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!