Sabbath Dispute

moses
Moses by Michelangelo

At Holy Mass this coming Sunday, we will read St. John’s account of the Lord Jesus giving sight to a man born blind. Jesus worked the miracle on the Sabbath day. So a dispute ensued, regarding the Law of Moses.

Some of the Pharisees concluded that obeying Moses and following Christ were incompatible pursuits. They reasoned thus: Jesus, breaking the Sabbath to heal the blind man, while at the same time professing to do God’s work, either…

a. rendered the Law of Moses null and void, or

b. disqualified Himself as a prophet by unrepentantly violating a valid divine law.

Now, we could reject this reasoning as prissy, pointless pharisaism—if Lord Jesus Himself had not so punctiliously insisted that the Law of Moses does indeed remain altogether valid. Every jot and tittle remains in force, “until all things have taken place” (Matthew 5:18), as we read at Holy Mass today.

In fact, rejecting the Old Testament is a heresy that has a name: Marcionism. An orthodox Christian, on the other hand, believes that Christ Himself, the eternal Word, gave Moses the Law. The Law of Moses is Christ’s Law.

crispy_bacon_1But: We can eat bacon-wrapped shrimp. And we regard circumcision as a medical matter, not a religious one. And we don’t have to wail at the Wailing Wall. And we’re not still waiting for the Messiah to make Himself known.

What we cannot do, however, is: Imagine that we are any other people than the children of Abraham. Who are we? We are the same people that Moses led out of slavery in Egypt. Our forefathers and mothers prayed and waited for the Messiah to come, listening carefully to the words of the prophets. But then, when He came, we rejected and killed Him. Then, when He rose from the dead, we began to repent and believe in Him. He grafted our Jewish and Gentile forefathers together into His chosen people.

The Law began in the very beginning. Christ hallowed the Sabbath with His own rest on the seventh day of the world. Since, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, He is the Creator. The one God made human life what it is: namely, an existence that only makes sense when we worship, love, and obediently serve the Almighty.

Sabbath-breaking remains a grave sin, graver than ever. Christ has enlightened the eyes of our minds: We know who we are. We are freeborn children of God’s household. We are no man’s slaves, because we serve the divine Master. The Pharisees who objected to Jesus had it right—except that they were too blind to see that the one and only place where mankind can actually keep the Sabbath is in the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Nazareth.

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The Future Sea

Ten Commandments Charlton Heston Red Sea

Which great Old-Testament image shows us what Easter means for us, for the Christians of the world? This event happened originally, many centuries before Christ, in order to show us what Christ’s Passover has accomplished for us…

Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea.

You don’t have to watch Charleton Heston’s “Ten Commandments” to perceive the intense drama of the moment. Wind blowing. Hapless Israelites lined up, a cavalcade of refugees, with Moses leading the column, staff in hand. As every second passes, the angry Egyptian charioteers gain ground.

And the Israelites do not have geography on their side. Trying to get to the Promised Land? Good luck! Ain’t no bridge over this here sea! We can imagine that desperate prayers and lamentations burbled anxiously on the lips of Moses and his followers at this moment.

But the Lord impatiently said to His prophet Moses, “Come on, man! Why are you crying out to me? Tell them to stride forward. Lift up your staff. I got you!”

candleMoses, to his credit, did not panic at this. He did not say, “You mean, we should march into the middle of all that water?”

If it were you or me, we might have said, “Look, Lord, I know You made the heavens and the earth, and blew the spirit of life into all the vigorous creatures of the cosmos. But that’s an awful lot of water out there, and I don’t know how to swim.”

Moses, however, said no such thing. He did not panic. “Adelante!” he said. “Vamonos! We are stepping into that ocean, people, for the glory of God Almighty!”

I said that all this happened in order to teach us what Easter means for us. What does that wide sea represent? The windswept water?

I think we can say that the Red Sea represents a uniquely opaque reality. An impenetrably dark reality. A reality of incomprehensible mystery, when it comes to what our churning little minds can grasp.

The sea represents: All that is yet to come. Every moment, subsequent to now. The future.

This could be our last Easter like this. An asteroid could land right here. Or: Our constitutional system of government could unravel completely. Or, on the other hand: Tomorrow, you or I could meet someone with something beautiful to say, that we have never heard before, and our lives could completely change. This spring could turn lovelier than any spring we’ve ever lived through, and the world could start to look different.

Who knows what’s coming down the pike? All we know about it is that we don’t know. The future is the wine-dark sea.

And what about the voice of the Lord, speaking to Moses? God Almighty saying, “Stop whining and stride forward! I will be glorified by getting you Israelites to the other side.”

He is saying to us: “Vayanse! Don’t tell me you can’t swim. Don’t tell me you’d rather have the leeks and melons and cucumbers you had when you served Satan as slaves. Don’t tell me that you’re not sure you can handle walking through a tunnel of water, miraculously suspended to the right and to the left, and teeming with whales and fish. Don’t talk, just walk. Don’t whine, just step forward in line. I got this. I am God, and I am telling you that I got this thing, the future. I got it. Don’t you worry about it.”

Now, the Egyptians never made it through the sea. What undid them? What does the Scripture say? The Egyptians ________ed, and their chariot wheels got mired in the mud. The Egyptians ________ed, and they sounded the retreat. And, next thing they knew, the dark sea washed over them and drowned them instantly. (panicked)

The Easter candle means this: Be not afraid. The only enemy that we really need to fear, Christ has conquered. Christ has conquered our only real foe.

Adelante, entonces! Forward. The future–unknown as it is, nebulous as it is, as choppy as a stormy sea as it may be: the light of Christ’s Passover candle will shine in it.

Face-to-Face

St. Paul in Prison by Rembrandt

On every page of every letter of St. Paul preserved in the New Testament, we can feel the tension between the fact of his physical removal from his audience and his desire to share what he has with them.

He loves the written word, because it allows him to communicate across the vast Mediterranean. But he hates it, because he would prefer to be there. In most of his letters, St. Paul writes to people he knows well, people he loves, people he would still be with—were it not for the inexorable impulse from above which keeps him moving to spread the kingdom of Christ.

Like all the “books” of the New Testament, St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians bears witness to the inadequacy of written words to convey the Gospel. I & II Corinthians, the canonical gospels, the entire New Testament: really just a beautiful shadow of the immeasurably more beautiful reality to which all these documents testify.

mosesSo: our passage from the first reading at Holy Mass today

The context: I am writing to you again because I wrote before, and yet you still carry on like non-Christians. Yes, my letters have authority. But the real “letter” I want to write is: you Corinthians.

You, acting like members of Jesus’ Body, like redeemed children of eternity. That is the only letter I really want to “write,” and would that I could write it by standing there among you and teaching you in person!

Does St. Paul go on to compare himself to Moses, to the pre-eminent prophet who spoke face-to-face with God and returned to the children of Israel with skin blazing with divine glory? Yes, the Apostle does presume to compare himself to Moses. But only because Christ is Christ. Because Christ is God reconciling to Himself all the sinners who have broken Moses’ holy law.

If Moses’ face shone—if the face of the man who saw God inscribe the Law of justice, in words, shone—then how much more will the face of the Apostle of Christ shine? Christ Who is Justice and Who gives justice to the unjust. Christ the one and altogether true Word of divine love, Who makes all other words sound like gongs and clanging cymbals.

St. Paul wrote with a fire and a zeal, with a sympathy and an insight, that few writers could claim to possess. After all, he wrote as a chosen Apostle of the divine Redeemer, a messenger of Revelation.

But St. Paul would prefer not to write with words on paper. He would prefer face-to-face. Face-to-face with his audience to teach them about coming face-to-face God.

Easter-Octave Art

moses

Edmonia LewisNo I have not bopped over to Rome.

Edmonia Lewis went to Rome, back in 1865. And she made a copy of Michelangelo’s Moses (among other things, not to mention her original works). I think Edmonia Lewis might very well win my prize for most-interesting 19th-century American woman of African descent.

Anyway, her Moses can be found in a charming warren of display cases on the third floor of the American Art Museum in the old Patent Office building in Washington.

I must fault the Smithsonian on this score: They have Michelangelo’s original located in “St. Peter’s” in Rome. While this is, strictly speaking, correct, it misleads. The statue sits in the church of St. Peter in Chains, not in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

Which Cardinal of the Roman Church holds the title of San Pietro in Vinculi? Yes. His Eminence Donald Card. Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington. Thus, he presides over the original and the copy.

Plus, we present a Winslow Homer Civil-War painting, “Prisoners from the Front.”

Prisoners from the Front Winslow Homer

Song of Moses in Eternal Context

They were holding God’s harps, and they sang the song of Moses. (Revelation 15:2-3)

The chapters of the book of Revelation which precede the passage read at today’s Mass narrate the struggle between the evil forces marked with the sign of the beast and the chaste legions marked with the name of the Lamb. In these chapters, the last book of the Bible’s mystical account of the great drama of salvation nears its climax.

The Man comes around.
Now, when we keep the Vigil of Easter in the springtime, we generally sing a good number of psalms and canticles. But let’s just say we couldn’t sing all those psalms, for some reason. Let’s say we had to celebrate the Easter Vigil quickly, because we were on a battlefield, or in jail.

There is one of the Vigil canticles that we absolutely, positively have to sing, no matter what. Without this one particular Old Testament canticle, it is impossible to grasp the full meaning of the holy night of Easter.

Here’s a hint: Sing to the Lord! He has covered Himself in glory!

Who sang this? Moses and the people with him. They sang it because God had covered Himself in glory by doing what?

Casting Pharaoh’s horses and chariots into the sea. Delivering the Israelites from slavery. Leading them forward to the Promised Land.

The Sacred Scriptures make clear the full meaning of the ancient Passover of the Israelites. We read from the book of Revelation: The harpists standing on the sea of glass, who had won victory over the beast: They sang the song of Moses. Great and wonderful are your works, Lord God Almighty!

Faith turns the strife and drama of life on earth into a hopeful pilgrimage. Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. He has risen and has ascended on high, to the pinnacle of the heavenly Mt. Zion. When Moses sang, he really sang about us; he sang about the chosen ones who believe in the victory of the Son of God. The Lord will deliver us from all evil, and the eternal Promised Land awaits. Therefore we keep the feast.

Quick Sacred History Quiz

Your ways, O Lord, make known to me.

We sing this prayer in the Psalm at Mass.

Why do we keep the season of Lent? The Spirit drove the Lord Jesus out into the desert. He fasted and prayed for forty days.

The prophet Elijah walked through the desert for forty days to reach God’s mountain. Jonah gave the Ninevites a forty-day warning of God’s wrath. Moses dwelt in the cloud on Mount Sinai and conversed with the Lord for forty days. When the Lord flooded the earth, it rained for forty days.

Six weeks. Can we learn the ways of God in six weeks? Let’s get started.

In six days, God made the heavens and the earth. On the seventh, He rested. (Maybe if we study His ways hard for six weeks, then on the seventh, we will find rest.)

In the beginning, God made the land and the seas and all they contain. Then what happened? Sin. Disobedience. Estrangement from the Creator. It got ugly. Brother killed brother.

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of human beings was on earth, and how every desire that their heart conceived was always nothing but evil. The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and his heart was grieved (Genesis 6:5).

The innocent blood that had been shed cried out from the ground. The good world that God had made needed to be cleansed.

Continue reading “Quick Sacred History Quiz”

Old Testament for New Year’s

Our first Scripture reading for the New Year is from the book of Numbers, one of the first five books of the Old Testament. Numbers recounts the journey of the Israelites from Mt. Sinai to the Promised Land.

Reading from the book of Numbers on New Year’s gives us a special insight. The spiritual meaning of the Book of Numbers helps us to understand the passage of time.

The pilgrimage which the Israelites made through the desert forms an image of the pilgrimage of the Church on earth, the image of our pilgrim life. And, as of today, the Lord has added another year to our pilgrimage.

As the Israelites made their way through the desert, they pitched their camp at various places along the way. They erected their camp according to God’s precise instructions. But of course they never settled down permanently in the desert. They were on their way to the Promised Land.

Likewise, the Church worships God according to His precise instructions in buildings built of wood, brick, and stone here on earth. But we have no lasting city here. We long for the courts of the eternal temple in the heavenly Jerusalem.

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The Various Lingos (Roman Missal III)

Sooner or later, we have to tackle the mother of all Roman Missal issues: the diversity of human languages.

Where did the Hebrew language come from? Archaeologists and philologists have their ideas. Hebrew came from God, in the sense that everything comes from God. And God used some Hebrew in His dealings with Moses.

When God became man, He spoke the contemporary version of the ancient Syrian language. Greek was the lingua franca of the world. And the people whose ancestral tongue was Latin held sway.

We can say without hesitation that human language exists so that Christ could speak it. If it existed solely for Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, Springsteen, et. al., then human language would constitute nothing more than a glorious and futile tragedy.

As it is, the lips of Christ have made our race’s cluckings and stammerings worthwhile. When the Lord Jesus said, Hoc est enim…, He sealed the whole project with a mighty, definitive breakthrough: Heaven and earth unite at the words.

That said, the Lord Jesus did not of course literally say, Hoc est enim… We figure He spoke Aramaic at the Last Supper, when He wasn’t reciting Hebrew. And I, though I am a somewhat well-educated priest and a semi-devout Christian—I could not, off the top of my little head, supply you with the Aramaic words…

An important sequel followed that pivotal Jerusalem spring. The Apostles fanned-out to the ends of the earth. They established the Church in the great cities, as well as villages and hamlets. The Prince of Apostles ultimately sailed west and watered the soil of Vatican Hill, across the Tiber from Rome, with his blood.

The local churches of Rocky Mount and Martinsville, Va.—coursing with holiness as they may—cannot claim to have begun with a Mass celebrated by one of the Twelve Apostles. Indeed, no English-speaking local church can make this boast; the English language did not exist when the Apostles walked the earth.

The lands around the Mediterranean Sea, and in the now-Arab and Persian domains, and in India—these places saw the Apostles celebrate Mass to begin local churches. The languages of these ancient countries were used in the original rites of the Church of Christ. Pre-eminent among them all: Peter’s church, Rome.

More to come…

Prayerbooks, prayerbooks (Roman Missal II)

The Last Supper involved the ritual commemoration of…

…the passing of the Angel of Death over the homes marked with the blood of the lamb;

…the passing of the Israelites over the Red Sea as on dry land;

…the exodus of the People of God from slavery to freedom, with unleavened bread for their food.

So, at the first Mass, a prayerbook prescribed the ceremony, the words and ritual actions.

The then-ancient events which the Passover Seder brought to mind, and to life: the Lord’s Supper, sacrifice, and victory fulfilled them all. The first Triduum revealed the true meaning of the exodus: it all occurred under Moses’ leadership as an image of the ultimate salvation of the human race in Christ.

“The Lord has come to His people and set them free…to worship Him without fear.” (Luke 1:68, 74))

The Lord Jesus and the Apostles sang Psalms from King David’s prayerbook at the Last Supper, and into the evening.

–Why were there psalms of David? Because pilgrims went up to the Temple in Jerusalem, and they sang en route. They sang the Psalms as they went up to the altar of God.

Indeed, the Israelites sang the Psalms all the time. The Psalms were (and are) the interior music of the soul of the true Israelite. Where does the recitation of a Psalm end and personal prayer begin? The child of Abraham has no truck with such a question. Utterly inseparable.

We go to the altar to offer our worship to the Almighty. We recall ancient events, the works of God, which have not faded away into the past like 19th-century Presidential elections or Japanese shogunates, but which last forever. That’s the thing about Christ: He lives. He feeds us with Himself from heaven, like He fed the Israelites with manna after they gave up the leeks and melons of Egypt.

But we are human. We are prone to forget things. We are prone to make up silly stuff.

If Christ Himself used a prayerbook when He established the turning-point of history, then, when we go to the altar to worship, we need a prayerbook. We need one given to us by the immemorial tradition of the People of God (like our Lord had to guide Him on Holy Thursday), full of David’s Psalms and other Scriptures. (And ours, of course, must also be filled with the words of Christ).

…More to come on this, dear reader.

…Hard to believe that it has been three years since I started this goofy weblog thingy. Thanks for sticking with me. I think that I had a contest for the stupidest post of the year on the one-year anniversary. I would be happy to take nominations again, although I know the competition is fierce.

Right on Cue

From whom or from what will we take our cues?

On the stage, one actor begins to speak and move without a cue–namely, whoever speaks the opening lines. From then on, everything proceeds according to cues. To succeed as an actor, the first rule is: learn your cues.

Well, the Bard of Avon wrote, “all the world’s a stage.” On the stage of life, the only one who begins to speak and to act without a cue is: God, the Creator. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Shakespeare spoke true: We human beings resemble actors on a stage in that we live our lives following cues. None of us here started this big show. Our first rule needs to be: Stay on cue.

The question is: From whom or from what will we take our cues?

Continue reading “Right on Cue”