Moses, and the prophets, whose representative is Elijah. (48) Moreover , these “two men”, according to Fred Craddock, “[tie] the story to both the Resurrection and the Ascension,” (49) or to compare the aforementioned argument of St. Thomas Aquinas to that of St. Basil the Great, Moses and Elijah could signify the Resurrection and the second coming of Jesus Christ in glory. (50)

Much scholarship and still more speculation abound when considering a Biblical passage as pivotal as the Transfiguration. St. Luke writes that “Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw His glory.” (51) Thus the glory of God is attributed to Jesus, and His Godhead is affirmed by the Father: “This is My chosen Son, listen to Him.” (52) Even as the Apostles heard the voice of the Father,  they remained fearful as the cloud came over them. Peter, James, and John would be speechless about what they had seen until after the Resurrection, and some fear would linger until Jesus’ Ascension.  (53) St. Augustine comments thus on Peter’s reluctance to suffer in his service of the Lord:

Peter did not understand this when he wanted to remain with Christ on the mountain. It has been reserved for you, Peter, but for after death. For now, Jesus says, “Go down to toil on earth, to serve on earth, to be scorned and crucified on earth. Life goes down to be killed; Bread goes down to suffer hunger; the Way goes down to be exhausted on His journey; the Spring goes down to suffer thirst, and you refuse to suffer? (54)

St. Augustine’s question applies as much to Peter as to James, to John, to the other Apostles, and to all who wish to be counted as Jesus’ friends. God’s glory will be revealed to those who serve and to those who suffer. Some will accomplish greater works than others, or will suffer more than others, but Heaven is promised to all who love and who believe in Christ. Therefore we, like the three Apostles, fall silent in awe of God, and descend the mountain to continue our journey toward the Heavenly Jerusalem. (55) While the path lies in a “valley of tears,” (56) it is also a fertile land where we are called to serve God and humankind lovingly and faithfully. (57) We pray in the words of the Byzantine liturgy for the Feast of the Transfiguration:

You were transfigured on the mountain, and Your disciples, as much as they were capable of it, beheld Your glory, O Christ our God, so that when they saw You crucified they would understand that Your Passion was voluntary, and proclaim to the world that You truly are the splendor of the Father. (58)

Lord God, You revealed the luminous glory of Your Son to Peter, James, and John as they prayed on the mountain. Strengthen us in faith in times of suffering and in times of joy. May You then welcome us according to Your will from our earthly lives into the everlasting contemplation of Your glorious presence in Heaven. Amen.


Who Do You Say That I Am?- Luke 9:1-22

9 Sep

Several classroom games are centered on the theme of identity. As a French immersion elementary pupil, I particularly enjoyed one such activity, the aptly-named ‘Qui suis-je?’ (‘Who am I?’) One member of the class at a time would be invited to choose, for example, a historical figure who was being studied. The rest of the class would be allowed a limited number of clues or questions to determine the identity of the randomly-picked person, following the all-important phrase to begin each turn: “Qui suis-je?” Another popular game in elementary school was “Seven Up”, wherein seven students would be selected to stand at the front of the classroom while the other children would lay their heads on their desks with their eyes covered and their thumbs out. The students at the front would then proceed to tag the thumb of one classmate each, then the seven people who were tagged were invited to identify who had touched their thumb. Those that guessed this correctly took the place of the students who had tagged them at the front of the room for the game’s next round.

Beyond popular recreation in school, our identity is important, even when individuals are associated with larger groups, such as ethnicity, nationality, ideology, or religion. According to Judaism and Christianity, each human being is created uniquely and bears the Divine image and likeness. (1) Names affirm both the distinctiveness of each person and our relatedness to each other. From the beginning, God entrusted humankind with the naming of all creatures. (2) While surnames assist in knowing one’s ancestry, given names vary with time and culture. Novel spellings of more common names appear as parents seek a greater degree of individuality for themselves and for their children. Also, Catholics often christen their infants after a saint, and the child may develop a devotion to his or her namesake.

In the Gospels, names are also important; they help to tell the recipient of the Good News who Jesus is and who His followers are. Even prior to his detail of Our Saviour’s birth, St. Luke provides us with a name for the unborn God-Man, in Gabriel’s  words to Mary: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a Son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High.” (3) There, for the first time,  Luke refers to God as “the Most High”, a common Lucan designation for God, while emphasizing, particularly in combination with the frequent use of the title “Son of Man” in reference to prophetic Old Testament texts (4), the co-substantiality of Jesus with the Father and with the Holy Spirit. Jesus, a common name in first-century Palestine, derives from the Hebrew for ‘God saves’. Elizabeth, speaking to the Mother of God, was the first besides Mary to recognize that Jesus is equal in Divinity to the Father and to the Holy Spirit while also being fully human, the child of a human mother:

Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (5)

St. John the Baptist, himself the product of miraculous Divine intervention, shared in his mother’s awe by “[leaping] for joy” (6) at Jesus’ presence. The Visitation narrative then leads into the Magnificat with Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary, “who believed that what was spoken to [her] by the Lord would be fulfilled.” (7) In three successive verses- Elizabeth’s initial greeting, John’ leaping in Elizabeth’s womb, and the final blessing upon Mary by her host- the story of this encounter between Elizabeth, John, Mary, and Jesus includes three distinct messages that build the Christological framework of St. Luke’s Gospel. Firstly, Our Lord comes to those who are humble, like Elizabeth, who sees her own conception of John the Baptist as God’s means of beginning to remit the “disgrace” of sin in the world. (8) Secondly, God’s coming among us creates so much joy as to cause an unborn child to leap within the womb. Thirdly, that joyful response enables us to praise God and to strengthen each other in faith, just as we have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to be His witnesses (9), trusting in the Divine plan and purpose.

Confidence in God is critical toward our comprehension of the Gospel message. The four canonical Gospels, apart from all other books of the Bible, center on the earthly life of Jesus Christ.. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote at different times, for different audiences, and varied in their own amounts and fields of education. That gives each of the four evangelists’ works a distinctive Christology- defined as the study or essence of Christ, from the Greek ‘christos’ and ‘logos’. St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ life is primarily historical:

This history is first of all salvation history. God’s Divine plan for human salvation was accomplished during the period of Jesus, who through the events of His life fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies, and this salvation is now extended to all humanity in the period of the Church. (10)

In his opening address to Theophilus, St. Luke acknowledges that “many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us,” (11) and the author strives to set these events “in an orderly sequence.” (12) The Lucan Christology that begins especially with the Archangel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary followed by Elizabeth’s affirmation of Jesus’ Divinity- thus Jesus is the One to repair the disorderly rift between Heaven and earth, between angels and humankind, so that all “in Heaven, on earth, and under the earth” will “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (13)- intensifies and reaches a climax in Chapters 7 through 9 of Luke’s Gospel.

Immediately following the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus was revealed as a healer of the sick by His cure of the  centurion’s slave at Capernaum and as one with power even to raise the dead, first exemplified at Nain. From this town, so insignificant that it is mentioned only once in the Bible, news concerning Jesus’ identity spread rapidly: “‘A great prophet has arisen in our midst’ and ‘God has visited His people.’” (14) Meanwhile, the disciples of St. John the Baptist, gripped by despair at their leader’s imprisonment by Herod Antipas, were  not convinced that Jesus was the long-sought Messiah. They were sent to ask Jesus, “Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another?” (15) While Jesus was not rejected as he had been in Nazareth, (16) the public responded with indifference to the coming of the Kingdom announced by John’s challenging exhortation to repent and fulfilled by the joyful ministry of Christ. (17)

The concurrent upbeat sound of the flute and the sorrowful sound of the dirge being sung, both integral to the proclamation of our salvation, are frequently considered to interfere with one another. Thus, few tune in properly to the revelation of Jesus’ identity. The women in Luke’s account, from the sinner who tearfully begged Our Lord’s forgiveness in the home of Simon the Pharisee (18) to those who gave as much as they were able of their material wealth to support Jesus and His Apostles (19), were true hearers of the symphony of the Good News. Jesus taught in parables those who were slow or reluctant to be attentive to His message. The family of Christ- hearers and doers of word (20)- grew as Jesus instructed His people and performed miracles where those obsessed with ritual purity over service, with doubt over faith, and with death over life feared to tread.

Witnesses and servants of faith and of life must trust completely in God. As the ninth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel begins, this is precisely Jesus’ lesson for the Twelve. Until this point in the Gospel of Luke, they had been known as disciples. Jesus then sent His dozen men out to heal and to preach on their own. They were subsequently to become Apostles: (21)

He summoned the Twelve and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and He sent them to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick. He said to them, ‘Take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor money, and let no one take a second tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there and leave from there. And as for those who do not welcome you, shake the dust from your feet in testimony against them.’ Then they set out and went from village to village proclaiming the Good News and curing diseases everywhere. (22)

Much success accompanied this first attempt at ministry by the Apostles, because Jesus’ orders gave their mission fundamental direction toward preaching and healing those afflicted both physically and spiritually. The Twelve were not to worry about those who would reject them; they were to proceed to the next town while the dwellings that repudiated Word of God would incur unfavourable judgment, symbolized by the act of shaking the dust from one’s feet in an unfriendly house. (23) Their teaching was also meant to be universal, making no distinction between Gentile and Jew, as St. Luke emphasizes by his inclusion of the word “everywhere” (24) to describe his intended audience.

In order to identify Jesus for the readers and hearers of his Gospel, Luke tells us both who the Twelve were and who they were to become. Jesus teaches those whom He has chosen in turn to instruct in His place- to build His Church- that dependence upon God in all things is paramount even bearing in mind the early accomplishments of His closest friends’ evangelization. The disciples’ transition to Apostleship will be complete only when they have experienced hardship and crisis and have risen from it with Christ always before them. As the disciples go forth to become Apostles, the orientation of the Lucan Gospel also changes toward Our Saviour’s final goal, Jerusalem, therefore the Cross, while the major themes of Jesus’ Galilean ministry are maintained. Robert J. Karris, O.F.M., explains in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary:

By means of the Cross Luke switches the focus by which one views the familiar themes of Jesus’ Galilean ministry: Jesus’ power over evil and His status as God’s Son, discipleship, opposition, and food. When these themes occur in 9:51 [to] 19:27, they are to be seen from the perspective of the Cross. (25)

Suffering, even unto death if necessary, must then be a part of the transition from disciple to Apostle- to one who is summoned, to paraphrase the lyrics of the hymn I have included with this article, to follow Jesus “and never be the same.” (26) The One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church (27) has a mission that is by nature transformative, as it is Christ’s ‘way.’ (28) Christians are obligatorily changed by the presence of the Son of God. Through the Incarnation, God became like us, and He has redeemed us by His blood. Therefore, the restoration of humanity to the likeness of God takes on anthropological and historical dimensions in Jesus Christ. Pope John Paul II, in Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium, wrote:

Christ alone, through His humanity, reveals the totality of the mystery of man. Indeed, it is only possible to explore the deeper meaning of this mystery if we take as our starting point man’s creation in the image and likeness of God. Man cannot understand himself completely with reference to other visible creatures. The key to this self-understanding lies in contemplating the Divine Prototype, the Word made flesh, the eternal Son of the Father…The dignity proper to man…is based not simply on human nature, but even more on the fact that, in Jesus Christ, God truly became man. (29)

In the same work, John Paul II cited the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope) from the second Vatican Council, which affirms again that, by becoming human, Jesus changed the definition of humanity while giving new meaning to our relationship with God, to our suffering, and to our hope by taking on our human form:

By His Incarnation, He, the Son of God, has in a certain way united Himself with each man. He worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart He loved. Born of the Virgin Mary, He has truly been made one of us, like to us in all things but sin. (30)

…As an innocent lamb He merited life for us by His blood, which He freely shed…The Christian is certainly bound by need and by duty to struggle with evil and to suffer death; but, as one who has been made a partner in the Paschal Mystery, and as one who has been configured to the death of Christ, he will go forward, strengthened by hope, to the Resurrection. (31)

While they were justifiably elated over their early triumphs in preaching and in healing, the Apostles still had much to learn, particularly about how to respond in times of crisis. Between the Last Supper and His agony in Gethsemane, Jesus would deliver instructions to the Twelve that would contradict His teachings to them prior to sending them abroad for the first time. The Apostles, interpreting the opposing messages literally, would be confused by the perceived incongruity between Jesus’ directives in times of adversity and in times of success. (32) However, they would eventually be converted to accept the Cross as an essential step on their faith journey.

To rise with Christ, the Apostles would need to die with Him- to give their lives and to rise above the ways of the perishable world. While the Twelve were buoyed by their initial achievements, they had not yet put their Master first. Our Lord loved those among whom He walked. He empathized with a people oppressed by foreign rule who had long waited for a Messiah. Many, though not all, first-century Palestinian Jews believed that the coming of that Messiah and of His forerunner had been proclaimed by the prophet Malachi:

Lo, I will send you Elijah the prophet,
Before the day of the LORD comes,
the great and terrible day,
To turn the hearts of the fathers to their children,
and the hearts of the children to their fathers. (33)

Jesus had taught that Malachi’s mention of Elijah’s second coming was a figurative reference to John the Baptist, who had declared that Jesus was already with His people to deliver them. (34) In Israel during Jesus’ time, that was a difficult claim to accept. Downtrodden under the Romans, Messianic Jews were anticipating a leader who would reinstate Israel’s political and religious sovereignty. As Fred Craddock remarks in his exegetical book on the Gospel of Luke, most Israelites of the period doubted that a Messiah could have come already while the nation was in such turmoil. (35)

Our Saviour, though, was no political nor military leader. Misunderstanding of who He was gave rise to numerous rumours. To Herod Antipas, the puppet king whose tenuous hold on power was at the mercy of the Romans, this gossip, especially of a religious nature, was no idle chatter. Any talk of a challenger to his authority was viewed as threatening. Herod, for the first time in Luke’s Gospel, is recorded to have shown interest in Jesus, as he echoed a question already asked  repeatedly concerning Jesus (36): “Who then is this about whom I hear such things?” (37) The king, who would be unsatisfied in his quest “to see” (38) Jesus until His trial, when Herod would still receive no answer as to Jesus’ identity, had heard all the false stories from his subjects as to who this miracle worker was. (39) The ‘poll’ results showed that the Christ was commonly believed to be John the Baptist “raised from the dead”, Elijah, or another of “the ancient prophets.” (40) The same public opinions would be conveyed by the Apostles after Jesus had asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (41)

Herod did not yet desire to kill Jesus; this intention would develop later. (42) Nevertheless, Herod likely considered the number of followers that Jesus was drawing to Himself to be intimidating. He had beheaded John the Baptist, (43) who is not named again in Luke’s Gospel beyond Chapter 9, thus Herod Antipas had another reason to fear retribution. In the meantime, the Apostles had returned from their first duty apart from Jesus. While they were greatly encouraged by their work, Our Lord reminded them of the necessity of silence and of solitary prayer, “[withdrawing] in private to… Bethsaida” (44), “the hometown of Peter, Andrew, and Philip” that the Gospels mention five times. (45)

Despite the goal of Jesus and of His Apostles of prayerful retreat, the multitudes did not allow them to rest. Jesus patiently “received” the vast number of people, “spoke to them about the Kingdom of God, and He healed those who needed to be cured.” (46) The crowds are set in Luke as an interruption in the quiet and prayerful conversation between Jesus and the Twelve, but the Lord used this inconvenient intrusion of “about five thousand” (47) to instruct His Apostles anew on how to meet the material and spiritual needs of the people. From a secular perspective, the Twelve were aware of the requirements of the masses gathered before them. Luke’s Gospel informs us that it was late in the day; the enormous crowd needed food and then places to stay overnight. Bethsaida, a small fishing community, did not have enough supplies for so many people traveling such long distances. Thus the Apostles asked Jesus, “Dismiss the crowd so that they can go to the surrounding villages and farms and find lodging and provisions; for we are in a deserted place here.” (48)

St. Luke does not mean this passage to be a criticism of the Apostles, as though they were too self-absorbed to attend to the needs of the five thousand. The third Gospel does not include a large section of St. Mark’s account between the feeding of the five thousand and Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah that scolds the disciples for their hardness of heart while also condemning the Pharisees and elders that sought the adherence to religious tradition over charity and signs over the faith required to understand their purpose. (49) Jesus’ Apostles had considered the plight of the five thousand, but in human and not Godly terms. (50)

The five loaves and two fish are no longer to be regarded as too little to satisfy the hunger of so many, the Lord implies, but even this small amount of food is a gift from God to be offered back to Him; God multiplies our small contributions into great bounty for His own. Jesus thus ordered His Apostles, “Give them some food yourselves.” (51) The Twelve complied, and also organized the congregation into “groups of about fifty” (52). As in the parable of the talents, where the servants trade their master’s money for increased wealth, the Apostles were to gain greater responsibilities as recompense for their faithfulness. (53) Foreshadowing the institution of the Eucharist, (54) Jesus took “the five loaves and two fish, and looking up to Heaven, He said the blessing over them, broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. They all ate and were satisfied.” (55) In return, the Twelve would be entrusted with the government of the Church, united by Christ’s sacrifice of Himself on the Cross. While He strongly charged them not to speak of His upcoming suffering and death to those who would distort that message, Jesus predicted His final victory to the Twelve after St. Peter’s crucial recognition of His identity in spite of popular sentiment:

Then He said to them, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Peter said in reply, ‘The Messiah of God.’ He rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone. He said, ‘The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.’ (56)

Our Messiah of God came to restore our unity with God, to bring us together like fragments of bread gathered  into baskets. Each Apostle became an equal trustee in fulfilling Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one” (57), as each of the Twelve received one basket of broken pieces, to be collected and offered back to Christ. In this symbolic reception of the totality of the Church, the Twelve truly began to understand who their Messiah was.

We pray for the grace to identify Christ in our world and in each other. Lord Jesus, we offer ourselves, Your Church, as a collection of broken pieces. In Your mercy may You, broken for us on the Cross, repair our sinful chaos and draw us into oneness in You as You send us forth to bear witness to Your Name.



The Summons hymn

Lord of Miracles- Luke 8:22-56

9 Jun

In a small indigenous community there lived an elderly woman whose daily task was to carry the villagers’ clothing to the nearby river, wherein she would wash it. The humble old lady had little money and few personal belongings, though she had saved about seventy Spanish Real, enough to buy herself a small crucifix in the village’s religious goods market.


One day, she had finished her work washing clothes in the river and was preparing to go to market to buy the crucifix when a man walked past with his head downcast and with tears in his eyes. The man was on his way to prison because he owed seventy Real in taxes that he was too poor to pay. The man’s plight was well-known in the village; he often lacked the means necessary to support his wife and his young children. The old woman was moved with pity for the poor debtor, so to keep him out of prison she gave him her entire savings with which she had intended to purchase the crucifix. The man was overwhelmed with gratitude toward the woman, and he blessed her for her selfless gift that had saved him from going to jail.


Some days later, the woman was, as usual, at the river washing the villagers’ clothes. As she laboured, unnoticed by anyone with her hands below the surface of the water, the current pushed a small wooden object against the cloth that was in her submerged hand. The woman was unsure of what had touched her hand, since her sight was failing due to age, and the piece of clothing she was holding was thick. Hoping to look more closely at the wooden object that had become wrapped in cloth, she lifted it out of the water and, bringing it almost to the tip of her nose, she unwrapped it. Within the bands of cloth, there was a crucifix that was an exact replica of the one in the marketplace. It fit perfectly into the old woman’s palm.


Since she had been working in the river above the village, the woman knew that the crucifix could not have belonged to any of the villagers; it had miraculously appeared in the river. The old woman carried the crucifix back to her home and with great joy she built a small altar upon which to rest it. Then, exhausted from her day’s work, she fell asleep.


She was abruptly awakened from her slumber after a short time by a low knocking noise coming from the wooden altar she had constructed. The woman found that the crucifix on the altar, once small enough to fit the palm of her hand, had grown. Thinking that her vision had deteriorated so much over time, the aged woman took the crucifix to the priests and to the village’s elders. They agreed that the image of the crucified Lord had indeed grown; it was no illusion.


Over the years up to and beyond the old woman’s passing, the crucifix continued to grow until it reached a height of almost two metres and a width of nearly one-and-a- half metres. Pilgrims came from near and far to pray before the life-sized image of Christ on the Cross. So many came that the crucifix became damaged, and the governor ordered it to be burned twenty-seven years after its first appearance in the river. The fire was lit, but once the crucifix was placed amid the flames it was not consumed. Instead, the image of Jesus’ body began to sweat abundantly. It continued to sweat for two days thereafter, drawing even greater crowds of people, many of whom were sick but went forth completely cured.


The crucifix first floated down the Guadalajara River (Río Guadalajara, later Río Buga) and into the old Aboriginal woman’s hand in 1580. The governor of the region surrounding Popayán, which included the woman’s village and ranchland, ordered the crucifix to be burned in 1608. In 1819, the woman’s house was restored and made into a place for the ever-increasing numbers of pilgrims to meet and to pray. La Ermita, the church built to house the crucifix, fell into disrepair and became too small to accommodate the masses. Therefore, in 1875 the Archbishop of Popayán invited the Redemptorists to begin construction of a new shrine. The rose-couloured brick church received the Solemn Benediction of the then-Archbishop of Popayán, Msgr. Antonio Arboleda, on August 2, 1907, the Feast of St. Alphonsus Liguori, founder of the Redemptorist Order. A magnificent clock was imported from France and fitted to the bell tower in March, 1909. The home of the crucifix known since the nineteenth century as “El Señor de los Milagros” (“The Lord of Miracles”) and before then as “El Señor de las Aguas” (Lord of the Waters”) was given the title of Basilica, House of the King, by Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, in 1937. Today, the Basilica of Buga is one of the most-visited places of worship in Colombia.


Our Lord continues to work miracles for the faithful who journey to Buga or to countless other holy places the world over. Jesus works a miracle in the presence of believers every time the Mass is offered; He gives Himself to us in the celebration of the Eucharist whether in the great Basilica de Buga or in the most nondescript chapel.. Each time He renews His promise to us: “Amen, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by My heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:19-20)


St. Matthew’s Gospel in particular emphasizes the role of ‘God with us’. The “Emmanuel” born to us in a manger in Bethlehem is “with (us) always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 1:23, 28:20). God’s coming among us in the flesh is a miracle in which the Almighty has made himself visible to us in human form, yet whether or not we are able to see God physically, we are usually unsure of how to respond to such miraculous Divine intervention, much less how to define a ‘miracle’.


Dr. Donald McFarlan of the University of Glasgow, Scotland, identifies a miracle as an “object of wonder” and paraphrases St. Augustine’s description of a miracle as a “marvelous event exceeding the known powers of nature” that is “due to some special act of God.” (McFarlan, Concise Bible Dictionary, Article on ‘Miracle’. Glasgow: Blackie and Sons, 1982) Appropriately, Dr. McFarlan then turns to the books of the Holy Scriptures in their original languages in search of the meaning intended by the divinely-inspired Biblical writers.


In the Hebrew Old Testament, the word ‘oth’, translated into English as ‘sign’, is used to denote an event or series of events that defy natural explanation. However, the appearances of ‘oth’ are not meant to detail disconnected occurrences, but to convey high points in the relationship between God and His chosen people Israel. This God-human relationship lasts from our creation until the end of time and beyond. The concentration and intensity of miracle stories in the Old Testament increase in times of trial for the Israelites, especially during the exodus from Egypt. These tales, first passed on via oral tradition, were eventually written down to be even more effective instruments with which to teach future generations:


“Later on, when your son asks you what these ordinances, statutes, and decrees mean which the LORD, our God, has enjoined on you, you shall say to your son, ‘We were once slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with His strong hand and wrought before our eyes signs and wonders, great and dire, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and his whole house.” (Deuteronomy 6:20-22)


God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh Ramses II was a foreshadowing of His greatest ‘oth’, the Incarnation of Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. As in the Hebrew Old Testament, St. John’s Gospel presents miracles as ‘signs’. John uses ‘semeion’, the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew word ‘oth’, to describe seven of Jesus’ most important works: the changing of water into wine at Cana (cf. John 2:1-11; ‘semeion’ is first used in v. 11), the cure of the royal official’s son (cf. John 4:46-54), the healing of the paralytic at Bethesda (cf. John 5:1-18), His multiplication of the loaves (cf. John 6:1-15) and walking on water (cf. John 6:16-21), wherein the parting of the Red Sea and the Passover especially come to mind, the curing of the man born blind (cf. John 9:1-40), and lastly the raising of Lazarus (cf. John 11:1-44), a presage to Jesus’ own Resurrection.


St. John’s account of only seven of Jesus’ signs is not a limitation on the part of the Gospel writer, but perhaps more his emphasis on the universality of miraculous works. The number of miracles recorded in John’s Gospel- seven- signifies all-inclusiveness in the Bible. The Church herself is a miracle and owes her existence to the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ and to the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Furthermore, the original conclusion of the Gospel of John prior to the later addition of Chapter 21, the Epilogue, likely by a different writer, summarizes excellently both the purpose of Jesus’ signs and that of the whole fourth Gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of [His] disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in His name.” (John 20: 30-31)


The Synoptic Gospels also agree on miracles as one of Jesus’ means of showing His power to His followers so that they might believe in His Godhead. However, instead of using the Greek word ‘semeion’ as does St. John, Sts. Matthew, Mark, and Luke employ the Greek ‘dunamis’, which means great or mighty work. The literal translation of ‘dunamis’ into English results in words such as ‘dynamic’, ‘dynamism’, and ‘dynamo’. The Lucan Gospel presents the most important mysterious act of God’s dynamism, the Incarnation, most at length among the four Gospels. Luke’s beautiful and detailed infancy narrative includes Mary’s Magnificat, with her acknowledgement, “the Mighty One has done great [works] for me, and holy is His name.” (Luke 1:49)


Thus Mary, Jesus’ first disciple, recognized the miracle that she bore in her womb. That mighty work, the Christ, went on to perform many great deeds for those who were willing to follow Him. The most miracles in any single chapter of Luke’s Gospel- four- are recorded in Chapter 8. The stories of Jesus’ calming of the storm on the Sea of Galilee, His healings of the Gerasene demoniac and of Jairus’ daughter, and the raising of the daughter of the synagogue official occur in sequence immediately after the parables of the sower and of the lamp in the same chapter. As is the purpose of the parables, Jesus’ miracles are correctly understood only by those properly disposed toward faith. (cf. Luke 8:10)


Fear, though, often precedes faith as our response to God’s wonders, especially when we do not connect supernatural acts with their source, the One whose “footsteps [are] unseen.” (Psalm 77:20) Earlier in Psalm 77, Asaph writes of the Exodus: “The waters saw you, God,…and lashed about, trembled even to their depths.” (Psalm 77:17) Likewise, Jesus’ disciples were afraid of their own demise during the storm on the lake. (cf. Luke 8:23-24) Jesus, meanwhile, was peacefully asleep in the boat. The disciples, in a panic, awoke Him: “Master, Master, we are perishing!” (Luke 8:24) Upon awakening, Jesus first calmed the storm, and then asked His disciples, “Where is your faith?” (Luke 8:25) The order of Jesus’ actions is important; He did not chide His disciples for their lack of faith before calming the tempest. Our Lord recognized His disciples’ natural human reaction to the threat of imminent and sudden death. The disciples’ response to the storm is as natural as our need to sleep. Jesus, fully human, knew that even as He slept while the disciples feared that they would die alone. The Master’s sleep was meant to prepare those in His presence for His death on the Cross. Jesus’ glorious victory over death itself would entail His suffering and dying alone. His disciples would all flee, and it would seem that even God the Father had abandoned Him. (cf. Matthew 27:55; Mark 15:34) Only after the Resurrection did the disciples no longer fear but understand and believe. (cf. Luke 24:13-49)


Before “opening [our] minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45), Jesus allows us to experience fear, such that we tremble to our depths like the waters of the Red Sea. (cf. Psalm 77:17). Most if not all people experience fear, so to be afraid is not intrinsic evidence of wrongdoing. For many, fear is a necessary stage of our journey toward faith. Two forms of fear are presented in the Bible. The first is the kind of fear, similar to that of Jesus’ disciples prior to the calming of the storm, which we understand literally today, while the second is a response of awe and amazement at the greatness of God, such as that felt by the disciples after the sea was calmed.


The latter form of fear involves our lack of knowledge of who God is. The disciples asked, “Who then is this, who commands even the winds and the sea, and they obey Him?” (Luke 8:25) This question in response to Jesus’ power is entirely instinctive; most of us would behave the same way in a similar situation. Some people, though, never advance beyond fear in the sense in which it is understood contemporarily, and on toward faith. Philosophers including the Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard have written that one cannot ever overcome the “fear and trembling” stage, which is not therefore something to be surpassed or suppressed, but is essentially human. (cf. Philippians 2:12, Psalm 2:11, and Isaiah 19:16; cf. also Kierkegaard, “With Fear and Trembling”) The Bible even lists fear of the Lord as one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. (cf. Isaiah 11:2)


Nevertheless, Jesus’ calming of the storm on the lake only momentarily reassured His disciples, who again faced their fear of death when they encountered a possessed man on the opposite side of the lake. St. Luke describes the demoniac thus: “For a long time he had not worn clothes; he did not live in a house, but lived among the tombs.” (Luke 8:27) The setting of this story in all three Synoptic Gospels is near the Gentile town of Gerasa, or Gadara as in St. Matthew’s Gospel, which also includes two demoniacs instead of one. (cf. Mark 5:1-20, Matthew 8:28-34) Gerasa was one of ten pagan cities southeast of the Sea of Galilee called the Decapolis. (cf. Mark 5:20) In such an environment, one can empathize with the disciples for feeling uneasy. In Gerasa, deep in pagan territory, a possessed man approached them. He was naked and had been in contact with the dead. Swine, which were forbidden by Jewish law to eat or to raise (cf. Leviticus 11:7-8, Deuteronomy 14:8), were feeding nearby. Most Jews would have remained as far away as possible from such an obvious risk of ritual uncleanliness, but Jesus led His followers into the midst of it. The disciples were understandably terrified. The evil spirits, though, were the most afraid; they were about to be destroyed by their Almighty and courageous foe, Jesus Christ, who called the demons out by name: “Legion.”(Luke 8:30) Our Lord single-handedly gained control over the numerous demons- a legion was equivalent to approximately 6 000 Roman foot soldiers- and sent them into the swine, who rushed off the cliff and were drowned in the lake. (Luke 8:32-33, and related notes, New American Bible). These demons were most fearful of Jesus because they knew Him best. They, too, called Him by name as they had in previous encounters between the Lord and other demoniacs: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!” (Luke 8:28; cf. Luke 4:34, 41) However, this time the evil spirits who had “taken hold of [the man] many times” (Luke 8:29) were powerless against being cast into the swine and drowned in the lake, which in Luke’s Gospel is a symbol of “the abyss”, a word that is unique to Luke among the Gospels and signifies either the prison dwelling of Satan or the watery disorder prior to God’s creation of the universe in Genesis. (Luke 8:31 and related notes in R. Brown et al., The New Jerome Biblical Commentary; also cf. Romans 10:7 and Genesis 1:2)


Following the exorcism, only Jesus and the cured man appeared calm. The Gerasene townspeople scattered, “seized with fear” (Luke 8:35, 37), and they asked Jesus to depart from them. The phrase used by St. Luke in verse 35 is similar to the words that the Gospel writer first employs in his description of the shepherds tending their sheep when Jesus was born: “The glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.” (Luke 2:9) Like the righteous and simple shepherds or the evil King Herod (cf. Matthew 2:3), we are also sometimes afraid of the meaning and the message of a baby wrapped in cloth in a manger, not to mention of a mighty exorcist. The former demoniac at Gerasa, though, sat calmly at Jesus’ feet in the traditional posture at the time of a disciple before his teacher. (cf. Luke 8:35 and notes, NAB) The man would have followed Jesus, but Our Lord had greater plans for him: He was to go out and to proclaim gratefully amongst his fellow Gerasenes “what Jesus had done for him.” (Luke 8:39)


Meanwhile, Jesus returned to Jewish territory and was immediately greeted by great crowds that “almost crushed Him.” (Luke 8:42) St. Peter, likely feeling claustrophobic and therefore growing impatient with the masses, stated the obvious, “Master, the crowds are pressing in upon you.” (Luke 8:45) Though Peter does not, in this passage, ask Jesus to dismiss the crowd, his later words especially reflect that he is tiring of the great number of people constantly surrounding the Lord and His Apostles (cf. Luke 9:12), and likewise of their own inability to find a secluded location appropriate for prayer. However, two people were able to reach Jesus from among the multitude, the synagogue official named Jairus and a woman afflicted with hemorrhages. Jairus fell at Jesus’ feet and pleaded with Him in desperation to save his only daughter from death. (cf. Luke 8:42) This scene is reminiscent of the raising of the widow’s only son at Nain (cf. Luke 7:11-17); Jesus is shown again by St. Luke to be particularly attentive to those whose only children require His presence.


As highlighted previously in Luke’s Gospel, this Evangelist is especially concerned about women. Like Jairus’ daughter, the person who had been bleeding continually “for twelve years” was female. (Luke 8:43) The two women also share the number twelve in common- the length of time the second woman had been hemorrhaging is equal to Jairus’ daughter’s age in years. (cf. Luke 8:42-43) Twelve in the Bible usually symbolizes completeness or wholeness. Furthermore, Luke presents these two interwoven miracle stories to illustrate God’s response to genuine faith when it overcomes fear, in this case either of ridicule or of the density of the crowds. (cf. Hahn and Mitch, Ignatius Study Bible, note on Luke 8:48, 50, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2616)


A striking recent example of the role of true faith in surpassing fear is that of the Franciscan Padre Pio, who died in 1968 and was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002. Reportedly, those who came to Padre Pio to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation were reminded by their confessor of all the transgressions that they were too afraid to admit. Many people, including Padre Pio’s own father, went forth in tears after being absolved of their sins. They had come into the confessional obsessed with the shame of sin and thus lacking faith and confidence in God. Following absolution by Padre Pio, penitents went forth crying tears of joy, liberated by the deep and powerful mercy of the Lord of which a holy yet humble Italian priest was an ideal instrument.


Whether through His disciples, through the Church, or alone, Jesus works miracles for those who believe in Him or who are willing to have their faith increased radically. From within the crowds, a woman who had been suffering from a flow of blood for twelve years approached Jesus and touched the tassel of His cloak. The tassels worn on men’s cloaks in Jesus’ time represented adherence to Jewish law. (cf. Matthew 23:5, Numbers 15:38-39, Deuteronomy 22:12) The woman risked not only making her own ritual impurity widely known, but also passing on her uncleanliness to Jesus through physical contact with Him. (cf. Leviticus 15:19-30). When, as St. Luke writes, “all were denying [having touched Jesus’ cloak]” (Luke 8:45), Christ encouraged the woman to come forward and to explain “in the presence of all the people why she had touched Him and how she had been healed immediately.” (Luke 8:47) Thus, Jesus’ miraculous works were revealed to a large number of people, just as they had been proclaimed in the Decapolis by the Gerasene man who had been freed of His demons.


While Our Lord was still teaching the crowds about the value of faith in understanding miracles, saying to the woman whom he had cured of her hemorrhaging, “Daughter, your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 8:48), a member of Jairus’ household suddenly interrupted Him with the news that the synagogue official’s child had died. Jesus responded with the same message that followed His earlier miracles: “Do not be afraid, just have faith and she will be saved.” (Luke 8:50) Only the Lord’s closest friends, the Apostles Peter, John, and James, accompanied Him to Jairus’ house, wherein the girl had indeed died. There, Jesus had a special message for a select group of people; the larger crowds would not yet have understood its significance, and even those gathered were later instructed “to tell no one what had happened.” (Luke 8:56) Jesus showed Peter, John, James, and the girl’s parents that, as fear gives way to faith, one is capable of greater and more generous acts of service in God’s name. The raising of Jairus’ daughter resulted from the persistence of her family, which believed despite an incomplete comprehension of Jesus’ works and overall mission. In their lack of understanding, they ridiculed Jesus when He said to them, “Do not weep any longer, for she is not dead, but sleeping.” (Luke 8:52) Jesus would again be mocked as he hung on the Cross (cf. Luke 23:35-38), changing our death from sin into a temporary state to be conquered by His death and Resurrection.


Fear, then, must be surpassed by faith through which good works are performed by the grace of God, who is with us and within us. Jesus commands us to share in His miraculous ministry. He says: “Amen, amen, whoever believes in Me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these. And whatever you ask in My name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” (John 14:12)


Lord of Miracles, strengthen our faith that we may work fearlessly according to Your example. You teach us, as in the story of the old woman in Buga, that the smallest acts of kindness are often miracles to those in need, like the debtor on his way to prison. Lord of the Waters, calm all our unnecessary anxiety. Lord over evil, sickness, and death, You call to us as You did to Jairus’ daughter, “Child, arise!” You give us the gift of Yourself as food in the Holy Eucharist, just as you commanded the girl’s parents to give her “something to eat.” (Luke 8:54-55) Dwell within us and, as we share in Your Passion, may You also grant us a share in Your Resurrection and Ascension into Heaven. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord and Saviour, who lives and reigns with the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father. Amen.



Women and Parables- Luke 8:1-21

20 Feb

(NOVEMBER, 1887- ROME, ITALY) Thérèse Martin reflected on the plight of women of her time while retuning from the audience to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the priestly ordination of Pope Leo XIII. Eight years later, Sr. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, OCD, would record her thoughts in her autobiography thus:


“I still cannot understand why women are so easily excommunicated in Italy, for every minute someone was saying: ‘Don’t enter here…Don’t enter there, you will be excommunicated! Ah! Poor women, how they are misunderstood!…


And yet they love God in much larger numbers than men do, and during the Passion of Our Lord, women had more courage than the Apostles since they braved the insults of the soldiers and dared to wipe the adorable face of Jesus…It is undoubtedly because of this that He allows misunderstanding to be their lot on earth, since He chose it for Himself. In Heaven, He will show that His thoughts are not men’s thoughts, for the last will be the first…


More than once during the trip, I hadn’t the patience to wait for Heaven to be the first…” (Ste. Thérèse de Lisieux, Autobiographical Manuscript A, 66vo)


(FEBRUARY, 2008- CALI, COLOMBIA) The seventh chapter of Luke’s Gospel ends with an account of Jesus’ forgiveness of a sinful woman. For three reasons found in Scripture, this woman was particularly bold in coming to Jesus for forgiveness. Firstly, she knew that Jesus was dining in the house of a Pharisee who was not alone in his knowledge of her reputation.(1) Secondly, it was not recommended in Jesus’ time for women to associate with men in public, especially with teachers of the Jewish faith.(2) Thirdly, the woman anointed Jesus’ feet with the contents of an expensive alabaster jar, and then wet Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.(3)


Jesus responded to the woman’s dramatic yet genuine plea for forgiveness with even more extravagant mercy, such that Simon the Pharisee was dumbfounded. Christ reminds us then: “Her sins, which were many, are forgiven, for she loved much, but he who is forgiven little loves little.”(4) Our Lord’s loving forgiveness moves us to love in turn, and the more we are forgiven, the more we experience the presence of God, and the more love is effected.


Throughout Luke’s Gospel, women are often the first to understand Jesus’ message. In St. Luke’s opening chapter, God sends the Archangel Gabriel to Elizabeth and then to Mary, both of whom conceive miraculously. While Zechariah, a righteous priest, and St. Joseph are confounded, the former being silenced for his lack of faith and the latter requiring the presence of “an angel of the Lord” in a dream to reassure him that the child of the Virgin had been conceived “through the Holy Spirit”(5), Elizabeth and Mary realize more quickly that “with God nothing will be impossible.”(6) Mary takes another step forward, pondering in her heart the words of the shepherds, and then of her Son after He is found in the temple.(7)


Following St. Luke’s infancy and childhood narratives, women nearly disappear from the Gospel story. Between chapters 3 and 7, the only woman mentioned by name is Herodias, the wife of Herod Antipas’ brother Philip.(8 ) This near-lack of mention of women for four chapters is noteworthy because Luke, of the four evangelists, is foremost in his inclusion of women, as well as other people who were marginalized in first-century Palestinian society for a variety of reasons, in his telling of the Good News.


Where women are written about in chapters 3 to 7 of the Gospel of Luke, they tend to be afflicted with other problems, such as physical illness,(9) bereavement,(10) and sin.(11) While none of these women are named, Jesus heals them without exception, no matter the infirmity that necessitated Jesus’ presence among them.


Jesus and the twelve Apostles are kept busy in ministry, as St. Luke points out again in the first sentence of Chapter 8. In traveling from one town or village to another, Jesus cannot be burdened with tasks that are extraneous to His main purpose- “proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God.”(12) Therefore, many women travel with Him and with the Twelve, “(providing) for them out of their resources.”(13)


In addition to mentioning the economic contribution of the women to Christ’s itinerant ministry, the Gospel includes details of the former spiritual sicknesses of some of them.(14) Three women are named: “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, (and) Susanna.”(15) Two of these women become especially important later in St. Luke’s account, during the Passion and Resurrection narratives. The Galilean women are identified in general as being present at Jesus’ death and burial,(16) and Mary Magdalene and Joanna, along with Mary, the mother of James, are named in Luke as the first witnesses to the Resurrection.(17)


Other parallels involving women are also integral to St. Luke’s Gospel. For example, the aged prophetess Anna is described in the story of Jesus’ presentation as having “never left the temple…(worshipping) night and day with fasting and prayer.”(18 ) After the presentation of Jesus, Anna breaks forth from her pious secrecy, “(giving) thanks to God and (speaking) about the Child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.”(19) Then Anna is not mentioned again. However, in St. Luke’s account of the burial of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, who also “was awaiting the kingdom of God”(20) as a secret follower of Jesus, picks up where Anna had left off. Anna’s patient and prayerful wait for the Messiah is related to and necessarily precedes the next step whereby Joseph of Arimathea audaciously asks Pontius Pilate for Jesus’ body.(21)


Joseph received the Body of Christ from the Cross and then buried Him in a yet-unused tomb, to where the Galilean women would later return with perfumed oils and spices.(22) Likewise we, the Church, receive the Body of Christ fully present in the Eucharist. The Church boldly asks for Christ’s Body as Jesus Himself taught us:


“Give us this day our daily bread…”(23)


Upon receiving Our Lord’s Glorious Body, hidden in the Communion host as it was by the burial linens, the Church, like Mary after finding the Child in the temple, and like the Galilean women after encountering the Risen Lord, “remembers His words.”(24)


One might easily dedicate an entire article to the short passage in Luke 8 about the Galilean women and to the parallels related to those verses elsewhere in the Gospels. However, the Lucan Gospel’s inclusion of the women relates especially to the parables of the Sower and of the Lamp in the same chapter. Women, in the Gospel as well as throughout the history and tradition of the Church, are a kind of parable in and of themselves. The Church herself, designated often by feminine pronouns and metaphors such as the Bride of Christ,(25) is in the same way a parable or a collection of parables. A parable can be defined as a story that “either reveals or conceals divine mysteries, depending upon one’s faith and disposition.” (S. Hahn and C. Mitch, Ignatius Study Bible, The Gospel of Luke, Notes on Luke 8:4) Such has been the story and such is one main function of the Church.


Of the two parables in Luke 8, that of the sower is arguably best-known. The Gospel reads thus:


“‘A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path and was trampled, and the birds of the sky ate it up. Some seed fell on rocky ground, and when it grew, it withered for lack of moisture. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. And some seed fell on good soil, and when it grew, it produced fruit a hundredfold.’ After saying this, He called out, ‘Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear.’”(26)


As Jesus explains later to His disciples, ‘to hear’ has more than only one meaning. Those on the path, according to the parable of the sower, receive the Word of God, but Satan hastens to take it away as quickly as it is heard.(27) Some hear the Word and indeed it produces a short-lived response of joy, but these people on rocky ground easily lose their faith “in time of trial.”(28 ) The thorns in the parable represent the material, worldly desires which prevent a deeper understanding of the Word of God.(29) Therefore, the faith of these people is also short-lived. However, when the seed that is the Word(30) is sown in rich soil- in “generous and good hearts”, faith grows and spreads “through perseverance.”(31)


Jesus speaks of perseverance as an essential aspect of allowing the Word of God to take root within us. This theme reappears later in the Gospel of Luke, especially in the Parable of the widow and of the unjust judge, and in Jesus’ teachings on persistence in prayer.(32) Following the parable of the sower, Our Lord continues in this mode of teaching with the parable of the lamp. Again, the main purpose of the parables- to reveal or to conceal divine mysteries, depending upon the quality of the approach of the faithful-is emphasized. Jesus reminds us:


“There is nothing hidden that will not become visible, and nothing secret that will not be known and come to light. Take care, then, on how you hear.”(33)


Christ thus challenges us again on the quality of our ‘hearing’. As in the last verse of His parable of the sower, Jesus asks us to hear, not purely sensorily, but also to interiorize and then to act upon the Gospel message with generosity and with goodness from the heart. Therefore, ‘to hear’, in this sense, is nearly synonymous with the great commandment ‘to love’.(34)


Hearing, thus loving, involves three steps: the first is to hear with our ears- the strict definition of hearing. The second is to contemplate, and the third is to act. It is possible to join the latter two steps into a single concept; St. Ignatius Loyola once spoke of “contemplation in action”. Nonetheless, Jesus warns us not to stop at the initial, entirely sensory, stage. Otherwise, Satan will remove the word of God from those who think they have heard it but have neither contemplated it nor acted upon it.


Jesus’ caution toward us, “To anyone who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he seems to have will be taken away”,(35) is ominous, especially after having heard the Beatitudes, wherein Jesus blesses those who have little and promises a reversal of their fortunes in Heaven.(36) However, in the concluding verse of the parable of the lamp, Jesus refers not to material possessions, but to our faith. His exhortation is recalled later in Scripture. For example, St. Peter writes:


“Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith.”(37)


Faithful resistance to the power of Satan, that is, proper hearing of the Word of God, must begin in the home. Therefore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Sec. 2204) cites the family as “the domestic Church.” After the two parables of Chapter 8, St. Luke then pertinently records Jesus’ discourse on the family. Herein, Jesus extends the family unit beyond simple heredity. When the crowds approach Our Lord and tell Him, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside and they wish to see you,”(38 ), they are speaking not only of His immediate family, but of His extended relatives also. In Jesus’ time, ‘brothers’, translated from several Semitic languages, meant male children of the same parents as well as nephews, cousins, half-brothers, and occasionally close friends.(39)


Questions related to this passage as to who is included in Jesus’ family arise mainly as a challenge to the traditional Catholic insistence on the perpetual virginity of Mary. These questions merely distract one from the key message delivered by the Lord here: His family includes all “those who hear the word of God and act on it.”(40) Thus, this teaching relates back to Jesus’ earlier instructions on hearing the word, which were discussed earlier in this article.


Particularly, though, St. Luke is less clear than St. Mark in portraying Jesus as the “son of Mary”(41), perhaps because of the earlier Lucan presentation of Mary as the one chosen and purified by God in order to bear His Son:


“For He has looked upon His handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on all ages (will) call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is His name.”(42)


The Gospels of Mark and of Luke, in different ways, both present the mother as the foremost religious teaching figure in the family. In Jewish society at the time, family descent and inheritance was traced back according to the father and his male predecessors. In faith, St. Mark breaks most radically from this tradition by identifying Jesus as the “son of Mary”(43), implying that Jesus’ inheritance, and indeed His very being, is that of God the Father.


Women in first-century Palestine were responsible for teaching their faith to their children in the home, mainly through oral tradition. Furthermore, regardless of the father’s religious background, the religion adopted by the children was generally that of the mother, whose role was therefore of great dignity, although it was largely hidden and often misunderstood.


Little has changed since then in much of the world regarding the position of women, who are frequently the most disadvantaged and socially neglected. Women are the heads of single-parent households more often than men, and are more deeply affected worldwide by poverty, war, hunger, and disease. This is especially true in less-developed countries such as Colombia. Here, governments do little to protect the poor, the sick, and the dying, and formal education, taken for granted in richer countries, is unavailable to many. About two weeks ago, I was speaking with the psychologist, who practices her English while I learn Spanish, in the school where I teach French and English. During one such conversation, a woman entered the room with her two children, who are students at the school. Later, I discovered that their mother was HIV-positive. Sadly, the children will eventually be left without a mother. On another occasion, I accompanied two Basilian priests on a visit to a barrio served by our parish named La Playa, on the bank of the Rio Cali, which is so poor and forgotten that it does not appear on most maps of the city. There, men sift the mud on the riverbed, earning nearly nothing for hard labour, while families live in shacks that fail to keep out contaminated rainwater during storms.


There is hope nevertheless amid so much suffering. The woman with HIV is able to provide her children with an education while she is still living, and the people in La Playa smile and greet visitors in their rutted, garbage-strewn dirt streets. This is the hope and courage that Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux spoke about just over 110 years ago. Women and families suffer most, just as they did in Thérèse’s time, and in Jesus’ time. Their suffering is hidden, but must not be forgotten. Just as the heart tirelessly pumps blood through the body, sustaining life though it is hidden by flesh and bone, women sustain and give life to the family and to the Church. When women and families suffer, so does the entire Church, but amid suffering and misunderstanding, a quiet but active life-force sustains the body of Christ. This militant courage of women- that, as Ste. Thérèse writes, which drove St. Veronica “to wipe the adorable face of Jesus” on the Way of the Cross- is the militant courage of Mother Church.


Finally, Ste. Thérèse cites Christ’s teaching to His disciples: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”(44) Then she humourously observes, “I hadn’t the patience to wait for Heaven to be the first…”


As women and families suffer, the entire Church suffers, yet her Saviour takes her Cross upon Himself. As the Church, we courageously approach Jesus to wipe His face amid the insults and the indifference of the soldiers of this world, and He gives us His image of authentic humanity and divinity to guide us toward the triumph of Heaven. Christ shows us the road to salvation by means of women and of the family. Like women and families, the Church is a kind of parable; if, both in contemplation and in action, the Church acts as a united body both suffering and militant, she will, in Christ’s name, be triumphant.


We pray that Christ will continue to help His Church to offer her hidden and public trials, and to act with courage in a world that often fails to hear the Gospel. Jesus, guide us toward the triumph you have prepared for those whom you love. Amen.


I conclude with a prayer for the intercession of St. Mary, Blessed Virgin Mother of God, first among women, and first disciple of Jesus. In Latin, this prayer is known as the Sub Tuum, and is prayed in the Basilian community where I am currently living in Cali following the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours or after other meetings in the house. Thus I wish to end this article with this beautiful petition in Latin, in English, in French, and then in Spanish:


Sub Tuum praesidium confugimus,

Sancta Dei Genitrix,

Nostras deprecaciones ne despicias in necessitabus nostris,

Sed a periculis cunctis libera nos semper,

Virgo Gloriosa et Benedicta.


We fly to your protection,

O Holy Mother of God.

Despise not our prayers and our necessities,

But deliver us from all danger,

O Ever-Glorious and Blessed Virgin.


Sous l’abri de ta miséricorde, nous nous réfugions,

Sainte Mère de Dieu.

Ne méprise pas nos prières quand nous sommes dans l’épreuve,

mais de tous les dangers délivre-nous toujours,

Vierge Glorieuse et Bienheureuse.


Bajo tu amparo nos acogemos,

Santa Madre de Dios.

No desprecias las suplicas que te dirigimos en nuestras necesidades;

Antes bien líbranos de todo peligro,

Oh Virgen Gloriosa y Bendita.








(1) cf. Luke 7:37, 39

(2) cf. John 4:27

(3) cf. Luke 7:44

(4) Luke 7:48

(5) Matthew 1:20

(6) Luke 1:37

(7) cf. Luke 2:19, 51.

(8 ) cf. Luke 3:19

(9) cf. Luke 4:38-39

(10) cf. Luke 7:11-17

(11) cf. Luke 7:36-50

(12) Luke 8:1

(13) Luke 8:3

(14) cf. Luke 8:2

(15) Luke 8:2-3

(16) cf. Luke 23:49, 55

(17) cf. Luke 24:10

(18 ) Luke 2:37

(19) Luke 2:38

(20) Luke 23:51

(21) cf. Luke 23:52

(22) cf. Luke 23:53-55.

(23) Matthew 6:11, Luke 11:3

(24) Luke 24:8

(25) cf. Ephesians 5:25-32, 2 Corinthians 11:2, and Revelation 19:7

(26) Luke 8:5-8

(27) cf. Luke 8:12

(28 ) Luke 8:13

(29) cf. Luke 8:14

(30) cf. Luke 8:11

(31) Luke 8:15

(32) cf. Luke 18:1-8; Luke 11:1-13.

(33) Luke 8:17-18

(34) cf. Mark 12:30-31

(35) Luke 8:18

(36) cf. Luke 6:20-23

(37) 1 Peter 5:8-9

(38 ) Luke 8:20

(39) cf. Mark 6:3 and related notes, New American Bible, Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1970.

(40) Luke 8:21

(41) Mark 6:3

(42) Luke 1:48-49

(43) Mark 6:3

(44) Mark 9:35

Preparing the Way of the Messiah- Luke 7:18-50

10 Jan

Señor, abre mis labios,
Y mi boca proclamará tu alabanza.

Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth shall proclaim your praise.

Those words signal the beginning of the Invitatory Psalm in the Liturgy of the Hours, or the Divine Office, which is prayed daily by Catholic priests and religious as well as by many laypersons. As I wrote the initial draft of this article on the airplane and eventually on my way to serve in Cali, Colombia, I remembered that verse, one of the first that I learned in Spanish through my practice of the Office, and that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, gives praise to God immediately upon having his lips opened at the birth of his son. (cf. Luke 1:64)

Following this, Zechariah delivers his canticle that is also recited and called the Benedictus (Latin for blessed) during the Liturgy of the Hours, in Morning Prayer, or Lauds. The righteous priest and husband of Elizabeth prophesies thus about the newborn John:

“You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His path, to give His people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:76-79)

John the Baptist then fades from the scene in Luke’s Gospel, not to be mentioned until briefly in Chapter 3, and then not again until Chapter 7. Nonetheless, several themes carry over from the Benedictus in order to prepare the reader for the reappearance of John the Baptist in Luke 7 and to properly integrate the story of St. John into the more important account of the life of Jesus Christ. In my previous article on the Lucan Gospel, about Jesus’ healing of the centurion’s slave at Capernaum and about His raising of the widow’s son at Nain, I wrote about the role of a prophet, who is characteristically truthful, humble and compassionate. Jesus is therefore the ideal prophet, yet He is more than that, (cf. Luke 7:26) though He is often derided as solely a prophet or as only the son of a carpenter. (cf. Luke 7:16, 4:22)

John the Baptist’s father is the first person in the Gospel of Luke to prophesy. (cf. Luke 1:67) In his praise to God for John’s birth, Zechariah highlights the necessary traits of a person of God. Besides prophecy, holy people are set apart by child-like humility and recognition of their role before God. Thus, as he calls John, “child”, Zechariah might as well be calling us to be the forerunners of the Messiah, who first came to us as a delicate newborn. Christ, we believe, will come again. It is therefore our joyous responsibility as Christians “to prepare His path” and to spread the Good News with renewed fervour, giving “knowledge of salvation” to all. The themes of tenderness, of mercy, of light in the midst of darkness, of redemption and resurrection from death, and of peace are all found in the Benedictus and enter the foreground in our renewed encounter with John, followed by Jesus’ pardon of the sinful woman in the Pharisee’s home. (cf. Luke 7:18-50)

Following Jesus’ miracle at Nain, a small Galilean village mentioned only once in the Bible, those present sensed the presence of Emmanuel; God is “among us”, having “visited His people!” (Luke 7:16, cf. Matthew 1:23) However, some including John the Baptist, who had been imprisoned for dissent against Herod Antipas, a cowardly puppet of the Roman occupiers of Palestine, were despairing in their search for the Saviour who was already with us. In this context, John sends two of his disciples to Jesus to ask Him the question: “Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Luke 7:18-20)

Like the centurion before him in Luke’s Gospel, John, who was to be the herald of the Anointed but was about to be beheaded because an evil ruler’s jealous fear, in turn sends messengers ahead of him to speak with Jesus. (cf. Luke 7:3, 19) Even those whose faith is as dauntless as that of John occasionally become discouraged. Christ, then, acts both as teacher and consoler, telling the men who have come before him:

“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, (and) the poor have good news preached to them.” (Luke 7:22)

Jesus thus picks up John’s mission where he left off. Jesus, even more than John, brings hope to a people searching for deliverance, not from the tyranny of the Romans but from the yoke of sin and of death. Yet bringers of hope are often scorned, therefore in His message to John’s followers Jesus includes a blessing upon those “who take no offense at (Him).” (Luke 7:23) Christ confers this blessing upon John’s disciples, as well as upon us, knowing that many will reject Him because of our pre-conceived notions of kingship. Our Lord came to us wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger, instead of manifesting Himself as “a man dressed in fine garments”, living “in luxury” as would an earthly king. (Luke 7:25)

Importantly, then, Jesus’ message is not restricted to the pair of John the Baptist’s followers who come to Him; Jesus turns His attention to the crowds, proceeding to teach them about John’s purpose and then about His own. Christ, whose throne is in Heaven inasmuch as it ought to be prepared in our hearts (cf. Ste. Thérèse de Lisieux, Récréations Pieuses, “Le Divin Mendiant de Noël”, Str.1, 1vº), asks the people who had encountered the Baptist:

“What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind?…What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” (Luke 7:24, 26)

Here, in addition to His re-introduction of the theme of prophecy, Jesus includes a harsh but necessary commentary on the reign of Herod Antipas. Our Lord’s criticism of the king responsible for St. John the Baptist’s eventual martyrdom is veiled in His reed metaphor. (cf. Luke 7:24) The reeds of which Jesus speaks were common in the valley of the River Jordan, where the wind would blow them about. In a deeper sense, this verse is followed by Jesus’ warning about those who dwell “in luxury”. (Luke 7:25)

Herod Antipas had little power in actuality, besides the jurisdiction he had been given by Rome over Tiberias, his capital city, and over surrounding Galilee. Antipas had commissioned the minting of “coins stamped with the emblem of a reed” to mark the anniversary of the founding of Tiberias. (Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, The Gospel of Luke, 7:24) Herod, like the reed blowing in the wind, was easily influenced: Antipas’ malleability and weak character are well-illustrated in legend by his willingness to give his daughter Salome anything she desired, including the head of John the Baptist on a platter, in exchange for a dance performance.

In contrast to Herod Antipas, Jesus lives and preaches a way that leaves no room for compromise. Christ is singularly “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). That way is prepared by John, the bridge between the Old and New Testaments, who is greater than any other prophet and is indeed the greatest “among those born of women”. (Luke 7:28 ) The one who comes as a messenger before the face of the Lord must then be an authentic image of God. (cf. Luke 7:27, Genesis 1:27)

John’s role as a forerunner of the Messiah is thus our role also, since God has made us prophets and more. In fact, humans have been made as little less than gods (cf. Psalm 8:6). In view of this great gift from God to us, humility is a critical yet often under-exercised virtue. Jesus reminds us that even though John the Baptist is the greatest among men other than Christ Himself, he is the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. (cf. Luke 7:29)

We, too, ought to wish to be regarded as the least in Paradise. The divinization of humankind (cf. 2 Peter 1:4) entails our consideration of ourselves as nothing before God. As such, the Lord’s reality absorbs ours completely, and we come into full union with God. (cf. Ste. Thérèse de Lisieux, Ms. B, 3vº) John, a humble man of the wilderness and certainly not a scholar, best understood that paradoxical theology of everythingness and nothingness. St. Luke writes that “all the people and the tax collectors” also understood the association between baptism by John and baptism in the Holy Spirit (cf. Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16), and thus the proper relationship between humanity and God. In rejecting baptism by one sent by God, the “Pharisees and lawyers” reject God in turn. (Luke 7:30, cf. John 12:44-50)

Often times we could aptly be compared to the Pharisees and lawyers of Jesus’ time. Our Lord makes an additional analogy between “the men of (His) generation and children in a marketplace (cf. Luke 7:32) Normally, children are portrayed favourably in Jesus’ teaching, while we are cautioned not to make a marketplace of God’s house. (cf. John 2:16)

A distinction must be made between a child-like and a childish approach to our faith. The first form of spirituality is guided by humility and by love of God, while the second is primarily self-seeking and thus falls short altogether of spirituality in its rightful sense. As in first-century Palestine, in our time we frequently prefer to choose aspects of faithful life best suited to us. We either reject the joyful message of Jesus and of His Kingdom, hence He “piped and we did not dance”, or we reject the more ominous words of John the Baptist that call us to repentance and to reform, hence John “wailed, and (we) did not weep.” (Luke 7:32) Our Catholic faith demands an all-inclusive approach to life and spirituality, as opposed to a pick-and-choose response to our God, who gives entirely of Himself to us out of pure love.

Jesus’ discourse about John in relation to Himself concludes with another criticism of the self-centeredness of the lawmakers, who had challenged Him about John’s fasting and about His own preference for eating in the company of His friends. John is called “a demon”, while Jesus in derided as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34) The Pharisees and lawyers do not realize that Jesus is also their friend. God invites us all to be changed into accurate reflections of Himself and therefore to enter into Heaven as one. (cf. John 17:20-21) The “children of God” who are faithful, loving, and obedient toward the Lord intimately understand this message that is not only directed at scholars, but dwells within us deeply as God’s wisdom by which His disciples are justified. (cf. Luke 7:36)

The theme of God drawing us into Himself is carried over from the story of John the Baptist’s messengers into that of Jesus’ forgiveness at the Pharisee’s house of the “woman of the city.” (Luke 7:37) Jesus not only eats with lowly tax collectors and sinners, but also with proud Pharisees. While the former are drawn to Jesus’ loving forgiveness, the latter fail to recognize Him.

The woman is firstly described in Luke’s Gospel as a sinner. The Pharisee who had invited Jesus, as well as all the guests present, knew her reputation. However, Jesus knew her best and is therefore the greatest prophet, yet again the supposedly knowledgeable people misunderstand Jesus and His prophetic message. In fact, they are even unwilling to acknowledge Him as a prophet. This episode is the third direct mention of prophecy in Luke 7, and is also the first of three instances that St. Luke records of Jesus eating with Pharisees. (cf. Luke 11:37, 14:1) These details about threes are minor but pertinent, especially when one considers the several occurrences in threes in the Scriptures. In the Pharisee’s house, Jesus thus questions Simon the Pharisee:

“A certain creditor had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which one of them will love Him more?” (Luke 7:41-42)

Jesus commends Simon for giving the obvious though correct answer: “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.” (Luke 7:43) However, the woman receives the greatest credit for coming to Jesus. Firstly, she is a woman, and therefore she would have been held in lower esteem than men of her time and place, especially in their company. (cf. Hahn and Mitch) Secondly, she had committed many sins (Luke 7:47), and thirdly she showed incredible hospitality compared to the established customs dating back to Abraham by anointing Jesus’ feet with the contents of an expensive alabaster jar. (cf. Luke 7:37, 44-46, also Genesis 18:4-5)

The woman’s extravagant love is her small response to the merciful love of God which is even more superlative. Thus those who are forgiven much love more than those who are forgiven little, as in the parable of the debtors. Jesus’ absolution of the woman’s sins is met with disbelief on the Pharisee’s part (cf. Luke 7:47-49), but Jesus’ final response of the chapter is, “Your faith has saved you, go in peace.” (Luke 7:50)

That peace that accompanies God’s love for us leaves us speechless on occasion, as Zechariah was silenced for disbelieving that the barren Elizabeth could conceive. (cf. Luke 1:22) The power of the Sacrament of Reconciliation whereby the priest, in the person of Christ, gives absolution to the penitent, whose barren soul then bears fruit, has left me without words in the past. Yet from this silence, our lips are opened, and we proclaim God’s praise for His lavish treatment toward us, while we still remember, as in Zechariah’s Canticle, our own calling to be heralds of the Messiah:

“And you, child, will be called the prophets of the Most High, for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His path…” (Luke 1:76, cf. Luke 7:27)

Y a ti, niño, te llamarán profeta del Altísimo, porque iras delante del rostro del Señor a preparar sus caminos, anunciando a su pueblo la salvación, el perdón de sus pecados.

Por la entrañable misericordia de nuestro Dios, nos visitará el sol que nace de lo alto, para iluminar a los que viven en tiniebla y en sombra de muerte, para guiar nuestros pasos por el camino de la paz. (Lucas 1, 76-79)

Lord Jesus, Your way was prepared by St. John the Baptist. May the light of Your face shine upon us in our wilderness and bring peace, especially upon those who are sick and dying. We come to you out of our silence. Grant us forgiveness for our sins, and then we may announce Your coming again in glory and praise You forever. We ask this in Your name. Amen.


Only Say the Word- Luke 7:1-17

5 Sep

The Sermon on the Plain in Luke’s Gospel ends with Jesus sternly admonishing His disciples to not only call Him “Lord, Lord” (Luke 6:46), but to act according to His teaching. Failure to live the Christian message despite having heard it, Jesus states clearly, will result in “ruin”. (Luke 6:49)

…A sudden change of focus occurs between St. Luke’s controversy narratives (cf. Luke 5:12 to 6:11) and the Sermon on the Plain. (cf. Luke 6:17-49) Similarly, Luke shifts from the Sermon on the Level Place into the stories of Jesus’ healing of the centurion’s servant and of the raising of the widow’s son at Nain. The change in setting here is most obvious; Jesus learns of the illness of the centurion’s slave when He arrives at Capernaum. This Galilean city is mentioned twice previously in Luke’s Gospel. In the first instance, Jesus speaks of it as He senses the lack of faith of His fellow Nazarenes in God’s promise of a Messiah:

“He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’’” (Luke 4:23)

Remarkably, St. Luke records this reference to Capernaum by Our Lord before writing about Jesus’ first visit there, which occurs in Luke 4:31. While the Gospel of Luke was not designed to be simply a chronological account, and therefore Jesus may have journeyed to Capernaum before traveling to Nazareth, the Gospel writer did wish “to set down an orderly account” of the life of Christ. (Luke 1:1) However, the order intended by St. Luke is conveyed more in his Gospel’s message than in individual instances. Thus, the mention of Capernaum prior to any description of Jesus going there happens for a reason. Possibly, Luke was attempting to teach early Christians the virtue of faith in that which had not yet occurred, just as Jesus renewed in the synagogue at Nazareth the prophet Isaiah’s proclamation of “the year of the Lord’s favour” that was just beginning to be fulfilled in and by Himself. (Isaiah 61:2, cf. Luke 4:19) Our Messiah made salvation available to the righteous, while extending the same opportunity to those who would rebel against His message.

Throughout the Gospels, Capernaum is symbolic of such rebellion and infidelity. Other than Nazareth (cf. John 1:46), few cities in Jesus’ time had a worse reputation than that of Capernaum. This centre of wickedness drew a harsh reprimand from Jesus, in an incident that is recorded on both Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels. (cf. Luke 10:15 and Matthew 11:23) The depravity of Capernaum, among the other places listed, is compared with that of Sodom, of Tyre, and of Sidon. Jesus, though, had not performed powerful deeds of those cities. Thus, Capernaum’s punishment for its failure to repent would be worse than the reprisal against cities that not been given an equal chance to see the power of God at work.

The Gospels of Sts. Luke and Mark both register one such deed by Christ at Capernaum- the healing of the man with an evil spirit. (cf. Luke 4:31 and Mark 1:21) Both Gospels chronicle this event early in Jesus’ ministry, and in both cases Jesus performs this exorcism upon His first documented visit to Capernaum. Then, of course, the narrative of the healing of the centurion’s servant at Capernaum, or a similar story, is found in three of the Gospels: in Matthew (8:5-13), in Luke (7:1-10), and in John (4:46-54). Unlike the Synoptic Gospel accounts, though, John describes the man whose son, as opposed to his servant, is ill as “a royal official”. (John 4:46) That official asks Jesus directly to heal his son, who is said to be “at the point of death”. (John 4:47) In Luke’s Gospel, delegations are sent to Jesus to tell Him about the centurion’s ailing servant, whereas Matthew writes of a direct conversation between Jesus and the centurion. Despite these differences between the Gospels, the message about maintaining faith in that which is yet unseen remains intact, and the situation of this story at Capernaum by all three Gospel writers is a constant.

Even though Jesus focused many great deeds on cities like Capernaum, as many of the people living in these places seemed incorrigible. Therefore, Jesus necessarily became angry with them. For example, St. John writes of Jesus overturning the money changers’ tables and freeing the animals in the temple. (cf. John 2:13-25) I remember my father’s citation of this story when I, as a child, inquired as to when, if ever, anger was appropriate. Dad responded that he could recall only a few times, the cleansing of the temple among them, where Jesus had become furious. In fact, the Psalmist characterizes God as “slow to anger” (Psalm 86:15), while the book of Sirach describes “anger and wrath” as “abominations”. (Sirach 27:30)

The latter passage reminds me of a homily delivered by my current spiritual director some time ago. He referred to that verse from Sirach by asking, “What is an abomination?” Just then, a cellular telephone rang out in the chapel. The priest’s expression suddenly became stern, and then he said with his usual wry sense of humour that drew laughs from the congregation, “THAT is an abomination!” Cellular phones aside, anger becomes sinful if one is unwilling to forgive the object of his or her wrath. Grudges impair one’s judgment and one’s ability to love and to be compassionate toward one’s neighbour. Thus, Jesus’ anger is always tempered by pastoral sensitivity toward His people. The same is true in places like Capernaum, where Our Lord shared some of His most important teachings.

On the road to Capernaum, the Apostles were beset by the widely-known ills of their destination, particularly by that of self-righteousness. The twelve, according to St. Mark, fought amongst themselves to decide who was the greatest. Jesus called them together and taught them: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) Then Jesus placed a child amid the Apostles in order to reinforce His lesson: “Whoever welcomes one such child in My name welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me welcomes not Me but the One who sent Me.” (Mark 9:37)

St. John records yet another of Jesus’ teachings in the same city, one which even His closest followers find difficult. The Lord, emphasizing the gift of His entirety to us, said, “I am the living bread that comes down from Heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is My flesh…Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:51, 53) This incident, along with nearly all of John 6, takes place in or near Capernaum. After the feeding of the five thousand beside the Sea of Tiberias (cf. v.1-15), Jesus took solitary refuge on a mountain while His disciples traveled across the sea. St. John describes the disciples as “terrified” (v.19) when a storm arose over the water. Furthermore, darkness had fallen by the time Jesus appeared, walking on water toward the disciples and saying, “It is I, do not be afraid.” (v. 21, cf. v.17) However, despite the eventuality of God’s abundant consolation, we almost invariably experience episodes of fear and possibly of a deeper inward darkness of the soul. Like the crowds on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, we find ourselves in search of Jesus, often when He is closest to us, standing “on the other side of the sea”. (John 6:24-25)

The centurion in Luke’s Gospel represents one who searches for Jesus in faith and in humility. His example is worth emulating. As I noted previously, the centurion didn’t meet Jesus directly in the Gospel of Luke. Instead, he sent two delegations, one comprised of Jewish elders and the other presumably made up of Gentiles, to alert Jesus to the plight of his slave. (cf. Luke 7:3, 6) Although he was employed by the occupying Romans and although he didn’t share the religion of the majority of Israelites, the centurion was respected by persons of many backgrounds. The Jewish elders first told Jesus of the centurion’s love for them that was shown by his building of their synagogue. (cf. Luke 7:5) Afterward, the centurion, speaking through his friends, admitted that he commanded both slaves and fellow soldiers, who obeyed him well:

“I say to one, ‘Go’, and he goes, and to another, ‘Come’, and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this’, and the slave does it.” (Luke 7:8 )

As much as the centurion had authority, though, he was also “a man set under authority”. (Luke 7:8 ) Likewise, Jesus Christ, despite having ultimate authority over His Creation, places Himself at our command. Accordingly, the centurion’s friends approached Him with reverence. Though the centurion recognized his own power over his soldiers and slaves, he relayed these words to the Son of God:

“Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” (Luke 7:7)

Upon hearing the centurion’s plea, Jesus healed the slave, who was found to be healthy by those who returned to the centurion’s house. (cf. Luke 7:10) Jesus responded to the words of the centurion in amazement, according to the Gospel: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (Luke 7:9)

Just as Jesus humbled Himself to come to the centurion’s assistance, He “emptied Himself” for us. (Philippians 2:7) Our Saviour gave Himself up to death on a Cross, and He offers His complete being to us in the perpetual gift of the Eucharist. During the Mass, when the priest lifts the host before us, we therefore echo the words of the centurion, praying for the remission of our own sins as well as for the forgiveness of the transgressions of our brothers and sisters: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

On the eve of the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary this year, August 14, I visited a prominent site about an hour’s drive from Edmonton called Skaro. I was accompanied by Mom and by my Godmother. Many Polish and Ukrainian immigrants to central Alberta established farms and small communities like Skaro, so the annual pilgrimage there is an important cultural event. Vespers (Evening Prayer) in Polish was followed by Mass in English. During Mass, the priest repeated the centurion’s humble pronouncement with conviction that I found reminiscent of the fervor of St. John Chrysostom (c.347-407), the “golden-tongued” Bishop and Doctor of the Church. (cf. Fr. John Laux, Church History, 1989)

“Domine, non sum dignus…” My father reminded me when I was preparing for my First Communion to mean these words deeply as I repeated them. We are truly never worthy to receive Christ, yet during Mass Christ responds to our plea for healing as He did to the centurion. He makes Himself even more vulnerable than a newborn child, giving Himself to us in the form of bread and wine.

God indeed troubles Himself in such a way to come to us, so that we might then be like Christ to the world. As we celebrate the Eucharist, our invocation of the Word is not in vain, as it is from those who cry, “Lord, Lord”, but do not follow Jesus’ teaching. We await the greater wonder of our rising to eternal life. Jesus foreshadowed His power to conquer death when He raised the widow’s son at Nain. Jesus’ first words to the widow whose only son had died were: “Do not weep”. (Luke 7:13) In the same verse, St. Luke notes the Lord’s compassion toward the widow. One who bears the image of Christ- an alter-Christus- can be characterized by empathy toward the suffering. Compassion is one of the foremost marks of a true prophet.

In the story of the raising of the widow’s son, Luke reveals a valuable commentary on prophecy. The Gospel writer refers throughout this narrative to the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha, who both raised young men back to life. In Elijah’s case, the man who was raised was also the son of a widow (cf. 1 Kings 17:17-24), whereas the man raised by Elisha was the only child of a wealthy Shunammite woman and of her elderly husband. (cf. 2 Kings 4:8-37) Upon summoning the men from the dead, both Elijah and Elisha are greatly praised by the mothers whose sons had come to life again. The same is true of Jesus, who is lauded by the crowd: “‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favourably on His people!’” (Luke 7:16) Of course, “word about Him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country” (Luke 7:17), but prophecy entails something more than simply being reputed among the masses.

Jesus is both a prophet and more than a prophet, and He calls us also to be prophets, and yet something more than prophets. He places Himself in our hands, just as He gave the woman’s son to her at Nain after raising him from the grave. We go forth from the Eucharist having received Jesus fully, though we count ourselves among the unworthy.

“Behold, this is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world…” Eternal Word, you call to us as you spoke to the widow’s son at Nain: “I say to you, rise!” (Luke 7:14) Only say the word, then, and we shall be healed. Lord, forgive us our sins and save us from death so that on the Last Day we may we rise with You to the everlasting joy of Heaven. Amen.


On Judging to the Two Foundations- Luke 6:37-49

27 Jul

Jesus’ Sermon on the Level Place (cf. Luke 6) begins with His teaching about blessings and woes. This discourse is not intended to be a criticism of any particular social class or of the class system of first-century Palestine in general. Instead, the point is that in Heaven there will be no favourites. The saints were all created by God for the same reason: love- of God and of neighbour- no matter where they lived or what their socio-economic status was. Therefore all in Heaven live in perfect equality in the oneness of the Lord. God will humble those who were rich and never lacked for anything earthly, and those who lived in sorrow-filled exile will receive a greater abundance of joy in life everlasting.

Luke’s Gospel instructs us that our love must also extend toward our enemies: those who curse us, who are abusive, who take our belongings from us, or who do not return our kindness with kind actions of their own. This section ends with a more concrete message: we are set apart by our mercy unto others that mirrors that of the Father. Jesus tells us: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36) But human clemency regularly falls short of that of God. We prefer to show mercy conditionally, often when this is convenient. Few are willing, though, to risk their reputation or their life for another, yet Jesus did just that for us. He loves us more than we know, though we never give the full measure of that love in return to Him. We therefore deserve to be admonished as were the first disciples:

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.” (Luke 6:37)

This passage ought to be one of the easiest to comprehend. Seemingly, its meaning is quite literal. But one must also put Jesus’ criticism and instruction of His followers here within its wider Scriptural context; much of the Sermon on the Level Place focuses on economic issues. For example, the blessings and woes compare those who have plenty of food, of money, and of human consolation to those who possess less of these. Persons who are joyful and thankful for what they have, no matter their socio-economic situation or their outward passion toward their faith, are better disposed already to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than those, especially the materially rich, who are glum and ungrateful. Much of Jesus’ exhortation to love our enemies (cf. Luke 6:29-30, also v. 33, from “What credit is that to you?”, to v. 35, “Do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”) is also centered on the economy and on fair trading practices. The disciples are limited by the custom of receiving a just exchange for that which they have given or sold. This is a normal and acceptable mindset even nowadays; when something is sold, we expect to receive proper payment for our goods and labour, and when we are sold goods or services, we anticipate being charged the correct amount and receiving accurate change. Jesus, though, asks more of His disciples than this strict give-and-receive approach. The theme of basic economics continues in Our Lord’s address on judgment and condemnation of others.

Arguably, Jesus intends an economic message in verses 37 and 38. Most recent Biblical translations, including my own New Revised Standard Version, read: “Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.” However, the original Koine (common) Greek word in St. Luke’s Gospel from which the word ‘forgive’ is derived is ‘απολυετε’ (pronounced ‘apolyein’). According to Franciscan Robert J. Karris in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary*, ‘απολυετε’ means to pardon or to release another specifically from financial debt. Thus the interpretation of this word as signifying the forgiveness of wrongdoing is improper, writes Karris. This position differs from the more literal view offered by Fred Craddock, for instance, whose book in the ‘Interpretation’ series I’ve been referring to in my articles on the Gospel of Luke.

Karris’ argument that Jesus’ teachings about judgment, condemnation, and mercy fit the economic theme of most of the Sermon on the Level Place is more plausible, especially when one considers the following verse, “give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6:38 ) Here, Jesus is assuring His adherents that they will receive full recompense and more for their good works and fairness in trade dealings.

Verse 38 reminds me of when Mom bought her first bread machine. As a young child, I enjoyed helping Mom bake bread, while I experimented with different types of loaves. Not much has changed insofar as my keenness toward baking bread, especially since that old machine now resides at my house. Mom used to remind me regularly to measure accurately and not to pack the dry ingredients down, otherwise the loaf would be either too large or too small. It suffices to say that I would fail to listen to my mother on occasion, and absent-mindedly would squeeze as much flour into the measuring cup as I could instead of simply leveling it off with the flat side of a knife. As a result, the loaf would either not rise properly, or the attempt to add extra yeast to compensate would create a horrendous mess that would overflow from the pot inside the machine.

God’s overflowing blessings and mercy given to humankind are loosely analogous to those episodes with the bread machine, thankfully none of which I can recall ending up in my lap. St. Luke, writing to a largely Gentile audience about forty years after Jesus’ death, highlighted the continuous tension between mercy and justice, especially as these characteristics applied to God. Early Christians struggled in coming to terms with people who would do much evil but would be financially or otherwise successful. Was God, in His mercy, holding such people to no account for their dishonest behaviour? Meanwhile, those innocent of wrongdoing were regularly treated in unfair ways. Notably, at the time Luke wrote, Jewish people who were still anticipating a Messiah- understood as a political or military leader who would oust the Romans from Israel- experienced the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. God’s mercy seemed to clash with His justice in several instances, so people would take matters into their own hands. If God weren’t judging evildoers harshly enough, human justice would adequately fill the void.

In that context, St. Luke reminds us of Jesus’ teaching that God will judge us as we judge other people. If we condemn others, God will condemn us. However, if we show mercy, God will not only return our mercy when He accounts for our merits and our faults, but in His love He will shower us with more leniency than we are capable of imagining.

Importantly, Jesus doesn’t say or imply in Luke 6:37-42 that our judgment of fellow human beings is always inappropriate. On the contrary, His message is more about honesty: one must be at least as quick in holding one’s self accountable as in criticizing another’s faults. Otherwise, one might miss one’s own faults that could be greater than those of one’s neighbour, hence the parable about blindness toward the log in one’s own eye while one attempts to remove the speck from another person’s eye. (cf. Luke 6: 41-42) Nonetheless, Jesus’ teaching about judgment of others is often misinterpreted as a prohibition of judgment altogether. Yet St. Paul writes of humankind and then of the law as “a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3) Therefore, the Law of Christ lives deeply within us, and it is our responsibility to discern and to be faithful to it. In so doing we must be able to judge right from wrong.

Without adherence to a universal Truth, we risk falling into normative** moral relativism, where judging the practices of other societies is considered incorrect. This may progress toward subjectivism, where it becomes improper to compare other individuals’ moral standards with one’s own or against those of each other. At best, both normative relativism and subjectivism are self-referentially incoherent positions. In other words, one cannot consider judging the correctness of different moral principles of groups or individuals to be wrong; that in itself requires making a judgment. Thus, relativism is easily defeated on logical grounds. Even more critically, as written by Jean-Bethke Elshtain, an ethicist at the University of Chicago, moral relativism creates a society dependent upon what individuals ‘feel’ to be true. Such a position is opposed to moral accountability and potentially creates a society of ‘victims’ who place blame on other persons and make excuses for their own failures. Elshtain wrote that “the elimination of the possibility of judgment, the evacuation of the very capacity of judging, would spell the end of the human subject as a self-respecting, accountable being. Judging is a sign, a mark, of our respect for the dignity of others and ourselves.” Proper judgment has its place, according to Elshtain: “‘Judge not’ is, then, not an injunction to spineless acceptance but a caution against peremptory legalisms that leave no space for acts of compassion and witness.” (Jean-Bethke Elshtain, “Judge Not?”, in “First Things”, October, 1994, available at

After His warning about hasty judgment by His disciples, Jesus sets up two further comparisons that St. Luke records: that of a tree and its fruit (cf. Luke 43-45), and that of the two foundations (cf. Luke 46-49). St. Matthew also mentions both discourses, as well as Jesus’ restriction on imprudent judgment (cf. Matthew 7:15-20, 21-27, and 1-5, respectively), although he scatters these stories throughout the larger context of the Sermon on the Mount. Conversely, Luke places all three teachings together, likely following the “Q” document (“Q” is short for the Greek “quelle”, or “source”), from which the Synoptic Gospels were drawn, more closely.

Our Lord teaches, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks”. (Luke 6:45) The priest whom I credit for inspiring me to read the Gospel of Luke attentively, and to a lesser extent to write about it, has said that one’s actions bear witness to the condition of one’s soul. This is similar to Christ’s words here. Jesus shapes His instruction around an agrarian metaphor- that of trees and the fruit they carry. Different plants, whether in this case the fig tree or the grape vine, produce different fruits. Thorns and bramble bushes are incapable of allowing for the growth of grapes or figs. Likewise, each of us has a particular temperament. Some people are naturally more serene, whereas persons like me tend to be passionate and slightly impatient at times. Nonetheless, our personalities are gifts from God that are meant to be employed for His glorification. God invites us to use our strengths and to offer up our weaknesses in contrite prayer to Him.

This involves not only confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord, but also acting upon our belief. (cf. Luke 6:46). Otherwise, any confession of faith we make is meaningless. St. Paul’s letters to the Romans and to the Philippians emphasize that:

“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9) “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in Heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father…for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2: 10-11, 13)

Working with God, we will be able to withstand the flood that will destroy dwellings without foundations. We will have built houses founded upon the rock of charity within us, with Christ as the cornerstone; therefore we need never be afraid of the ruin of our souls. (cf. Luke 6:48-49)

Lord, may we confess our allegiance to You and also act upon our faith. Enable us to open our hearts to you and to our neighbour. May charity, mercy, and honesty toward ourselves and others always surpass our desire to rush to judgment. May we be just and true as You are. Amen.



*- I refer in this article to Robert J. Karris, O.F.M. in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond S. Brown, S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J, and Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc., 1990, p. 695.

**-In philosophy, a normative statement is one that prescribes what one ought or ought not to do, for example, “Do not judge”. This differs from a descriptive statement, whereby one conveys an observation, for example, “Jesus’ disciples were corrected because of their hasty judgment of other people.”