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Archive for the ‘Scripture’ Category

We look to the stories and mythology of our culture for answers to the big questions about life: How did we get here? Why are we here? What do we learn from the stories of our past? How do we shape the stories of our future? For Jews and Christians, the Bible is the primary place we look for these answers, beginning with “Who is God?” What is our relationship to this God? How has that shaped our stories, our history, our very lives?

This past weekend, the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky opened to the public. Steve Bogner had a great post on it last week. Because it’s quite close to Cincinnati, our local paper is giving it a lot of play. But it even made the New York Times. The Times article called attention to one display that I have to say I found quite amusing:

We learn that chameleons, for example, change colors not because that serves as a survival mechanism, but “to ‘talk’ to other chameleons, to show off their mood, and to adjust to heat and light.”

Who would have thought?!! I find that I can’t even put myself into a mindset that would look to one book of the Bible for literal answers about God’s immense and wonderful creation. At times it seems as through the whole creationist debate takes place somewhere far removed from the Scriptures of my faith. And yet because extremists at the other end of the philosophical and religious spectrum will use this absurdity to reject all belief in the Bible, I find that I can’t just ignore it.

The story of the Bible is the story of our creation and redemption, an activity that is ongoing, a neverending story that continues after the written word ends. The incarnation of Jesus so completed the original story begun in Genesis that our tradition could close the canon of revelation, but we find new and fuller understandings of that story as we grow in knowledge and wisdom as a people of God. I’m reminded of a saying by theologian and storyteller Megan McKenna: “All stories are true. Some of them actually happened. ” The stories in the Bible tell me a special kind of truth and through them I can listen for the word of God. But then, come to think of it, I listen for the word of God in everything I read and hear and experience. Maybe that’s the difference.

P.S. Because all of this talk of truth and facts is bringing me dangerously close to the concept of truthiness, I leave you with this reflection on the importance of learning new things.

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Perhaps one of the most endearing images in popular religious art is that of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Children immediately grasp this image, indentifying with the cute lamb held in Jesus’ loving arms. In fact, this image lends its name to a method of religious education called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Based on Montessori educational methods, it encourages children to learn and grow in their faith in ways that involve their whole selves. Urban—and urbane—adults sometimes have more of a struggle with this image, setting it aside, perhaps, for more sophisticated and rational understandings of their faith, but each year during the Easter season we find ourselves once more confronting this image and reflecting on our response.

Our adult minds, filled with a misplaced pride, sometimes reject the image of the Good Shepherd because we don’t want to think of ourselves as sheep. Sheep are not particularly bright animals. Placid, vulnerable to predators, their only real defense is flocking together in a large group. If the whole group strays from a safe pasture, they’re all lost. And an individual separated from the flock is easily picked off by a wolf or coyote. The more we know about sheep, the less attractive the image is. But in our heart of hearts, we know that this is exactly how we behave sometimes. When we feel threatened, we panic. We bunch together with like-minded people in the belief that our numbers alone will make our position right. We forget that we need God’s providential care and we think that we can go it alone—but we can’t. At the most difficult times in our lives, we know that we need someone to lean on, someone to watch over us. And no one can do that better than the God who knows and loves us in our folly as well as our finest moments. It’s no accident that the psalm most often read at funeral liturgies is Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” When it comes right down to it, we know with every fiber of our being that we need God.

Jesus the Good Shepherd is not the product of some fussy Victorian artwork. In John’s Gospel, part of which we hear today, Jesus himself offers an extended reflection on his statement, “I am the Good Shepherd.” This is an image with deep roots in the Hebrew Scriptures, which emerged, like the Gospels, from a rural, pastoral culture in which sheep and goats provided much of the food, clothing and shelter for the people. The prophets speak of God acting as a shepherd to the people. David, he greatest king in the Old Testament, was chosen while caring for flock and was often referred to as a shepherd king. And Jesus frames the metaphor in terms of a protective love, a shepherd who risks his own life for the life of the flock. The threat of predators is very real, both for sheep and for humans.

Being a shepherd is no task for the weak. A tiny lamb is cute and cuddly, but in a very short time that lamb is heavy, strong, stubborn and unwieldy. The shepherd must be strong enough to tend the sheep, at times setting it up on end for medication, hoof trimming and shearing. But the shepherd must also be gentle enough not to frighten the sheep into heart failure. Our God takes much the same pproach with us. And so we come to reflect on the Good Shepherd with both a childlike faith and an awareness of adult dangers. It is an image of comfort, but an image of strong comfort. The words of St. Francis deSales come to mind: “There is nothing so strong as real gentleness, and nothing so gentle as real strength.”

Finally, for a contemporary look at sheep and shepherds, you might want to visit The Yeoman Farmer. I can’t have my own sheep at this time, but I’m living vicariously this year through his descriptions and pictures of his icelandic sheep.

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It’s the rare Friday evening that I curl up with a Vatican document, but I suspect I’ll be doing just that today. The Vatican released the Lineamenta for the upcoming world synod of bishops today. They missed the feast of St. Mark by two days. That would have been a nice touch. More when I’ve had a chance to read through the document and reflect on it a bit.

Just a random quote from the preface:

The Word of God, then, casts its rays on every aspect of the Church’s life and, by its presence in society, also acts as a leaven for a more just and peaceful world, devoid of every kind of violence and open to the building of a civilization of love.

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Today’s Gospel pulls together themes and echoes of the many stories of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee: the call of the fishermen to be the first disciples, the multiplication of bread and fish to feed the crowds, the miraculous catch of fish, the meal shared with Jesus, the breaking of the bread. These are the iconic, significant events both before and after the resurrection, and the writer of John’s Gospel shows us how the apostles needed to deepen their understanding of these events.

The resurrection indeed changed everything on a cosmic level, but Peter, John and the rest were still going out fishing in their boats. So it is with us. It takes a lifetime of living our faith to achieve a real integration of what we do in our everyday lives with what we profess on Sunday. And Jesus understands this. This is why he focused his parables and actions on the most basic aspects of the daily lives of his listeners and followers. He strove throughout his time on earth to forge this connection.

At the last supper he said, “When you eat and drink, remember me.” And in Luke’s Gospel, a stranger walked with the disciples on the road to Emmaus and explained and interpreted the scriptures for them, but it wasn’t until he broke bread with them that they recognized him as the Lord. Here in John’s Gospel the stranger on the beach, tending a charcoal fire, patiently leads them through their memories of him and his actions and they, too, recognize him as Lord.

We also witness a most poignant meeting between Jesus and Peter. In John’s passion narrative, we last see Peter warming his hands over a charcoal fire in the courtyard, filled with fear and anger. Three times he denies even knowing the man being tried and crucified, the man he swore to give his life to defend. Back to today’s Gospel, one wonders whether the charcoal fire at dawn on the beach brought back shameful memories of this denial. Many people interpret this threefold affirmation of his love as a healing of that denial. Healed of his shame, forgiven by the very person he denied, he can go on to live the ministry to which he’s been called.

The original Greek used in this story is even more revealing. It shows us that God is always willing to meet us where we are, understanding our limitations and failings, but always encouraging us to grow in our faith. First, a little background. (Disclaimer: I’ve thus far only dabbled in Greek [my preferred biblical language is Hebrew], so I’m gleaning some of this from what I’ve read elsewhere. Feel free to clarify in the comments.) Biblical Greek has three main words for love: eros, sensuous, physical, sexual love; philia, the love of friends and brothers (think of Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love); and agape, a self-sacrificing love that goes beyond emotion or any physical attraction. It was considered the highest form of love and it’s the love we see in the great saints in our tradition.

Now, back to our friends on the seashore. The first two times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” he uses agape and Peter responds with philia. In other words Jesus asks, “Will you give everything for me?” and Peter says, “Sure I’m your friend.” The third time Jesus uses philia as well, recognizing that Peter is still growing in his faith, hope and love. But all three times, he urges Peter to the very work of feeding and tending the flock that will lead him into that greater selfless love that is any Christian’s goal. Service to others is ultimately the manifestation of our love for God and for one another. Jesus knows this. Peter will learn it. So will we.

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Perhaps you’ve seen these Nationwide Insurance commercials: the partying college student is suddenly a balding man with a mortgage; the baby in a car seat is a teenager by the next intersection, the father pushing a toddler on a swing is suddenly knocked down by the swing now occupied by a hefty adolescent. Their slogan is, “Life comes at you fast.”

This might be a good slogan for the Palm Sunday liturgy. We begin the liturgy with the Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The citizens welcome him with palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David.” It seems to be his finest hour, the popular recognition of who he is as the long-awaited Messiah. But we know from elsewhere in the Gospels that a popular idea of the messiah was rarely the role that Jesus was destined to fill. All too soon the fickle crowds will be turned by some of their leaders to condemn this very person they greet so enthusiastically. The disciples’ heads must have been spinning at the sudden reversal of fortune.

Our own liturgy moves quickly from the procession with palms into the reading of the Passion. One campus parish tried to separate these two different moods by a solemn reading of the passion at the end of Mass, a foreshadowing of and entrance into the events of Holy Week. While it had a dramatic effect, it misses the fact that in this holiest of weeks, we are not spectators at a dramatic recreation of the final week of Jesus’ life. Too often we get cast in the role of the crowd, extras playing bit parts in an epic movie. But we are in fact participating in a most solemn commemoration of the paschal mystery—the death and resurrection of our Lord.

Reflecting on this movement from triumph to tragedy to the ultimate triumph during Holy Week can help us understand the way the paschal mystery manifests itself in our own lives. As members of the body of Christ, we, too, experience the death and resurrection that Jesus did. We all have experiences of life coming at us fast and leaving us gasping for breath and searching for meaning. We find it not in the financial security of a life insurance policy but in the spiritual awareness that everything in our lives—the heights of joy and triumph, the depths of suffering and death—is united with the life of Christ.

St. Luke gives us many memorable scenes unique to his account of the Passion. Only from Luke do we hear the story of the two thieves crucified with Jesus, men who knew that they deserved the punishment they received, and who knew, too, that this man between them did not. In the depths of his despair, the one we know as Dismas, the good thief, asks Jesus, “Remember me when you enter into your kingdom.” Jesus promises him, “This day you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke also tells us that Jesus says, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” We might find comfort in these words when we find ourselves acting out of anger or frustration and hurting those we love.

Jesus’ last words in Luke’s passion are, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” These words are perhaps our best response to our sense that life comes at us way too fast at times. Our lives are in God’s hands. Knowing this in the depths of our beings gives us all the assurance we need.

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A while back, Xerox had a TV commercial for their copiers that showed a medieval monk with a commission for several copies of The Bible and he goes into the basement and starts up the Xerox copier. Its humor, of course, lay in the choronological disjuntion of 20th-century technology available to monks in the Middle Ages. In something of a reversal of this irony, the Benedictines of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, have commissioned an entirely hand-illuminated, hand-illustrated edition of the Bible. Done on calf-skin vellum, with handmade inks and handground pigments, it is a stupendous work of art. Still a work in progress, facsimilies of the early volumes are already available to the general public.

 

The Bible throughout history has been revered as the word of God, of course, and because of that as a physical object. Christians and Jews are both known as People of the Book. Translations of the Bible were often the first and most lasting volumes of literature in many languages. The Gutenberg Bible provided the impetus for the first printing presses as a way of making the word of God more available to ordinary people at a time when only the very wealthy could commission a hand-illuminated copy of the text.

 

In both the first reading from Nehemiah and the passage from Luke’s Gospel today, we see how deeply affected our ancestors in faith were by the word of God. During the restoration after the Exile, the Book of the Law or Torah (the first five books in our Bible) was discovered and Ezra the priest read this text to the people, who wept as they listened. And Jesus unrolls the scroll of Isaiah to a passage that perfectly described his own ministry as the Word of God. He tells the people, “Today, this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” He makes this proclamation fresh from his temptation in the desert, when he told Satan, “Not by bread alone does man live but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

 

When we celebrate the Eucharist, we are fed by both the Bread of Life and the Word of God. The readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, the letters of Paul and the other early Christian leaders, and the four Gospels are selected to form us in faith day by day, week by week, year by year.

 

Pope Benedict has called for a world Synod of Bishops in 2008 to examine the role of Scripture in all aspects of the church’s life. Says Italian Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, “The church is born of the word of God, renews itself, regenerates itself every time it returns to the word.”

 

The Scriptures still have the ability to affect us deeply, whether read from the elaborate and elegant illuminations of the St. John’s Bible, the paperback study bibles designed for classes and small groups, the proclaimed word we hear at Mass, or the passages included in our daily prayer. The word of God is always new to us. While the word itself remains constant, our hearing of it changes as our life circumstances change and our understanding deepens. Let yourself be inspired by today’s readings to renew your own acquaintance with the Scriptures. Let the word be fulfilled in your own life today.

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