Meeting At Bethany

The attentive reader will look at the calendar and realize that this coming Sunday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. In Spain – and possibly in other places as well – today, the Friday shortly before Palm Sunday, has its own spiritual tradition, based partly on Scripture and partly on tradition. Whether or not one accepts the theory, I think you’ll find it an interesting point of reflection.

We know from the Gospels that prior to entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus was staying with his close friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in Bethany. Indeed, St. John’s Gospel places the raising of Lazarus from the dead before Palm Sunday. In Spain, it is commonly believed that on the Friday before Palm Sunday, Jesus’ Mother Mary was in Bethany as well. Moreover, pious belief is that He told her, on that Friday, what was going to happen to Him the following Friday.

There is a certain logic to this belief. Surely if the Virgin Mary had heard about the death of Lazarus, it would have been reasonable for her, as a Jewish matron, to go comfort Lazarus’ sisters. Her presence in Bethany at the time, and staying there to celebrate Passover rather than returning to Nazareth, would also explain why, within hours of Jesus’ arrest, she is present in Jerusalem to witness His execution. After all, Nazareth is about 90 miles from Jerusalem, whereas Bethany is only about a mile and a half away.

Even if Jesus did not get to see His Mother prior to entering into His Passion, she was of course there to witness His sacrifice on Calvary. Yet I rather fancy that He did see her. Perhaps they talked late into the night that Friday, or perhaps she simply accepted what He told her, much as she accepted the message of the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, which we commemorated this week. She may not have been able to understand how God would bring about what she was told would happen, but once again she did not shy away. She believed, and put herself at His service.

image

Detail, "Virgin of Sorrows" by Murillo

Monday of Holy Week: Following the Right Path

What sort of path are you on right now, as we begin Holy Week?

Yesterday’s Passion reading at Sunday Mass came from the Gospel of St. Matthew.  In St. Matthew’s account, after Jesus is arrested and brought before the chief priests and the elders, He does not respond to their questions and accusations, until the High Priest Caiphas orders Him to answer under oath before God.  In other words, if he but had the humility to know it, Caiphas is ordering God to swear by Himself.

This type of oath, in which God swears by Himself, occurs in a few places in Scripture.  For example, fed up with the selfishness of the Jewish people, God makes the oath, “I swear by Myself” via the prophet Jeremiah, that they will be punished if they do not turn away from their path of unrepentant sin and paganism.  When they choose not to listen, Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed.  The Jews are quite literally taken off their path, and forcibly marched off down another: that to exile in Babylon.

When God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac – which of course is paralleled in the Father’s sacrifice of the Son in the Gospels – Abraham humbly and, one suspects, a bit sorrowfully, takes the path up into the mountains in order to do God’s Will.  When he is about to act and kill his son, God stops the sacrifice, and forms His covenant with Abraham.  “I swear by Myself,” God promises, that Abraham’s descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, or the sands on the seashore, and be a blessing for the whole world.

In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Caiphas is so intent on protecting his position, that he doesn’t want to hear anything that will make him have to change the path he is on.  He tears his clothes when Jesus tells him the truth, because he is not willing to humble himself, let alone be obedient.  The signs pointing to Jesus as the Messiah have been before Caiphas for years, both in the prophecies from Scripture and in the words and deeds of Jesus Himself.  Yet Caiphas has fallen so far off the path of seeking God’s Will in his life, that if he was truly open to considering the possibility that this was the Messiah, he would have been a bit more careful with his words.  For clearly, having God swear by Himself is not something to be taken lightly.

Holy Week is the perfect time to follow the signposts in your life leading you back onto the path of humble obedience to the Will of God.  After all, this is the path Christ Himself trod, and what we as Christians are called to imitate.  And the best way that you can do that this week, is by following the signs to your local church’s confessional.  I’ll be in line there myself, and afterwards, we can all go get back on the right path together.

IMG_20140324_115529

Seeking the Real Holy Grail

The news media has been a-buzz this week over a new book claiming that the Holy Grail, the cup used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, is in a museum in the city of Leon, Spain.  Both the research and speculation have been interesting, albeit in a Dan Brown sort of way.  Less interesting has been the criticism from those who dispute the existence of this object.

No serious historian disputes that Jesus Christ lived in Judea in the 1st Century A.D.  The events of the Last Supper which He celebrated with His disciples are recalled not only by the Gospel writers, but even earlier by St. Paul, in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians, where he describes what he has been told about the Last Supper by the Apostles in Jerusalem.  Some sort of drinking vessel was passed around the table by Jesus, and all present were invited to drink from it.

The form that vessel took is entirely open to debate, because there are no descriptions of it in the Bible, nor are we told what happened to it after the meal was over.  Perhaps it was unremarkable to look at, and was just cleared away with the rest of the dirty dishes that evening.  There is a famous scene in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” where Indy has to pick from a range of different styles of cups and chalices.  Choosing the most simple version, he comments, “This looks like the cup of a carpenter,” as the basis for making his (correct) selection.

However while that assumption seems logical at first, further consideration reveals that Indy has no real basis for that assertion.  Jesus and the Apostles were not at home in Galilee when they celebrated the Last Supper during Passover.  Instead, they were in the upper room of someone else’s home in the city of Jerusalem.  We have no way of knowing how plain or fancy the cup that He passed around was.

Admittedly, there are all kinds of fairy tales surrounding what happened to this object.  In the French and English-speaking world, such stories usually involve King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.  However the fact that the object became cloaked in legend, does not mean that the object itself did not exist.  Nor for that matter does it mean that the object does not exist today.

There are many claimants to the title of “The” Holy Grail.  My money is still on the cup currently housed in the Cathedral of Valencia, and not just because I’m half-Catalan.  The central drinking cup of that chalice is an agate drinking bowl probably from Egypt, now surrounded by later, medieval mountings, and which has been dated to around 50 B.C.  That seems a reasonably plausible choice for a special-occasion drinking vessel, used on Passover in the 1st century A.D., in a Near Eastern city like Jerusalem.

Of course, there’s no way to know for sure whether any one of the extant vessels claiming the title of “Holy Grail” was used by Jesus.  This latest theory about the cup in Leon is simply a theory, as interesting a theory as it may be.  What we do know for certain is that every time a chalice is used for the celebration of Mass, it becomes, in effect, the Holy Grail.  Jesus’ gift of Himself through the institution of the Eucharist that night is far more important than the existence of any one, historical object, no matter how closely associated with Jesus that object may be.

"The Last Supper" by Jaume Huguet (c. 1450) Museu Nacional D'art de Catalunya, Barcelona

“The Last Supper” by Jaume Huguet (c. 1450)
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona