In its misery and pessimism, the world offers us, on Valentine's Day, "Fifty Shades of Grey"−more misery and pessimism. Br. Chris Brannan, preaching on Colossians 1:2-6, says that the Church, on the other hand, has divine medicine to offer: the gift of hope in Christ.
Can you imagine a better place to study Scripture than in the Holy City of Jerusalem? Earlier this January I had the chance to spend a few days there, at St. Stephen Priory (located on the site where tradition says St. Stephen was martyred), attending "The Bible in Jerusalem," a conference for new and upcoming Dominican Scripture scholars. St. Stephen's is the Dominican priory associated with the École Biblique et Archeologique Francaise de Jerusalem, a Dominican school of scripture and archaeology founded by Fr. Marie-Joseph Lagrange, O.P. in 1890. This gathering was the first of what we plan to make an annual event, the purpose being to promote and foster collaboration and fraternity among young Dominicans pursuing Scripture scholarship, all for the sake of the Order's mission of preaching the gospel for the salvation of souls.
Between January 3rd-5th, more than 15 friars participated from around the world (e.g., France, Poland, Ireland, England, Ukraine, Croatia, Mexico, the United States, and the Phillipines), most of whom have begun or recently completed doctoral work related to Scripture; I hope to begin doing so in a few years. We handled this first meeting with a two-pronged approach: (1) to provide individual friars with an opportunity to present their current research topics and interests; and (2) to have some focused exegetical discussions about the relation between intra-biblical and patristic exegesis. This second part focused on Luke 4:19-30.
Our sense of fraternity and devotion to studying, exploring, and proclaiming the written Word of God was very tangible. I presented a synopsis of my MA Philosophy thesis on "Truth and Hermeneutics," and all the presentations led to some very lively discussions. We spoke of how to collaborate with each other and with the École in our work of Scripture study, and how our way of life as Dominicans makes us uniquely suited to study, mediate upon, and preach from the Scriptures. The tradition of the Order of Preachers, and the work of the Ecole and its founder, offers us the opportunity to pursue a Thomistic approach to biblical exegesis, one that is both scientifically and academically rigorous, yet inspired by faith and thus theological.
I also found our exegetical discussions about Luke 4 to be very engaging and stimulating. We all agreed that such collective work and dialogue is something we would like to continue; and we proposed a theme of "The Word," and the text of Sirach 24, for our next meeting in January of 2016.
Fr. Olivier-Thomas Venard, O.P., the director of "The Bible in its Traditions" project, presented some of the purpose and structure of this ambitious, and decades-long project of the École to produce a wide-ranging exegetical tool and commentary on all of Scripture, to be made available online (examples can be found here). You can also read more about it on its blog here. He hoped we would be able to collaborate in this project, and we thought that we should use the "BEST" website (the French acronym for the project) as part of our annual meetings and preparation.
In spite of spending about 60 hours of travel time in 5 days, the visit was very worthwhile, and left me, and I believe the other friars who participated, hopeful for the future of biblical scholarship in the Order. This being my second trip to Jerusalem, it was no less poignant to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher again and to pray there, as well as at the Cenacle (the site of our Lord's Last Supper). Being physically present at "Mt. Zion, true pole of the earth," (Ps. 48:3) and in the very places in which our Redeemer lived and won for us a share in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), gives a whole new dimension and meaning to praying the Psalms everyday and reading the Scriptures! I look forward to further visits and time spent in Jerusalem and at the École Biblique.
Many thanks to the friars of the École Biblique and St. Etienne, especially Fr. Marcel Sigrist, O.P., the director of the school, and Fr. Guy Tardivy, O.P., the prior of St. Stephen's, for welcoming us and encouraging us in our collaboration for the renewal of Scripture studies in the Order. And to our own New Testament scholar, Fr. Gregory Tatum, O.P., who lives, studies, and teaches at the Ecole Biblique; he was kind enough to take me to the aiport early in the morning on my last day. Thank you, Fr. Gregory! May God bless the work of the École Biblique and all those pursuing Scripture studies, that by their work, the Word of God Himself might more fully illumine not only our Order, but the world with His Wisdom, His Truth, and His Grace!
On Saturday, November 2, we celebrated the feast of All Souls, that special feast in the church calendar in which we commemorate and pray for all of the holy souls in Purgatory. This Catholic feast and the beliefs which undergird it can be repugnant to many non-Catholics, and even ignored or denied by modern day Catholics. (I once heard a Catholic parish catechist claim, “Oh, Purgatory? Well...we just don't really talk about that any more...”). I suppose the idea of Purgatory strikes many contemporary people as some rather quaint, if not terribly misguided, idea that generally does more harm than good: a belief that induces fear and an obsession with working hard, following all the rules. After all, isn't an idea couched in language about law and punishment, about sin and pain, only a symptom of a rather morbid mind? And didn't Martin Luther and the whole Protestant Reformation rather expose this medieval farce and break the shackles of such a terrifying and toxic mentality? Isn't the church just so old and slow that it has not yet caught up with the times and realized the foolishness of such legalistic preoccupations as “purgatory”?
Perhaps very few have not had one or more of the above objections to Purgatory. I, for one, used to think them all. And yet the Catholic Church continues to affirm, notwithstanding some of her naïve and misguided catechists, that Purgatory is real, and that we must concern ourselves with it; that is why she celebrates the Solemnity of all Souls every November 2.
So what is this feast, which can so confuse or upset others, all about? It might be best to quote from one Scripture reading—one that is sometimes read at Mass on this feast—which is actually Jewish, not Christian, in origin:
Judas [Maccabeus] and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen…under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear...and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out...[Judas] also took up a collection… And sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. ... [Since] he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who follow godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin (2 Maccabees 12:39-45).
In this Jewish text, which is revered by Catholics as inspired Scripture,1 we see a Jewish belief and practice, narrated and extolled by a Jewish writer, claiming that it is “a holy and pious thought” to pray and offer sacrifice for the dead, that their sins might be forgiven. It is this basic thought and practice which is picked up later by the Christian church, and continues today in various Apostolic Churches, who continue to offer prayers, above all the sacrifice of the Eucharist, for their beloved dead. While the text from second Maccabees may not give a full-blown and well-developed Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, it does highlight something that is central to the Catholic position: that we can stand in need of further purification and forgiveness even after our own death, and that those left on earth can aid us in this “purgation.” And, furthermore, this text and the Catholic belief in purgatory are rooted in a strong sense of hope: that in spite of our imperfections, God is quite capable of preparing and perfecting us for heaven, even if He needs to do this after we die.
“Make no mistake...if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in my hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that.… If you do not push me away, understand that I'm going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect… This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.”2
Purgatory, indeed, testifies to this conviction: God wants nothing else for us, but to unite us with Him in Heaven, and He will do what it takes, provided we do not obstinately resist His grace while on earth. It may involve painful forms of purification in this life, and it may, and often does, involve some form of purification after death. And it can offer us comfort when we see, today, our own weaknesses and sinful tendencies: "Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own" (Phil 3:12). That is, our perfection in Christ takes time, and just because we have not yet "arrived" does not mean we never will. Provided we are in His grace, even if we die "unfinished," God is not done with us: He can still work on our souls—a sort of spiritual surgery, if you will, without much anesthetic.
And much like Judas Maccabeus, today we too can assist those undergoing such purification, by our prayers and sacrifices—especially by offering ourselves to God in the one sacrifice of Christ present in every Eucharistic celebration. To do so, paradoxically, may also end up helping us in our purification and growth in holiness on earth: offering such prayer moves us outward, beyond ourselves toward the good of another, and away from vain and fleeting distractions—away from the very sorts of attachments which necessitate Purgatory. To pray and offer sacrifice for the dead, then, truly is "a holy and pious thought."
The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes is one of my favorites. Now it may seem strange, at first, that this book would be a "favorite"—or even included in the biblical canon and revered as divinely inspired by Jews and Christians at all—when perhaps more than any other, this book appears so permeated by pessimism about life and its meaning. How can a writing which repeats, thirty-seven times, the exclamation, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!" be a "word of God" to us, not only showing forth the mind of an ancient Semitic sage, but also be a "God-breathed" work which is both true, and useful for attaining wisdom (cf. 2 Tim 3:16)?
A partial answer to the question is captured in the witty claim of Dr. Peter Kreeft, who says that Ecclesiastes "is divine revelation precisely by being the absence of divine revelation"1; it shows us the results of the quest for knowledge and wisdom by a human mind to which God has not revealed himself. We see, in the narrator of this book—who calls himself "Qohelet," which might mean "Leader of the assembly," or, even the "Teacher" —the limits and apparent absurdity of life in the absence of God's revelation. Thus, it is as if God is saying to us through Qohelet, "Behold and consider what life would be like were I not to reveal myself to you! All is vanity without me!"
But, I think, this book also shows us a common human encounter with the complexities and injustices of life, even for those who have faith in the God who has revealed Himself. It shows, in its own way, that faith does not always give neat and easy answers to life's deepest problems, and that faith often does not give us exactly the answer we thought we were hoping for.
For instance, Qohelet tells us, speaking across the centuries in a rather melancholy tone, "It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting, for that is the end of every human being, and the living should take it to heart" (Eccl. 7:3). "Sorrow," he then tells us, "is better than laughter, because when the face is sad the heart grows wiser." These are not the words we may want to hear; but what wisdom, what profound life lessons are hidden in this short proverb, born of a lifetime of experience, forged on the anvil of decades of trial and error! And not only one lifetime, but that of generations, of centuries, of Jewish and then Christian men and women who have read and lived these words, and who testify, from the very grave, to their validity. A wise heart is born of sorrow! How hard this lesson can be to those of us now who suffer or mourn, and how unbelievable to those who have not yet tasted the bitter cup of grief! Why must our hearts taste sorrow in order to grow wiser? Why must we suffer such painful loss in order to grow up? While Qohelet sees wisdom in a willingness to face the harshness of life, he does not seem to have good answers to these underlying questions. Sometimes, even when we have faith in God, we do not—at the moment at least—have good answers in the midst of our confusion.
And yet, to get back to Dr. Kreeft's remark, for the Christian, even though our lived experience can indeed resonate with Qohelet's confusion—and almost anyone who has experienced suffering or loss knows the "feeling" which can express itself in the phrase, "All is Vanity!"—this book of Ecclesiastes is not the final word. It is incomplete. He did lack something that we now have, and which can illuminate the darkness of meaninglessness which threatens to overwhelm us at times, and with which the contemporary world is all too familiar. We have a greater Word which fulfills and encompasses all that was said before, and all that will be said: the Word, the "Logos,"—the Reason and Meaning of Being—which precedes all things and gives them their existence, and which offers to them their restoration, healing, and elevation: Jesus Christ, the Word of God who become Man for our sake.
We, as Christians, can then appreciate a book like Ecclesiastes in a two-fold way. On the one hand, we can value the realism with which it describes the harshness and injustices of life, even for those who have faith in God. On the other, we can see it as a limited perspective—though still true within its own context—which God Himself has filled out, enlightened, and completed by his Incarnate Word. This Word is Wisdom-in-Person Who experienced the bitter cup of suffering, and yet Who by His own passion has opened up new meaning to our otherwise "vain" and apparently meaningless existence; a Word Who puts an end to sin, death, and vanity, by enduring them with humility, faithfulness, and love.
Thus, even in those moments when it seems as though "All is Vanity!", we can resonate with this ancient, divinely inspired sage, and we can also hold out hope that God will not—that God has not—left these cries of desperation unanswered. His answer—His Word—may not always be nice and tidy; it may not always make us "feel good" at first; we may not even like it—we may not even directly hear or see it—but we can know and believe that Christ, the eternal Word of the Father, has spoken and still speaks. It may be true that "all is vanity," empty and void, if we were to be without Him, if God were not to speak. But we need not be without Him, since He has spoken into our emptiness and darkness: "Let there be light." And there was Light. And that Light has shown in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.2
Below is a recording of Br. Chris' preaching for Vespers on Saturday, September 14, 2013, the Feast of the Exultation of the Cross. The preaching is on the reading from 1 Corinthians 1:23-24, on the theme of the "scandal" of the Cross, and its apparent "foolishness."
I once heard a priest ask his congregation, "What are you doing this Lent to make your self miserable?" He was half-joking, but I think that he said this because he really did dread Lent. And certainly I can identify somewhat with his sentiment. After all, the penitential aspect of Lent is not entirely "fun." On the other hand, is it really supposed to make us feel "miserable"? Should we measure the value of a penance by how much we hate it, by how terrible it makes us feel? Is that what Lent is truly about?
Hardly. Rather, Lent is—in the end—really all about happiness, not misery and sadness. But—you may be wondering—how can this be? Isn't penance, which we are especially supposed to focus on during Lent, all about self-denial, giving up things we enjoy, and doing those good things—like giving to the poor—that can feel so unnatural and are just down-right difficult to do? How can this be all about happiness?
Well, it all depends upon what we mean by "happiness," and, consequently, how we are supposed to attain it. Thus, the million-dollar question is....what is happiness anyway? And how can we become happy? Of course, these are not new questions, and certainly not trivial ones. In fact, our whole life depends upon them, precisely because happiness is the one thing that we all seek, in every single thing that we do, in every choice and act that we make. We all want to be happy.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle recognized this when he posed the same questions in his well-known work, Nichomachean Ethics, in the 4th century B.C. He reasoned that the one thing sought in every human act is happiness. He first describes happiness rather generally as that ultimate goal "for the sake of which" all things are done. It is the ultimate "telos" (τέλος), the end, the goal, the purpose of human life and activity. And, in fact, he goes on to define happiness as a type of activity itself: "happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue" (Nich. Eth. I, 13). Contrary to many modern notions of happiness, he dismissed the idea that happiness could be merely a feeling; nor did he think that happiness is simply a passive state or condition of the human being. Instead, it is the perfection of the human being, a perfection fulfilled in the excellent activity of the highest powers of man. To be happy, then, we must act virtuously, we must live well: for that is what happiness is.
Now, it may seem odd, at first glance, to dwell much on what a pagan Greek philosopher had to say long before Christianity even existed, when discussing the true meaning of the Christian season of Lent. However, I point out Aristotle because I think he was onto something in his view of happiness which is relevant not only to the season of Lent, but also to the whole gamut of moral questions and problems that are discussed today. But not only for this reason is Aristotle worth noting here. He is also noteworthy because what sacred Scripture and Christian tradition have to say about happiness elevates what he had already discovered about it using the natural light of human reason. Faith and reason are in harmony here, and point in the same direction, although faith surpasses and transcends what reason can only begin to discover on its own.
For Aristotle, happiness consisted in an activity of the soul in accord with perfect virtue; and the perfect, or highest virtue, was that of contemplation (Greek "theoria", θεωρία), to know deeply and penetratively the highest, most divine truths about reality. Aristotle, of course, did not believe in the Christian God, nor did he have any concept of a personal God at all. But Aristotle's idea takes on new dimensions when seen in light of the Christian faith, such as Jesus' prayer to the Father in John 17: "This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent." The goal of human life, for Jesus, was knowing God. This "knowing" of God doesn't simply mean having God as an acquaintance, much less a mere understanding of great truths about God. Rather, it is a "knowing" which consists in intimate union with God; what Scripture often describes as "seeing" the "face" of God (1 Jn 3:2; Rev 22:4; cf. Ex. 33:11-23).1 The Catholic Tradition has called this the "Beatific Vision", or simply "Beatitude": the direct vision of God-in-Himself, knowing Him as he truly is, a union made possible by love or charity.
"That's great," you may be thinking, "but what does all of this have to do with Lenten penance?" The answer is: everything. Lenten penance is about happiness because it is all about preparing us to engage in that highest activity of the human soul which alone can make us happy: seeing God. How? By removing obstacles that obscure our spiritual vision, and by exercising the "ocular muscles" of our soul. Of course, this process is not always fun, much like going on a diet or exercising are not always fun. But we do penance and physical exercising for analogous reasons: because we know that the outcome will lead us to spiritual or physical health, respectively.
That physical exercise leads to physical health is obvious. But how does penance lead to spiritual health, namely, the vision of God? In three ways: (1) Almsgiving helps us see God in our neighbor, by loving those in need who are created in His image and likeness. (2) Fasting helps us to pay attention to our spiritual vision and hunger rather than their mere physical counterparts. By giving up certain attractive foods or other goods, we admit that there are even greater goods that we ought to seek, and train our souls to put the first things first. And (3) prayer puts us into direct communication with God Himself, the knowledge of whom is our happiness. Put another way, each of the traditional forms of penance attempts to respond to God's grace and overcome sin by restoring harmony in three different relations—with our neighbor, within ourselves, and with God.
So if Aristotle was indeed onto something when he thought of happiness as a perfect and perfecting activity of the human being—and if the Christian Tradition goes even further and says that the greatest "activity" is that of knowing God face-to-face, then Christian penance is all about training us to respond to God's grace, restore harmony within ourselves, with others, and with God, all of which prepare us to see God. It may, indeed, make us feel "miserable" for a short while; but that's not the point, nor should we measure the value of our penance by how awful we feel. Rather, we should endeavor to pursue those forms of penance which help us attune our spiritual vision toward God, rather than the fleeting pleasures of this life. For our happiness, our eternal life, is in knowing Him, and his Son, Jesus Christ, by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. This Lent, then, may we keep our "eyes" on this goal, this purpose, this "telos" of our works of penance, that we might do them with genuine love and devotion, fueled by that divine hope that one day, indeed, we may see God face-to-face, and know Him as he truly is.
It should be noted that both the Hebrew and Greek words meaning "to know", yada (יָדַע) and oida (οἰδα), have as their most basic and primitive meaning, "to see." The greek term οἰδα, in fact, is technically the perfect form of εἰδον (I saw) and thus literally meant, "I have seen," but came to used for the present form, "I know," since to have seen something is to know it. Thus "seeing" and "knowing", even in the Bible, are almost interchangeable. To "know" God is to have "seen" Him as he is, "face-to-face," which of course does not happen for us until heaven.
Here are some photos from our time at St. Benedict's Lodge in McKenzie Bridge, OR, where the student brothers gather every August for our annual vacation. Some of these photos were taken at St. Benedict's itself, and others are from our various hikes or adventures in the beautiful outdoors in the surrounding area.
It is often reported how St. Dominic, in the early days of the Order, dispersed his small group of newly-formed friars from the house in Prouille, France, sending them to university centers throughout Europe, in view of the missionary and universal vision which he had for the Order. This summer, all of the student brothers of our province have experienced something analogous, with the student master having sent us all out of St. Albert's to live in various Dominican communities throughout our province. This “summer of dispersion,” if we can call it that, is providing each of us with a chance to live for a few months in one of our smaller communities and experience life away from St. Albert's in a more ministerial setting.
Some of the brothers, in fact, are spending the summer enrolled in Clinical Pastoral Education – a hospital chaplaincy training program. Hopefully some of them will share a bit about their experience of this on the blog soon. And there are four brothers – Br. Richard, Br. Christopher, myself (Br. Chris), and Br. Tuan (with the Canadian Vietnamese vicariate) – who have begun or will soon begin a year-long “residency year” in which we live in one of our smaller communities for an entire year to gain more ministerial experience and to aid in our formation and discernment with the Province.
For my part, I have recently moved into Holy Rosary Priory in Portland, OR, for my residency year. Last Monday, after having completely moved out of my room at St. Albert's and shipping a number of my books to Portland, I drove straight from Oakland to Portland (which took about ten hours). I spent a bit of the week's remainder unpacking and settling in to my new, temporary home. Fr. Gregory Tatum, who is staying here at Holy Rosary for the month of July, was kind enough to give me a brief tour of a few parts of the city later that week – but as this is only the second time I have ever been to Portland, I'm still a bit unfamiliar with it and need to explore it a bit more.
In any case, this whole experience of moving out of one place and traveling to a new location is one that can feel both jarring and exhilarating – and is something Dominican friars must learn to accept; our Order began, after all, as a group of itinerant preachers. Thus this life requires a sort of detachment from any particular location, a willingness to uproot oneself and travel for sake of the Order's mission, for the sake of the Gospel.
I am reminded by this of a short conversation between a scribe and Jesus in the gospels: “And one scribe, approaching, said to him, 'Teacher, I will follow you wherever you will go.' And Jesus said to him, 'Foxes have dens, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to rest his head'” (Matt 8:19-20). There is a sense, indeed, in which every Christian, like Jesus himself, is “homeless” on this side of heaven, and must not remain too attached to particular possessions or places. This may seem, at first, a bit too “unearthly”, or aloof from a genuine human existence. After all, who does not long for a stable home, a safe place in which one can consistently retire each day, a haven and refuge from the busyness and stress of the outside world? Who does not value a home to which one is attached? What can it mean to be constantly “detached” from such genuine goods of this world, if not simply to be perpetually disoriented and unstable? How is such a life, in any meaningful sense, “healthy”?
To make sense of this, we should keep in mind a general truth which is essential to the Christian life: we are all pilgrims – pilgrims who have not yet arrived at our true and final home. While this world was created good, it is but a foretaste and preparation of that for which we were created and redeemed – dwelling in glorious communion with the Triune God. Thus any attachment to the things of earth which hinders our approach to the Heavenly Jerusalem will not do us any good; we must be willing to “let go,” to “move on” as God draws us onward and upward toward our celestial home. It is not that we should not have any affection or love for the good things of this earth; quite the contrary: to despise what is good, in so far as it is good, is to despise Goodness himself. But our love, much like our homes, must be “in order,” and properly arranged: we must love most only what is best, and love the lesser in view of the greater. Our love for God must be first; our love for the lesser things – for country; for home, family, and friends; for career and leisure; for food and for sex – must all be subordinate to divine charity, the love of God which has been poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5).
And this is what this “summer of dispersion” causes me to remember: God's love for us is greater than any other good or pleasure we can experience or imagine on earth, and we must, therefore, let our love for Him – itself a divine gift – transcend all other loves that move our hearts. The alternative is the restlessness which we all fear. So the choices are simply these: abiding in divine love, or drifting in perpetual restlessness. And, paradoxically, unless we see ourselves as wanderers on earth, we will not be able to rest in the bosom of the Father. For that is the only place the Son rests his head (cf. Jn 1:18), and the only place in which we, his Body, can find our true home.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we read about Joseph taking Mary and Jesus and fleeing Judea for Egypt because of Herod’s plan to kill all infant boys in the area. On their return after Herod’s death, Joseph is warned in a dream about Herod’s successor, and so they flee to Nazareth – where Jesus subsequently grows up. Matthew then writes that this happened “in order to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: ‘For he shall be called a Nazarene’” (Matt. 2:23).
What Old Testament passage(s) did Matthew have in mind when he wrote this? This question has puzzled biblical commentators for centuries, because the apparent quotation does not precisely match any known text of the Old Testament.1One possible explanation is that offered by the research of Maarten J. J. Menken, who argues that Matthew has in mind the Greek translations of Judges 13:5,7, and 16:7.2
Judges 13-16 describes the life of Samson, a “Nazirite” known for his rather supernatural strength. His mother was originally “barren,” a rather shameful state for a woman, but was told by an angel, “You shall conceive and bear a son, whose head no razor shall touch. For he shall be a Nazirite of God, from his infancy and from his mother’s womb. And he shall begin to free Israel from the hand of the Philistines” (Judg 13:5). The Hebrew term “Nazirite” is נָזִר or נָזִיר (pronounced “Naw-ZEER”), and meant “consecrated” or “holy.” It relates to those consecrated by a vow as prescribed in Numbers 6, in which those so consecrated must not shave their heads nor consume anything from the vine.
Interestingly, in some versions of a Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint (LXX), the Hebrew term נָזִיר (naziyr, or Nazirite in English) in Judges 13:5, 7 was transliterated into Greek as ναζιραῖος (naziraios). The same Hebrew word was treated similarly in Lam 4:7 LXX. In various other Greek translations of the Old Testament, including those done by Jewish scholars of the early Christian era, in several places in the Scriptures this same Hebrew word was variously translated as ναζιρ, ναζαραιος, ναζηραιος, or ναζιραιος (nazir, nazaraios, nazeraios, and naziraios; notice that the only difference between these last few is that of one vowel).3 Matthew’s Ναζωραῖοςalso differs only by one vowel – the same vowel position (he uses the Greek ω where others used ι, α, or η). If we keep in mind that the Hebrew text originally did not have any vowels – these were only marked by later scribes for the sake of pronunciation –, there may be enough "wiggle room" to allow Matthew to see a linguistic connection between "Nazarene" (Ναζωραῖος) and "Nazirite" (Ναζιραῖος). It may be that Matthew was familiar with such Greek renderings of the Judges 13 passages, and he made precisely such a connection.
If Menken is right—and there is more to his argument than that briefly mentioned above4—, then it means that Matthew sees in the story of Samson a “type” of Christ. If we compare these two figures, we notice many parallels: Samson’s mother was promised by an angel that she would conceive and bear a son, that he would be a Nazirite (i.e., “holy”); her son was given a supernatural strength so as to bring (brief) respite for the Israelites from the Philistines. Similarly, in Matthew Jesus’ birth was announced by an angel who said that he will be conceived by the Holy Spirit and who promised that Jesus would save God’s people from their sins (Mt. 2:20-21). Jesus himself is the “strong man,” overcoming the strength of Satan (cf. Mt. 21:29).
If we continue with the comparison, we notice that, like all Old Testament foreshadowings of Christ, there are differences among the similarities: Samson falls for the ploys of the Philistines via the woman he loves, and as a result loses his strength, his freedom, his sight, and – eventually – his life. Jesus is confronted with the deceptions of Satan, but does not succumb. But Jesus’ ultimate act of triumph over his “enemies” – Satan, sin, and death – also involves the giving of his own life, on the cross. After Samson was captured, he stretched out his hands to dislodge the pillars of the Philistine house in which he was imprisoned, taking down numerous Philistines with him. Jesus, in turn, stretched out his own hands on the cross, and destroyed the powers of sin and death that reigned over the human race: a victorious strength exercised in weakness.
If Menken is correct, then, Matthew has drawn a typological comparison between Jesus and Samson, and we can see in Jesus the one who is truly “consecrated” to God (ναζιραῖος), the “strong” one who overcomes the enemies of God and brings freedom to His people.
There are two common solutions to this problem, both of which St. Jerome noticed in his day, although he ended up favoring the one posited in this article: it could be referring to the Hebrew word for "shoot" in passages such as Isaiah 11:1; or to the Hebrew word for "Nazirite" in Judges 13:5. [Back to reading]
Maarten J. J. Menken, “The Sources of the Old Testament Quotation in Matthew 2:23,” Journal of Biblical Literature 120, no. 3 (Autumn, 2001): 451-468. For those with full-text access to JSTOR, the article can be accessed here. Menken also sees the language of Isaiah 7:14 -- which Matthew has already invoked in chapter 1 -- being mixed in with the quotation, specifically, the use of the verb καλέω, "to call." [Back to reading]
Additionally, the Greek text of Maccabees 3:49, which is believed to have been originally written in Hebrew, uses ναζιραῖος as the equivalent of “Nazirite.” [Back to reading]
Menken also argues that Matthew's use of the Greek word ότι in Matt. 2:23 is intended to be part of the OT quotation itself, not as part of the quotation formula which precedes it (a purpose this word sometimes filfulls). In which case, the OT citation is, "For[ότι] he shall be called a Nazarene." And as it turns out, the relevant phrases in Judges 13 and 16 (in the LXX) all began with this same Greek word: ότι. Menken also notices that Matthew refers to "the prophets" (in the plural) when prefacing the quotation. He does not do this in any of his other formula citations of the OT, even when he forms a quotation by mixing two different prophets into one quote (e.g., Mt. 21:5 = Is 62:11 + Zech 9:9); in every other case, he speaks of "the prophet" (in the singular, and he often names the prophet). But if we consider that the book of Judges belonged to the so-called "former prophets," and that these books were not yet enumerated by individual authors by the 1st century like the other prophets (such a enumeration and naming was done later), this would account for Matthew's phrase, "what was spoken through theprophets" (Matt. 2:23), i.e., "through that unenumerated collection by the former prophets." These two points give further reason to suppose that Matthew is refering to Judges 13. [Back to reading]
Dan Savage, the founder of the "It Gets Better" Project, recently made some very pointed comments about Christianity and the Bible. I wish not to comment on his tone or strategy, nor on the very real problem of bullying which his talk was supposed to be about, but on one of his arguments. This particular argument is a very common one raised in the public sphere, often by well-known figures (once by our current president himself): very frequently it is claimed that Christians are arbitrarily selective in picking and choosing moral teachings from Scripture. In debates about the moral status of homosexual acts, for example, proponents of the behavior will sometimes argue that it is inconsistent, or at least arbitrary, to pick moral prohibitions about sexual matters from Leviticus, while not holding to others such as those about ritual purity, dietary laws, or slavery. Is there anything to this argument? Is Christian morality, at bottom, nothing but one rather arbitrary set of very peculiar, antiquarian, rules? Why does, for example, traditional Christian morality uphold the Old Testament’s moral prohibitions against homosexuality, but not eating pork? Why do Christians today allow intermarriage, which the Torah forbids, while opposing slavery, which the bible – so the argument goes – supports?
This is not simply about specific moral norms, but about the underlying theological and epistemological principles behind them: what is the basis of right and wrong in the Christian tradition, and what determines which Old Testament precepts are binding, and which are not? Among other things, this is a hermeneutical question at two different levels: How did the New Testament writers interpret the Hebrew Scriptures? And how are Christians, today, to interpret them, and how are we to interpret the New Testament itself in relation to morality?
All of these are rather large questions, but I wish to propose one fairly simplified version of an answer to them as it relates to sexual morality, an answer loosely inspired by my introductory knowledge of Thomistic thought and moral theology, and on Scripture: authentic Christian morality, both in the New Testament and in the Church, is rooted in the "telos" – the goal, the purpose – of the human being. That is, what determines whether or not some action is right or wrong is not that the Bible says so; rather, the determining factor is the ultimate answer to the question: “does this lead to the fulfillment of the human being?” Or, more personally, “does it lead me to, or away from, the supernatural destiny for which God created me?” Christianity, in turn, makes a remarkable claim about this supernatural destiny: we were created for eternal life. And what is eternal life? “To know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3).
And so Christian morality, by its very nature – even if this is not always made explicit in either Scripture or in the formulas of Tradition – has this supernatural goal – knowing the Triune God – as its foundation, its source, and its summit. And those behaviors which the New Testament and the Christian tradition condemn, are wrong precisely in virtue of their being incompatible with this supernatural destiny: they prevent us from knowing God.
For example, merely eating pork, in itself, does nothing to take one away from God; that this was prohibited for the Israelites, and modern Orthodox Jews, is not because human bodies which have incorporated swine flesh into themselves are unfit for resurrection or heaven, but such laws were made for some temporary instructive purpose (precisely what this lesson is is another discussion). In the Christian perspective, this was a limited law (not intended for all people, nor for all time), and one which is not absolutely binding because the act itself (eating pork) is not opposed to eternal life (the gospels describe Jesus teaching that food cannot make someone unclean – see Mark 7:19). Certain sexual acts, however, are in a different situation, not simply because of where we find them in Scripture, but precisely because of their intrinsic relation to our supernatural human fulfillment. Let me, very briefly, unpack that...
God created us as sexual beings, and therefore, sex is good. But sex is also purposeful, and rich with meaning as seen in Scripture itself. To deliberately distort the act of sex in such a way that its purpose or meaning is intrinsically thwarted, amounts to turning towards our creator and saying, “Thanks for making us sexual beings, but we don’t like the purpose you gave to it; so we’ll do it our own way.” The result is not that this makes God angry, and that since he’s so insecure and cannot take criticism he decides to punish us in his rage; rather, it is that this ends up hurting us, because we are not cooperating with our own sexuality’s purpose. If we deliberately frustrate our purpose in the arena of sexuality, we begin removing ourselves from the purpose of our whole life. We cannot neatly separate one aspect of our life from another, nor can we separate one individual act from the whole. Each individual sexual act is a microcosm of our entire sexuality, which – in turn – is a microcosm of our whole life. We can thus divert ourselves from the path of eternal life by misguided sexual activity. Since grace builds on nature, the purpose of our sexuality is of a piece with our supernatural purpose: to love another deeply, faithfully, and permanently in a way that opens up the two of us to the life of yet another.
This is worth reiterating, for this often gets lost in the whole discussion of sexual morality: we are, indeed, as human beings, and as sexual beings, created to love deeply,faithfully, and permanently in a way that opens us up to yet another person – “The greatest commandment is this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. … And the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself" (Mt. 22:36-37). Sexual love is supposed to mirror, and be a lesson in, this supernatural calling, in the finite context of human relations:unceasingly loving the Other, and allowing that love to flow into the life of another. Thus, it is the purposefulness and integrity of our sexuality that forms the basis of Christian sexual morality, not the fact that sexual rules are included in a book with all sorts of ancient laws of ritual purity that seem strange to us. Thus, the discussion needs to be about the purposefulness and integrity of human sexuality – and the human being as a whole – rather than simply about commands listed in the Bible. Otherwise, both sides miss the real significance of the debate.
May God grant us all a greater realization of our great supernatural purpose, and enable us to live out and embody this in every aspect of our lives, especially in our sexuality.