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Sola Which Scriptura?

27 Jun

“On what ground do we receive the Canon as it comes to us but on the authority of the Church?”
~ Bl. John Henry Newman

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Shopping for a Protestant Bible

9 May

“The idea of the unity of God’s people…is profoundly based in Scripture.”
~ Pontifical Biblical Commission

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Wipo of Burgundy: Our Easter Template of Ordinary Discipleship

28 Apr

When I left the Easter Saturday Mass at St. Monica’s yesterday morning, the alleluias were ringing in my ears. It had been an exhilarating way to round out the Octave, with lots enthusiastic singing and pervasive joy – alleluia indeed!

Of special note was Fr. Jacob Meyer’s resonant intoning of the Easter Sequence, Victimae paschali laudes (“Christians, Praise the Paschal Victim”) – in Latin. Since my own Latin is considerably rusty, I scrambled with a hymnal to find an English translation so I could follow along, and I couldn’t help taking note of the Sequence’s author at the bottom of the page: “ascr. to Wipo of Burgundy, d. 1048.”

Yes, that’s right, Wipo. Not exactly a household name (and neither are its variant renderings, “Wippo” and “Wigbert”), and I admit I did a big double take the first time I spied it. Nonetheless, you’ll find it in every hymnal’s fine print, although it’s usually hedged a bit with that appended “ascribed to” disclaimer – something that accompanies a lot of ancient attributions. However, the ascription is strong enough that it was repeated three times in the St. Monica hymnal’s index in conjunction with three different settings of the work.

Born around the year 1000, Wipo was ordained a priest, and then he served as a chaplain for the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II. Wipo also wrote poetry and apothegms, and he authored several works of history and biography that are respected for their stylistic panache and relative objectivity. But, as far as ecclesial matters are concerned, Wipo is just a tentative footnote in our modern hymnals. Neither a pope nor a bishop; not a saint nor a Doctor of the Church; just Wipo – or Wippo, or Wigbert – who may have penned a great Paschal poem that was eventually incorporated into our Sacramentary and Eastertide observances.

In other words, a liturgical one-hit wonder.

And, yet, what a wonder it is. “One of the finest of the transitional Sequences,” according to Sr. J. Isaac Jogues Rousseau, SSND. We all heard Wipo’s masterpiece on Easter Sunday, when it’s obligatory every year, and maybe you’ve been hearing it (or singing it yourself) throughout the week at daily Mass. Like other Sequences, it precedes the proclamation of the day’s Gospel, and it’s an extra, especially jubilant recapitulation of the festival’s core themes – in this case, the Paschal feast’s good news of redemption through Jesus Christ, our resurrected savior.

About halfway through, it declares, “O Mary, come and say what you saw at break of day” – the ideal lead-in to yesterday’s Gospel wherein Mary Magdalene reports to the skeptical Apostles her encounter with the risen Christ. The Eleven likewise balk at a similar testimony from the two Emmaus disciples, and so Jesus finally confronts them in person – no denying the Resurrection at that point! After upbraiding the Apostles for their unbelief, Jesus repeats to them what he’d told Mary: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16.15).

That’s the same commission we heard at the end of the Sequence: “Share the good news, sing joyfully: his death is victory!” Wipo’s Easter poem jubilantly sums up the essence of what we’ve been celebrating throughout the Octave – what we’re living, in fact, as contemporary witnesses to our own transforming encounters with the risen Lord.

And, following Wipo’s lead, those encounters are worth rhapsodizing about, in word and deed. May we do so with flair and delight throughout the sequence of all our days, and may a Wipo-like obscurity attend our efforts that humility be preserved. For even if, with God’s grace, we end up accomplishing great things in temporal terms, it’ll be in our interests if “ascr. to” appends to our names, both now and forever. “Our Christian destiny is, in fact, a great one,” writes Thomas Merton, “but we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great.”

Amen. Al-le-lu-ia.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Glorious Exposure

13 Apr

Basilica_of_the_Sacred_Heart_(Notre_Dame,_Indiana)_-_interior,_The_Lady_Chapel,_mural,_The_Exaltation_of_the_Holy_Cross_by_Luigi_Gregori,_looking_straight_up-001

“All those who love must be known sooner or later as they are, without pretense, their souls stripped bare.”
~ Caryll Houselander

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Of Wound Healing, Scar Tissue, and Humility

10 Feb

“Be content that you are not yet a saint…. Then you will be satisfied to let God lead you to sanctity by paths that you cannot understand.”
~ Thomas Merton, OCSO

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Of Papyri, Perimeters, and Possibility

27 Jan

“So keep still, and let Him do some work.”
~ Thomas Merton, OCSO

Earlier in January, as the Christmas season progressed, we heard from the First Letter of John during the weekday Mass readings. One morning, out of curiosity, I grabbed a handy New American Bible at home to refresh my memory about the Epistle’s backstory. I read the Introduction, and then, my curiosity further stirred, I turned to the Introduction for the Second Letter of John. “Written in response to similar problems,” it began, “the Second and Third Letters of John are of the same length, perhaps determined by the practical consideration of the writing space on one piece of papyrus” (emphasis added).

I paused and pondered, and then I envisioned St. John sitting down to write these two missives destined to become Sacred Scripture. He’s anxious about specific difficulties in the fledgling communities he’ll be addressing – false teaching, harmful divisions, a lack of hospitality – and yet he’s limiting his communication, whether by choice or paucity of resources, to a single page each. Both letters are indeed very brief – 13 verses for II John, and 15 verses for III John – and perhaps they adequately served their purpose in the churches which originally received them.

Regardless, these two short memos came to be accepted by the Church as Holy Writ, and both Letters have cameos in the Lectionary every couple years. Even so, I couldn’t help wondering what else was tumbling around in John’s head as he came to the end of each physical page. Evidently there was plenty. “Although I have much to write to you,” he notes in the Second Letter, “I do not intend to use paper and ink” (v.12).

It strikes me that all this is a helpful image of how God is eager to work through us despite our limitations – and despite our own doubts concerning his ability to do so. That’s a weird notion, in any case, because we see plenty evidence in Scripture and Church history of his accomplishing amazing things through very imperfect people. Peter is the easiest example – a hotheaded fisherman who denied the Lord at the first sign of trouble, and yet whom the Lord appointed as the first pope. And then there’s St. Paul, who was well aware of his personal shortcomings (“I will…boast most gladly of my weaknesses,” he writes the Corinthians), not to mention his burdensome past involvement in persecuting the very Christ he came to embrace – something we heard about at length on his feast day last Friday.

But these drawbacks didn’t seem to matter at all. The Lord chose him anyway, which he revealed to Ananias in Damascus before dispatching him to heal the blinded future Apostle. “Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine,” God told the skeptical Ananias in a vision, “to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel” (Acts 9.15). Sure enough, Paul went on to preach the Gospel and plant churches all over the Mediterranean, despite his being the equivalent of a very limited apostolic papyrus.

These reflections came to mind today as I listened to NPR’s “Big Picture Science.” The featured guest was Rob Dunn, a biology professor at North Carolina State University, who enthusiastically described the vast variety of hidden critters – arthropods and microbes, bugs and bacteria – that peacefully and (praise God) invisibly coexist with us in our own homes.

At the end of the show, Dunn contrasted his domestic explorations with the assumption he’d harbored as a young researcher that new discoveries can only happen in exotic, far-flung places. “Over the last few years, I realized that many of the things we can find in the rainforest, we can find in homes – not the same species but the same potential for new discovery,” he said. “If we could just sort of re-focus people on the potential for discovery around them, [then] we could have wonder-filled lives.”

We have a tendency to think that we have to make monumental changes in ourselves before God can work anything through us, let alone wonders. Nonsense. God is accustomed to making use of ordinary, fallible human beings to accomplish his purposes all the time, and we’re no exception. By all means, put away sin, receive the sacraments, and get to Mass – daily if possible. But don’t wait until you feel like a saint to start attempting saintly things. That is, don’t hedge on action because you’re not a spiritual rainforest. Instead, expect to discover that God can already make wonders happen by means of your humblest efforts, and despite your humdrum limitations.

And please don’t dawdle until you’re the equivalent of a thick sheaf of pristine papyri before you allow the Lord to write his story on you and through you. Take it from the Apostle John: When it comes to fleshing out the Word of God, any ol’ page will do.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Those Extra Books: Thoughts on the Catholic Canon

13 Dec

One of my students, a devout Protestant, sent me a message a few days ago. We’d had conversations in the past about Catholic matters, and I was delighted that she followed up with her questions. “Do you have any books or articles about the Protestant canon vs. Catholic, and how the books were chosen?” she wrote. “I’m assuming that if I were to believe some books were ‘kicked out’ that should’ve been included, I would have to think more seriously about some things.”

I replied that I’d be happy to provide her with reading materials, but, better yet, I’d set her up with an actual Catholic Bible – complete with all those kicked-out books. I always keep give-away copies on hand in my office for just such inquiries.

When she arrived, I handed over the volume (an NAB) and asked what prompted her interest. “I’m going to do a Bible study with some Catholics I’ve gotten to know, so I decided I needed to get a better understanding of this issue.” We chatted a bit about the Hebrew Masoretic text and the Greek Septuagint, and then I sketched out a rough history of how our respective traditions adopted varying lists of authoritative scriptural books – the role of liturgy and lectionary, for instance, and Martin Luther’s rejection of the deuterocanonical books in the 16th century. I also clarified that our Bibles only disagreed with respect to the Old Testament – that our New Testament canons were exactly the same.

Then she asked this remarkably insightful question: “So, if I decided that those extra parts of the Old Testament really do belong in my Bible, how would that affect my faith? What difference would it make?”

It seemed like her question required a two-part answer, and I addressed the easier part first. “As far as doctrine and belief, not much.” Maybe she’d have to re-think purgatory and praying for the dead because of certain passages in II Maccabees, but that’s about it. Sure, there would be unfamiliar narratives and characters – like Raphael and Tobit and the bird dropping story, and Daniel’s Solomonic intervention on behalf of the falsely accused Susanna. Aside from those bits, however, my student would hardly notice if the Deuterocanon (or what many Protestants call the Apocrypha) were introduced into her worship services. Take last Sunday’s reading from Baruch for instance: It seems to be a messianic gloss on Isaiah, and I doubt its prophetic cadences would raise a single eyebrow in most Protestant churches if it were read aloud.

The real challenge of the Deuterocanon, I told my student, was less its content than what it represents in terms of authority. Those seven OT books and scattered portions of Esther and Daniel – preserved only in the Greek of the Septuagint – stoked all kinds of controversy in the early church. St. Jerome, the Bible’s patron saint, was the most prominent opponent, and he wanted to exclude them from the Christian Scriptures. Nonetheless, Jerome bowed to Tradition and did end up including them all in his 4th-century Latin Vulgate translation – a decision that was ratified by various early councils and definitively ratified by the 16th-century Council of Trent.

“But councils are made up of fallible men,” my student protested. “How do we know they weren’t mistaken?” That launched us into further conversation about a Catholic understanding of the two streams of Divine Revelation – Scripture and Tradition – which are authoritatively interpreted for us in the present by the Magisterium.

We talked about the early church relying exclusively on the OT as their scriptural reference point while the NT books were being written and then circulated among the brethren; of how some of those NT books were subsequently rejected as being out of step with Tradition while others were adopted as faithful witnesses of apostolic teaching; of the ongoing dialogue between Tradition and Scripture through the centuries, a process of discernment that relies on inspired magisterial elucidation. “We both of us revere the Bible as God’s Word,” I told my student, “but it’s a static text – regardless of how you go about deciding what belongs in it – until it’s brought to life in the Body of Christ” (cf. DV 10).

So, who speaks for the Body of Christ? Given the varying ways in which the Scriptures can be (and certainly have been) interpreted, it’s no wonder we have tens of thousands of different denominations and churches – all claiming to have a bead on biblical truth. “In the end, there’s only one Pope and Magisterium,” I finally said, “or we’re all popes. And that seems to conflict with Jesus’ insistence on unity,” especially in his prayer right before his Passion. “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (Jn 17.20-21).

There was a pause in our conversation – and a knock at my office door. A different student had arrived for a scheduled appointment. As edifying as the conversation had been, it would have to be continued another time. Besides, the Bible’s depths can never fully be plumbed, and our conversations with it and regarding it can always be extended.

And that’s definitely a phenomenon common to all Christians.
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