Advent Week 2 – Faith

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth. To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible.

And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her. Luke 1:26-38 (KJV)

We light the second Advent Candle for Faith. Faith that all things are possible with God, faith that He has a divine plan for each and every one of us that sees salvation for every man willing, and faith that we who repent and seek the Kingdom of Heaven will one day live everlasting with God, our Father.

While are first movements toward the birth of Christ come in the fuel of hope, the rhythm and cycle that we move into becomes our faith. Faith is much more than the belief in something that cannot be proven. Faith is about knowing by means which otherwise give us little indication of how the world works. I know my mother and father love me, I have faith that they love me, I cannot see this love, I cannot feel this love, I cannot even measure this love, but I am aware of it being present and its impact in my relationship with my parents. Faith and love share a unique relationship (more on that in a future Advent post).

Mary had faith in spades. When she was visited by an angel from the Lord she did not refute what was being told of her, no matter how wild it seemed from a logical perspective. Mary was a virgin and yet Mary was to have a child. And an elder of the area, a previously married man, is to take Mary and they are to have a son together that will be named Jesus. And not just that but her cousin, who is barren, will also have a child. She doesn’t question, she doesn’t waver– no doubt there are parts of her that want to– she simply says, “be it unto me according to thy word.” That is faith.

Sailors have faith. They depart safe harbours which are close to their family and friends and head out on small islands into wild seas. They have faith that their ships will keep the deadly water out. Faith that their captain can keep them away from trouble no matter what the weather throws at them. And faith that with each passing day they get closer and closer to being back in a safe harbour, with family and friends. Mary’s journey with Joseph feels a lot like a sailor departing on a long sail without little knowledge of where they are going and what they are doing while out there. But they have faith, and put that faith into the hands of their captain. To stress the analogy, Mary’s captain is God Himself. That is faith.

Almighty and merciful God,
let neither our daily work nor the cares of this life
prevent us from hastening to meet your Son.
Enlighten us with your wisdom
and lead us into his company.
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. Amen.

A Living Parable: Jesus Heals on the Sabbath

There is strong scriptural evidence to suggest that Jesus modeled His personal ministry on the prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament. Jeremiah is a major prophet in the Old Testament and is often called the “weeping prophet” because of his physical actions that conveyed God’s message to His people through Jeremiah. He is accredited with authoring, including the Book of Jeremiah, the Book of Kings and Book of Lamentations which all chronicle his physical actions and their meaning in Jewish society.

Thus the Lord said to me: Make yourself a yoke of straps and bars, and put them on your neck. Send word to the king of Edom, the king of Moab, the king of the Ammonites, the king of Tyre, and the king of Sidon by the hand of the envoys who have come to Jerusalem to King Zedekiah of Judah. (Jeremiah 27:2-3)

Jeremiah once famously bore a wooden yoke and proceeded to the courts of the most powerful monarchs of his time to demonstrate God’s teaching of the yoke the people had born by worshiping false gods and straying from the Lord, particularly because of the influence of a false prophet. After the wooden yoke is broken by one of the Kings, again as a sign of his supposed ability to crush the enemy’s power, Jeremiah returns with a message about an iron yoke that the people of Israel have taken upon themselves because of their sin.

Sometime after the prophet Hananiah had broken the yoke from the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: Go, tell Hananiah, Thus says the Lord: You have broken wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them! For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have put an iron yoke on the neck of all these nations so that they may serve King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and they shall indeed serve him; I have even given him the wild animals. And the prophet Jeremiah said to the prophet Hananiah, “Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie. Therefore thus says the Lord: I am going to send you off the face of the earth. Within this year you will be dead, because you have spoken rebellion against the Lord.” (Jeremiah 28:12-16)

Jesus often teaches in the same manner. And this makes perfect sense since it was God who commanded Jeremiah to take the yoke and use his physical demonstration as a lesson to the people of Israel. And Jesus is God, so that would mean that Jesus was of course part of Jeremiah’s message from God. But of all of the prophets of the Old Testament, Jesus seems to express Himself on earth using the same methods that Jeremiah deployed hundreds of years before His coming.

A perfect example of this type of physical demonstration is when Jesus heals a crippled woman in a synagogue on the Sabbath. Luke is the only Gospel writer that tells us of this miracle performed by Christ, but it fits within Luke’s persistent focus on aspects of the human body (which is typical considering he was a physician). It is important to note that there is something seemingly off at the very start of this account. The woman who is present in the synagogue– with what almost certainly appears to be scoliosis– would not be permitted inside of the place of worship under Jewish law. She would have been considered unclean and her livelong illness would have been interpreted as a sign that she was out of favour with God (or more plausibly that her family was out of favour with God). So right out of the gate in this account from Luke, we are skeptical that this entire scene isn’t a setup of some sort. Add on top the convenient fact that the president of the synagogue suddenly shows up with a sermon ready on hand about keeping the Sabbath holy. There is little doubt that this was a setup to trap Jesus by Jewish authorities in the region. But our God is a keen God and channeling a method of teaching used by Jeremiah centuries before, Jesus teaches the authorities a valuable lesson.

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” (Luke 13:10-14)

This account is not made in Luke’s Gospel simply to demonstrate a miracle performed by Christ. There is much more to the entire living parable here. The core of this Gospel account is the misplaced sanctity of the leaders of the nation of Israel. Often times Jesus will directly rebuke the leaders of the Jewish faith of His time for misinterpreting the law and misunderstanding God’s will, especially for the poor and sick among them. And this physical healing is in fact a living parable of how Christ comes to make all this new and holy and how that is the foundation of the law. In rejecting this woman because of her ailments, the Jewish authorities claim that they are carrying out God’s will and keeping the place of worship holy and clean. In healing on the Sabbath Jesus is directly contradicting a very closely held teaching within the Jewish establishment that no work shall be done on the Sabbath, but He also points out how hypocritical the Jews are about this teaching because of their complex legal system around interpreting what is okay and what is not okay to do on the Sabbath. It is even more perhaps convenient that when we review this web of legalism, more and more the exceptions are made for concerns relating to affluence and financial security. Even the example Jesus uses with the donkey relates to an exception that would only be relevant to people rich enough to own livestock at that time. So Jesus heals the woman, and this is a physical representation of how His blood will heal and make all things new within the world.

And it is important to see this healing in this light. This particular miracle is often hard for Christians who themselves suffer physical ailments. Jesus says, “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham who Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?” Well certainly, but why are we not all worthy as sons and daughters of the same Abraham to be healed just the same as this woman? It is because this healing is much more than just fixing the woman. Indeed, there is nothing inherently wrong with her at all– just the same as there is nothing inherently wrong or abnormal about any differently-abled person. Jesus is not healing her for the sake of healing her, He is healing her to demonstrate a very powerful and very important lesson: that He comes to truly sanctify Israel and the whole world.

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Transfiguration of the Son of Man

Jesus often refers to Himself as the Son of Man. It happens so often in each and every one of the Gospel accounts that it almost becomes cliche and, because of its pure saturation in Scripture, I would wager it often gets overlooked. The term Son of Man is in fact incredibly loaded and carries with it both a simple, mortal account and a complex, celestial account that are both equally rooted in the Old Testament.

There are many references to Son of Man throughout the Old Testament. However there are two contexts in which the title or phrase is used. In one context the phrase means mortal, or “mere man” (Num 23:1; Job 25:6; Ps 8:4; Sir 17:30). In this sense, when Jesus calls Himself the Son of Man, He may very well be calling Himself a human, the son of another human and therefore a human Himself. The problem with just that interpretation is that Jesus often linked His use of the term Son of Man with powerful divine prerogatives granted to Him. As the Son of Man, Jesus claims authority to forgive sins (Mk 2:10), suspend the Sabbath (Mk 2:28), judge men for their deeds (Jn 5:27) and even claims to have come down to Earth from Heaven (Jn 3:31). These are important claims to authority that are purposefully linked to Jesus being the Son of Man, and the reason is present within the Book of Daniel.

In chapter 7, the prophet Daniel spends a great deal of time and words imparting a jarring vision that he had while sleeping. In his dream, a series of beasts walk out of the sea in succession. These monsters, Daniel tells us, represent the pagan empires who are hostile to Israel. The most terrible and largest of these beasts is the fourth, who rises from the sea and begins to trample on the “saints of the Most High” (Dan 7:25). The vision suddenly cuts to a Heavenly court. A being “like a son of man” is escorted into the courtroom on the clouds of Heaven (Dan 7:13). During the trial, the son of man is deemed worthy and is given a kingdom that is unmatched in size and prestige to any in history. In addition to the coronation, the fourth beast is condemned by the court and its dominions are handed over to the son of man and the Saints of God (Dan 7:26-27).

In this version of the Son of Man, we see a being in the likeness of a human being granted authority over all of creation, including the dominions of the fourth beast. This is where Jesus anchors His claims to divine authority and it is why He is clear in linking the Son of Man with this divine majesty and power.

What does this have to do with the Transfiguration?

Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. (Luke 9:28-29)

When Jesus takes the three up the mountain and is transfigured before them, His appearance and His being do not change outside of the confines of his manhood. Jesus is the Son of Man– God and human— in the same way that the term Son of Man has a meaning that is both humble and divinely profound. And when Jesus is transfigured to reveal His Glory and His favour with God, He remains human. We are told of how His being was altered but not so much that He was no longer recognizable to His friends. And neither were Moses or Elijah who came to join Jesus in His Glory. Jesus glorifies the human body in the same manner as He glorifies His Father as the Son of Man.

The Son of Man is a great mystery contained within the Catholic deposit of faith. But just because it is mystery does not mean that it lacks meaning and purpose sustained throughout the entire Gospels and Scripture.

Mary, Ark of the Covenant

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The Gospel according to Saint Luke tells us more about Mary, the Mother of Jesus, than any other book of the New Testament. The majority of this is a stringing of scripture from Israel into the infancy story of Christ in the first few chapters of the Gospel. The narrative itself is a delightfully layered perspective that hinges itself upon the founding of the nations of Israel with David’s efforts to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem which is capture in 2 Samuel.

There are subtle but significant links between Mary’s Visitation with Elizabeth and David’s efforts to move the Ark of the Covenant. For example, Luke writes that Mary “arose and went” to the Judean hill country to visit her family (1:39) which echos exactly what Samuel writes about how David “arose and went” into the exactly same region centuries before to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam 6:2). When Elizabeth sees Mary as she arrives she is struck with the same awe and fear that David felt upon seeing the Ark of the Covenant for the first time. The joy is echoed further when Elizabeth’s baby dances inside her similar to how David danced around the Ark (2 Sam 6:16) when she is in the presence of Mary carrying Jesus. And lastly, Luke tells us how Mary stayed for “three months” (1:40 56) with Zechariah’s family recollecting how the Ark of the Covenant was temporarily housed in the “house of Obed-edom” for a waiting period of “three months” (2 Sam 6:11). All together these themes form the basis of Mary being a sacred vessel which is housing God Himself, which is exactly the storyline present in David bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and uniting the tribes of Israel.

There is another link that Luke draws from the Book of Chronicles that alludes to his own Greek upbringing. When Elizabeth bursts into a joyful cry at the presence of Mary and her Child, Luke uses the Greek term for “exclaimed,” which on its own seems entirely innocuous. Except that in the Greek manuscripts of Old Testament writings, the Greek term is only used five times and is never used again in any New Testament writing. And the only five times it is found in the OT are about stories concerning the Ark of the Covenant. Luke is drawing a direct parallel between Mary, the Mother of God, and the Ark of the Covenant using a convenient literary device that would have almost certainly been obvious to his intended audience.

Luke provides us with a vision of Mary with clarity unprecedented within the entire New Testament. By linking Mary early in his Gospel with the Ark of the Covenant, Luke does not shy away from the gravity of importance imparted upon the story he about to tell. Again, as a literary genius, and man with a critical scientific eye, Luke systematically builds a case for Jesus as the Messiah and he begins his opening remarks with a powerful reach into the Holy Scriptures of Israel to establish the foundation and makes obvious that Mary is in fact the New Ark of the New Covenant.

The Gospel according to Saint Luke

Luke (Greek: Loukan) was a physician and companion of the Apostle Paul. Early Church Fathers such as Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria assert Luke’s authorship of the third Gospel book account of Jesus Christ. There is very little reason to doubt Luke’s authorship of this Gospel. In addition to writing the Gospel, Luke is ascribed authorship of the Acts of the Apostles and together these books make up what scholars refer to as Luke-Acts; a two part account of the life of Christ and the founding of His Holy Church. Together the two books comprise over one quarter of the entire New Testament, making Luke the largest single contributor to the NT. Luke opens his Gospel by telling the person he has dedicated the writings to, that he wishes to provide an “orderly account” (1:3) of the life of Jesus, and that is just what we get with this Gospel.

Traditionally, through Luke’s writings and what little is known about his life, scholars have described him as being a Gentile akin to Paul but in recent times he has been theorized as being a Hellenistic Jew, which would have separated him from his Temple ordinance following brethren in the apostles of Christ. Regardless of his ethnic background, Luke presents an exacting account of the life of Christ which is beautifully structured and which he claims to have “followed all things closely” that the reader “may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.” (1:3)

Date

There is no scholarly consensus on when Luke’s Gospel was composed. The dates among scholars range from 60-80 AD but for many reasons it appears the earlier date range would be more appropriate. This is not so much because of what Luke says in his Gospel and Acts but what he doesn’t mention– his silence on certain issues speaks louder than his words. For example,

  • Acts ends abruptly after Paul is in prison around 62 AD, but does not speak of his trial or his subsequent martyrdom.
  • Luke writes in Acts to Christianity’s relationship with Rome, he does not mention the well documented Roman persecutions which started in mid-60 AD.
  • And in neither the Gospel or the Acts of the Apostles is there mention of the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD.

These are a strong indication that Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts were written in the early 60s AD, before any of these events had happened.

Audience

Luke addressed his Gospel and subsequent Acts of the Apostles to Theophilus who was possibly a Roman official who agreed to finance the works. The name means friend of God or more closely beloved by God or loving God. In that sense, it is also possible that Theophilus is not a single person and may be a group of early Christians involved in funding the works, or Luke could be addressing a wider audience of Christians. At any rate, there is no doubt that Luke intended for his Gospel and Acts to be read beyond the patronage of Theophilus and it did spread into the wider Mediterranean world with particular impact among Gentile Christians. Luke often removes Semitic words or outright replaces them with their Greek equivalent and the entire Greek text is written in a form and style of Greek that alludes to his higher education and formation in Greek culture. It is also clear in the literary devices employed by Luke, that he assumes his reader will have a clear and ready understanding of the Scriptures of Israel. In this sense, reading the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles is much like watching a television show with many references to popular culture and outside stories/jokes that requires the viewer to know and understand these tropes and jokes in order to fully appreciate the richness of the show and the writing.

Structure

Luke’s Gospel is logically arranged. Generally, the Gospel follows the similar storyline as Matthew and Mark. He opens with a traditional prologue and then with the Infancy Narrative, followed by Jesus’ preparations for Ministry, and then His Galilean Ministry into the Journey to Jerusalem, the Passion Week Narratives including the crucifixion and finally ending with the Resurrection and Ascension.

Themes

Luke has three major themes through his Gospel:

  • The Salvation of Israel. Luke anchors his Gospel in the tradition of Israel and mimics the founding of the nation of Israel during the entire Infancy Narrative of Christ. He thus clearly identifies Jesus as the Messiah who comes in the line of David to reunite the scattered tribes of Israel by gathering them into his Kingdom.
  • The Salvation of the Nations. The forgiveness that Jesus offers to the people of Israel is extended to the Gentiles as well according to Luke, and early in his Gospel we hear Simeon calling Jesus “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” (2:32). John the Baptist, channeling Isaiah, says that “all flesh” can now look to Christ for salvation (3:6). And Jesus tells his apostles that salvation must be carried “to all nations” (24:27).
  • The Salvation of the Lowly. Luke emphasizes a number of statements made by Jesus concerning outcasts, the poor and disreputable among us. Women in particular are showcased throughout Luke’s Gospel despite their relative low social standing in that time period.

In addition to his three themes, Luke brings the curious eye of a scientific man to his Gospel account. While there was certainly no such thing as the scientific method at this time, there was a methodology of study that Luke would have undoubtedly been exposed to as a Greek pupil. Of all of the Gospel writers, Luke presents the most “western” account of Jesus’ life, ministry and early church because he writes in the style and authority of a learned professional with a critical eye. His descriptions of the sick and elderly through out his entire account reveal his medical acumen and curiosity. And his literary style is robust and clear in a manner that allows any reader to come back time and time again to his Gospel and Acts to dive ever more deeper into the alliterations, allegories and beautiful rhetorical devices employed throughout these stalwart Biblical books. Both the substance and the style of the Gospel according to Saint Luke come together to articulate the sole purpose of the document giving us an “orderly account” of the life of Christ, His ministry and His conquering of sin and death.