A Pre-Christmas Biblical Reflection…

October 28, 2017

The only biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth are found in Matthew 1-2 (composed most likely between 80 and 90 CE) and in Luke 1-2 (composed between 80 and 110 CE). The biblical authors were not eyewitness observers when Jesus was born….but their faith in Jesus Christ was strong indeed.

Contemporary theologians speak about “infancy narratives” about the birth of Jesus not about infancy stories. They stress that the narratives present more of a theological understanding of Jesus than a strictly historical one. The infancy narrative in Matthew was written for Jewish converts to Christianity, while the infancy narrative in Luke was written for highly educated Gentile converts to Christianity.  

Although I have rarely done it in the Christmas season, I have found the infancy narratives a helpful way to begin an historical-critical understanding of the Gospels. In these days of alt-truth and bizarre interpretations of Christian belief, a healthy and balanced approach to Bible study is of great contemporary importance. It requires faith and study.

With an historical-critical understanding of Sacred Scripture, we appreciate the great variety of literary forms in our Jewish and Christian scriptures (imaginative figurative language, simile, metaphor, symbol, history, etc.) and that while there is indeed history in Sacred Scripture, it is secondary to theological content: who God is for us and who we are in relationship to God.  The infancy narratives are a fine example. Taking a close look at the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, we see a variety of literary forms and some significant differences: 

(1) Luke mentions the census of Quirinius which requires Joseph to go  to Bethlehem.  

(2) Matthew, however, gives no details of how Joseph and Mary came to be in Bethlehem.

(3) In Luke, shepherds guided by an angel find Jesus in the manger.

(4) In Matthew, wise men from the East, guided by a star, come not to
Bethlehem but to Jerusalem to worship the Infant. 

(5) In Matthew Joseph flees with his wife and child to Egypt where they
live until Herod’s death; then they return to Nazareth instead of  Bethlehem.  

(6) Luke, on the other hand, does not mention the descent into Egypt.
Instead, he describes how the Infant is brought to Jerusalem for the ritual  of the first-born. 

(7) Luke and Matthew are not necessarily contradictory, but they are
quite different from one another. AND there are some historical problems if one sees them as strict history: Herod died in 4 BCE. The census of Quirinius was in 6 CE. 

By the way, there is no mention of three kings in either infancy narrative. ONLY Matthew mentions “some wise men.” 

A real expert on the infancy narratives was the US Roman Catholic biblical scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown (1928-1998). Brown would agree with the present consensus of scholars that the infancy narratives were created by the early Christian community primarily to express its theological belief about Jesus Christ.  

The central element in the earliest Christian Proclamation was the Holy Spirit’s “designating” Jesus as the Son of God in association with his Resurrection. As the Christian community reflected on Jesus as the Son of God—so designated by the Holy Spirit—this designation was projected back into Jesus’ life: (1) Because of their belief in his divinity, early Christians creatively imagined the birth of Jesus to have occurred in a certain way, and (2) Hebrew Scriptures events were re-interpreted as pointing to Jesus. Some specific examples and comments: 

(1) Matthew makes use of the story of Moses to explain who Jesus is as the New Moses. Matthew also reinterprets the prophecy found in Isaiah 7:14 that King Ahaz (742 BCE) will have a son and then applies it to Jesus: “Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Matthew also constructs a highly stylized genealogy to show a direct line from Abraham, father of the Jewish people, down to Joseph father of Jesus. Matthew has the wise men following the star of Jesus. In the ancient world every important person had his special star; and, therefore, the author of Matthew’s Gospel presumed Jesus had his special star. 

(2) Luke focuses more on Mary and the shepherds and angels, because his audience did not have much background in Jewish Scriptures: Mary learns from an angel, Gabriel, that she will conceive and bear a child called Jesus. When she asks how this can be, since she is a virgin, he tells her that the Holy Spirit would “come upon her” and that “nothing will be impossible with God.” At the time that Mary is due to give birth, she and her husband, Joseph, travel from their home in Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral home in Bethlehem to register in the census of Quirinius. Mary gives birth to Jesus and, having found no place for themselves in the inn, places the newborn in a manger (feeding trough).  An angel of the Lord visits the shepherds guarding their flocks in nearby fields and brings them “good news of great joy”: “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Mary and Joseph take Jesus to Jerusalem to be circumcised, before returning to their home in Nazareth.  

Over the years, and for Roman Catholics especially since the September 1943 encyclical by Pope Pius XII: Divino Afflante Spiritu, Christians have moved from a literal to an historical-critical understanding of the Bible. Before 1943, for example, Catholic teaching was that Moses was the author of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament). TODAY…we know this was impossible. We have grown in our understanding. Moses lived around 1648 BCE. The Pentateuch (first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures) was written between 950 BCE and 400 BCE. 

The infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke are creative interpretations of the birth of Jesus the Christ, written to explain Christian belief to religiously and culturally different groups: educated Jewish converts, in Syria, for Matthew; and highly educated Gentile converts in an urban setting in Greece for Luke. In their unique ways, they affirm that Jesus Christ is truly “SON OF MAN” – fully human in a very special way — AND “SON OF GOD” – truly Divine and God’s revelation for all humanity. 

Considering the creative imagery of the infancy narratives, one can ask about other New Testament imagery.  That may well be a future reflection………

Right now, in our turbulent world, it is enough to reassure one another that we are not alone in our human journey. God has not abandoned us.

It Started with a Letter to the Archbishop 

19 October 2017

He was born on November 10, 1483 and died on February 18, 1546. Martin Luther was a Catholic priest, composer, and professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. Protesting abusive indulgence practices in the Catholic Church, he became a key figure in the Protestant Reformation.

This year we celebrate his 500th anniversary. 

He may or may not have actually nailed them to the church door in Wittenberg, (the majority of contemporary Luther researchers stress that Luther did NOT nail his theses to the door of the Castle Church) but on 31 October 1517 theologian Martin Luther did send his “Ninety-Five Theses” to Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz. His theses were a list of propositions for an academic disputation about abusive practices connected with the Roman Catholic sale of indulgences. 

A bit of background: Although one does not hear much about it these days, medieval Catholics had a strong belief in PURGATORY: a place of temporal punishment between hell and heaven, a place to purge souls of the remnants of sin and enable them to eventually move on into heavenly glory. They visualized the time in purgatory the same way they understood earthly punishment or imprisionment for criminal actions: calculated in so many days, months, or years. 

An indulgence was like an official pardon that could wipe out all or part of the time one had to spend in purgatorial punishment and purification. Church authorities could grant indulgences for saying certain prayers, performing good deeds, or visiting and praying at special shrines. If one had a loved one who had died, for instance, a person could gain indulgences for him or her and lessen the number of days that person would have to endure the pains of purgatory. One could also pile up indulgences for oneself; and indulgences could be plenary (wiping out all purgatorial time) or partial (just wiping out a certain number of days). If, for example, one performed a pious act labeled as “300 days’ partial indulgence,” then that person would spend 300 fewer days in purgatory. 

By the late Middle Ages, granting indulgences became big time big business for the church. In Martin Luther’s Wittenberg, for example, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican monk and a popular preacher, visited churches and traveled through neighboring towns and villages selling indulgences at good prices. He was a top salesman. Legend says he even had a little jingle for selling his indulgences:  “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings/ The soul from Purgatory springs.”  

The pope too was in the indulgence business. In the early sixteenth century, the current St. Peter’s basilica in Rome was under construction but the pope ran out of money. Indulgences solved his financial problems. More than a few coins of course had to ring in the
papal coffers…..

On March 15, 1517, Pope Leo X declared that anyone who contributed to the St. Peter’s building project would be granted an indulgence. His decree explains the product he was selling and its benefits: “…[I] absolve you …from all your sins, transgressions, and excesses regardless how enormous they might be…and remit all punishment which you deserve in purgatory on their account; and I restore you…to the innocence and purity which you possessed at baptism, so that when you die the gates of punishment shall be shut… If you shall not die at present, this grace shall remain in full force when you are at the point of death.” That’s quite an insurance policy. 

Luther of course was disgusted and flabbergasted at such a crass distortion of Christianity. The young theologian, was strongly condemned by church authorities and the Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Nevertheless, he was a Christian prophet and his message endured. 

In every age we need to be alert and critical and prophetic believers. Institutions and institutional leaders (as we see in the political arena as well) often succumb to self-promoting power maneuvers that distort the truth, offer people false hopes, and end up using and abusing them. There will always be someone who takes advantage of people and offers them quick salvation by selling the latest golden calf. 

It would help if we could see the church not as an institution but as a community of faith: a vibrant community of brothers and sisters, united in the spirit of Christ, and constructively critiquing and motivating each other to be his living presence in our contemporary society.  

Jesus of course said absolutely nothing about indulgences. He never constructed a golden calf. He did say the Reign of God has already begun….He wants us to live the Reign of God here and now, today. 

We can ignore all the contemporary, and often colorful, Johann Tetzels. 

Thank you Martin Luther! 

Words — Reality — Bridges 

5 October 2017

I feel our language has been so impoverished by mass media headlines, Facebook exclamations, and twitter outbursts that it is difficult to express genuine concerns today about the demise of human solidarity, compassion, and civilityProtest movements and counter-protest movements, becoming increasingly violent, are tearing the country apart. These developments are hardly limited to the United States of course. Hardened Catalan attitudes against Madrid and vice versa, as both sides dig in, may very well trigger a constitutional crisis, with profound implications for Spain and Europe. 

Where do we go from here? We are caught in a kind of disruption, disorientation, and social malaise……..One only needs to mention names: Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, Charlottesville …..Varieties of physical, psychological, and social climate change. Institutional and political impotence abound. Again on both sides of the Atlantic. This week in Rome at the famous Roman Catholic Gregorian University, a conference is being held on “The Dignity of the Child in the Digital World.” International experts are exploring the issue of child protection on the internet. At the very same time, a Vatican diplomat, accused by Canadian authorities of downloading child pornography in Canada, is living inside Vatican City and strolling in the papal gardens, protected by the Vatican’s sovereign diplomatic immunity.

People react in strange ways. And we hear strange voices. The Rev. Pat Robertson has blamed LGBTQ people for the recent hurricanes; and he says that disrespect for the US flag and the US president are the real cause of the Las Vegas mass shootings…….Simple explanations? An Arkansas firefighter wrote on Facebook that NFL players who kneel during the national anthem should be shot in the head. He wrote that President Donald Trump “should post snipers at every game” and they should fire their weapons at any player who refuses to stand for the national anthem.  

Words and actions. How they affect us, and how we react to them. How do we really handle angry rage? Right now it seems to me that more people are interested in yelling and screaming about athletes kneeling for the national anthem than they are about the men, women, and children dying in Puerto Rico. What words and actions best express a commitment to “the land of the free and the home of the brave”? 

Talking with an American friend this week, I said I was concerned about a loss of civility, the rise of vitriolic hatred, and a lack of compassion in contemporary society. He said he was more concerned about a loss of respect for the flag. I said perhaps respect for the flag is best demonstrated by concerted actions in support of people suffering and dying. “It is about symbols and meaning,” I said. 

“It’s about patriotism,” he said, “and a lack of traditional American Christian values.” 

Christian values. I chuckled and said I was happy to get into a theological discussion. Love and hatred, friendship and alienation, wealth and poverty, guilt and forgiveness, and most of the other things that make life happy or miserable for people are rooted in spiritual realities.  

“Acceptance, belonging, community, and forgiveness are spiritual realities” I said. “They take root in people, when they have shelter, warmth, nourishment, medication, and a healthy environment.” 

“Thanks for the pious talk,” my friend said. “I have to get back to reality.” End of that conversation. 

Reality….When we look at the life of Jesus in the synoptic gospels, we see it characterized by ministry to others, especially the sick and the suffering. In the fourth gospel, Jesus tells his disciples in no uncertain terms that they are to love one another in the same way that he loved them. 

We need conversion and bridge-building. Conversion means a serious examination of conscience and behavior. Are our attitudes and our behavior authentically Christian? This is the big reality question. 

If we are going to be authentically Christian we need to repair and construct some bridges: 

How about respectful dialogue bridges between far-right and far-left Christians? If we are all part of the Body of Christ, we need to get our behavior in sync. This is a bridge I need to work on…. 

How about respectful dialogue bridges between Republicans and Democrats? A house divided against itself will not survive. I am a Democrat and most of my family are Republicans. We do love and respect each other.  

How about respectful dialogue bridges between “straight” and gay and transgender people? Along with respectful listening and dialogue with researchers in the fields of human sexuality and gender issues. 

How about respectful dialogue bridges between the economically impoverished and the advantaged wealthy?  
Some quick thoughts, in our restless days. All of these issues would be great adult education themes….

I agree with Isaac Newton: “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”