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.]


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,


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….