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Who are the Twelve?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 27, March 2024 Categories: Scripture
12 Apostles
Apostles of Jesus

The Twelve are listed in Mark, Matthew, Luke and Acts. Luke's two books show the most enthusiasm for this group, using "Twelve" frequently and interchangeably with "apostles." John refers to the Twelve only twice and never lists them.

The listings betray a hierarchy. Four names top every list: brothers Simon Peter and Andrew, and Zebedee’s sons James and John. Peter is always first. The other three vary. The next grouping is shuffled but consistent: Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, and Thomas. The surprise is Bartholomew, who never speaks and of whom nothing is known.

The final four are James, son of Alphaeus; a disciple known as Thaddeus or Judas, son of James; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, closing every listing as the least esteemed.

With two Simons, two James, and possibly three Judases, epithets or nicknames are added. Simon Peter is distinguished from the Zealot. Zebedee’s James is “the Greater,” and Alphaeus’ son “the Lesser.”  Thaddeus/Judas, assuming the same position on various lists, is shortened to Jude to lose the reviled name. Thomas is called “Judas, not the Iscariot” in John’s gospel and other extra-biblical texts. That identification is simply dropped.

In John's gospel, Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael are the original recruits. Nathanael? Since Philip recruits Nathanael, and Philip is paired with Bartholomew elsewhere, the idea that Nathanael IS Bartholomew is suggested. John gives Zebedee’s sons only a vague post-resurrection nod. John favors other followers: Sanhedrin member Nicodemus; Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany; Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimathea, and an unnamed “beloved” disciple. Thomas plays a heftier role, as does Judas. After Easter, Luke says, Matthias replaces Judas. The symbolic authority of Twelve lasts for a generation. As each is martyred, none are replaced.

Scriptures: Mark 3:14-19; Matthew 10:1-4; Luke 6:12-16; John 1:37-51; 3:1-15; 6:70-71; 11:16; 13:23; 18:15-16; 14:22; 19:26-27, 38-42; 20:1-29; 21:1-2, 7, 20-25; Acts 1:13

Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve – Tom Bissell (New York: Vintage Press, 2017)Didache: The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles – Clayton N. Jefford (Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2013)

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What does it mean to repent?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 20, November 2023 Categories: Prayer and Spirituality,Sacraments,Scripture,Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs

(Photo: Pickpik)Love is willing to share the journey toward reunion and reconciliation. (Photo: Pickpik)

We’re not served well in our appreciation of the word repent by the many films featuring some be-frocked priest or Puritan shaking a cross in people’s faces and demanding, “Sinner, repent!” Repentance doesn’t necessarily require falling on our knees and beating our breasts, though sometimes that may be the appropriate response—as it was for skeptical Thomas, when the resurrected Lord whom he'd doubted stood before him. Basically, to repent means to change course. That can mean movement if we’ve been standing still, or stopping if we’ve been in frantic motion. It can mean changing our minds or our hearts, our direction or our behavior.

The word has several important root meanings. The earliest is the Hebrew word t’shuvah, meaning "return." It’s a crucial concept to prophets like Amos, Hosea, and Jeremiah. Their fellow citizens have wandered far from God's ways, and it’s time for them to return home. The rabbis tell a story of a young man who falls in with a bad crowd and winds up far from home, destitute and ashamed. His father sends word for the son to return. “I cannot,” the young man replies, “It is too far.” Too far in distance, surely, but also in moral stature. His father responds: “Come as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way.”

This story reminds us how our failures put us at a distance from those whom we love, from the community of faith to which we belong. Yet love is willing to share the journey toward reunion and reconciliation. We return to God, and God returns to us.

If t’shuvah is the Old Testament word for repentance, metanoia is the New Testament Greek term that carries a similar meaning. John the Baptist first issues the call to change direction, signaled by baptism in the Jordan. Jesus uses this term when he invites his listeners to change their dispositions—to turn their hearts and lives around—in response to his teaching. Our word repentance carries the additional meaning of expressing regret for past actions and attitudes—along with the expectation that real change is forthcoming. In addition, the word conversion means turning around, implying a reorientation of intentions and actions. In the sacrament of reconciliation, we include the stipulation of “making reparation” for what we’ve done or failed to do that has caused harm.


Amos 4:6-11; Hosea 5:15—6:3; Jeremiah 3:12-22; Mark 1:4, 14-15; Matthew 3:1-2; 4:17; Luke 3:3; 13:1-5; Acts 2:37-39; 3:19; 26:17-20; 2 Peter 3:9


The Forgiveness Book – Alice Camille and Paul Boudreau (Chicago, IL: ACTA Publications, 2008)

Radical Forgiveness – Antoinette Bosco (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009)

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Is Epiphany about giving gifts or getting them?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 20, November 2023 Categories: Liturgy,Scripture,Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs

Gold symbolizes wealth and power. Frankincense, used in prayer, represents the divine Presence. Myrrh prepares bodies for burial.

“We three kings of Orient are/ bearing gifts we traverse afar.” Nowhere in Matthew does it claim there are three. And Matthew never calls them kings. They are magi, hereditary priests of the ancient Medes and PersiansFrom this talented crew we get the word magic. But you can’t make a decent song out of “we unnumbered magi.” At least the carol gets one thing right: This group of wise fellows does bear gifts.

So how did kings get into the picture? Lay this at Isaiah’s door. He prophesies that kings will walk by the light of the Lord to Jerusalem. Their caravans will indeed bring gifts of gold and frankincense—but alas, no myrrh in Isaiah's vision of this scene. Gold symbolizes wealth and power. Frankincense, used in prayer, represents the divine Presence. Myrrh prepares bodies for burial. It's an ominous sign that would make a startling gift.

Matthew’s gift-bearers are wise men for sure. There is something "magical" about their foresight. Power, divinity, and death are three sober elements that will accompany Jesus from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. These were strange birthday presents to be sure. But they were appropriate honors for the King of the Universe, the Divine Son, and the crucified Lord.

Gold. Frankincense. Myrrh. These were the gifts Jesus received long, long ago. But we also bear him gifts at every Eucharist: Bread. Wine. Our financial sacrifice. These are all "made by human hands" one way and another. And, as Jesuit Roc O'Connor suggests, these are gifts transformed and returned to us as Body and Blood of Christ, and redistributed resources for those in need.

More gifts come to us by way of this shared Table. Grace pours out on the assembly. But grace can seem like one of those white elephant gifts: Now that we have it, what do we do with it? Church teaching describes grace as internal sanctification. We're made holy, fit “temples of the Holy Spirit,” as Paul assures us. This isn’t about spiritually fumigating your chest cavity. It’s about becoming, like Mary, God-bearers: those who carry the divine presence wherever we go.

Grace moves at God’s initiative. We can’t muster it up by sheer force of moral living. Paul says we can try to save ourselves by obedience—but we will surely fail. Grace forgives sin, and rescues us from every evil. This is one gift you don’t want to put at the bottom of a closet.



Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3:2-6; Matthew 2:1-12; 1 Corinthians 6:19


At the Supper of the Lamb: A Pastoral and Theological Commentary on the Mass - Paul Turner (Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publication, 2011)

In the Midst of Our Storms: Opening Ourselves to Christ in the Liturgy - Roc O'Connor, SJ (Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publication, 2015)

What's an evangelist? How many are there?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 26, September 2023 Categories: Scripture,Church History
By the time of the third-century church fathers, the list of evangelists seems reduced down to four: the gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Evangelist translates from the Greek as "messenger of good tidings." All baptized persons are called to be such messengers. From the professional preacher to the person who exemplifies a life of Christian virtue, all might validly claim to be evangelists.

As early as Isaiah's prophecies, heralds of good news are cited in the Bible. In the Letter to the Ephesians, apostles, prophets, and evangelists play vital roles within the church. The deacon Philip in Acts is called an evangelist, as is Paul's protege Timothy. So it's clear that in biblical terms, evangelist is not an exclusive term.

However, by the time of the third-century church fathers, the list of evangelists seems reduced down to four: the gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These four concretized the Good News which the whole church going forward would proclaim. In early church art, the four evangelists were simply depicted as men holding books, or symbolically as four scrolls situated at the corners of a cross. They were also imagined as the four rivers of Paradise mentioned in Genesis: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates, meant to water the earth and give it life.

By the fourth century, the symbology of the gospel evangelists became a standardized tetramorph ("four shapes"): man, lion, ox, and eagle. These were not arbitrarily chosen. In the initial vision of the prophet Ezekiel, he perceives "a great stormwind" blowing in from the North. Riding this gale are four living creatures. They appear in human form with faces, legs, and hands. But they also have wings and polished hooves. Facing outwardly in the four directions, their faces resemble a human, lion, ox, and eagle respectively. "Wherever the spirit would go, they went; they did not change direction when they moved." These extraordinary creatures are four and yet unified in their movement. They also burn like coals of fire.

This tetramorph makes a reappearance in the Book of Revelation, and it's likely that the writer, John of Patmos, consciously intends the gospel writers with this usage. Matthew emphasizes the humanity of Jesus: he's represented as the man. Mark highlights the divinity and kingship of Jesus, and is identified as the lion. Luke holds up the sacrificial character of Jesus and so becomes the ox. John is the eagle. His gospel soars above the others with its transcendent perspective on the meaning of Jesus as the eternal Christ.

Scriptures: Genesis 2:10-14; Isaiah 52:7; Ezekiel 1:4-25; Luke 4:18-21; Acts 21:8; Ephesians 4:11-16; 2 Timothy 4:5; Revelation 4:6-8, 5:14

Books: Dictionary of Christian Art, by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (Continuum Publishing Company, 1994)

Preaching to a Multi-generational Assembly, by Andrew Carl Wisdom, O.P. (Liturgical Press, 2004)

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What is grace?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 13, August 2023 Categories: Sacraments,Scripture,Doctrines & Beliefs
Like any present offered in love and presented in grand style, grace comes to us free of charge.

A big question to address in a small space! The simple definition of grace is God's favor. But what it means to receive such benevolence is demonstrated in boundless ways. As a child in religion class, I remember imagining grace as a birthday present in a brightly wrapped box with a big bow on top. That's because Sister told us grace is a gift, and the only gifts I'd ever seen looked like this.

The Old Testament describes God's favor differently. It's expressed in the act of creation, as well as the covenant with Israel, and the liberating force of Exodus. In the New Testament, Saint Paul rightly calls Jesus Christ the grace of God, using the Greek word charis, from which also comes charisma, the empowering gifts of the Spirit. 

So how do we "get" grace, or know it when we see it operating? Divine grace comes to us through the mercy, forgiveness, and rescue of God at work in our lives. The classic definition of a sacrament is that of a sign rooted in Christ which provides grace. So add the sacraments of the Church to the ways in which we receive this gift. The Eastern Fathers went so far as to say that sacraments "divinize" us: God becomes flesh so that flesh can share in the divine life, including God's immortality.

In the West, Saint Augustine argued that grace heals and liberates our sin-inclined wills so that we can do the will of God. Without grace, we're literally lost. Saint Thomas Aquinas envisioned grace as elevating us to a higher level in closer union with God. Thomas Merton saw grace as the antidote to the "death dance" in our blood. The bottom line on all of these approaches to understanding grace—life-giving force, bonded relationship, liberating power, incarnation and participation in divine gifts, healing, uplifting, unifying, detoxifying—is that it comes to us free and unmerited. We can't earn it by obeying laws or racking up spiritual points. God doesn't "owe" us grace even if we're saintly every moment of the day. In a sense, my childhood notion of grace still applies. Like any present offered in love and presented in grand style, grace comes to us free of charge.

But just like any gift that comes in a pretty package, grace is hardly received if we don't open the box and actually make use of it.

Scriptures: Isaiah 55:1-3; John 1:14-17; 14:23; Acts 6:8; 11:23; 13:43; 14:3, 26; 15:11, 40; 18:27; 20:24; Romans 1:5-7; 3:24-26; 5:1-2, 15-21; 6:1-23; 11:5-6; 12:3-8; 15:15-16; 1 Corinthians 1:4-9; 3:10-17; 4:7; 15:10; 2 Corinthians 1:12; 4:15; 6:1-2; 8:1-2; 9:8; 12:9-10; Galatians 1:6, 15; 2:19-21; 5:4, 22-23; Ephesians 1:3-14; 2:4-10; 3:2-12; 4:7; Philippians 1:7; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 2:11-14; Hebrews 2:9; 4:16; 13:9; James 4:6; 2 Peter 1:4-10

Books: The Experience and Language of Grace, by Roger Haight, SJ (Paulist Press, 1979)

Idol and Grace: On Transitioning and Subversive Hope, by Orlando O. Espin (Orbis Books, 2014)

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What is a kiss of peace?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 13, August 2023 Categories: Liturgy,Scripture,Church History
The church restores the ritual practice of the kiss in its liturgy.

A lot of kissing goes on, in the Bible as outside of it. Some 50 references, to be precise—but not all are kisses of peace, nor what the New Testament frequently calls "a holy kiss." Many kisses, within and apart from Scripture, are exchanged between spouses, lovers, children and parents, friends or family in the hour of separation. Such gestures imply affection and a close personal bond.

However, biblical kisses may mean more. Ritual kisses are exchanged between kings and their subjects as a sign of fealty. The prophet Samuel kisses Saul when anointing him first king of Israel. The hand of a lender may be kissed by a borrower. These kisses are promises of action or renumeration to follow. Kisses may also signal reconciliation. In this way, aggrieved Esau kisses Jacob when the long-separated brothers are reunited. Joseph kisses the brothers who sold him into slavery when the family is finally restored. Jesus recommends all divisions be similarly resolved before approaching the altar with a gift.

Proverbs describes an honest reply as "a kiss on the lips." Psalm 85 imagines the meeting of justice and peace as a kiss. Such plentiful ritual use of the kiss is why betrayal with a kiss is both unexpected and reprehensible. As early as Genesis, Jacob deceives his blind father with a kiss, posing as his brother to steal his paternal blessing. King David's general Joab pretends to kiss an enemy Amasa, then stabs him in the abdomen. Most famously, Judas betrays Jesus to a mob in Gethsemane by greeting him with a most unholy kiss.

The church restores the ritual practice of the kiss in its liturgy. The kiss or sign of peace is first mentioned by Justin Martyr as part of the liturgy in the second century. It was delivered after the Prayer of the Faithful: "When the prayers are concluded we exchange the kiss." In the 5th century, Pope Innocent repositioned the kiss after the Eucharist. In the 11th century, "the bond of peace and charity" preceded communion. The 1474 Missal utilized the words of the Risen Lord: "Peace be with you." In the documents of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI wanted to make the kiss of peace obligatory rather than optional. Even if we don't exchange so much as a handshake these days, the "kiss" is delivered by exchanging the words: Peace be with you.

Scripture: Genesis 27:26-27; 33:4; 45:15; 2 Samuel 20:9; Psalm 85:11; Proverbs 24:26; Sirach 29:5; Mark 14:44-45; Matthew 5:23-24; 26:48-49; Luke 7:38, 45; 15:20; 22:47-48; Acts 20:37; Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14

Books: At the Supper of the Lamb: A Pastoral and Theological Commentary on the Mass, by Paul Turner (Liturgy Training Publications, 2011)

The Liturgy and Catholic Social Teaching: Participation in Worship and the World, edited Danielle A. Noe (Liturgy Training Publications, 2018)

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Why is being rooted in Peter's authority so important to the Catholic Church?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 10, June 2023 Categories: Church History,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Scripture
To find the job description of a modern pope, look no further than Peter's example.

Peter's a remarkable person in the New Testament. Many people counted themselves as admirers of Jesus for shorter or longer periods during his earthly ministry. Some, both women and men, were serious disciples who accompanied Jesus since the Galilee days. A mere dozen were special members of his inner circle, known as the Twelve. Among the Twelve, three (Peter, James, and John) became Jesus' most trusted friends: present at the Transfiguration, and also invited to pray with him in Gethsemane just before his arrest. Yet even among these favored three, Peter makes a singular impression.

Peter is mentioned nearly 175 times in the New Testament, almost twice as often as John and three times as often as James. Peter is a fisherman personally invited by Jesus to fish for people. In John's gospel, he's called a shepherd of Christ's sheep. In Matthew's narrative, Jesus declares Peter the rock upon which his church will be built. This is because Peter receives the special revelation that Jesus is the Son of the living God.

In Acts, Peter has a vision that reveals to him that Gentiles as well as Jews will be welcomed into the church. In the letters attributed to him, Peter is perceived as an elder among elders, as well as one capable of amending errant teachings. Yet Peter's also represented in Acts as a team player, working in full partnership with John and willing to accept the discernment of James when in Jerusalem. Peter's not just the boss left in charge after Jesus returns to his Father. After an early career of impulsive speech and rash behavior, Peter's been humbled, becoming a leader who appreciates that the wisest way to wield authority is to seek good counsel and faithful collaborators all along the path.

To find the job description of a modern pope, look no further than Peter's example. The fisherman who casts the broadest possible net, the shepherd intimately companioning the sheep, the rock upon which the structure of church depends: these are the fundamental tasks of the papacy. A pope must also be a person of deep prayer open to revelation and new insights—even spectacular ones that shake up social expectations. A pope must gather wise and collaborative counselors, yet be ready to make the final call when necessary. All of this makes a Petrine foundation an essential component of Catholic authority.

Scripture: Matthew 16:16-18; Luke 5:10; John 21:1-17; Acts 1:9-16; 3:1-11; 4:1-22; 8:14; 1 Peter 5:1; 2 Peter 3:15-16

Books: Four Times Peter: Portrayals of Peter in the Four Gospels and at Philippi, by Richard J. Cassidy (Liturgical Press, 2015)

Petrine Ministry and the Unity of the Church: Toward a Patient and Fraternal Dialogue, by James F. Puglisi, ed. (Liturgical Press, 1999)

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Are Hebrews the same as Jews?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 09, June 2023 Categories: Church History,Scripture
How did Israelites known widely as Hebrews become Jews?

A Venn diagram of these two words would find some overlap. But they're not equivalents. Jews have their origins in a people once known as Hebrews, whose story is recorded in the Old Testament. Their story doesn't begin with Adam and Eve, the mythical first people, but in chapter ten of Genesis with the descendants of Eber, son of Shem, noted in the Table of Nations. 

Abraham is called a Hebrew, as is his great-grandson Joseph. Their community as a whole is often identified as Hebrew. But the designation is not used by the people themselves, who later identify primarily as Israelites, a name tying them to their patriarch Jacob, grandson of Abraham. Jacob's name is changed to Israel after he wrestles with an angelic being. 

Other biblical nations primarily refer to Israelites as Hebrews, a term rooted in the Near Eastern word 'apiru. Neither an ethnic nor a racial category, 'apiru is the political status of wanderers, dissidents, or unwelcome non-citizens. Such nomadic people were viewed as vagabonds, withdrawn from the social networks and responsibilities of upstanding people in the land. As Israelite dietary restrictions and purity laws evolved, these made it increasingly difficult for them to associate in the amicable venues of other nations. The more they distinguished themselves as different, the less welcome Israelites were.

We can appreciate why Israelites didn't use the name Hebrew, especially after they settled in the land of Canaan ca. 1225 BCE. Yet the name is retained for the ancient language of Israel. Hebrew derived from a Semitic language of Canaan. But in the 6th century BCE, after a generation of exile in Babylon, the spoken language of the people became Aramaic. It was the preferred tongue of the Persian Empire of which they were now a part. Hebrew was used only in prayer and scholarship, much as Latin was in the Roman church long after it ceased to be a living spoken tongue.

So how did Israelites known widely as Hebrews become Jews? The southern kingdom of Abraham's descendants was originally given to the tribe of Judah. (The north was called Israel, destroyed by Assyria in 722 BCE). When the Judahites were hustled off to Babylon, the land formerly known as Judah became known by the Persian designation Yehud. When the Romans took it over in 66 BCE, they called it Judea. Judeans became Jews, and the name stuck.

Scriptures: Genesis 10:21 (see footnote NABRE), 24-25; 11:14-17; 14:13 (see footnote NABRE); 39:14, 17; Exodus chs. 1—7; 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12; 1 Samuel chs. 4—14; Acts 6:1

Books: Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction, by Lawrence Boadt, CSP, revised edition by Richard Clifford and Daniel Harrington (Paulist Press, 2012)

A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, by J. Maxwell Miller and John H. Hayes (Westminster John Knox, 2006)

Who invented the sacraments?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 19, March 2023 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History,Scripture,Sacraments
Sacrament is "an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace."
(photo: Pixabay)

The classic definition of a sacrament is that it's an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. "Instituted by Christ" is a curious phrase. It clearly does not mean that Jesus, in his lifetime on earth, listed seven and only seven actions that will forever be known as sacraments. In fact, Jesus never uses the word.

The definition derives from fifth-century Saint Augustine, who taught that a sacrament is "an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace." He left out the part about where they came from. Third-century theologian Tertullian seems to have begun calling the initiating rituals of the church by the term sacramentum, which at the time was used for the oath of loyalty a Roman soldier vowed to the emperor. This Latin root word for sacrament means hidden or secret, similar to the Greek word for mystery.

Augustine advances the understanding of a sacrament by linking it to efficacy: that is, it effects what it signifies, does what it says. So baptism's waters bring death to sin and new life to us. Bread and wine become Christ's body and blood. However, Augustine fails to supply a definitive list of which actions do this. Nor does he limit sacraments to rituals but also includes objects. Across his writings, some 300 actions and elements are deemed signs of sacred realities; it's unclear that Augustine doesn't intend them all to be sacraments.

The church over time limits sacraments to ritual acts. Things—like holy water, ashes, palms—can be "sacramentals": elements that derive meaning from the sacraments. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 delineated the list of seven sacraments Catholics celebrate today.

In the New Testament, the ritual acts routinely practiced by the early church were baptism of new members and the breaking of the bread on the first day of the week. The Letter of James recommends anointing the sick, in imitation of Jesus who frequently touched those he healed. The practice of laying hands on those chosen for leadership is attested in the Acts of the Apostles. Both Jesus and Saint Paul rigorously support faithful marriages and forgiveness of sins in their teaching. Communicating the Holy Spirit as a seal of mature faith is also demonstrated by Jesus and later the apostles. Theologian Mark R. Francis implies that God "invents" sacraments as they exist to save us. It's the whole reason we have them—and the church.

Scriptures: Mark 1:9-10; 6:41-44; 8:23; 10:2-12; 14:22-24; Matthew 18:18; 19:1-9; 28:19; Luke 22:19-20; John 2:1-11; John 20:22-23; Acts 2:38, 41-42; 6:3-6; 8:14-17; 1 Corinthians 7:10-16; James 5:14-16

Books: Shape a Circle Ever Wider: Liturgical Inculturation in the United States - Mark R. Francis (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2007)

The Sacraments: Historical Foundations and Liturgical Theology - Kevin Irwin (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2016)

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The Bible mentions Zion a lot. Where or what is Zion?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 19, March 2023 Categories: Church History,Scripture
The idea of Zion continues to migrate.

Zion is a where and a what. Let's start with Jerusalem, built on two hills east and west, 2400 feet above sea level in its present location. Ancient Jerusalem stood slightly lower to the southeast, outside the walls of what's presently known as the Old City. David captured the fortress of Zion from the Jebusites around 1000 BCE, renaming it the City of David. His capital city was built around it on the eastern hill. Yet apparently by the time of first-century historian Josephus, it was the western hill, larger and higher, that was known as Zion. 

Either way, elevated Zion made an excellent capital: naturally defensible on all sides except the north, with a water supply from the Gihon spring on the eastern hill.

After the construction of the temple by King Solomon, Zion came to refer more specifically to the temple mount north of David's city, as the many psalms celebrating the ascent to the temple attest. This may be when the location of Zion decisively shifts from east to west. In Solomon's time the designation Jerusalem—"the foundation of Salem," an earlier name known at the time of Abraham—seems to eclipse other names for the location, both inside and outside the walls. So we see already that Zion was once the name of a hill and also a fortress on that hill. It became synonymous with the City of David, and finally interchangeable with the site of the Temple built in Solomon's time. 

But the idea of Zion continues to migrate. Ezekiel's prophecies re-envision both temple and Jerusalem with a celestial dimension. The Book of Revelation takes them out of time altogether. Geography falls away as "God's holy mountain" (Ps. 2) is infused with an eternal identity. So it happens that, in the Byzantine era, the ridge southwest of contemporary Jerusalem becomes designated as Zion. This ridge contains the traditional sites of both the tomb of David and the Cenacle—the latter being the upper room where the Last Supper was held. Could it be that "God's holy mountain," the place where God chooses to dwell, is reassigned by the actions at the Last Supper? In the new and everlasting covenant of our Eucharist, the "upper" room where this sacrament is instituted is revealed as a new Zion. In that case, each of the elevated sanctuaries upon which our altars stand is a little Zion too.

Scriptures: 2 Samuel 5:6-12; 1 Kings 8:1; 1 Chronicles 11:4-5; 2 Chronicles 5:1-2; Psalms 2:6; 46:5; 78:68-69; Isaiah 2:2-5; 60:1-3; 66:18-20; Ezekiel 47:1-12; Micah 4:1-3; Zechariah 8:20-23; Joel 4:16-18; Matthew 21:5; John 12:15; Romans 9:33; 11:26; Hebrews 12:22; 1 Peter 2:6; Revelation 14:1

Books: The Holy City: Jerusalem in the Theology of the Old Testament - Leslie Hoppe, OFM (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000)

The Long Journey: In Search of Justice and Peace in Jerusalem - James G. Paharik (Liturgical Press, 2009)

What am I to understand from the term "Kingdom of God"?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 02, February 2023 Categories: Scripture
Biblically, the Kingdom refers to God's rule rather than God's realm. 

It's important to get this one right. The Kingdom of God isn't another name for our popular understanding of heaven. That is, it's not where we go when we die. Nor is it even a "place" in the temporal sense of the word. Biblically, the Kingdom refers to God's rule rather than God's realm. Being Kingdom citizens is a matter of embracing God's will as our own and living accordingly.

This helps us appreciate why Jesus refers to the Kingdom as "among" us and even "within" us—always within reach if we but reach for it. We don't have to get there so much as abide there wherever we are. Scripture says we participate in the Kingdom's reality in various ways: repenting and changing our hearts, working toward justice, protecting the vulnerable, and freeing those who are burdened. 

Matthew speaks of "the kingdom of the heavens," while Mark and Luke prefer the more direct "kingdom of God." All three gospels see the fulfillment of the Kingdom as central to the teaching of Jesus. We're taught to pray for its arrival in the Lord's Prayer. Our relationship to money and even to family might be an obstacle to full admission. Jesus offers multiple parables and metaphors for understanding the Kingdom's dimensions and implications: a sower, a mustard seed, treasure, a banquet. Matthew's gospel alone references the Kingdom almost 50 times.

In John's gospel, Jesus is clear that the Kingdom can't be mistaken for territory gained by power: it operates distinctly from this world. It's a reality where peace rules and oppression ends. Jesus manifests the Kingdom by coming into this world, but its fullness is not yet in view until his return in glory.

Sometimes we make the mistake of morphing the Kingdom of God with the church on earth. At its best, the church is the sacramental sign of the Kingdom: a signpost, that is, not the destination. We the church proclaim the Kingdom both in formal preaching and in works of justice and mercy. No political system or social program can establish God's rule. We can't make "Kingdom come" by our own efforts. Yet we are summoned to cooperate with the Spirit to enter more fully into the Kingdom's reality by our personal choices and in reshaping society to conform to its values.

Scripture: 1 Chronicles 17:14, 28:5; Psalm 99:4; 146:5-10; Isaiah 6:1-5; 24:23; Zephaniah 3:15; Zechariah 14:16-17; Mark 1:15; 9:1; 10:23-25; Matthew 3:1-2; 4:17; 6:10; 10:34-38; 13:18-19, 24-53; 16:19, 28; 19:23-24; 20:1-16, 20-23; 22:1-14; Luke 9:27; 11:2; 14:15-33; 18:24-25; John 3:3-5; 18:33-37; Acts 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23

Books: Parables of the Kingdom/Jesus and the Use of Parables in the Synoptic Tradition, Pts. I-II, by Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan (Liturgical Press, 2007 and 2008) 

A Banqueter's Guide To The All-Night Soup Kitchen Of The Kingdom Of God, by Patrick T. McCormick (Liturgical Press, 2017)

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What do theologians do all day?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 18, December 2022 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Scripture,Prayer and Spirituality
Scripture and tradition are the central tools of the theologian's trade. Whatever they propose must be grounded in these primary foundations.

Good question! It doesn't seem one might make a living talking about God. Most theologians have a day job teaching at universities. Yet their vocation remains to pursue "the science of God." These studies aren't merely academic. Theologians invest in the work of understanding as believers themselves, and for the sake of believers everywhere.

Fourth-century Augustine urged seekers of truth to "believe that you may understand." Later Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury coined a phrase from this idea, "faith seeking understanding," to describe the task of theology. Needless to say, theologians don't make stuff up, spinning theories about divinity from their imaginations or faculties of reason. Scripture and tradition are the central tools of the theologian's trade. Whatever they propose must be grounded in these primary foundations. 

In addition, theologians may use methodologies from philosophy, history, and science to stretch toward new horizons of thought, to take in advancements in human learning.  Many theologians specialize in certain approaches or subjects. Systematic theology, for example, explores motifs of church dogma: Trinity, Creation, or Incarnation, say. Soteriology is concerned with the workings of grace and the meaning of salvation. Moral theology examines how to discern value choices. Christology meditates on the mystery of Jesus as both human and divine. Ecclesiology studies the church in its mission, governance, and future directions. Pastoral theology considers how preaching, teaching, and liturgy promote the gospel and connect with the lived situations of real people.

I like Jesuit J.J. Mueller's listing of four major influences shaping the path of contemporary theology. The first is the renewed appreciation for Scripture's privileged role in any conversation about God: not the Bible taken literally and fundamentalistically, yet still embraced foundationally. Secondly is historical consciousness: ways of viewing and valuing the past as central or irrelevant, ongoing or finished business. Next is the opening of new avenues of interpretation: feminist, black, LGBTQ+, and liberation readings, among many others. Finally, we have to be mindful of the quickening of global interconnectedness and the responsibility to make theology universally applicable and respectful.

I also love Mueller's acknowledgment that theology isn't the exclusive domain of theologians. We all participate in God Talk with family, friends, coworkers, and in the public sphere of politics and the marketplace. What we say to each other, to children, and to the wider world with our values and decisions is part of the greater work of seeking, understanding, and teaching what we believe.

Scripture: Psalm 119; Wisdom 1:1-7; John 1:1-18; Romans 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; 2 Timothy 3:10-17; 1 John 1:1-4; 2:7-11

Books: Theological Foundations: Concepts and Methods for Understanding Christian Faith, by J.J. Mueller, SJ. (St. Mary's Press, 2007)

World Christianity: History, Methodologies, Horizons, by Jehu J. Hanciles (Orbis Books, 2021)

I noticed the name "Yahweh" was taken out of a hymn I like. What's up with that?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 10, April 2022 Categories: Scripture
The Hebrew name of God is not to be used in liturgical celebrations, songs, or prayers.

It's true: among the most popular songs used at Mass is "You Are Near" by Dan Schutte. And the opening address was changed from "Yahweh " to "O Lord." The switch doesn't interrupt the cadence, but if you've been singing it since 1971, it's understandable to stumble on the phrase. Other hymns were affected, but none as prominently as this one.

The change was made in accordance with a decree from the Congregation for Divine Worship in 2008. This was in response to an explicit directive from Pope Benedict XVI regarding the casual usage of the divine name. The Hebrew name of God is not to be used in liturgical celebrations, songs, or prayers. Translators of texts are cautioned to show the “greatest faithfulness and respect” regarding the Holy Name. In contemporary Bible translations, wherever the Hebrew name was originally used, now appears the name LORD in capital letters. 

Although the name appears in Scripture as early as Genesis in passages composed by a writer called the Yahwist for this very reason, most contributors refrained from using the name until it's given to Moses as a special gift in Exodus. On that occasion, God says, "As God the Almighty (in Hebrew, El Shaddai] I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but my name, YHWH, I did not make known to them." Later biblical personalities like Elijah [YHWH is my God] and Isaiah [YHWH is salvation] bear names that define their relationship to this God.

The name isn't a noun or a descriptor but a verb. God is to be known as a vital activity rather than a static notion. As Scripture likes to say, God is the God of the living, the is-was-and-will-be, the Being of eternal progression. I AM, says God—but this implies more than simple existence. God not only IS but also CAUSES all to be. Theologians would inelegantly label God the Uncaused Cause in recognition of this idea. They might also have recognized the God of infinite relationship.

Sometime after the Babylonian exile, reverence for the divine name increases. Dead Sea scroll writers used different pens and ink to write the name in an archaic script. Eventually the name adonai in Hebrew, kyrios in Greek, LORD in English, would replace YHWH in the texts altogether. Taking Yashem (the Name) out of casual usage reminds us of the privilege we have in addressing our God.

Scripture: Genesis 4:26; 17:1; 35:11; Exodus 3:13-15; 6:2-3; 7:17; 8:6, 18; 9:29; 10:1-2; 14:18; 20:2-3; Leviticus 11:44-45; 22:32-33; Deuteronomy 6:12-13; Pss. 20:2, 8; 54:3; see also Jesus in John 6:20; 8:24, 28, 58; 13:19; 18:5-8; and Mark 14:61-63; Luke 22:70-71; Philippians 2:11

Books: Praise the Name of the Lord: Meditations on the Names of God in the Qu'ran and the Bible, by Archbishop Michael Louis Fitzgerald, with Mary Margaret Funk, Zeki Saritoprak (Liturgical Press, 2017)

The Names of Jesus, by Stephen Binz (Twenty-Third Publications, 2004)

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I'm confused about "James" in the New Testament. How many are there, and who are they?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 10, April 2022 Categories: Church History,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Scripture

Last names would come in handy. Unhappily, they weren't used in biblical times. We're left to hazard a best guess when more than one James (or Mary, John, or Simon) appears. 

The first James is identified as the brother of John and son of Zebedee. James and John encounter Jesus at the shore of Galilee while they're in a boat mending nets with Zebedee. Jesus has already recruited brothers Simon (Peter) and Andrew who were similarly employed. Likewise, James and John leave family, home, and occupation behind the moment Jesus calls to them. Perhaps because of their boisterous natures, Jesus nicknames them Boanerges, "sons of thunder." James is always mentioned before John, which makes him the eldest or simply more celebrated brother: he's sometimes called James the Great. Along with Peter, these brothers form the inner circle of Jesus' followers. James was the second of the original Twelve to die (after the suicide of Judas), a martyr between 42-44 A.D.

Also on the list of apostles is James the son of Alphaeus. We don't know how he enters the story, his occupation or origins. He has no speaking part in the gospels. No wonder he's called James the Less—though this may be a reference to his age. His mother Mary was present at the crucifixion.

Another gospel list claims a James: that of Jesus' brothers. Unnamed sisters are sometimes noted, but all four gospels mention Jesus had brothers. Blood ties were tight in ancient times; the precise kinship may have been cousins or siblings. Attempts to clarify these relationships are unsatisfying. Belief in Mary's perpetual virginity weighs heavily in Catholic conversations on the matter. Some view these siblings as Joseph's children from a previous marriage. 

This third James—AKA James the Just—is significant in the early church. While the gospels repeatedly emphasize how the relatives of Jesus mistrusted the direction of his ministry, Paul notes that after the resurrection, James had a private revelation of Jesus. This cured his doubts and enfolded him into the church. His lineage may have catapulted him into leadership in the Jerusalem community, becoming a power triangle with career disciples Peter and John. Brother James could have written some kernel of the Letter of James in the New Testament. However, James the Just was martyred in 62 or 69 AD; the final form of the letter likely took shape later.

Mark 1:16-20; 3:13-19; 31-35; 6:1-6; 15:40; Matthew 4:21-22; 10:1-4; 12:46-50; 13:55-58; 27:56; Luke 6:12-16; 8:19-21; 24:10; John 7:3-5; Acts 1:13; 12:17; 15:13-21; 21:18; 1 Corinthians 15:7; Galatians 1:19; 2:11-12; James 1:1

Books: James of Jerusalem: Heir to Jesus of Nazareth, by Patrick Hartin (Liturgical Press, 2004)

What Are They Saying About the Letter of James?, by Alicia Batten (Paulist Press, 2009)

Why is Jesus called the Lamb of God?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 02, February 2022 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Scripture
The Paschal mystery remains the focal point of salvation: that the innocent one bears away the world's guilt.

Lamb of God, or Agnus Dei, has come to be a familiar liturgical formula referring to Jesus. This is interesting, as the term only occurs twice in the New Testament, and not at all in the Old. 

Of course, sheep and lambs are pervasive images in both Testaments, as you would expect in an agrarian culture. Lambs were essential to the religious sacrifices of Israel, including the centrally significant Passover lamb whose blood marked the doorposts and lintels of Hebrew houses in Egypt on the night when the angel of death passed over the land. Yearling lambs were also sacrificed at Israel's priestly ordination rites, and lambs served as peace offerings and sin offerings as well. It's clear from the earliest usages that the blood of lambs had special authority as a sign of God's protection, guidance, and forgiveness.

In the prophecies of Isaiah, the theology is advanced. Isaiah sees the lamb as an innocent and vulnerable animal, gentle and peace-loving. Contrast it with the lion, wolf, or bear, always in search of prey. In the songs of the faithful servant, Isaiah envisions the servant as a lamb led to slaughter, bearing the guilt of many without protest.

These early Hebrew understandings of the lamb's role in purifying the community of sin, and in making peace between the people and God, certainly contributed to John the Baptist's meaning when he identifies Jesus to the crowds: "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" In John's gospel, this phrase is in the Baptist's mouth twice. From that same Johannine community emerges the image of the victorious Lamb of Revelation, who sits at God's throne and illuminates the New Jerusalem as its sole source of light.

It's no wonder that, when Philip the deacon encounters the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts, the man is puzzling over Isaiah's references to the lamb led to slaughter and trying to pierce the mystery. Why would God send a lamb to do the work of communal restoration? Why indeed? The Paschal mystery remains the focal point of salvation: that the innocent one bears away the world's guilt.

So we sing of this mystery in the Gloria at Mass, and in the three-fold "Lamb of God" before communion. "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world," the priest intones. "Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb." 

Scripture: Exodus 12:3-9; Leviticus 3:6-11; 4:32-35; Isaiah 11:6; 53:7; Luke 10:3; John 1:29, 36; 21:21:15; Acts 8:32; 1 Peter 1:19; Revelation 5:6-13; 7:9-17

Books: At the Supper of the Lamb: A Pastoral and Theological Commentary on the Mass, by Paul Turner (Liturgy Training Publications,  2011)

The Lamb and the Beasts, by Stephen J. Binz (Twenty-Third Publications, 2006)

E-Resource: Website "Art and Theology: revitalizing the Christian imagination through painting, poetry, music, and more" - Don't miss Victoria Emily Jones' articles on liturgical art. And please, enjoy a hymn or two.

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What's the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls? I want to know—but not enough to read them!

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 16, September 2021 Categories: Church History,Scripture
The Dead Sea Scrolls raise more questions than they supply definitive answers. 

Reading them would be tough—unless you know Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The story of the scrolls isn't complete even now, more than 70 years after the first collection was discovered by a Bedouin boy in search of a lost sheep in 1947. As recently as March 2021, archeologists announced new findings in yet another cave, including fragments from some books of prophecy. Who knows what else lies undiscovered in the Judean desert, with its excellent conditions for preserving ancient artifacts?

The Dead Sea Scrolls raise more questions than they supply definitive answers. To the disappointment of many, the scrolls aren't a smoking gun linking the Qumran community (which consigned these writings to their caves) with Jesus, John the Baptist, or Christianity. No New Testament texts appear among the thousands of fragments so far unearthed. Yet every Jewish biblical book except Esther is logged among the findings. The original 11 caves, uncovered between 1947 and 1956, contained some 900 distinct manuscripts, most of them extra-biblical. 

What we learned from Cave 1, which seems to have been a deliberate library for the community, is that a great deal of attention at Qumran focused on the present and the future, not just the past. The rules by which this community—presumed by most scholars to be the Essenes—would live was a paramount concern.  The Essenes were among three significant subgroups within Judaism between 150 BC and 68 AD, when Roman soldiers destroyed Qumran. Unlike the Sadducees, who ran the Temple and cooperated with the Roman occupiers, the Essenes withdrew from Jerusalem and rejected the legitimacy of the Temple leaders. Rather than participating in the customary ritual sacrifices, the Essenes anticipated the rabbinic movement to come which would replace Temple worship with study of the Law of Moses. 

Like the third movement of the period, that of the Pharisees, the Essenes were dedicated to religious purity. Young men found their zeal and idealism attractive, and would enter the community for a time. However, a longstanding practice of celibacy deterred some from remaining. A study of gravesites around Qumran revealed that the community relaxed the celibacy requirement at a later date. A more recent gravesite included women and children buried separately, at a discreet distance, from the men.   

The scrolls provide evidence to the complexity of religious ideas circulating in the generations around Jesus. Judaism was fractured. The interpretation of sacred texts was seriously debated. Jesus wasn't the only teacher of his time calling for a reexamination of what Pilate once wondered: What is truth?

Scriptures: Matthew 24:3-14; 1 Timothy 1:3-11; 4:1-16; 6:3-6; 2 Timothy 2:14-26; 3:10-17

Books: The Impact of the Dead Sea Scrolls, by Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J. (Paulist Press, 2020)

The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Significance for Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity, by James VanderKam, Peter Flint (HarperOne, 2004)

What are we to believe about "the Fall" in Genesis?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 16, September 2021 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Scripture
Saint Paul later hooks this story about the origins of suffering to the gospel accounts of the passion of Jesus.

First, the term never appears in the Bible. The theology of the Fall evolves over time and reflection by church fathers, especially Augustine who popularized the term "original sin" to define humanity's "fall from grace." (See Questions Catholics Ask:  "What is ‘original sin’ "?)

Which is not to say biblical texts concerning the first sin don't provide ample material to support the doctrine that followed. The story is dramatically simple: God makes a man and woman in the divine image and instructs them not to eat from a single tree in the garden. Eating its fruit would be fatal. Yet the couple prefers to take advice from a fellow creature in the Garden. This serpent claims the fruit doesn't cause death, but actually delivers fullness of life as God enjoys. This turns out to be the worst fake news in history.

This ancient myth is etiological, in the manner of Rudyard Kipling's stories of how the leopard gets its spots and the rhino its wrinkles. Why is life so hard? people wonder. Is God doing this to us? Do we deserve to suffer? The story of the Garden assures us that God doesn't cause harm. People do this; and we do it with every choice we make against God's benevolent guidance.

Saint Paul later hooks this story about the origins of suffering to the gospel accounts of the passion of Jesus. Paul simplifies the math by condensing the story to two crucial actors. One chooses the way of disobedience (not listening to God), launching the story of sin and suffering. Another chooses perfect obedience and, by means of his voluntary suffering, reverses the consequences of sin and death. One man falls, and another is lifted into the heavens. The point is clear: the self-willed path leads to ruin. Pursuing the will of God leads to salvation. Choose wisely.

The theology of the Fall becomes problematic when it narrows its focus on two "original" persons; one historical choice; and the dreadful consequences for the rest of us. Because of a single defining moment most of us didn't participate in, men and women are perpetually alienated from each other and the earth, between generations, and from God. Most parochial school kids figure out early on this is a pretty raw deal for a piece of fruit. To transfer our gaze to the significance of every human decision—toward self-will, or for the holy will—is to recognize that we each choose to fall, or to rise.

Scriptures: Genesis 2 & 3; Isaiah 14:12-21; Ezekiel 28:12-19; Sirach 25:24; Wisdom 2:23-24; Romans 5:12-21

Books: An Introduction to the Old Testament: A Feminist Perspective, by Alice L. Laffey (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1988)

A New Heaven, A New Earth: The Bible and Catholicity, by Dianne Bergant and Ilia Delio (Orbis Books, 2016)

As Pontius Pilate says: what is truth?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 01, April 2021 Categories: Scripture
To the biblically trained Jewish mind, truth is discovered through experience, which then gives rise to faith and promotes integrated behaviors.

The trouble with Pilate’s question—apart from his dubious sincerity—is that someone with a Greco-Roman bias is asking this of a Jewish teacher. To the philosophical mind, truth is a substance obtained through a rational process. You can then pin it to the wall and say: Ta da! That’s truth. To the biblically trained Jewish mind, however, truth is discovered through experience, which then gives rise to faith and promotes integrated behaviors. Pilate and Jesus weren’t in the same conversation.

The Semitic word for truth is aman, meaning “reliable, constant, secure.” It’s the root from the Hebrew word Amen derives. In this sense a person can be true, as well as a word, a law, or a way of life. God is Ultimate Truth to the biblical believer, which is why all earthly ribbons of truth should be pursued, according to the sages of the Wisdom tradition. God will prove to be at the journey’s end. The person devoted to truth can look forward to a mystical union of the earthly and the heavenly: “Love and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss. Truth will spring from the earth; justice will look down from heaven.” (Psalm 89:11).

In Greek-speak, truth is an intellectually appreciated “known.” So Jesus is described as “a truthful man” by onlookers in our Greek New Testament. But to the Hebrew mindset, embracing truth leads to trust in its source. So those who believe that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” have to put their trust in him and not just appreciate his teaching. One who finds Jesus trustworthy in this way would also have to commit to “doing” truth or living in it: “Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.” (1 John 3:18)

Passionist scholar Paul Wadell notes that truth makes society possible. To live together we must trust each other. Living in the truth affirms trust and builds community. In a society of public lies, spin, and distortion, language becomes a disguise of meaning rather than authentic communication. We no longer trust our leadersmuch less opponents, foreigners, or enemies!because “You have my word” becomes an empty phrase. On the personal level, those who choose to live in self-serving fantasy rather than truth will reject reality and short-circuit social justice in favor of what works for them. A community without truth is a harrowing proposition. Say Amen, somebody!

Scripture: Ps. 12:2-3; 19:10; 119:142; Mark 12:14; John 8:31-32; 14:6; 17:17; 18:37; Romans 9:1; Gal 2:5; 1 Timothy 2:3-4; James 5:19-20

Books: Adult Faith: Growing in Wisdom and Understanding, by Diarmuid O’Murchu (Orbis, 2010)

What Is God: How to Think About God, by John F. Haught (Paulist Press, 1996)

We hear so much about what men do in the Bible. Do women do more than participate in the “begats”?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 17, February 2021 Categories: Church History,Scripture
We’re delighted women feature relentlessly in the record. It’s also disturbing that so many of these stories are unfamiliar to us.

Yes! But you might not know it from the amount of airtime they get in most biblical surveys. Many people are surprised to learn that at least 333 women appear in Scripture. I say at least, since sometimes we’re just told women are present; not who they are or how many they are.

Journalist Edith Deen made a fascinating study of these women in categories that are themselves illuminating as to the roles women play in our sacred story. First she considers the main female actors of Genesis: Eve, of course; but also wives, mothers, and sisters of the patriarchs. Next, Deen studies significant women in the time of Moses and the Judges. Then come bold women of the era of Kings, including a few shrewd Queens. Finally she turns her attention to resourceful women around Jesus and in the early church. In each survey section, both heroes and villains are featured.

While these portraits of the better-known players are interesting, what may be more intriguing is Deen’s alphabetical index of every named woman in Scripture: all 279, from Abi to Zipporah, offered with a helpful citation plus a quick description of their significance. This is followed by a chronicle of unnamed women: 40 daughters, 28 wives, 20 mothers, 8 widows, and 44 others known essentially by their relationships to men. 

This total of 333 stories in which a woman or group of women influences salvation history is both delightful and maddening. We’re delighted women feature relentlessly in the record. It’s also disturbing that so many of these stories are unfamiliar to us. They’re rarely proclaimed at Mass or taught in religious education. Ask the average churchgoer to list as many biblical women as they can. I’ve encountered many who draw a blank after Eve, Mary, and Mary Magdalene.

Because so many women in the biblical record—indeed, in the historical records of any civilization—are unnamed, we may need prodding to recall the Medium of Endor, the Wise Woman of Tekoa, and the Virtuous Wife of Proverbs. It takes a little jogging to consider those featured in parables like the Ten Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids, or the Woman with the Lost Coin. It’s a start, at least, to realize that there are 333 stories about women. But it’s more important to expand our personal list, so we recognize more than a handful of them.

Scripture: 1 Samuel 28:4-25; 2 Samuel 14:1-20; Proverbs 31:10-31; Matthew 25:1-13; Luke 15:8-10

Books: All of the Women of the Bible, by Edith Deen (HarperOne, 1988)

Women in the Old Testament, by Irene Nowell, OSB (Liturgical Press, 1997)

Women in the New Testament, by Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan (Liturgical Press, 2001)

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Who was John the Baptist and what was his relationship to Jesus?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 05, December 2012 Categories: Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Scripture
John the Baptist
ICON of Saint John the Baptist.

John is unique in the story of salvation. He’s the inter-testamental lynchpin: part Hebrew prophet, part Christian missionary. His strange diet and dress, his preference for the wilderness, and his stern message of repentance puts him in a class with folks like Elijah, Amos, and Isaiah. He doesn’t, however, simply talk about the coming of Emmanuel. He has the distinct advantage of being able to point him out to the crowds: “Behold, the Lamb of God!”

John’s life begins in typical Bible-hero fashion with a miracle-birth story. That is the way scripture bookmarks a life and says: “Pay attention!” as with Isaac, Moses, Samuel, and Jesus himself. We know that John’s life is peculiarly interwoven with that of Jesus from the moment he leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary and her burgeoning womb are present. John, inheriting the priesthood of his father Zechariah, abandons institutional religion to become a never-ending prophet of Advent, announcing “Prepare the way of the Lord!” to all who will listen.

At the same time it’s often pointed out that John never concludes his ministry to become a disciple of Jesus. Even after he declares who Jesus is, he continues to preach and baptize. Later in prison John seems concerned that his own message of repentance or damnation seems discordant with the “mercy and forgiveness” gospel of Jesus being reported to him. He has to ask: Are you the one who is to come, or should we keep looking?

If John is uncertain of his role at times, so were plenty of other people. King Herod is afraid of John and twice as scared of Jesus after he puts John to death. He thinks Jesus may be John’s reincarnation. When Jesus asks his disciples what people are saying about him, they admit that some folks can’t tell him from John, and both John’s and Jesus’ followers got them confused with Elijah.

The fact that John never ceased his ministry even after Jesus started his reminds us that only a few of John’s followers transferred their allegiance to Jesus. The school of John dies hard: His disciples are still practicing their sect in the time of the early church. That is why the late-entry Gospel of John takes pains to subordinate John to Jesus, as when John declares: I am not the Christ. He must increase, and I must decrease.

• Matthew 3; 11:2-15; 17:10-13; Mark 1:1-11; 6:14-29; 8:27-30; John 1:6-9, 15-42; 3:22-30; Acts 13:24-25; 18:24-26; 19:1-7

• "John the Baptist: Preparing the Way" by Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, O.P., Scripture from Scratch, 1999

John the Baptist: Prophet and Evangelist by Carl R. Kazmierski (Liturgical Press, 1996)
John the Baptist: Prophet of Purity for a New Age by Catherine Murphy (Liturgical Press, 2003)

Why would a global pandemic happen? Is God doing this?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 13, May 2020 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Scripture
COVID mask
The crucifixion testifies that God isn’t “doing this”: God is suffering this with us.

This question was raised, sheepishly, by a friend who considers herself a progressive-thinking Catholic. She doesn’t imagine God as a big punishing dude on a throne, exacting vengeance for humanity’s crimes—which are considerable, when you think about it. She’s been thinking about it: counting ways that maybe we “deserve” a global reckoning. We destroy rainforests, fill oceans with floating continents of plastic, poison the soil, make the air unbreathable, contaminate freshwater with hazardous waste. We torture Creation to make a buck, while the gap between rich and poor widens. Honestly: why wouldn’t God “do this”?

It’s not a stupid question. It’s an ancient biblical question: is human suffering a measure of divine wrath? Is God “pleased to crush us with infirmity,” to restore balance to a celestial justice we’ve disregarded?

The biblical character of God does seem to exact justice by means of catastrophe: The expulsion of humanity from Eden. The great flood in Noah’s time. The ten plagues visited on Egypt. Israel’s trials in the desert due to relentless ingratitude. Babylonian exile. Sequential occupations by Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Egypt, Greece, Rome. The death of Jesus “for the sins of the world” can be viewed as ringing evidence that God expects satisfaction for offenses against divine justice. From this perspective, human suffering is the currency in which God is to be paid.

Some routinely see God’s wrath expressed in famine, war, and disease, as when half of Europe’s population died in the Black Death, or the 1918-1920 Spanish flu infected one in three people worldwide. AIDS has claimed 35 million lives and counting, causing some to point to divine judgment. Yet at least once a century, flu season results in a million deaths. The odds of getting cancer across a lifetime are roughly one in two for men, one in three for women.

The biblical story of Job objects to drawing clean lines between human guilt and periods of devastation. Job is just; why would God punish him? The book argues that the why of suffering is a mystery best left to God. The more meaning-laden question may be: when suffering comes, what will we make of it? Jesus refused to blame a blind man or his parents for this misfortune. The crucifixion testifies that God isn’t “doing this”: God is suffering this with us. The cross invites us to take all our pain and to consecrate it to God’s benevolent purposes. God redeems human misery and, indeed, saves the world. That’s a promise.

Scriptures: Genesis 3:1-24; 6:5-13; Exodus 7:14-11:10; Deuteronomy 11:26-32; Jeremiah 15:1-4; Isaiah 53:4-12; Book of Job; John 1:1-14; 9:1-40

Books: Job - Study Set, by Kathleen O’Connor, (Liturgical Press, 2012); Through the Dark Field: The Incarnation Through an Aesthetics of Vulnerability, by Susie Paulik Babka (Liturgical Press, 2017)

Is Jesus the Messiah?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 03, July 2019 Categories: Scripture
Jesus the Messiah
Isaiah upgrades salvation to universal dimensions: all nations have a stake in the coming Messiah.

The word MessiahHebrew for “anointed”—has a complex history. Between Messiah and Christ—Greek for “anointed”—lies a thousand years of evolving expectations. Best to review those before addressing the age-old Christian query: Why don’t Jews, reading the same ancient texts, accept Jesus as “Messiah”?

Scholar Raymond E. Brown cautions that messiahs aren’t the only saviors in Israel’s history. Moses, the judges, Nehemiah and Ezra, even young Queen Esther are identified as savior figures. Anyone divinely appointed for the work of rescue is a savior. Israel’s in need of frequent rescue, so the Bible contains a lot of saviors.

The gallery of saviors gains new candidates in the era of kings. Anointed to lead at God’s command, Judah’s kings are messiahs in a nationalistic sense. They don’t save the world; and they only keep the nation safe for their particular generation. Contrast them with the kings of northern Israel, who are viewed more skeptically. Then recall that southern Judah writes the Bible. 

Messianic kingship reaches its height with Judah’s second king, David. His line is endowed with an everlasting, rollover anointing. The salvation coming from David’s house, however, doesn’t extend to the afterlife. Nor is it universal. Davidic kings won’t “save the world”: they’ll keep Judah safe. The problem is, they don’t. Soon after David, Judah is ruled by a string of monarchs who disregard God’s guidance. Two centuries in, the prophet Isaiah views his king Ahaz as gone totally off the rails. 

Isaiah reboots messianic hope. While linked to David’s line, the Messiah will be loyal to God and establish justice and peace. Eden-like conditions will be restored. Isaiah upgrades salvation to universal dimensions: all nations have a stake in the coming Messiah. The prophecy adds a sober note: this Messiah will come in humility and go the way of suffering. Other prophets embrace Isaiah’s vision. 

Messianism undergoes a third overhaul after Babylonian exile and the monarchy’s extinction. Without kings, can there be a Messiah? Biblical history has a big hole in it between the 5th and 1st centuries B.C. By the time of the gospels, it’s clear that anyone still dreaming of a Messiah wants to see David’s kingdom restored and a better world for Israel ensured. Jesus reaches back into prophecy, embracing the image of a suffering servant who saves much more than a precarious political situation. That’s a Messiah few were waiting for, and perhaps few find attractive today.

Scripture: Genesis 49:9-12; 2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89:20-38; Isaiah 7:10-17; 9:1-6; 11:1-9; 52:13—53:12; Zechariah 9:9-10; Mark 8:27-30; Matthew 2:1-6; John 7:25-31, 40-52

Books: Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus, by Richard Horsely with John Hanson (Harper & Row, 1985)

The Death of the Messiah, From Gethsemane to the Grave, by Raymond E. Brown (Yale University Press, 1998)

What are beatitudes, and why are they so important?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 15, June 2019 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Scripture
Beatitudes are assurances that we’re on the right track.

The simplest understanding of beatitudes is that they’re a form of congratulations. If words were awards, beatitudes would be blue ribbons. Most people associate this term with THE Beatitudes, the famous blessing lines of Jesus—“blessed are the peacemakers,” etc.—delivered at the Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew’s gospel) or on the Plain (in Luke’s account). But beatitudes are found in the Old Testament also, in psalms and wisdom writings. Apart from the sermons, other New Testament beatitudes appear in John’s gospel, letters of James and Peter, and even the Book of Revelation.

To appreciate how beatitudes operate, we might compare them with commandments. The well-known Commandments in the Decalogue tell us bluntly which actions to take or evils to avoid. Commandments speak in imperatives (“Honor your father and mother”) or issue orders (“You shall not kill”), and their sole justification is in the authority of the God who set them in stone. Only incidentally may commandments offer a rationale for keeping them. For example, we’re told to honor our parents so that we may have a long life in the land up ahead. This stick-and carrot approach is not to be misread: promised land or not, the mandate to respect elders still stands.

By contrast, beatitudes are assurances that we’re on the right track. They don’t instruct so much as highlight the reward of certain behaviors. As Sirach extols the happiness of a husband with a good wife, he reminds us why it’s great to choose the right mate: “A loyal wife brings joy to her husband, and he will finish his years in peace.” Before we frown at the lack of reciprocity, please note that Ben Sira, author of these instructions, ran a boys’ school and had no reason to describe the joy of wives who choose the right guy—not that many had the option. Beatitudes recall that keeping the Sabbath doesn’t just make God happy; who doesn’t want a day off?

The two most famous lists of beatitudes aren’t identical. Matthew includes nine attitudes that lead to happiness: things like poverty of spirit, a hunger for justice, meekness. In contrast, Luke speaks of real poverty, actual hunger, public humiliation in his list of four blessings, and balances that list with four corresponding woes, or old-world curses. They warn us that choosing vice over virtue leads to misery on the far side of that decision.

Scripture: Exodus 20:1-17; Pss 1:1; 41:1-4; 65:5; 84:5; 106:3; 112:1; Sirach 25:8-9; 26:1; Isaiah 56:2; Matthew 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-26; John 13:17; James 1:12; 1 Peter 3:14; Revelation 16:15

Books: Blessings for Leaders: Leadership Wisdom from the Beatitudes, by Dan Ebener (Liturgical Press, 2012)

What’s So Blessed About Being Poor? Seeking the Gospel in the Slums of Kenya, by L. Susan Slavin and Coralis Salvador (Orbis Books, 2012)

What’s the difference between a psalm and a canticle?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 08, December 2018 Categories: Scripture
Book of Psalms
King David, traditionally considered the author of the whole book of psalms, is internally attributed with at least 73 of them.

Our term psalm comes from a Greek word literally meaning the twanging of a harp or plucking of a stringed instrument. Canticle derives from the Latin word for a little song. As both definitions suggest, we’re talking about sung material, particularly sacred songs. The main difference between the two is not style, but placement. Psalms are found entirely within the Book of Psalms. Canticles are songs located anywhere else in Scripture.

The psalm collection, known as psalmody or the Psalter, contains musical directions that indicate at least a third of the 150 poems within the book were intended for stringed, flute, or harp accompaniment. Some were apparently set to music everyone knew: read notations like “the hind of the dawn” the way our hymns might recommend “Finlandia” or “Pange Lingua”. The word selah appears 71 times in the collection. We don’t know what it means, but the choir certainly would have. Internally, some psalms also carry subtitles that distinguish them as songs, hymns, or prayers. This doesn’t imply the others are not songs or prayers. It’s just that these entered the collection with these titles, the way “The Lord’s Prayer” is obviously not the only prayer of Jesus included in the gospels. In the Jewish Bible, the entire collection we call psalms is known by the Hebrew word for hymns. The bottom line is there’s no indication any of these poems were intended merely for recitation, as we often do.

King David, traditionally considered the author of the whole book of psalms, is internally attributed with at least 73 of them. (Other manuscripts ascribe 84 to David). The others bear the names of other composers. Biblical evidence suggests David was a poet, composer, and musician, not to mention the organizer of the liturgical cult of the Temple. If he didn’t actually compose half of the Psalmody, he was its primary original sponsor.

Canticles have a broad authorship. Song of Songs, AKA Canticle of Canticles, was traditionally ascribed to King Solomon. The subject matter is a series of love songs, which suited Solomon’s reputation as a renowned lover. However, most scholars see multiple and later author involvement. Important Old Testament canticles include those attributed to Miriam, Moses, Deborah, Hannah, and Judith. New Testament canticles include the Benedictus of Zechariah, the Nunc Dimittis of Simeon, and of course the Magnificat of Mary. More recent canticles include those of Francis of Assisi and John of the Cross.

Scripture: Exodus 15:1-21; Deuteronomy 32:1-44; Judges 5:1-31; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Judith 16:1-17; Song of Songs; Luke 1:46-55, 67-79; 2:29-32

Books: Psalms: Songs From a Pierced Heart, by Patricia Stevenson, RSJ (Sisters of St. Joseph, 2012)

Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness, by Nan Merrill (Continuum, 2008)

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Who were the women at the cross?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 03, August 2016 Categories: Scripture,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Church History

women cross crucifixion

The women who were present at the crucifixion of Jesus are an intriguing mystery. Several were named Mary. In the shared tradition of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, the women don’t approach the cross. They stand "at a distance," probably for the usual reasons: Women tried to be invisible in public. And they would have reason to fear their treatment by Roman soldiers.

Mark, who writes first, doesn’t give us a precise number of how many women looked on from a distance. He names only three: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome. While not an original disciple, Mark offers an account reputed to be from Peter. Only John's late gospel records specifically the presence of Mary, mother of Jesus. All the women there, according to Mark, had been with Jesus since Galilee.

The names James and Joses provide a clue about one of the Marys at the cross. These men are mentioned elsewhere in Mark among four "brothers of Jesus"—possibly cousins of some degree. This makes their mother an “aunt” of Jesus, present to comfort his mother. Mary may have been a family name, the way I have four relatives named Paul. John’s account lists a Mary identified by her husband Clopas rather than by sons. Both Marys could be the same person.

Like Mark, Matthew references four brothers/cousins of Jesus: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. In Hebrew, "Joseph" and "Joses" are the same name. At the crucifixion, Matthew mentions James and Joseph as sons of a certain Mary. Matthew verifies the presence of Mary Magdalene and also the mother of Zebedee’s sons James and John. To harmonize Mark and Matthew’s narratives, Mark’s Salome is often identified as Zebedee’s wife.

In Luke’s crucifixion story, the Galilean women are described among "acquaintances" of Jesus standing at a distance. None are named. 

John locates the women directly at the foot of the cross. His list includes the mother of Jesus, his mother's sister, Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Without punctuation in the Greek, however, it’s not clear whether Mary wife of Clopas IS the sister of Jesus' mother, or two separate women. John says Jesus gives his mother into the care of a beloved disciple. Tradition claims this is John, making him the lone male disciple present. Other scholars identify Mary Magdalene as the beloved disciple who took Mary home, since only women are known to have remained near the cross.

Scripture: Mark 6:3; 15:40-41; 16:1; Matthew 13:55; 27:55-56; 28:1; Luke 23:48-49, 55-56; 24:1-11; John 19:25-27; 20:1

Sources: The Characters of the Crucifixion – Joseph Fichtner, OSC (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000); The Passion and Death of Jesus (DVD and audio CDs)– Raymond Brown (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press/ Ewloe Clwyd, Wales: Welcome Recordings, 2015)

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Is the Bible infallible?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 03, August 2016 Categories: Scripture,Doctrines & Beliefs
Is the Bible infallible?
Biblical truth is sometimes a matter of historical record, but always a matter of revelation.

The reliability of Scripture is an important issue. Let’s start with a basic Catholic position: The Bible is true. And some of it really happened. In other words, our understanding of Scripture has to address not only whether it’s true but how it’s true. Biblical truth is sometimes a matter of historical record, but always a matter of revelation. These texts were produced to impart the lived tradition of believers. If you trust in the God of Israel and commit to the way of Jesus, the Bible is a primary means of exploring the truths of your faith.

Does this imply that the Bible contains no mistakes? Obviously, ahistorical sections won’t necessarily square with “the facts” as we appreciate them archaeologically. Plus the Bible’s pre-scientific origins frequently betray a sense of the world we moderns flatly reject. The ancients’ lack of concern with historical method and complete innocence of scientific principles place sacred texts like Scripture in the category of mythos, or “higher truth.” This creates a dilemma for modern folk, who rely on science to “tell us the truth” about reality. Our ancestors used storytelling to convey what’s genuine and reliable.

Should we expect discrepancies between the cultural and scientific sophistication of writers who lived 2,500 years ago and today? Absolutely! Nonetheless, antique perceptions of the world don’t jeopardize the sacred writers’ transformative revelation: that God is creator, redeemer, and sanctifier of us all.

Vatican II explained the Bible’s validity in this way: "The books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures" (Dei Verbum, 11). This careful statement underscores that the truth we need for our ultimate rescue from sin and death is entirely and safely transmitted by these sacred stories.

Catholics view Scripture as a collaboration between inspired authors and the Holy Spirit. Wherever human beings are involved, naturally, human limitation can’t be far behind. Early church fathers such as Origen and Augustine accepted biblical inaccuracies and literary exaggerations as a natural feature of God’s full partnership with the sacred authors. Thomas Aquinas accepted “something imperfect” in any prophetic work for the same reason. Acknowledging pre-scientific miscalls and literary license is a far cry from insisting the Bible must either be inerrant or bogus. For believers, truth is bigger than history or science.

Scripture: Baruch 3:36-37;John 1:1-3, 14; 14:6; 20:30-31; Romans 1:19-20;2 Corinthians 4:6; Ephesians 1:9-10; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 1:1-2; 2 Peter 1:19-21; 3:15-16

Books: The Inspiration and Truth of Sacred Scripture – Pontifical Biblical Commission (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014); Biblical Fundamentalism: What Every Catholic Should Know – Ronald Witherup, PSS (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001)

Where is Moses buried?

Posted by: Jennifer Tomshack   🕔 Tuesday 20, October 2015 Categories: Scripture,Church History
Serpentine Cross on Mount Nebo in Jordan
The Serpentine Cross on Mount Nebo in Jordan.

According to the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ journey from Egypt to the Promised Land ended just short of him entering it—on Mount Nebo in what was then called Moab and what is today modern Jordan. The Israelites—so close to their final destination—camped “in the valley near Beth-peor” (Deuteronomy 3:29), a small lush area northeast of Mount Nebo that is known today as Ayun Musa (“Springs of Moses”).

God told Moses that he would not cross the Jordan with his people and commanded him to go to the top of Mount Nebo—which overlooks the Dead Sea, the Jordan River valley, and Jericho—to view the land of Israel. (Today, on a clear day, Jerusalem is visible from Mount Nebo’s promontory.) Moses died and was buried in the vicinity, but even at the time of the writing of Deuteronomy, the exact place of his tomb was unknown.

Joshua was anointed by Moses to be his successor. After Moses died, Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan and into the Promised Land. The crossing point has been identified as the ford directly opposite Jericho known as Bethabara, or Beit ‘Abarah (“House of the Crossing”).

Centuries later, according to 2 Maccabees, just before the Babylonian invasion of Israel, Jeremiah hid the Ark of the Covenant (the chest containing the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written) at Mount Nebo in a cave and sealed the entrance. The location of the lost Ark is, of course, a matter of great conjecture.

In the 4th century, Christians built a church at Mount Nebo that has been expanded into the large basilica there today, which houses a collection of Byzantine mosaics. Outside the sanctuary is the Serpentine Cross, which commemorates Christ’s crucifixion and the bronze serpent God instructed Moses to erect to stop a plague (all who looked upon the serpent were spared death).

Ancient Moab was the home of the Ammonites. Known as the Plains of Moab in the Old Testament and Peraea in the New Testament, it includes the lands east of the Jordan River and along the Dead Sea in the western part of modern Jordan, where today more than 100 biblical sites important to Jews and Christians have been identified and protected. Moab is where Jacob wrestled with an angel, where Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt, where Job suffered and was rewarded for his faith, and where Elijah ascended to heaven. And it is where Jesus was baptized by John.

In the 20th century, American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. prophetically referenced Moses gazing from Mount Nebo at the Promised Land he would never reach in King’s last speech before he was assassinated. The speech is popularly called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”

Scripture: Deuteronomy 3:27-29, 34:1-6; Joshua 1, 3; 2 Maccabees 2:4-8; Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14

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Mary's parents aren't mentioned in the Bible. How do we know their names?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 30, June 2015 Categories: Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Scripture
Joachim and Anne

You're right: the names of Mary's parents, like everything else said about Mary before the biblically related story of the Annunciation, belongs to the realm known as church tradition. Think of family stories narrated year in and year out until they're as much legend as they are history. It becomes hard to separate historical aspects from mythological ones. With such stories from family or church tradition, determining the strictly factual elements of the saga may miss the point of the telling. The truth of most stories is larger than history, and seeks a higher meaning.

Stories about Mary's parents satisfy our curiosity for "the rest of the story," or the familiar story from a fresh point of view. Think of modern stories like Ahab's Wife, that retells the classic Moby Dick from the perspective of one who awaits the vengeful captain onshore; or The Red Tent, that presents the biblical patriarch Jacob through the experience of his lesser-known wives. Extra-biblical writings like The Protevangelium of James and The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew are likewise attempts from later centuries to fill in the gaps regarding Mary's back-story. Where did this remarkable woman come from? How did she become the one known for all time as "full of grace"?

As the story goes, Joachim and Anne are as virtuous as they are childless, giving two-thirds of their resources to the temple and to the poor. They long for a child and pledge to give their offspring to the Lord if their prayers be answered.

After Joachim, from a priestly family, is denied the chance to bring his offering to the temple—his childlessness is ridiculed by the high priest as a sign of God's rejection—Joachim retires to the territory of shepherds in shame, afraid to return home. There he meets an angel who promises him the birth of a highly favored daughter and is urged to meet his wife at the golden gate of Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Anne at home receives a similar angelic messenger, and rushes to the gate to meet her husband. Their kiss at the gate is rendered in popular art of the Middle Ages.

Joachim and Anne keep their promise, delivering their daughter Mary into the service of the temple at the age of three. In this way we learn how Mary is prepared for her unique life of purity and grace.

Scripture: Matthew 1—2; Luke 1—2

Books: The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden, edited by Rutherford H. Platt (New York: Penguin Books, 1974); In Quest of the Jewish Mary by Mary C. Athans (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013)

What does Jesus have to say about family?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 06, January 2015 Categories: Scripture,Church History
Holy Family icon

Biblical family values sound similar to a 1950s American nuclear household setting. The creation story says that a man and woman leaves their parents in order to form a new unity. Yet "Honor your father and your mother" is the nucleus around which Hebrew tradition positioned its model of family dynamics. There's a certain tension in these ideals: how do we make a clean break with the original family while still living up to the obligation to honor those ties? Every modern marriage struggles to juggle these conflicting priorities.

The Mosaic tradition was built on a system that gave the eldest father, or patriarch, authority over the clan, including the power to bless or curse its members for the future. This gradually led to laws permitting divorce in circumstances of male displeasure with the union. Children had to obey their parents in terms described at length in the wisdom tradition: "Children, pay heed to a father's right; do so that you may live." The mother's influence isn't left out of the equation: "For a father's blessing gives a family firm roots, but a mother's curse uproots the growing plant." (Sir 3:1 and 9) Children had the responsibility to care for aging parents, but parents had the duty to discipline, instruct, and protect their children.

In between Moses and the later sages, the prophets showed less interest in family dynamics and more in social justice and fidelity to Israel's God. When Jesus began his teaching ministry 1200 years after Moses and a century or two after the wisdom sages, his emphasis seems rooted in prophetic concerns: the poor and the sick, the outcast and the sinner. When Jesus speaks of family, it's often to translate it into new terms. Jesus prefers to identify with the child rather than the way of the powerful patriarch. Mother and sister and brother are not primarily ties of blood but of loyalty to the word of God. The goodness parents show to children is a fraction of what God has for us. The teachings of Jesus won't necessarily strengthen families but will serve to tear many apart. In fact, following Jesus may involve choosing his way over the way of family altogether— an idea forcefully expressed as "hating" family. This family of faith is poignantly illustrated at the cross, where the disciple receives a new mother, and the mother a new child. The Jesus family isn't just a contradiction of ancient family patterns. It's a total transfiguration of the ideal.

Scriptures: Gen 2:24; Deut 5:16; Prov 31:10-31; Sir 3:1-16; 7:18-28; 26:1-18; 30:1-13; 42:9-14; Mk 9:36-37; Lk 8:19-21; 11:27-28; 12:49-53; 14:25-26; 18:29-30; Jn 19:26-27

Books: The Gospel of the Family - Cardinal Walter Kaspar (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2014)

A Christian Theology of Marriage and Family - Julia Rubio (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2003)

How do you figure Transfiguration?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 11, August 2014 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Scripture
Christ at the Transfiguration
Transfiguration, St. George Orthodox Cathedral, Toledo  (Flickr)

This question engages Scripture scholars and casual gospel readers alike. The Transfiguration is easy enough to describe: Jesus the teacher and miracle worker is suddenly and visibly changed on a mountaintop. He is revealed to his three closest disciples as a heavenly-connected personality claimed by a celestial voice as the Beloved Son. Jewish scholars also note that the other two heavenly beings appearing with Jesus—Moses and Elijah—shared with Jesus special roles in the age to come because of their unique end-of-life celestial "translations". This event seems more like the metamorphoses of gods familiar to Greco-Roman mythology than the Jewish tradition, however. So what's it doing in the New Testament?

First thing to note: Gospel Greek deliberately avoids the term metamorphosis in this account, an attempt to sever any "pagan"
comparison. The brilliance of Jesus' face recalls the radiance of Moses after his mountaintop communication with the Divine. The enveloping cloud also echoes the Sinai experience, and Peter's suggestion of booths or tents evokes the Tent of Meeting where Moses later encountered the Holy Presence. The simultaneous appearance of Moses and Elijah, representatives of Law and Prophecy, serve as firm anchors to the Hebrew story. No reference outside the tradition is intended or necessary.

But what are we to take away from this event? Scholars offer three possibilities. One is that this event, first noted in Mark and later retold in Matthew and Luke, is Mark's misplaced resurrection story. Early versions of Mark did not include the resurrection narrative, so this story might have been intended to foreshadow the hope of Easter. The second idea is that this story is a theological reflection of the first-generation church: a symbolic way of reconstructing what Jesus meant to them—and to us. He is the New Moses, the ultimate Prophet, the Teacher-Messiah anticipated by both Moses and the prophets.

The third theory is that the Transfiguration is a private vision Peter had—perhaps on the feast of Tabernacles or Booths while reading the appropriate Scriptures—in which the truth about Jesus "came together" for him, before or even well after Easter. Both the gospels and the Second Letter of Peter suggest that Peter had a special understanding of this event that carried with him into anticipation of the Second Coming of Jesus. Saint Paul goes further to declare that we will ALL be transfigured if we keep our sights trained on Christ.


Scripture: Mk 9:1-13; Matt 17:1-13; Lk 9:28-36;Deut. 18:15; Exod. 24:15-16; 34: 29, 35; Lev. 23:42; 2 Kgs 2:11; 2 Cor 3:18; 2 Pet. 1:16-18; see also Jn 12:28-30

Books: Rooted in Detachment: Living the Transfiguration - Kenneth Stevenson (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007)

Seeing the Word: The Transfiguration (The Saint John's Bible series) - (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010)

What do we know about Saint Joseph?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 12, December 2013 Categories: Scripture,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Church History
Virgin Mary Saint Joseph Baby Jesus
ICON of the Holy Family.


Almost nothing; the New Testament pickings are slim. The Gospel of Mark eliminates Joseph from the story, beginning its narration in Jesus’ adulthood. John’s gospel mentions Joseph once in passing. Luke tells the infancy story from Mary’s perspective, making her the principal actor. The Gospel of Matthew alone highlights Joseph’s role in salvation history. It is here we meet Joseph the dreamer who, like his namesake in the Book of Genesis, learns heaven’s purposes for him while he sleeps.

We can fill in some blanks from what’s known about Jewish customs of the 1st century. Marriages were enacted as early as 13 for males, 12 for females. Nothing in the gospels betrays Joseph as an older man, a widower, or theologically better suited to be Mary’s chaste guardian than her husband. That the earliest gospel calls the adult Jesus “son of Mary” rather than Joseph, however, suggests his father was absent, dead, or suspect. This resonates with Mary known to be with child before the marriage, and/or that Joseph was dead by the time Jesus grew up. Luke and John prefer to call Jesus “son of Joseph,” restoring respect to his patrimony. Luke adds pointedly, “As was thought.” When the family of Jesus comes around during his ministry, his father is conspicuously absent.

Jesus is called a carpenter and carpenter’s son, which is how we know his father’s occupation. The last time Joseph makes an appearance in the story is when Jesus is 12 and goes missing in Jerusalem. Mary remains in the company of Jesus until the Crucifixion, when her care is transferred to the beloved disciple, confirming that Joseph is already dead.

In Matthew’s portrait we encounter Joseph the righteous man who, understandably, does not want to marry a woman who turns up pregnant without his participation. Of two possible legal solutions—exposure to violent punishment or quiet divorce by paperwork—Joseph chooses the gentler. Then heaven intervenes and gives him consequential second thoughts. He takes Mary into his home and gives her his full protection. That is an enormous concession to the divine will, especially given the church’s insistence on Mary’s perpetual virginity. We always want more from Joseph. He’s already given quite a lot.

Genesis 37:5-11; Matthew 1:18-25; 2:13-23; 13:55-56; Mark 6:3; Luke 1:26-27; ch. 2; 3:23; 4:22; John 6:42

The Life and Prayers of Saint Joseph by Wyatt North (Wyatt North Publishing, e-book)

The Mystery of Joseph
by Marie-Dominique Philippe, O.P. (Zaccheus Press)

What is the Roman Catholic view of work?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 23, January 2014 Categories: Mission & Evangelization,Scripture,Doctrines & Beliefs

Consider what we’re doing right now. You want to learn something. I need to earn something. What you learn and I earn in this exchange is good for both of us and by extension for our families and communities and our employers. It honors the dignity of the human need to grow and produce, contribute and participate. In that sense, God, who spent the first six days of the world working and who made us in the divine image, gives us the vocation of work as our contribution to the ongoing creation of the world.

CATHOLIC teaching supports the dignity and
well-being of workers, including their safety.
Credit: GRP Technique & Service, Dresden.

People often think of work as that dreaded something they have to do. The church teaches that work is a human right and also a duty. It’s good for individuals and good for society—that is, it serves the common good. Three conditions are imperative for the dignity of labor: that what is produced is not more important than the person producing it; that work contributes to the unity of society and doesn’t tear it down; and that workers have a say in what they’re doing and the conditions under which they do it.

If that sounds incompatible with certain present economic formulas, that's because it is, or can be. Here church social teaching meets and debates with the marketplace. Since the time of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter Rerum Novarum, Catholic social doctrine has emphasized that economies ruled strictly by supply-and-demand, exalting product-derived wealth over every other consideration, are not compatible with Christian principles. People have obligations to each other: to work hard and honestly and to make their best contribution to their employer, coworkers, and community.

At the same time, the employer has responsibilities, too: for workers’ safety and welfare, to pay a just wage which provides a fair living for employees and their families, and to permit the organization of unions. The state likewise owes the worker legal protections. Workers are not means to an end; rather, their dignity is the end, and that’s safeguarded only when their livelihood is.

Catholic social teaching rejects a pure market standard; insists on a living family wage; questions great compensation disparities between the highest and lowest salaries in an organization; challenges discrimination in hiring and wages; is concerned with workplace conditions; and addresses the right to nonsalary benefits like accessible health care. In Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical On Human Work, written on the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, he examines not only the dilemmas of the modern corporate world of work but also explores the spirituality of work as it enhances shared human life.

Genesis 1:27; 2:1-3; Deuteronomy 24:14-15; Psalm 62:11; Matthew 6:19-21, 24; 20:1-16; Luke 10:7; 12:16-21; 1 Timothy 5:18; 6:8-10, 17-19

On Human Work (Laborem Exercens) by Pope John Paul II

From the Heart of the Church: The Catholic Social Tradition by Sister Judith A. Merkle, S.S.N.deN. (Liturgical Press, 2004)
Spirituality@Work by Gregory F. Augustine Pierce (Loyola Press, 2005)

Does God get angry?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 01, April 2014 Categories: Scripture,Doctrines & Beliefs

Does God have emotions like ours? As God is the great Unseen, it's impossible to guess. What the Bible does reveal is that Jesus, the divine Son, enjoyed the full complement of human feelings while in our human midst. These included love and friendship, pain and fear, amusement and frustration, and certainly anger. The righteous anger of Jesus is demonstrated in several memorable events, like the cleansing of the Temple, the rebuke of Peter with the words "get behind me, Satan!", or the denunciation of the "whitewashed tombs" of the Pharisees and scribes whose religious example was largely hypocrisy.

The Bible does have a lot to say about what we popularly describe as the wrath of God. While it's easy to interpret that as divine outrage, it's properly understood as an expression of divine justice. Because we get even when we get mad, it's not instinctive for us to imagine that God is simply about the business of restoring justice by means of judgment. We're convinced God must be "punishing" us because he's really, really mad. In the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, God's wrath is directed sometimes at the enemies of God's people and sometimes at the people themselves—depending on who's in the wrong. Historical books like Joshua, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah hold plenty of examples of God's wrath, sometimes described as a future "day" when divine debts will be settled.

Job mentions God's wrath nine times; the psalms refer to it 25 times. The theme of divine wrath is developed most powerfully in the prophetic tradition, where it comes up 85 times. Even Isaiah, the prophet of soft themes like “Emmanuel” and the faithful servant, mentions God's wrath 17 times. Meanwhile Ezekiel, who never shrinks from wild expressions, brings up divine wrath 28 times.

Compare these numbers with the gospels, where God's wrath is mentioned exactly four times over four accounts—a dramatic reduction. While Pauline letters return to the wrath theme 15 times, many of those refer to judgment rendered to those who trust in the law, which they cannot hope to fulfill, rather than Christ, who bears the burden for us. Revelation, the big book of judgment, mentions divine wrath a relatively slender 13 times and restoration at least as often. The Wisdom tradition (Proverbs, Sirach, Wisdom) and later writings contain references to wrath, but it's often that of kings, criminals, and family members as much as of God. The biblical bottom line seems to be that God's anger is nothing to worry about. God's justice, however, is a much greater concern.

Exodus 32:10-12; 34:6-7; Joshua 22:20; 1 Samuel 28:18; Isaiah 63:3-6; Matthew 3:7; 16:21-23; 23:13-36; Luke 21:23; John 2:13-25; 3:36

A Faith That Frees: Catholic Matters for the 21st Century by Richard Malloy (Orbis Books)
A Worker Justice Reader, edited by Kim Bobo (Orbis Books)

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Why do we fast?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 07, March 2014 Categories: Scripture,Doctrines & Beliefs

Religious Fasting
Why fast? Survival requires us to eat and drink. When we refrain from these most basic activities, it reminds us that "we do not live by bread alone." Fasting provides you with an opportunity to affirm your faith in God's providential care. It's the most direct act of faith you can make.

Fasting as a spiritual practice falls into the category of sacrifice, which has a long biblical tradition. Ancient peoples gave over the first fruits of their harvests and the choicest animals of each herd in seasonal, ritual sacrifices to God. These were sometimes burned, sometimes consumed by the priests (who were landless and had no other source of income), and sometimes shared with the entire community in celebration of the abundance God provides. As in other acts of religious sacrifice, fasting takes something away: in this case, the prerogative to sustain yourself at will. Surrendering this freedom for a predetermined period of time fortifies humility and reminds you of your vulnerability and weakness.

Fasting stirs you to contemplate justice. Many in this world go without food routinely. How might you respond to their need with charity, in service, or by changing systems and choices?

Fasting motivates you to pray in a deeper, richer way. The spirit of humility and the call to almsgiving that self-denial initiates in you enhances your prayer. It removes the barriers of false pride and possessiveness that can diminish prayer or make it superficial. Fasting makes you ready to get real with God.

Nobody enjoys giving up the freedom to eat, even when it's a short-lived preparation for a medical procedure or a voluntary "cleanse" of the body. Because you don't want to do it, it's regarded as a penitential practice. It enables you to enter into solidarity with the sinner as well as your hungry sisters and brothers. Just as you're tempted to break the fast and eat, others are tempted to actions that are personally or communally destructive. Resistance is a symbolic resistance for the sake of those who are led into temptation.

When you think of everything fasting can do—encourage fidelity and humility, awaken the spirit of justice, enhance prayer, assist those who are tempted—the question becomes: why not fast?

Deuteronomy 8:3; 1 Samuel 7:6; 2 Samuel 1:12; Ezra 8:21; Joel 1:14; Jonah 3:5-10; Luke 4:3-4; Acts 9:9

Fasting by Carol Garibaldi Rogers (Sorin Books)
The Spirituality of Fasting: Rediscovering a Christian Practice
by Charles M Murphy (Ave Maria Press)

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What does the Bible say about discipleship?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 04, December 2008 Categories: Scripture

Ah, here's a word we should be asking about! Discipleship means "student," from the Latin discipulus. But that's deceptive: Today's student doesn't have to crack a book to qualify-just show up. That never would have flown in ancient times, when disciples lived with their teachers night and day and imitated their actions as well as listening to their words.

Discipleship has a wonderful evolving meaning between the two Testaments. Originally it described Israel's relationship with God. The Lord was the nation's ultimate teacher through the instructive power of the Law. The psalms frequently record Israel's pleading: "O Lord, teach me your ways!" Because God dwelt in the midst of the nation in the Jerusalem Temple, the people did share quarters with their Teacher.

Later, the prophets had protégés of their own: Elijah with Elisha or the school that added to Isaiah's writings. The sages of the later Wisdom tradition rooted instead for the domestic school: fathers teaching sons and mothers daughters. The Wisdom Woman, a personification of divine wisdom in Proverbs and the Book of Wisdom, called disciples to herself as well.

A natural progression existed between the roles of student and instructor. Disciples lived with their teachers until they were ready to become rabbis or prophets themselves. So it was startling when Jesus came along and made permanent disciples of his followers. "You have only one teacher and father in heaven," he told them. (Saint Paul later rejected the idea that Christians could "belong to" anyone but Jesus.) That harked back to the early design of God being the nation's sole instructor.

Another distinguishing feature of Jesus' disciples is that he chose them, not the other way around. Jewish disciples generally picked their own rabbis, as you might choose a college or major for yourself today.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Jesus' invitation to discipleship was that it took place in the ordinary context of life-a fisherman's workday-not in a religious setting like the Temple. It required an immediate response. Discipleship then deepened "along the way" with Jesus, as the past with its possessions and priorities were gradually relinquished in favor of a radically new life.

Deuteronomy 4:1; Psalm 25:4-5; Proverbs 1:20-33; Ecclesiastes 12:9; Isaiah 2:3; 48:17-19; Matthew 4:18-22; 23:8-9; Mark 8:34; Luke 10:1-20; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17

To Live in Christ: Discipleship
, by Robert Fabing, S.J. (Paulist Press)
Can You Drink the Cup? by Henri Nouwen (Ave Maria Press)

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Why should I read the Bible?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 25, August 2008 Categories: Scripture

I hesitate to stamp Bible-reading as an obligation. We resist things that oblige us to do something, whether it's brushing our teeth or paying taxes. So let me speak not only as a catechist but also as a 30-year Bible-reading Catholic: Don't do it because you have to. Do it because it's the most wonderful choice you can make for your life!

This will come as a relief to new Bible readers: If you attend Mass regularly, you're more familiar with the Bible than you imagine. The lectionary—the book of readings used at Mass—covers a cross section of passages from the Old and New Testaments. So even though the stereotype claims that Protestants know their Bibles and Catholics don't, active Catholics may have a more comprehensive appreciation of scripture than some fellow Christians, who tend to focus on specific sections according to their denomination's (or pastor's) inclinations.

As far as personal reading goes, the idea of opening to Genesis, page one, is probably what makes many people shrink from the idea. You don't have to read scripture cover-to-cover (though kamikaze readers like me may enjoy the challenge). Some folks will appreciate support for the journey: Many parishes now sponsor Bible study or faith-sharing groups precisely for that reason. If private meditation works better for you, consider subscribing to a scripture journal that offers a daily guide through selected material.

You may also want to take baby steps in: There are page-a-day books geared to the five-minute reflection approach that provide a great introduction for beginners. It's like taking a swim class: Sign up at the level that suits your present skill and go from there. No one expects you to dive in at the deep end!

The Bible is the Mt. Everest of books; you won't conquer it at once, and it will take training to reach the exotic parts, like Maccabees or the Book of Revelation. But within a year you'll be surprised how much more comfortable and fit for the journey you are. Start today. "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4).

Scripture periodicals
Lectionary based: "Exploring the Sunday Readings" (Twenty-Third Publications)
Examines one book per issue: God's Word Today journal (Twenty-Third Publications)
Explorations by themes: Threshold Bible Study
A page-a-day, geared to the current year: A Book of Grace-Filled Days (Loyola Press)

CatholicsRead program: Bible study and resources from the Catholic Book Publishers Association,

God's Word Is Alive by Alice Camille (Chicago, ACTA Publications, 2007)

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