Tag Archives: Gospel of Luke

Serving with Our Whole Being- Reflection for Mass of September 16, 2011

16 Sep

Friday, September 16, 2011
Memorial of St. Cornelius, Pope and Martyr, and St. Cyprian, Bishop and Martyr
Readings: 1 Timothy 6:2c-12; Psalm 45:5-6, 7-9, 16-17, 18-19 (R: see Matthew 5:3); Luke 8:1-3

As a Basilian Associate teaching high school French and English at Instituto Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (INSA) in Cali, Colombia, three years ago, when I would teach the last class period of the day, there would not be much time between the end of my class and Evening Prayer in the house. I certainly did not have enough time then to prepare lesson plans or to grade homework. I did have just enough time to clear my mind after teaching before walking across the schoolyard to the house for silent reflection before Evening Prayer with our community there.

Before proceeding to the house, I would stop in regularly to speak with the school’s psychologist, who had become a good friend of mine. She would practice her English with me, while I would speak to her in Spanish. During one of our conversations, a woman came to greet the psychologist. She had two of her children, students at INSA, in tow. The mother and children smiled brightly, sharing what was clearly a joyful moment with the psychologist. When they left the room, the psychologist turned to me and said, “You wouldn’t know this by what you just saw, but the woman who was here is a single mother with HIV.”

Sadly, this story is not unique in the apostolate we Basilians serve in Cali. In addition to poverty and diseases such as HIV-AIDS, rates of substance abuse and violence are extremely high. Women are frequently the single parents; the poorest of the poor; the abused; those who serve their communities most eagerly, and often serve us with the deepest reminders of the ills of a society and of the socially-ingrained sin of the world[1] on one hand, and of profound joy and charity amid these ills and sin on the other.

Of the four evangelists, Luke arguably pays most attention to the social position of women of his time.[2] When the story I just recounted occurred, I was writing a reflection on the passage we hear in today’s Gospel, the first three verses of Chapter 8 of Luke. These verses break from the narrative before it of the sinful woman in the Pharisee’s house[3] (although, significantly, that story also centers upon a woman and Jesus), and the Parable of the Sower directly after it.[4] Luke introduces characters as though he will continue with a story about Jesus, the women, the Twelve, and the unnamed “many others.”[5] However, at least in the case of the women, two of them, Mary Magdalene and Joanna– if this is even the same person as in Luke 8– are only named in one other place in this Gospel, at the empty tomb along with Mary, mother of James, in its resurrection narrative.[6] Susanna is mentioned in Luke only in the passage we hear today.

Luke tells us so little about “Mary, called Magdalene,”[7] Joanna, and Susanna. We know that Mary had been healed of “seven demons,” a grave spiritual infirmity,[8] and that Joanna had marital ties to Herod’s court.[9] Yet there is so much in so little in this passage. Indeed, I am drawn to just two words. First, in English, Mary, Joanna, and Susanna, among “many others,” are said to have “provided for Jesus and the Twelve out of their resources.”[10] The Greek word in this sentence for provided is διηκόνουν, a conjugated form of the verb διακονέω (di-a-ko-ne’-o).[11] We derive the English word “deacon” from διακονέω. This is not to say that the women in today’s Gospel reading were engaging in institutionally-ordained diaconal ministry; this meaning of “deacon” is anachronistic to the Biblical context. However, these women were engaging in important service (διακονία)[12] in the nascent Church at a time when lively debate among Jewish and Judeo-Christian leaders was taking place about the role of women in public worship.[13] Luke undoubtedly goes beyond what many of these leaders deemed comfortable in the place he accords to women, but he goes further yet in writing that the women provided for Jesus and the Twelve “out of their resources.”[14] The Greek word translated as “resources” is ὑπαρχόντων (u-par-chón-ton).[15] The English word here limits the range of meanings of a Greek word that has connotations of being in addition to one’s resources or goods.

I speculate therefore whether the Evangelist might have wanted to convey that the women were serving Jesus and the Twelve out of their being– who they were– more than merely out of their material resources. These little-known women and “many others,” then and now, in a special way the poor and the infirm– the single mother in Cali with HIV, for example– model for us the dedication of our whole being to the service of one another and of our Lord, who graciously gives to us his whole being in the Eucharist we celebrate.

[1] Richard M. Gula, Reason Informed by Faith: Foundations of Catholic Morality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989), 116-121. Gula discusses social sin, “a relatively new… concept in Roman Catholic theology,” at some length. He writes that “the notion of social sin articulates how social structures can shape our existence for the worse.” Gula highlights “but a few examples” of what he defines as social sin: “patterns of racial discrimination, economic systems that exploit migrant farm workers, structures [that] make it necessary that persons be illegal aliens and that sanctuaries harbour them, and the exclusion of women from certain positions in the church.” (Reason Informed by Faith, 116).

[2] Carroll Stuhlmueller, “The Gospel According to Luke,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 2:138.

[3]  Luke 7:36-50.

[4] Luke 8:4-8.

[5] v 3.

[6] Luke 24:10.

[7] Luke 8:2.

[8] Ibid.

[9] v 3.

[10] Ibid.

[11]διηκόνουν,” in The New Analytical Greek Lexicon, edited by Wesley J. Perschbacher (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1990), 101.

[12]διακονία,” in The New Analytical Greek Lexicon, 92.

[13] Stuhlmueller, “The Gospel According to Luke,” 2:138.

[14] Luke 8:3.

[15]ὑπαρχόντων,” in The New Analytical Greek Lexicon, 417.

Like the Teacher in Mercy- Reflection for Mass of September 9, 2011

9 Sep

Friday, September 9, 2011
Optional Memorial of St. Peter Claver, Priest; Friday of the Twenty-Third Week of Ordinary Time
Readings: 1 Timothy 1:1-2, 12-14; Psalm 16:1-2a+5, 7-8, 11 (R: see 5a); Luke 6:39-42

One might find it difficult to see mercy as the focal point of the words of Jesus that we hear in today’s Gospel: “How can you say to your neighbour, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite…”[1] That last word, “hypocrite,” is especially harsh to my– to our– ears, yet by criticizing his hearers and calling them hypocrites, Jesus draws attention beyond the criticism itself to the mercy of God.

However difficult it is to see mercy in these severe words, in between the metaphors of the blind person leading another blind person[2] and of the speck or log in one’s eye,[3] Jesus speaks words of warning against pride, but then words of consolation. On one hand we, Jesus’ disciples, cannot be “above the teacher.”[4] To think we could be greater than God is foolish as it is futile but, despite the logical impossibility of exceeding God in any particular divine quality, for example mercy, Jesus tells us on the other hand that “everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher.”[5]

How, though, does one become “qualified” and thus “like the teacher?” Let us take up again the example of mercy, and how we might become as merciful as Jesus, the incarnate God; our teacher. In the Gospel of Luke mercy is singled out among the most important attributes of God. Moreover, this Gospel’s author teaches that mercy is not just characteristic of God, but that we, too, are expected to act mercifully toward one another. Just three verses before the beginning of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus teaches his disciples: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”[6]

One who is merciful does not hold grudges against another for small (and often not-so-small) wrongs, the proverbial specks in the eyes of other people. One who is merciful is at once mature and continuing to grow in self-knowledge. By self-knowledge, I do not mean a narcissistic self-flattery that fails to recognize our own wrongs, but an awareness of where we stand before God and openness to the mercy of God, who knows us even better than we could ever know ourselves. Only by God’s mercy, in which we are called to be “like the teacher,” are the logs in our eyes– our more grievous faults compared to the specks of others that might escape our awareness but for God’s grace toward us– removed. Only then are we disposed to lead the blind toward God in mercy and in purity of heart.

I have long been both challenged and encouraged by the fact that, while Matthew’s Gospel includes the extensive Sermon on the Mount, more than half of Luke’s Chapter 6 from which we hear today is taken up by the Sermon on the Mount’s Lukan parallel, the Sermon on the Plain. Many exegetes contend that Matthew portrays a more transcendent God (this is debatable) with Jesus teaching from the mount.[7] In contrast, Luke writes of Jesus teaching on a level plain, in the midst of the crowds. Luke’s lesson is that the instruction of Jesus on the plain is not too lofty for us; in fact, again, the more “accessible” Jesus of Luke’s Gospel expects us to follow after his example and his teachings, especially that on the abundance of mercy that God has toward us and asks us to have toward others.

We have great examples in the saints in how to follow Christ’s teachings: “Be merciful… everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher.”[8] One such saintly example is Peter Claver, a prophetic voice for the African slaves in colonial Cartagena in what is now Colombia. Born in Barcelona, Spain, St. Peter Claver’s missionary vocation was recognized by Alfonso Rodriguez, another saint who was a Jesuit lay brother and mystic in Mallorca. After arriving in Cartagena in 1610, St. Peter Claver’s advocacy for the humane treatment of the Africans and indeed for the abolition of the slave trade that saw one third of African slaves die in transit between Africa and the Americas, drew the ire of slave traders and even of many of his own Jesuit brothers. After forty-four years in Cartagena, Peter Claver died, bedridden and neglected. Peter Claver, patron saint of Colombia, is nevertheless one of the Church’s great messengers of God’s mercy, giving his life as one “like the teacher.”[9]

As we continue this Eucharistic celebration, let us pray that, through the intercession of St. Peter Claver, our Basilian apostolates in Colombia and throughout the world might be beacons of mercy to the disadvantaged. May we be to all people “fully qualified” in the mercy of God, following after our Teacher, Lord, and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

[1] Luke 6:42

[2] v 39

[3] vv 41-42

[4] v 40

[5] Ibid.

[6] v 36

[7] John L. McKenzie, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 2:69. Carroll Stuhlmueller, “The Gospel According to Luke,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, 2:115.

[8] vv 36, 40

[9] Pierre Suau, “St. Peter Claver.” In The Catholic Encyclopedia. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11763a.htm. Accessed 9 September 2011.

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?” http://www.bibletopics.com/biblestudy/157.htm. 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,” http://www.biblegateway.com/keyword/?search=Capernaum&version1=31&searchtype=all&limit=none&wholewordsonly=no. 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,” http://www.liturgies.net/saints/0614basil/readings.htm. 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.

It Is Good to Be Here- Reflection for Mass of August 6, 2010- Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord

8 Aug

Friday, August 6, 2010
Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord
Readings: 2 Peter 1:16-19; Psalm 97: 1-2, 5-6, 9+11 (R: 1a and 9a); Luke 9:28-36

This Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord brings to mind my beginning as a Basilian Associate. My spiritual director in Edmonton at the time had been working with me during our meetings on praying over the readings of the coming days. During one meeting, we discussed Luke’s version of the Transfiguration. My spiritual director asked, “If you had to focus on one theme in this Gospel on which to preach, what would that theme be?”

Luke’s Transfiguration narrative provides us with many details, so it was a difficult task for me to stay focused on a single theme. For example, I am often drawn to the words of God the Father that are also recalled in today’s first reading from the Second Letter of Peter: “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”[1] Three of the most trusted Apostles, Peter, James, and John, accompany Jesus up the mountain.[2] Moses and Elijah, representative of the law and the prophets, converse with Jesus after his clothes are made to shine a dazzling white.[3] Poor Peter, barely able to stay awake,[4] misspeaks more than once. He does make an interesting comment about the three tents, recalling the Jewish Festival of the Tabernacles.[5] Jesus, likewise, literally came to dwell among us according to John’s Gospel, or, more faithfully to the Greek, He “tabernacled” among us.[6] Also, in the Lukan Transfiguration, the whole Trinity is present: the Father in the voice, the Son in the human person of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in the cloud.[7] That cloud, as well as the mention of Jesus’ “departure,” in Greek exodon, point ominously to the Passion and death of Jesus.[8]

All of these details are fascinating and quite appropriate fruits of scholarly research. Yet this theophany- an amazing manifestation of God’s power- for all its awesome display, calls us to a deeper simplicity. Noticing my struggle to focus on a particular detail of the Transfiguration- I was more like Peter, who Luke tells us “did not know what he was saying”[9]– my spiritual director pointed me toward what he thought was most significant in the story: Peter’s simple words, “Master it is good that we are here.”[10]

Like St. Peter, how good it is when we can spontaneously speak and pray those words. This week, I spent about two days translating a French interview transcript into English for Salt and Light Television. The interviewee, Montreal Cardinal Archbishop Jean-Claude Turcotte, spoke to one of our producers about the upcoming canonization of Brother André Bessette. Cardinal Turcotte related the healings performed while Brother André ministered at Collège Notre-Dame and at St. Joseph’s Oratory, and then through Brother André’s intercession after his death. Cardinal Turcotte said of the pilgrims who still visit the Oratory by the thousands that a sense exists that it is good to be there. Even those who will not be healed of physical infirmity nonetheless receive consolation, and have said, “We have peace.” Those pilgrims, through the prayers of Brother André, are prepared for their “great passage from life to death,” a transition that will bring new life but that is “never easy.”[11]

Let us then pray that, through the intercession of Brother André and the whole Communion of Saints, our lives on earth might be a process of transfiguration, our being made fit for eternal life with God in heaven. Let us join, with St. Peter and with the pilgrims to St. Joseph’s Oratory, in praying in thanksgiving as we celebrate this Eucharist that foretells our coming into God’s glory: “Lord, it is good that we are here.”


Note on material used from the interview of Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, conducted for Salt and Light Television: Over the last few weeks, I have had the privilege of translating this and other French-language interviews for an upcoming documentary on Blessed Brother André Bessette, csc. Brother André will be canonized on October 17, 2010.

For more information, please go to www.saltandlighttv.org, and stay tuned for Salt and Light TV’s coverage of Brother André’s canonization. He will be known to the universal Church as St. André of Montreal.


[1] Luke 9:35, 2 Peter 1:17. This verse is also a repetition of Luke 3:22, in which a voice from heaven speaks these same words as Jesus is baptized.

[2] Luke 9:28

[3] Luke 9:29-30

[4] Luke 9:32

[5] Luke 9:33. See also Zechariah 14:16, Deuteronomy 16:13-15

[6] See John 1:14. The Greek word in reference is εσκηνωσεν, literally “tabernacled” or “build [one’s] tent. The same root is found in Luke 9:33, in Peter’s words, “Let us build three tents (‘skenas’- σκηνας).”

[7] See the Entrance Antiphon for Mass on the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord.

[8] Carroll Stuhlmueller, “The Gospel According to Luke,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 2:141.

[9] Luke 9:33

[10] Ibid.

[11] Jean-Claude Turcotte, interviewed by Sébastien Lacroix for Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, July, 2010. Translation from French is mine. See note above.

The Visitation and Messianic Joy- Reflection for Mass of Monday, May 31, 2010- Feast of the Visitation of Mary

31 May

Monday, May 31, 2010
Feast of the Visitation of Mary
Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-18a or Romans 12:9-16; Isaiah 12:2-3, 4bcd, 5-6 (Responsorial Canticle); Luke 1:39-56

The Passionist Carroll Stuhlmueller characterizes the Gospel of Luke, based on its vocabulary and literary style, as “the ‘Gospel of Messianic Joy’” in his chapter on Luke in the Jerome Biblical Commentary.[1] Stuhlmueller’s description of Luke’s Gospel is fitting, and we might understand why particularly in today’s reading, the story of the Visitation.

Luke uses several Greek synonyms for joy, exultation, or gladness, especially in his infancy narrative, that are rare in the other Gospels. One of these words, αγαλλιάσει (agallia’sei), appears only twice in Luke,[2] in today’s Gospel reading to describe John the Baptist, who leaps for joy at Mary’s greeting,[3] and in the angel’s announcement to Zechariah of his wife Elizabeth’s pregnancy: “You will have joy and gladness.”[4] This word and its cognates are used only once in the Synoptic Gospels outside of Luke, in Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”[5]

Thus, the theme of joy surrounding the coming of the Messiah is repeated in Luke more than in any other Gospel. However, as Stuhlmueller emphasizes, Luke’s account is not one of joy without emotional or theological depth. Stuhlmueller writes of Luke’s tendency to precede or to follow a joyful passage with one that allows the hearer “to ponder the wonder of what has taken place.”[6] The people featured in Luke’s infancy narrative themselves take time to ponder and to be awed by the Incarnation. Luke, for example, uses that very verb twice to describe Mary’s contemplation of the mystery of God made man: “And Mary pondered all these things… in her heart.”[7]

Mary’s example of discipleship to us is to ponder the joy of our journey with Christ. Sometimes, even amid that joy, Mary ponders that which troubles her. So must we ponder and discern the will of God that brings us tremendous joy but can also be troubling to us.

Elizabeth, too, is one who ponders the mystery of the Incarnation, coupled with the miracle of her own pregnancy. Her question in today’s Gospel reading of the Visitation never ceases to give me pause: “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”[8]

Why, we ask, should God have come to us at all? Jesus was not obligated to take our human form, but He did so out of love for us. He came to dwell in the womb of a human mother, to be born, to live and to minister among us, and to die and to rise to complete the long-anticipated act of salvation. We are now given the gift of the Holy Spirit, so that God’s mystery becomes our vocation.

We carry the Spirit of the Lord within us as Mary once carried Jesus within her. When that Spirit is disseminated among us, when we act in the name of the Lord whom we receive in the Eucharist, we make the Visitation a perpetual and actual reality. Let us then live the Visitation by recognizing Christ in those around us, and in our prayer and acts of charity may we ponder the reality of Christ among us and within us, and may we be to this world a people of great joy.


[1] Carroll Stuhlmueller, “The Gospel According to Luke,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 2:117.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Luke 1:44

[4] Luke 1:14

[5] Matthew 5:12. The Gospel of John uses cognates of αγαλλιάσει twice, in 5:35 and 8:56. This word and its derivatives appear eleven times in the New Testament. Outside the Gospels, it appears twice in the Acts of the Apostles (2:26 and 16:34), three times in the first letter of Peter (1:6, 1:8, and 4:13), and once in Revelation (19:7). See Heartlight’s Search God’s Word, “The New Testament Greek Lexicon.” http://www.searchgodsword.org/ lex/grk/view.cgi?number=21. Accessed 29 May, 2010.

[6] Stuhlmueller, “The Gospel According to Luke,” 2:117.

[7] Luke 2:19. See also Luke 1:29.

[8] Luke 1:43

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