The four gospels provide us with our clear picture of the living Son of God. Four men composed these books, with the Holy Spirit guiding them, and using all their skill as writers, too.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have achieved a great literary feat. The subject of their writing emerges in vivid color, and they themselves disappear.
St. Luke did not write about himself; he wrote about the Son of God. Ditto for the three other invisible word-portrait painters. When they wrote, they forgot about themselves and gave us Christ.
Luke and John, though, do each provide one sentence to explain their goal in writing, namely to give true testimony. St. Luke spells it out most clearly. He addresses us directly:
Many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses have handed them down. I decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent lover of God. (Luke 1)
We have two extremely solid reasons, then, for trusting the four gospels of the New Testament as the definitive standard when it comes to information about Jesus of Nazareth.
1. If we hold the Christian faith, then it is because the Church has taught it to us. We believe that the Sacred Scriptures provide us with infallibly true teaching because the Church says that they do.
2. If we read documents with an historian’s critical eye, we recognize that the four gospels of the New Testament have a much higher level of credibility than any other source of information about Jesus of Nazareth. All the other sources—the “apocryphal gospels” and other fragments here and there—were all written generations later than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And many of the other supposed sources of information have obvious axes to grind, whereas the canonical gospels have, as we mentioned earlier, an evident purity of intention in their presentation.
So: Talk-show hosts and other sensationalists might jump all over so-called “discoveries” that Jesus was married, or had a girlfriend, or lived to be seventy, or wore a bandana and combat boots, or was a Hindu, or preferred horseback riding to religion. But anyone who actually knows something about this just laughs. We appreciate what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did to give us information about the Son of God upon which we can absolutely rely.
The wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits. (James 3:17)
As you hopefully recall, we have for a few weeks now concerned ourselves with this “wisdom from above,” the supernatural knowledge that we have received from God, Who has revealed Himself to us.
He has revealed Himself in order to save us, in order to give us peace. He has revealed Himself to the deepest part of every individual human heart, the part that responds with the self-abandonment of faith. And He has revealed Himself to a people, the People of God.
The Old Testament has a lot of pages, not all of which make for easy reading. One fact emerges from just about every page, however: God’s designs for fulfilling His loving will require the establishment of a holy community.
With whom did the Creator of heaven and earth make the ancient covenant? With the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—a cohesive group, a collection of tribes, a nation, a people. The Bible contains books written by God and books written by Jews, and dang it! if they aren’t the same books.
In the fullness of time, God became a Jew and fulfilled all His mysterious and wonderful old Jewish books. He made a New Covenant by shedding His own Precious Blood for the entire human race. The new Israel, like the old one, lives as a people, as a group, as a holy nation. This new people also has holy books. The newer books are considerably fewer, shorter, and more readable than the old ones.
As we have been discussing over the past few weeks, Almighty God has revealed Himself to us by a particular course of events. By words and deeds, which culminated in His personal appearance as a man, God has revealed the divine truth.
The truth that God is love, triune love. The truth that God conquers evil and brings good out of it. The truth that God wills the eternal salvation of every human being.
So the next thing we have to consider is this: God has spoken His Word in Christ. We want to stand on this Word of God, since it alone provides the foundation of truth. How do we do that? How do we stand on God’s Word?
When you pray your way through the Easter season according to the Roman Missal–in most ecclesiastical provinces–you roll through the Seventh Sunday of Easter like a ghost station.
Because now this Sunday is the perpetual home of the Solemnity of the Ascension, transferred from Thursday. The liturgy train doesn’t stop on the pages of the Lectionary marked “Seventh Sunday of Easter” anymore.
The treasures of the bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word. In this way a more representative portion of the holy scriptures will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years.
And yet, because going to Mass on a Thursday is too inconvient for people, we solemnly read the Prayer of the Hour of Jesus–by any estimation, one of the most important texts of Scripture, upon which the entire spiritual life of the Church is based–we read it in church…never.
(Well, only at daily Mass.)
Perhaps you will say, ‘Father, we actually hear the priestly prayer of Jesus at EVERY Mass, because the Eucharistic Prayer is the Church’s humble echo of Her Founder’s prayer.’
You would have a fine point. I would grant your penetrating pertinacity. Praise God. You cheered me up.
But, nonetheless, it would be edifying, don’t you think, to hear the original version of the Eucharistic Prayer read from the holy book, at least every once in a while.
The Hoyas tore up the hapless Rutgers Scarlet Knights this afternoon.
The most interesting part of the game was a Subway radio commercial. The delirious announcer promises a hot pastrami sandwich, “We will follow you blindly, like nearsighted bison on a flavor stampede.”
Here is a homily for tomorrow’s Holy Mass:
Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you. (Luke 1:1-3)
In the synagogue in Nazareth, the Lord Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has sent me to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”
Our kind and loving Creator is giving us this year of 2010. He has given us almost a month of it already. What are we going to do with this precious gift?
We are not little amoebas floating in the waters of time. We are not bystanders of 2010, watching it flow by, as it becomes the kind of year that is not acceptable to God, with nothing for us to do about it. No. We can take a firm grip on A.D. 2010 and turn it into something beautiful and good.
Now, let me tell you the first thing we are going to do to make this year acceptable. This year we are going to read the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke.
Today the Twelfth Synod of Bishops began at the Vatican. What is a Synod of Bishops? Is it like another Vatican II? Vatican II was an ecumenical council, a meeting of all the world’s bishops together with the Pope. A Synod is a meeting of a smaller, representative group of bishops from around the world. They meet with the Pope to discuss a particular topic. The Synod helps the Pope to teach exactly what the world needs to learn. They are part of the reason why the Pope is probably the most well-informed person on earth.
Synods of Bishops do not tend to produce fireworks. They are church-wonk study sessions. This is the second Synod over which Pope Benedict has presided. The last one, on the Holy Eucharist, was actually called by Pope John Paul II, but then he died before the Synod met. A Synod usually submits some thoughts to the Pope, and then he publishes an Apostolic Exhortation to summarize the Synod’s discussions. Pope Benedict’s Apostolic Exhortation on the Holy Eucharist was beautiful, profound–but not exactly earth-shattering.
This Synod, however, could wind up being a little more exciting. Pope Benedict himself chose the topic for this one: The Word of God. Twenty years ago, Cardinal Ratzinger gave a lecture in New York City on how to interpret the Bible. That lecture was earth-shattering.
The lecture is not the easiest thing to understand, and it is rather long. What it comes down to is more or less this:
There is no such thing as a “simple, literal” way to understand the Bible. The Bible must be interpreted according to reasonable principles. The Church relies on scholars who help us to understand the Word of God by undertaking solid, well-researched studies. The better a scholar understands the historical situation in which a book of the Bible was written, the more insight his study will provide. Many of the books of Scripture narrate history, and all of them are the product of history, so Scripture study is first of all the study of history.
Starting about 300 years ago, historians began to imagine themselves as scientists, capable of being rigorous and objective like chemists and physicists. The attempt to understand the Bible “scientifically,” however, has produced nothing but confusion. Scholars thought that modern developments would unlock the Bible’s “secrets.” Instead, they have produced a spiderweb of theories attempting to tell us what the Bible “really” says. They all disagree with each other. Modern historical-critical scholarship is enough to make any honest man a fundamentalist.
In his lecture, the Pope (then Cardinal) exposed some of the fundamental problems underlying the bad situation. Modern Bible scholars assume that miracles do not happen. This is an unreasonable presupposition. God is God; He can work miracles if He wants to. The Pope pointed out that modern scholars tend to assume that philosophy is more important than the events recorded in Scripture. This, too, is unreasonable; for the believer, philosophies come and go, but the deeds of God are what matter more than anything. The Pope’s lecture pointed out that the contemporary controversies about how to understand the Bible are not really about history at all. They are about the underlying philosophies of the scholars.
At the end of the lecture, Cardinal Ratzinger made his most important point. No one can claim to be objective and disinterested about the Sacred Scriptures. Or rather, to claim to be objective and disinterested does not qualify you as an interpreter of the Bible. To interpret historical writing, the most important thing is sympathy with the author. We are more likely to understand what is written if we can relate to the writer. The human authors of the Sacred Scriptures believed in God, and they believed that God acted in history in order to save the human race. Therefore, we are most likely to be able to understand the books of Scripture if we believe in God, the God Whose deeds are recounted in these books.
Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
The Lord Jesus lived almost all of His pilgrim life near the Sea of Galilee, which is 75 miles north of Jerusalem.From the shore of the sea, if you look further to the north, in the distance you can see the snow-capped peak of Mt. Hermon, which is in Syria.The northern boundary of the Holy Land is about 20 miles north of Galilee, at the foot of the mountain.Water from the melting snow flows out of caves there.Further south, this stream becomes the Jordan River.
Alexander the Great conquered the Holy Land three centuries before the coming of Christ.The Greeks were convinced that the foot of Mt. Hermon was a holy place.They thought that their god Pan lived in one of the caves, so they made it a temple and worshiped there.It would not be surprising if faithful Jews at the time of Christ referred to these caves as the “gates of hell,” because the pagans worshipped evil spirits in them.
When the Romans conquered the Greek Empire, they eventually partitioned the Holy Land into three territories.They gave one to each of the three sons of King Herod the Great.To his son Philip, the Romans granted the northern territory, including the caves at the foot of Mt. Hermon.Philip wanted to ingratiate himself with the Romans, so he built a city in honor of the emperor at the site.He named the city after the emperor and after himself, Ceasarea-Philippi.
Very few people practiced the Jewish religion in Philip’s kingdom; it was mainly pagan territory.There were no Pharisees there.So when the Lord Jesus led His chosen disciples up into Philip’s territory, he was taking them on a vacation, away from the tension and controversy in Galilee.
The Lord brought His disciples up to Caesarea-Philippi to help them prepare for what was to come.This vacation in the north was the decisive turning point in all of their lives.Up to this time, the Lord had been revealing His true identity little by little, with flashes of power and wisdom here and there.He had become very well-known, but no one understood Who He truly is.He was an object of curiosity to the crowds.His enemies were determined to destroy Him.His destiny was about to unfold.
So the Lord led His chosen ones up close to the ancient pagan temple at the foot of the great northern peak.It may be that Christ led Peter, James, and John up the mountain here and was transfigured before them, showing them a glimpse of His divine glory.The Transfiguration probably happened on Mt. Thabor, south of Galilee, but it may have happened on Mt. Hermon.Regardless, Christ had led His chosen disciples to a place and to a moment where they could contemplate with clear minds the truth about Who their Master truly is.
The drama was heightened by the fact that they stood at the ‘gates of hell,’ in front of the creepy cave where the pagans worshiped their demon.Here the Lord declared that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church He was founding.All the evil, confusion, malice, worldliness, and pettiness which His disciples would inevitably face was not going to overcome them.By going to His death and rising again, Christ was to bring about the victory of goodness, mercy, and truth.He was going to go down to Jerusalem and suffer and die in order to open the gates of heaven.The long, dark night of sin which the world had lived through up to that point—the night of paganism and confusion about God—that night was going to come to an end.
The city of Casarea-Philippi no longer stands.The area is inhabited by only a few villagers now, and they say that the cave where the pagans worshiped is haunted.Below the cave there is a beautiful park where the freshwater streams from the snow-capped mountaintop come gushing out and begin to form the Jordan River.The ruins of the pagan shrines are still in the cliff above, broken statues and columns.I can tell you from firsthand experience that the haunted cave is seriously creepy.
When I was there in February, the Archbishop who led our pilgrimage had us recite the Nicene Creed together there.We declared the truth about Jesus of Nazareth together at the very place where St. Peter first proclaimed our faith:“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
If we are armed with this faith of the Catholic Church, then the gates of hell cannot withstand us.We will break them down.We will rescue souls ensnared by the devil by our works of love and our witness to the truth.