Tag Archives: Bible

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.

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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

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Taking the Right Book: Walking with Mary

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’ve been trying to make more time for reading actual books lately, as opposed to having nearly all of my reading material come from an electronic screen.  When I started reading “Walking with Mary” by Edward Sri the other day however, I got a few pages in and immediately stopped, because I realized I wanted to read it somewhere other than on the couch.  I saved it to read on a mini-retreat I had last Saturday at the Priory of the Dominican House of Studies here in D.C.; as you will see at the end of this post, it was providential that I did.

In his book, Dr. Sri examines the life of the Virgin Mary from a Biblical perspective, focusing on the Gospels of St. Luke and St. John, and thereby taking us on a spiritual journey along with her, in order to try to understand both her Son and the working of God’s Will in her and indeed in our own lives a bit better.   From the Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel to the young girl in Nazareth, to the sorrowful mother at the foot of the Cross on Calvary, we are reminded that what we know now, Mary did not know then.  Dr. Sri shows us what a truly great woman of faith Mary was, because she did not know how everything was going to play out, only that God had made a promise: her faith that He would keep His promises kept her going, and can help us to keep going as well.

Dr. Sri takes the time to pause and examine words which, when translated into English, we may not stop to think much about, but which in the original text have a more profound significance.  For example, he explains how at the Annunciation, when Mary gives her “Yes” that God’s Will be done and that she bear the Messiah, the word she uses is not one implying meek resignation, but rather a joyful embrace of what is being asked.  In accepting what God wants her to do, Mary does not simply shrug her shoulders and say, “Sure, okay,” but more like, “Yes! Let’s do this!”

In looking at the life of Christ, Dr. Sri also takes the time to point out some of the thought-provoking parallels that we can pick up by more closely reading and paying attention to the Gospel accounts.  Thus, when Jesus enters the world at the Nativity, he does so in humility, poverty, and suffering, brought about at the hands of the Romans who have not only occupied Israel, but are forcing the heavily pregnant Virgin Mary to travel with St. Joseph to Bethlehem for a census.  Similarly, as Jesus heads to Golgotha, he does so in humility, poverty, and suffering, having been tortured and condemned to death by that same Roman Empire.

Dr. Sri finds many such Biblical bookends for us to consider throughout this very thoroughly-researched, yet highly readable book.  In St. Luke’s Gospel, just as the Infant Jesus is wrapped in linen and laid in a borrowed manger, so Jesus the Man is wrapped in linen and laid in a borrowed tomb.  In St. John’s Gospel, we see that the Virgin Mary is there at the very beginning of Christ’s public ministry, when he performs His first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana, and addresses her for the first time as “Woman”.  She is also there at the very end of that ministry on Calvary, when He addresses her as “Woman” for the last time as He sheds his blood.  The way in which the wheels which she set in motion at Cana by asking Him to step into the public eye for the first time, and at last come to their fulfillment on Calvary, is something I had not deeply considered before.  And Dr. Sri’s thoughts on Mary as the new Eve, alongside the significance of wine in the Bible, which he covers toward the end of the book, were extremely impressive.

I spent Saturday afternoon reading this book in the chapel of the Priory, and after finishing it I made my way to the front door to leave.  As I did so I happened to stop to glance at a table across from the porter’s desk, where there are always brochures and handouts for the taking.  There, I just so happened to find a stack of postcards, announcing that Dr. Sri is going to be leading a Washington Archdiocesan mens’ retreat this coming Sunday, March 22nd.  Clearly in taking this particular book along to Dominican House, if I might paraphrase the old knight in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, I had chosen wisely.  While I myself am not going to be able to attend this conference with Dr. Sri, those gentlemen reading this post here in the D.C. area certainly can.

Yet regardless of whether you can go along to meet the man or not, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Dr. Sri’s “Walking with Mary”.  If you are seeking some good spiritual reading this Lent, you will not be disappointed. And throughout the year, in the journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem, Dr. Sri’s book would be a wonderful companion as we go through the liturgical seasons, as indeed is the woman who is its subject.

Detail of "The Visitation" by the Master of the Aachen Altarpiece (c. 1480) Aachen Cathedral, Germany

Detail of “The Visitation” by the Master of the Aachen Altarpiece (c. 1480)
Aachen Cathedral, Germany

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Premiering Tonight: The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land

Those who are regular perusers of these pages will remember my review of Diana von Glahn’s terrific series “The Faithful Traveler” on EWTN.  Well now, Diana is back with a new series, premiering tonight at 6:30 pm Eastern on EWTN, which she and her husband David talked about with us recently on the Catholic Weekend show.  In “The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land”, the von Glahns take us on the pilgrimage of a lifetime, and you will most definitely want to come along for the trip.

Employing a mix of documentary-style footage, unscripted observations, and interesting interviews, with – I have to say – some beautifully photographed segments and well-designed, appropriately helpful graphics, this six-part series covers many of the places most of us only know from Bible stories.  From Mount Carmel, Bethlehem, and Nazareth, to Jericho, Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, we are shown all over Israel and Palestine.  Along the way we see many amazing things, we meet interesting people, we laugh, and we may even shed a tear.

We also come to appreciate why seeing these places is such a wonderful opportunity for Christians to understand their faith on a new level.  As Diana takes great pains to point out, we cannot know for certain, in most cases, whether a particular contemporary structure does in fact stand on the site of the original one from Biblical times.  Yet without focusing so much on that issue, she helps the viewer to consider the broader historicity of the Bible.  For example, St. Luke in his Gospel describes the Virgin Mary as proceeding in haste to the Hill Country in Judea, to visit the now-pregnant St. Elizabeth.  Well and there it is, on screen: the Hill Country of Judea, which as Diana shows us, is very hilly indeed.

Throughout this well-produced series, it is difficult to imagine a more engaging on-screen travel companion in the land of the Bible than Diana.  She has done her homework, as any good guide should, mixing a careful balance of providing information of interest to all, with offering some clarification for those who might not have heard of a particular term or concept before.  She is a charming, natural tour guide, never saccharine, and clearly enjoyed the experience – that comes through in spades during the series.  At the same time, she is also realistic about things, such as how exhausting all of the walking is going to be if you do go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

One technical aspect of the show I personally appreciated, and which a lesser producer would not have bothered to take the time to do, was the incorporation of subtitles when needed.  While someone on camera may well be speaking English, we have all been in a situation where we can understand what someone with a thick accent is saying when they are speaking *to* us, but not when they are recorded.  The show makes certain that if there is any question about whether the speaker can be understood, the subtitles go in to help the viewer.

I also appreciated the fact that Diana does not just visit the sites one would expect her to, like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, although of course she does so and takes part in the pious devotions associated with them to show us how it’s done.  However she also takes the time to visit some lesser-known gems in the Holy Land, which I might not otherwise have seen or heard about.  The beautiful little Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation for example, is much smaller than the Basilica of the Annunciation nearby, and yet to my mind is a far more beautiful structure.  And I was surprised to learn about the Church of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, with its beautiful blue and white azulejos and religious art from Spain, given that I have a particular devotion to his birthday and connection to that country.

The fact that there were these two beautiful churches, among many highlighted in the series, surprised me a great deal, as I have seen so many images of really hideous structures over there.  Of course, there is the sweep of history to consider, and Diana makes the point of explaining – and in some cases being able to show us – how layer upon layer of Christian buildings were built one atop the other, as styles changed and wars and time damaged older construction.  Moreover, when she likes something in a building, she likes it, and when she is not so fond of something, she is charitable about it, which is a virtue I could certainly get better at practicing.

Diana also takes time to draw attention to the fact that the native Christian populations in the Holy Land are declining, a phenomenon we are seeing throughout the Middle East.  One comes to understand and appreciate that in many cases, these pilgrimage shrines are not just historic sites, but people’s parish churches, and a part of their community fabric.  So often in these conflicts the plight of Christians caught in the middle are completely ignored by the outside world, while not-so-subtle threats are posted – as Diana shows us – against those who choose to practice Christianity.  The safety and well-being of these communities is something all of us ought to be keeping in our prayers.

You can watch a preview of “The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land” below, and for air times for all six parts, as well as re-air dates, be sure to check the EWTN website.  You can also purchase copies of BOTH series from the von Glahns at their own site, and particularly for those of my readers who are homeschoolers, this might be something very much worth looking into.  It is a real pleasure to see my fellow Domer Diana back on television again with such a terrific series, one which I highly recommend to my readers.

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St. Martha and the Apostolate of Polite Society

Many years ago I recall reading a story about Red Cross volunteers in Britain during the War.  As they were being assigned tasks, the society women who had presented themselves were appalled at the roles they were being asked to take on.  Many of these well-to-women were being told to do extremely menial, often very dirty jobs, which would normally be assigned to their domestic servants or manual workers.  Folding linen or arranging flowers was one thing, but to have to get down on one’s hands and knees and scrub out toilets (and what tends to fall onto the floor surrounding toilets) was simply beyond their comprehension.

Realizing that nothing was going to be accomplished this way, a duchess who was the highest-ranking society lady among them – possibly the Duchess of Devonshire but I cannot recall for certain – volunteered to scrub out the latrines.  The ladies around her then realized that if a woman of such a high place in society would willingly humble herself in this way, then they themselves could not but swallow their pride and imitate her example.  After that, things rolled along smoothly.

I was thinking about this tale this morning in reflecting on the life of St. Martha of Bethany, whose feast day is today.  St. Martha as the reader may well know was  the sister of St. Mary Magdalen and St. Lazarus, who the Bible tells us were all friends of Jesus.  Indeed, St. John specifically tells us that Jesus “loved” these three siblings, meaning they were very close friends indeed.

Unfortunately, St. Martha is thought of in an off-hand sort of way.  We get the impression that she was a fastidious hostess, a kind of Margo Leadbetter of Scripture, because of Christ’s famous admonition to her of, “Martha, Martha…”, when she was striding about the house getting things ready, while her sister sat at the feet of Jesus.  We think about that instruction and how it applies to us at times, perhaps, but we forget that Christ’s message was first applied directly to St. Martha herself, and that she must have taken in His words and thought deeply about them.

In focusing on that particular part of what we know of St. Martha’s life, we ignore what happened later.  Keep in mind that St. Martha is recognized as a saint in Heaven.  And she did not reach that point by throwing the best dinner parties in suburban Jerusalem, but rather as a result of the fact that she rose to the occasion by humbling herself.

After the death of her brother, when Jesus returns to Bethany to pay His respects, St. Martha does several highly unusual things for someone of her (assumed) character:

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home.
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
[But] even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.”
Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying, “The teacher is here and is asking for you.”

(St. John 11:20-28)

Note that when she learns Jesus is arriving in Bethany, St. Martha was in official mourning.  No doubt she was dressed in black, receiving visitors, and performing all the duties which the woman who is the head of a household was expected to perform upon the death of a close relative.  Keep in mind how rigid the social customs and conventions of her day were, and how far more stringent they were under these circumstances compared to today.  

Just to raise a couple of points among many which we could consider, note instead of waiting for Christ to come to her, which would have been the proper and customary thing to do, St. Martha leaves the house full of relatives and guests and comes out to meet Jesus on the road. This would no doubt have been considered extremely improper by her peers. Yet just by that one act, it shows us that St. Martha has internalized Christ’s earlier message to her about knowing when to stop worrying about conventions and social proprieties and start thinking about what people actually need, like the example of the highly proper and socially upright Miss Deborah Jenkins in “Cranford”, walking in a funeral procession alongside a devastated young woman who has just lost her only sibling, in complete rejection of the accepted standards of the time, because she was needed and regardless of her personal feelings on the matter.

And then there is the kicker.  For when Jesus declares that “I am the resurrection and the life,” a statement which is so often reflected upon by Christians in times of crisis, and which we forget was said in the context of this conversation with St. Martha, how does St. Martha respond to His question?  By committing what the chief priests, scribes, and her own neighbors would have considered an act of blasphemy: she declares that she believes that Jesus is the Messiah, and not just that, but the Son of God.

By stating what she did, in public, in front of witnesses, St. Martha could have been stoned to death on the spot.  St. Martha, society hostess, always worrying about things which two thousand years later we would expect someone like Martha Stewart to be fussing over – whether the soup is the right temperature, or if the new linen will be ready in time for her next social event, or whether this new wine is going to be too bold to go with the fish – suddenly finds herself making an extraordinary act of faith that could quite literally have gotten her killed.  She humbles herself and puts her own life at risk, so as to glorify God.

On her feast day then, let us take a step back and look at St. Martha in a bit of a wider perspective than what we often call to mind with respect to her role in salvation history.  There is nothing wrong with having high standards for behavior, speech, dress, etc., or taking care of the needs of life in such a way as to want to do them well.  Yet St. Martha learned, and clearly internalized, what Jesus taught her, which is that one must be willing to put all of that aside, and to humble oneself before God, rather than let the concerns of this world obscure the goal of the next.

And as a postscript, I like to think that St. Martha was allowed by Our Lord to see that British duchess on her hands and knees, scrubbing toilets with as much care as she would normally have put into adorning her own person or arranging flowers in a crystal vase, and that she recognized a bit of herself in it.

Fantin

“White Roses” by Henri Fantin-Latour (1875)
York Art Gallery, York, England

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