Scripture and the Liturgy

Third Sunday of Easter

One of my favorite movies is M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs.”  It’s a cross between Robert Benton’s “Places in the Heart” and Roland Emmerich’s “Independence Day,” and probably a couple other movies I’m forgetting at the moment.  Anyway, one of the marked features of the movie is its foreshadowing.  Shyamalan introduces all sorts of strange themes associated with the different characters who surround Fr. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), an (Anglican?) priest who’s lost his faith and left his ministry: the strange last words of his dying wife, his brother’s obsession with hitting home runs, his son’s asthma, his daughter’s water-drinking compulsion.  The significance of these motifs does not become clear to the viewer until the final scenes, where one discovers that a strong hand of Providence was guiding the life of Fr. Hess through it all.

I see an analogy between Shyamalan’s “Signs” and the convictions of the early Christians about the relationship of the Scriptures to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  The Passion and Resurrection of Jesus was for the early Church like the final scenes of Shyamalan’s movie: all of a sudden, all sorts of diverse motifs from the Scriptures and the history of salvation made sense.  They appeared unified, evidence of a strong hand of Providence that had been leading God’s people to a meaningful, climactic moment of salvation all along.

Through the Readings for this Sunday’s liturgy runs the conviction that Christ’s Passion and Resurrection had been foreshadowed all along through Israel’s Scriptures and history.

During the Easter Season, the Church reads significant passages from Acts in the First Reading.  However, we don’t read Acts ad seriatim (straight through) on Sundays, because that would get us too far “ahead of ourselves” liturgically.  After all, in “liturgical time,” we are still waiting for the Ascension (in the seventh week of Easter) and Pentecost (the eighth week after Easter), both of which are recounted in the first two chapters of Acts.  So again, the Church reads key passages from Acts in the First Reading, but “hovers around” the beginning of the book, not wanting to get too far ahead.

In the Second Readings for this season, the Church works through the First Epistle of John, which is a fundamental catechesis for those young in the faith.  This reflects the fact that the Church has admitted new members at the Easter Vigil.  Moreover, 1 John is edifying reading for the whole Church, as we renew our faith and baptismal commitment in this season.

The Gospel Readings are taken from key passages at the end of the Gospels, recounting events between Easter and Ascension; or else from intensely Christological or Pneumatological pericopes of the Gospel of John, particularly the Last Supper discourse (John 13–17) or the Good Shepherd discourse (John 10:1-18).

1. The First Reading for this Sunday is Acts 3:13-15, 17-19:

Peter said to the people:
“The God of Abraham,
the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,
the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus,
whom you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence
when he had decided to release him.
You denied the Holy and Righteous One
and asked that a murderer be released to you.
The author of life you put to death,
but God raised him from the dead; of this we are witnesses.
Now I know, brothers,
that you acted out of ignorance, just as your leaders did;
but God has thus brought to fulfillment
what he had announced beforehand
through the mouth of all the prophets,
that his Christ would suffer.
Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away.”

Peter says that the suffering of Christ was announced beforehand by all the prophets.  Really?  Where?  It’s true that there are a few passages which seem to predict the suffering of a messianic figure: Isaiah 53 is the famous one, of course; and Daniel 9 speaks of the Messiah being “cut off.”  But Peter claims the suffering of the Messiah is widely prophesied in Scripture, not simply hinted at in a couple of texts.

One of the keys to understanding St. Peter’s claim is to understand how first century Jews and Christians looked at the Old Testament.  Essentially, everything was prophetic or potentially prophetic.  Thus, passages that we might consider “law” or “history” were also “prophecy.”  Thus, St. John takes a law about the Passover Lamb (“not one of its bones shall be broken,” Ex 12:46; cf. Ps 34:20) and understands it as a prophecy of Jesus (John 19:36).  Likewise, the historical account of Isaac, the “beloved” son of Abraham, being sacrificed on the Temple Mount in Genesis 22 is also understood in many places in the New Testament as a prophecy of what would happen to God’s “beloved” Son.

But it was especially the psalms that were understood as prophetic.  The idea that these sacred songs spoke of the future and of the messiah was not limited to early Christians.  The Essenes at Qumran, who left us the Dead Sea Scrolls, understood the Psalms (as well as almost every other part of Scriptures) as describing the End Times, through which they thought they were living.  They described David as writing all the psalms “through the Spirit of prophecy” (11QPsalmsA).

And, if you read through the Psalms, it will not take long before you begin to recognize a common pattern: the psalmist will speak of suffering death or mortal travail, of descending to “Sheol,” and then toward the end of the Psalm will praise God for saving his life from the “Pit,” of breaking the bonds of “Sheol,” of restoring him to life.  Several Psalms follow this apparent death-and-resurrection sequence.  Since such a pattern was not literally true of King David, the presumed author, it must be true of someone else: Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Son of David.  This is at the core of Peter and Paul’s early preaching (Acts 2, 13), both making use of Psalm 16 especially (“you will not let your Holy One see decay,” Ps 16:10).

Peter’s message to his brother Jews, members of the Sanhedrin, in this Sunday’s reading is this: “If you will open your eyes, if you will ponder the Scriptures in light of what Jesus of Nazareth has said and done, you too will be able to see the strong hand of Providence in our Scriptures and history, leading up to this moment of salvation which we have witnessed and now share with you.”

2. The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 4:2, 4, 7-8, 9:

R. (7a) Lord, let your face shine on us.
When I call, answer me, O my just God,
you who relieve me when I am in distress;
have pity on me, and hear my prayer!
R. Lord, let your face shine on us.
Know that the LORD does wonders for his faithful one;
the LORD will hear me when I call upon him.
R. Lord, let your face shine on us.
O LORD, let the light of your countenance shine upon us!
You put gladness into my heart.
R. Lord, let your face shine on us.
As soon as I lie down, I fall peacefully asleep,
for you alone, O LORD,
bring security to my dwelling.
R. Lord, let your face shine on us.

This Psalm illustrates the prophetic character of Scripture pointing to the Christ as Peter preached in our First Reading.  The Psalmist begins in shame and distress (the Passion) but ends experiencing joy and peace (Easter).  The true speaker of this Psalm is first of all Christ himself; but we also can take it on our lips.  His Passion and Resurrection gives meaning to all the humiliations and distresses we experience daily in our mundane little lives, lifting them up and making them meaningful in God’s plan of salvation.  We, too, taste even now the joy and peace of God in the midst of our sufferings, and look forward in hope to a perfect experience of it in the life to come.

3.  The Second Reading is 1 Jn 2:1-5a:

My children, I am writing this to you
so that you may not commit sin.
But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father,
Jesus Christ the righteous one.
He is expiation for our sins,
and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world.
The way we may be sure that we know him is to keep
his commandments.
Those who say, “I know him,” but do not keep his commandments
are liars, and the truth is not in them.
But whoever keeps his word,
the love of God is truly perfected in him.

First John is very basic and straightforward, which makes it hard to preach: it provides little opportunity for the homilist to impress the congregation with some tidbit of ancient Near Eastern or Jewish culture that sheds illumination on an otherwise obscure passage.  Often John simply speaks the truth so bluntly there’s little left for the preacher to say. 

Nonetheless, we note that St. John speaks of Jesus Christ as “the expiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world.”  This ties into the theme of the-suffering-Christ-predicted-by-the-Scriptures that we see in the surrounding Readings.  By calling Jesus the “expiation” of our sins, St. John is using cultic language of the Old Covenant, concepts associated with the so-called “Priestly” texts of the Pentateuch (esp. Ex 25–Num 36).  The particular term John uses for “expiation” (Gk hilasmos) is very rare in the Septuagint (6X), but its first occurrence is very significant: Lev 25:9, in the context of the description of the Jubilee Year, hilasmos is used as the term for the Day of Atonement.  The Day of Atonement was the definitive cleansing of sin for the entire nation of Israel.  John sees it as a foreshadowing prophecy of what Christ the High Priest and sacrificial Lamb will do “to take away the sins of the world,” ushering in the perpetual Year of Jubilee in which sins will be forgiven, as the Essenes of Qumran anticipated (see the document 11QMelchizedek).

But that doesn’t free us from the need to follow him in obedience.  John preaches no “salvation by faith alone” if that is meant as merely intellectual assent.  We lie if we say we know him, but don’t keep his commandments.  Growth in the spiritual life cannot be separated from actual change of our behavior: “whoever keeps his word, the love of God is perfected in him.”

This passage is also particularly good at debunking the separation of law from love that is so characteristic of modern thinking.  Modern people see the moral law as in opposition to love.  So the moral law is this set of rules and regulations that prevent you from “loving in the way you want.”  In order to follow our loves, it is thought, we have to break the moral law.  For example, you and your wife are having a hard time getting along, but there is this really attractive woman at your job.  The moral law says to be faithful to your wife, but you decide to leave her to follow your “love” for your co-worker. 

St. John isn’t having any of this opposition between love and law.  “Those who say, ‘I know him,’ but do not keep his commandments are liars …. But whoever keeps his word (here meaning ‘commandments’), the love of God is truly perfected in him.”  Love for God is shown by obedience to what he tells us to do.  Furthermore, what he tells us to do is always an expression of love.  In the scenario above, for example, fidelity to one’s spouse shows love for God and for one’s spouse.  To abandon one’s spouse for someone “more attractive” is just selfishness, it’s not love.  It’s breaking one’s word, one’s promises—and that is ungodly, because God never breaks his word and promises.  The central theological concept of the Old Testament, and the only attribute of God which is repeated in descriptions of God’s nature, is hesed, the Hebrew word for covenant faithfulness, but usually translated “mercy” or “loving kindness.”

It would be wonderful in modern Catholicism if we could recover the truth that the moral law and love for God and neighbor are never in opposition, and thus there is never conflict between obedience and kindness.  So much of what goes under the name “love” in modern culture is really just lust or some other form of selfish desire.

4.  The Gospel is Luke 24:35-48:

The two disciples recounted what had taken place on the way,
and how Jesus was made known to them
in the breaking of bread.

While they were still speaking about this,
he stood in their midst and said to them,
“Peace be with you.”
But they were startled and terrified
and thought that they were seeing a ghost.
Then he said to them, “Why are you troubled?
And why do questions arise in your hearts?
Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.
Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones
as you can see I have.”
And as he said this,
he showed them his hands and his feet.
While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed,
he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
They gave him a piece of baked fish;
he took it and ate it in front of them.

He said to them,
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you,
that everything written about me in the law of Moses
and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled.”
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.
And he said to them,
“Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer
and rise from the dead on the third day
and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins,
would be preached in his name
to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses of these things.”

This event recorded by St. Luke may be the same appearance to the Apostles in the Upper Room that John describes in John 20:19-23.  Our Lord demonstrates to them his real, physical presence—he is not just a spirit, much less some spiritualized concept in their imagination.  This is in absolute opposition to Gnosticism, which tends to devalue the body and de-emphasize or deny the physical reality of the incarnation and resurrection.  Pope Francis has made opposition to modern forms of Gnosticism one of the keynotes of his papal magisterium. 

In our Gospel reading, Jesus proceeds to emphasize the fulfillment of the Scriptures in his own Passion and Resurrection—so we see that Peter’s preaching in the First Reading is based on the “hermeneutic” that Jesus taught the Apostles after his rising from the dead.  It is Our Lord himself who insists that the history of salvation has been “filmed” by a great “Director” to lead to the climactic scene of salvation that makes sense of everything that preceded it.  “Thus it is written,” Jesus says, “that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day ….”

We, too, who have followed the Liturgy through Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, are “witnesses” to these things, which have been sacramentally re-presented before our very eyes.  Let’s pray this week that we may be more effective in doing our part to “preach the forgiveness of sins to all the nations,” the mission we’ve all be called to by our baptism.

(And here’s a good book that gives some practical tips on how to do so.)

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