Thursday, December 21, 2006

Scripture Reflection: 4th Sunday of Advent (December 24, 2006)

Readings for today: Micah 5:1-4a, Psalm 80:2-3,15-16,18-19, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45.

Fulfill your will in me, Lord. Give me ears open to your word and a heart of obedience.

First Reading: Here, through Micah the prophet, we hear about the coming of the ruler of Israel. He comes from the lowly clan of Bethlehem, standing firm, shepherding his flock. His greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth, and he shall be peace.

Second Reading: The author of the letter to the Hebrews draws on the Septuagint translation of Psalm 40, placing it in the context of Jesus Christ. The Word of God had a body prepared for him (10:5, Psalm 40:6 (LXX)). The psalm continues, saying "As is written of me in the scroll, Behold, I come to do your will, O God" (Psalm 40:7-8 (LXX)). Luke writes that Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 61:1-2) at the beginning of his ministry and said "Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:14-21). Jesus was to offer a life of obedience to the will of God to take the place of the constant sacrifices and holocausts of the priests in the temple (10:8-9). The bodily sacrifice of Jesus was the last offering, and the only sacrifice that could last eternally (10:10).

Gospel: Luke records Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth. Upon hearing Mary's voice, Elizabeth's child stirs in her womb and Elizabeth, filled with the Spirit, proclaims Mary's blessedness (1:41-42). Elizabeth calls Mary "the mother of my Lord" (1:43) -- the Mother of God. Elizabeth says that Mary is not only blessed because of who she is and who she carries in her womb, but also because Mary that what God told her would be fulfilled (1:45), which is aligned with Luke 11:27-28 where Jesus says that "blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it". He is not saying Mary is not blessed, or that her role as his mother is of no significance, but that it is because she listened to God and followed His commands for her that she is blessed, and in doing so she accepted her role as the mother of the Lord.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Religion: Genesis 9:6 and the Death Penalty

I don't have any study bibles at my disposal, only, so I'll quote the three commentary sources there on Genesis 9:6 which reads (RSV-CE): Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image. Here are the three commentaries (emphasis mine):

9:6 Whoso sheddeth man's blood, {f} by man shall his blood be shed: for in the {g} image of God made he man.

(f) Not only by the magistrate, but often God raises up one murderer to kill another.

(g) Therefore to kill man is to deface God's image, and so injury is not only done to man, but also to God.

9:6 Whoso sheddeth man's blood - Whether upon a sudden provocation, or premeditated, (for rash anger is heart - murder as well as malice prepense, Mt 5:21,22), by man shall his blood be shed - That is, by the magistrate, or whoever is appointed to be the avenger of blood. Before the flood, as it should seem by the story of Cain, God took the punishment of murder into his own hands; but now he committed this judgment to men, to masters of families at first, and afterwards to the heads of countries. For in the image of God made he man - Man is a creature dear to his Creator, and therefore ought to be so to us; God put honour upon him, let us not then put contempt upon him. Such remains of God's image are still even upon fallen man, that he who unjustly kills a man, defaceth the image of God, and doth dishonour to him.

9:4-7 The main reason of forbidding the eating of blood, doubtless was because the shedding of blood in sacrifices was to keep the worshippers in mind of the great atonement; yet it seems intended also to check cruelty, lest men, being used to shed and feed upon the blood of animals, should grow unfeeling to them, and be less shocked at the idea of shedding human blood. Man must not take away his own life. Our lives are God's, and we must only give them up when he pleases. If we in any way hasten our own death, we are accountable to God for it. When God requires the life of a man from him that took it away unjustly, the murderer cannot render that, and therefore must render his own instead. One time or other, in this world or in the next, God will discover murders, and punish those murders which are beyond man's power to punish. But there are those who are ministers of God to protect the innocent, by being a terror to evil-doers, and they must not bear the sword in vain, Ro 13:4. Wilful murder ought always to be punished with death. To this law there is a reason added. Such remains of God's image are still upon fallen man, that he who unjustly kills a man, defaces the image of God, and does dishonour to him.
And now my question. Do you see Genesis 9:6 as a decree from God -- that is, does it give us permission to avenge murder? Or is it rather God (or the author) recognizing man's desire to hold that sort of power over one another? What I mean is, how should one paraphrase it? "You shall repay a slain man's blood with the blood of his killer, for I have made you in My own image" or "For, since man is made in God's image, man will take it upon himself to repay slaughter with slaughter."

Is it a permission being granted us? Although vengeance is the Lord's (Romans 12:19), surely societies are required to impose punishments on criminals. But does that include the taking of life?

Or is it a sad commentary on man's usurping of God's authority for himself? This concept is found throughout the first chapters of Genesis. The serpent tells Eve that, upon eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, she shall become like God (Genesis 3:5). Lamech (of Cain's lineage) decrees that whoever kills him will be met upon with great vengeance, assuming upon himself the power God owns (Genesis 4:24, cf. Genesis 3:15). The builders of the Tower of Babel seeked to unite themselves through a great city and a tower, lest they be spread across the earth (Genesis 11:3-4); although it was God's desire for them to fill the earth, not to cling together for fear of dispersion (Genesis 9:1). In light of this, Genesis 9:6 appears to be a statement of inevitability: man is made in God's image, but instead of aspiring to be like God in mercy and love and creativity (which God certainly wishes us to display), man will lust for that which God reserves for Himself: judgment, power over all life, and worship.

I open the floor. I'm curious to hear your thoughts and be pointed to any Bible Commentaries you might have access to.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Scripture Reflection: 3rd Sunday of Advent (December 17, 2006)

Readings for today: Zephaniah 3:14-18a, Psalm 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:10-18.

The Lord is in our midst: let us be filled with thanksgiving, joy, and humility. Let our service to God be evident in our service to others.

First Reading: Zephaniah speaks words of comfort to Israel: Jerusalem should exult because God is returning to them, removing His judgment and turning away their enemies (3:14-15). This refers to the birth of the Messiah, paralleled in the gospel according to Luke: Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged! The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior (3:16b-17a, Luke 2:10-11).

Second Reading: Paul tells the Phillipians that their kindness should be known to all (4:5). Certainly, we can do this without being the attention-seeking hypocrites Jesus warns about (Matthew 6:1-6,16-18). Paul also implores that they not be anxious and that their requests to God be made by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving (4:6). Here Paul echoes Jesus's instruction on prayer (Matthew 6:7-15). Above all, though, this brief passage from Paul's letter reminds us to rejoice always in the Lord, for he is near -- he is in our midst, as Zephaniah proclaimed. Through rejoicing, proper conduct, and humble prayer, comes an incomprehensible peace from God alone that will protect you. In this Advent season, when everything seems to be focused on rushing and "only 13 shopping days left" and the like, it's comforting to hear that the Lord is near and that he offers a peace of mind that cannot be found outside of him.

Gospel: Luke continues writing about the ministry of John the Baptist. Just prior to this excerpt, John says to the crowd, "Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance", and he warns them not to fall into complacency, saying to themselves "'We have Abraham as our father'" (3:8). Do we as Christians forget that a living faith is fruitful and not sedentary? Are we comfortable just believing in Jesus as our Savior and God and not actually following his commandments to us?

John the Baptist gives the crowd examples of proper conduct:
  • "Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise." (3:11)
  • To tax collectors he said, "Stop collecting more than what is prescribed." (3:13)
  • To soliders he said, "Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages." (3:14)
It is interesting to note that he does not speak out against tax collection or the military, but that those who fill those positions should do so with justice and fairness.

Because of his wisdom and justice, people thought John was the Messiah (3:15). John recognized his place as the messenger of the Lord (Malachi 3:1a) and corrected the people, telling them of the one to come after him who would baptize them "with the Holy Spirit and fire" (3:16). Luke writes that John exhorted the people (3:18); an exhortation is an urgent appeal or admonition. Do we still feel that same sense of urgency as Christians? Or do we think of ourselves as above reproach, not in need of admonishment?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Scripture Reflection: Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (December 8, 2006)

Readings for today: Genesis 3:9-15,20, Psalm 98:1-4, Ephesians 1:3-6,11-12, Luke 1:26-38.

Mary, blessed from conception so as to be a pure vessel for Christ; Mary, the new Eve, the new Ark of the Covenant, Theokotos, the Bearer of our Savior, and the Mother of God: pray for us as we ask God for the strength to say "May it be done to me according to Your word".

First Reading: Adam and Eve have fallen prey to the serpent (Satan, Revelation 12:9) and committed sin. With the freedom of will and the freedom of choice comes the potential to choose wrongly, to disobey God, to choose our own wills over His. But God did not strike Adam and Eve dead -- though die they did. Instead, God permitted them to live, and Eve became the mother of all the living (3:20). Found in this reading also is perhaps the first of all prophecies of the coming of a Savior through humanity (3:15): though the serpent shall strike at the heel of Eve's offspring, her offspring shall strike at the serpent's head. This is not some petty fable explaining while snakes crawl and bite ankles, this is the foreshadowing of a man who shall decapitate sin, conquer death, and restore humanity to God.

Second Reading: Paul opens his letter to the Ephesians by proclaiming our selection by God before the foundation of the world. In stark contrast to his grim assertion that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23 RSV), Paul writes to the Ephesians of God's desire for us to be holy and without blemish before Him (1:4). We, as Christians, have accepted this call to Christ, which has been "on the table" since before the world began. Mary is a model of this response: she said "yes" to God and accepted the task for which God had prepared her in her mother's womb.

Gospel: While this account from Luke speaks of the Annunciation -- that is, the proclamation to Mary of the conception of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit -- that is not what this solemnity is about, but let us first examine the role of Mary so that we may better understand this holy truth of her immaculate conception. Gabriel, the angelic herald of God, announces to Mary that she is to bear the Son of God, Jesus, a holy child who shall rule the house of Jacob forever, and have an everlasting kingdom. Mary, curious at first, accepts this holy charge. So why does the Catholic Church hold as truth that Mary was conceived without sin?

As the bearer of Jesus (through whom came the new covenant), Mary was the new Ark of the Covenant. The Ark held the stone tablets upon which the Law of the Covenant were inscribed (Exodus 25:16), and with the Ark was stored a jar of manna (Exodus 16:32-34) and the staff of Aaron (Numbers 17:23-25). These three things were prefigurings of Jesus Christ. The Law was from the finger of God (Exodus 31:18) but Jesus is from the mouth of God, for he is the Word of God made flesh (John 1:1,14). The manna was sustinence for Israel during the exodus, but those who ate it would perish anyway, while Jesus is the true bread from heaven, the bread of life (John 6:26-60). The rod of Aaron showed upon whom the favor of God rested to be the tribe priests for the Israelites, and Jesus is the eternal priest of the new covenant (Hebrews 5:4-6). The Ark of the Covenant was designed to exacting specifications, and was built from acacia wood and plated entirely with pure gold inside and out. So too, then, the new Ark that bore Jesus was human, but pure inside and out, fit to carry the infant Christ.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Scripture Reflection: 2nd Sunday of Advent (December 10, 2006)

Readings for today: Baruch 5:1-9, Psalm 126:1-6, Philippians 1:4-6,8-11, Luke 3:1-6.

As we grow in the love and wisdom of God, mountains will be lowered and valleys will be raised through us, to His glory. We will prepare the way of the Lord for all flesh to see His saving power.

First Reading: Baruch, a disciple of Jeremiah, writes of a time of change coming to Jerusalem. No longer shall Jerusalem be robed in mourning and misery, but with the glory of God (5:1). Just as last week we heard from Jeremiah that Jerusalem shall be called "The LORD our justice" (Jeremiah 33:16), this week we hear from Baruch that Jerusalem shall be called "The peace of justice" and "the glory of God's worship" (5:4). The scattered children of Jerusalem shall be drawn back, using imagery found in Isaiah 40: mountains being made low, valleys being filled, and the glory of God returning with mercy and justice (5:6-9).

Second Reading: Here Paul writes words of encouragement to brethren in Philippi. Paul prays joyfully for them, confident that what was started in them when they first heard the gospel will continue to grow to completion until the return of Christ (1:4-6). His prayer for them is that they grow in love and wisdom so as to be able to continue discerning what is good, that they may be blameless before Christ and filled with the fruits of righteousness for the glory of God (1:9-11). Paul is aware that Christians can become stagnant in their faith and lose sight of the righteousness found in Christ, and that is why he prays for them. They have heard the gospel and believe it, but they must continue to grow in love and continue to discern what has value. What has been started in them by the Holy Spirit must continue to develop to completion.

Gospel: After the infancy narrative, Luke writes about the ministry of John the Baptist, son of Zechariah. This brief gospel passage relates John's work in the desert (3:3-6) to what was foretold by Isaiah: the voice in the wilderness crying out, "ready the way of the Lord!" Advent, like Lent, is a time of repentence. We are preparing the way of the Lord in our own lives, with the help of God. The baptism of water by John was a precursor to the baptism of the Holy Spirit by Christ; so too is Advent a precursor to the life of Christ. There are to be no obstacles between the glory of God and those to whom it is coming: mountains are razed, valleys are raised. We, then, should work to remove the obstacles in our own lives, and the lives of others, so that the gospel of the Lord can be brought to the world in living faith and action:
  • Joseph and Mary could not find a room in Bethlehem, so the Christ was born in a lowly estate, a manger. Projects like Habitat for Humanity work to provide homes for those without.
  • The magi came bearing gifts to the Holy Family and received nothing in return, save the privilege to stand in the presence of God. Christmas gift-giving between friends and family is one thing, but church activities like "Giving Trees" and programs like Toys for Tots are examples of Christ's wisdom that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). Give without expectation of reward (Matthew 10:8).
  • When the crowds asked John what they should do as evidence of their repentence, he told them that "Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise." (Luke 3:11) Donate your time to a soup kitchen. Donate to food drives and clothing drives.
In performing these acts of love, outward signs of our penitence before God, we are preparing the way of the Lord, we are a voice crying in the wilderness of our modern busy world, we are flattening mountains and filling valleys, all by the grace of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Personal: Favorite Christmas Songs

I got "tagged" by Danny at Nothing Important to Us, so here's my list of my favorite Christmas songs. Mine includes more hymns than carols because, honestly, the carols I hear on the radio irritate me.
  • O Come, All Ye Faithful / Adeste fideles
  • O Come, O Come Emmanuel
  • O Holy Night
  • Do You Hear What I Hear?
  • Little Drummer Boy
  • Ready the Way
  • People, Look East
  • What Child is This?
Sure, songs like "Silent Night" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem" are all well and good, but I think the list above represents songs I wouldn't get tired of listening to when I become inundated with Christmas music.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Religion & Entertainment: My Review of The Nativity Story

Ok, when it's all said and done, I give it a C+. I don't know which, really. I'll give my reasons.

The script was, indeed, Scripturally based, but the passages lifted from Scripture did not mesh well with the rest of the script. I suppose I'm a bit of a purist about this -- I think Peter Jackson's screenwriters did a superb job on the Lord of the Rings movies. There were also lines omitted for no good reason. One example is Zechariah's canticle upon the naming of his son: it was completely omitted. I seem to recall some of the words or phrases used elsewhere by Elizabeth, while John was still in the womb, but the impact is different. The Magnificat is spoken at the end of the film, but not in its entirety.

[Update: The exact use of Scriptural speech is, in my opinion, an all-or-nothing endeavor. The movie failed because it injected Scriptural passages (like the "Blessed are you among women" of Elizabeth, the Benedicta) without trying to conform the rest of the script of the movie to that kind of language. Simply put, it seemed like Elizabeth was "talking crazy talk" instead of being inspired by the Spirit. I would not have minded if they conformed the Scriptural words to the script of the rest of the movie.]

Other omissions I had hoped to see included are centered around the presentation in the temple (Luke 2:22-38). The Nunc Dimittis (the canticle of Simeon), Simeon's grim blessing to Mary, Anna the prophetess... all missing. This leads me to another issue: the timeline.

In reconciling the Luke narrative and the Matthew narrative, if Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day and presented in the temple after the forty days necessary for Mary's purification, I would have expected that the visit of the magi and the subsequent flight to Egypt took place after that. Matthew 2:11 mentions a house, not a manger. Then again, I'm not a Bible historian, so I don't know what an "official" reconciled timeline of the nativity narratives would be.

This movie also suffers from "translationism". The name of the infant is called "Jesus" instead of Yeshua (or Yehoshua) which is grating amid names like Zechariah. Mary should be called "Miriam" (or something like that). They speak in Aramaic occasionally (when saying particular prayers or greetings) and then go right back into English. Now I recognize the worth of authentic language found in The Passion.

The soundtrack was a little off at times -- meaning, the music didn't really fit the scene. There were several pieces of music based on Christmas songs that just didn't click.

Finally, and I will admit this is a very tricky matter to handle properly, the representation of the angel Gabriel is weird. He seems to appear and disappear with the presence of a dove (or some other bird, but I'm assuming it's a dove), but this has the unwanted effect of making angels transforming animals or something along those lines. I'm not sure exactly how I would do it, but the movie's handling of it seemed too weird.

Despite these complaints, I did enjoy the movie, it just didn't grab hold of me the way I'd have liked it to.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Religion & Entertainment: The Nativity Story

I'm planning on seeing The Nativity Story sometime very soon (although my weekend schedule is very full). The trailer looked great. The story is familiar and the minor tweaks present to make a handful of chapters last 100 minutes are sure to supplement the Scriptural material. But I haven't read any good reviews of it yet. Here's an excerpt from the CNN review (emphasis mine):
"The Nativity Story" is a major release (from New Line, like CNN a unit of Time Warner), and boasts the kind of production values only money can buy. Discreetly ecumenical in thrust, it's a reverent, orthodox movie aimed at churchgoers across the spectrum.

A little too reverent, perhaps. It takes the first chapter in the Greatest Story Ever Told and turns it into a mild yarn.

Drawing on the gospels of Matthew and Luke, screenwriter Mike Rich takes no liberties with Scripture, though there are occasional concessions to contemporary sensibilities.
Is there a problem there? Do we need an "updated" version of the Nativity, a modern-day retelling? Do we need to change things to make the story more "believable"? Should we reduce the account of Christ's birth to anecdote or fairy tale?

I think this movie fills its niche in the same way Passion of the Christ filled its own. That movie was gut-wrenching and painful to watch, because the events it recounted were gut-wrenching and painful to endure. So Nativity will be slow at times, or tense at times, but it won't feel the same as Passion because it's not the same thing. Get over it.