Reflection for the Sixth Weekend in Lent: Participation not Performance Observation

We will soon enter Holy Week 2020. Probably the most unusual and anxious Holy Week many of us have ever experienced. The themes move from a joyful Palm Sunday to the intimate sharing and community bonding of Holy Thursday, and then to angry condemnation, suffering, and a painful death on Good Friday.

We can resonate today with all of these themes. The Corona situation is now changing dramatically and will probably get much worse before getting better. I am not a prophet of doom. Just a realist. Many people are carrying crosses today….

BUT……There is of course the big Holy Week theme that we cannot allow ourselves to forget: resurrection and new life. The message of Easter is that life is changed not taken away. The message of promise and hopefulness.

In Jesus, people experienced the face and heart of God. They participated in and with the Divine. They didn’t just look on from the distance. Christianity is not about being a spectator but about being a participant. We are, and must remain, community, whether big or small, inspired and animated by the One whose life was changed not taken away.

A small danger, arising from so many virtual liturgies on Facebook, Internet, and TV, during the Corona crisis, is that people slip into patterns of thinking that observing Christian rituals is about as effective as being actively involved in participating in and doing them. A friend said in an email how happy she was to be able to watch her solitary bishop, in an empty cathedral, standing at the altar, in full bishop’s regalia, “saying Mass.” There may be some value here, but these kinds of projections raise in me the fear of the old distorted magical ritualism: watching the priest perform.

If I were a pastor (easy to say because I am not) I would give my parishioners materials, guidance, and encouragement for small group scripture and simple rituals that could be done at home, in safe small groups, rest homes, etc. One of my Jesuit friends, in fact, announced, a couple days ago, that his community has prepared home liturgy booklets for Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. They can be easily downloaded and printed. Excellent move.

We find a clear reference to a simple early Christian liturgical experience in Luke chapter 24: the post-Resurrection account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus and their encounter with the living Jesus in the “breaking of bread.”

“Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?'”

Jesus then has a talk with them: “…beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” Later the two disciples invite Jesus to join them at table. There they recognize him in the “breaking of bread.” Jesus later disappears but the disciples observe: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” Participation in the life and spirit of Jesus raised from the dead…

This narrative is a key example of Christian participation in the life journey to a deeper faith. It is an invitation, as well, to help all of us on our life journeys.

Over the last couple weeks, cut off from friends and quarantined in my home, two quotations I jotted down years ago bobbed in my head. One from the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995). The other from the Christian mystic Teresa of Avila (1515-1582).

Levinas said the only thing that really changes people deeply is “an encounter with the face of the other.” And Teresa reminded people long ago that “Christ has no body now but your’s. No hands, no feet on earth but your’s. Your’s are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world.”

May we believe and be well. – Jack

Reflection for the Fifth Weekend in Lent: Christian Faith and Hope in Corona Times

[Today’s reflection is from from Richard Hendrick, an Irish Capuchin. I hope all Another Voice readers are doing ok in these difficult days. – Jack on March 27, 2020 (77th birthday) in quarantine with wife Joske; but the sun is shining and we are moving toward a new spring.]

Lockdown

Yes there is fear.

Yes there is isolation.

Yes there is panic buying.

Yes there is sickness.

Yes there is even death.

But, they say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise you can hear the birds again.

They say that after just a few weeks of quiet the sky is no longer thick with fumes but blue and grey and clear.

They say that in the streets of Assisi, people are singing to each other across the empty squares, keeping their windows open so that those who are alone may hear the sounds of family around them.

They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.

Today a young woman I know

Is busy spreading fliers with her number through the neighborhood so that the elders may have someone to call on.

Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples are preparing to welcome and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary

All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting.

All over the world people are looking at their neighbors in a new way.

All over the world people are waking up to a new reality…

To how big we really are.

To how little control we really have.

To what really matters.

To Love.

So we pray and we remember that,

Yes there is fear.

But there does not have to be hate.

Yes there is isolation.

But there does not have to be loneliness.

Yes there is panic buying.

But there does not have to be meanness.

Yes there is sickness.

But there does not have to be disease of the soul.

Yes there is even death.

But there can always be a rebirth of love.

Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.

Today, breathe.

Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic

The birds are singing again

The sky is clearing,

Spring is coming,

And we are always encompassed by Love.

Open the windows of your soul

And though you may not be able

To touch across the empty square,

Sing.

A Reflection for the Fourth Weekend in Lent — Looking for Security and Reassurance in Fearful Times: Four Examples of Early Pastoral Theologies

[Today’s reflection is a bit longer. Something you can read or re-read over several days. Though long, I hope you will still take time to read and think about it. Jack]

As early Christianity developed and spread in the Middle East, there was a great need to explain Christian belief to people with different religious backgrounds, cultures, and geographic locations. This led to the four Gospels. The development of their final written forms took a period of about forty years from c.70 CE to c.110 CE.

The Gospel According to Mark

All four Gospels evolved from oral traditions, passed on from person to person and from place to place. More than one single person (i.e. Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) composed the final versions of the four Gospels, as we have them today.

What we call Mark’s Gospel was composed around 70 CE, probably after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70. Mark was written for Gentile Christians in Rome. They suffered Roman persecution but also discrimination from Judaeo-Christians, who felt superior to Gentile converts.

In Mark’s Gospel we see, very early, a Jesus confronted with difficulties and rejection. It is a Gospel for those who are suffering and need to find consolation: people who resonate with the fearful cry of those disciples in the sinking boat (Mark 4). They were frightened by the storm. They woke-up the sleeping Jesus and asked him if he is just going to let them all drown. Jesus calms the storm, and then says to his disciples “Why are you so frightened? How is it that you have no faith?”

Having faith in difficult times is key to Mark.

In Mark 6 when Jesus visited his hometown together with his followers, Jesus observed “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” And the Gospel writer observes about Jesus: “He was amazed at their lack of faith.” 

Perhaps Mark has a special significance for us today with our fears about Covid-19?

Fear and uncertainty, if one allows them to take control, can disable, blind, and paralyze people; but Christianity is not a religion of fear. We are challenged to be alert and faithful to the Good News. Already in Mark 8:18-21 Jesus had reprimanded his disciples: “Do you not yet understand? Have you no perception? Are your minds closed? Have you eyes that do not see, and ears that do not hear?”

The Gospel According to Matthew

Mark’s Gentile Christians in Rome feared persecution and death at the hands of Roman authorities. They endured negativity and discrimination from Judeo-Christians living in Rome. Matthew’s Christians were very different.

The Gospel According to Matthew, was most likely written by a Judeo-Christian scribe in the mid-80s CE, probably in ancient Antioch, whose ruins today lie close to Antakya, Turkey. The community was STRONGLY Judeo-Christian. There were Gentile Christian members, but they were expected to obey Torah norms. Some scholars say even circumcision. The Matthean Jesus came, therefore, “not to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it” (Matthew 5:17).

In Matthew Jesus is the great embodiment of all preceding Hebrew history.

The author constructs an infancy narrative that begins with “A genealogy of Jesus Christ, Son of David, son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1-17). Matthew’s genealogy features four notable Hebrew women, a number of “fulfillment” passages that relate Jesus to prophetic texts; and allusions to famous Hebrew men of the past. Note for instance that Jesus, like Moses, was rescued as an infant from a murderous king (Matthew 2:16-18). In Matthew’s creative narration, Jesus’ ministry begins with three temptations in the desert. They correspond to the experiences of Israel in the desert, after the Exodus. Jesus is God’s great liberator, the new Moses.

What strikes me as I re-read the Gospel According to Matthew, is Jesus the rabbi: the great teacher. In Matthew 5:1-10, Jesus goes up a hill with his disciples and begins to teach what we have come to know as the “Sermon on the Mount.” It is truly a charter for Christian life today: Authentic followers of Jesus realize that greatness is achieved through service not domination. They are neither so arrogant nor so self-centered that they see only what they want to see. They have compassion. They can feel the pain of another. They put an arm around the fearful and the oppressed. They are not phony believers who love to denigrate and oppress their critics, in reality showing that they love not their neighbor but only themselves.

We have many contemporary examples where Rabbi Jesus’ message can be applied…..

Mark focused on the mostly Gentile Christian community in Rome. Matthew was much focused on the Judeo-Christian community in Antioch. Luke, however, stresses that Christianity is a way of life for Gentile as well as Judeo-Christian believers; and that it warrants legal recognition in the Roman Empire.

The Gospel According to Luke

Luke is about healing and reconciliation: actions greatly needed in our own contemporary society.

Luke’s author was a highly educated Gentile Christian who came from a thoroughly Greco-Roman environment. Unlike Matthew’s author he is NOT well-grounded in the Hebrew tradition. Luke and the Acts of Apostles make up a two-volume work often called simply Luke–Act. Textual analysis suggests that Luke-Acts was written not earlier than 80–90 CE; and quite possibly as late as 90–110 CE. The text was still being revised well into the 2nd century.

While Matthew saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Hebrew history, with a genealogy of Jesus from Abraham down to Joseph and Mary, Luke understands Jesus as the high point in ALL HUMAN HISTORY. His genealogy runs backwards from Joseph to Adam. 

What strikes me, as I re-read this gospel? Three themes catch my attention: a stress on women, building bridges, and religious hypocrisy.

Prominence of WOMEN: In Luke Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:38-39), a 12-year-old girl (Luke 8:41-42, 49-56); a woman with a 12-year infirmity (verses 43-48); and a woman who had been crippled 18 years (Luke 13:10-17). In Luke we see Mary, an early disciple of Jesus. When her sister Martha complains to Jesus that Mary should be helping her with serving, Jesus replies: “Martha, Martha…Mary who has chosen the better part.” (Luke 10:38-42). In the Resurrection accounts, women not men are most important.

BUILDING BRIDGES NOT WALLS: Luke’s stress on peace-making implied a new relationship with the Roman Empire. Dialogue had to start. Destructive polarization had to end. In Luke’s infancy narrative, angelic messengers proclaim: “Good news of great joy for ALL PEOPLE. To you is born this day . . . a Savior! . . . Peace on earth among those whom God favors!” (Luke 2:10-11,14) These words echo and go far beyond the Roman monument inscriptions, at the time, which praised Augustus Caesar as “god” and “savior.” Luke hereby stresses that Jesus had completed more fully and uniquely the work of Augustus. Later in this Gospel, Luke even offsets the fact that Jesus was executed by the Romans, by having the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate declare Jesus innocent three times (Luke 23:4,14, 22). 

RELIGIOUS HYPOCRISY: Some observers accuse Luke of antisemitism, because he regularly shows Jesus criticizing Jewish religious leaders. I think these critics miss the point. Jesus was strongly critical of the arrogant religious hypocrisy of the religiously elite in his day. When invited to dine in the home of a Pharisee, for example, the religious leader accused Jesus of not washing ahead of time. Jesus replied: “Now then, you clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness…. Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” (Luke 11:37-44)

Luke speaks strongly to our own contemporary society, in which prominent religious people too often praise God and ignore the poor, the oppressed, the diseased, and the marginalized. They seem more interested in power not people.

The Gospel According to John

The Gospel According to John differs from the Synoptics (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) in style and content in several ways.

John’s Gospel omits a large amount of material found in the Synoptic Gospels, like the temptation of Jesus, Jesus’ transfiguration, and the institution of the Lord’s supper. In John we do not see proverbs and parables but symbolic discourses. Jesus’ miracles are designed to provide symbolic insight into Jesus’ identity and his relationship to the Father. In John, Jesus is clearly the Wisdom of God, the source of eternal life, and STILL CONTINUALLY LIVING within the community of faith.

This Gospel uses a “post-resurrection” point of view. The author looks back on the Jesus events and emphasizes the inability of the apostles to understand the things that were happening at the time they occurred. See for instance: John 2:17-22, where there are obvious references to the Resurrection, “He was speaking of the sanctuary that was his body, and after he rose from the dead his disciples remembered.” John 12:16-17, “At the time his disciples did not understand this but later, after Jesus had been glorified, they remembered….” And John 20:9, “Until this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” Perhaps we do not always clearly understand?

The old tradition, from the second century, was that the author the Gospel According to John was the Apostle John, son of Zebedee. Most contemporary scholars are not of this opinion. They suggest that the original author of an oral tradition, that evolved into the John’s Gospel, was indeed a companion of Jesus, the “Beloved Disciple,” who formed a community, most probably in Ephesus. Scholars call this “the Johannine community.”

An oral tradition of eye-witness recollections of the Beloved Disciple evolved and began being written down around 90 CE. The final redaction occurred ten to twenty years later, giving us a Gospel composition date of between 90 and 110 CE. We don’t know who the “Beloved Disciple” was. There is quite a variety of scholarly opinions: a truly unknown disciple, the Apostle John, James the brother of Jesus, or even Mary the Magdalene.

The Johannine community was greatly concerned with hot issues in the church–synagogue debate and defined itself primarily in contrast to Judaism. The final version of the Gospel was composed after the crisis created by the expulsion of Christians from the synagogue in the 90s. The Judean criticism is strong; and, over the centuries, some have incorrectly used John’s Gospel as an excuse for antisemitism. It is unfortunate that English translators have so often used the words “Jew” and “Jews,” when “Judean” and “Judeans” would have been more correct and less problematic. For example, the text on Jesus’ cross should be translated “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Judeans.” (John 19: 18-22)

What stands out for me in this Gospel? Jesus in John is STRONG AND COURAGEOUSLY CONFIDENT. The Johannine account of the crucifixion does not stress Jesus as one who suffers, as we saw for example in Mark. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is the one who is exalted, “lifted up” in his moment of glorification. 

The Jesus who stands before Pilate is strong. On the way to Golgotha Jesus carries his own cross. He does not need the help of a Simon of Cyrene as we saw in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Also in John, unlike the other three Gospels, Jesus’ crucifixion occurs on the day of preparation for the Passover (John 19:14) rather than on the Passover feast itself. Here Jesus prepares himself for the departure to the Father and seems to be in complete control of his destiny, even to the extent of commending his mother to the Beloved Disciple (John 19:26–27).

As members of the Christian community of faith, may we sustain each other with courage and confidence. That is the message in our fearful Covid-19 days — and as we look forward to Easter 2020.

May you all be well! – Jack

Reflection for the Third Weekend in Lent: The One True Church

History clarifies and teaches. Unfortunately not everyone hears it and not everyone learns from it. 

I have indeed learned a lot from history, but the process has sometimes been slow….

Without telling my age, let me just say that I was in elementary school in the early 1950s, in SW Michigan. My teachers were Dominican sisters, from Adrian, Michigan. I liked them. They were warm and wonderful women and great teachers. 

In grade school I learned from Sister Mary Angelo that “the only true church is the Catholic Church.” All other “churches” I learned were “false religions.” Protestants, Mary Angelo said, were defective and distorted in their beliefs. Our parish priest even told our class one day that, if there was a Protestant Bible in our homes, we had to be good Catholic boys and girls and remove it and throw it in the trash….

My Dad, whom I loved and greatly admired, was a Protestant. That started me thinking…..Dad a defective believer in a false religion? Nevertheless, I was also still a pious little kid. Our parish priest kept pushing me. One day I tried to remove my Dad’s Bible from the bookcase. My Dad caught me and asked “What on earth are you doing?”  I told him Father Ceru told us to get ride of Protestant Bibles, because they are part of a false religion. “Put it back,” my Dad very calmly said. “The Bible, whether Protestant or Catholic, is the Word of God. And…Fr. Ceru is a kind man but a very stupid old fool.”

Yes….Since the 1950s, I have learned and changed a lot, thanks to my own critical thinking and exposure to historical scholarship. I have acquired a much better understanding about early Christianity and the development of institutional Christianity. I now realize as well that all of us in the church are still learners and need continual biblical, historical, and theological updating. I remain open to new perspectives and change.

Over the years I have taught a lot of classes and given a lot of lectures about ecumenism. I have often begun with this little story: A man goes to heaven, and St Peter shows him around. They go past one room, and the man asks: “Who are all those people in there?” “They are the Methodists,” says St Peter. They pass another room, and the man asks the same question. “They are the Anglicans,” says St Peter. As they’re approaching the next room, St Peter says: “Take your shoes off and tiptoe by as quietly as you can.” “Why, who’s in there?” asks the man. “The Catholics,” says St Peter, “and they think that they’re the only ones up here.”

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1997, the Catholic Church is the “sole Church of Christ.” The official Catholic understanding has long been that only the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ, who choose Twelve Apostles to continue his work and appointed them as the Catholic Church’s first bishops. Well, as I said above, all of us in the church need continual historical, biblical, and theological updating. With all due respect, some upper administrative people — including popes — greatly need remedial theological education. I remember a bishop friend, close to retirement at age seventy-five, who confided in me that he had not read any book about theology or church history since his ordination as a twenty-six years old priest. (I immediately wanted to say “well that is obvious” but decided to take a less combative approach with him….)

The historical Jesus did not found any church. He gave no blueprint for church structure and organization. Jesus did not ordain anyone and probably had no idea what ordination even was. Many decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus’ followers began to organize, ritualize, and structure Christian communities. Initially they had great freedom and creativity. They did not establish ordination as a way of passing on sacred powers but as a kind of quality control. The ordained had a kind of seal of approval as trustworthy and competent Christian ministers. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, the Christian Church became a powerful social and political institution; and it took on many organizational structures, customs, and pageantry from the Roman Empire.

In 382 CE the Council of Rome first officially recognized the Biblical canon (i.e. those texts considered as authoritative scripture). The same council commissioned Jerome to compile and translate those canonical texts from Greek into the Latin Vulgate Bible. Today many of our better English translations bypass Jerome’s Vulgate and work directly with Greek texts.

Most people today rely on biblical translations, of course, but we really need to be alert to shades of meaning and nuances that sometimes get lost in translation. 

The word “church” as we understand it does not appear in the Gospels. The Greek word used is ekklesia which is often incorrectly translated as “church.” Ekklesia really means “a gathering” or a “congregation.” Nuance is important here. Ekklesia has the nuance of a gathering of believers = a community of faith. The word “church” has the nuance of a structured hierarchical institution. The historical Jesus did not establish a church. His young followers organized themselves into a community of faith.

All of us today – Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, etc. — who strive to live and grow in the Spirit of Christ are members of his body. We make up a large community of faith which is truly the one true church. A variety of traditions is an enrichment. Our perspectives can vary, as do our backgrounds. We all can listen to each other and learn and grow.

The Council of Nicaea in 325 CE taught that the church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” For centuries the Catholic Church understood that only it had these attributes in their fullness. Today of course we understand that all Christians make up ONE body of believers, as they strive to live in the HOLY Spirit of Christ. We understand that Christianity is CATHOLIC in the original meaning of that word “universal,”  despite varied locations, languages, ethnicities, races, or denominations.We understand as well that the “apostles” were more than “the Twelve.” Many early Christian women and men were apostles (“messengers” or “envoys”) sent out to preach the Good News. Faithful to their faith, witness, and example, Christians today are APOSTOLIC. This much more than a theoretical succession of hands-on ritual ordinations is what we most properly call “apostolic succession.”

New understandings take time. Perspectives do change. Official teachings do change over time. Yes even in the Catholic Church. With respectful dialogue and collaboration, we grow and we learn together.

How I would have loved to be able to sit down with my, now deceased, grade school teacher, Sister Mary Angelo, and discuss all of this….I think she would have understood.

Or…maybe today she does understand it … and much better than Jack……

Reflection for the Second Weekend in Lent: The Gospels – More Theological Reflections Than Biographies

Most contemporary scholars agree that Jesus began his public ministry when he was about thirty years old; and they place the date of his death at Passover time around the year 30 CE. What did Jesus do before his public ministry? We don’t know. We can can only speculate. Some believe he was like a first century “blue collar” worker outside Nazareth. Some theorize that Jesus was a monk and spent years in study and prayer, before entering public ministerial life. Frankly, I have no pet theory. I am more interested in what Jesus said and did. He revealed Divinity and authentic Humanity. In his Spirit we find our life and security.

Some opening observations: If we turn our attention to the New Testament books, the earliest “scriptures” we have are the letters written by Paul and composed in the decade of the 50s CE. Today we know as well that not all letters attributed to Paul were authored by him. There is general scholarly agreement that Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon are genuinely Pauline.

Other letters bearing Paul’s name are disputed among scholars, namely Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. Most contemporary biblical scholars agree that Hebrews was certainly not written by Paul. In fact, the emphasis on Melchizedek and priesthood in Hebrews seems really out of sync with Pauline theology.

When we look at the history and biblical testimony about the post-Resurrection apostolic community of Christians in Jerusalem, clearly the leader was James, the “brother of the Lord.” Peter played a role in the Council of Jerusalem, around 50 CE; but James was in charge and James issued the definitive judgment that converts to Christianity did not have to be circumcized. Then, according to the epistle to the Galatians, Peter went to Antioch.

There is a tradition that Peter and Paul went to Rome and were put to death at the hands of Nero probably between 64 and 68 CE. According to an old legend, Peter was crucified upside down. But that was a legend launched by Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century. Eusebius, however, was a notoriously unreliable historian. Already in the second and third centuries, stories about Peter were springing-up based on historical suppositions, legends, and much creative imagination by people like Irenaeus of Lyon (died 202 CE).

Contrary to what some think, neither Peter nor Paul brought Christianity to Rome. Before Peter and Paul would have arrived, there were already Christian elders and house churches in Rome; but there was no central administrator. No bishop. At some point Peter may have been one of these elders, but contemporary Catholic and Protestant historians would stress that Peter was never a bishop of Rome. One can say, only very symbolically, that Peter was “the first pope.”

As I mentioned last week, the average life expectancy in the days of Jesus was between 30 and 40. After the deaths of James, Peter, and Paul, as well as others who had known Jesus face-to-face, it became essential for the survival of the way of Jesus that his words and deeds be recollected and written down. This led to the birth of the four Gospels.

Today biblical scholars believe that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, sometime around the year 70 CE. The scholarly consensus holds that the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke were composed, independently of one another, sometime in the 80s or 90s. Both used a written form of the Gospel of Mark as source material for their own narratives. In addition, because both Matthew and Luke contain a large amount of material in common that is not found in Mark, most scholars hold that the authors of Matthew and Luke also drew from a collection of Jesus’ sayings that they incorporated into their works. This understanding of the origins of the “synoptic” Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke explains why they are similar yet different in details, descriptions, and focus. The Gospel of John, which dates from between 90 and 110 CE, emerges from an independent literary tradition that is not directly connected to the Synoptic tradition.

All four Gospels evolved from oral traditions, passed on from person to person and from place to place. More than one single person (i.e. Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) composed the final versions of the four Gospels as we have them today. Each time the narrators adapted their accounts to the needs, understanding, and cultural / religious backgrounds of their listeners.

The Gospels were not written therefore to give us strict “history.” They contain bits of history, parables, metaphor, symbol, re-interpreted passages from the Greek (Septuagint) Hebrew Scriptures, and imagined scenarios for key events in the life of Jesus. The Gospels were written to give the meaning of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, whom God raised from the dead. We see in Matthew and Luke, for instance, two quite different accounts about Jesus’ infancy. They present creative theological images rather than strict historical facts. Once again perspective is important….

The Gospels’ focus was not primarily to present an historical narrative, but to affirm and proclaim Christian theological belief about Jesus the Christ. In whom we find Divinity, Life, and Hope

Anchored in Christian faith, the authors of the Gospels – using a variety of literary forms — wanted to pass on to future generations their understanding and belief in and about Jesus Christ. As the scripture scholar John Dominic Crossan has often said: “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”

The Gospels inform, stimulate, and encourage us to grow in our own Christian faith.Thanks to the life, message, and witness of Jesus of Nazareth crucified and raised from the dead, we have faith, hope, and confidence to move forward today.

Living that faith is our contemporary Christian challenge….

Jack

Reflection – First Weekend in Lent: Young People Followed Jesus

Our perspectives on the past are shaped by our own experiences, what we have learned or continue to discover, as well as our own suspicions. I chuckled the other day when I heard a fellow telling our current events discussion group that “a few days after the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the US Congress elected George Washington as the first U.S. president.” Quite imaginative. I reminded him later, without embarrassing him in front of the group, that the Constitutional Convention in 1787 established the U.S. Constitution and the federal government. George Washington, however, was not elected president until 1789. (We did not get into a discussion about young George’s cherry tree myth.)

Our perspectives on key religious figures are subject to distortions as well. In the West we have inherited an image of Jesus as a light-haired, blue-eyed Western European — and often rather androgynous — male. In fact, like most people from Judea at his time, Jesus probably had brown eyes, short black hair, and olive-brown skin. And he would have been much more rugged-looking than many of his famous portraits and holy card images.

I have often wondered, as well, about our images of Jesus’ mom and dad, whom we know as Mary (Miriam) and Joseph. In grade school I learned from Sr. Mary Angelo that Joseph was “a much older man” who took care of Mary and her son. I pictured him looking more like my grandfather……Years later after much biblical and historical study, my perspective about Jesus’ parents changed significantly.

I came to understand actually that both Mary and Joseph were teenagers. Yes Mary was a teenage mother, when Jesus was born. She was probably between 14 and 16 years old. Joseph, as was customary back then, would have been a couple years older than Mary. Not at all uncommon for the time. Most young people married as teenagers. But then… the average life expectancy in the days of Jesus was between 30 and 40. (By age 20 most people had lost their teeth.)

This brings us to a consideration of the ages of the men and women who were Jesus disciples. They too were most likely 15 to 18 tears old. Let that sink in a bit. Young men and women, many of whom were probably married with small children. The first Christian community. The Disciples of Christ….So very different from the Last Supper perspective in the late 15th-century mural painting by Leonardo da Vinci. Perspective.

And what is our perspective on young people today?

We are living in a time of tremendous economic, technological, demographic, and cultural transition. I look hopefully to younger people for the open-mindedness, flexibility, and sense of solidarity needed to help people come together and be effective change agents. Many of them, like the seventeen years old Greta Thunberg, have the courage and energy to make it happen.

The Pew Center and other research groups have begun to study the make-up of “Generation Z”: young people born between 1995 and 2010. Donald Trump may be the first U.S. president most Generation Z have known as they turn 18. Just as the contrast between George W. Bush and Barack Obama shaped the political debate for Millennials, the current political environment may have a similar effect on the attitudes and engagement of Generation Z. Exactly how remains a question.

Generation Z young people feel empowered and connected. Sixty-six percent believe that communities are created by causes and interests, not by economic backgrounds or educational levels. They are empathetic self-starters who want to stand out and make a difference in the world. Their key values are searching for the truth, authenticity, and creativity. They believe strongly in the efficacy of dialogue to solve conflicts and improve the world. They relate to institutions in an analytical and pragmatic way. For them, institutional credibility is very important.

Now……How can our Christian communities welcome and engage young people today? An acquaintance said we need, first of all, to educate them. I replied that perhaps we need first of all to study and discover together. The real question is not how can we speak to them but how can we truly listen to them? What is their image of Jesus? Their image of church? How can we dialogue and be creative contemporary Christians with them?

Faith, hope, and charity have not disappeared.

Jack

Contemporary Perspectives : Still Pursuing WISDOM

Lent 2020 begins next week on Wednesday, February 26th. The word “lent” comes from the Old English word word “lencten” meaning “spring season,” when all around us signs of spring and new life appear, on our journey to Easter. We can be optimistic and hopeful.

For Lent this year, I plan to write a few weekly reflections, offering contemporary perspectives (basically optimistic) from an older historical theologian…

When I think of contemporary perspectives, I have two things in mind: (1) new ways of looking at older Christian realities, understandings, and belief statements; and (2) a focus on Christian life that shifts away from “churchianity,” with with its rigid focus on fidelity to doctrines and rules.

Churchianity is rooted in obedience and power over people. Christianity is rooted in love, compassion, and service. The central focus of genuine Christianity must be a living and lived-out relationship with God and with one’s neighbor. Doctrines and rules come later, but are of secondary importance.

Right now, I have the following thematic elements in my head, which I hope to expand on during the weeks of Lent: Youth — Jesus and His Young Disciples; The Gospels: About Faith Not About Presenting a Life of Jesus; A Contemporary Perspective on One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic — a Church Much Bigger Than the Roman Catholic Church; The Evangelical Vision — Four Gospels Four Christian Theologies; Contemporary Insights About Jesus’ Crucifixion and Death; and Resurrection Greater than Resuscitation.

There may be some adjustments along the way. I am not planning on long essays. The reflections will be brief and to the point. The focus will be a kind of meditative retreat on the road to Easter.

I may quote from books and articles I have read as well….. I do hope I can offer some reflections that are worth reading as well as stimulating and helpful. We are all confronted with much too much blah blah these days….Especially as we begin the nine month gestation period of presidential election rhetoric….

And so today, I conclude with a brief reflection about WISDOM from the Hebrew Scriptures:

Proverbs 8:22-31:

God brought me forth as the first of God’s works, before God’s deeds of old.

I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be.

When there were no watery depths, I was given birth.

When there were no springs overflowing with water,

Before the mountains were settled in place,

Before the hills, I was given birth.

Before God made the world or its fields

Or any of the dust of earth.

I was there when God set the heavens in place.

When God marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,

When God established the clouds above

And fixed securely the fountains of the deep.

When God gave the sea its boundary

So the waters would not overstep God’s command.

When God marked out the foundations of the earth.

Then I was constantly at God’s side.

I was filled with delight day after day.

Rejoicing always in God’s presence,

Rejoicing in God’s whole world.

Delighting in humankind.

Warmest regards. May we live and rejoice in WISDOM.

Jack

Safe and Unsafe Leaders

Today a brief but, I hope, a helpful perspective on safe and unsafe leaders. I call it performance appraisal guidelines for evaluating leaders in religious, professional, and political life. The basic ideas are from the Cult Education Institute in Trenton, New Jersey.

Ten warning signs of a potentially unsafe group/leader.

1. Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.

2. No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.

3. No meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget, expenses such as an independently audited financial statement.

4. Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.

5. There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.

6. Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.

7. There are records, books, news articles, or television programs that document the abuses of the group/leader.

8. Followers feel they can never be “good enough”.

9. The group/leader is always right.

10. The group/leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.

Ten warning signs regarding followers of an unsafe group/leader.

1. Extreme obsessiveness regarding the group/leader resulting in the exclusion of almost every practical consideration.

2. Individual identity, the group, the leader and/or God as distinct and separate categories of existence become increasingly blurred. Instead, in the follower’s mind these identities become substantially and increasingly fused–as that person’s involvement with the group/leader continues and deepens.

3. Whenever the group/leader is criticized or questioned it is characterized as “persecution”.

4. Uncharacteristically stilted and seemingly programmed conversation and mannerisms, cloning of the group/leader in personal behavior.

5. Dependency upon the group/leader for problem solving, solutions, and definitions without meaningful reflective thought. A seeming inability to think independently or analyze situations without group/leader involvement.

6. Hyperactivity centered on the group/leader agenda, which seems to supersede any personal goals or individual interests.

7. A dramatic loss of spontaneity and sense of humor.

8. Increasing isolation from family and old friends unless they demonstrate an interest in the group/leader.

9. Anything the group/leader does can be justified no matter how harsh or harmful.

10. Former followers are at best-considered negative or worse evil and under bad influences. They can not be trusted and personal contact is avoided.

Ten signs of a safe group/leader.

1. A safe group/leader will answer your questions without becoming judgmental and punitive.

2. A safe group/leader will disclose information such as finances and often offer an independently audited financial statement regarding budget and expenses. Safe groups and leaders will tell you more than you want to know.

3. A safe group/leader is often democratic, sharing decision making and encouraging accountability and oversight.

4. A safe group/leader may have disgruntled former followers, but will not vilify, excommunicate and forbid others from associating with them.

5. A safe group/leader will not have a paper trail of overwhelmingly negative records, books, articles and statements about them.

6. A safe group/leader will encourage family communication, community interaction and existing friendships and not feel threatened.

7. A safe group/leader will recognize reasonable boundaries and limitations when dealing with others.

8. A safe group/leader will encourage critical thinking, individual autonomy and feelings of self-esteem.

9. A safe group/leader will admit failings and mistakes and accept constructive criticism and advice.

10. A safe group/leader will not be the only source of knowledge and learning excluding everyone else, but value dialogue and the free exchange of ideas.

Our contemporary challenge: reflect on these characteristics and then Observe, Judge, and Act.

Jack

Character and Credibility

In view of last week’s post, and this week’s political and religious developments, some reflections again about the need for prophets.

Prophets exhort, invite dialogue, and call for and promote change. They cannot, however, angrily promote a kind of nasty polarization in which people who disagree become vicious enemies. They can be outspoken, direct, and challenging. They cannot be hard-nosed warriors who denigrate, disable, and destroy their opponents. Prophets do not have an “enemies list.” Prophets speak out and bring change. Their primary values must always be compassion, truthfulness, and respect. Yes it takes strength, courage, thoughtfulness, AND humility to be a prophet.

Prophets and prophetic movements are much-needed agents of social change. We also need to support them. Being a prophet on one’s own, especially in the era of Twitter and Facebook is very difficult. Prophetic team-work is much better…. It is not easy to combat tweeting bullies and their ignorant followers, who thrive on distorted information.

One must also be alert to the prophetic occupational hazard: that prophets lapse and become arrogant, distorted, and deviant warriors —- just as distorted as the people and movements criticized by the prophet. Friends can be particularly helpful here….They can see closely what’s happening. Prophets must speak out, but they need to listen as well. And they need to maintain self-respect and respect for others.

We need prophets in religion and of course in politics. We need prophets especially today when the two get mixed up and the religion becomes a populist political cult which is “Christian” in name only.

Just to confirm: I am not anti-Catholic, nor am I anti-bishop. I am very proud, in fact, of some of my former students who are now competent, compassionate, and pastoral bishops. As a Catholic, however, I am amazed and disappointed how many lay Catholics and bishops have become strong supporters of the current White House resident, because he is “anti-abortion.” Is he really “anti-abortion”? Or is he good at political campaign rhetoric? He is certainly not “pro-life” in his policies and behavior.

Strange times for sure. The pastor of a Catholic church in Queens, New York recently encouraged his anti-Trump parishioners to just take a flying leap off the nearest building. “Show your hate for Trump,” he said. “Do it for social justice. #JumpAgainstTrump.” Tom Roberts, the Executive Editor of the National Catholic Reporter, wrote last week: “The selling of the church’s moral authority is complete. When someone so morally bankrupt and demonstrably anti-life as Trump, a misogynist who brags about assaulting women and whose primary interaction with others is to demean and degrade, can command the obeisance of the nation’s Catholic leaders, the moral tank has been emptied.”

Perhaps we need ongoing education and formation centers for training prophets. We need effective change agents. If I were pastor of a parish, I would make that my priority for a 2020 Lenten activity.

Yes I mentioned several months ago that there are five qualities necessary for effective prophetic change agents. Today I summarize:

1. Prophets have a clear vision: – Having a clear vision means one can draw on the strengths of the people one works with and can help them see that there are many ways to work toward a common objective. Dialogue is important. Know-it-all little dictators are not bonafide change agents. They are absolutely no help in combating the know-it-all big dictators.

2. Prophets are patient yet persistent – Change does not happen overnight. Many people get frustrated that change does not happen fast enough. The danger is that they lose sight of the vision as something that can really be achieved. Effective change agents need to help people see that every step forward is a step closer to the goal.

3. Prophets ask tough questions – Effective change agents ask questions to help people think.They inform and combat the real fake news. The don’t just tell people what to do.

4. Prophets are knowledgeable and lead by example – Effective change agents have character and credibility. They are knowledgeable in what they are speaking about. If one wants to create change, one must not only be able to articulate what that change would look like but actually show it to others.

5. Prophets have strong relationships built on trust – All of the points above, mean just about nothing if one does not have solid relationships with the people one is serving. People will not want to grow if they do not trust the person who is pushing for change.

My concluding observation for this week: I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state. Church leaders have no business telling people for whom they should vote. Church leaders, however, do have a responsibility to encourage believers to Observe, Judge, and Act: (1) Observe how our religious and political leaders are speaking and behaving, (2) Judge whether or not their rhetoric and actions are consistent with their often-professed Christianity, and (3) if there are obvious values failures and shortcomings, to take appropriate Action. There are many contemporary applications here…..

United States Senate Chaplain Barry Black in his opening prayer for the impeachment trial session on January 31, 2020, addressed God, saying “Remind our senators that they alone are accountable to you for their conduct. Lord, help them to remember that they can’t ignore you and get away with it. For we always reap what we sow.”

Jack

An Historical Christian Challenge

A very brief historical reflection this week……

Just about one year before he was executed by the Nazis, the Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945), wrote and sent several reflections from Tegel prison to his friend Eberhard Bethge (1909 – 2000). “What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today.” Bonhoeffer felt that perhaps the time had come for a “religionless Christianity,” because so much institutional religion seemed so alien to the Gospel.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been re-reading a lot of Bonhoeffer. Now he has been much on my mind, because of recent WWII commemorations like those for the Battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944 to 25 January 1945) and this week’s Auschwitz concentration camps liberation (27 January 1945). My Bonhoeffer re-reading has bern stimulated as well by my own theological concerns and questioning today. Perhaps I am also feeling my age? When Bonhoeffer was arrested for resistance against the Nazi regime and confined to the spine-chilling Tegel Prison in April 1943, I was just a one month old baby in a warm family environment in Southwest Michigan, USA.

During the last year or so I’ve come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity,” Bonhoeffer wrote to his friend in 1944. “The Christian is not a homo religiosus, but simply a human person as Jesus was a human person….I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith….By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God….That, I think, is faith. And that is how one becomes a human and a Christian.”

We don’t know how Bonhoeffer would have developed these ideas. I wish he could have lived longer. He was executed by hanging in Flossenbürg Concentration Camp on 9 April 1945. Ironically that was just two weeks before soldiers from the United States 90th and 97th Infantry Divisions liberated the camp. And a month before the surrender of Nazi Germany.

History does not repeat itself, but some historic mistakes are often ignored and repeated again. We can indeed learn a few lessons from the Bonhoeffer era as we witness abuses of power and the betrayals of leadership in our own days — inside and outside of the church.

Bonhoeffer was greatly alarmed that so many Christian church leaders (Protestant and Catholic) openly supported Adolf Hitler (1889 – 1945). I think he was even more alarmed that so many Christian men and women tacitly supported the inhumane Nazi regime through their own silence and inaction. Silence and inaction.

Hitler was baptized as a Catholic but was not at all a Christian believer. He and his Nazi party promoted “Positive Christianity,” a movement which actually rejected most traditional Christian doctrines. His involvement in “Positive Christianity” was driven by opportunism and a pragmatic recognition of the political importance of the Christian churches. It was promoted as well by Nazi Party condemnation of criticism from a “lying press” during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. In Hitler’s “Positive Christianity” and his exaggerated self-pride, Hitler and his Nazi zealots saw the Führer as the herald of a new revelation. He proclaimed Jesus as an “Aryan fighter” who struggled against “the power and pretensions of the corrupt Pharisees.”

Joseph Goebbels (1897 – 1945), Reich Minister of Propaganda for Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945, wrote in April 1941, in his diary, that although Hitler was a strong opponent of the Vatican and Christianity, “…he forbids me to leave the church, for tactical reasons.” In his memoirs, Hitler’s Minister of Armaments Albert Speer (1905 – 1981) wrote that Hitler “…conceived of the church as an instrument that could be useful to him.”

Tactical Christianity. The corruption of Christian moral authority. Still a challenge today.

Jack

PS In 1997, Bonhoeffer’s former student, friend, and confidant, Eberhard Bethge wrote: “Are we mature members of our society, states, corporations, and churches?… Unavoidably, we either corrupt or renew the Christian claim and faith. Even in the nuclear, ecological, and feminist age, no one eludes the demands of citizenship with which Bonhoeffer struggled.”