CNS Bible Blog: The enigmatic Gospel of John

Link to Bible Blog seriesBy Father Scott M. Lewis, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

The Gospel of John holds a special and rather exalted place in Christian tradition. Our theology and spirituality draw heavily on its lapidary but enigmatic verses.

We immediately recognize “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” as descriptive of Jesus. The dramatic insistence in 1:14 that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us is the foundation of our theology of the Incarnation.

Scott Lewis SJ

Scott M. Lewis, SJ

But it was not always so. This Gospel was not universally accepted in the earliest church. It was viewed with suspicion because of its enthusiastic use by Gnostic groups — overly spiritualized groups who denigrated the flesh, creation, and involvement with the world.

The Gospel shares some of the dualism of Gnosticism — a sharp contrast between light and darkness, good and evil, truth and falsehood. In an ironical turn that John would truly appreciate, by the fourth century this Gospel was considered the epitome of orthodoxy and was a rich source for many of our Christological doctrines.

But there are problems. Since the Gospel of John is a faith document, we have to confront three problematic areas if it is to continue to speak to people in the 21st century: 1) its anti-Judaic bias; 2) its relevance for the poor and marginalized; and 3) its exclusivism in a world that is increasingly pluralistic.

John was written at the end of the tumultuous first century A.D. — around 90 or so — and in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. There is harsh anti-Judaic polemic throughout the Gospel, and the term “the Jews” was used repeatedly to refer to those opposed to Jesus. Chapter 8 contains the infamous passage in which Jesus seemingly calls the Jewish people offspring of the devil. This had tragic consequences for it fueled theological and popular anti-Semitism for centuries to come.

A page from the ninth-century Lorsch Bible, showing a decorative painting of St. John the Evangelist. (CNS photo courtesy of the Vatican Library)

A page from the ninth-century Lorsch Bible, showing a decorative painting of St. John the Evangelist. (CNS photo courtesy of the Vatican Library)

We must remember that the author of the Gospel and those of his community were also Jews. John has often been accused of having an excessive concern with coming to faith — “getting saved” — and precious little to do with social justice, the poor and engagement with the problems of our world. It is true that John is extremely reticent on specifics. But as we will see, his one commandment — to love one another — is deceptively simple on the surface but comprehensive and demanding when it is unpacked and applied.

John is rather sectarian in his outlook — there are very sharp and clear boundaries between those who are “in” and those who are “out.” In his three letters, John’s harshest words are for those who were formerly members of his community. He reserves the epithet “Antichrist” for them.

He is uncompromising in his view of salvation — in 3:16 there is the well-known and beautiful statement about the extent of God’s love for the world and his sending of the son. But if we read a bit further, there is harsh judgment and condemnation for those who refuse to receive him. In fact, John has a simple explanation for those who will not come to faith in Jesus: quite simply, they are evil and never belonged to God in the first place. John was adamant that his particular interpretation of Jesus Christ was the only valid one.

We must remember that the fourth Gospel is a mixture of the beautiful and sublime with the very human and the negative. John’s community felt itself threatened and under siege. Inspiration is always mediated through human consciousness and historical circumstances. Interpretation of the text should always be done with an open mind and a compassionate and generous heart.

CNS Bible Blog: A world without stars is a tragedy

Link to Bible Blog seriesBy Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

Brother Guy

Brother Guy

The Bible is not without its share of wrathful moments. Like a stern parent, God challenges his people to do better, and warns them of the tragedy that will result if they do not change their ways. What could be more tragic than the end of the world? And so, when the prophets warn Israel, they use the loss of the sun, moon and stars as a symbol of the worst that could happen:

Is 13:9-11   See, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it. For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light. I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the insolence of tyrants.

Ez 32:7-11   When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens, and make their stars dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the shining lights of the heavens I will darken above you, and put darkness on your land, says the Lord GOD.  I will trouble the hearts of many peoples, as I carry you captive among the nations, into countries you have not known. I will make many peoples appalled at you; their kings shall shudder because of you. When I brandish my sword before them, they shall tremble every moment for their lives, each one of them, on the day of your downfall. For thus says the Lord GOD: The sword of the king of Babylon shall come against you.

Jl 2:10-11  The earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. The LORD utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his command. Truly the day of the LORD is great; terrible indeed – who can endure it?

Jl 3:14-16   Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. The LORD roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth shake. But the LORD is a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel.

There is an interesting if unspoken assumption in these descriptions. The sky and the things in that sky are a part of “us” — when our world ends, they end with it.

Stars shine by fusing hydrogen into helium; especially large stars can burn further by converting the helium into heavier elements. But eventually even that fuel runs out, and the star collapses. If the star is big enough, the rebound from that collapse can produce an immense explosion called a supernova. This is the remnant of a star that was seen to explode in 1066, known today as the Crab Nebula, as imaged by Father Rich Boyle at the Vatican’s telescope on Mount Graham, Ariz. Out of the gases of such a supernova come the heavy elements that eventually come together again to form planets around new stars -- the heavy elements required for life.

Stars shine by fusing hydrogen into helium; especially large stars can burn further by converting the helium into heavier elements. But eventually even that fuel runs out, and the star collapses. If the star is big enough, the rebound from that collapse can produce an immense explosion called a supernova. This is the remnant of a star that was seen to explode in 1066, known today as the Crab Nebula, as imaged by Father Rich Boyle at the Vatican’s telescope on Mount Graham, Ariz. Out of the gases of such a supernova come the heavy elements that eventually come together again to form planets around new stars -- the heavy elements required for life.

This image continues into the end-of-the-world scenarios found in the Gospels: in every case, the true end-times are not merely the end of planet Earth, but the end of the universe itself. In each case, the passage quotes Jesus:

Mt 24:29   “Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.”

Mk 13:24-26   “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.”

Lk 21:25   “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”

But stars symbolize more than the end of the world, because the end of the world is most assuredly not the end of everything. We have immortal souls. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we see stars as an example of the range of possibilities of what God can create, especially what he does with us after death:

1 Cor 15:38-42   But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.

We are creatures — things created — made of matter, and in that sense the same as every other material being. But even among the created bodies, not all are the same. And we are also more than that because we humans have within us the spark of intellect and free will, the soul, which makes us the image and likeness of God. In that, we are more glorious than even the stars themselves.

(Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, ©1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U. S. A.  All rights reserved.  Used by permission.)

CNS Bible Blog: Stars are to be appreciated, but not to be worshipped

Link to Bible Blog seriesBy Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

Brother Guy

Brother Guy

In ancient civilizations, the study of the planets and stars was carried out for two very practical purposes: time-telling and astrology. The opening chapter of Genesis, cited in our first blog entry, refers to the sun, moon and stars as the rulers of day and night: using the stars to make one’s calendar is completely right and proper. But the Bible’s attitude toward astrology is very different.

The Hebrews had a complex luni-solar calendar, based on the motions of the moon and the sun through the zodiac constellations. Holy days were related to the phases of the moon (which determined the length of the month) and the seasons of the sun. For example, Passover (from which we derive our Christian Easter) occurs on the first full moon in spring. The beginning of the solar year, whose seasons determine the planting and harvesting of crops, was determined by the high priests; they had the responsibility to add an extra month every two or three years, as they saw necessary, to keep the lunar calendar and the seasonal (solar) calendar more or less in sync.

By relying on the judgment of the priests, the ancient Hebrews avoided the need for a sophisticated mathematical model of how the sun and moon moved in the sky. The Greeks did work out such a system, however, which eventually became the basis of both the modern Jewish calendar (after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem) and it was used for the Christian calendar, established at the council of Nicea in 325 and reformed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 — the occasion of the church hiring its first official astronomers, the forerunners of the modern Vatican Observatory.

The motions of the sun and moon are complicated, and it took a pretty sophisticated mathematics to work them out. But worked out they are; as we noted in our second blog, their regularity was one of the reassuring things about the universe to the writers of the Psalms, a sign of God’s constancy.

The motion of small bodies in the solar system is still a subject of intense research. Observing the colors and spin of the comet/asteroid Pholus, Steve Tegler (Northern Arizona University) and Brother Guy Consolmagno took this image with the Vatican’s telescope on Mount Graham, Ariz., as the object passed in front of the galaxy NGC 5964. We took three separate images in red, green and blue, and then combined them to make this image; since Pholus was moving between images, it appears as a rainbow "streak" in the image.

The motion of small bodies in the solar system is still a subject of intense research. Observing the colors and spin of the comet/asteroid Pholus, Steve Tegler (Northern Arizona University) and Brother Guy Consolmagno took this image with the Vatican’s telescope on Mount Graham, Ariz., as the object passed in front of the galaxy NGC 5964. We took three separate images in red, green and blue, and then combined them to make this image; since Pholus was moving between images, it appears as a rainbow

The motions of the planets, however, are far more complicated. The ancient Greeks tried to model them mathematically, but without complete success. The Roman astronomer Ptolemy came up with a system that he claimed fit his data, and it supported Aristotle’s idea of how the universe worked; but he may have fudged a few observations to make his theory work. (If so, he was not the first, or last, scientist tempted to shade the numbers to fit the model!) Copernicus and Kepler came up with better models in the early Renaissance, encountering furious opposition in the process, and even their methods were not perfect.

How tough is it to work out the positions of the planets? Consider this: just this month, October 2008, the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society gave a major award to Jon Giorgini, a scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., for deriving the current most widely used model of the motions of the planets and asteroids. It is still a current topic of research, especially in an age when we send spacecraft to land on planets, or point their cameras at tiny asteroids, and we need to know their positions to very high accuracies.

Nowadays we need those positions for our spacecraft; but why did ancient peoples put so much effort into predicting the positions of the planets? The planets don’t control the growth of crops, like the sun does, or the tides like the moon; there was no practical application for this knowledge back then — except for this: to use the motions of the planets to cast horoscopes.

The logic behind astrology is understandable, if flawed. Events in our human lives seem to repeat, good times and bad, good crops and bad, victories and defeats in wars; and so it was tempting to try to predict from the rhythm of past events what is going to happen next. (Stockbrokers continue to try to do that even today — with a questionable level of success, as seen in the current economy.) If the sun and moon can control things like crops and tides, could it be that the complicated rhythm of planetary positions might be responsible for other human activities?

After 3,000 years of astrological predictions, it is pretty obvious to most astronomers that astrology just doesn’t work. (If it did work, then why is it that astrologers and fortune tellers are found only in the poorest districts of town?) But that wasn’t at all obvious 3,000 years ago. Instead, the wisest men of almost every civilization spent an enormous effort to try to keep track of planetary positions, to try to correlate them with human events.

Almost every civilization did this — but not the ancient Hebrews. It wasn’t for lack of faith in the stars, but for a far more interesting reason. Here is what the books of Wisdom has to say about using the stars to predict the future:

Wis 13:1-5   For all people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know the one who exists, nor did they recognize the artisan while paying heed to his works; but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air, or the circle of the stars, or turbulent water, or the luminaries of heaven were the gods that rule the world. If through delight in the beauty of these things people assumed them to be gods, let them know how much better than these is their Lord, for the author of beauty created them. And if people were amazed at their power and working, let them perceive from them how much more powerful is the one who formed them. For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.

The idea that the stars are some sort of gods who control human events is specifically condemned by the Bible. For one thing, it is a kind of paganism. The book of the law, Deuteronomy, is quite specific about this:

Dt 4:19   And when you look up to the heavens and see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, do not be led astray and bow down to them and serve them, things that the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples everywhere under heaven.

We are not subject to the stars; rather, we are to use them, not let them use us.

This condemnation is repeated elsewhere in the Old Testament. Perhaps the most interesting development on this front, however, is found in Isaiah. Notice here that the reasons against astrology and fortune-telling now go beyond merely the admonition against worshipping other gods.

Is 47:10-14   You felt secure in your wickedness; you said, “No one sees me.” Your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray, and you said in your heart, I am, and there is no one besides me.”  But evil shall come upon you, which you cannot charm away; disaster shall fall upon you, which you will not be able to ward off; and ruin shall come on you suddenly, of which you know nothing. Stand fast in your enchantments and your many sorceries, with which you have labored from your youth; perhaps you may be able to succeed, perhaps you may inspire terror. You are wearied with your many consultations; let those who study the heavens stand up and save you, those who gaze at the stars, and at each new moon predict what shall befall you. See, they are like stubble, the fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame. No coal for warming oneself is this, no fire to sit before!

It is not enough merely that astrology doesn’t work; it would be immoral even if it did work. The consuming fire that Isaiah refers to is not the result of being led astray by these sorceries — “perhaps you may be able to succeed,” he notes. Rather, it is the moral destruction that comes to anyone who tries to use the arts of the world to control the freedom of other people. Ultimately, the crime of the astrologer is the denial of free will. If one believes that human actions are controlled by the stars, one denies both the power of God and the power of the free soul made in the image and likeness of God.

There is one interesting result of this biblical condemnation of astrology. When, many hundred years after Moses and Solomon and Isaiah, a group of astrologers from the East showed up in Jerusalem with charts and diagrams, Herod and the high priests were completely taken by surprise. They didn’t know their astrology. They were unaware of the configuration of the planets and their purported meaning. They had to wait for the Magi to tell them of a newborn King.

(Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, ©1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. All rights reserved. Used by permission.)

CNS Bible Blog: Aliens! Stars also praise and adore God

Link to Bible Blog seriesBy Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

Brother Guy

Brother Guy

Another lesson that stars in the Bible tell us is that we are not alone. The universe is more than just us, and God is responsible for more than our own narrow neck of the woods. First and foremost, we need a dose of humility when approaching that God, as Job discovered:

Jb 38:1-7  Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?  On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”

It is easy to see in those words of Job a reproach for thinking we know it all; clearly we don’t. In the list of the things we don’t yet know, however, I find such an enticing description that I feel I am also being invited to know those things. The Bible’s description of creation is inevitably so beautiful that it makes studying nature — being a natural scientist — the answer to a call from God. It is a holy act.

But what I like most about this passage from Job is the way it personalizes the stars — who are described singing together with all the heavenly beings. Who are these heavenly beings? We don’t know — and, of course, that’s exactly the point.

But they, too, whoever, they are, do take delight in praising God:

Psalm 148

Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights!

Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!

Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!

Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!

Let them praise the name of the LORD, for he commanded and they were created.

He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

What does it take to praise the Lord, or to choose not to praise? Such a creature must have the intelligence to be aware that it, and the object of its praise, exists; and it must have the freedom to choose to praise, to choose to love. Intellect and free will are the marks of the soul, the way in which human beings were formed in the image and likeness of God. The writer of the Psalm has no problem postulating such souls in the heavens. Shades of ET!

The moon is one place off Earth where we know there has been intelligent life: us! Even the ancients could see it as a world like ours and speculated on the possibility of other races living there. The bright crater at the top is named Copernicus; like all the major features on the moon, it was named by the Jesuit astronomers Grimaldi and Riccioli in Rome on a map published in 1672. It is interesting that Jesuits would name the most prominent crater on the moon after the astronomer whose theories got Galileo into trouble, a mere 40 years after his trial! (This photograph was taken through the 40 cm refractor telescope at the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo by Jesuit Father Manny Carriera.)

There are many places where the Bible makes almost off-hand remarks to other intelligences who love and adore God … or who, in some cases, perished for not recognizing their right relationship with him. In a sense, this science fictional speculation about other creatures in space and time is as old as storytelling, a part of the mythology of all ancient cultures. But if the Odyssey had one-eyed Polyphemus or the twin perils of Schylla and Charybdis, it never bothers to wonder where they came from.

The biblical writer Baruch does wonder, however. And he ends with a delightful vision of the stars, these worshipers in the sky, singing with their bright light to their Creator:

Bar 3:24-35  O Israel, how great is the house of God, how vast the territory that he possesses! It is great and has no bounds; it is high and immeasurable. The giants were born there, who were famous of old, great in stature, expert in war. God did not choose them, or give them the way to knowledge; so they perished because they had no wisdom, they perished through their folly.

Who has gone up into heaven, and taken her, and brought her down from the clouds? Who has gone over the sea, and found her, and will buy her for pure gold? No one knows the way to her, or is concerned about the path to her. But the one who knows all things knows her, he found her by his understanding.

The one who prepared the earth for all time filled it with four-footed creatures; the one who sends forth the light, and it goes; he called it, and it obeyed him, trembling;  the stars shone in their watches, and were glad; he called them, and they said, “Here we are!” They shone with gladness for him who made them. This is our God; no other can be compared to him.

“Here we are!” shout the stars. How unlike those humans, Adam and Eve, who hid at the sound of God’s arrival.

(Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, ©1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U. S. A.  All rights reserved.  Used by permission.)

CNS Bible Blog: In the stars we see God

Link to Bible Blog seriesBy Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

Brother Guy

Brother Guy

It is not by coincidence that the word for “heaven” is the same as the word for “sky” in so many languages. To the writers of Scripture, the attributes that we find in the heavens, in contemplating the starry sky, are the same attributes that we find in God.

The first and most obvious attribute of God is his greatness. But one can look even deeper and see, not only grandeur, but also harmony, balance, and beauty. That is what the author of Sirach saw in the way the Creator has made the stars:

Sir 42:24 – 43:10  All things come in pairs, one opposite the other, and he has made nothing incomplete. Each supplements the virtues of the other. Who could ever tire of seeing his glory? The pride of the higher realms is the clear vault of the sky, as glorious to behold as the sight of the heavens.

The sun, when it appears, proclaims as it rises what a marvelous instrument it is, the work of the Most High. At noon it parches the land, and who can withstand its burning heat?  A man tending a furnace works in burning heat, but three times as hot is the sun scorching the mountains; it breathes out fiery vapors, and its bright rays blind the eyes. Great is the Lord who made it; at his orders it hurries on its course.

It is the moon that marks the changing seasons, governing the times, their everlasting sign.  From the moon comes the sign for festal days, a light that wanes when it completes its course. The new moon, as its name suggests, renews itself; how marvelous it is in this change, a beacon to the hosts on high, shining in the vault of the heavens!

The glory of the stars is the beauty of heaven, a glittering array in the heights of the Lord.  On the orders of the Holy One they stand in their appointed places; they never relax in their watches.

But there is a more subtle yet important lesson that the writers of Scripture find in the nature of Creation. It is not enough that the stars are astonishing; what is even more astonishing is that we, also the creatures of this same Creator, have been given the opportunity and the ability to appreciate and understand them. In this, the writers of Scripture see God’s everlasting love for his people.

Notice how the writer of Psalm 8 progresses in this way, from amazement at the glory of the One who made these stars, to the glory of the One who made us able to be amazed:

Psalm 8

To the leader: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David.

O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.

Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.

You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

For all of that, though, we know that we are weak. We are fearful; and in our fear, we are tempted to trust to our own immediate abilities rather than to trust in God. I certainly remember a time in my own life when I was first sent to Africa, and felt terribly alone and homesick. Sitting alone under the stars was balm to my soul; no

The moon blocks out the disk of the sun in this annular eclipse, photographed with the Vatican Observatory’s Coronado Solar Telescope. Though eclipses are spectacular, they are also predictable; the regularity of the heavens is used in Scripture as evidence of God’s steadfast love for his people.

The moon blocks out the disk of the sun in this annular eclipse, photographed with the Vatican Observatory’s Coronado Solar Telescope. Though eclipses are spectacular, they are also predictable; the regularity of the heavens is used in Scripture as evidence of God’s steadfast love for his people.

matter how much I missed familiar food and friends, no matter how strange I found the culture or the climate, by looking up at the familiar stars in their well-loved patterns of the constellations I knew that I was still in the same world as the one I had grown up in, when I had learned those constellations at my father’s knee.

Jeremiah has apparently had the same experience; he used the regularity of the heavens as evidence of God’s steadfast love in a frightening, unsettled world. And in that steadfastness is our hope for better times.

Jer 31:31-38 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD.

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar – the LORD of hosts is his name: If this fixed order were ever to cease from my presence, says the LORD, then also the offspring of Israel would cease to be a nation before me forever.

The same message is found in the Psalms:

Psalm 136

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.

O give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love endures forever.

O give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love endures forever;

Who alone does great wonders, for his steadfast love endures forever;

Who by understanding made the heavens, for his steadfast love endures forever;

Who spread out the earth on the waters, for his steadfast love endures forever;

Who made the great lights, for his steadfast love endures forever;

The sun to rule over the day, for his steadfast love endures forever;

The moon and stars to rule over the night, for his steadfast love endures forever…

And this takes us finally to the most surprising attribute of the heavens. Not only are they huge, not only are they marching in their paths in a mathematical rigor, but they are also beautiful — with a beauty exceeded only by the wisdom of God:

Wis 7:15-30  May God grant me to speak with judgment, and to have thoughts worthy of what I have received; for he is the guide even of wisdom and the corrector of the wise. For both we and our words are in his hand, as are all understanding and skill in crafts.

For it is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements; the beginning and end and middle of times, the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons, the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars, the natures of animals and the tempers of wild animals, the powers of spirits and the thoughts of human beings, the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots; I learned both what is secret and what is manifest, for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.

There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible,  beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle. For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.

For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.

She is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior, for it is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail.

(Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, ©1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U. S. A.  All rights reserved.  Used by permission.)

CNS Bible Blog: God’s omnipotence

By Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

Brother Guy

Brother Guy

Over the years, I’ve gotten e-mails from a number of people asking me if planets, stars or constellations are mentioned in the Bible. Of course they are!

There are computer programs you can get that contain the whole text of the Bible and allow you to do global searches on words or phrases. When I just looked up “stars” I came across a number of instances. (And, in the process, I missed one of the most famous ones: the opening from Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”)

But of course, that’s just gathering data. As a scientist, what I do instinctively is to look the data over and try to find trends. And over the next few days I want to share some of these insights here. It’s not just that stars are mentioned in passing in the Bible; what is fascinating to me is how they are used.

The first instance of astronomical objects in the Bible is, of course, the first chapter of Genesis where their creation is described:

Genesis 1:16-19 reads: God made the two great lights — the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night — and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good.  And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

Father Michael Kolarcik wrote a beautiful blog about the opening of Genesis at the beginning of this series: http://cnsblog.wordpress.com/2008/10/06/cns-bible-blog-genesis-chapter-1-is-creation-good/.

I shouldn’t have to remind my readers here that this description, appropriate for the time it was written and the people for whom it was directed, did not intend to describe the science of astronomy, the nuts and bolts of how God made the stars. Instead, it carried a far more important message: that the stars were not themselves pagan

The whole Milky Way can be seen in this fish-eye view of the skies over Mt. Graham, Arizona, the site of the Vatican’s Advanced Technology Telescope, operated by the Vatican Observatory in conjunction with the University of Arizona. Such dark skies are becoming more and more rare, however; even here, the sky glow from the cities of Phoenix and Tucson, both more than fifty miles distant, can be seen as the yellow patches on the right hand side of the picture.

The whole Milky Way can be seen in this fisheye view of the skies over Mount Graham in Arizona, the site of the Vatican’s Advanced Technology Telescope, operated by the Vatican Observatory in conjunction with the University of Arizona. Such dark skies are becoming more and more rare, however; even here, the sky glow from the cities of Phoenix and Tucson, both more than 50 miles distant, can be seen as the yellow patches on the right side of the picture.

gods nor the random result of pagan gods messing about in the primordial chaos, as the mythological stories of the neighboring nations would have it. Rather they are the result of the one true God’s deliberate act of creation. For the first time, we are told that everything in the universe, including the lights in the sky, are but creatures … things made by God.

And because the stars are God’s creation, they are under God’s rule. We see that in Job 9:1-10: Then Job answered:  “… how can a mortal be just before God?  If one wished to contend with him, one could not answer him once in a thousand. He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength who has resisted him, and succeeded? –  he who removes mountains, and they do not know it, when he overturns them in his anger; who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble; who commands the sun, and it does not rise; who seals up the stars; who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea; who made the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the chambers of the south; who does great things beyond understanding, and marvelous things without number.”

Orion is perhaps the most famous constellation; the Bear, the Lion, the Pleiades are references to the familiar constellations of Ursa Major, Leo, and the famous star cluster in Taurus. These descriptions of the constellations are found without much ambiguity in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament, while the Hebrew version uses words that ancient commentators usually connect with those constellations, though some argue that different stars are actually meant. Which stars are being talked about really doesn’t matter for our purposes, however. The important point is that even the stars are made by God.

That’s a pretty big God, even if your understanding of the universe is limited to seeing the stars as points of light in a dome relatively close overhead.

The power of God over the universe is most directly inferred in Psalm 147: Praise the LORD! How good it is to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting. The LORD builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure …

As we saw in Genesis where Adam is given the task of naming the animals, to give a name is to claim ownership — and responsibility. You don’t bother naming something that you don’t care about.

And if God cares about the physical universe, so shouldn’t we?

(Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, ©1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  All rights reserved.  Used by permission.)

CNS Bible Blog: How will we recognize him? (Luke 24)

By Fathers Glen Lewandowski, OSC, and Jerry Schik, OSC
Special to Catholic News Service

Father Jerry Schik, OSC

Father Schik

Father Lewandowski

Father Lewandowski

Has your boss ever said to you, “Go to the airport and pick up John Doe, who is coming in for a business meeting.”? Your response is immediate and automatic: “How will I recognize him?” And you hope that your boss will name several easily recognizable characteristics, such as his height and the color of his suit coat.

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus were not able to identify the stranger that walked into their midst. They did not recognize Jesus. They did not recognize his physical appearance or the sound of his voice. They did not recognize him on human terms.

Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, who has been briefing English-speaking journalists on synod speeches at the Vatican, commissioned Benedictine Sister Marie-Paul of the Mount of Olives Monastery to paint this icon of the Emmaus story’s two main scenes. (CNS photo by Father Thomas Rosica. Used with permission)

So when did they recognize him? When he gave himself to them. “He took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them” (Lk 24:30). They recognized him when he gave himself to them in the Eucharist. In other words, they recognized him when he gave himself to them on divine terms in the sacrament of his body and blood. At the beginning of the journey they did not recognize him on human terms, but at the end of the journey they recognized him in his divinity before he vanished from their sight (Lk 24:31).

The story of the road to Emmaus has many lessons for us and we wish to focus on only one: The active agent in revelation is Christ himself. We can’t recognize our savior on human terms while using our human skills. We don’t recognize Christ just by walking down the road and discussing “the things that have taken place in these days” (Lk 24:18). Rather, we recognize him when he opens the Scriptures for us and breaks the bread for us. We are actors on the stage when Revelation takes place but we never have the lead role. The main actor is always Christ, our savior. He reveals himself on the road to Emmaus, on the road to Damascus, and on the road of life.

Synod note: The Emmaus story has surfaced several times in the course of the synod. Don Pascual, superior general of the Society of Don Bosco — men dedicated to youth work — told the synod, “It is both a story of what happened and a programmatic itinerary for evangelization.” The story tells where we are going and how to get there. Where: to Jesus. How: walking together.

Like many youths whose hopes have been dashed, the two men on the road were deeply disappointed in the community they left behind back in Jerusalem. They were walking out on it. Everything about “the things that have taken place back there in these days gone by” had gone wrong.

Jesus walks together with them, on the way. Between the community they left and the community to which they return in the end, there is Jesus.

Evangelization outside the context of community is dangerous and false, Don Pascual insisted. Connecting with community, at a new depth, heals and restores hope. Jesus connects with community. Jesus restores hope.

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