Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Diocese of Arlington Blog

There is a brand-new baby blog born today!

The Diocese of Arlington Blog, “Encourage and Teach” --

Encouraging and Teaching in the Digital Sphere
March 30, 2010 by encourageandteach
By Bishop Paul S. Loverde

During Holy Week, our thoughts naturally turn towards the Paschal Mystery, that is, the Mystery of Christ’s Death and Resurrection whereby He redeemed us. This Paschal Mystery is the heart of our faith, a truth to which we witness with our words and with our lives. As you may have noticed, the name of the blog is “Encourage and Teach,” which is taken from a quotation from Saint Paul that inspired my Episcopal Motto. As Bishop and priest, I hope to encourage and teach patiently the truths of the faith to the people of Northern Virginia. In an online format, this blog helps to achieve that goal. . . .

In my Easter letter, I focus on the “good news” of the Resurrection at Easter, which brings us profound hope amidst the trials and challenges of our lives. Each day, we must strive to live this good news. As Saint Augustine tells us, “We are Easter people and alleluia is our song!” It is my hope that this blog serves as a source of catechesis and of spiritual renewal to you as you pursue a life of holiness.

I encourage you to check back often and to become a part of this online dimension of our faith community!

Be sure to go see the new baby and shower it with comments!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Abused and the Healing Power of Christ

Pastoral Letter of Pope Benedict XVI
to the Catholics of Ireland

Solemnity of St. Joseph, March 19, 2010

4. In recent decades, [the Church] has had to confront new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularization of [society]. Fast-paced social change has occurred, often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values. All too often, the sacramental and devotional practices that sustain faith and enable it to grow, such as frequent confession, daily prayer and annual retreats, were neglected. Significant too was the tendency during this period, also on the part of priests and religious, to adopt ways of thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel. The programme of renewal proposed by the Second Vatican Council was sometimes misinterpreted and indeed, in the light of the profound social changes that were taking place, it was far from easy to know how best to implement it. In particular, there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations. . . .

6. [To those who have suffered injustice and abuse] -- I ask you not to lose hope. It is in the communion of the Church that we encounter the person of Jesus Christ, who was himself a victim of injustice and sin. Like you, he still bears the wounds of his own unjust suffering. He understands the depths of your pain and its enduring effect upon your lives and your relationships . . . Christ’s own wounds, transformed by his redemptive sufferings, are the very means by which the power of evil is broken and we are reborn to life and hope. I believe deeply in the healing power of his self-sacrificing love – even in the darkest and most hopeless situations – to bring liberation and the promise of a new beginning. . . .

7. [To those who have committed injustice and abuse] -- I urge you to examine your conscience, take responsibility for the sins you have committed, and humbly express your sorrow. Sincere repentance opens the door to God’s forgiveness and the grace of true amendment. By offering prayers and penances for those you have wronged, you should seek to atone personally for your actions. Christ’s redeeming sacrifice has the power to forgive even the gravest of sins, and to bring forth good from even the most terrible evil. At the same time, God’s justice summons us to give an account of our actions and to conceal nothing. Openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God’s mercy. . . .

8. [To parents of children who have been abused] -- In today’s world it is not easy to build a home and to bring up children. They deserve to grow up in security, loved and cherished, with a strong sense of their identity and worth. They have a right to be educated in authentic moral values rooted in the dignity of the human person, to be inspired by the truth of our Catholic faith and to learn ways of behaving and acting that lead to healthy self-esteem and lasting happiness. This noble but demanding task is entrusted in the first place to you, their parents. . . .

9. [To young people] -- It is in the Church that you will find Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and for ever (cf. Heb 13:8). He loves you and he has offered himself on the cross for you. Seek a personal relationship with him within the communion of his Church, for he will never betray your trust! He alone can satisfy your deepest longings and give your lives their fullest meaning by directing them to the service of others. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and his goodness, and shelter the flame of faith in your heart. . . .

12. A young person’s experience of the Church should always bear fruit in a personal and life-giving encounter with Jesus Christ within a loving, nourishing community. In this environment, young people should be encouraged to grow to their full human and spiritual stature, to aspire to high ideals of holiness, charity and truth, and to draw inspiration from the riches of a great religious and cultural tradition. In our increasingly secularized society, where even we Christians often find it difficult to speak of the transcendent dimension of our existence, we need to find new ways to pass on to young people the beauty and richness of friendship with Jesus Christ in the communion of his Church. In confronting the present crisis, measures to deal justly with individual crimes are essential, yet on their own they are not enough: a new vision is needed, to inspire present and future generations to treasure the gift of our common faith. By treading the path marked out by the Gospel, by observing the commandments and by conforming your lives ever more closely to the figure of Jesus Christ, you will surely experience the profound renewal that is so urgently needed at this time. I invite you all to persevere along this path.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Joseph is a model of love – true love – not the false so-called “love” of mere feelings and emotions, of merely making himself happy and satisfying his own wants and desires, but the true and perfect love of consciously deciding to empty himself and make a gift of self in seeking the good of others.

In complete fidelity, Joseph placed himself entirely at the service of Mary and Jesus. As the model husband and father, in addition to servant, Joseph was defender, protector, and provider. He took Mary and Jesus into his home and into his heart. He found shelter when there was no room at the inn; he took his family to Egypt when Herod was determined to destroy the Messiah in Bethlehem; he kept them safely in Egypt until Herod’s demise, when they could safely return home to Nazareth; and he worked as a craftsman, a carpenter, to provide a home for his family. When Mary and Jesus encountered the hardships of everyday life, it was Joseph who stood at their side, providing them help and encouragement.

Joseph was also counsellor and teacher to the young Jesus, providing Him the usual education, instructing Him in a trade, and proclaiming the faith to Him. Joseph arranged for the circumcision of baby Jesus, the entrance into the covenant with God, and he presented Him to the Lord at the Temple in Jerusalem. Joseph took Jesus to the synagogue to hear the word of God and, each Passover, Joseph took his family on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where, at age 12, Jesus was found discussing the faith with teachers in the Temple.

Aside from Mary, Joseph was closer to and knew Jesus more than any other person in history. Until his death, Joseph observed, participated in, and knew all the intimate details of Jesus’ life. It was Joseph who, together with Mary, most influenced and prepared Jesus for His adult and public life. Whereas John the Baptist prepared the world for Jesus, preparing the way for the Lord on a public level, it was Joseph who prepared the way for the Lord on a private level.

Indeed, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are the family of God. In them is the Church in miniature, the model for all of us in faith, love, hope, and truth.

Now, Joseph could have said “No.” Just as Mary the Immaculate retained free will, so too did Joseph have the freedom to refuse to be husband and father. He had the freedom to reject the message of the angel and allow Mary (and the unborn Jesus, because the Incarnation had already occurred) to be stoned to death, thereby defeating God’s plan for the salvation of the world. Just as God placed Himself at the mercy of Mary, making Himself small and defenseless in her womb, so too did God entrust Himself to Joseph, totally and completely vulnerable and defenseless. But God also knew that Joseph was just and righteous and, just as He chose Mary, the Father of Jesus in heaven specifically chose Joseph to be the father of Jesus on earth.

God knew, as we know now, that Joseph was and is a model of love and fidelity, a good and righteous man to whom He could entrust His Son. And so, we understand that, because he was protector and defender of Jesus, so too is Joseph protector and defender of the Church. Thus, as with Mary, we can turn to St. Joseph in heaven to protect us always.

Father, you entrusted our Savior to the care of St. Joseph. By the help of his prayers may your Church continue to serve its Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

It Wasn't His Child (ad may play first)
Trisha Yearwood

Gratitude and Reverence for Saint Joseph

A Sermon by Saint Bernardine of Siena, priest

There is a general rule concerning all special graces granted to any human being. Whenever the divine favour chooses someone to receive a special grace, or to accept a lofty vocation, God adorns the person chosen with all the gifts of the Spirit needed to fulfil the task at hand.

This general rule is especially verified in the case of Saint Joseph, the foster-father of our Lord and the husband of the Queen of our world, enthroned above the angels. He was chosen by the eternal Father as the trustworthy guardian and protector of His greatest treasures, namely, His divine Son and Mary, Joseph’s wife. He carried out this vocation with complete fidelity until at last God called him, saying: “Good and faithful servant enter into the joy of your Lord.”

What then is Joseph’s position in the whole Church of Christ? Is he not a man chosen and set apart? Through him and, yes, under him, Christ was fittingly and honourably introduced into the world. Holy Church in its entirety is indebted to the Virgin Mother because through her it was judged worthy to receive Christ. But after her we undoubtedly owe special gratitude and reverence to Saint Joseph.

In him the Old Testament finds its fitting close. He brought the noble line of patriarchs and prophets to its promised fulfilment. What the divine goodness had offered as a promise to them, he held in his arms.

Obviously, Christ does not now deny to Joseph that intimacy, reverence and very high honour which He gave him on earth, as a son to His father. Rather we must say that in heaven Christ completes and perfects all that He gave at Nazareth.

Now we can see how the last summoning words of the Lord appropriately apply to Saint Joseph: “Enter into the joy of your Lord.” In fact, although the joy of eternal happiness enters into the soul of a man, the Lord preferred to say to Joseph: “Enter into joy.” His intention was that the words should have a hidden spiritual meaning for us. They convey not only that this holy man possesses an inward joy, but also that it surrounds him and engulfs him like an infinite abyss.

Remember us, Saint Joseph, and plead for us to your foster-child. Ask your most holy bride, the Virgin Mary, to look kindly upon us, since she is the mother of Him who with the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns eternally. Amen.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Some Good News

For the first time in months, I have opened my windows.

Spring is just around the corner!

The street in front of my home (park to the left, condo to the right)

Satellite view

As you can see, there is a large park, with a creek, right out my front window. The park is actually about 45 miles long, following the old line for the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad. Some day I'll bike the whole thing -- or at least walk the few miles down to the Potomac.

Historical note -- the property, including that of my condo, was once owned by George Washington.

The Plagues and Exodus in the Light of Christ

From the very beginning, the Passover Lamb and Moses have been understood as prefiguring Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who is sacrificed and the New Moses who leads His people out of the bondage of sin and death to the Promised Land of eternal life with God. And the crossing of the Red Sea has long been understood to symbolize Baptism.

Are there other parallels besides the Passover Lamb and the Death of the First Born? Is there a connection between the Plagues and Jesus smashing the marketplace before Passover? Might one say that, in the Passion, Jesus (God) is suffering the Plagues upon Himself? How can we see the Plagues as the entire Trinity in action, even if veiled in mystery?

Note that the Plagues begin with water turned to blood, and the Passion begins with Jesus’ sweat turned to blood, and it ends with blood and water pouring from His side. Is there a Eucharistic significance here, as there is in the Unleavened Bread of Passover? There are three days of “darkness” between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Also, blows are inflicted on Him (hail), resulting in injuries (boils and open sores), while He endures annoying insults (frogs, flies, lice).

The Ten Plagues of Egypt:
Objections and Questions About God, Part Four

The Plagues and Exodus, Mercy and Hope, and Eschatology

1. Hope and the Oppressed – We often read the story of the Passion by placing ourselves in various roles. If we were to put ourselves into the story of the Plagues, which part(s) are the most applicable? How do the Israelites symbolize us, as the people of God? Jesus is the New Moses, but can Moses and Aaron signify us as well as witnesses for the Lord who seek to turn (convert) sinners (Pharaoh)?

It is part of the institutional memory of the Jewish people to remember how God brought His people out of bondage in Egypt. This is partly to remember the Covenant and give thanks to God, but also to provide hope in times of persecution and hardship, that God will not give up, but will work tirelessly for our redemption and salvation.

The Book of Revelation (ch. 15-16) tells of the “seven last plagues,” including water turned to blood, festering open sores, darkness, unclean spirits like frogs, and hail and lightning. Both Exodus and Revelation show that evil and oppression will not have the final word, that they are not in control, rather, God is in charge, that He will make distinctions and save His people, that He will make His people immune from the ultimate suffering, the suffering of eternal death.

2. Hope and the Sinner – How should we view Pharaoh? Is he merely “the bad guy” of the story? Or are we Pharaoh also? Does he, can he, signify us? Doesn’t Pharaoh, although an oppressor, represent the typical sinner? And if he does, seeing as how God gave him many chances, shouldn’t that give us sinners hope of God’s inexhaustible mercy?

At first, Pharaoh professes an ignorance of God. Then he seeks to bargain and negotiate with God, seeking to set conditions and terms of doing good. Like any sinner, especially like the sinner who suffers some adverse consequences because of his sin, Pharaoh begins to lose resolve, he begins to crack, and starts to turn toward the good, if only with the “imperfect contrition” of wanting to avoid further punishment. Perhaps he really is truly sorry and repentant? But his movements toward the good end, and he becomes obstinate – his heart is hardened – when the pressure is off. The temptations of sin – in his case, power – cause him to fall backward. The cycle repeats itself over and over. After a while, Pharaoh, like a typical sinner, even admits his fault and is sorry, but again the will to do good is weak and he falters.

Eventually, however, the obstinate sinner runs out of time – the final plague is the point at which it is too late – death. (Do not the first-born, as inheritors, represent the future?) It is now too late for the sinner to repent, just as it was then too late for Pharaoh. There are no more “second” chances, there is no more future after death.

The account of the Plagues provides a glimpse into how God deals with the evildoer. We are a people of instant gratification; we want things done now. And in thinking of deliverance from Egypt, we tend to reduce the Exodus to the Passover and the Red Sea. But it is more than that. God did not rescue and redeem His people immediately. Rather, He did it over time, as part of a process. And He was not concerned only with His "chosen people."

Take note that Egypt was a provider of refuge for Abraham and the family of Jacob, as well as Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Consequently, would not God be favorably disposed toward Egypt? Is the lesson to be learned that God does not merely want to destroy the oppressor, but to convert him, giving him many opportunities to do so?

God gave the evil oppressor Pharaoh many chances, many opportunities to do the right thing. While Moses and Aaron and the Israelites are the People of God, we would do well to remember that Pharaoh and the Egyptians -- indeed, all the oppressors of the world -- are God's children too. As His children, He loves them too. Just as He gives us many, many opportunities to repent, so too did He give Pharaoh many chances to do the right thing. God did not strike him down immediately, He did not destroy Egypt with one blow the first time, but only upon the tenth time.

Is not one of the big messages here concerning God’s approach to sinners, which should give those of us who are also sinners hope? That He prods, He pokes, He warns, He chastises, He is patient when the sinner back-slides, He gives countless chances, and His divine mercy is everlasting, that no matter how obstinate we might have been in sin, so long as we turn toward Him while there is still time, before death, when it is then too late, that we will be forgiven?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Ten Plagues of Egypt:
Objections and Questions About God, Part Three

God’s Primary Objective

What is God’s primary objective in the Plagues and the Exodus? Is it merely to emancipate His people? Is it to retaliate and punish the Egyptians for enslaving the Israelites? Is it to show His power and might?

And is God being sincere and honest when He, through Moses, tells Pharaoh to let the people go in order to worship God for a few days? Or was that a ruse (a lie), with the real plan being to never return? If freedom was the plan, when might we say that the people were truly free? After the death of the first born? After the crossing of the Red Sea? Or were they truly free only when they reached Sinai and received the Ten Commandments and other Law?

Being Truth, God could not have been dishonest when He had Moses tell Pharaoh merely to let the people go worship Him.

Thus, it would appear that the primary objective of the Exodus was not political freedom, but religious freedom, the main objective was for the people to know Him and receive the Law. Only then would they be truly free.

Another objective would appear to be to part of the on-going battle against polytheism, to demonstrate, in the defeat of Egypt’s false gods and death cult by powerful and wondrous deeds, that the Lord is the One, True, and Almighty God. (Compare God’s revelation of Himself in Egypt to His speaking to Elijah in a whisper in 1 Kings 19.)

It be St. Padraig's Day

St. Patrick is a popular saint who, about 1,500 years ago, brought Christ to the little country of Ireland. Pádraig was born in Roman Britain, and when he was about 16 years old, he was captured during a raid by the Irish and sold as a slave. After about six years, he was able to escape and return to Britain. There he heard the call to return and bring Christianity to Ireland. He was ordained a priest, consecrated a bishop and came back to Ireland to preach the Gospel. During the thirty years that his missionary labors continued he covered the Island with churches and monasteries.

Because Confirmation is about joining in the Church's mission to be a witness for Christ, and because Patrick was so extraordinary a missionary, he is an excellent model for us to consider in reflecting upon the Sacrament of Confirmation.

Many legends are associated around St. Patrick: how he drove the snakes out of Ireland, and the use of the shamrock to teach the mystery of the Trinity. Whether or not the legends are true, St. Patrick succeeded in bringing Catholicism to Ireland, and in time, the whole country converted from their pagan gods to the one true God.

I am greatly in God's debt because he granted me so much grace, that through me many people would be reborn in God, and soon after confirmed, and that clergy would be ordained everywhere for them, the masses lately come to belief, whom the Lord drew from the ends of the earth, just as he once promised through his prophets: "To you shall the nations come from the ends of the earth, and shall say, Our fathers have inherited naught hut lies, worthless things in which there is no profit." And again: "I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles that you may bring salvation to the uttermost ends of the earth."

-- Confessions of St. Patrick

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Ten Plagues of Egypt:
Objections and Questions About God, Part Two

Another objection that might be raised against the biblical account of the Ten Plagues is the apparent infliction of suffering by God. The same objection is raised with respect to other events depicted in the Bible, for example, the Flood or warfare against the various enemies of Israel.

Setting aside for now the question of whether the Plagues constitute a "judgment" or "punishment" upon Egypt, or are merely an occasion for God to demonstrate His supremacy over the false gods of Egypt --

Should we be bothered or scandalized by God inflicting hardship and suffering on the people? Is God being unfair or unjust with respect to everyday Egyptians, who were innocent and had nothing to do with enslaving the Israelites or with Pharaoh's refusal to let them go? Or is whatever God does "just," no matter how unjust in human terms, because God is by definition all-good and just? Should God’s actions in Egypt lead us to alter our conception of what “God is Love” means?

Similarly, when God acts, it is the entirety of the Trinity who acts, such that Jesus Himself was involved in the infliction of the Plagues. But how can we reconcile that with our understanding of Jesus as the epitome of love?

Taking a closer look, can we really say that God is being unfair or unjust with respect to everyday Egyptians when they essentially acquiesced and joined in Pharaoh’s obstinate sin by not overthrowing him? Did they not also share in the fruits of the slave labor of the Israelites? By their eating that poisoned fruit and their failure to do the right thing and free the Israelites, do they not share in Pharaoh’s guilt?

Even if they were “innocent” bystanders, setting aside the final Plague, were the other Plagues so harsh and so excessive so as to be an injustice by God? Or is the fact that they were consistent with other naturally-occurring disasters mean that, although imposed by God, they were in line with what might be deemed to be reasonable punishment or chastisement?

And do not the repeated warnings that God gave before the coming of a given Plague eliminate any reasonable claim of injustice by God?

Besides, God showed that He was willing to save those who are not His people, including those who were officials of Pharaoh, if they began to believe in Him, as in the case of the Plague of hail. (Exodus 9:19-20) Moreover, when, at Pharaoh's request, Moses prays to God to lift a given plague, God does so.

While pondering the accusation of unjust infliction of suffering by God, which admittedly might be supported by a superficial reading of the text, let us ask this as well:

Why did God not simply destroy Egypt? Why did He not simply wipe everyone out at the very beginning, so that the Israelites could leisurely walk out of Egypt?

Compare God’s approach concerning Pharaoh and Egypt with His approach concerning the Amalekites, the arch-enemies of Israel, who sought to prevent the Israelites from entering the Promised Land, thus incurring “God’s wrath” and His command to exterminate them. Is it because Amalek is an outright barrier to the salvation of God’s people, while Pharaoh is merely an oppressor and obstinate sinner?

Take note that Egypt was a provider of refuge for Abraham and Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Consequently, would not God be favorably disposed toward Egypt? Is the lesson to be learned that God does not merely want to destroy the oppressor, but to convert him, giving him many opportunities to do so?

Moses and Aaron and the Israelites are the People of God. But we would do well to remember that Pharaoh and the Egyptians -- indeed, all the oppressors of the world -- are God's children too. As His children, He loves them too. Just as He gives us many, many opportunities to repent, so to did He give Pharaoh many chances to do the right thing. God did not strike him down immediately, He did not destroy Egypt with one blow the first time, but only upon the tenth time.

Taking all of the above into consideration, rather than concluding that God unjustly inflicted disproportionate suffering on innocent people, is not the better reading of the text that God instead dealt with Pharaoh patiently and treated Egypt mercifully?

Jesus said to pray for those who persecute you. Do we not see this with Moses praying on behalf of Pharoah to lift the plagues?

Jesus said to love your enemies. Taking a deeper look at the scriptural passages on the Ten Plagues -- which show God being patient, giving opportunities to convert, and mostly inflicting hardships that are consistent with nature -- do not these passages demonstrate that God did exactly that, love the Egyptians, the enemy of the Israelites?

If we satisfy ourselves with a superficial reading of scripture, merely taking the text at face-value, we run the risk of making a grievously wrong interpretation. But if we poke and prod and ask questions, seeking a deeper understanding, an understanding consistent with the Love and Truth of God, then we will discover the true and proper meaning.

Next: Was God dishonest? Did He have Moses lie to Pharaoh?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Diocesan Day of Prayer and Fasting Announced for
Today, Monday, March 15, 2010

Letter of His Excellency Paul S. Loverde
Bishop of the Diocese of Arlington

March 11, 2010

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Late last year, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate passed differing versions of legislation intended to reform our nation’s health care system. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) continues to insist that any measure must maintain the longstanding policy against federal funding of abortion, include full conscience protection, and assure that health care is accessible and affordable for all.

Catholic teaching tells us that our support for the dignity of life includes access to affordable health care. This support, however, cannot come at the expense of the respect for life at all stages, from natural conception to natural death.

As negotiations that are now underway could lead to further Congressional action very soon, in accord with Canon 1244, paragraph 2, I invite you to take part in a day of prayer and fasting on Monday, March 15 for protecting the life, dignity, health and conscience rights of every human person in any legislation that Congress considers. I also invite Catholics to pray and fast for this intention beyond March 15.

In moments of concern and crisis, Catholic tradition through the centuries has unfailingly urged the faithful to turn to the spiritual aids of prayer and fasting in order to draw closer to our Lord and His will. Through these deliberate actions, we communicate a desire to avoid sin and unify ourselves with that which is right and good. I firmly believe that, working together while open to God’s wisdom, the citizens of our nation can respect the dignity of each human person both in law and in practice.

Although the law of fasting binds persons age 18 through 59, anyone can voluntarily fast. Fasting allows a person to eat one full meal as well as two smaller meals, which are not to equal one full meal. In addition, I ask you to consider offering a Rosary, prayers at Mass, time spent in Eucharistic Adoration or other forms of prayer for this important intention. Through our fasting and prayers, we ask the Lord to lead the hearts and minds of our nation’s leaders as they make crucial decisions concerning the protection of life.

Due to the uncertainty surrounding Congressional negotiations and the speed at which these discussions could be resolved, electronic media will be the most effective way to keep up with – and take action upon – any legislation. The Virginia Catholic Conference e-mail network will keep parishioners and priests apprised of any further updates on the issue of health care. Please visit http://www.vacatholic.org/ to join the e-mail network or to contact your members of Congress via the USCCB action alert.

Faithfully in Christ,

Most Reverend Paul S. Loverde
Bishop of Arlington

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Ten Plagues of Egypt:
Objections and Questions About God, Part One

Most of the Plagues were like natural disasters. So, the question arises, even if the Plagues did, in fact, happen – were they merely naturally-caused, were they merely natural disasters, or were they caused by God? (Just because something seems usual or ordinary does not mean that God is not behind it.)

Some people, both atheists and others opposed to God as depicted in the Bible, as well as those who have a good faith misunderstanding of God and scripture, have voiced certain objections to God's actions with respect to the Ten Plagues. One of those objections concerns passages such as Exodus 7:3-4, which is immediately prior to Moses turning the water of the Nile to blood,

I will make Pharaoh so obstinate that, despite the many signs and wonders that I will work in the land of Egypt, he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites.

Prior to many of the other Plagues, the scripture likewise says that God hardened Pharaoh's heart or otherwise made him stubborn, obstinate, unyielding, etc.

God Hardens Pharaoh’s Heart --
Issues of Free Will and Justice

In the many passages where it says that God made Pharaoh obstinate, obdurate, or hardened his heart – should those be read to mean that God deprived Pharaoh of free will?

And if God did deprive Pharaoh of free will, if Pharaoh did not let the Israelites go only because God hardened his heart against it, is not God the one truly responsible for Israel’s continued enslavement, rather than Pharaoh? Would not God then be the cause of evil?

If so, is not God being unjust to punish Pharaoh and innocent Egyptians when it was God Himself who made Pharaoh’s heart so unyielding?

These are valid questions, and they present us with something of a quandary, given that the passages at issue, if taken at face-value, would seem to support the conclusion that God did something evil. However, such a reading would be contrary to the truth that we know about God -- that God is all-good and cannot do evil, that God is Love and Truth, and to take away a person's free will would not be an act of love, but of violence, and would be contrary to the truth and inherent dignity of the human person, who is made by Him as a free being, not as an automaton. And God, being Truth, cannot act or be contrary to Himself.

So there must be some other reading, something more consistent with the truth of God.

Perhaps the better reading of such passages is that, rather than deprive Pharaoh of free will, rather than treat him as a puppet, in “hardening his heart,” God only gave Pharaoh what he wanted, which was an obstinate will?

After the Nile was turned to blood, "the Egyptian magicians did the same things by their secret arts, and Pharaoh's heart became hard; he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said." (Exodus 7:22)

Could we not say that God only made Pharaoh firm in what he already believed, and what he already wanted, in order to, among other things, take those beliefs to their logical extreme, which is that obstinate rejection of God can ultimately lead to only one end -- death?

Do not these passages show that God, in fact, greatly respected Pharaoh’s free will?

Not only did God merely make Pharaoh firm in what Pharaoh already desired, merely make him true to his own selfish will, such that it was not a violation of his free will, but, in seeking the emancipation of the Israelites, God did not simply treat Pharaoh as puppet and change his mind for him.

God could have deprived Pharaoh of free will by overriding Pharaoh's intransigence, but He instead allowed Pharaoh to continue to resist God's will.

Reading the "hardened his heart" passages in the context of the whole of the Ten Plagues, and the whole of the Bible, in the light of Christ and consistent with God being the God of Love and Truth, is not the proper interpretation that Pharaoh, and Pharaoh alone, is responsible for his obstinacy? The Pharaoh, by his repeated refusals, by His repeatedly saying "no" to God, brought the consequences of his refusal on himself? That he, as sovereign of the Egyptian nation, bears the responsibility for his unyielding actions?

And, given God's repeated warnings about what would happen if Pharaoh continued to refuse to let the Israelites go, that God acted eminently fair and just?

Next: The Infliction of Suffering by God?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Ten Plagues of Egypt:
A Foundational, Unavoidable Issue

For the most part, the texts of the Bible refer to the Ten Plagues as “wonders” and “acts,” etc., not as “plagues.” The word “plague” itself is from the Greek pleghĂ©, meaning a blow so violent as to cause injuries and sometimes even death. Similarly, a footnote in the New American Bible states that the ancient Egyptian word pesach also means a stunning blow, as in the case of the death of the first-born, and this might be the origin of the Hebrew word pesach, which now means “Passover.” Some Jewish scholars say that the plagues were in the nature of military tactics against the Egyptians, so that the modern equivalent idea might be like that of the “shock and awe” campaign that was used in the early days of the Iraq War.

Before getting into any substantial analysis of that text, however, there is a fundamental and foundational issue that must be addressed --

How should we read the passages on the Plagues? Should we read the Plagues as a whole as literal history fact? Should we read each individual plague literally, or might we read one or more of them more metaphorically or as an application of hyperbole, without destroying the historical fact of the whole?

Or does it matter one way or the other? Will we miss the forest for the trees if we unduly focus on the question of the historicity of the Plagues?

Did the Plagues really happen? If they really happened historically, were they caused by nature or by God? Are the accounts in scripture purely mythical allegorical stories, or mythological explanations of naturally-caused disasters?

If they did not really happen, as some modern scholars might hold, then why would the Egyptians have let the Israelites go? Or did they? Clearly it would have taken a powerful, cataclysmic event for the Egyptians to allow tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of slave laborers to leave. (It took the United States a massive Civil War to free the slaves.)

If the Plagues did not actually happen, then we have a major problem because that calls into question the Exodus itself, and that calls into question whether Israel was ever in bondage in the first place.

However, God delivering Israel from bondage is the foundational event of the Old Testament and, hence, a foundational event of the New Testament. Indeed, the question of the historicity of the Plagues would seem to be on a par with the historicity of the Resurrection of Christ. If the Resurrection did not happen (as many modern scholars maintain), then Christianity is a lie. And if the Plagues did not happen, then the Exodus likely did not happen, and Salvation History is itself a lie.

It is clear then, that we cannot avoid the foundational question of the historicity of the Plagues, just as a Christian must inevitably answer the question: did Jesus rise from the dead or not?

It should be noted that extra-biblical historical sources have little, if any, mention of a large group of slaves leaving Egypt. However, it is not unusual that the most momentous acts and events of God should go unnoticed by mankind.

Next: Questions about God and the Plagues

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Threat of Punishment or Attract by Love

There are two ways that man can be induced to do or not do something: by constraint or by attraction.
--Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa
preacher of the Pontifical Household
March 5, 2010

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Reading the Bible:
Some Preliminary Thoughts and Considerations

As noted previously, I am helping to prepare a group presentation on the Ten Plagues of Egypt for my Master Catechist Certification Class. What we hope to do is first have a section on reading, interpretation, and understanding of scripture generally. That general section is not yet in final form, but here are a few basic concepts.

Types of Scriptural Reading:
The purposes of reading scripture are many, but they include personal growth, growing closer to God, and personal understanding, so as to increase one's one faith and to be able to better defend and explain the faith to nonbelievers. The various types of scriptural reading include, but are not necessarily limited to --

(1) Individual reading.

(2) Group bible study.

(3) Scholarly exegesis. This might include not only believing theologians, but non-believing academics.

(4) Lectio divina - "divine reading"
    (a) individual - reading, meditation, prayer, contemplation
    (b) group - reading, meditation, prayer, contemplation, discussion, and action

(5) Liturgical reading.

(6) The Magisterium. The Church has definitively interpreted some of scripture, but not the entirety of the Bible. There are many passages on which the Magisterium has not spoken on authoritatively. Thus, personal individual interpretation of scripture is inevitable.

Various Methods and Approaches for Exegesis (Interpretation).

There are some basic principles one needs to keep in mind if one wants to properly understand a given passage from scripture. You cannot read the passage in isolation, but must read it in context and with certain premises in mind. Accordingly, one must:

(1) Read scripture in a manner consistent with the truth of God, in the light of the fullness of Revelation, Jesus Christ, and consistent with the purposes of revelation. (CCC 203-21) That is, for example, in a manner consistent with the truths that God is One and a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that God is Love and Truth. (This is something one must especially keep in mind when reading those scriptural passages which suggest a "harsh," "angry," "jealous," "wrathful," and "vengeful" God.) But note that this immediately raises the issue of how to remain faithful to those truths of God generally and Jesus Christ specifically. To do that, one must build his interpretation on rock, not sand, that is:

    (a) Read scripture together with Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium, which are guided by and protected from error by the Holy Spirit. (CCC 95, 113)
    (b) Read scriptural passages in the context of the whole Bible. (CCC 112) For example, one must read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. (CCC 128-30)
    (c) Read scripture in a manner consistent with the truths of the faith (analogy of faith). (CCC 114)
    (d) Fit your interpretation to God and the Faith, not vice versa. If your personal interpretation and conclusions are contrary to the truths of God and the Faith, it is wrong.
    (e) Read scripture with humility, understanding that you are not the Magisterium, so your interpretation cannot be definitive. And when you are done reading and done interpreting, take a step back and go and make sure that your understanding is consistent with the Magisterium.
    (f) Make your personal reading of scripture prayerful. In reading and reflecting on the text, open yourself to the grace of understanding from the Holy Spirit. Do not read scripture merely as an academic exercise, rather, have a living relationship with the Word of God.

(2) Read scriptural passages in the historical context of the time and place in which they were written, including both extra-biblical history and Salvation History. (CCC 110)

    (a) Having a basic understanding of outside history is very helpful and sometimes crucial to a proper understanding of the text. The Bible does not pretend to be a repository of all human knowledge, and it presupposes a knowledge of various non-biblical events. (For example, in understanding why God would give to Abraham and his descendants a far away land, it is helpful to know that, in the polytheistic beliefs of the time, a "god" was limited to a particular place or realm, such that, by giving Abraham a land far away, God was demonstrating that He is not limited, rather, He is the One God of everywhere.)
    (b) Understand that the purpose of the Old Testament, the events which make up Salvation History, was to lead to Jesus Christ. And this Salvation History was necessarily a gradual process, given that humanity had lost almost all understanding of God after the Fall, such that mankind believed all sorts of false ideas about God and had adopted all sorts of evil ways. Thus, we see the text moving from the more vague and ambiguous (as viewed from a modern perspective) to the more specific as it draws closer to the time of Jesus. Also, in leading mankind back to the truth of Himself, God necessarily dealt with mankind as it was at that particular time, in the fallen, ignorant, and evil state of that era, using terms and images and concepts that such a harsh and blood-thirsty humanity would understand.

(3) One must take into account the problem of translation into other languages.

    (a) The Bible was not written in 21st century English. It was written in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and that was often only after a long period of orally teaching what was later written down.
    (b) The English translations often vary and some are better than others. And if we are using a translation that itself uses archaic English, as in the King James version, then one has the problem of translating that archaic English into understandable modern English.
    (c) Most importantly, perhaps, is the need to properly take into account the problem of describing the indescribable, e.g. describing God in human terms. A writer can know only what he knows, such that he can write only in terms that he knows, and likewise a reader can understand only in terms that he already knows and understands. Hence, the human writers, not being able to fully comprehend the mystery of God, often use human attributes to describe Him.

(4) To properly interpret and understand a given passage, one must discern what it is that the human author, as inspired by God, intended to convey and how he intended it to be read. (CCC 109-10, 115-19) For example --

    (a) literal history, taking the words at face value
    (b) allegory or metaphor
    (c) hyperbole
    (d) moral
    (e) prophetic or anagogical

(5) Engage the text. Ask questions of it. Do not be afraid of inconsistencies, and do not merely ignore them. The Catholic Faith is a faith of reason, and your own personal faith should seek understanding.

    (a) Scripture can actually be an obstacle to true understanding and can even mislead when it stems from either an superficial or erroneous interpretation or when one avoids confronting it, such that one necessarily adopts someone else's wrong interpretation. It may at times be challenging, but it is crucial, if we are to have a proper understanding of the Lord, and especially if we are to fulfill our calling to be a witness of Jesus Christ to the world, that we confront and clear away distorted images of God that might arise from a faulty reading of the text.
    (b) To be a faithful witness, we must clear away obstacles and stumbling blocks to our knowing that God is Love and God is Truth. Scripture is intended to lead toward God, it is intended to lead us toward Love and Truth, so we must not shy away from the challenging parts or otherwise allow ourselves or others to have an understanding that leads us away from Him, even if we think that our false understanding is the correct one.
    (c) To avoid such faulty understanding of scripture and to avoid being led away from God, rather than toward Him, we should not be afraid to engage the text and confront the "hard questions." In so engaging it, we should keep in mind the above principles, reading the scriptures prayerfully and deferring to any authoritative and definitive interpretation by the Magisterium, with the understanding that the Magisterium does not arrive at its interpretation arbitrarily, but only by itself reading the scriptures prayerfully, open to the Holy Spirit, consistent with reason and the truths of the Faith.


Thursday, March 04, 2010

Spiritual Poverty and Youth

As Pope Benedict notes in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, the Beatitudes are paradoxes, a transformation of worldly values, which bring hope and joy amidst affliction and hardship. The Beatitudes are words of both promise and spiritual direction, indicating the way of conversion and reform of life – teaching how to love God and one another and thereby be a light of truth to the world.

The first of the Beatitudes says -- "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"

What does this mean?

The “poor in spirit” are not those who are spiritually deficient, but are those who humbly are in need of God, who are detached from worldly things and rely on Him, unlike those who have no want or need for God. These latter people are "rich in spirit," thinking that they already have everything they need spiritually, such that they have no need for, or want of God. The "rich in spirit" think they know it all, whereas the "poor in spirit" admit to themselves that they do not know everything, and that they are in need of God very much.

This is a concept that even children should be able to grasp. Most children know other children who are pushy know-it-alls who don't think that they need to or should listen to mom and dad or to their teachers. And they know that these other arrogant kids are fools. On the other hand, those kids who admit to themselves that they are still just kids, that they don't have all the answers, and that they are very much in need of mom and dad, as well as their teachers and other grown-ups, it is they who are blessed.

They are blessed because, in their humility, they are willing and able to listen to their parents and teachers, and be taken care of by them, and prosper, which are a kind of symbolic "kingdom of heaven." Conversely, the kid who knows everything and runs away from home because he thinks he doesn't need his parents, ends up being cursed, not blessed.

What is true regarding kids and their parents on earth is true regarding kids and their Parent in heaven. If they are blessed by their admitting that they are dependent upon mom and dad, how much more will they be blessed in admitting that they are dependent upon God.

However, teaching the faith to young people can be a challenge if only because the faith is about salvation -- be saved from something bad -- and many youths often have never been in a position to know hardship, much less to think about things like death.

It is one thing to go up to an adult who has know misery and say, "I have 'good news' for you, Jesus will deliver you from your misery." It is quite another thing to try to explain that to a child or teenager who has never known want, but has been fed, clothed, sheltered, and loved their entire lives.

So, teaching the faith to them can be a challenge, including the Beatitudes. But in addition to analogizing the blessings of spiritual poverty to the blessings one has from his dependence upon his parents, we should remember that, as stated above, the Beatitudes are paradoxes, a transformation of worldly values, which bring hope and joy amidst affliction and hardship.

Perhaps some young people have personally known hardship, if they have not, then perhaps they have at least witnessed the hardship of others. For example, perhaps they are aware of the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, so you can have them empathize with the victims and imagine being in their place.

Reflecting on the Beatitudes in such situations can be occasions of hope, as well as a teachable moment. The Beatitudes about being "poor in spirit," mournful, and merciful would all seem to apply here. And the lesson is this --

Do not despair in times of hardship and suffering. Rather, have hope by putting your trust in God (be poor of spirit).

When everything is gone, when your home is destroyed and you have nothing left, put your trust in God, who will never abandon you. If you do that, if you put your spiritual reliance on Him, then He will save you, He will give you an entire kingdom to replace your destroyed home. Maybe not in this life, but if you humbly recognize that you need Him above all things, and you depend upon Him spiritually, God will bring you to a place where there is no more want, no more tears.

Youth should know that, if ever they encounter hardship themselves, they have no need to worry, no need to cry, if they humbly love and trust in God. If they are poor in spirit, they kingdom of heaven is theirs.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Knowing Jesus in Our Lives

There is a lesson in the hidden years of Jesus’ life. His neighbors knew Him, saw Him everyday, spoke to Him, laughed with Him, ate with Him. But they did not “know” Him; or, rather, they knew Him, but did not know that they knew Him. Even during His ministry, He could walk down the street and most people who not have a clue as to who He was.

Sometimes — often times maybe — Jesus is right next to us or walking by us or speaking to us. The problem is that we don’t realize it.

I struggled for years trying to determine exactly what the “Theology of the Body” was, never really getting my finger on it, and then I suddenly discovered that I knew what it was all along, only I didn’t know that I knew it. I simply had never made the connection between a certain set of teachings and the name “Theology of the Body.”

Sometimes we do know Jesus, He is right there talking to us, but we don’t realize that it is He to whom we are speaking, we do not know that it is He who has healed our blindness. (Jn 9:35-38)

At the same time, sometimes there are people who have never heard the name “Jesus” who know Him intimately — they know Him in their hearts, even if they do not know Him in their heads.

And this knowing of Jesus in our hearts is crucial, especially since He said that there will be people coming up to Him crying, “Lord, Lord,” and He will send them away saying, “I never knew you.” (Mt 7:21-23)

Of course, the better way is to know Him both in our hearts and explicitly in our heads, to know Him fully in the entirety of our being, body and soul; to not only live life, but to know Life, to join with Him who is eternal food as He spends 40 days in the desert, and to truly be able to know Him on our lips, both in prayer with Him and in witness to others.