Sunday, April 30, 2023

'Good Shepherd Sunday' -- The Shepherd: protector or nursemaid?

[first published April 26, 2015]

by David Pence

"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who doesn't own the sheep, sees the wolf coming, leaves the sheep, and flees. The wolf snatches the sheep, and scatters them. The hired hand flees because he is a hired hand, and doesn't care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and I'm known by my own; even as the Father knows me, and I know the Father. I lay down my life for the sheep."  
                                     (from the Gospel of John, read on Good Shepherd Sunday)

The heart of the shepherd is that of a protector ready to shed his own blood in the face of wolves attacking the sheep. It is unfortunate that the dominant iconography of the good shepherd is not a man standing in front of his flock taking on a wolf, but the image of a usually mawkish Jesus cuddling a lamb in his arms. Now, Christ himself said in Scripture that he would leave the ninety-nine sheep to go find the lost one, and "lay it on his shoulders, rejoicing." That image was also well known in the ancient world as the kriophoros—the “ram bearer” as a figure preparing for sacrifice.
But the shepherd in today's Gospel is in a different stance. There are many traits of the Shepherd which Scripture teaches, beginning with the clarity and recognition of his voice by his sheep. Abel and Abraham and the first Christmas witnesses were all shepherds. I always think of those noble shepherds of Christmas night coming to protect the babe in the cave from wolves and beasts, who in nature often sense the vulnerability of birthing. Certainly, Satan might have thought to send an animal precursor to Herod’s men. But Joseph had his shepherd brothers there. Like so many times in history when strong good men are present, there is no vicious tale to tell, and thus the work of the protective peacemakers is unheralded.

The greatest of the shepherds until Christ was, of course, King David. He has never been confused with a nursemaid. David was consecrated by Samuel, but he won the allegiance of the men of Israel by his courage against a wolf-giant that had frightened Saul’s soldiers into their tents. When King Saul berated David as no match for Goliath, the son of Jesse reminded him:

“When a lion or a bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I went out after him and [attacked him], and rescued it from his mouth; and when he rose up against me, I seized him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, since he has taunted the armies of the living God.”


The pope wears a pallium over his shoulders made of lamb’s wool to show his authority as a shepherd. Let us make for every bishop a new icon of the Good Shepherd—a picture or statue of a man seizing and striking a lion or bear to protect his flock. The feast of the Good Shepherd reminds us that the first service of the ruler is to protect—even if that means death. For today’s priesthood that means to risk reputation and career pathway to clean out the soft wolves among the shepherds, those men who have emasculated the apostolic fraternity. This corruption of the masculine protective personality has paralyzed the nations of Christendom. Our fathers have left us wealthy, well-organized, and well-armed; but as our fellow Christians are slaughtered in Africa and the Mideast, we watch like hirelings behind the bushes.

The evil we are hiding from was foretold in the Book of Revelation. Satan was infuriated that he could not harm the woman who was giving birth to her Son. "Enraged at her escape, the dragon went off to to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep God's commandments and give witness to Jesus."

Lest we allow ourselves to become too comfortable that this bloodletting from afar is an inevitable work of the Evil One causing us sadness but no protective response, we should look to Revelation again for the last of the Biblical references to the Shepherd: "She gave birth to a Son -- a boy destined to shepherd all the nations with an iron rod."

                                                            David the Shepherd as Slayer

Sunday, April 16, 2023

THE FATHERHOOD OF GOD ON DIVINE MERCY SUNDAY: “On that day are open all the divine floodgates through which graces flow"

[first published April 27, 2014]

Those are the words of Our Lord to Saint Faustina.

An entry from her Polish diary:
“Strangely, all things came about just as the Lord had requested. In fact, it was on the first Sunday after Easter [April 1935] that the image was publicly honored by crowds of people for the first time. For three days it was exposed and received public veneration.”   (#89)

Three years later she died in Krakow at the age of 33. The Church's  emphasis on the Octave of Easter that Christ's Passion is a manifestation of the mercy of The Father is not a peculiar quirk of a Polish nun made famous by a Polish Pope. The mystic nun did not invent this day. The liturgical readings were never changed. All octaves are resonating contemplations of the prior feast. That's been true since eight day circumcision established the spiritual communal identity of the Jewish male.   It is true on the Octave of Pentecost when we contemplate the eternal interpersonal communion of the Trinity which subsumes humans in the Church. Christ admonished Phillip that seeing Him clearly was "seeing the Father".  St Faustina needed no admonishing. She saw clearly the Father acting in her  contemplation of the Cross. This Octave is a great celebration of the Fatherhood of God. (This becomes especially clear  in reading St John Paul II on Dives in Misericordia. Here is a good explanation of his subsequent naming the Octave of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday)


The image of Divine Mercy is the red and white lights of Mercy from our incarnate Lord. It is the blood and water that flowed from his side at Calvary, when like the first Adam he allowed the new Eve of the Church to come from his side. The water and blood are Baptism and the Eucharist, by which men are incorporated into the Body of Christ.

The Gospel on this Octave of Easter recounts the first act which Christ did on Easter evening. In a locked upper room, He transmitted the Father's  Divine Mercy in a sacramental form that would resonate through the ages.  He deliberately set aside the Apostles as He breathed the Spirit on them to empower them to forgive sins as He had done. He instituted the sacrament of mercy (reconciliation/confession) and just as the saving blood and water could only come from his side, forgiveness of sins is mediated only through His Apostolic priesthood. This part of today's Gospel reading almost always gives way to the second story about Thomas and his reluctance to believe without seeing and touching. (The Thomas episode happened eight days later on the Octave Sunday) Because his experience of doubting is such a universal one, that episode is almost always the topic of Catholic and Protestant homilies on this day. But on Divine Mercy Sunday -- in this special papal year of Divine Mercy -- let us concentrate on the first episode of today's Gospel.  This is the Christian Day of Atonement because there is a new designated Holy of Holies where every Christian through the ages can come to meet God face to face and beg forgiveness. The Divine Mercy of the Father is manifested in Christ and works through a sacramental order. Man is rescued from Satan in Baptism, confirmed in the Spirit by a bishop, forgiven of sins by a priest in confession, and  integrated into the salvific Body of Christ in the Mass. Mercy overflows but it comes from a narrow spigot, a very particular and well-formed font: the side of Christ, the Apostolic Church, the reality of the sacraments.

UPDATE: It's remarkable, but both Faustina and Hans Urs von Balthasar were born in the month of August 1905.  They certainly came to different views of Hell's existence!  Another excerpt from Faustina's diary:
“Today, I was led by an Angel to the chasms of hell. It is a place of great torture; how awesomely large and extensive it is …  I, sister Faustina, by the order of God, have visited the abysses of hell so that I might tell souls about it and testify to its existence. I cannot speak about it now; but I have received a command from God to leave it in writing. The devils were full of hatred for me, but they had to obey me at the command of God. What I have written is but a pale shadow of the things I saw. But I noticed one thing: that most of the souls there are those who disbelieved that there is a hell.” 
Good Pope John, son of the soil of northern Italy, was canonized today (along with the Polish man in full, John Paul). Angelo Roncalli's sharecropper parents had 13 children. An army chaplain in the First World War, Angelo later served in Bulgaria, Turkey, and France as a Vatican diplomat.

Here is Faustina (the first saint of the 'Great Jubilee' of 2000) on the power of the Eucharist:

"All the good that is in me is due to Holy Communion... Herein lies the whole secret of my sanctity... One thing alone sustains me, and that is Holy Communion. From it I draw all my strength; in it is all my comfort... Jesus concealed in the Host is everything to me... I would not know how to give glory to God if I did not have the Eucharist in my heart... O living Host, my one and only strength, fountain of love and mercy, embrace the whole world, and fortify faint souls. O blessed be the instant and the moment when Jesus left us His most merciful Heart!"

Sunday, April 9, 2023

EASTER: A nation delivered from slavery; A species restored to life

"Father, You once saved a single nation from slavery and now you offer that salvation to all through baptism. May the peoples of the world become true sons of Abraham and prove worthy of the heritage of Israel. We ask this through Christ our Lord." 
(Easter Sunday Office)

From an Easter sermon of Saint John Chrysostom (d. 407):
"Come you all: enter into the joy of your Lord.  You the first and you the last, receive alike your reward; you rich and you poor, dance together; you sober and you weaklings, celebrate the day; you who have kept the fast and you who have not, rejoice today.  The table is richly loaded: enjoy its royal banquet.  The calf is a fatted one: let no one go away hungry.  All of you enjoy the banquet of faith; all of you receive the riches of his goodness.

"Let no one grieve over his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed; let no one weep over his sins, for pardon has shone from the grave; let no one fear death, for the death of our Savior has set us free: He has destroyed it by enduring it, He has despoiled Hades by going down into its kingdom, He has angered it by allowing it to taste of his flesh."
Easter in Sri Lanka - 2019. The island nation southeast of India has 22 million people, 70% Buddhist, 13% Hindu, 10% Muslim 7% Christian. Over 250 Christians are dead in eight coordinated explosions injuring 400 more. Three churches and several luxury hotels were the Easter Sunday targets. UPDATE Background of inter religious violence-good interview.  The Sunni Muslim group responsible.    ISIS  makes their claim. Muslim leaders warned officials about jihad preacher.

Easter in Jerusalem from a 2017 article by a Palestinian journalist:

Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre

"The dwindling Palestinian Christian population celebrated Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and even in Gaza. Eastern and Western Christian calendars were united this year, bringing larger numbers to the celebrations than usual. Israel again this year issued permits for Palestinian Christians from nearby Bethlehem and Ramallah to enter Jerusalem to celebrate the Easter festivities. 
"This season witnessed an increase in Egyptian Coptic pilgrims to Jerusalem. Air Sinai, which used to run four flights a week, increased them to 12, bringing 547 pilgrims to participate in the Easter celebrations. Press reports said that the number of pilgrims participating in Palm Sunday celebrations this year was more than double last year. Some 30,000 are reported to have participated, compared to 12,000 last year. Clergymen in Jerusalem say that the main reason for the increase is that Palm Sunday this year was celebrated on the same day by Christians who belong to the Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical churches. In Gaza, Orthodox Bishop Alexas led the tiny Christian Palestinian congregation in celebrating the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem one week before his crucifixion. The traditional Palm Sunday celebrations follow the same route that Jesus took some 2,000 years ago, starting from the Mount of Olives neighbourhood of Beit Ania, down past the Church of Gethsemane and up to the old city via the Lion Gate. Boy scouts from various local Palestinian Christian churches usually participate in the pageantry, along with believers, church leaders, tourists and lay persons. Palm Sunday marchers on the traditional path carry branches of palm trees and sing hymns as they remember the days leading to Easter Sunday. Easter in Jerusalem is quite special; various churches and religious denominations hold events, church services and colorful pageants throughout the Passion Week.Greek and Cypriot pilgrims who often stay with local Palestinian Christians participate in these events leading to the Easter morning when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus..."
President Trump's first Easter and Passover message as president.

                               The Law of Life, The Human Species, and Easter

“... the virgin birth, the incarnation, the resurrection... are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of those laws... [It] would never have occurred to human consciousness to conceive of purity if we were not to look forward to a resurrection of the body, which will be flesh and spirit united in peace, in the way they were in Christ. The resurrection of Christ seems the high point in the law of nature.”                                             (Flannery O'Connor)

Saturday, April 8, 2023

HOLY SATURDAY: Christ the Conqueror of Hell

[first published April 19, 2014]

by David Pence                  

Holy Saturday always seems the most mysterious day of the Church calendar. We are in between two vivid earthly scenes. The first is depicted in the last three Stations of the Cross: Christ’s death, His return to His mother’s arms, and His burial. The second event is on Sunday as eyewitnesses register their stunning reports. Christ’s last words commending his spirit to the Father, and pronouncing his suffering now consummated, are deeply comforting after a night and a day of torture. But what happened from the time of his death to the sighting on Easter morning?

When David went to slay Goliath, he rejected the sword of Saul. He brought five smooth stones – and trust in the Living God –  to his contest. When Christ went to his agony he ordered the sword of Peter back in the scabbard; and bore five open wounds, and trust in His Father, to the Cross.

David brought back the head of his foe to Jerusalem, and many say Golgotha is called the place of a very particular skull (the Philistine giant's). It sits over a grave as well: Adam’s. Christ, too, decapitated his foe – the Prince of this world – no longer Master and now deprived of his sting of death. David’s Lord delivered Adam, Abraham, and a host of others from the prison of death on this day. In the Eastern Church the triumph of the resurrection is depicted as the liberation of the captives. The resurrection of Christ delivers men from the bondage of Satan and initiates the ‘theosis’ of men. The liberated take their place in the Body of Christ, Who will soon be at the right hand of the Father. Finally, we will see man in his proper place.

The Dragon, meanwhile, mortally wounded – and stunned by the loss of so many souls – plots revenge against the new apostolic church which is sent out to exorcise demons, forgive sins, and baptize the nations into a worshipful fighting formation that will ultimately separate Satan from the land of the living.

Holy Saturday emits the same mysterious scent as the time between the Creation/Fall events of the Angels, and the first manifestation of matter. Pivotal angelic contests, transmitted in the shared patristic traditions of the Orthodox and Catholics, flesh out the Biblical narrative. These are not ancillary optional tales of the olden days. Only a drama employing the full cast of divine, angelic, and human characters can hope to present the cosmic scope of these high holy days of our liturgical life.  We learn about these characters as much from liturgical and patristic sources as from Scripture. This fuller view reminds us not to shrink the glory of this upcoming Octave of Easter to the return of "our friend Jesus" as an individual man who beat the Grim Reaper. Christ slew death and rises from the depths of a netherworld where he triumphed in a terrific battle. This is as much Bastille Day as a replay of Lazarus!

The Risen Christ is truly different. He now incorporates thousands of the liberated in His perfecting Body. He has freed our father Adam, and demonstrated the original mission of man: to take back from Satan his unlawful dominion on earth. No wonder our Lord looked so different -- even to those who knew Him best.

UPDATE:  Here are some further links on the subject. Probably the most compelling of all reflections on Holy Saturday is included in the Church's office of readings for this day. Read here an anonymous and ancient homily about our Lord’s harrowing of hell.

This 2002 sermon delivered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a learned historical contrast of the Eastern and Western traditions on the meaning of this day and its implications for a time of decision after death for all men. Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev is one of the leading lights of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Also a post by Taylor Marshall, which explains the bizarre teaching of the late Hans Urs von Balthasar; and an exchange in 'First Things'  between a critic and a priestly defender of the Swiss theologian.

This short video on the two Adams is a beautiful refection on the harrowing of Hell and the meaning of Holy Saturday. It is a stunning audiovisual using the complete text of the ancient homily referenced above from the Church's office of readings for today. This is an explanation of the icon above.

Friday, April 7, 2023

GOOD FRIDAY: the Anthropology of Sacrifice

[first published April 18, 2014]

by David Pence

"Ecce Homo" (1881)
by St. Albert Chmielowski

Lord has been pleased to crush him with suffering."  (Isaiah 53)

On this Good Friday let us renew an old custom of speaking no words, except those of the liturgy or communal prayer during the three hours of Christ’s hanging on the cross from noon to three o'clock. (If we define the crucifixion as His taking up the cross and the journey up Calvary commemorated in the stations, the ordeal began at 9am), If ever there was a day that our Christian nation should declare as holy, it should be this day of the ultimate sacrifice.

Anthropologists say there are three elements to every sacrifice:

 1) a setting aside
 2) a sacred killing
 3) a communion

In many animal sacrifices a setting aside of some specially designated animal, a killing of the animal often by a set aside priest is followed by some portion of the animal being eaten as a sign of union between those who eat and the gods. In Christ’s sacrifice we see the setting aside of the one perfect Victim -- the Anointed One (Christos). We hear him cry out: "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" And He is killed.

As we leave that haunted hill (where some say David buried the skull of Goliath and others call the Tomb of Adam) we read the rest of the words of Psalm 22 which Jesus invoked. After many verses depicting the numbering of his bones and the casting of lots for his garments, we hear that the innocent victim “will proclaim your name in the assembly,” that “all the ends of the earth will worship you,” and that “deliverance is brought to a people yet unborn.” When we read the “forsaken verse” in the context of the whole Scripture and the practice of the Church, we find our Lord foretelling the Communion that will come from his sacrifice. From his vantage on the cross, our Lord sees the Masses of the future made present at Calvary. From the ends of the earth, God's name is proclaimed in the liturgical assemblies.

Moderns hesitate at the language of sacrifice. They would rather tell the story of Christ in the language of nonviolence and the salvation of all. It seems too primitive and bloody a tale. But sacrifice entails separation and killing—a sword that divides and a sword that slays. These must precede Communion. It is part of the Grammar of Sacrifice. Sacrifice ('sacrum facio) means to make holy. Holiness is not so much a statement about morality as one about separateness. We are being offered access to the One Who is Separate. "I am God who art Holy and because I am Holy you shall be Holy." In our prayers and gestures and liturgy, God must be approached as the HOLY ONE who is ultimately separate from all creation because He is the Creator. There is also in this cast of characters an unredeemable Evil One who has spread a pall of death, sickness, and darkness over humanity. In some radical way, man must be separated from the world, the flesh and the devil. All three must be killed for man to enter fully into communion with the God who is Holy.

The cosmos -- which man has only very recently begun to depict accurately -- is revealing to us the reality of election amidst widespread dissipation. Most of matter is heading out into oblivion, and those huge frightening angelic creatures who have been cast out of heaven and now roam the earth seeking the ruin of souls are going to be cast into the isolation of death at the final reckoning. Christ died to restore humans to our original mission and our role as priests, who in the ultimate sacrificial drama are going to participate in the killing of the victim who deserves to be slain. We will join in the exorcism of the Evil One. He was cast out of heaven by Michael. At the death of Christ, he was dethroned from the netherworld. Through the priestly power of the Church from now until the Last Judgment we are participating in casting Him out of our lives into Hell.

Adam was the first set-aside priest who was supposed to cooperate with the Angels in obeying the will of God to cast out Satan and dominate the earth. Out of all matter in the galaxies, some matter on the planet Earth was set aside for life. Out of the soil of life, only Adam was formed by a spiritual soul. Adam failed in his mission, so the new Adam came and died for the sins of humanity. We are now restored to our original mission. Our salvation is not the end of the story. We have been let out of jail to resume the contest that precedes communion. From now on, at the Mass we are at Calvary with the one-time victim who has become the eternal high priest; and the killing is of Satan, sin, self and death itself. The communion is the assembly of the new people foretold in Psalm 22. Those words of Our Lord seemed a cry of despair, but were indeed a promise of the means of our salvation and the restoration of our nature. Christ died on the cross first and foremost to obey the Will of His Father. It is his act of filial piety that returns mankind through our Head to communion with the Father. It is the Atonement. His perfect sacrifice has been done once and for all but we keep bringing those more deserving victims of self, sin and Satan to be killed as well.

Good Friday was predicted:
"As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up."

And the Eucharist initiating the great separation of the Last Judgment was likewise foretold:
"Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself."

"The LORD is king, and he rules the nations... All mortal men will bow down before him."                                    (Psalm 22)          The Cross is a Triumph.

Thursday, April 6, 2023

HOLY THURSDAY: He who cleansed the temple, now cleansed the priesthood so He might dwell among us

[first published April 17, 2014]

An explanation of feet-washing at the birth of the Christian priesthood by Dr. Pence:

On the night before He died, Christ formed the foundation of the Church by a new command of ordered love. This commandment was not the general order that each of us is to love our neighbor as ourselves.  He issued a more particular command to His chosen apostles: to love one another “as I have loved you.”  Christ 'transmitted to the apostles the Kingdom received from His Father' (Pope John Paul II on the Birth of the Church, August 1989).

This newly ordered love of an elected group of men with the power to forgive sins, cast out demons, and heal the sick shapes the sacred fraternity of the priesthood and the Church. This sealed-character relationship with Christ that is fully realized in bishops, and shared by priests and deacons, is the sacred bond from which Christ’s earthly presence in the Eucharist is made real. The Kingdom of God is now present as the new Adam and His sons are incorporated as priests into the communal love of the Trinity.

Just as the Levitical priesthood was born in a bloody battle, so the new priesthood was ordained in a struggle. It was essential that the priestly bond be shaped by the deep love of Father and Son, the filial fraternity of Sons and brothers -- not polluted by incestuous counterfeit or betrayed by avarice for gold or fractured by arrogant pride.  This priestly bond was prepared to receive the 'generation of the Church by Christ's redemptive death' [JP II], as well as the two comings of the Holy Spirit: sealing their power to forgive sins on Easter night, and sweeping them into the public manifestation of their mission on Pentecost Sunday.

Before the priestly prayer was said and the newly ordered love covenant was established, Judas was expelled from the room – discreetly but definitively.  And before that, the necessity to wash the priestly bond clean of the Evil One was demonstrated by Christ in the washing of the feet.   Peter (like so many of his clerical successors today) saw the Lord on his knees as an act of humility and service. He was having none of it. But Jesus corrected him: “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand."

The washing itself was not an act of self-negation, but an authoritative act by Christ establishing a new priesthood which would sanctify and rule his Church.  Christ’s action was foreshadowed by the priestly consecration when “Moses brought Aaron and his sons and washed them with water” (Leviticus 8:6 and Exodus 30:17-21). After Christ entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, one of his first acts was the cleansing of the Temple. On Holy Thursday, He would wash the new priests of the new Temple. This same order of consecration is described in Numbers when Moses first consecrates the altar, and then "takes the Levites from the Israelites and purifies them" with "the water of remission."

Christ’s washing was a casting out of the Evil One who was polluting the collegial body of the new priesthood (“for He knew who should betray Him.”)  Priestly acts of exorcism, healing and forgiveness of sins are spiritual acts of authority -- as was the Lord’s washing of his apostles. Thomas Aquinas saw the command to “do as I have done” in the washing of the feet as a command to laymen to forgive one another's trespasses.  For prelates, Aquinas saw this as an order to sacramentally forgive sins.  Every act of forgiving sins is an expulsion of one Spirit of authority for the sweeter yoke of another.  It takes authority to set the captives free.  Every baptism is an exorcism. The water that lifted the Ark left many others drowned; and the Red Sea which split for the Jews closed on Pharaoh’s army. If Christ had to rid himself of one of his own – numbered among the Twelve – why should his followers be spared the same troubling duty?  “If I your Master washed your feet, you should wash one another’s feet.”  This was a priestly purification command, which preceded the Love command. It was a bestowal of authority and the assignment of a duty. The Eastern Liturgy prayer of that night puts it this way: “When Thy glorious disciples were enlightened at the washing of their feet before the supper, then the impious Judas was darkened …”

Christians who have no apostolic priesthood can be excused for misinterpreting the foot-washing command as a general ordinance (see Foot-washing Baptists).  English monarchs can be admired as they pass out money to the poor, inspired by the King of kings on His knees (see Maundy money). Many early Christian communities integrated foot-washing as a favored part of Eucharistic liturgy – a sort of kiss of peace with an added touch of humility – (see Saint Ambrose, d. 397). All these practices are understandable.  For Christ was indeed a servant leader. He preached it often; thus, to match His persistent general teaching with that particular iconic moment seems irresistible.

But Jesus personally handed his apostles the Body and Blood, and no one dwells on His being a waiter! Likewise, when he separated his apostles from the power of the Evil One, we shouldn’t over-interpret His bended knee.

The love which will save us from the Evil One is the powerful sacramentally-ordered love of Christ and his purified apostles. Christian love is an ordered love, and the washing of the apostles’ feet manifests the authoritative love of a High Priest instituting a new ordinance.   We must insist that priestly ordination, the power to cast out sin, and the necessity of apostolic fraternal correction which constituted the substance of Christ’s act not be lost in the Zeitgeist.  We are not recounting this story to soothe priestless Protestants or feckless feminists.

The spotless purity of the Marian Church can only be safeguarded by a protective authority ready to cleanse and do battle.  Wherever Christ appears too publicly, He will be attacked.  Saint Joseph had little time to coo with the baby Jesus before He was leading His sacred charges into the dangers of a nighttime flight.  So, before Christ entrusted His presence with the new priesthood, he burnished some of them and expelled others.  The shirking of duty by Peter, the uncertain voice of Thomas, the cowardice of all the others must be confessed, repented, and reformed. The perfidy of Judas had to be washed away and expelled.

"The Lord will wash away the filth of the daughters of Zion; he will cleanse the bloodstains from Jerusalem by a spirit of judgment and a spirit of fire." (Isaiah 4:4). It was Irenaeus who recalled these words when he beheld the new Moses washing the feet of Aaron and his sons. When Irenaeus reflected on the washing of feet at the Last Supper, he did not see a Christ adding service hours to His resume.  He saw “the Word Himself ‘…washing away the filth of the daughters of Zion,’ when He washed the disciples' feet with His own hands. For He who washed the feet of the disciples sanctified the entire body, and rendered it clean.”
(Irenaeus, Book IV Chapter 22, Against Heresies)

The reintegration of the washing of the feet in the Holy Thursday liturgy is a very recent event (1955). It is not surprising that we are still learning the deep significance of this ancient ritual. It may be that it would be better placed in the morning Chrism Mass centered on the bishop and his priests.  For many, the male-only character of the foot-washing seems an affront – but so is a Church built on a male priesthood, the Real Presence of Christ, and a sacramental form of confession.  The flattened de-sacralized spirit of modernity and the congregationalist mentality of Protestants can make no peace with the authoritative masculine fraternity that Christ instituted on Holy Thursday to maintain His Living Presence among us.  Rather than inviting the ladies and grade-school girls to join in the foot-washing festivities, let us more deeply reflect on what we have received and render a more profound account of this pivotal event in the life of Christ and the Church.

UPDATE: In 2016, Pope Francis allowed the washing of women's feet in this ritual. Because he understands this as a sign of service, he sees no reason to exclude women and in his own practice has included non-Christians as well. This is entirely consistent with the symbol of service interpretation. Our comments when he made the announcement are here.  

Monday, April 3, 2023

Mapping Holy Week

By A. Joseph Lynch

The above map (click to enlarge) depicts the city of Jerusalem as it was at the time of Jesus. Although most of us are familiar with the events of Holy Week (from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday), most have not been introduced to the spatial and geographic dimensions of Holy Week. This is in some ways true even for those who have made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. For example, the walls of the "Old City" today are not the walls that stood 2,000 years ago. The walls from the time of Jesus were destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70 and those that stand today were built by the Kurdish Sunni Muslim, Saladin, during the time of the Crusades. Because of this, the location of the Upper Room (site of the Last Supper and Pentecost) is now located outside the Old City walls despite the fact that it was within the walls at the time of Jesus. (To put the Jerusalem  story in the national context, see our Mapping Israel: from Joshua to Jesus.)

On Palm Sunday, Jesus made his way to Jerusalem along the road from Bethany and Jericho, over the Mount of Olives (see the east, or right, side of the map). According to Matthew 21, Jesus rode both an ass and a colt as he made his way over the terrain and into the city via the Golden Gate (see Matthew 21:1-11). Taylor Marshall suspects that Christ rode the ass, more capable of crossing rugged terrain, over the Mount of Olives and the colt as he rode into the city. He sees in the former an image of Israel under the yoke of the Law of Moses and young colt as a sign of the Gentiles to which Christ will send the Church. It is highly likely that Jesus would have passed by the Garden of Gethsemane on his way down the mountain. Luke records that as Jerusalem came into full view, he foresaw its eventual destruction by the Romans and wept over its failure to accept the coming of the Messiah (see Luke 19:41-44). Below is an image the author took of Jerusalem from the church now standing to mark the place of Jesus' weeping.

From the site of which Christ wept over Jerusalem. The gold-topped Dome of the Rock today sits on the place the Temple once stood. Immediately below this picture is the Kidron Valley dividing Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. Nearby towards the base of the valley is Gethsemane.
As Jesus crossed the base of the Kidron Valley and approached the Golden Gate at the foot of the Temple Mount, he was met by many proclaiming "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" (Matthew 21:9). From here Jesus entered into the Temple where the Synoptic Gospels tell us he overturned the money tables and cleansed the Temple of the those making it a "den of robbers." Some allegorically note that as we prepare to receive the Eucharistic Christ into our bodies - the temples of the Holy Spirit - we proclaim the same words as those at the city gates and await the arrival of the King to cleanse our souls of venial sin through the reception of Holy Communion.

From Palm Sunday we advance to Holy Thursday. The Last Supper took place in the Upper Room, which is named for the guest room that stood above the site of King David's tomb. The site today is revered by both Jews and Christians as the former, segregated by gender, flock to visit the tomb of David while the latter climb the stairs up to the place where the Last Supper and Pentecost took place. The significance of this place to both religions is also why Christians have not turned the site into a church. Nevertheless, this area became the Church's first chancery of sorts as it is where the Apostles originally governed and, just across the street, the place where Mary is said to have entered her Dormition and Assumption. That site is marked today by the Church of the Dormition, visible in the Jerusalem cityscape image above and blown up in the image to the right. Note in the picture that the medieval walls of Jerusalem place the area outside the Old City, but in the time of Christ the walls would have extended much further south.

As Jesus, Peter, James, and John departed from the Upper Room for Gethsemane, they may very well have passed the house of Caiaphas. This house included areas to hold prisoners and it would be here that Jesus would have been taken after his betrayal by Judas. Remains of stairs (see left) from the first century have been found and preserved descending on the north side of Caiaphas' house on a path towards the Kidron Valley and Gethsemane below. A few feet from these stairs is the courtyard where Peter denied Jesus three times. Pilgrims today can visit both sites, and go inside the house of Caiaphas and enter into what scholars believe was the pit-like prison into which Jesus was interred the night of Holy Thursday after his pseudo-trail before the Sanhedrin.

While there is little debate over where Good Friday ended, there is some debate today over exactly where some of the earlier events of Good Friday took place. Crusaders believed that Jesus was taken to the Antonia Fortress located at the northwestern corner of the Temple. The fortress, however, was built to stand over the Temple to keep guard against an potential religiously-induced anti-Herodian or anti-Roman riots among the Jews on Temple grounds. By locating this place as where Jesus went  before Pilate, the crusaders left their mark on the location for pilgrims following the Stations of the Cross within the city. It seems that early Christians - and modern scholars - look to a different location for the trial. On the west side Jerusalem (see map at top) is found both the Praetorium (where Pilate lived) and Herod's Palace. As the Gospels note multiple trials taking place during the day between Herod and Pilate, it seems to make more sense that Jesus was not taken back and forth from one side of town to the other but rather shuttled back and forth from two parts of the same general location. If this is the historical case, it would mean that the path set down by the Crusaders for the Stations of the Cross were inaccurate while the western path used by early Christians was the correct one.

The site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher today marks the place where the Crucifixion and burial of Christ took place. At the time of Christ it would have been located just outside the city walls on the northwest part of Jerusalem. Calvary - or Golgotha, the place of the Skull (of Goliath)  - was the location for public executions. In some traditions this site was the burial place of Adam as well.  The execution sites were near the city gates so travelers and inhabitants would see the punishment for capital crimes. As the site of frequent deaths, it is unsurprising that burial grounds where located nearby. In fact, so close were they to Calvary that the tomb of Jesus is preserved within the same Church that houses Calvary. Within the walls of that Church, the pivotal moments of salvation history took place in which the eternal Son of God won man redemption through His suffering, death, and resurrection. Forty days later - Ascension Thursday - Christ would end his time on earth where this article's story began: the Mount of Olives overlooking the city of Jerusalem. Here Jesus commissioned the Apostles to baptize the nations. From there they went back to the Upper Room with Mary, praying for the next ten days until the Holy Spirit descended upon them on Pentecost Sunday bringing about the corporate body of Christ, the Church.

Sunday, April 2, 2023


[first published April 16, 2014]

"Judas betrayed Christ with a kiss, the sign of friendship and love. The betrayal and crucifixion of Christ carried the ancestral sin to its extreme limits. In these two acts the rebellion against God reached its maximum capacity. The seduction of man in paradise culminated in the death of God in the flesh. To be victorious, evil must quench the light and discredit the good. In the end, however, it shows itself to be a lie, an absurdity and sheer madness. The death and resurrection of Christ rendered evil powerless."                                                                                                       (from an Eastern Orthodox website)

Holy Week is when everything slows down, and truth presses its claims: will I keep settling for a superficial embrace of our Lord, or am I ready to submit to the schooling of the Holy Spirit -- the only One who can teach us how to become "partakers of the divine nature"?

Easter can be either a false kiss or true Communion.