Pope Francis to the City (Rome) and the World

At Christmas each year the Pope leads the faithful in prayer and proclaims a message “Urbi et Orbi” (to the City and the World).

Now that we have entered the year 2020 with hope, the grim realities of the past year were placed by Pope Francis in a context of prayer and an earnest search for peace.

I wish to share this message in case some have not read it. Among the “trouble spots” in various continents, we think of the Middle East and pray for peace among all nations so that ordinary people will find tranquility and order as a sign of hope, pointing to the angelic prayer for peace among all beneficiaries of God’s good will (Luke 2:14).

The paragraph on African nations is especially poignant with reference to Christians who have been kidnapped by extremist groups.  May those who have been snatched from schools over several years and recently from the seminary of Kaduna diocese be returned safely!

Prayer for Christian Unity

For more than a century Christians have fostered a week of prayer (January 18-25) for the peace and harmony that responds in an ever deepening way to the prayer of Jesus. “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:20-21, New American Bible).

This year the texts for use each day were prepared by Christians of Malta. Appropriately they draw upon the experience of St. Paul whose voyage from Caesarea to Rome was interrupted by shipwreck near Malta. Fittingly, the document quotes the statement, “The natives showed us extraordinary hospitality” (Acts 28:2, New American Bible). The various dimensions of hospitality are explored during the meditations and prayers for each day.

The suggestions for each day of the week of prayer are available on the website of the Friars of Atonement at www.atonementfriars.org/2020-week-of-prayer-for-christian-unity/.

Many years ago, in collaboration with leaders of the Jewish community, the Bishops of Italy promoted a “Day of Judaism” for January 17th each year, with a theme rooted in the Sacred Scriptures. This has been followed, with variations by the Bishops of Poland, Austria and other European countries. Over the decades there has been an enriching exchange among scholars of the Jewish community with Christians. The “Day of Judaism” complements these important initiatives with educational themes that are intended to reach parishioners in the Catholic churches of these nations. May both types of experience be multiplied!  In the meantime Christians are challenged to deepen and broaden their search to explore the roots of Christianity in its Jewish matrix.

Etching: A New Art Form

The paintings and sculptures of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were shared widely when woodcuts or engravings reproduced these forms of art. In the Wall Street Journal, Barrymore Laurence Scherer presents an exhibit, “The Renaissance of Etching” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until January 20, 2020.  His essay, “Outlining a Revolutionary Technique,” describes the advance: “But around 1500 printmaking itself was revolutionized when the technique of etching metal- primarily to decorate armor- was adapted to printing images on paper.”

The Met’s website of the exhibit allows us to explore the many Biblical scenes at leisure.

Tiffany Windows

The work of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) and his colleagues provides a delightful background for the celebration of Christian worship in many American Episcopal and Protestant churches from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Richard H. Driehaus Museum in Chicago offers an exhibit of these windows, “Eternal Light: The Sacred Stained-Glass Windows of Louis Comfort Tiffany,” until March 8, 2020.
 
Edward Rothstein offers a review, “‘Eternal Light: The Sacred Stained-Glass Windows of Louis Comfort Tiffany’ Review: A Vibrant, Luminous Faith,” in the WSJ. He quotes the introduction to the exhibit, “explaining how Tiffany’s experimentation with glass- its coloration, its texture and its manufacture- led to the revival of a Medieval religious art form.”
 
The website of the exhibit gives a few samples of the themes relating to the faith-filled prayer evoked in the light of the windows: http://driehausmuseum.org/exhibition/eternallight/.

“Jewish Genius” in The New York Times

On December 27, 2019 columnist Bret Stephens offered a reflection on “The Secrets of Jewish Genius” that received considerable attention. The Times published a short comment with a correction but The Jewish Week of December 31, 2019 provided a report that put the matter in a wider perspective: “Times Amends, Apologizes For Stephens Column.”

On December 22, 2019 The Wall Street Journal published Dominic Green’s review of Norman Lebrecht’s book, Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947 (Scribner, 2019). Getting away from the dangerous theories of eugenics that contributed to Nazi ideology, Mr. Green has a point that is pertinent to the current discussion:

There is no Jewish gene, Mr. Lebrecht argues, only Jewish genius; no “Jewish exceptionalism,” only an exceptional situation. Jews’ minds were sharpened by the hermeneutical whetstone of the Talmud, their lives perpetually threatened.  They were conditional insiders and eternal outsiders, “driven by a need to justify their existence in a hostile environment and to do it quickly.”

Probing the questions posed by Mr. Stephens requires more than a brief essay or even a book or two. May these efforts to ponder the mystery of one community’s contributions to society be made with a humble and generous spirit!

Third Sunday of Advent: Custody of the Senses

Saint Augustine of Hippo by Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510)

Among the themes from the prophet Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11 in the Scripture readings for this Sunday is the ministry of healing as part of Messianic hope expressed in the ministry of Jesus. In my homily I touched on the ways that the Christian tradition has extended the work of Jesus throughout the ages and in virtually all parts of the world. Think of the hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and programs for people who are disabled as an extension of the healing hand of Jesus over the centuries. This present reflection develops another challenge of the Gospel for our time.

We very carefully strive to care physically for our five senses, especially sight and hearing. The Hebrew idiom protect “the pupil of the eye” (mistranslated by the phrase “the apple of the eye”) expresses how God protects his people from danger (see Zachariah 2:8, Revised Standard Version; 2:12 New American Bible).

The urgent moral and spiritual challenge to which I draw attention is to examine the way we use our senses, especially sight and hearing. These instruments of all that we learn should be guarded so that we avoid the near occasions of sin. I’m sure that parents are guiding their children in regard to the discipline that must be exercised so that their eyes and ears are not overwhelmed through exploitation by wicked merchants of immorality.  It seems that great advances in communication over recent years are being exploited much more rapidly than legal measures are enacted to preserve children from influences that attack our human dignity and that of the most vulnerable among us.  Parenthood has always been challenging, but now we need to be even more alert to dangers that may intrude surreptitiously into our homes or other places where children have access to the internet. May the Holy Family protect us!

As part of a beautiful prayer, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) placed the five senses in the context of the way God brought him to faith:

You were with me, but I was not with you…You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for
you.  I have tasted you; now I hunger and thirst for more.  You touched me, and I burn for your peace. (Confessions, Book VII. 10.27)

The Book of Life (Exodus 32:33)

Robert W. Service circa 1905

Robert W. Service (1874-1958) was an Englishman who wandered widely and penned rollicking ballads of the Yukon gold rush days and poignant poems of the trenches of the First World War. He never claimed to be a poet. “I’m a rhymer,” he said, and yet his stories give evidence of a solid education and, at times, hints of his Christian faith

In May 1914 he described the beginning of each day as a clean page in the Book of Life. What we make of any given day will be seen on Judgment Day. The second stanza expresses the desire to re-write certain pages, and the third is a prayer for divine guidance so that his bearing reflects God’s image so that every day may be golden.

Another day of toil and strife,
Another page so white,
Within that fateful Log of Life
That I and all must write;
Another page without a stain
To make of as I may,
That done, I shall not see again
Until the Judgment Day.

Ah, could I, could I backward turn
The pages of that Book,
How often would I blench and burn!
How often loathe to look!
What pages would be meanly scrolled;
What smeared as if with mud;
A few, maybe, might gleam like gold,
Some scarlet seem as blood.

O Record grave, God guide my hand
And make me worthy be,
Since what I write to-day shall stand
To all eternity;
Aye, teach me, Lord of Life, I pray,
As I salute the sun,
To bear myself that every day
May be a Golden One.

Collected Poems of Robert Service (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1921) p. 454

Yom Kippur and Christian Liturgy

During a discussion among medievalists on prayer, I mentioned the ember days in the Church’s liturgy. Middle-aged participants asked: “What are ember days?”

My friend Frank Henderson and I gave some attention to the topic in “Jews and Judaism in the Medieval Latin Liturgy” (see p. 191-92).

In the proceedings of a conference The Ways That Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, edited by Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra offers a wide-ranging study, “Whose Fast Is It? The Ember Day of September and Yom Kippur” (pp. 259-82 with charts of the Biblical readings in the Roman rite). He introduces his essay with a quotation from Pope St. Leo I (the Great), who reigned from A.D. 440-461:

Confidently encouraging you with fatherly counsels, dearly beloved, we preach the fast dedicated in the seventh month to the exercises of common devotion, sure that what was first the Jewish fast will become Christian by your observance. (Sermon 90:1)

Did this fast merely recall Zechariah’s mention of four times of fasting (7:5; 8:18-19), developing independently of contemporary Jewish practices in Rome?  Dr. Ben Ezra responds:

Particularly in light of Leo’s familiarity with contemporary Judaism and his references to the fast as part of the Jewish heritage of the church, the theory of a completely independent development of these Christian and Jewish readings seems highly unlikely. Competition with and influence from the Jewish Yom Kippur plausibly explains the dominance of Old Testament readings and the focus on repentance and propitiation.

Because detailed sources for Jewish practices in Rome in the fifth century are not available, Dr. Ben Ezra’s conclusion is tentative, but it seems that non-polemical contacts allowed for Christians in Rome to learn from and adapt the Jewish practices of fasting. In the modern period we can learn from each other, and Christians should learn from the Jewish background to Matthew 5:1-18 how prayer, fasting and alms-giving reinforce each other.

Hunger as a Challenge for All

A farmer at work in Kenya’s Mount Kenya region. Pic by Neil Palmer (CIAT).

The specter of starvation must be a horror beyond the imagination of those who are assured of ample food each day. We cannot be ignorant of this dimension of the burdens caused by poverty in so many parts of the world. Organizations such as Catholic Relief Services  describe the urgent needs of so many in various parts of the world. The current and ongoing challenge was presented by Pope Francis in his Message for the World Food Day 2018.

The prophet Amos presented an even graver situation for the people of ancient Israel:

Yes, days are coming, says the Lord God
When I will send famine upon the land:
Not a famine of bread, or thirst for water,
But for hearing the word of the Lord.
Then shall they wander from sea to sea
And rove from the north to the east
In search of the word of the Lord,
But they shall not find it. (Amos 8:11-12)

The Sacred Scriptures provide spiritual nourishment in abundance for people of faith.  Besides the Word of God as the foundation of the Church’s prayer, the Divine Office in English translation offers poetry and prose that manifest the way God’s Word is integrated into the lives of the faithful. Besides the classical poems of Latin and Greek, we savor how the English language is a vehicle of prayer. On Wednesday evening of the First Week of the four week cycle instituted after the Second Vatican Council, the introductory hymn reads:

O Father, whose creating hand
Brings harvest from the fruitful land,
Your providence we gladly own,
And bring our hymns before your throne
To praise you for the living Bread
On which our lives are daily fed.

O Lord, who in the desert fed
The hungry thousands in their need,
Where want and famine still abound
Let your relieving love be found,
And in your name may we supply
Your hungry children when they cry.

O Spirit, your revealing light
Has led our questing souls aright;
Source of our science, you have taught
The marvels human minds have wrought,
So that the barren deserts yield
The bounty by your love revealed.

From the Christian perspective, the ultimate human vocation is to give adoration and praise to God the Father through the Son and in the unity effected by the Holy Spirit.  We “own” or acknowledge that divine providence is the continuation of the divine act of creation. For Christians the food that sustains our bodily life prepares us for the Bread of Life (see John 6:48-58), the medicine of immortality.

The miracles of Jesus multiplying loaves and fish provide an example for his followers to act in his Name to attend to the hungry, especially among children, in our time. Our feeble efforts are placed within the context of prayer because it is God’s mercy that brings a solution to people’s true needs.

The Holy Spirit guides both the prayers of petition and the deeds of the faithful. “Source of our science” reminds us of Hannah’s hymn (1 Samuel 2:3) where the phrase “Deus scientiarum Dominus (An all-knowing God is the LORD)” became the motto of the University of Ottawa. The unifying spirit of all Christian universities should be expressed in the ordering of all knowledge to the service of our neighbor as the expression of a theocentric vision. May the human quest for knowledge be guided by the divine gift of wisdom so that our choices may bring a yield that truly serves human needs while respecting the way in which all creation is in the service of God. “For the elements, in variable harmony among themselves, like the strings of the harp, produce new melody, while the flow of music steadily persists” (Wisdom of Solomon 19:18).

The hymn’s text written by the Methodist Donald Wynn Hughes (1911-1967), the Headmaster of Rydal School in Wales, evokes at the closing of a day the sentiments of prayer guiding a life of service. It is sung to music by Erik Routley (1917 – 1982).

A Journey to Dialogue: The Sisters of Sion and Jewish-Christian Relations

On behalf of the Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies, I am pleased to announce that  Dr. Celia Deutsch will be this year’s keynote speaker at the 26th Monsignor John M. Oesterreicher Memorial Lecture on October 31, 2019.

Dr. Celia Deutsch, N.D.S. is a Research Scholar in the Religion Department at Barnard College and a member of the Sisters of Sion, a small international Roman Catholic religious congregation with a presence in five continents. Her presentation, “A Journey to Dialogue: The Sisters of Sion and Jewish-Christian Relations,” will reflect on the Sisters’ activities during World War II, particularly their participation in rescue efforts in the context of pre-War conversations occurring in Europe, mainly in France. Dr. Deutsch will follow their path through the tragic years of the Shoah to the hard work leading to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and The Declaration on the Church’s Relation to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate).

It has been more than 50 years since that milestone in Jewish-Christian relations and progress toward interfaith collaboration. In the decades since that time Roman Catholic understanding of Theology, Sacred Scripture and Church History has undergone significant changes, often in response to the ongoing conversations with Jews. We have come to appreciate the ways in which our relationships call us to the work of social justice and, together into new relationships with Muslims and other religious traditions, to strive for peace on the global, national and local levels.

The event is free and open to the public and will be held in the Nursing Amphitheatre in the Nursing Building at Seton Hall University (South Orange campus) from 7:00 – 9:00 p.m. Please RSVP here.