Thursday, January 27, 2011

Augustine's Commentary on Hebrews

I went trawling around the internet last week to see if there were any public domain commentaries on the Letter to the Hebrews. My heart leapt when I saw in the search engine results a commentary by St. Augustine, apparently available through the on-line library at Ave Maria University.

Hooray, I thought. Augustine is a Father and Doctor of the Church. If I can trust anybody to explain the text to me, surely it is Augustine. I should have known that I was setting myself up for disappointment

First disappointment: the commentary only covered the first six of thirteen chapters. There would be no words of wisdom from the Doctor of Grace on that thorny section of Chapter 10 that the Lectionary skips over.

Second disappointment: I flipped ahead to see what Augustine had to say about paying careful attention in verse 2:1, and I found the language of the commentary to be extraordinarily dense. I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense. I mean that if you’re not used to reading this kind of writing (and I’m not), your eyes quickly glaze over and you start babbling in the corner. This commentary is not something that you’re going to pick up to get a quick read on the meaning of a particular passage. You (or should I say I?) would have to start several verses earlier and read several verses past and then really concentrate on thinking about what the words mean. It’s not a discipline that’s common in our culture of tweets and text messages and 15-second sound bites.

On the other hand, there is a section in the prologue where Augustine acknowledges that some scholars (even then!) doubted that Paul was the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. He then lays out his reasons for believing that the author was indeed Paul. I remain firmly agnostic regarding the identity of the letter’s human author. The question might have been important in deciding whether or not the letter belonged in the Canon of Scripture, but it was included and it’s not going to be removed. Folks far smarter than I can argue both sides – I’m content to trust the Tradition (capital “T”) of the Church. In the meantime, I’ll try to suppress my urge to shout, “We don’t know that!” every time a homilist asserts that Paul was certainly not the author.

[UPDATE 7/30/2014:  The hyperlink is broken, and it appears that the URL in the link pointed to a commentary by Aquinas rather than Augustine.  At the time that I wrote this post, I was certain that it was Augustine, but this would not be the first (or last!) time that I was mistaken.]

Monday, January 24, 2011

Called to Obscurity

Can any serious Christian say that they haven't at some point asked in prayer what it was that God wanted of them? Conversion is usually accompanied by a desire to serve - to surrender oneself to the will of God. This sentiment was clearly expressed by Blessed John Henry Newman:

God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his—if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.

The mission that He has for us is often not what we expect or desire, and those he chooses for a given mission are not always those that we, in our human wisdom, would choose. Why did He choose Simon the Zealot to be an apostle and not his friend Lazarus? Why James, the son of Alphaeus, and not Nicodemus? Why the tax collector Matthew and not the tax collector Zaccheus? Simon Peter felt unworthy: "Depart from my Lord, for I am a sinful man." Yet, he ultimately left his fishing business to follow Him. The rich young man just couldn't bring himself to do the same.

When we turn our life over to Him, we expect to make big sacrifices. We tell Him that we'll go wherever He wants us to go and do whatever he wants us to do, all for the greater glory of God. When we discern his will, though, we sometimes find that He is telling us to go home. It's not what we expected to hear, and at first, it's disappointing. After Jesus cast the demons out of the Gadarene demoniac, the young man wanted to follow Him, to become one of his disciples. Instead, Jesus sent him home.

We should not be disappointed to be sent home, for our mission there is no less important. St. Therese compared the obscure missions to the little violet flowers in God's garden:

I understood this also, that God's Love is made manifest as well in a simple soul which does not resist His grace as in one more highly endowed. In fact, the characteristic of love being self-abasement, if all souls resembled the holy Doctors who have illuminated the Church, it seems that God in coming to them would not stoop low enough. But He has created the little child, who knows nothing and can but utter feeble cries, and the poor savage who has only the natural law to guide him, and it is to their hearts that He deigns to stoop. These are the field flowers whose simplicity charms Him; and by His condescension to them Our Saviour shows His infinite greatness. As the sun shines both on the cedar and on the floweret, so the Divine Sun illumines every soul, great and small, and all correspond to His care—just as in nature the seasons are so disposed that on the appointed day the humblest daisy shall unfold its petals.

Having a mission at home is not easy. We are called to be faithful in the little things and to instill in the most mundane chores an abundance of love. We trust that God gives us all of the grace that we need to accomplish our mission. And yet, it almost seems as though faithfulness in the small things is harder. The invisibility of obscurity makes it all too easy to adopt the prevailing morals and practices of the culture.

Every Christian is called to the apostolate. Those called to the apostolate of parenthood are just as much in need of prayers as those who have received high-visibility missions.

All you holy saints in heaven, pray for us!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Restoring the Queen

My home parish (not where I now reside) was recently featured in the local newspaper for the restoration of some artwork within the church. Holy Angels parish is where I became baptized, made by First Communion, received Confirmation, married my wife, and saw my first three children baptized. When I was a child, my family always sat on the left side of the church, and I can remember looking up the side aisle at the mural of Mary surrounded by a flight of angels. I don’t remember when it happened, but at some time, the mural disappeared and all the statues turned brown.

Now, after thirty years, the mural is back, and the color is gradually being restored to the statues. The original intention in concealing the mural was to avoid distracting the faithful from the sacrifice at the altar. Clearly, the experiment disproved the hypothesis – the art was not the distraction that some thought it to be, and removing is did nothing to focus the attention of the faithful gathered at mass on the primary work of the liturgy.

I am delighted to see the restoration taking place at Holy Angels and pleased to see it covered by a secular newspaper.

Pay Careful Attention

We are a week back into Ordinary Time. Every other year, the first four weeks of Ordinary Time feature readings from the Letter to the Hebrews during weekday masses. Again and again, the author of the letter makes his point by referencing the scriptures, which were for him what we call the Old Testament. In the first chapter alone, five different psalms are cited, plus Deuteronomy and 2 Samuel.

The second chapter begins with the exhortation, "We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away." (Hebrews 2:1) It is a caution that we are no less needful of hearing today than the Hebrews of 2000 years ago were. Catholics are infamous for not reading their Bibles. Even those that do can easily read the text in a superficial manner, glossing breezily over the knotty passages as if they don’t exist. We tend to have the attitude that the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, has already figured all of that stuff out for us, so we don’t really need to bother. That’s true to an extent.

But (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?), we’re talking about Divine Revelation here. The scriptures are the record of God’s self-revelation to us. They matter, because it is by studying them and coming to a better understanding of them that we arrive at a better understanding of the divine mind. Ignorance of scripture is similar to ignorance of history. It is only my knowing the mistakes of past generations that we can hope to avoid making those same mistakes.

Even more important is the idea of a divine pedagogy. The events of salvation history were not accidental. They built upon one another until, in the fullness of time, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The New Testament does not exist in isolation from the Old.

There are plenty of false prophets who preach a Christ that is at variance with what is recorded in the Word of God. If we hope to be able to spot the differences, we have to pay more careful attention, lest we drift away from what is authentic.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Infancy Timeline

Last Saturday, my wife and I were driving to a nearby parish to attend mass for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. The next day, we would be observing the Epiphany, and I took the opportunity to share with her a theory that I have regarding the appearance of the magi in Bethlehem. She looked at me a bit askance, and accused me of trying to start my own religion. I assured her that I have no intention of doing that, and that if I ever veer from orthodoxy, I hope somebody cares enough to correct me.

The fact is that our conception of what happened at the birth of the Messiah is driven, in large part, by the popular devotion that is the nativity scene. Last weekend, just before the nativity scenes were removed from our churches and homes at the end of the Christmas season, we saw a scene in which Mary and Joseph were adoring the infant in the manger, surrounded by animals, shepherds, and royal magi. The theory that alarmed my wife so much was that I don't think the magi showed up until months or even a year after Jesus was born.

I've come to that conclusion because I'm trying to make sense of the differences between Matthew's gospel and Luke's. Like a detective in a modern-day police drama, my mind is trying to lay out the discreet scenes in the gospels into a timeline. Matthew's gospel really doesn't treat the Nativity at all, proceeding from Joseph's dream in 1:20-25 to the appearance in Jerusalem of wise men from the East in chapter 2. Luke, on the other hand, explicitly covers the birth, with the appearance of the angels to the shepherds in the field, and the shepherds proceeding that same night to the manger. Luke then relates that on the eighth day after his birth, Jesus was circumcised, and on the 40th day he was presented at the Temple in Jerusalem.

The magi must have found the Holy Family some time after the Presentation. Matthew tells us that the wise men followed the star not to a stable or cave, but to a house. Therefore, Joseph and Mary must have decided to settle in Bethlehem, the city of David, in order to raise an heir to David's line. It was after the magi departed that the angel warned Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. I very much doubt that, in fleeing Herod's wrath, Joseph would have led them on a detour to Jerusalem. Herod, in his rage, ordered the slaying of all male children in the region of Bethlehem who were two years old and younger, not just the infants. And it was only after Herod's death that Joseph led the family back to settle in Nazareth.

I'm not going to be changing my nativity scene anytime soon. When we set it up next year, we'll still have Mary and Joseph adoring the manger, which will be empty until Christmas Eve, when the Christ child is added. The ox and the ass will look on, while an angel hovers overhead and shepherds bring their sheep. Three wise men and a camel will be placed some distance away until the second Sunday after Christmas, when they'll join the party at the manger. Even though it didn't really happen that way.