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"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, con
cerning the word of life -- the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it ...." I John 1:1-2 (RSV)

"After his resurrection the disciples saw the living Christ, whom they knew to have died, with the eyes of faith (oculata fide)." Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, 55, 2 ad 1, as quoted in D. M. Stanley, Jesus in Gethsemane (New York, Paulist Press 1980).

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Call of Jesus

On this Lenten journey with Mark, I am skipping the prologue for now,  and  proceed to verse 16 of chapter 1:

[16] And passing along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen.
[17] And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men."
[18] And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
[19] And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zeb'edee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets.
[20] And immediately he called them; and they left their father Zeb'edee in the boat with the hired servants, and followed him. 

Mark 1: 16-20 (RSV).   The passage is modeled on the Elijah- Elisha story in 1 Kings 19:19-21 which you can study in this  online article by Michael Turton.   (Turton takes critical views with which I disagree, but I have learned  helpful historical and literary  information  from him.)  Turton cites Thomas L. Brodie and identifies these parallels with Elijah's calling of Elisha:

         Note the parallels, listed in Brodie (2000, p91):
         *the action begins with a caller...and with motion toward those to be called;
         *those called are working (plowing/fishing);
         *the call, whether by gesture (Elijah) or word (Jesus) is brief;
         *later, the means of livelihood are variously destroyed or mended, the plow is destroyed, 

           but the nets are mended -- a typical inversion of images...;
         *after further movement, there is a leave-taking of home;
         *there is also a leave-taking of other workers;
         *finally, those who are called follow the caller.

Turton, online Commentary of Mark 1: 14-20.    Writers like Turton and Brodie claim that these NT literary allusions to the OT show that the NT writer is making something up here, and drawing on the OT for his material.  I disagree, and in fact I see the reverse of what these literary critics see.   That is, as someone who believes that that Gospel of Mark is the word of God, written by a human author, I see the spirit of God  involved in these echoes from the OT, although the precise nature of God's role  must remain a mystery.  I find these intertextual allusions fascinating and spiritually inspiring, and they make sense here in Mark 1.  After all, Jesus like Elijah has a prophetic office.  

Also,  Mark 1:14-20  is not a simple rehash of Elijah-Elisha.  While the Gospel alludes to that tradition with the parallels just listed,  a major difference here in Mark as compared to I Kings 19 is that the disciples come immediately.    See Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.,  and John R. Donahue, S.J.,  Sacra Pagina - The Gospel of Mark (2002), at 77.   Elisha did not go immediately.   He took time to check in with his father before going with Elijah.     The follower of Jesus needs to respond quickly.   Here is more than a prophet making the call.  This is the Messiah himself.   That's the message of Mark.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Elijah - Greatest Hebrew Prophet

Before getting back to Mark chapter 1, note this about Elijah, who with John the Baptist was the subject of the last post:

[Elijah] is [t]raditionally held to be the greatest Hebrew prophet .... He maintained the ascendancy of the worship of Yahweh in the face of the Canaanite and Phoenician cults (I Kgs. 18) and upheld the claims of moral uprightness and social justice (I Kgs 21). With Enoch he shared the glory of not seeing death but of translation into heaven (2 Kgs. 2:1-18), and such was the impression which he made on the people that his return was held to be a necessary prelude to the deliverance and restoration of Israel (Mal. 4:5 f.) ... He is regarded with particular devotion by the Carmelites. 

Dictionary of the Christian Church (Ed. F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingston, Third Edition 1997) at 539.   

Was Elijah a saint?   Yes.  The church teaches:   "The patriarchs, prophets, and certain other Old Testament figures have always been and always will be honored as saints in all the Church's liturgical traditions." Catechism of the Catholic Church at sec. 61.    Catholics ask saints to pray for them.    I do not pray to Elijah as if he were full of power to help me apart from God.   Elijah was a man with faults, as I Kings chapter 19 makes clear, and he is now part of the church triumphant, in the presence of God.   When I pray to Elijah  I ask him to intercede to the Father on my behalf, just as I ask my friends on earth to pray for certain things.  Elijah's feast day is July 20.   Here you will find a meditation from the Carmelites for that feast day.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Visions of Elijah in Mark 1

It's time to get serious about the gospels.  Lent begins this week.   My focus this Lent will be on the Gospel of Mark.  John Martens in his blog on the opening verses of Mark says this about Mark:

Mark’s overall purpose ... [is] to explain and unfold not only the identity of the Messiah, but the destiny of the Messiah and his followers. Mark draws the reader into his narrative, so that the reader himself becomes one of the disciples following along the journey with Jesus, a point that will become more apparent as we move deeper into the Gospel.

Now if you are going to launch out on a Bible study journey,  doing it side by side with Jesus as one of his disciples is the way to go, as far as I'm concerned.  I agree with John Martens that the Gospel of Mark is full of drama.  We see that at the outset of the gospel, with its Elijah images.  Here are the first eight verses: 

[1] The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
[2] As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, "Behold, I send my messenger before thy face,
who shall prepare thy way;
[3] the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight -- "
[4] John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
[5] And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
[6] Now John was clothed with camel's hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey.
[7] And he preached, saying, "After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.
[8] I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

Mark 1: 1-8 (RSV)

There are  multiple "intertextual"  issues in these eight verses, which among other places  take the reader to Isaiah chapter 40 and Malachi 3:1.   The intellectual density of the Bible and this Gospel  is a great gift.   To understand the NT you have to study the OT.   The Bible challenges the mind, and I am grateful for that.   But here I will limit my discussion to Elijah images in  these verses. 

The references here to John the Baptist evoke the image of Elijah, the great prophet of God whom God used to  save the faith of Israel when it was in danger of succumbing to Baal worship, and that takes me to verse 6 which states:  "Now John was clothed with camel's hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey."  Mark 1:6 (RSV).    This scene brings to mind   2 Kings 1:8:  "They answered him, “He wore a garment of haircloth, with a girdle of leather about his loins.” And he said, “It is Eli′jah the Tishbite.”    Any Jew who encountered John the Baptist at the Jordan River clothed with camel's hair and a leather girdle around his waist would have thought of one person and that is Elijah.  If some had trouble seeing John the Baptist as a new Elijah based on his appearance alone, add to this clothing reference  the fact that the scene here takes place at the Jordan River, which is the place where God took Elijah by a flaming chariot and horses  into the sky.  2 Kings 2: 6-11.    Mark 1:4-6 is a pretty clear Elijah image.

Elijah is a giant of the faith.  The great OT scholar, Gerhard von Rad,  says that the  amazing stories  of Elijah in I Kings chapters 17-19  "bear the stamp of history and individuality." Old Testament Theology, Volume II at 14. Elijah is "unapproachable, unpredictable, feared, and even hated, but always someone to be reckoned with."   Von Rad at 14.  Elijah "is a man of enormous powers.  Such a figure cannot simply have been invented, and can only be explained by saying that the stories [in I Kings] reflect a historical figure of well-nigh superhuman stature."    Von Rad at 14.   The Elijah stories, which have been the subject of previous posts,  are stories of the presence and the power of God prevailing in a culture which had rejected God.

John the Baptist here becomes another Elijah to God's people who had heard no prophetic words for over 400 years.  (The last OT prophet was Malachi ca 420 B.C.)   Mark 1 is a description of God coming to Judea in the power of Elijah.  Was John the Baptist a literal second coming of Elijah?   The huge following of John the Baptist makes the reader wonder if the crowds did see him as Elijah himself:  "John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins." Mark 1:4-5.  John the Baptist attracts to him "all the country of Judea, and all of the people of Jerusalem."     But other NT references to Elijah leave this connection between Elijah and John  as a kind of a mystery, and for that reason we conclude that no, John the Baptist was not Elijah himself.    For me, John the Baptist is a vivid image of Elijah which only comes into focus after spending some time reflecting on the Elijah stories. With knowledge of the Elijah stories, Mark 1 becomes a  display of the power and the presence of God with meaning which arises out of these antecedents from  the scriptures of Israel.

In 1 Kings 18 in response to Elijah's petitions for a miracle,  God brings down fire upon the altar to defeat the pagan gods of the wicked elites who were King Ahab and his wife Jezebel and their priests of Baal. Although  we don't see miracles from John the Baptist, he comes with a powerful Elijah-like presence, not just in his appearance,  but with his message. (Later we will see John too confront the elites, Herod and his illicit wife.)  Great crowds respond to John the Baptist and his message of repentance and forgiveness of sin.  This too was the message of Elijah.  Elijah prayed that God would bring the fire so that the hearts of the people would return to him: "Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that thou, O LORD, art God, and that thou hast turned their hearts back."  I Kings 18: 37 (RSV).

The Elijah stories (I Kings 17-19) are high drama.  They shake any tentative believer from his weak faith.  Mark chapter 1 is also a dramatic scene which opens with John the Baptist, the new Elijah,  and then becomes a shocking revelation of God himself, as John the Baptist meets Jesus.  That will be the subject of the next post.