Apology for the Resurrection

Monday in the Octave of Easter
Lectionary 261

From Empty Tomb to Risen Jesus

The first day after Easter, the Church seems to go on the defensive by giving an apology. Both the first reading and the gospel take an apologetic stance; both defend the claims of the disciples against “the Jews.” In some ways, the gospel reading is more direct. The Easter Sunday liturgy ended with an empty tomb, as I noted yesterday. Easter Monday resolves this prominent absence. As Mary Magdalene and the other Mary leave the empty tomb, they encounter the risen Jesus. Matthew 28:9 makes clear the encounter is not with a ghost by noting the Mary’s touch the feet of Jesus. Mary Magdalene, perhaps the same as Mary of Bethany, who earlier anointed the feet of Jesus in preparation for his burial, now touches the feet that will never again die. However one resolves the issue of identities of the multitude of Mary’s, this is a beautiful scene of resolution.

A Secular Apology

While the Mary’s travel to the disciples, the author of the Gospel of Matthew inserts an intriguing aside. The guards of Jesus’ tomb are afraid because Jesus has disappeared. Together with the priests and elders of Judaism, they concoct the lie that the disciples have stolen the body of Jesus. The author then notes that this story remains in circulation. Clearly, the gospel is responding to a contemporary issue. The intertwining of Christianity and Judaism in the early Church demanded an answer to such rumors. It also serves a continuing value in the Church. The central proclamation of Easter to the world must be “the tomb is empty.” This is the historical and verifiable, at least in theory, claim. The proclamation that Jesus is risen —has been raised, in the biblical idiom — requires the gift of faith to accept and believe. Therefore the Church provides a purely secular and worldly answer to a common objection.

A Faithful Apology

In contrast to the pericope in the Gospel of Matthew, the speech of St. Peter in the Acts of the Apostles is explicitly directed at the faithful. Peter announces he is speaking directly with the Jews, and he uses arguments that are compelling only for believers. Peter’s goal is to bring those who have rejected Jesus, but believe they cling to the God of Israel, to repentance.[1]

Apology from Power

Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you. Peter’s essential claim, and essential to Lukan Christology, is Jesus’ messianic character has been revealed in the signs God performed.[2] In the words and actions of Jesus, the power of God was made visible. For a faithful person, this should be compelling evidence. A basic intuition of faith is that God does not perform mighty deeds through the hands of sinners.[3] Whether that intuition is sound or not, it is commonly shared and was surely believed by Peter’s audience. Therefore, if they are to claim to be the true children of Israel, they must acknowledge that their God has worked through Jesus. Jesus must be who he claims to be. However, rather than accept the logic of faith, they rebelled and killed Jesus.

Apology from Death

But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. The death of Jesus was not the end. Even though the people of Israel rejected him, God did not reject him. God raised Jesus and set him free. No power is given lasting authority over Jesus. Furthermore, the Resurrection vindicates the messianic claims of Jesus. In attributing, as the Scriptures always do, the Resurrection to the agency of God and not Jesus himself, Peter makes clear that God is testifying on behalf of Jesus.[4]

Apology from David

I saw the Lord always before me…For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. Here Peter moves to a very different argument that is obscured by English and time. To understand Peter’s argument, Luke Timothy Johnson says we must recognize four presuppositions: the historical King David wrote the Psalms, David was the anointed/messiah, God promised David’s kingdom would never end, all references in the Psalms are to David or his descendants or events they would experience.[5] Accepting these “rules,” Peter is quoting David speaking in the first person. Naturally then, one would assume David is speaking of himself. However, Peter argues, this cannot be true. David died, and his body corrupted. He did not escape Hades. Therefore David could not be talking about himself; he must be referring to one of his descendants. Peter claims Jesus is this descendent because Jesus has been freed from Hades and his body did not corrupt.[6] Furthermore, David speaks of seeing the Lord, i.e. the LORD the God of Israel. Jesus alone has beheld the LORD. This apology only makes sense within its context and after the fact. It is not a case of reading prophecy and predicting its fulfillment, but comparing events with past prophecies on the presupposition that they have already been fulfilled.[7]

Conclussion

None of the attempts at apology from the Easter Monday liturgy are wholly convincing, but they are not intended to be. The articles of the faith are not subject to the scrutiny of the historical or physical sciences. Which is to say, there cannot be a proof of the faith. The actions of the supernatural within the natural world necessarily violate the laws of nature that form the basis of scientific inquiry. The best that can be hoped for is to make room for the gift of faith. Objections can be removed, and the intelligibility of the faith can be made clear.

[1]Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 141.
[2]Hans Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, ed. Eldon Jay Epp and Christopher R. Matthews, trans. James Limburg, A. Thomas Kraabel, and Donald H. Juel, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 20.
[3]Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary on the Book of Acts, ed. Harold W. Attridge, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 81.
[4]Conzelmann, 20.
[5]Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, vol. 5, Sacra Pagina Series (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), 54.
[6]Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 31, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 250.
[7]Pervo, 75.

Only An Empty Tomb

Easter Sunday
Lectionary 42

An Empty Tomb

At first, it seems so strange that on Easter Sunday, the day above all other days to celebrate the Resurrection, the mandatory Gospel reading, chosen by the Church, doesn’t show us the Resurrected Jesus. There are many places in the gospels where the disciples see the resurrected Lord, and even touch him and so verify the truth. But the Church chose none of those for Easter Sunday. She only offers us an empty tomb. Perhaps that is on purpose. In a sense, the empty tomb reflects our reality. It is the very nature of the Christian life. We don’t see the risen Lord. We don’t see God. We can’t physically touch him, or audibly hear him. And that is a great difficulty for us.

When the disciples saw the burial cloths, in their fear and desperation, all they could say, was “Where is he?” We all understand that feeling. We have all had those moments when we didn’t understand, and the only thing we could say was, “Where is he? Where are you, God?” Silence is always the answer to that question. As the great prophet Elijah learned, God is in that quiet. The silence is his answer. It is the silence, the remembrance, of an empty tomb.

And it is our invitation to make a choice. Do we walk away forlorn at the vanity of the tomb? Or do we have the courage to believe? Do we have the courage to see the emptiness as evidence of our hope and say that Jesus is risen? The moment we have faith, everything changes, just as it did for the disciples. No longer do death, sin, and evil have a hold on this universe. The Resurrection reveals them for what they indeed are, an illusion, the long and gloomy shadow of a counterfeit reality. Life, love, and peace are the authentic reality, and they are eternal. The Resurrection of Christ reveals a pristine and perfect existence, a new creation which shimmers with the light of God.

And so it gives us hope, hope that all things and all people may be taken up into that new world. It provides us with the confidence we need to establish that world now. No evil, no power, no hatred, can remain forever. They will all collapse before the feet of our risen king, and everything will be made new. So we must push on. In our darkest days, and our most joyous moments, we must push ever forward, transforming this world bit by bit, allowing the light of God, the glory of the Resurrection into it until every shadow has given way to actuality, and every falsehood has surrendered to the truth.

Jesus is risen. And so must we be.

Holy Thursday – A Day of Judgement

Holy Thursday of the Triduum 2020
Lectionary 39

Ordinarily, I do not post my parish homilies. I prefer this blog to remain a place of personal reflections. However, I am making an exception for Holy Thursday of 2020.

Homily – Holy Thursday 2020

It is so easy to be upset about the state of the world and our Church. The government requires us to remain at home, and the doors of the church are locked. A video stream is nice, I guess, but it is not an adequate substitute for the communal worship and fellowship of our parish. Our faith, our liturgy, is sacramental. It exists in the intersection between the spiritual and bodily, between the eternal and the temporal. However, I do not think this is a moment to lament what we have lost, because this is a moment of grace. Tonight is the most authentic Holy Thursday the Church has celebrated in many centuries.

That may seem a surprising claim, but only because we have not allowed the message of Holy Thursday to sink into our hearts. The Roman Missal subtitles Holy Thursday, “The Mass of the Lord’s Supper.” These words suggest to us that this day is a celebration of the institution of the Eucharist. It is the commemoration of the final meal Jesus shared with his disciples before his death. There are, without doubt, some elements of this in tonight’s liturgy. However, there is one glaring omission which demands we reevaluate the meaning of this holy day.

That omission is the gospel. Tonight, we read from the Gospel of John, which does not even mention the Eucharist at the last supper. All it says is, before Passover, they were at supper. That is all. The Church had four gospels from which to choose, and on the day she commemorates the Last Supper, she decided on the only one that does not mention it! Instead, we hear how Jesus stripped off his clothes, placed a towel around his waist, and washed the feet of his disciples. That is, we hear how God became a slave: naked, debased, and touching the dirtiest part of ancient peoples.

This scene is the meaning of Holy Thursday. The love of God is not an abstract nicety. It is not mere kindness and tolerance. The love of God is tangible and scandalous. It is a love that submits to humiliation for the sake of encountering its beloved. No one has ever been, and no one ever will be excluded from God’s love because there is no end to the humiliations he will accept for our sake. God, in Jesus Christ, has become a slave for us; he was tortured, spat upon, and mocked, for us. And he continues to be treated this way, to this very day.

Do we not know that every time the poor go hungry or thirsty because of our limitless greed, that we are torturing Jesus? Do we not know that every time we gossip and slander others to maintain our image, we spit upon the wounded face of Christ? Our choices to fight wars, destroy the environment, and dehumanize others are not sins against people who are beneath us; they are sins against the one who is infinitely superior to us! And we justify these choices, whether consciously or not, by the Eucharist.

We have made the Eucharist into an anesthetic. We have allowed our participation in this great mystery to dull our senses and convince us that we are “pretty good people.” So long as we show up to mass and get our prize, then nothing we say or do can be all that bad. Now, the Eucharist has been taken away from us. The award which soothes our wounded consciences is absent, just as in the Gospel of John. Now we must confront the truth. Pope Francis has said this is a time a judgment, not God’s judgment of the world, but our judgment. The truth of who we are, who we have become, stands revealed. The loss of health and comfort we are experiencing shows that the world was sick long before this virus. So, we must choose. Will we continue to live as before without regard for the disfigured face of Christ present in our common humanity and common home, or will we change. Will we finally unite together into a single body whose only goal is to love and live the gospel? Which is to say, will we finally become the Eucharist and not merely take it?

A Few Thoughts on Isaiah

Tuesday of Holy Week
Lectionary 258

The necessary work of a parish during Holy Week are taking up most of my time at the moment. So, rather than the typical reflection on the daily readings, I am posting a few thoughts on Isaiah.

Literally Jesus

It is widely known that the Church reads the scroll of Isaiah as a prophecy about Christ. St. Thomas Aquinas even went so far as to say the literal meaning of Isaiah is Jesus Christ. Which is to say, St. Thomas thinks Isaiah is not talking about events that were to be fulfilled in the hearing of Isaiah’s contemporaries or near contemporaries. Isaiah was talking about Jesus Christ. I don’t think this is correct, but it is understandable. Isaiah, more than any other work, clearly depicts events in the life of Jesus. Current scholarship suggests that it has more to do with the Gospel authors themselves than history. Many believe the gospel authors wrote the life of Jesus with Isaiah in mind. It is a reasonable view, but I don’t think it accounts for typical human limitations. If the gospel authors were consciously aware of the many allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures, then they were geniuses of the first degree. It has taken centuries, and the work of many people to discover these allusions, and the process continues today. It is improbable that the early Christians were so subtle in their literary works. The idea that they laid out notecards and storyboards to construct the gospels is an anachronism. This is not to say that they were uneducated rubes. Rather, it is too monumental a task, and the many non-canonical writings we have demonstrate much less subtlety. So, I think it is more reasonable to hold the gospels are working from historical events. Therefore, the prophetic utterances of Isaiah genuinely are fulfilled by Jesus.

The Significance of Jesus

What is the significance of Jesus in the Gospel of John? The gospel’s scene of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet and Judas objecting raises this critical question.

Monday of Holy Week
Lectionary 257

Significance of Jesus

What is the significance of Jesus in the Gospel of John? That is, what is the role and purpose of Jesus? The gospel’s scene of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus and Judas objecting raises this important question and highlights two possible responses.[1] What seems like a tense disagreement about money and propriety, reveals a deeper underlying disagreement. Mary and Judas have opposing views about who Jesus is and his role in the world. If we can bracket our knowledge of the outcome of the Gospel of John and read it with fresh eyes, then this is a shocking scene. Mary and Judas are both close to Jesus. They are both, seemingly, his friends and belong to his earliest disciples. This means they have witnessed similar events. Mary and Judas know the power of Jesus and his teachings. Nonetheless, they have come to divergent opinions on who Jesus is.

Judas and Jesus

Judas is the treasurer for the wandering band of Jesus’ disciples. Despite Jesus’ repeated warnings concerning money, this was surely a prestigious position. A movement cannot succeed without money and money cannot last without good administration. Ignoring the editorial hindsight inserted into the gospel, this implies Judas was a trusted and respected figure. Jesus, and his followers, believed Judas to be the best candidate for treasurer. Given that Matthew was a tax collector, Judas must have had amazing credentials. Surely he had had experience managing finances, whether professionally or in another movement. Given the above, we would expect Judas has the best understanding of the significance of Jesus. Unless we are contrarians, our natural inclination is to hold experts and professionals as more credible than amateurs and people of unknown origins. However, the gospel subverts our natural expectations. Not only does the author of the Gospel of John outright state Judas was a thief, but it demonstrates his failures in the encounter with Mary. Judas cannot bring himself to recognize the events that are about to occur. His mind is trapped in worldly thinking and so he misses the significance of Mary’s actions. In his effort to denounce her “waste,” Judas is rebuked by Jesus. Judas’ failure to penetrate the mystery of Jesus is revealed and Judas’ charter is laid bare to all.

Mary, the Wise Disciple

Unlike the presumed qualification of Judas, Mary seems to have little going for her. We know she is friends with Jesus, but we are given no insight into her origins or daily life. Mary is a hidden and lowly figure. From a natural perspective, we expect nothing from her. She is like any random person on the street. While we might genuinely care what such a person thinks, we will not place much stock in it or take their thoughts into serious consideration. Again, the gospel subverts our expectations. Mary, despite her lowliness, is the most insightful of Jesus’ followers. She alone seems to recognize the significance of Jesus. In anointing him, Mary not only foreshadows the coming days but makes their inevitability and importance apparent. The disciples are easily distracted and routinely misunderstand Jesus. They draw ever nearer to the passion and death of Jesus but continue to remain clueless. Mary’s actions reveal, in an extravagant fashion, the very near passion of Jesus. His death must be confronted face to face. It is not a reality that can be avoided. Mary also reveals, by privileging love of Jesus above the poor, the reality of Jesus. Who should be shown honor even above the poor and marginalized? God alone may legitimately be loved this much.

Signifiance of Jesus Reconsidered

It is clear Judas’ understanding of the significance of Jesus is to be rejected. Judas completely misunderstood Jesus. However, the understanding of Mary is not the definitive and full truth of who Jesus is. As much wisdom as is seen in her actions, the Gospel of John does not allow the significance of Jesus to be contained in a book. Jesus is too great to be circumscribed. To know and understand him, one must enter into a relationship with Jesus. Only through this experiential relationship and an open heart can one realize the full significance of Jesus.


[1] Moloney, Francis J., The Gospel of John, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, vol. 4, Sacra Pagina Series (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998), 349.