Saturday, September 25, 2010

Doesn't Jesus forbid oaths?

Dear Rev. Know it all,
 I read in your column that we are a society built on the sacredness of oaths. I thought Jesus said we shouldn’t swear oaths. My Aunt Brandeen belongs to the Quaking Separate Brethren and she won’t even take an oath when  they haul her up into court for being rowdy because, she says the Bible the forbids oaths.
Mrs. Tess T. Fye
Dear Mrs. Fye,
I suspect you are referring to Matthew 5, verse 33 and following:
“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”

Reading this, one would certainly assume that oaths are forbidden. Jesus comments on this more fully further on in the Gospel of Matthew (23:16 and following.)
“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.' You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, 'If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’”

To understand this passage you have to understand a little bit of Talmudic thought. One of the most beautiful passages of music in the world, at least according to my tastes is the Kol Nidre, which is sung on Yom Kippur. I will never forget my shock when I first read the words of this heart wrenching melody. It is a legal disclaimer!
“All vows, obligations, oaths, and anathemas, whether called 'konam,' 'konas,' or by any other name, which we may vow, or swear, or pledge, or whereby we may be bound, from this Day of Atonement until the next (whose happy coming we await), we do repent. May they be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, and void, and made of no effect; they shall not bind us nor have power over us. The vows shall not be reckoned vows; the obligations shall not be obligatory; nor the oaths be oaths.”

Many rabbis say that the Kol Nidre applies only to vows an individual makes to himself and God, such as, “So help me God, I swear I will lose 50 pounds this year.” Vows made to others are still binding. The origins of the Kol Nidre are obscure. Some say that this dispensation was made to absolve those who were baptized by force. More probably, it was an absolution for any rash promise made to God. The tendency to swear elaborate and easily broken oaths had become an ethical problem for Jews, and this is the sort of thing that Jesus is talking about.

The idea is that any oath I ask God to witness is absolutely binding. For instance, if I swear, well I am a weak human being. If I ask God to witness my oath, I have involved the majesty of God and thus am bound. So how does one get God to witness an oath? Why was it binding if I swear by the gold of the temple, but not by the temple itself? Simple. The gold had been offered to God, and thus was his particular possession sometimes from an offering in fulfillment of a vow. The temple itself was not part of an offering, nor any part of a vow that God had been called to witness. Thus, it was not swearing by God. It may seem odd to you and me, but it worked for the rabbis at the time of Christ, or so I have been told.
In the Talmud there is a whole section on oaths. Oaths are thought to be binding only as  far as God permits the circumstances for their fulfillment. Some commentators say that Jews can’t be bound by oaths that force them to engage in forbidden activities. It gets complicated. That’s why Jesus said don’t make oaths that can be squirmed out of.  That’s His point, not that you can’t swear to tell the truth in court.  Just say Yes and No and mean it! Jesus was dealing with problem that the Kol Nidre tackles in just about the opposite way.  

In fact a certain kind of oath is central to Christian life, called the covenant oath and it is unbreakable. One more time; sacrament means oath to the death. “Til death do us part.” Jesus swore this kind of oath at the last supper. (Matt 26: v.27-29) “Then He took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is My blood, the blood of covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in My Father's kingdom.’”

Simple, straight forward and fulfilled on the cross when he tasted the sour wine offered Him by the soldiers and said “It is finished.” The cross was His royal throne and His sacrificial death initiated the Kingdom. That’s what we do at Mass. We join our oath to His. Until the Reformation, Christians believed this completely. Oaths were unbreakable and not to be taken lightly.

In his own account of his trial, St. Thomas More wrote that “Unto the oath that there was offered me I could not swear, without the jeopardizing of my soul to perpetual damnation.” In other words, he believed that to swear an oath falsely would send him to hell. He is quoted as saying “When you take an oath, you hold your soul in your hands." His family came to his jail cell to beg him to sign the oath declaring King Henry VIII to be the head of the Church in England. After all, it was just a scrap of paper. What did it matter? To St. Thomas More it was not just a scrap of paper. It was his soul held in his hands.

Nowadays a marriage vow is just a scrap of paper. A baptismal certificate is just a scrap of paper. Communion and confirmation certificates, they’re just scraps of paper.  More was right when he said that to take an oath is to take your soul into you hands, or still worse to take the souls of your children in your hands. Their little souls can run through your fingers like water or blow a way like a morning mist. Be very careful when you swear the oath by baptizing your children or presenting them for first communion or confirmation or when you marry or take religious vows. You are risking your eternal soul and theirs. 

Have a nice day,

Rev. Know-it-all            

Saturday, September 18, 2010

What about the promises of St. Fidgetta?


Dear Rev. Know it all,

Have you heard of the 18 promises of St. Fidgetta? She had a vision in which the Archangel Meshugas revealed amazing things. Among them are that the stock market would spike in June of 2012. This would be followed by eight days of smog after which would come the final judgment. We will only be able to breathe if we have face masks blessed by the Fidgettine Monks of Bugtussle, Arkansas. Can you share any insight on the topic?
Mr. Perry Noid

Dear Perry,
The promise of St. Fidgetta comes under the heading of private revelation. The catechism discusses private revelation in Paragraphs 66 and 67.
The Christian economy (This does not have to do with money. In this sense it means God’s plan for salvation.) therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ." Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries.
Throughout the ages, there have been so-called "private" revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ's definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the Magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium (good sense of the faithful) knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church.
Christian faith cannot accept "revelations" that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such "revelations".

So there is public revelation and private revelation. The treasure of public revelation is to be believed by all who are members of the Church. God speaks to His people through private revelations in order to apply His truth to the present historical situation and to remind us of what He has ALREADY said. There is nothing new or different in an authentic prophetic word given as private revelation. Catholics are not obliged to believe private revelation. In fact, we are encouraged to be a little skeptical. If a revelation encourages prayer, fasting and works of mercy, all well and good. If we are encouraged to buy real estate in the vicinity of Bugtussle, that may be a different matter.
Two Bible passages might help you understand what the catechism is saying: (John 16: 4) “I have told you this, so that when the time comes you will remember that I warned you. I did not tell you this at first because I was with you.” The purpose of Christian prophecy is not to foretell the future with precision. Even about His own prophesying Jesus said that the disciples would only understand the prophetic warnings when they happened. The goal of the Christian life is not fortune telling, but trust. The Lord warns of things so that when they happen we will know that He is involved and we can count on Him. Sometimes there are very clear references to the future, but they are only understandable when they happen, or shortly before. The Fatima children were told that before the next and more terrible war, there would be a strange light in the sky. “When you see a night that is lit by a strange and unknown light, you will know it is the sign God gives you that He is about to punish the world with war and with hunger, and by the persecution of the Church and the Holy Father.”
On January 25, 1938 a mysterious light filled the night sky over much of the northern hemisphere. It was an unusual aurora borealis. When Lucia, by then a nun in Portugal, saw it, she realized that it was the light that the Blessed Mother had told them about. Less than two months later, on March12, 1938, Hitler annexed and invaded Austria, and began the devouring of Europe that took untold millions of lives. There was nothing more to be done about it. The Lord had already said that repentance could change history, but who listens to that sort of thing. We want stock market tips. When the light appeared over Europe, it was as if the Lord was saying, “Fasten your seat belts. Here we go.” All you can do at that point is trust God. It’s not as if we weren’t warned then and as if we haven’t been warned now.
Then we have 1 Corinthians, 13: 8-9, “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease.; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part.”
I am really big on Fatima. It was an amazing event that changed world history. For those of you who have never heard of Fatima or don’t take it seriously, I quote O S├ęculo, Portugal's most influential newspaper, which was pro-government in policy and avowedly anti-clerical. (On Oct. 13, 1917) "Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bare-headed, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws - the sun 'danced' according to the typical expression of the people." The phenomenon was visible to many throughout Europe, not just in Portugal. I actually knew someone who was in Rome at the time and saw it. I know a woman whose father was a soldier in the trenches of World War I. He said all the soldiers with him saw the sun doing strange things. They thought it was some new German weapon. What happened at Fatima was a miracle comparable to the pillar of fire and cloud in the story of the Exodus. It is among the most amazing things to ever happen. Still, it wasn’t perfect. On that amazing day when the sun seemed to dance and fall from the sky Lucia stood up and said. “It’s the end of the world!!!” She was wrong. You may say “Obviously that means that the whole thing is nonsense.” I would beg to differ.
Fatima is a private revelation. No Catholic is obliged to believe it. You may agree with the cretins who pass for historians who blame the whole event on hysterical children and swamp gas. Lucia may have been mistaken about the end of the world, but about a whole lot of other things she was right on the money. Still it is private revelation. The Catholic Church never requires belief in a private revelation. The most we will say about a revelation is that there is nothing harmful to the faithful in the content of the vision. Fatima urges prayer, fasting and a life of moral integrity. These are good things. As for the rest, well, we’ll wait and see.
There are endless visions that promise if you wear this, if you pray this etc. All these are predicated on sincere repentance, if they are authentic. This is the Gospel message. There is no guarantee given by God and His Church except saving trust in Christ. If someone wears the orange medallion of St. Fidgetta which promises that the wearer will be in the ten items or less line on the day of judgment, and then dedicates his life to bar hopping and tripping little old ladies, he is not guaranteed salvation. If one wears the medallion, or the scapular or whatever as a sincere sign of repentance and a reminder of God’s love, then these things are of great help. Remember what the catechism says about superstition in paragraph 2111,
“Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.”

We want a sure thing, but the only sure thing is Christ. These private revelations and devotions are meant to draw us to Him. They are wonderful gifts from God, but remember the Scriptures: “God will not be mocked. As a man sows that shall he reap.” (Gal.6:7) If you use these great gifts such as scapulars and devotions as an expression of a sincere desire for God’s grace, God is merciful and faithful. If you use them as substitutes for repentance you are only fooling yourself.
Rev. Know-it-all

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Why do you worship graven images?

Dear Rev. Know it all.

The Bible is clear. NO GRAVEN IMAGES. (Exodus 20:2-17) "You shall not make for yourself an idol.... You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God." And Deuteronomy 5:6-21 says exactly the same thing. The Catholic have neatly tucked this second commandment into the first so people won't notice it. What do you have to say about that?

May T. Fortress
Dear May,

Let me answer the second question first. Catholics follow the division of the commandments established by St. Augustine around the year 400, which was the same as the Jewish division at that time.  Martin Luther and his followers still use the same Augustinian division as the Catholics. Maimonides, the Jewish sage in the 1100's, divided them differently. In his division which today's Jews use the commandment against idol worship is a completely separate commandment. We have divided the commandment in St. Augustine's way for at least 1,600 years.

Now for the next question. The commandments in both Deuteronomy and Exodus forbids bowing down (lo tishtak'we) and the serving (lo ta'abdem) of images. In my whole life I have never bowed down to nor served an idol or an image. I have knelt at shrines where there are images, because the Lord says that wherever two or three are gathered in His name, He is present. (Matt: 18-20) When I join in prayer with the saints, whether those on earth or those in glory, I often kneel, because the Lord is present as He promised, but I have never prostrated myself before an image, and that is exactly what the word for worship means in both Hebrew and Greek (proskynein).

I am not just playing at words here. I mean it. Worship is to lie flat out before God, sometimes in body, always in soul. It is to confess that He alone is God. To ask for the prayers of the saints is quite another thing.

Even in the Mosaic covenant, the prohibition against images was not absolute. In the tent and in the temple there were representations of the Cherubim as well as of plants and animals. There was even the graven image of the bronze serpent that Moses had made in the dessert (Num.21:6) which was eventually removed from the temple when people began to burn incense to it (2 Kings 18:4) and to worship it.

The first Christians relaxed the prohibition on images because God Himself had given us a visible image of Himself. (Col:1-15). Against the images of saints there has never been a prohibition. It is clear from the practice of the Israelites that only images of gods are prohibited, and no true Catholic would ever mistake an image of a saint for God.

Images of the saints and especially of the characters of the Bible Story became common on the Middle Ages when many could not read. Statues, pictures and stained glass windows taught the stories of the faith to the illiterate. The great cathedrals of the Middle Ages were the schools of the poor. Art had always been used this way by Christians and it still is. When did you first hear the Gospel story? I remember when I was a very little boy, that my parents told me what the Christmas crib meant and who the characters were. Pictures in my children's Bible made me want to hear the story and the beauty of the Church, with its paintings and images helped me know the power and the peace of God. If you are opposed to religious images, have you thrown out your picture Bibles, your art and your Christmas crib?

In the temple there was no danger of the worship of the cherubs or any other image, because the presence of the Lord filled the temple. And in the same way there is no real danger for a real Catholic in the use of religious images because we enjoy the real presence of God present in the Tabernacle that holds the Eucharist, the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, who is the visible image of the invisible God.

I have pictures of my parents which are very dear to me, especially now that they have left this world. I have never once mistaken a picture for my mother or father. It would be all the more ridiculous if my parents were still here, to reverence the picture and not the parents. So it is with Catholics. The saints are in glory and their images remind us of their constant prayer for their brethren who still struggle here, but they are not gods. Even images of the Lord Jesus are only reminders of His nearness.

I would never mistake the image for the Lord, because whenever I want, I can go into a church and spend an hour with Him who is really present in the tabernacle even more truly than the god of Israel dwelt in the temple in Jerusalem. If I go into any church where the Lord is present in the sacrament, I am not alone. Why would I cling to an image when the Lord is so near?

Rev. Know-it-all    

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Where do I find Marian devotion in Scripture?

Dear Rev Know it all,
If devotion to the Blessed Mother is authentically Christian and comes to us as part of the faith that we received from the Apostles, why doesn’t it seem to be reflected in the Scriptures?
Yours, Marian D. Voshun

Dear Marian,
Devotion to our Blessed Mother is most certainly reflected in the Scriptures. In order to point out where and how it is let me do a little speculating. WARNING!! THE FOLLOWING IS JUST A THEORY AND SHOULD BE NOT BE TAKEN AS CATHOLIC DOCTRINE (Still, it’s an interesting possibility.)
There are two Gospels that were written roughly one hundred years after the death and resurrection of the Lord, and though they are not inspired, nor considered canonical, they probably do contain some reliable historical details  about the lives of Jesus and Mary. Both these texts given evidence that, a century after the fact, Mary was already regarded as a central person in the life of the Church. When theses stories are read in the light of the four canonical gospels, they bring up some interesting possibilities.
The first is called The Gospel according to the Hebrews, preserved only in fragments in the writings of the Church Fathers. It seems to indicate that Jesus went to be baptized by John at the suggestion of our Blessed Mother. The following is a quote fro the Gospel of the Hebrews
And behold the mother of the Lord and his brothers said to him, "John the Baptist baptizes for the forgiveness of sins. Let us go and be baptized by him." But Jesus said to them, "in what way have I sinned that I should go and be baptized by him? Unless perhaps, what I have just said is a sin of ignorance".

Compare this to St. John, chapter 2, the wedding feast at Cana.
On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus' mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus' mother said to him, "They have no more wine." "(My) Lady, what is it to you and me?" Jesus replied, "My hour has not yet come."

 In both cases Jesus seems to be resisting His Mother’s suggestion. It seems to me, that our Blessed Mother is reminding Jesus that the time has come  to begin the work of redemption. Remember, Jesus is 100% human and 100% divine. I wonder if, in the fullness of His humanity, Jesus didn’t realize that His baptism in the Jordan and the beginning of His miracles meant the end of the quiet life of a handy man in Nazareth in the midst of home and mother. Remember that Jesus, “ the days of His flesh, offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Son though He was, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.” (Hebrews 5:6-8) In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus pleaded with His Divine Father, but still He obeyed. Jesus was like us in all things but sin (Heb. 4:15). He was no masochist. Like us, He didn’t want to suffer.  If this is the case, the Gospel of John and the noncanonical Gospel of the Hebrews reflects an awareness that Mary’s role in the life of Christ was more than incidental.
Elsewhere in the canonical gospels, we see Mary’s unique status in the early church.  “Mary treasured these things in her heart.” (Luke 2:19) and Mary said “...all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48)   Mary is mentioned by name about twenty-five times in the New Testament and as Jesus’ mother about 50 times. This makes me think that, for a woman who said little and wrote nothing, she had a  unique importance among the little flock of early Christians. “All right, she is mentioned,” I can hear you saying, “but where is her role as intercessor?”
Let’s consider her life. Though we have no firm dates, it is reasonable to say that she was born about 15BC., and if she lived a biblical life span she died at 70 or 80 years.  That would put her death at 65AD. Something huge happened in 64 AD: the beginning of the first persecution of the Church by the emperor Nero following the great fire of Rome. I suspect that St. John’s exile to Patmos would have happened at this time. Dr, Scott Hahn, who is one smart cookie, makes the point that the Apocalypse isn’t a prophecy of the end of the world, rather it’s a prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem which took place in 70 AD. Jesus had prophesied this in three of the four Gospels and the Christian community did in fact abandon Jerusalem shortly before its destruction. 
If St. John is the author of the Apocalypse, (which all sorts of people say he isn’t, though tradition says he is) and if Dr. Hahn is correct, then the Apocalypse would have been written during John’s imprisonment on Patmos possibly during the Neronian persecution of the church. It is doubtful that were he exiled there as an old man he would have survived very long. In the year 64 he was still in his 50's.
This gives us some insight into the chronology of the life of our Blessed Mother, We know that Mary lived with John after the death and resurrection of Jesus (John 19:27) We also know that around 50AD, John is in Jerusalem at the First Council of Jerusalem, (Acts 15) It would seem to me that sometime after this he took up residence in Ephesus, and that Mary would have accompanied him. If John were arrested sometime around 65AD, Mary may have returned to Jerusalem as she ended her life in this world. There is a strong tradition that Mary died and was buried in Jerusalem, and there she was taken up to heaven. If the Apocalypse was written sometime around 65 AD and the other New Testament  Scriptures were written from 50 AD to 70 AD, Mary’s intercessory role in heaven would not have been apparent. She wasn’t in heaven. She was in Ephesus.
There are two Scriptures which speak clearly of the role of our Blessed Mother Acts 1:13  Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. The disciples are named, but the only other person named is “Mary, the mother of Jesus.”  She was singled out in a unique way at a time when she was interceding for the church.
And then there is Revelation 12 in which we read of the great sign, a woman clothed with the sun who cried out in childbirth. Her offspring was snatched into heaven to save him from the devouring dragon, and she herself fled to the desert, to a place prepared for her by God. I wonder if, when these images were brought to John by the Holy Spirit, he didn’t remember the stories that Mary told all those years she was like a mother to him. She must have told him about how she had fled with Joseph from the wrath of Herod the Great and how they traveled through the desert of Sinai to Egypt. He must have remembered how, after her son Jesus was taken up to heaven, she had fled with John from Herod’s grandson during the first persecution of the Jerusalem church. I imagine that the Holy Spirit reminded him of these things and gave them new and prophetic meaning. He understood that she was the image of the whole church, the mother who cries out in childbirth, as if interceding for the birth of the firstborn, the mother who is persecuted and exiled, the mother cared for by God.
If my chronology is at all correct, Mary only begins to be understood as the paradigm of the church after the greater part of the New Testament had been written, but as soon as she was gone, St. John wrote in veiled and prophetic language of the great symbol that she is. Having lost this mother who had been with him for more than thirty years, he understood more fully who she  was and what her life meant. From these first understandings the church has always grown in its love and devotion to her. God has no ego problem. The love and devotion offered to the saints, and to the Blessed Mother in particular, does not detract one bit from the worship offered to Him.
Rev. Know-it-all