Whether or not anyone is present, I WILL be praying mass tomorrow morning at 8:30!
Monthly Archives: January 2014
Fr. Frank doesn’t want anyone on the roads or on the property tonight.
Just a Few Thoughts, guys…
Did the wise men really bring gifts? The information that we get in Matthew 2:1-12 corresponds to what we know about Persian sages who closely watched the heavens for astrological phenomena. There were two astronomical events involving conjunctions of planets around the time of Jesus’ birth—the triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces in 7 B.C.E. and the near-conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in Pisces in February 6 B.C.E. The star also could have been a special kind of comet. Whatever mystery we have here, there is no reason to doubt that there is solid history and science behind it. We should realize that even the wise men themselves could have discovered the prophesy of Micah, which indicates the birthplace of the Messiah: “But you, Bethlehem, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel (Micah 5:2-5).” What I find noteworthy is that Herod, a Jew, has to ask his advisors what his own scriptures say! (See Matt 2:3-4). We should remember that the Jews were held in the Babylonian captivity, taking their scriptures with them. Thus, the “wise men” (magi) of the Babylonians were aware of Jewish scriptures and were led to search for the new king of Israel. There is a prophecy about the star in Numbers 24:17, of which these Babylonian sages may have been aware:
“I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not nigh:
a star shall come forth out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the forehead of Moab,
and break down all the sons of Sheth.”
Evil is searching diligently for the child in the person of Herod to destroy him, thinking him a threat. Herod was from an Edomite family, and was aware that this same oracle also fortells destruction of his family’s fortunes: “Edom shall be dispossessed (Num 24:17).” The scientists of the age are searching diligently for the child, thinking him a new king of the world. The faithful, simple shepherds are searching diligently for the child, thinking him their long-awaited Messiah. Just who is this tiny child that would cause such a fuss? Who is he? Indeed, he seems many things to many people—a king, a savior, a threat. Whether good or evil, this child will overturn the old and bring the new.
I am touched by the great movement of this birth story. First of all, Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethelehem to register for the census. Then they had to search for a place to have the child. Then, the characters mentioned above search for him. Then, they are warned about the threat of Herod and have to flee to Egypt—(this is also historically verifiable, for it is well known that there was a large Jewish community in Egypt). Have we found him yet? For once we find him, then we are given the same command that Mary and Joseph were given—“Rise, take the child and his mother….” (Matt 2:13) Wow. The command to Joseph—take them both—the child and his mother. Mary always goes with Jesus….
The prophecies that we hear today are our history. They are part of our story. Are you interested in your history at all? If you had heard that your great, great, great 7 times over grandfather were a king (or even a pirate for that matter) wouldn’t that affect your identity at all? Would you even care? What about your country? Has it ceased to matter what our founding fathers intended? It has obviously ceased to matter to some, but what about US? I think these things should matter to us—our family history, the history of our country and our religion. For our faith has a history as well. You might say that through your baptism and even more powerfully through your confirmation, you were grafted into the history of a mystery called “The kingdom of heaven”—and that history has its prophecies, it’s heroes and its villians. Today we hear about some of the prophecies of the kingdom of heaven. What does that mean?
Sometimes when we hear scripture, we have no idea what the heck is going on. Sometimes it feels like this: the reader will say, “The word of the Lord.” And you will faithfully respond, “Thanks be to God—Whatever the heck it means.” We have a few references like that in our readings today. First of all, there is this strange reference to the lands of Zebulun and Napthtali. The first prophecy from Isaiah is hard to understand, but beautiful poetry nonetheless. The first part of it reads:
First the Lord degraded the land of Zebulun
and the land of Naphtali;
but in the end he has glorified the seaward road,
the land west of the Jordan,
the District of the Gentiles.
Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness:
for there is no gloom where but now there was distress.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone.
Then, in the Gospel, we hear Zebulun and Naphtali referred to again—St. Matthew actually tells us that when John the Baptist died, Jesus goes to live in Capernaum in order to fulfill the prophecy that you just heard in Isaiah, and the prophecy is repeated again in the Gospel. What is going on here? Matthew actually tells us, “He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali….” Jesus actually abandons Nazareth as his home and takes up permanent residence—insofar as he ever had a permanent residence—at Capernaum. Just that thought is interesting in itself. If you had been asked the question, “Where did Jesus have his home base during his adult ministry?” would you have been able to answer?
In any case, by this time the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali no longer exist. We need to recall that Zebulun and Napthtali were two of the twelve tribes of Israel, and ancient Israel had essentially been divided up into twelve regions according to those tribes. Nazareth actually falls in the land of Zebulun. Naphtali corresponded to the land of Galilee, where Jesus does a great deal of his preaching and teaching. So in other words, the ancient lands of Zebulun and Naphtali are precisely where Jesus is born and does most of his ministry. And it is these lands that Isaiah prophecies about—they will see a great light. They will be saved. We should be aware that the Gospel of Matthew is perhaps, more than any other gospel, concerned with indicating Jesus as a fulfiller of Old Testament prophecies. The gospel was written primarily for a Jewish community who had converted to Christianity, so it would have been important to them to understand that Jesus HAD fulfilled these prophecies that had been precious to their religion for centuries.
AN ASIDE: Do you realize that the Jews in Matthew’s community really had no understanding that they had “converted” to Christianity? Think about it—they just thought they were being GOOD JEWS by accepting the Savior that their Jewish prophets had talked about for centuries!
In any case, what are we to make about these regions of Zebulun and Napthtali? Why are they in the prophecy? Why does Matthew bring them up again in the gospel?
According the scholar Delitzsch: “Since the days of the Judges all these stretches of country were by reason of their proximity exposed to corruption by heathen influences and by subjugation through heathen enemies. The northern tribes on the other side suffered most by reason of the almost constant wars with the Syrians and the later war with the Assyrians, and the deportation of the inhabitants gradually increased under Phul, Tiglatpileser, Salmanassar until a total depopulation resulted.” Thus, the people in this region at this time were a mixture of Jews and Pagans. Several languages were spoken. Several historians describe the region as one of almost complete spiritual destitution. In other words, do NOT imagine that Jesus just came and settled in an area full of nice, faithful Jews. That was not the case. It was full of paganism, atheism, Syrians, romans and peoples of a number of different cultures and religions—worhsip and morality was very confused at this time. So what touches me is this: Jesus seems to go the region that needs him most. He goes where religion and morality are the most confused and people are hungriest for the word that might save them. That is why the prophecy says that the Lord “degraded” the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali. They were a mess, and it was precisely to these regions that the Lord Messiah carried out his ministry.
Now why am I teaching this to you? I am teaching you this because I think you should know it. This is part of our story. It is part of our history.
AN ASIDE: Actually, I want you to make note of this. When Jesus hears about John the Baptist being imprisoned, does he go and bail him out? Does he try to save him? PAUSE. Nope. He leaves John the Baptist to fulfill the ministry that he had been given from the womb, and to bear testimony to Jesus with his very life. Not even Jesus tears off on a white horse to save absolutely everybody. There is a young man that Jesus exorcises from a demon and that young man begs Jesus that he might follow him and Jesus tells him “No.” He tells him to go home and testify about the goodness of the Lord. People, this is a side point to my main point, but for some reason I think God wants me to make this point nonetheless. Even Jesus leaves some in jail. Even Jesus sometimes says, “You can’t come with me right now.” He just always does it with love.
When Jesus preaches, he begins by saying “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” When the church summarizes Jesus’s entire preaching ministry, it is with this phrase. I know I have said this before, but repetition is the mother of learning. The third luminous mystery is entitled, “The preaching of the kingdom of Heaven” or simply “The proclamation of the Kingdom.” When Jesus preaches, it is about that particular theme. When he heals or exorcises demons, it is to give signs of the coming of the kingdom. When Jesus talks about the Sermon on the mount, the parables, and the beatitudes, he is teaching us the way of this kingdom—he is teaching us about the laws of the citizens of that kingdom. We hear the concept spoken about twice in the gospel today: From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Then we hear again, that “Jesus went all around galilee, preaching the good news of the kingdom.” Our Lord himself, according to St. Luke, describes this as the object of his mission: “To other cities also I must preach the kingdom of God: for I am sent for this purpose (Lk 4:43).” YOU CAN’T GET ANY MORE DIRECT THAN THAT, CAN YOU???? So if the “kingdom of God/heaven” is the purpose why our Savior was sent, then we better as heck know a bit about what it means, shouldn’t we?
What we need to understand is that at the time when Jesus breaks in on the scene, the Jews already had an understanding that a Messiah would come to usher in the kingdom of heaven. They had a belief that it would be divine, everlasting, universal and spiritual. They believed God himself would break into human history and establish a kingdom that would be over the entire earth, and that this would be a godly establishment of laws over the entire earth—not merely Israel. And indeed, THAT IS PRECISELY WHAT JESUS DID. But there is plenty of evidence that by the time of Jesus, a large portion of the Jewish population had begun to over-emphasize the letter of the law over the spirit of the law, and to expect an earthly kingdom far more than a spiritual one. Not everyone, mind you—but some.
Jesus had to address this false idea of the kingdom with a true one. He had to come to fulfill the true intentions of the prophets and the prophecies like the one I spoke about earlier. That is why he often ran away into the desert. He didn’t want them to come and make him an earthly king—that totally missed the point of the true kingdom. And what is the true one? Essentially, there are four ideas about the true kingdom: 1) that in order to enter it you have to actually do the will of the father, just as Jesus did. 2) That it was not a kingdom over just the individual human heart, but Jesus intended from the beginning to establish a real church in which we would gather together to continue his Passover meal and help usher in this kingdom. This is also clearly indicated by how upset St. Paul is in the second reading about divisions among the churches 3) This kingdom would be in constant conflict with the kingdom of the world and sin, especially at the end of time, 4) This kingdom is the actual beginnings of heaven—it is about salvation. It is about eternal life.
Speaking personally, I was raised in a very patriotic household. I enlisted in the Marine corps myself when I was 17. I studied the Founding fathers for years and got a master’s degree in politics. But you know, it’s getting a little harder to be as patriotic about my kingdom as I once was. I still love our country and the idea for which it stands—liberty with law UNDER GOD. But the prince of this world has poisoned those ideals and like all earthly kingdoms, ours will one day fall as well. But the kingdom of God will not.
What if it were true that God has been sending secret operators across enemy lines for about 3,000 years now—called prophets and saints—to testify to himself and establish his laws? What if it were true that we are citizens of a kingdom not established by man, but governed by the church, that was set up for the sake of the salvation of the entire world? It grows in the quiet. It grows in silence and in prayer, and every time you pray, take part in the sacraments, or do works of charity this kingdom swells and grows more powerful—and we arm ourselves with the weapons and armor of angels, and the light grows for all mankind to see? What I am saying is that this is precisely true. This is literally true. The United Nations tells us that there are 196 kingdoms in this world, all vying for power and influence. But our faith tells us that in the final analysis, there are only two—the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of the prince of darkness. We are all subjects of this kingdom, and we have all been sent—secret operators, saints and spies—to expand the kingdom of God at any cost. We are infiltrators, every one of us. IS THIS REALLY TOO ROMATNIC OF A NOTION? I REALLY THINK IT IS LITERALLY TRUE! Let us pray that we will not end up traitors, or forget where our true allegiance lies.
There are so many things that vie for our attention in this world. So many distractions. So many reason to keep looking back at a life gone wrong, or looking ahead to anxieties that will never go right. So I will end with a word of an advice from our king—“SEEK YE FIRST THE KINGDOM OF GOD AND ITS RIGHTEOUSNESS—AND ALL THESE OTHER THINGS WILL BE GIVEN TO YOU.”
Rev. Dr. Basil Burns
The first lecture on the scripture program I think I will pronounce a success. About forty people showed up, and it was only announced at the last minute! People are hungry for the word, so come and eat! Remember we are doing week 3 this week. The lecture for next week will be on those readings.
Matt 2:1-2:23; Luke 2:21-52
Lecture tonight on the first two weeks of the Gospel reading program at the Family Life Ctr., Chapel at seven.
If you are a drug addict or alcoholic, or have a friend or relative that is one, I would like to offer a reflection on Luke 1:15—an example of the information and consolation that true scriptural meditation can offer.
Luke 1:15 carries an extremely important verse for alcoholics everywhere. When the birth of John the Baptist is foretold, the angel Gabriel himself says, “for he will be great before the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” Isn’t that interesting? The angel Gabriel could have said a great many wonderful, holy things about John’s mission or circumstances, but one of the first things that Gabriel mentions is that he was not going to drink any wine or strong drink. It wasn’t just a prohibition against wine. God also has Gabriel mention any strong drink. The Greek word Sikera is a transliteration from the Hebrew term shekar (strong drink). We need to differentiate this term from the Greek word, oinos in that this is a wine made not only from grapes, but includes a strong drink made from grains and other fruits. Sikera always means a kind of “hard liquor.” Sikera was an artificial product, and we could stretch the meaning for our purposes to say that it was an ancient equivalent of drugs. John the Baptist was actually commanded from the very beginning not to drink or drug! So what is going on here?
What the Angel is referring to is actually a special religious group called the Nazirites (the perfect name for a Christian AA group, by the way). We do not read a great deal about the Nazirites in Scripture, but they are most certainly there. The vows for Nazirites are set out in Number 6:1-21, and it is essentially a consecration to the Lord. There are some fairly odd things that a Nazirite was supposed to do: he had to let his hair grow long until he fulfilled his vow (or broke his vow), in which case he had to shave his head. He was not supposed to come into contact with a dead body, for in the Hebrew mindset this was to make one’s self ritually unclean or impure—God is the God of life, so contact with death was seen as something ugly. For our purposes, this isn’t very important. What is important for us is the prohibition against drinking, and the general spiritual reason for it.
This is extremely important for us to understand, particularly as alcoholics. The word from which “nazirite” comes, nazir, means “separated” or “consecrated.” A consecrated thing is “set aside” for some kind of sacred purpose. The vessels used during mass are consecrated—they are “set aside” for a sacred purpose. If we want to think of a simple example, my grandmother had a very special set of china that she only broke out for very important guests. This isn’t exactly sacred, but you get the idea that that china was consecrated for a special purpose, and if we were to use it casually to munch on cheese and crackers, then we would feel the wrath of grandma! So a Nazirite was a man or a woman who had decided to take a very special vow to God and set himself aside for God. By not drinking and not shaving his head, these were outward signs of some kind of inner vow. Thus we can understand that a traditional Hebrew word used for monks—consecrated people—in both the Hebrew and Christian traditions is nazir. The word Nezerim could actually refer to a prince or leader of the people in the sense that leaders are seen as “set apart” from their brethren, or in a way, “head and shoulders” above the rest of the people.
One usually made a nazirite vow for a short period of time, but one could also be a nazirite for life. If was often made for only 30 days, but sometimes for periods of 7 years or, as just mentioned—permanently. And why was this vow made? An example might be something like a man promising that he will be a nazirite until he defeats a certain enemy, or until he wins the hand of a woman he loves, or perhaps as a thanksgiving for some blessing or miracle that he has received. Ancient historians like Josephus mention that the vows was sometimes made in thanksgiving (or request) for being delivered from the clutches of an enemy. It was supposed to be difficult—particularly the part about no drinking. (And we need to remember that in ancient culture, sometimes wine was important for health reasons—the fermentation process kills many bacteria, thus sometimes making drinking wine safer than actually drinking water.) In a certain sense, taking a Nazirite vow was like making a very serious Lenten promise to refrain from drinking, from coming into contact with death, and from shaving one’s head. It was a concrete, visible way that a man or a woman could express dedication and thanksgiving to God. If the rules of the vow were violated, you usually had to shave your head, bring certain sacrifices to the temple, and even start the time period over again. So interestingly enough, becoming a Nazirite mean that you had to take certain steps to “prove” to yourself, God and the community that you were serious about serving God. Sound familiar? One might say that the Nazirites were the first AA’s! Other than the things mentioned, Nazirites had to make a verbal declaration of their vow as well as special sacrifices. Here we see the importance of the Nazirite vow as having a communal aspect, a spiritual aspect, and a personal aspect. It had both a negative and positive aspect: negative in the sense that the nazirite was to separate himself/herself from some worldly things, and positive in the sense that it symbolized a greater dedictation to holiness and purity of life.
We might not think we are even worthy to be “set aside” for God. But shouldn’t we let God make that decision? I once had a crush on a girl in junior high. One day she stepped on a gum wrapper, and in my silly romantic fervor I took the gum wrapper and set it aside in a special box at home. It was consecrated for me because she stepped on it. Not because it was valuable in itself. In a similar way, I can be precious to the Lord simply because he says so–simply because he feels like I am precious. That is all that matters. And not drinking is a kind of sign of that specialness, according to the Nazirite.
This is likely the vow that St. Paul himself is referring to when St. Luke’s writes in the Acts of the Apostles: “After this Paul stayed many days longer, and then took leave of the brethren and sailed for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aq’uila. At Cen’chre-ae he cut his hair, for he had a vow (Acts 18:18). Scripture scholars can only speculate why this may have been the case. The most likely reasons are that Paul was offering a thanksgiving for being delivered from his enemies, or perhaps as even an outward sign to some of the Jews that he did not despise all of their laws, since it was well known that Paul was very critical of circumcision, it may have been some kind of compromise to his enemies for the sake of winning some of them over to the faith. Whatever the reason, we see one of Jesus Christ’s apostles making the vow, as well as the prophet John the Baptist, of whom Jesus said “there is none greater born of woman (Matthew 11:11).”
One of the toughest and perhaps most well-known Nazirites is the figure of the strong man Samson, whose strength was dependent on the length of his hair. An angel actually tells Samson’s mother, “Therefore beware, and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for lo, you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth; and he shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines (Judges 13:7-8).” In her case, what is important is that his mother not drink any “wine or strong drink.” He actually tells her the same thing again in verse 14. We are still to understand that Samson did not drink alcohol. Another important Nazirite was Samuel (1 Sam 1:11). It has also been inferred that Jeremiah was a Nazirite. Also, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “If we are to believe the legend of Hegesippus quoted by Eusebius (Church History II.23), St. James the Less, Bishop of Jerusalem, was a Nazarite, and performed with rigorous exactness all the ascetic practices enjoined by that rule of life.
What are we to really make of all this? For the alcoholic, I think it is quite significant to see that refraining from alcohol or drugs has a very noble spiritual heritage, to the point where there was even a specific class of persons who went through public steps to designate themselves as having some kind of special service to God. Though it has nothing to do with a Nazirite vow, I have often found it touching that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus Christ himself told his apostles, “Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God (Mark 14:25).” There are several very theologically important reasons why the Lord likely said this, but at least one of them is that the Lord is informing his apostles that he is consecrated—set aside—and has a very specific mission to fulfill until he reigns in Heaven. This is a line that the true alcoholic must try to say with the Lord: I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God. It is a prayer that may grant strength and consolation, knowing that when he said those words, he was full of anxiety about the events that were going to make up the end of his life. Moreover, on the cross, the Lord refused a sponge that had been dipped in gall (Matthew 27:34). Why? Because gall (myrhh) had narcotic qualities that would have allayed the pain that he was in, and Jesus wanted to feel the full weight of his agony for our sakes. When in his own Passion—when one would have excused even the Son of God for partaking a bit—Jesus Christ himself refused both wine and drugs. But do not be mistaken—his first miracle was making several hundred gallons of wine! Our Savior will save us, and he will save us for the sake of joy. The image of Heaven in Scripture is of the most massive wedding feast imaginable!
I’m not asking you to shave your head necessarily, or grow your hair to your belt, or even swear off wine forever. But in meditating on realities such as the Nazirite vow–particularly for addicts–perhaps it can give us an inspiration about what God might be asking of us.
I do not know if these reflections will benefit anyone. But I offer them nonetheless. May God spare us from our addictions, and may all idols be thrown down before him until we find rest, consolation, and comfort in Him alone. “But take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a snare; for it will come upon all who dwell upon the face of the whole earth. But watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man.” (Jesus Christ—Luke 21:34-36).
Rev. Dr. Basil Burns