Once acknowledged as the long-awaited Messiah by His disciples, Jesus knew that the kingdom He would establish after His death and resurrection would not resemble the kingdom anticipated by the Jews of the first century — a restoration of the Davidic throne, expulsion of the Romans, and the establishment of a theocracy. Much of Christ’s instruction was devoted to reshaping these expectations, explaining to the disciples that the Kingdom of God was both a present reality as well as a distinct future event (the word kingdom appears 126 times in the gospels).
Protestants complain when the Catholic Church declares events like the Assumption of Mary, of which there is no hard evidence, a dogma of the Christian faith. At the same time, Catholics can’t understand why Protestants cling so much to the Bible, when its canon was compiled by the Catholic Church and its divine inspiration was declared a dogma of the Christian faith by the same authority and in the same manner as was the Assumption.
The celebration of Mary’s assumption into heaven has a rich history going back to the early centuries of the Christian era. Together with the intellectual contributions by Doctors of the Church, it was declared a historical fact. As such, there is no reason not to explore the early apocryphal works pertaining to the Assumption since we know it to be a factuality. While the Church regards many apocryphal writings as legendary, others were held in high regard by the early Church. Of the latter includes The Account of St. John the Theologian of the Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God, and was attributed to the Apostle himself (though dated around 400 AD).
While the glorious ascension of Christ to Heaven may have taken the disciples by surprise, the assurances that he would return and would soon send them “the promise of the Father”, left them with “great joy”. There was great joy in heaven too at the victorious homecoming of the Second Person of the Trinity. To picture this scene we can only challenge our imaginations. But the Early Church Fathers, who interpreted events in the life of Christ in light of of the Old Testament, found a glimpse into the heavenly procession from the Psalms.
St. Justin Martyr (AD 100-165) quotes Psalm 24:7 as a prophecy of the Ascension:
“You see that he was to mount to heaven according to the prophecies. It was said: ‘Lift up the gates of heaven, let them open and the King of Glory shall enter in.'”†
The liturgical passage in Psalm 24 reads,
“Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted, you ancient portals, that the king of glory may enter. Who is this king of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in war. Lift up your heads, O gates; rise up, you ancient portals, that the king of glory may enter. Who is this king of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the king of glory” (24:7-10).
As the risen Christ unexpectedly leaves the disciples and ascends to heaven from the Mount of Olives, one might have expected them to feel some measure of sadness at the parting of their beloved Lord. St. Luke, however, describes it differently:
“They did him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God” (Luke 24:52).
What a change from just weeks earlier when they were in despair, confused, and fearing for their own lives as Jesus was being led to the cross.
While the disciples were generally loyal, devoted, and trusting, they did not always understanding Jesus’ teachings and use of allegory, particularly with respect to his mission to suffer, die, and rise again; their expectations of the Jewish Messiah were quite the opposite (see Mark 8:31-33). Continue reading “The Joy of the Resurrection”→
Just before His Ascension, Jesus told His disciples to wait an undisclosed period of time in Jerusalem until they received power from the Holy Spirit:
“And [behold] I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).
This would occur ten days later on the last day of Pentecost, the Jewish festival also known as the Feast of Weeks which lasted for fifty days, ending one day after a period of seven weeks (7×7-days). To the question of why they had to wait is generally attributed to the fact that on Pentecost Jerusalem would be crowded, setting the stage for the spectacular scene in which the disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, preached the gospel to a large crowd each of whom were able to hear it in his native language. It has been estimated that the population of Jerusalem, around 40-50,000, would swell to over 200,000 on certain holidays including Pentecost. Continue reading “How the Fathers Interpreted Pentecost”→
We wonder, as John did, that since baptism reflected a commitment to repentance, why Jesus, who had nothing to repent, nevertheless insisted on being baptized himself:
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?’” (Matthew 3:14).
Jesus understands John’s reluctance and explains, “…it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” The Greek word translated “it is fitting” does not imply obligation or necessity. The act of baptism was a righteous deed as it reflected a personal resolution to cease disobeying the commandments of God, but as a religious rite it ended there. Jesus is saying that it is important to fulfill, or “make complete” this particular act of righteousness. Continue reading “The Descent of the Dove”→
Christ’s revelation of his glory to Peter, James, and John through his transfiguration confirmed Peter’s earlier confession of Jesus as the Messiah (Mark 8:27-30). But there was a much broader purpose of the vision as well:
“After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, ‘Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified. Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; then from the cloud came a voice, ‘This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.’ Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them” (Mark 9:2-8).
“In the days when he was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death” (Hebrews 5:7).
When we think about the events surrounding Jesus’ anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane we probably picture it as described in St. Mark’s gospel. In great agony Jesus prays three times, asking his Father if there was another way He could accomplish His will than by, and Jesus was well aware of this, being slowly tortured to death:
“…[H]e said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.’ When he returned he found them [the disciples] asleep. …Withdrawing again, he prayed, saying the same thing. Then he returned once more and found them asleep, …He returned a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?…” (Mark 14:35-41).
Luke and Matthew’s versions of events are a little different from Mark’s, and when we sort out the three evangelist’s respective accounts we get a much fuller picture of what likely occurred the night Jesus was betrayed. Continue reading “Cries and Tears in the Garden”→
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).
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: Continue reading “The Underlying Message of ‘The Visitation’”→