Saturday, December 21, 2013

THE CATHOLIC EPISTLES OF JAMES, PETER, JOHN, AND JUDE (BUT NOT NECESSARILY IN THAT ORDER)





 The seven Catholic Epistles written by Saints James, Peter, John, and Jude form a small but integral portion of the New Testament.  These letters have always interested me, ever since I learned about the epistolary genre of Scripture when I was a boy at Catholic school.  I wonder how much attention these writings receive, written as they were by the friends and family members of Jesus.  As a preacher it has always been my purpose to proclaim the Word of God through these letters so that the Catholic souls in my care may know more about Divine Revelation as rendered by these memoirs of the Apostles.    
           
Can biblical epistles be memoirs?  They are two distinct literary forms.  A memoir is a true story, a slice-of-life autobiography, that centers on a specific time, place, or person of interest to the author.  The realm of these letters is the first century after the birth of Christ.  The place is the Roman Empire in which the Church grew quickly into a worldwide portal of salvation.  The person from which the epistoleers James, Peter, John, and Jude took their inspiration is Jesus Christ.  James, Peter, John, and Jude all write about Jesus but to different communities and in different ways.  How many books have been written about Elvis or the Kennedys?  Too many yet they all make the best-seller list.    
            
From the beginning letters have always been important to the faith.  Most of the New Testament—21 of the 27 books—is comprised of letters, early Christian missives addressed to churches throughout the world for the first generation of Christians and for the Church today.  Justin Martyr (AD 100-165) was a Christian apologist and a convert to the faith and he wrote a description of the Mass in which he described the sacred writings of the Liturgy of the Word—the readings, the psalms, and the gospels—as the ‘memoirs of the apostles.’  Through these personal writings the authors of the gospels and the letters continued to keep the memory of Jesus Christ alive until he returned.  The authors of the New Testament all drew upon their personal experiences with Jesus before and after the resurrection as the inspiration for their holy writings.  

The Catholic Epistles are an integral part in the Story of God.  In their memoirs the Apostles bare their souls and shed light on a special time and in a certain place when the Word walked among us in living color and three-dimensional. 
 “We announce to you the eternal life which dwelt with the Father and was made visible to us.  What we have seen and heard we announce to you, so that you may have communion with us and our common fellowship with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ” (1 Jn 1:2-3; cf DV 1). 
 
The lives of the Apostles, their ministry, their martyrdoms, provide the soul of their work.  It is necessary to examine their work through traditional exegesis but also to illuminate them as works of literature, as are all the sacred books in the Bible.  These letters contain enduring Christian doctrine but they are also great works of prose, written by the men who knew Jesus personally and who in composing their stories looked back on the time they spent with him during his three-year ministry.  As they wrote the saints recalled the great and surreal days when they helped the Lord to build the kingdom of heaven on earth.  Peter relived the night he saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain.  James led his followers with the authority he learned listening to Jesus preach sermons on the kingdom.  John was with Jesus constantly and expressed his love for the Lord in his gospel, three letters, and the Apocalypse.  Jude, like James, a relative of Jesus, stood close enough to God to identify the gate of heaven.

In the ancient world letters were a necessary and important means of communication: kings wrote to their subjects.  Soldiers responded to missives sent out by their commanders.  Church leaders in the Apostolic Age wrote encyclicals to congregants to establish and maintain unity and authority among Christians scattered throughout the world. 

God gave us the ability to express ourselves to one another with words.  “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and a great wind swept over the abyss.  Then God said: ‘Let there be light.’  And there was light” (Gn 1:1-3).  Jesus Christ the only Son of the Father is the true light of the world.  God spoke into the darkness and created the light and this Word of Life is the light of the human race (Jn 1:3b), an endless source of inspiration.  The Apostles took up their pens and issued a continual stream of praise for God and an invitation to readers everywhere to join them in building the kingdom.    

QUOD SCRIPSI, SCRIPSI 

Friday, December 13, 2013

JAMES THE BROTHER OF THE LORD: PATIENCE AND WAITING IS PART OF OUR FAITH





THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT/ GAUDETE SUNDAY 

James 5:7-10 

Saint James the Just, one of Christianity’s early leaders, counsels readers across the ages to be patient but productive while waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises.  The canonical epistle composed by James (or by his community of disciples) urges his audience—“The Twelve Tribes of the Dispersion”—to be patient and to continue to live holy lives in keeping with the teachings of Jesus, who the gospels say was James’s brother. 

        
In James’s time members of the Way believed that the return of the Lord would happen in their lifetimes.  So did James.  He writes, “Be patient.  The day of the Lord is at hand and so you must remain firm in your faith” (Jas 5:8).  Christianity is about waiting.  Wait, but work for what you await and prepare as many people as possible to receive the promised inheritance.  “You need endurance to do the will of God and to receive what he has promised” (Heb 10:36).   
        
James was a common name in the first century Church.  James the son of Zebedee and brother of John the Beloved Disciple was a prominent character in the gospels, one of the “gang of three” along with John and Peter, who witnessed the Transfiguration and other miracles.  The other James—the Just, the Lesser, the Brother of the Lord— was the author of the general epistle that bears his name.  Mark and John in their gospels confirm that Jesus had brothers but James was among the kin of Jesus who believed that “he was out of his mind.”  Eventually James came to believe that Jesus was who he said he was and so the kingdom of God at hand was much closer then James first believed. 
        
James had a significant period of formation that changed him into a believer.  The letter he wrote is grounded in Old Testament wisdom literature and sayings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount.  Even if James wasn’t standing at the base of the mountain that day when Jesus preached on the kingdom, he grew to know the Word of God.  Like Saint Paul, James received a visit from the Risen One and it changed his life.  In AD 40, 10 years after the Resurrection,  he assumed the role as the first bishop of Jerusalem.  Seeing is believing and James came to believe that his brother was the Son of God.      
        
Now James understood the necessity of preparing for the unseen and the unforeseeable.  In writing his letter he drew upon Old Testament metaphors to connect with an agrarian audience within the Church but in need of reform.  Every winter and spring the rains produced nourishment to bring crops to life.  Such descriptions were used to enumerate God’s gift and his mastery over creation.  “God gives us the rain, early and late, in its time, and he watches over us in the appointed weeks of the harvest” (Jer 5:24).   
        
Nature, like faith, can’t be forced to grow but happens in its own time according to the designs of the Creator.  Neither can faith be coaxed into rapid growth if it is not planted firmly on well-tilled soil.  Patience is as much a part of faith as is the belief that spurs and nurtures the faith.  For James that meant being patient while maintaining hope in God’s promise. “Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (Jas 5:10). 
        
That means waiting for what we cannot see but remaining firm in our believe that what was spoken to us by the prophets of the Old Testament and the evangelizers of the New Testament to be true. 

Christianity is a religion of joy.  In Advent we celebrate the two-fold reality of the birth of Christ while anticipating his return at the end of time.  This is cause for rejoicing, and the anticipation of waiting for these great realities also means that we spend our lives waiting for what Jesus said would be fulfilled.  Gaudete Sunday, this third Sunday of Advent, serves as a reminder of the joy set to unfold between now and Christmas and the thrill and wonder of what it will be like to see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with the angels in the sky. 

QUOD SCRIPSI SCRIPSI




Sunday, December 8, 2013

TO ROME WITH LOVE (Rom 15:4-5)




SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT 


The season of Advent is about hope.  That is the message to be taken from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans.  His message of hope in Christ speaks to Christians throughout the millennia as it did to the Church at Rome c. AD 57.
            
Back then the Roman Christians experienced persecution at the hands of the pagans who dismissed Christianity as a cult, a movement that lacked the antiquity of Judaism and Rome’s own pantheon of gods and was therefore unworthy of the respect of an institution that had familiarity and staying power, a movement that would never survive. 
            
Certain emperors promised to not drive the Christians from Rome if they promised to not convert the Romans.   (Of course we did—such irony!)

By the time Paul arrived in the Eternal City in chains to take up residency, members of the Church had been receiving instruction on the gospel from Saint Mark the evangelist, who taught them that true discipleship meant bearing the cross as did Christ and in maintaining sustained hope in his Second Coming.  This was all carefully scripted in advance through the Spirit and the Word.  “Whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom 15:4).  To hope in God means to believe in the Word that contains the promise of the Coming of the Messiah and his Parousia promised long ago through Abraham and the covenant struck with him by God. 
           
In Chicago recently I visited Holy Name Cathedral.  Francis Cardinal George, wearing violent vestments for Advent and flanked by his deacons, preached on Advent as a season of hope and the God’s promise of the birth of Hope.  Advent is a season of expectation of that promise to be fulfilled when the season concludes and we enter Christmas Season.  We know that Jesus is born in hearts filled with hope in God but we also await for his continual coming into our lives through the Word and the Eucharist.
          
 That isn’t something to be put on a Christmas list and it isn’t brought to us by Santa Claus or delivered by the stork.  Hope in the return of God is an inevitable reality, one that can only be fulfilled by hearts made ready to receive the Lord in the manger and to receive him when he arrives on the clouds of heaven.  A manger scene is ubiquitous in our culture but to  perceive the glorified Lord demands seeing reality through eyes of wonder, hearts of hope.   Paul writes: “Hope that sees for itself is not hope.  Who hopes for what one sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance” (Rom 8:24-25).  Abraham looked to the sky at the starts, too many to count.  Let us then look to the sky for the sign of Hope that cannot be determined with a telescope or a weather report.   We pray, “Open the eyes of my heart, Lord; open the eyes of my heart.”     

Advent is a season of hope, hope in the birth of Christ and hope in his return.  There cannot be a Parousia without a Nativity and the Nativity is diminished of its meaning without the fulfillment of the Second Coming.

We can therefore hope in the glory of heaven promised by God to those who love him and do his will.  In every circumstance, each of us should hope, with the grace of God, to persevere 'to the end' and to obtain the joy of heaven, as God's enteral reward for the good works accomplished through the grace of Christ" (CCC No. 1821).  
                         
Scholars believed that Paul wrote to the Romans from Corinth.  When he arrived the community greeted him warmly, though he had never visited Rome before.  On the Second Sunday of Advent, Paul, the New Testament’s premier epistoleer, preaches to Christians throughout the millennia the words of hope to the souls of the Romans and the receivers of the Word who await the fulfillment of the promise of the continual coming of the Lord into hearts made ready to receive his glory.  Advent brings us together in the hope of greater Christian unity. 

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 15:4-5). 

QUOD SCRIPSI, SCRIPSI 

Friday, November 29, 2013

THE LOVE BOAT: SAILING ACROSS THE MILLENNIUM BENEATH THE CLEAR BLUE SKIES




FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT                                        

Is 2:1-5 The Lord will gather the nations into eternal peace in the kingdom of God
Ps 122 Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord
Rm 13:11-14  Our salvation is near
Mt 24:37-44 Stay awake! that you may be prepared. 

WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST/ DON’T MISS THE BOAT

Keep your eyes on the skies.  That’s the message of Christ to the disciples.  Boy Scouts say , “Be prepared.”  Saint Paul puts it more directly: “Wake up!—and don’t miss the boat.” 
           
The season of Advent, which we now enter, is a time to prepare for the birth of the Messiah, but also for us make ready for his glorious return at the end of time.  Which time?  Real time?  Kick-off time?  Or Kairos time?  Kairos is a Greek term used to describe the perfect moment during which something important happens.  When Christ was born on Christmas he was in the right place at the right time as was preordained by the Father.  When he will come again nobody knows, not even Jesus, though he is confident that it will happen according to the will of God.  So should we be.   

Advent—four weeks long—exists to prepare the way of the Lord, but also to make ready for his continual presence in our lives.  Liturgy exists to keep the memory of Jesus alive.  So when the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent, she relives the ancient expectancy of the Messiah; by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, we renew our desire for his second coming (CCC No524).  And vice versa. 
           
Advent must not be overlooked.  It is an important preparatory period in its own right; like Lent, a period of fasting, charity, and prayer.  We believe in the birth of Jesus then we must also believe in the Parousia.  Jesus says what he means and he means what he says.  As to the disciples so now to us:  “You, too, must also be prepared, for at an hour that you do not expect, the Son of man will return” (Mt 24:44). 
           
The birth of Jesus is familiar: we see the crèche on lawns and in church—sometimes still outside schools and town halls—and it reminds us of ‘the reason for the season.’ 
           
When it comes to the Parousia (Greek for the Second Coming) it takes imagination, reaching into hearts filled with hope and wonder to help us understand the full meaning of Christ’s message: to deliver us from evil and into the Kingdom of God.  The Jesus depicted in Matthew’s gospel proclaims the ‘great and terrible day’ when that will happen. 

As it was in the days of the Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.  In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day when Noah entered the ark.  They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.  So it will be also at the coming of the Son of Man. (Mt 24:40)

According to Saint Paul those who are saved have heeded Jesus’s warning to “stay awake”; they focused on their spiritual lives instead of going overboard for toys and tools and appliances at Wal-Mart, Target, or Best Buy.  It isn’t a bargain if you don’t need it—that is, unless you need a concussion.  Our un-holiday season causes many inside and outside the church to lose sight of the ‘reason for the season.’   Shootings/lootings/ fistfights.  Pictures at 11.  As the saying goes, “You can’t turn back the Titanic.”    

But it’s not too late to board the ark.  To the prophet Isaiah deliverance from such chaos means that all nations would be as one family in the house of God.  All aboard. 
           
In ancient days water symbolized the abyss, which had the power to destroy.  The people in Noah’s day of which Jesus preaches feared the abyss because they had no mastery over it—only God controlled the earth, the wind, the water, and the fire.   Those who missed the boat and drowned in the flood drew the wrong conclusions regarding the end times.  They watched Noah constructing the ark beneath clear skies and ridiculed him but their laughter turned to terror when they realized that they missed the life boat and they had no life preservers.  They cared more about the things of this world than they believed in the promise of God for salvation.
           
Today on this first Sunday of Advent we can be confident in the promise of God for the salvation of all time, our time and all who went before us and those yet to come.  To believe in the Second Coming can be like sailing into uncharted waters—either full steam ahead or half steam (the choice is ours)— but the end of the voyage lies just beyond the rainbow.   
           
Be prepared.  Don’t miss the boat, a real pleasure cruise with a great buffet but no  more gambling.  Soon dry land will appear but don’t forget a life jacket and keep your eyes on the sky.  
          QUOD SCRIPSI SCRIPSI