Category Archives: Eastertide

Did the Ascension really happen?


-Ascension Chapel, Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, UK, please click on the image for greater detail.


-by Matt Nelson

“At the climax of the forty days spent with the disciples after his resurrection, Jesus ascended bodily into heaven. Catholics have always understood this to be a literal, miraculous event. We believe it really happened—and as a Church we profess it every Sunday.

But the dogma also has its detractors. Some have made a mockery of the doctrine, likening the “flying” Jesus to an Apollo spacecraft, as was a common jest among atheists in the 60s and 70s. Others deny the possibility of the miraculous altogether. Still others, like Episcopalian theologian John Shelby Spong, read the ascension as non-literal and symbolic: “A modern person knows that if you rise up off the Earth (as in the ascension), you don’t go to heaven. You go into orbit.”

Considering such criticisms, how can Catholics defend the reality of Christ’s ascension?

One might sympathize with Spong’s objection above. After all, isn’t heaven supposed to be “beyond” the physical universe? It’s an interesting objection, one to which C.S. Lewis offered what I find to be a satisfying rebuttal. After His Resurrection, it may have been that Our Lord,

“…a being still in some mode, though not our mode, corporeal, withdrew at His own will from the Nature presented by our three dimensions and five senses, not necessarily into the non-sensuous and undimensioned but possibly into, or through, a world or worlds of super-sense and super-space. And He might choose to do it gradually. Who on earth knows what the spectators might see? If they say they saw a momentary movement along the vertical plane – then an indistinct mass – then nothing – who is to pronounce this improbable?”

So it may have been that Jesus, still in bodily form, chose to ascend not to the stars, but simply from the ground as the beginning of the super-physical journey to heaven. This still assumes, of course, that miracles are possible. But are they?

Miracles are by definition supernatural events; and science only examines natural phenomena. To make a definitive claim about whether miracles can occur, one must look beyond, for example, microscopes and rulers and ask if such events are possible on philosophical grounds. Perhaps you have heard some version of David Hume’s objection that a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. The assumption is that God, if he existed, would have no right to create a supernatural effect in the natural world. But why not? The believer’s claim has consistently been that God is the First Cause of all physical reality. This means he is the creator and sustainer of the natural laws and the things they govern. He is the supreme Lawmaker.

It is absurd to charge him, then, with breaking his own “laws” since he is under no moral nor logical obligation to cause effects only via the normal physical causal relationships he himself upholds. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga has asked, why can’t we think of the laws of nature as descriptors of how God usually treats the matter he has created? And as we find that so many established theories end up being inadequate to explain all relevant phenomena, how can we say we even know with complete certainty what “the laws” are?

Another step in fortifying our defense of Christ’s ascension is to show that there are good reasons to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. If the possibility of Jesus’ resurrection may be rationally entertained, then so may be his ascension.

One of the most effective ways to make the case for the Resurrection is to use the minimal facts approach proposed originally by scholar Jürgen Habermas. This involves considering the historical facts accepted widely by all experts (most skeptics included), then demonstrating that the resurrection, rather than a natural explanation, is the best explanation for them. Such well-evidenced facts—what historian Mike Licona calls “historical bedrock”—include Jesus’ death by crucifixion, the reported appearances of the risen Christ, the empty tomb, and the sudden conversion of St. Paul, enemy and persecutor of the first Christians.

Another theory is that the disciples were hallucinating when they saw the resurrected Jesus. This hypothesis is plagued from the start by the fact that entire groups claimed to see Jesus at one time (1 Cor. 15:3-6). Group hallucinations are unlikely since people share neither brains nor minds. But even if mass hallucinations did occur, what could explain St. Paul’s conversion? What are the chances that he and Christ’s followers would hallucinate the same risen Jesus? The most tenable explanations for all these events involve a real person, Jesus, risen from the dead after his Crucifixion.

Could the account of the ascension itself be questionable? With St. Luke is our primary source, how can we trust that he is telling us history and not an allegory? John Shelby Spong finds this explanation most likely: “Luke never intended his writing to be understood literally. We have greatly misrepresented Luke’s genius by reading it literally.”

The problem with this reading is that Luke explicitly rejects its possibility. The evangelist clearly asserts in the prologue to his Gospel that his intention is to describe real history. Furthermore, when Luke describes the ascension there is no hint of embellishment, which is strange indeed if he did not intend it literally. In the gospel account he simply tells us that Jesus “parted from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:52). In Acts, he writes that Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). Cold and clinical, like a serious historian interested only in the facts, Luke just tells us what happened—and that’s it. It is also notable that because the Gospel accounts were written only a few decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, there would have been eyewitnesses of Jesus still alive to correct or object to Luke’s account. But there is simply no record of such an objection.

Indeed, Luke’s Gospel and his Acts of the Apostles (which are “companion volumes”) have been touted by scholars of ancient history and archaeology as impressively accurate. The great archaeologist Sir William Ramsay famously acknowledged St. Luke as “a historian of the first rank.” More recent studies of Luke’s historical accuracy, such as that by classical scholar Colin Hemer, have further confirmed the deservedness of this high praise. Thus, when Luke describes Jesus’ bodily ascension into the heavens, we have many good reasons to believe that St. Luke was reporting real history, “a narrative of the things which have been accomplished . . . just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses” (Luke 1:1).”

Love,
Matthew

Counterfeit Christ: Resurrection, only “spiritual”?

“Sit and smile.

That was all I could do, even though I wanted to rebut my debate opponent Dan Barker during his closing speech. Dan was once a Protestant pastor, but ever since his “de-conversion” in the 1980’s he has become a kind of preacher for atheism. In 2015 we debated whether or not God existed, and three years later we were on stage at Minnesota State University to debate a more specific question: “Does the Christian God exist?”

I thought the debate went well. I was able to neutralize Dan’s tactic of scattering dozens of difficult Bible verses in an effort to make the God of the Bible look like a moral monster. By the time we got to cross-examination, I was prepared to dive into one argument Dan had not addressed yet: my evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.

But instead of addressing the evidence I raised, Dan just went right back to the alleged atrocities of the Old Testament. It was only during his closing statement, which was the last speech of the night, that Dan addressed my arguments.

He claimed that what really happened after Good Friday was that the apostles believed Jesus’ spirit rose from the dead while his body still lay in the tomb. For them, that was enough to turn defeat into victory; yet modern Christians have misunderstood their theology ever since.

But how can that be true if . . . ?
…St. Paul Believed in a Bodily Resurrection

It’s bad form to bring up new arguments or objections in your closing statement because your opponent has no opportunity to respond to them. I was frustrated, but I held my tongue. I didn’t get the chance that night to rebut Dan’s “spiritual resurrection” hypothesis.

But now I do have the chance—so here’s what’s wrong with it.

First, the earliest testimony we have about the Resurrection comes from St. Paul’s letters, which describe Jesus undergoing a bodily resurrection from the dead. Dan tries to get around this fact by claiming that Paul used a Greek word for Jesus’ resurrection that only refers to spiritual resurrection. Specifically, egeiro, ἐγείρω, which just means “rise” or “wake up.” He does not use the word that means “resurrection” (anastasis (ἀνάστασις), anistemi, (ἀνίστημι) Barker also claims:

“It is perfectly consistent with Christian theology to think that the spirit of Jesus, not His body, was awakened from the grave, as Christians today believe that the spirit of Grandpa has gone to heaven while his body rots in the ground. In fact, just a few verses later Paul confirms this: ‘Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.’ The physical body is not important to Christian theology.”

Yet in Romans 1:4 Paul, says that Jesus was “designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by His resurrection [anastaseos, ἀναστάσεως] from the dead.” Contra Barker, Paul does describe Jesus rising from the dead with a form of the Greek word anastasis, (ἀνάστασις). Moreover, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul uses egeiro (ἐγείρω),  and anastasis, (ἀνάστασις) interchangeably when speaking about the relationship between our future resurrection from the dead and Christ’s resurrection. Paul writes:

“Now if Christ is preached as raised [egegertai, ἐγήγερται] from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection [anastasis, ἀνάστασις] of the dead? But if there is no resurrection [anastasis, ἀνάστασις] of the dead, then Christ has not been raised [egegertai, ἐγήγερται]. If Christ has not been raised [egegertai, ἐγήγερται], then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:12-14).

Paul’s argument is simple: if we don’t rise from the dead, then Christ didn’t rise from the dead. But since Christ did rise from the dead we can be confident that we too will rise from the dead.

What about to Barker’s citation of 1 Corinthians 15:50 (“Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”) and Paul’s general use of the term “spiritual body”? Well, we have to remember what Paul was up against in Corinth.

Pauline scholar John Ziesler believes that Paul was trying to convince people that the resurrection of the dead is not a mere reanimation of one’s corpse. For Paul, the “spiritual body” in the Resurrection “seems to mean something like ‘outward form,’ or ‘embodiment’ or perhaps better ‘the way in which the person is conveyed and expressed’ . . . a resurrection of the whole person, involving embodiment but not physical embodiment.”

When Paul writes, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” he is using a Semitism—a Jewish way of speaking—about the natural state of humanity apart from the grace of God. We can’t inherit the kingdom of God without being moved by God’s spirit.

However, that doesn’t mean that in this kingdom we will only be spirits. Spiritual, in this context, refers to a thing’s orientation as opposed to its substance. It’s like when we say the Bible is a “spiritual book” or when Paul writes, “The spiritual man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one” (1 Cor. 2:15).

The subjects in these statements are not non-physical, ghostly apparitions but books and people ordered toward the will of God. As St. Augustine said, “As the Spirit, when it serves the flesh, is not improperly said to be carnal, so the flesh, when it serves the spirit, will rightly be called spiritual—not because it is changed into spirit, as some suppose who misinterpret the text.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Easter praise of Christ


-Des Jesusbild des Altars der St.-Michaelis-Kirche in Hamburg, Deutschland (The Jesus picture of the altar of the Church of St. Michaelis in Hamburg, Germany). Please click on the image for greater detail.

“We should understand, beloved, that the paschal mystery is at once old and new, transitory and eternal, corruptible and incorruptible, mortal and immortal. In terms of the Law, it is old; in terms of the Word, it is new. In its figure it is passing, in its grace it is eternal. It is corruptible in the sacrifice of the lamb, incorruptible in the eternal life of the Lord. It is mortal in His burial in the earth, immortal in His resurrection from the dead.

The Law indeed is old, but the Word is new. The type is transitory, but grace is eternal. The lamb was corruptible, but the Lord is incorruptible. He was slain as a lamb; He rose again as God. He was led like a sheep to the slaughter [cf Isaiah 53:7], yet He was not a sheep. He was silent as a lamb [cf Isaiah 53:7], yet He was not a lamb. The type has passed away; the reality has come. The lamb gives place to God, the sheep gives place to a man, and the man is Christ, Who fills the whole of creation. The sacrifice of the lamb, the celebration of the Passover, and the prescriptions of the Law have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ [cf Matthew 5:17]. Under the old Law, and still more under the new dispensation, everything pointed toward Him.

Both the Law and the Word came forth from Zion and Jerusalem [cf Isaiah 2:3], but now the Law has given place to the Word, the old to the new. The commandment has become grace, the type a reality. The lamb has become a Son, the sheep a man, and man, God.

The Lord, though He was God, became man [cf Philippians 2:6-7]. He suffered for the sake of those who suffer, he was bound for those in bonds, condemned for the guilty, buried for those who lie in the grave; but He rose from the dead, and cried aloud: Who will contend with me? Let him confront me. I have freed the condemned, brought the dead back to life, raised men from their graves. Who has anything to say against me? I, He said, am the Christ; I have destroyed death, triumphed over the enemy, trampled hell underfoot, bound the strong one, and taken men up to the heights of heaven: I am the Christ.

Come, then, all you nations of men, receive forgiveness for the sins that defile you. I am your forgiveness. I am the Passover that brings salvation. I am the lamb Who was immolated for you. I am your ransom, your life, your resurrection, your light, I am your salvation and your king. I will bring you to the heights of heaven. With my own right hand I will raise you up, and I will show you the eternal Father.”

-From an Easter Homily by Melito of Sardis, Bishop, (d. 180 AD), found in the Second reading of the Office of Readings, Liturgy of the Hours, during the Octave of Easter.

Love, He is Risen!!! He is TRULY Risen!!!
Matthew

Easter – stay with us!!


“Jesus and the Walk to Emmaus”, by Gebhard Fugel (1863-1939), please click on the image for greater detail.

-by Rev Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen, OCD, Divine Intimacy, Baronius Press, (c) 1964

Presence of God – Do not leave me, O Jesus, gentle Pilgrim; I have need of You.

MEDITATION

God has made us for Himself, and we cannot live without Him; we need Him, we hunger and thirst for Him; He is the only One who can satisfy our hearts. The Easter liturgy is impregnated with this longing for God, for Him who is from on high; it even makes it the distinctive sign of our participation in the Paschal mystery. “If you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God; mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth” (Colossians 3:1-2). The more the soul revives itself in the Resurrection of Christ, the more it feels the need of God and of heavenly truths; it detaches itself more and more from earthly things to turn toward those of heaven.

Just as physical hunger is an indication of a living, healthy organism, so spiritual hunger is a sign of a robust spirit, one that is active and continually developing. The soul which feels no hunger for God, no need to seek Him and to find Him, and which does not vibrate or suffer with anxiety in its search, does not bear within itself the signs of the Resurrection. It is a dead soul or at least one which has been weakened and rendered insensible by lukewarmness. The Paschal alleluia is a cry of triumph at Christ’s Resurrection, but at the same time, it is an urgent invitation for us to rise also. Like the sound of reveille, it calls us to the battles of the spirit and invites us to rouse and renew ourselves, to participate ever more profoundly in Christ’s Resurrection. Who can say, however advanced he may be in the ways of the spirit, that he has wholly attained to his resurrection?

COLLOQUY

“O my hope, my Father, my Creator, true God and Brother, when I think of what You said—that Your delights are to be with the children of men—my soul rejoices greatly. O Lord of heaven and earth, how can any sinner, after hearing such words, still despair? Do You lack souls in whom to delight, Lord, that You seek so unsavory a worm as I?… O what exceeding mercy! What favor far beyond our deserving!

“Rejoice, O my soul … and since the Lord finds His delights in you, may all things on earth not suffice to make you cease to delight in Him and rejoice in the greatness of your God.

“I desire neither the world, nor anything that is worldly; and, nothing seems to give me pleasure but You; everything else seems to me a heavy cross.

“O my God, I am afraid, and with good reason, that You may forsake me; for I know well how little my strength and insufficiency of virtue can achieve, if You are not always granting me Your grace and helping me not to forsake You. It seems to me, my Lord, that it would be impossible for me to leave You…. But as I have done it so many times I cannot but fear, for when You withdraw but a little from me I fall utterly to the ground. But blessed may You be forever, O Lord! For though I have forsaken You, You have not so completely forsaken me as not to raise me up again by continually giving me Your hand…. Remember my great misery, O Lord, and look upon my weakness, since You know all things” (Teresa of Jesus, Exclamations of the Soul to God, 7 – Life, 6).

Love,
Matthew

The Power of the Resurrection in Our Bodies


-St Ephrem the Syrian (306-373 AD)

Brothers and sisters:
Do you not know that a little yeast leavens all the dough?
Clear out the old yeast,
so that you may become a fresh batch of dough,
inasmuch as you are unleavened.
For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.
Therefore, let us celebrate the feast,
not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness,
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

-1 Cor. 5:6b-8


-by Fr. Hugh Barbour, O. Praem., a convert from Episcopalianism

“Christ’s eucharistic presence is entombed within us, that by its power we too may rise to new life.

When we go to the early Fathers of the Church to understand the sense of the great mysteries of faith we are celebrating at Easter, we are apt to be surprised. This is especially true if we go to the Fathers of the Syrian tradition, which represents the most ancient and authoritative approach to Sacred Scripture that we have.

Take, for example, the Scripture lesson given above, which is the classic epistle reading in the Roman Rite. How are we to understand all this talk of the leavening yeast being full of the corruption of malice and wickedness and our feast being made of the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth? Especially since it tells us that Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed and therefore we celebrate the feast with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

I never understood this “therefore” of St. Paul’s until I read St. Ephrem the Syrian’s commentary on the Gospels.

In speaking of the Last Supper, St. Ephrem counts the three days of Our Lord in the tomb as beginning when He, having been sacrificed in the eucharistic supper by the separation of His body and blood, is “buried” in the earth—that is, in man who is made of the slime of the earth, and in Holy Communion, and in remaining hidden in His members who have received the sacrament as He undergoes His passion and burial; in the following days He rises from the dead through this eucharistic presence and appears again, not under signs, but in His visible, palpable body!

This explains why the Catechism of the Catholic Church sees in the altar of our churches a symbol of the tomb. The Eucharist, which is meant to be “entombed” in our bodies after being sacrificed, gives us the sure power of the Resurrection promised by the Lord in the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel.

This sacrificed bread of life is the fresh new bread, free of the malice of sin, pure and uncorrupted by its fermenting leaven. And it forms in us a new power, the very promise of our own resurrection because we have fed on the sacrificed and risen Lord!

The realism of the Eucharist extends not only to the “real presence” but also has real effects in our flesh and blood, which we will experience because we have fed on the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth, even the Blessed Sacrament of the altar.

In this sad time, when so many are deprived of the Holy Communion, we can reflect on the power of this sacrifice and sacrament. Perhaps we are being deprived because we had forgotten the great power and dignity and love that the Eucharist contains, and need to begin to receive this gift with purity, free from malice and wickedness, ready for the risen life of Christ.

May He count our desire to receive Him now as the channel of His grace and the pledge of our future resurrection!”

Love, & Easter Joy!!!
Matthew

Bible’s Easter stories are different


-by Cale Clark, Cale’s two most amazing discoveries in life have been that Jesus Christ would forgive him, and that Patricia would marry him. In 2004, Cale returned to the Catholic Church, which was founded by Jesus Christ, after spending ten years in Evangelical Protestantism, with much of that time spent in pastoral ministry.

“Anyone who has read the Gospels in a more than cursory manner has come across what appear to be contradictions between them as they report the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth. This is no less true when we consider how they describe the most important event of all: the resurrection of Christ. If this event is not historical, says St. Paul, “our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14).

Speaking of St. Paul: before we consider apparent contradictions in the Gospels’ Easter accounts, we must remember that the Gospels are not our earliest written accounts of Jesus’ resurrection: those would be the letters of Paul. Even if the Gospels had never been composed, there would still be plausible literary testimony of the event, evidence with which a skeptic must deal. 1 Corinthians 15, which discusses the Resurrection, was written as early as A.D. 53, most likely prior to the publishing of at least some of the Gospels. What’s more, this chapter contains an even earlier ancient “creed” of sorts, crystallizing Easter faith in just a few lines (1 Cor. 15:3–7).

Even though the Gospels are not our earliest or only written sources on Easter, discrepancies in how they report resurrection phenomena have caused many to call into question their historical authenticity.

The empty tomb accounts

In Mark (which the majority of biblical scholars contend was the first Gospel composed), when the women disciples of Jesus arrive at the tomb early on Easter Sunday, the stone has already been rolled away. A “young man” in dazzling raiment (in all likelihood an angel) is inside the tomb. In Luke’s account, two men are inside. Matthew’s account has Mary Magdalene and another Mary arriving at a still-sealed tomb, but an earthquake suddenly occurs, whereupon an angel descends and rolls back the heavy stone. Three Gospels, and seemingly three different accounts.

Mark, Matthew, and Luke also give us slightly different lists of exactly which women were present. Mark has these women respond in fear, and states that they said nothing about this to anyone. In Matthew’s account, the two women meet Jesus on their way to inform the disciples of the Easter news. Luke does not say they ran into Jesus but rather that they immediately told the disciples, who didn’t buy their story. Same Gospels, and again, the accounts seem to differ.

So, why the differences?

Ancient biographies

As much as we might want the Gospels to conform to our modern conventions of history writing, they don’t read like contemporary police reports. But that doesn’t mean they don’t contain reliable accounts. In fact, they are perfectly consonant with how the ancients recorded history. The key is to understand the literary conventions of the time, which was  the mid-first century A.D. ,  and how the Gospels fit that mold.

Scholars like Michael Licona have noted that the genre of ancient literature that the Gospels most closely resemble is that of Greco-Roman biography. In reporting the speeches and activities of famous figures, writers utilized techniques in recording history that were perfectly acceptable at the time, such as compression (truncating longer speeches for the sake of brevity). The Gospel writers did this as well: they report that Jesus held crowds spellbound for hours with his preaching, yet his recorded sermons can be read in minutes.

Also, events were moved around in a narrative for thematic reasons. For example, did Jesus “cleanse” the temple at the beginning of his public ministry (John 2:13-22), or toward the end, as in the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)? Or did he do it twice? In all likelihood, Jesus’ action at the temple occurred toward the end of his life, enraging the authorities and precipitating his arrest, but John places it at the beginning of his Gospel for symbolic reasons.

A culture of storytelling by memory

We also need to consider the way students (disciples) were taught in the Jewish tradition. Theirs was a culture of memorization. Scholar Craig Keener reports that students in Jesus’ day were capable of memorizing prodigious amounts of speeches and sacred texts. Even so, Jesus’ disciples were not expected to “parrot” his teachings, repeating them verbatim. In fact, if they had, they would have been considered poor students. Jesus himself probably gave different versions of the same basic “talk” as he preached in various settings. One example could be the similarities between the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5-7 and the “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke 6:17-49.

Having a proper understanding of Jesus’ message was the key, which was proven by an ability to accurately re-present the essence—or the “gist”—of Jesus’ teachings in a way that would be relevant to one’s audience and its particular needs. The one thing disciples were most assuredly not allowed to do was to invent sayings or deeds of Jesus.

Evaluating the differences

Now let’s apply all of this to the synoptic Gospel accounts of the first Easter. Even though there is variance in secondary details (how many angels were at the tomb, for example), the basic message is the same: Jesus’ tomb was found to be empty of him early on Sunday morning, and the resurrected Christ later appeared to various disciples over a period of time.

What might be some reasons for these varying secondary details?

Ironically, the fact that these accounts are not in verbatim agreement actually enhances the probability that they are historical. Each Evangelist is making use of different sources of eyewitness testimony when composing his Gospel. The Evangelists didn’t “cut and paste” a prefabricated Easter account into their respective Gospels.

There are also literary or thematic reasons for the differences. In Mark’s Gospel, as noted above, the women react fearfully. Fear —even terror—in the presence of the divine is a constant Markan motif. When it comes to describing the most stupendous of all miracles—Jesus’ resurrection—Mark’s not about to change his style.

What of the variances in the lists of women who may or may not have been present? It’s reasonable that they all were present but that each evangelist is highlighting the names of those who may have been personally known or particularly important to his readers. The fact that some women were the first to encounter the empty tomb and the risen Jesus is what’s important here —and this is not something that the Gospel writers would have been eager to admit were it not the case.

The testimony of women in the first-century Jewish world was not considered reliable in a court of law. If one’s goal at this time was to convince readers that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and one made up a story about his being raised from the dead, one certainly wouldn’t present women as the first to discover the empty tomb and meet the resurrected Jesus —unless that’s what actually happened, as embarrassing as this might be in that particular cultural context.

All in all, when the Gospels are held up to the standards of first-century Greco-Roman historical writing, and to the standards of Jewish transmission of rabbinical teaching common to the period, they hold up quite well indeed. This is no less true when one considers their accounts of the (literally) earth-shaking events of the first Easter.”

Love, He is Risen!!
Matthew

God coming into the world


-by Mark A. McNeil, a former Oneness Pentecostal, was received into the Catholic Church in 1999.

”There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (Matt. 16:28)(1). It is not uncommon to hear atheists use this verse to charge that Jesus was obviously a failed prophet. One atheist, for instance, wrote, “Clearly, this did not happen, so either Jesus lied or he never made that promise.”

[Ed. I am always never surprised how skeptics take literally the parts of Scripture which suit their skeptical agenda, but never others.]

Perhaps more reflection on the meaning of Christ’s “coming” will be of both apologetic and spiritual value. What does it mean for God’s kingdom to come? Have Jesus’ predictions of His coming failed?

As a general rule of thumb, when someone sets up an either/or scenario, observers should be wary. The limitation of options offered in the atheist’s quote above, especially when considering apocalyptic expressions in the Old and New Testaments, is entirely arbitrary. Immediately following Matthew 16:28 is the story of the Transfiguration (17:1-8), an incredible vision in which Peter, James, and John did in fact see Christ in His divine form, and thus partake in a vision of God’s kingdom in this world.

Still, it is worthwhile to meditate on the question: How does God’s kingdom come? Technically, God doesn’t come or go anywhere (Ps. 139:7-10). God is the creator and sustainer of all time and space—nothing escapes His presence since, if it did, it would not exist. As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Indeed, by the very fact that He gives being to the things that fill every place, He Himself fills every place.” (Summa Theologicae I.8.2).

So, if God doesn’t come or go anywhere, why does the Bible speak so frequently of His kingdom “coming”?

The Bible tells us about God and His actions in ways that we can understand. References to God’s eyes and ears, for instance, affirm that nothing is outside His awareness (e.g., Prov. 15:3, Ps. 116:2). But God doesn’t know things because light or sound waves enter physical organs. God “hears” and “sees” in a way that is appropriate to His infinite, spiritual mode of being. Since we can’t fully understand that, God speaks to us about Himself in terms that we can understand.

God’s coming means, first of all, that His presence becomes noticeably manifest. God may come to His people, for instance, through a prophet, a special event, miracle, or other means. The language of His coming, along with the dramatic and even shocking imagery that we often associate with John’s Apocalypse (Revelation, the final book of Scripture) is typical in the Hebrew prophets.

Jesus, continuing and deepening the Old Testament descriptions, spoke of the coming of God’s kingdom in various ways. Matthew sees Jesus’ birth in Micah’s prophetic words about a ruler Who will come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). John the Baptist anticipated Jesus’ ministry: “He Who is coming after me is mightier than I,” using striking apocalyptic language to speak of His purifying ministry: “the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 2:6, 3:11-12).

Shortly before His betrayal and passion, Jesus consoled his disciples with the words: “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you” (John 14:18). Although for “a little while, the world will not see” Jesus, his disciples will see him. These words point to Christ’s resurrection as a coming that will reveal his abiding presence with them. This coming also points to another major topic of Jesus’ final discourse with his disciples: the coming of the Holy Spirit (e.g., John 14:26). In more than one place, the Apostle Paul is drawn to speak of our transformation into God’s children through Christ as a response to God sending “the Spirit of His Son into our hearts” (Gal. 4:5-6, Rom. 8:1-11).

Before his Ascension, Jesus was asked if the time had arrived for the kingdom to be restored to Israel, a widespread Jewish hope in the first century. Jesus consistently directed attention away from speculation about the time when particular aspects of God’s plan would unfold. “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons which the Father has fixed with his own authority” (Acts 1:7). Instead, He directed attention to the imminent coming of the Holy Spirit that would lead to the Gospel’s advance throughout the world (Acts 1:8).

Perhaps all of this is not dramatic enough for our critics. What would a dramatic “coming” of God’s kingdom look like, anyway? It may seem foolish to those who are looking for flashing lights and great heavenly fireworks, but God seems to prefer to show the greatest demonstrations of His power within the realm of the human spirit. A fragile baby in a manger, riding a donkey into Jerusalem, suffering on a cross, and choosing uneducated fishermen are, from a certain point of view, anti-climactic. Yet, in another very important sense, they touch a deep nerve in our hearts. They reveal the striking truth that the God of the universe cares about us to the point that little things become displays of divine power and glory. A baby in a manger causes the heavenly host to burst into praise. Don’t these humble manifestations of divine power resemble Jesus’ choice of images when He speaks of God’s kingdom (e.g., mustard seed, measures of meal in dough, a lost sheep)?

So, what are we to make of the charge that Jesus’ promise “failed”—that His kingdom did not arrive on schedule, before that first generation of witnesses had passed? It is unpersuasive since it fails to see Jesus’ words both in their immediate context as well as the larger context of the biblical teachings regarding the manifold ways in which God’s kingdom comes to us now and in the future. We certainly anticipate the future Second Advent of Christ in all His glory but, like many in the first century, skeptics continue to miss the message of the Transfiguration: the kingdom of God is first and foremost embodied in Jesus. “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed…behold the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21).”

Love, and trembling in holy fear,
Matthew

(1) NABRE (New American Bible Revised Edition) footnote: Mt 16:28, “coming in His kingdom”: since the kingdom of the Son of Man has been described as “the world” and Jesus’ sovereignty precedes His final coming in glory (Mt 13:38, 41), the coming in this verse is not the parousia as in the preceding but the manifestation of Jesus’ rule after His resurrection(/the establishment of Church/Pentecost, in this sense of coming); see notes on Mt 13:38, 41.

Are alternate theories to the Resurrection plausible?

The Bible says that if Jesus did not rise from the dead then the Christian faith is worthless (1 Cor. 15:17). However, if Jesus did rise from the dead then we know Jesus can keep His promise to give everyone who follows Him eternal life (1 John 2:25).

But how can we know that Jesus really rose from the dead and that the Bible’s description of this miracle wasn’t just a story someone made up?

One way is by showing that the Resurrection is the only explanation for the events surrounding Jesus’ death, events that almost everyone, including skeptics, agrees are historical.

As we examine some of the various theories put forward to explain these facts, you will see that only one theory explains 1) Jesus’ death by Crucifixion; 2) his empty tomb; 3) the post-Crucifixion appearances to the disciples; and 4) the disciples’ willingness to die for their faith: the theory that Jesus actually rose from the dead.

The Swoon Theory

One way to explain these facts would be to posit that Jesus never really died. Maybe he just passed out on the cross and woke up in a tomb. Jesus then met up with the disciples who mistakenly thought he’d risen from the dead. But even if Jesus somehow survived the Crucifixion, the apostles would never have thought he’d miraculously risen from the dead. Upon seeing his bloody, mutilated body, they would have thought Jesus had cheated death, not beaten it, and quickly gotten him medical treatment.

The Trash Theory

How do we know Jesus wasn’t just thrown into an anonymous grave and was forgotten until the disciples imagined they saw him alive again?

Deuteronomy 21:22-23 prohibited the Jewish people from leaving a criminal hanging on a tree, so Jesus would have to have been buried immediately after he died on the cross.

The Gospels say Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council that condemned Jesus to death, buried him (though John 3:1-2 tells us Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but in secret, out of fear of the other Jewish leaders). If the Gospel writers had invented the story of Jesus being buried in a tomb, they would have given their leader an honorable burial at the hands of his friends and family.

This means we have good historical evidence that after the Crucifixion Jesus’ body was placed in an identifiable tomb and simply didn’t vanish in a common graveyard.

The Hallucination Theory

Most historians agree the disciples thought they saw the risen Jesus. The story of Jesus appearing to them was not a legend that developed centuries later but was recorded by the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 15:3-7). It is almost universally recognized among historians that Paul existed, we have the letters he wrote, and Paul knew the people who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus (Gal. 1:18-19). But could those experiences have just been hallucinations brought on by the terrible grief these men endured after Jesus was executed?

First, it is individuals, not groups, who almost always experience hallucinations. Multiple biblical authors confirm that groups of Jesus’ disciples claimed to see him after his death (Luke 24:36-49, 1 Cor. 15:5-6). As psychologist Gary Collins writes, “By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. They certainly aren’t something which can be seen by a group of people.”

Second, the theory that Jesus’ depressed disciples hallucinated his Resurrection doesn’t explain why enemies of the Church came to believe in the Resurrection. The most famous example would be St. Paul, who was a Jewish leader who persecuted the Church until an encounter with the risen Christ moved him to join the “Jewish heresy” he had been persecuting. The best explanation for such a sudden conversion is that Paul had a real encounter with the risen Christ.

The Empty Tomb

We’ve already seen that it is historically certain Jesus was buried in a locatable tomb. The Gospels tell us that on the Sunday after the Resurrection a group of women discovered the tomb was empty. But why should we believe Jesus’ tomb was empty and that the authors of the Gospels didn’t make this up?

First, the disciples preached the empty tomb in the city of Jerusalem. If the tomb were not empty, enemies of the early Church could easily have taken the body out of the tomb and proven Jesus did not rise from the dead.

Second, the earliest enemies of the Church agreed that Jesus’ tomb was empty. Matthew’s Gospel says the Jewish leaders of his day (about forty to fifty years after the Crucifixion) believed Jesus’ body was stolen from the tomb (Matt. 28:11-15). The second-century Christian writer St. Justin Martyr also says that the Jews of his time believed Jesus’ body was stolen.

Finally, the Gospels include the testimony of women discovering the tomb. In Jesus’ time a woman’s testimony was considered to be as reliable as that of a child or a criminal. If the Gospel authors had invented the story about Jesus’ tomb being found empty, they would have used trustworthy characters like Peter or John. The embarrassing detail about women discovering the empty tomb was included in the story simply because that’s what really happened.

The Fraud Theory

Is it possible the disciples stole Jesus’ body and then told people their Messiah had risen from the dead? It’s not impossible, but this theory seems extremely unlikely.

Moreover, fraud is normally committed for personal gain; the only thing the disciples had to gain from their fraud was persecution and death. Since people don’t knowingly die for a lie, we can be confident Jesus’ disciples really believed in the Resurrection they preached to others.

There is no chance they were all deceived or that they all chose to die painful deaths in order to deceive others. What’s more likely is that Jesus’ Resurrection really happened and gave them the courage to share this good news in the face of persecution. They knew that even if they were to die through Christ they would live forever. We too can have eternal life if we trust in God’s promises and choose to be baptized into the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:3-5).

Why We Believe: The Resurrection

Even skeptics admit that Jesus was crucified, buried, his tomb was found empty, his disciples saw him after his death, and they were willing to die for that truth.
Other explanations, like hallucination or fraud, only explain some of these facts. The most plausible explanation for all these facts is that Jesus really did rise from the dead.

Love & Easter joy,
Matthew

“Woman, why are you crying? Whom do you seek?” -Jn 20:15


-Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene, Charles de La Fosse, between 1680 and 1685

-by Rev Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen, OCD, Divine Intimacy, Baronius Press, (c) 1964

Presence of God – O Lord, may I always seek You alone, and seeking You, may I have the grace to find You.

MEDITATION

In the Masses of Easter week, the Gospels recount the various apparitions of the risen Jesus; the first, and one of the most moving, is that to Mary Magdalen (John 20:11-18). In this episode Mary appears with her characteristic trait, that of a soul completely possessed by the love of God. When she reaches the sepulcher, she has scarcely seen “the stone rolled away,” before she is seized with one only anxiety: “They have taken away my Lord.” Who could have taken Him? Where could they have put Him? She repeats these questions to everyone she meets, supposing that they are filled with a like apprehension. She tells it to Peter and John who come running to see for themselves; she tells it to the Angels, and she tells it even to Jesus. The other women, finding the sepulcher open, go in to find out what has happened, but Magdalen runs off quickly to bring the news to the Apostles. Then she returns. What will she do near that empty tomb? She does not know, but love has impelled her to return, and it keeps her at the place where the body of the Master had been, the body that she wants to find at any cost.

She sees the Angels, but she does not marvel or become frightened like the other women; she is so possessed by her grief that there is no room in her soul for other emotions. When the Angels ask her: “Woman, why weepest thou?” she has only one answer: “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid Him.” Later, Jesus asks her the same question and Mary, absorbed in her same thoughts, does not even recognize Him, but “thinking that it was the gardener,” she says to Him: “Sir, if thou hast taken Him hence, tell me where thou hast laid Him, and I will take Him away.” The thought of finding Jesus so occupies her mind that she does not even feel the need of giving His name; it seems to her that everyone must be thinking of Him, that everyone would understand immediately—as though everyone were in the same state of mind as she.

When love of God and desire for Him have taken full possession of a soul, there is no longer room in it for other loves, other desires, other preoccupations. All its movements are directed to God, and through all things the soul does nothing but seek God alone.

COLLOQUY

“O Lord Jesus Christ, how good, blissful and desirable it is to feel the violence of Your love! Ah! enlighten my heart every day with the rays of this love, dissipate the darkness of my mind, illuminate the secret places in my heart, strengthen and inflame my intellect, and rejoice and fortify my soul! Oh! how tender is Your mercy, how great and sweet Your love, O Lord Jesus Christ. You lavish Your love to be enjoyed by those who love none but You, and who think of nothing but You! Loving us first, You invite us to love You; You delight us and draw us, so great is the power of Your love. Nothing invites us, nothing delights and attracts us more than this kind attention of love; the heart, which at first was torpid, feels itself inflamed; and the heart that is fervent, when it knows it is loved and has been loved by You, it becomes still more ardent.

O most loving Lord Jesus Christ, although You have loved me inexpressibly, I, a wicked sinner, enclosing in my bosom a heart of stone and iron, have not recognized Your burning love; and even though I desired Your affection, I did not want to love You. Deign, then, to come to my aid, O most merciful Lord Jesus Christ, and by the violence of Your most sweet love, force my rebellious soul to love You, so that I may serve You in peace and attain the unending life of love.” (Ven. R. Giordano).

Love & Easter joy,
Matthew

Easter Sermon on the Sacraments – St Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD)

Empty tomb with three crosses on a hill side.

“You are yourselves what you receive.”

“I haven’t forgotten my promise. I had promised those of you who have just been baptized a sermon to explain the sacrament of the Lord’s table, which you can see right now, and which you shared in last night. You ought to know what you have received, what you are about to receive, what you ought to receive every day.

That bread which you can see on the altar, sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. That cup, or rather what the cup contains, sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ. It was by means of these things that the Lord Christ wished to present us with His body and blood, which He shed for our sake for the forgiveness of sins.

If you receive them well, you are yourselves what you receive. You see, the apostle says, We, being many, are one loaf, one body. (1 Cor 10:17) That’s how he explained the sacrament of the Lord’s table; one loaf, one body, is what we all are, many though we be.

In this loaf of bread, you are given clearly to understand how much you should love unity. I mean, was that loaf made from one grain? Weren’t there many grains of wheat? But before they came into the loaf they were all separate; they were joined together by means of water after a certain amount of pounding and crushing. Unless wheat is ground, after all, and moistened with water, it can’t possibly get into this shape, which is called bread.

In the same way, you too were being ground and pounded, as it were, by the humiliation of fasting and the sacrament of exorcism. Then came baptism, and you were, in a manner of speaking, moistened with water in order to be shaped into bread. But it’s not yet bread without fire to bake it. So what does fire represent? That’s the chrism, the anointing. Oil, the fire-feeder, you see, is the sacrament of the Holy Spirit.

Notice it, when the Acts of the Apostles are read; the reading of that book begins now, you see. Today begins the book that is called the Acts of the Apostles. Anybody who wishes to make progress has the means of doing so.

When you assemble in church, put aside silly stories and concentrate on the scriptures. We here are your books. So pay attention, and see how the Holy Spirit is going to come at Pentecost. And this is how He will come; He will show Himself in tongues of fire.

You see, He breathes into us the charity, which should set us on fire for God, and have us think lightly of the world, and burn up our straw, and purge and refine our hearts like gold. So the Holy Spirit comes, fire after water, and you are baked into the bread, which is the body of Christ. And that’s how unity is signified.

Now you have the sacraments in the order they occur. First, after the prayer, you are urged to lift up your hearts; that’s only right for the members of Christ. After all, if you have become members of Christ, where is your head? Members have a head. If the head hadn’t gone ahead before, the members would never follow.

Where has our head gone? What did you give back in the creed? On the third day He rose again from the dead, He ascended into heaven, He is seated at the right hand of the Father. So our head is in heaven. That’s why, after the words Lift up your hearts, you reply, We have lifted them up to the Lord.

And you mustn’t attribute it to your own powers, your own merits, your own efforts, this lifting up of your hearts to the Lord, because it’s God’s gift that you should have your heart up above.

That’s why the bishop, or the presbyter who’s offering, goes on to say, when the people have answered We have lifted them up to the Lord, why he goes on to say, Let us give thanks to the Lord our God, because we have lifted up our hearts. Let us give thanks, because unless He had enabled us to lift them up, we would still have our hearts down here on earth. And you signify your agreement by saying, It is right and just to give thanks to the one who caused us to lift up our hearts to our head.

Then, after the consecration of the sacrifice of God, because He wanted us to be ourselves His sacrifice, which is indicated by where that sacrifice was first put, that is the sign of the thing that we are; why, then after the consecration is accomplished, we say the Lord’s prayer, which you have received and given back.

After that comes the greeting, Peace be with you, and Christians kiss one another with a holy kiss. It’s a sign of peace; what is indicated by the lips should happen in the conscience; that is, just as your lips approach the lips of your brothers or sisters, so your heart should not be withdrawn from theirs.

So they are great sacraments and signs, really serious and important sacraments. Do you want to know how their seriousness is impressed on us? The apostle says, Whoever eats the body of Christ or drinks the blood of the Lord unworthily is guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. (1 Cor 11:27)

What is receiving unworthily? Receiving with contempt, receiving with derision. Don’t let yourselves think that what you can see is of no account. What you can see passes away, but the invisible reality signified does not pass away, but remains.

Look, it’s received, it’s eaten, it’s consumed. Is the body of Christ consumed, is the Church of Christ consumed, are the members of Christ consumed? Perish the thought! Here they are being purified, there they will be crowned with the victor’s laurels.

So what is signified will remain eternally, although the thing that signifies it seems to pass away.

So receive the sacrament in such a way that you think about yourselves, that you retain unity in your hearts, that you always fix your hearts up above. Don’t let your hope be placed on earth, but in heaven. Let your faith be firm in God, let it be acceptable to God.

Because what you don’t see now, but believe, you are going to see there, where you will have joy, without end.”

Given c.411-415

Love, & Easter Joy, forever and ever,
Matthew