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Bringing the Gospel of Luke to Life: Insight & Inspiration. By George Martin. Our Sunday Visitor, 2011. 697 pages, paperback. $24.95.

St. Jerome tells us that ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ. St. John tells us: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). To know God we must know His Word. As Christians, our Bible should never sit on the shelf gathering dust. Our Bible should be the most read book in our possession; it is most certainly the most important book in our possession. Yet, unfortunately many Christians remain personally ignorant of its contents. Many people set out with very good intentions to read the Bible, but often get only a few chapters or few books into it before giving up. They quickly become overwhelmed with unfamiliar people, places, and happenings. This is where a good Bible commentary comes in handy. It allows us to “walk along” with someone more familiar with the Bible as he leads us through it, helping us make sense of what was once terra incognita.

George Martin’s book, Bringing the Gospel of Luke to Life, is exactly this sort of “walk along” with an expert. He takes us verse by verse through the Gospel of Luke, helping us better understand every word of the Evangelist. Each chapter of the book corresponds to the same chapter in Luke. We are presented with a brief “Orientation” which highlights key points of a group of passages. This is followed by “Preface” consisting of several verses of Luke along with Old Testament references and where applicable, New Testament parallels. Next is a verse by verse commentary on the verses in the “Preface.” The end of the book contains a brief essay situating Luke within the canon of Scripture.

Overall, this commentary is excellent and quite useful. However, there are a few minor critiques. First, the commentary uses the New American Bible with Revised New Testament and Revised Psalms text. The NAB is an “idea for idea” translation, meaning the translators attempt to capture the “essence” of the original passage. On the other hand the RSV-CE is a more “word for word” translation, meaning the translators attempted to preserve as best as possible the actual wording of the original passage. A translation like the NAB is sometimes easier to read, but since it’s the “essence” of the original, we are left with someone else’s interpretation of what the original author meant, not necessarily with what he actually wrote. The vast majority of serious Bible scholars rely on “word for word” translations. The second minor critique involves a lack of maps and charts/outlines. At least a basic map would have been helpful. Also, having a basic chart or outline of the Gospel would have been helpful as well. These minor criticisms aside, Bringing the Gospel of Luke to Life is an great commentary and “guided tour” of the Gospel of Luke.

This review was written as part of the Catholic book reviewer program from The Catholic Company. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on Bringing the Gospel of Luke to Life . The Catholic Company is the best resource for all your family Advent activities and supplies this year, such as Advent wreaths and calendars for kids, as well as Christmas decorations such as nativity scene sets and religious Christmas gifts for the whole family.

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"Resurrection of Christ" by Noel Coypel (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

“The Paschal mystery has two aspects: by his death, Christ liberates us from sin; by his Resurrection, he opens for us the way to a new life. This new life is above all justification that reinstates us in God’s grace, “so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Justification consists in both victory over the death caused by sin and a new participation in grace. It brings about filial adoption so that men become Christ’s brethren, as Jesus himself called his disciples after his Resurrection: “Go and tell my brethren.” We are brethren not by nature, but by the gift of grace, because that adoptive filiation gains us a real share in the life of the only Son, which was fully revealed in his Resurrection.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 654)

From the Mass During the Day of Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord:

Entrance Antiphon

The Lord is truly risen, alleluia. To Him be glory and power for all the ages of eternity, alleluia, alleluia.

Collect

O God, who on this day through your Only Begotten Son, have conquered death and unlocked for us the path to eternity, grant, we pray, that we who keep the solemnity of the Lord’s Resurrection may, through the renewal by your Spirit, rise up in the light of life. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Gospel (John 20:1-9)

A reading from the Holy Gospel according to John.

On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.” So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed. For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.

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Mark 16:1-7

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint Him. Very early when the sun had risen, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb. They were saying to one another, “Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back; it was very large. On entering the tomb they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe, and they were utterly amazed. He said to them, “Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; He is not here. Behold the place where they laid Him. But go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see Him, as He told you.'”

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From the Roman Catholic Daily Missal, 1962:

Among the truths which faith teaches us, there are several which all ought to know and believe explicitly, namely, the existence of God; the Mystery of the Holy Trinity; the Mystery of the Redemption of mankind by the Incarnation and death of Jesus Christ, and the future state of reward and punishment.

There are things which every Catholic is also bound to know by the express command either of God or of the Church. These things are: 1.) The three most ordinary Catholic prayers, namely, the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Apostles’ Creed; and also, at least in substance, 2.) The Commandments of God; 3.) The Precepts of the Church; 4.) The Doctrine of the Sacraments, and especially of these three which are necessary to everyone, namely, Baptism, Penance, and the Holy Eucharist; 5.) The duties and obligations of one’s state in life.

It is a mortal sin for a Catholic to be ignorant of these things, if it be through his own willfulness or neglect.

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What Will the Church Look Like?

[T]he big talk of those who prophesy a Church without God and without faith is all empty chatter. We have no need of a Church that celebrates the cult of action in political prayers. It is utterly superfluous. Therefore, it will destroy itself. What will remain is the Church of Jesus Christ, the Church that believes in the God who has become man and promises us life beyond death. The kind of priest who is no more than a social worker can be replaced by the psychotherapist and other specialists; but the priest who is no specialist, who does not stand on the sidelines, watching the game, giving official advice, but in the name of God places himself at the disposal of men, who is beside them in their sorrows, in their joys, in their hope and in their fear, such a priest will certainly be needed in the future.

Let us go a step further. From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge – a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, she will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members. Undoubtedly she will discover new forms of ministry and will ordain to the priesthood approved Christians who pursue some profession. In many smaller congregations or in self-contained social groups, pastoral care will normally be provided in this fashion. Alongside this, the full-time ministry of the priesthood will be indispensable as formerly. But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world. In faith and prayer she will again recognize her true center and experience the sacraments again as the worship of God and not as a subject for liturgical scholarship.

The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism of the eve of the French Revolution – when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain – to the renewal of the nineteenth century. But when the trail of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.

And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already with Gobel, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.

– Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, Christmas, 1969 (from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, Faith and the Future, San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2006)

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"The Madonna in Sorrow" (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Among doctrinal issues dividing Protestants and Catholics is the issue of Mary’s virginity following the birth of Jesus. Catholics maintain that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life. Most Protestants on the other hand maintain that Mary remained a virgin until after the birth of Jesus, at which point she had children with Joseph. Interestingly enough, Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli at various times all professed Mary as “ever-virgin” [1]. Setting aside the Protestant-Catholic tendency to “talk over” one another instead of “talking with” one another, let’s consider the facts to see what we can uncover.

Certainly various biblical passages on the surface appear to support the concept that Mary had children with Joseph following the birth of Jesus. For example, in the Gospel of St. Matthew, we read: Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus” (Mt 1:24-25, KJV), “While He [Jesus] was speaking to the people, behold, His mother and His brethren stood outside asking to speak to Him” (Mt. 12:46, RSV-CE), and “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary? And are not His brethren James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?” (Mt. 13:55, RSV-CE). Thus, on the surface, it certainly seems plausible, according to Sacred Scripture, that Jesus had half-siblings.

However, other passages seem to contradict the claim that Mary and Joseph had children together; instead supporting the notion of Mary as “ever-virgin.” Very telling is the conversation in the Gospel of St. Luke between the Angel Gabriel and Mary. Gabriel tells Mary, who is betrothed to Joseph, that, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus” (Lk. 1:31, ESV). Critical to our understanding is Mary’s response, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk. 1:34, ESV). This conversation only makes sense if Mary intended to remain a virgin following her marriage to Joseph. Otherwise, would not she have simply assumed, at least at first, that Gabriel meant Mary and Joseph would conceive the child about whom Gabriel spoke?

Further, in the Gospel of St. John, as Jesus is dying on the Cross, we read, “When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple whom He loved [John] standing nearby, He said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (Jn. 19:26-27, ESV). If Mary had other children, why would Jesus entrust her to John instead of to one of His half-brothers? As the situation plays out, it indicates that Mary is widowed and that she does not have other children of her own to whom she can be entrusted.

With respect to Matthew 13:55, in Matthew 27:56, we learn that two of Jesus’ “brothers,” James and Joseph, are actually sons of a different Mary. Thus, we find direct scriptural evidence that not only are at least two of the “brothers” mentioned in Matthew 13:55 not brothers at all, but also that the term “brother” was used in a larger sense by the Evangelists than in our limited sense of the term to mean “siblings.” We shall return to this point shortly. We should note here, as Chacon and Burnham point out, “The ‘brothers’ of Jesus are never called ‘sons of Mary.’ Jesus is often called the son of Mary, but never a son of Mary as if He had siblings.”[2]

However, first let’s consider the meaning of “till” and “firstborn” in Matthew 1:25. “Till,” meaning “until,” does not necessarily mean at a certain point one condition of being is exchanged for another condition of being. Consider for example 1 Corinthians 15:25: “For He [Christ] must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet.” This certainly does not mean that after Christ puts all His enemies under His feet, He will no longer reign, for we know Christ reigns forever: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:32-33, ESV). Thus, we cannot say with certainty in reference to Matthew 1:25 that Joseph did not have sexual relations with Mary until after the birth of Jesus, but only that he did not do so before the birth of Jesus.

“Firstborn” is another critical term for proper understanding. It is a legalistic term conveying status and does not mean “first one of others.”[3] We see examples of this legalistic use of “firstborn” in Psalm 89:28 and Exodus 34:20. Even if a woman had only one child, that child still ranked in legal terms as “firstborn.” The term “firstborn” in itself tells us nothing in regards a woman having more than one child. As St. Jerome notes, “Every only child is a firstborn child; but not every firstborn is an only child. A firstborn child is not only one after whom other children are also born, but also one before whom no other child is born.”[4] In fact, St. Paul gives us a fuller meaning of the term as applied to Christ when he calls Jesus “the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15, ESV).

So, if the “brothers” of Jesus are not actually His half-brothers, who are they? Many Catholics will argue the “brothers of Jesus” were merely cousins. As Matthew 27:56 indicates, this could certainly be the case. It is true that Aramaic had no distinct term for “cousin,” so that “brother” was often used in a larger sense.[5] In fact, Jerome in his tract, On the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Mary against Helvidius,  written about AD 383, argues precisely that the “brothers” were actually cousins.[6] Similarly, many of the early Church Fathers, including Origen, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, Pope St. Siricius I, St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine, held strongly to the assertion that Mary was ever-virgin.[7]

Another source presents the earliest tradition explicitly portraying Mary as ever-virgin. The Protoevangelium of James (circa AD 150) “contains the oldest extant account of the miraculous birth, and of the infancy and youth of the Virgin Mary.”[8] This work claims Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, consecrated Mary as a perpetual virgin at the Temple. Later, Mary was betrothed to Joseph, an older widowed man with children, as something akin to a guardian. While non-canonical, the Protoevangelium of James should not simply be dismissed out-of-hand. As demonstrated above, Sacred Scripture cannot be shown to authoritatively indicate Mary and Joseph had other children (in fact, the evidence indicates the contrary). Thus, as a historical document, the Protoevangelium of James offers a plausible explanation for Mary’s ever-virgin state and accounts for the presence of Jesus’ “brothers” – in this explanation, step-brothers.[9]

Finally, even if we set everything else aside, let’s consider Mary as the Mother of God – and all this phrase implies. In this sense, her womb in a very real way became the vessel through which God made present in history the Mystery of the Incarnation. Through her physical body, God worked the Mystery of Christianity: God taking on human flesh and walking among men. Even if we grant that Mary and Joseph didn’t fully understand the Mystery of the Incarnation and the identity of Jesus (which seems unlikely), they still nevertheless understood God had wrought something beyond human understanding through the womb of Mary. If we let the full implications of this sink in, does it seem likely that either Mary or Joseph would have sought to defile with mere human relations that which had become something sacred? Given what we know about Mary and Joseph from the testimony of Sacred Scripture, does it really seem likely, to put it bluntly, that Joseph would say, “God is done, now it’s my turn”?

Long before any thought of a Protestant Reformation and long before the Great Schism of 1054, the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 declared as dogma the perpetual virginity of Blessed Mary.[10] For nearly one thousand years, no orthodox Christian questioned the truth of Mary as “ever-virgin.”

Even if one rejects the authority of the Second Council of Constantinople, simply considering the weight of the evidence above strongly indicates Mary remained ever-virgin. At the very least, the above arguments demonstrate that it is not unreasonable for a good Christian to hold to the position that Mary remained ever-virgin.

Notes

[1] Luther: “It is an article of faith that Mary is Mother of the Lord and still a virgin…Christ, we believe, came forth from a womb left perfectly intact.” Calvin: “There have been certain folk who have wished to suggest from this passage [Matthew 1:25] that the Virgin Mary had other children than the Son of God, and that Joseph had then dwelt with her later; but what folly this is!” Zwingli: “I firmly believe that Mary, according to the words of the Gospel, as a pure Virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and in childbirth and after childbirth forever remained a pure, intact Virgin.” [All as quoted in: Chacon, Frank and Jim Burnham. Beginning Apologetics 6: How to Explain and Defend Mary. Farmington, NM: San Juan Catholic Seminars, 2001.]

[2] Chacon and Burnham, 16.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] As quoted in: Scott Hahn and Leon Suprenant, Jr., eds., Catholic for a Reason II: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mother of God, Second Edition (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2004), 92.

[5] Jimmy Akin, The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church Fathers (San Diego, CA: Catholic Answers, 2010), 348.

[6] Jerome, On the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Mary against Helvidius. From: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893.), online at: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3007.htm.

[7] Akin, 351-353.

[8] Johannes Quasten, Patrology, Volume I: The Beginnings of the Patristic Literature (Antwerp, Netherlands: Spectrum Publishers, 1966), 119.

[9] Ibid., 118-122.

[10] Kenneth Baker, Fundamentals of Catholicism, Volume II (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1983), 354.

2012 All rights reserved.  This copyrighted material may not be reposted or reproduced in any form without permission.]

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"Adoration of the Shepherds" by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622 (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Ah, yes, Christmas, that time of year with a winter nip in the air (unless you live in parts of Florida where record highs in the 80s are forecast this weekend) and the time of year when the thoughts of old school Protestants (meaning those few Protestants who still find the need to base their beliefs on a militant anti-Catholicism), New Age “pagans,” and militant atheists turn yet again to the supposed “pagan” origins of Catholicism. Along with Easter and Halloween, the Feast of Christmas is yet another of those celebrations we are told “prove” the pagan origins of Catholicism. After all, everyone knows Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular are nothing more than “dressed up” paganism. It’s just too bad everyone is wrong…

Instead of merely reposting my piece on the true, non-pagan, origins for the December 25th date of Christmas, I share this link to a wonderful piece by Rev. Dwight Longenecker which does an excellent job of explaining (yet again) once and for all the true background of the Christian celebration of Christmas on December 25th.

Allow me to highlight a few points from Rev. Longenecker:

1. The “pagan origin” claimants begin with the capital mistake of assuming that mere resemblance proves causality. Simply because two things resemble each other does not mean one is the cause of the other. Two things can be strikingly similar yet share absolutely no causal relationship what-so-ever. Simply because Christians and pagans observed certain feasts at similar times throughout the year does not mean one automatically caused the other.

2. The Roman feast most often associated with Christmas by the “pagan originists” is Saturnalia, a Roman feast for the god Saturn which was held from December 17 to 23. However, this feast, while occurring on the wrong date (if Christianity “co-opted” this feast, why not make the date of Christmas December 17th to really sock it to those pagans?), also had nothing to do with the imagery of the solstice and the return of the sun. The focus of this feast centered more on the theme of sacrifice-to-appease-the-gods-for-a-good-harvest.

3. The Roman feast associated with the solstice was Dies Natalis Sol Invictus. The only problem here is the inconvenient fact that this feast wasn’t instituted until around AD 278, well after the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, and for quite some time remained a rather minor feast with a small cult. Further, we find no evidence that Sol Invictus was celebrated on December 25th until AD 360 – decades after Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in AD 315. In fact, the promotion of the feast was due to the influence of Julian the Apostate who attempted to turn back the tide of Christianity sweeping the Empire. Huh, so that means Sol Invictus was used by the Roman authorities in an attempt to “win back” Christians to paganism, not the other way around.

4. The “pagan origins” nonsense completely ignores the fact that thousands (some sources say millions) of Christians lost their property and in many cases their lives over their complete refusal to, as Rev. Longenecker puts it, “offer so much as one grain of incense to the pagan gods.” Yet, the “pagan originists” would have us believe the very people who were giving their lives over refusal to participate in anything even resembling paganism suddenly decided to “co-opt” pagan festivals.

5. If we actually take time to read the historical record provided us in the writings of the early Church Fathers, we find a clear answer as to why Christmas is celebrated on December 25th. As early as AD 386, we find a sermon by St. John Chrysostom linking the date of Christmas to the date of the Annunciation (the day the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive and give birth to Jesus). The wording of his sermon suggests this linking was already a long-accepted tradition within the Church. We need to remember early Christians were primarily Jewish converts and thus the roots of Christianity are in Judaism, not Romanism. The Jews believed the world began on March 25th. They also believed great men died on the same date as the date of their conception. Therefore, we find the early Christians believed the date of Jesus’ conception was March 25th. Let’s count nine months and see what we find: December 25th.

So, just as I pointed out last time, the date of Christmas has nothing to do with Romans or paganism, but everything to do with early Jewish belief and the dating of Jesus’ conception by early Christians.

Merry Christmas!

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