The Canticle of Simeon and the End of an Era

The Song of Simeon (nunc dimittis) lies within St. Luke’s Presentation narrative (2:21-40) in which he recounts that forty days after His birth, Jesus is presented in the Temple as the first-born male and a sacrifice is offered. Simeon, a devout Jew awaiting the “consolation of Israel”, recognizes Jesus as the Messiah as soon as he sees Him, breaking out in a song of praise.

But St. Luke omits something in the narrative:

“When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth” (vs. 39).

Why does St. Luke skip the Magi, Herod, the murder of the Innocents, and the flight to Egypt, all of which occurred before the Holy Family returned to Nazareth? Since Luke was undoubtedly aware of those events, their omission might reflect a specific purpose in his writing. Recall that Luke’s gospel constituted a letter written to a man named Theophilus:

“…I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, Most Excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received” (Luke 1:3-4).

The title “Most Excellent” informs us that Theophilus was a high-ranking Roman official, and the Roman hierarchy generally saw the followers of Jesus as just one of the many competing Jewish sects, and a very troublesome one. In the book of Acts, Luke describes the consequences of the strategy of the early Christians in targeting the synagogues throughout the Empire. It often led to civil unrest, forcing the Roman authorities to intervene on behalf of the Jews.

In this narrative Luke wanted to demonstrate that as the fulfillment of the Jewish religion, Christians should be recognized by the Empire in the same manner that it formally recognized the Jewish religion. He does this by showing that from the very beginning Jesus and His family exhibited perfect obedience to the Jewish law. The young family acted…

“…according to the law of Moses” (vs. 22).

“…just as it is written in the law of the Lord” (vs. 23).

“…in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord” (vs. 24).

“…to perform the custom of the law in regard to him” (vs. 27).

Luke also emphasizes the same with regard to Simeon and his life-long devotion to the Law and the Prophets. Simeon is described as,

“…righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the holy Spirit was upon him.”

Anna is similarly described:

“She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.

Both Simeon and Anna witnessed the fulfillment of the Jewish hope in God’s promise of the Messiah. Luke informs us that they were very old; his comments on their advanced age are meant to demonstrate to Theophilus that the elderly pair understood that the end of their lives coincided with the end of the era of the Law and the Prophets. Filled with the Spirit, Simeon declares as he holds baby Jesus in his arms,

“Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel” (vss. 25-32).

Simeon is recalling the prophecy of Isaiah, “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Is. 49:6).

But Simeon adds that the Jews will not accept Jesus, referring to the infant as “…a sign that will be contradicted”. This is the meaning of “the hearts of many will be revealed”, suggesting to Theophilus that the true cause of the rioting at the synagogues is the stubborn refusal of most of the Jews to accept that God’s salvation was to be extended to “all the nations” as taught by their own prophets. Luke’s task was a difficult one; he needed to convince this influential Roman who was sympathetic to Christianity that in it the promises of the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled in spite of its rejection by the Jews.

The Catholic Church recognizes that the Jewish religion represents her patrimony and that Catholics, Jewish and non-Jewish, are children of Abraham. This is reflected in her liturgy; for example, the first Eucharistic prayer:

“Look with favor on these offerings and accept them as once you accepted the gifts of your servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the bread and wine offered by your priest Melchizedek.”

 

…rjt

The Underlying Message of ‘The Visitation’

During the Annunciation, the Angel Gabriel informs Mary that her cousin Elizabeth is in her sixth month of gestation, letting her know that though barren and advanced in age, the birth of Elizabeth’s baby, like Mary’s, would be a miraculous event. So here we have a very old woman who had always been barren and a very young girl who had taken a vow of virginity (see here), both pregnant. Mary then travels to visit Elizabeth, “in haste”, and St. Luke reports the remarkable exchange that took place upon Mary’s arrival.

“And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.'”

Two things taken together here strike me as extremely important from a theological standpoint. The First is that Elizabeth was “filled with the Holy Spirit”, meaning that everything she subsequently said would carry theological significance. The second is her use of the word “baby”, “the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” The word for baby in Greek is brefos, and does not imply a fetus or an unborn child, but just as it does in English the word strictly means “baby”. St Luke will use the same word in chapter 2 verse 16, in reference to the shepherds:

“So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant [brefos] lying in the manger.”

So through Elizabeth the Holy Spirit specifically refers to John as a baby in spite of the fact that he is unborn. But there’s more. The “leap” can be explained by what was foretold to Zechariah (Elizabeth’s husband) by the Angel Gabriel,

“[F]or he will be great in the sight of [the] Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15).

So the “leap of joy” was prompted by the baby having been filled with the Holy Spirit, otherwise he would not have leaped. And this is being affirmed by the Angel Gabriel himself. It underscores the fact of baby John’s personhood because only people can be filled with the Holy Spirit.

When I hear someone make the “seamless garment” argument, I get sick to my stomach. To suggest that for the Catholic, caring for the poor and needy is morally equivalent to defending the life of the unborn is absurd and offensive. Yes, they are both persons made in God’s image, but the lives of the poor and needy have legal protections while unborn children do not, and are murdered either indiscriminately, out of accommodation, or because they are imperfect, or female, or something else.

You might be familiar with Ghirlandaio’s Adoration of the Magi:

In the lower left part of the painting there’s a guy who looks like John the Baptist pointing to Jesus. That’s the artist (and he’s eyeballing us). Below him is what looks like a cherub, with another on the right. If we look closely, you’ll notice that they have open wounds, slashes. These are two of the Holy Innocents, the Church’s first martyrs thanks to the paranoid King Herod:

 

 

The circumstances behind Herod’s murder of these innocent babies has today been institutionalized in much of the western world, the legal conspiring of adults to mercilessly kill babies. The word ‘abortion’ is just a euphemism for infanticide.

…rjt

On the Trail of the Seed of Eve

Reading the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) as narrative is not just spiritually rewarding but a lot more fun. What I mean by this is to read the text as one would read a novel, experiencing the drama by identifying and connecting broader themes as well as minor ones. Most Old Testament scholars today break the Pentateuch up into diverse source materials which they then analyze individually in light of history and archaeology. In doing this they tend to miss or discount the broader themes that the author of the Pentateuch intended to convey. Tracing the seed of Eve in Genesis is an example of reading the text as narrative.†

In His response to the Fall of Adam and Eve, God charges the serpent with what constitutes, on the one hand, a threat to his “seed”, and on the other, the promise of hope to humankind:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel” (Gen. 3:15).

Note that the references to the offspring (seed) of the serpent are singular and thus directed at Satan himself; he and his seed are one. Who then constitutes the seed of Eve that will crush the head of Satan? While it is left an open question, the author of the Pentateuch carefully traces this seed through various genealogies and narratives.

In the story of Noah we see how God’s promise develops; He judges the world yet preserves the obedient Noah and his family. After leaving the arc Noah builds an altar and sacrifices to God, who then blesses Noah:

“And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Gen. 9:1).

Now the promise concerning Eve’s seed will be preserved through Noah’s descendants.

Nimrod on the Tower of Babel. From John Huston’s film, ‘The Bible’.

But not through his great-grandson Nimrod. In the genealogy of Noah’s descendants in Genesis 10-11 (the Table of Nations), Nimrod receives an extended comment:

“Cush [son of Ham] became the father of Nimrod, who was the first to become a mighty warrior on earth. He was a mighty hunter in the eyes of the LORD; hence the saying, ‘Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter in the eyes of the LORD.’ His kingdom originated in Babylon, Erech and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. From that land he went forth to Assyria, where he built Nineveh…” (Genesis 10:8-12).”

Continue reading “On the Trail of the Seed of Eve”

How Did the Disciples React to the First Eucharist?

At the Last Supper, after Jesus consecrated the bread and wine for the first time, is it possible that one or more of the disciples believed upon hearing these words that an actual transformation of the elements of the bread and wine had taken place? I think it’s possible that Judas was probably the only one who didn’t, and for four reasons.

First, at the Last Supper, when Jesus broke the bread and said, “This is my body”, he had said it in Aramaic. Semitic languages do not have words to indicate the verb “to be” in these types of statements. In Hebrew and Aramaic, the verb is implied when a subject and predicate are simply juxtaposed. What Jesus literally said as he held the bread was, “this, the body of me”. The disciples would have understood that the one is precisely identified with the other. Also, there were other expressions Jesus could have used to indicate that the bread was only to be regarded as a symbol.

Secondly, when Jesus said the words of consecration, the disciples would have immediately recalled the incident recorded in the Gospel of John chapter 6. Jesus repeats four times to a large crowd of followers that they would have to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to have eternal life. They had thought He was referring to cannibalism, and Jesus did nothing to prevent their deserting Him because they had understood Him correctly, but faithlessly. So Jesus doubles down, demonstrating that this whole dialogue was specifically aimed at the twelve disciples:

“What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (vs. 62).

He puts them in a corner with an obvious dilemma. Let me paraphrase Jesus’ words,

“I just told you that to have eternal life you and anyone must consume my real body and blood. So how will you do that when I’m not here?”

Continue reading “How Did the Disciples React to the First Eucharist?”

9 Little-Known Facts About The Crucifixion of Jesus

A valuable study appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1986 (Volume 256) entitled “On the Physical Death of Jesus”. The authors included a Pathologist, an expert in Medical Graphics from the Mayo Clinic, and an Evangelical minister. It begins with a historical analysis of crucifixion as a form of execution and moves to the physiology of Jesus’ suffering and death.

Shroud of Turin

Two things make this study important. First, it takes the accounts of the crucifixion from the gospels as we have them as authentic; Evangelicals don’t do historical criticism so there was no attempt to theorize based on reconstructed source material. Secondly, the experts regarded Shroud of Turin as the actual burial cloth of Christ, which provides many of the details of what occurred during Jesus’ final hours. Some of the findings:

  1. St. Luke recorded that during the agony in the garden, Jesus’ sweat became like blood. Bloody sweat is known as either hematidrosis or hemohidrosis and is caused by blood hemorrhaging into the sweat glands. While it is rare, it “…may occur in highly emotional states or in persons with bleeding disorders.”
  2. Scourging always preceded crucifixion and was intended to weaken the victim to shorten the time spent on the cross.  “[A]s the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh. Pain and blood loss generally set the stage for circulatory shock. …The severe scourging, with its intense pain and appreciable blood loss, most probably left Jesus in a preshock state.”
  3. Jesus did not carry the whole cross but just the crossbar (patibulum). The whole cross would have weighed about 300 lbs.
  4. The sign that Pilate had ordered to be made, “Jesus the Nazorean, King of the Jews”, was customary and was held up by a Roman soldier in the front of the condemned man during the procession to the place of crucifixion. It displayed the name of the criminal and charge against him.
  5. The wine with the gall (a “mild analgesic”), which was offered to Christ, was a requirement under Roman law.
  6. Since nailing the palms would not have supported the weight of the body, the wrists were nailed (as in the Shroud). “…[T]he driven nail would crush or sever the rather large sensorimotor median nerve. The stimulated nerve would produce excruciating bolts of fiery pain in both arms. Although the severed median nerve would result in paralysis of a portion of the hand, ischemic contractures and impalement of various ligaments by the iron spike might produce a clawlike grasp.”
  7. Fixing the feet to the cross could be done with either nails or ropes, the Shroud indicates that Jesus’ were nailed. His knees may have been bent since crosses did not always have a footrest.
  8. “Although scourging may have resulted in considerable blood loss, crucifixion per se was a relatively bloodless procedure, since no major arteries, other than perhaps the deep plantar arch, pass through the favored anatomic sites of transfixion.”
  9. Jesus’ death came unusually quickly; crucifixions could go on for days. This was likely the result of the severity of the scourging. “The fact that he could not carry the crossbar supports this interpretation. The actual cause of Jesus’ death, like that of other crucified victims, may have been multifactorial and related primarily to hypovolemic shock [rapid blood loss], exhaustion asphyxia, and perhaps acute heart failure. A fatal cardiac arrhythmia may have accounted for the apparent catastrophic terminal event.”

The language of the article and the accompanying illustrations are rather cold and come across like a coroner’s report. It is heartbreaking to read. The crime against the state for which he was executed was for being “The King of the Jews”.

…rjt

 

Comparing the Two Annunciations (Luke 1:5-38)

Titian, The Annunciation

In reading Luke’s narratives about the birth announcements to Zechariah and Mary, have you ever wondered why Zechariah gets chastised by the angel for his questioning of the notion that a couple their age can conceive, and Mary, who asks a very similar question, does not?

After Gabriel appears and announces the news to Zechariah that Elizabeth will bear a child, he responds:

“How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

For this he is scolded and struck dumb. Mary responds to the news that she will give birth in much the same way:

“How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”

For this she receives the explanation that her pregnancy will be the work of the Holy Spirit.

Zechariah was a priest and “…righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly” (vs. 6). But asking how he would “know” reflected doubt, and comes across as a demand for evidence. But he had no reason to doubt; he would have recalled that God made the same promise to Abraham and can make barren women conceive. Gabriel charged, “you did not believe my words”. Continue reading “Comparing the Two Annunciations (Luke 1:5-38)”

Mary’s Search for the Son of God

In a homily a few years back Pope Francis expounded on Luke 2:41-52, the familiar story of finding the 12-year old Jesus in the temple. He adds a detail, however, which he thinks is clearly implied in the text:

“Instead of returning home with his family, he stayed in Jerusalem, in the Temple, causing great distress to Mary and Joseph who were unable to find him. For this little ‘escapade’, Jesus probably had to beg forgiveness of his parents. The Gospel doesn’t say this, but I believe that we can presume it. Mary’s question, moreover, contains a certain reproach, revealing the concern and anguish which she and Joseph felt.” (Link)

Continue reading “Mary’s Search for the Son of God”

A Provocative Look at the Creation Account

One of my former Hebrew instructors has argued that recent translators of the Bible are still too influenced by earlier translations, especially the King James Version, and this negatively affects the rendering in English of many important passages.

A good example comes from Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (KJV). “Earth” in English means two things: The whole planet, or the soil in the ground. In Hebrew, However, the word is eretz and means “land”, look how it’s described in verses 9-10:

“And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth…”

Thus, eretz is distinct from the waters that were gathered together and refers to “land”. And as for heaven:

And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven (Gen. 1:7-8).

Continue reading “A Provocative Look at the Creation Account”

A Jerusalem Memory

An experience in Israel I had long forgotten recently resurfaced as I was contemplating the Second Sorrowful Mystery, the flagellation of Christ.

Kishle Station

In 1982 I was in Jerusalem for the first time and while walking through the Jaffa Gate entrance into the Old City and I heard a loud scream coming from the building on the right, the Kishle police station. A man was screaming at the top of his lungs as though he was being beaten, uttering words in Arabic that sounded like pleas. While it was probably the case that he was being forcibly restrained, it sounded more like a beating.

Israel was very tense (and dangerous) in those days; I was there a year learning Hebrew and experienced either a shelter in place, bomb threat, or evacuation at least a dozen times. Any guided tours I participated in included the mandatory guard carrying a loaded M-16 or Uzi.

Online I learned something very interesting about the Kishle Station, built in 1831 and used as a prison by the Ottoman Turks. The many prisoner cells were located behind the structure and were not in use at the time I was there. In the 1990s the adjacent Tower of David Museum took this part of the building over with the intention of expanding into it. During construction, beneath the floor they discovered the remains of foundation walls, and a full excavation of the site followed. Continue reading “A Jerusalem Memory”

Peter Hitchens’ on the Demise of the English Church

The brother of the late author and atheist Christopher Hitchens recently spoke in Copenhagen on immigration and the end of western culture (extremely pessimistic, but very entertaining). Below is a short sample from the long Q&A that follows the speech. He reflects on the Church of England, referring to it as the “enemy of it’s heritage”:

The full speech is below and the Q&A follows, both are worth taking the time to listen to.

…rjt