Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Coptic Fragment: Much Ado About Nothing?

Dear Parish Faithful,

You may be aware of a recent news item concerning a fragment, written in Coptic, that purports to make a claim that Jesus had a wife.  This is probably a good example of “much ado about nothing.”   Or a good example of how anything that challenges traditional Christianity is immediately newsworthy.  As I was going to comment a bit about this new “find,” I came across this recent article that summarizes the Vatican’s take on the issue together with that of many New Testament scholars.  Here is the article for you to read at your convenience.  As this article makes abundantly clear, a great deal of research needs to be done on the authenticity of this fragment before any other analysis can be made.

Fr. Steven

'Gospel of Jesus' Wife' papyrus is a fake fragment, Vatican says
By Naomi O'Leary

An ancient papyrus fragment which a Harvard scholar says contains the first recorded mention that Jesus may have had a wife is a fake, the Vatican said Friday.

"Substantial reasons would lead one to conclude that the papyrus is indeed a clumsy forgery," the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, said in an editorial by its editor, Gian Maria Vian. "In any case, it's a fake."

Joining a highly charged academic debate over the authenticity of the text, written in ancient Egyptian Coptic, the newspaper published a lengthy analysis by expert Alberto Camplani of Rome's La Sapienza university, outlining doubts about the manuscript and urging extreme caution.

The fragment, which reads "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'" was unveiled by Harvard Professor Karen King as a text from the 4th century at a congress of Coptic Studies in Rome last week.

Her study divided the academic community, with some hailing it as a landmark discovery while others rapidly expressed their doubts

"It's really pretty unlikely that it's authentic," University of Durham Professor Francis Watson told Reuters after he published a paper arguing the words on the fragment were a rearrangement of phrases from a well known Coptic text.

Watson, who has previously worked on identifying forged gospels, said it was likely to be an ancient blank fragment that was written over in the 20th or 21st century by a forger seeking to make money.

Watson argues that the words on the fragment do not fit grammatically into a larger text.

"It's possible to get hold of an old bit of unwritten-on papyrus and write some new stuff on it," Watson said. "There is a market for fake antiquities throughout the Middle East ... I would guess that in this case the motivation might have been a financial one."

Academic debate

Manuscript experts who heard King's presentation quickly took to their blogs to express doubts, noting that the letters were clumsy, perhaps the script of someone unused to writing Coptic.

Writing from the conference, early Christian scholar Christian Askeland said specialists there were divided between two-thirds who were extremely skeptical, and one-third convinced the fragment was false.

"I have not met anyone who supports its authenticity," Askeland wrote from a session of the Tenth International Congress of Coptic Studies, where King gave her paper.

In an email to Reuters after the conference ended and before the Vatican editorial, King said: "Whether, in the end, the fragment will be shown to be authentic is still to be finally determined, but the serious conversation among scholars has begun."

During the conference King stressed that the fragment did not give "any evidence that Jesus was married, or not married" but that early Christians were talking about the possibility.

AnneMarie Luijendijk, associate professor of religion at Princeton University, said she concluded that the fragment was indeed an authentic, ancient text, written by a scribe in antiquity.

"We can see that by the way the ink is preserved on the papyrus and also the way the papyrus has faded and also the way the papyrus has become very fragmentary, which is actually in line with a lot of other papyri we have also from the New Testament," Luijendijk told Reuters during the conference.

The idea that Jesus was married resurfaces regularly in popular culture, notably with the 2003 publication of Dan Brown's best-seller "The Da Vinci Code," which angered the Vatican because, among other things, it was based on the idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had children.

Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married and the Catholic Church, by far the largest in Christendom, says women cannot become priests because Christ chose only men as his apostles.


Friday, September 28, 2012

The Sign of the Son of Man, Part 2

Dear Parish Faithful,

I wrote earlier of living by and under the “sign” of the Cross, and practically about how we make the sign of the Cross over ourselves – a practice which clearly goes back to the ancient Church.  We belong to Christ – the crucified Lord of Glory.  However, we need to maintain a certain vigilance, because there are other “signs” competing for our loyalty – and even for our time, talent and treasure.  Although I admittedly do not encounter this much in my life today – though I believe a daily horoscope can still  be found in the newspaper - you may perhaps find yourself answering the question one day:  “What is your sign?” or “What sign are you under?”   This is all about the strange world of astrology, still a lucrative – if not ludicrous – enterprise in today’s sophisticated and highly-technological world.  (Astrology affirms my dreary conviction that people will believe in anything!).  Basically limited to vague and affirmative predictions concerning  romantic relationships and financial speculation  - at least on the popular level - the claim is made that your birthday determines the Zodiac sign under which you live and which has some mysterious way of determining your personality and your destiny.  This was popular in the time of the early Church, even among emperors and highly-placed officials, and has retained its hold to this day.  Many of the Church Fathers contributed devastating critiques of the claims of astrologers that are still effective to this day.  (There is an old joke that I am tempted to share here:  A person came to Confession and acknowledged to the priest that he periodically checks his astrology chart.  And the priest responded: “ Oh, and what does it say?”)    Referring to the bizarre world of astrological signs here is simply to point out one of many examples of the concept of a “sign” as a powerful and potent “symbol/representation” of an underlying reality to which human beings will devote themselves - often with heart, soul, mind and strength.  To place oneself under the sign of the Cross is to offer one’s heart, soul, mind and strength to God in a consciously  Christocentric manner.  (MK. 12:30)

The more marginalized signs, like those of the zodiac, are assumedly easy for Christians to ignore.  But the one pervasive “sign” that impinges upon everyone and which demands our attention is none other than: $$$!    The “dollar sign,” or, as we may say, the “almighty dollar” is an integral part of our lives.  For many, it “makes the world go ‘round.”  Questions and concerns about money loom large in our lives. However, with a reeling economy, we should be deeply sympathetic to all persons who have lost their jobs and who are suffering great anxiety concerning the future of their families. Many well-intentioned and hard working people find themselves facing financial hardships that are determined by factors well beyond their control.  Admittedly, it is difficult to reflect upon “ultimate questions” of God and salvation when one is uncertain about the most primary – if not primal – needs of food, shelter and clothing.  When this reaches the point of genuine hunger for one’s “daily bread” then the world is facing a crisis that is both economic and moral.  Wretched and pervasive poverty is not just God’s problem (“Why and how does God allow this to happen?”); but also our problem (Why and how do fellow human beings allow this to happen?”). This should awaken a sense of sympathy, compassion and support from those who are blessed with ample resources.  As St. John Chrysostom said:  “What you do for the poor and to the sick and to prisoners you do Christ.”  That is perhaps one crucial dimension of the place of money in our lives.

But we know that the “$” can awaken a myriad of enticements and temptations that can tightly grip the heart, soul, mind and strength of just about anyone who consciously or unconsciously succumbs to its lure.  And then the “$” becomes the “sign” that one lives by or under.  This “passion” can exist under a legion of expressions:  acquisitiveness, greed, conspicuous consumption, consumerism, materialism, avarice, etc.  We can begin to measure the meaning of life, or that allusive “pursuit of happiness” based upon material wealth – and judge others accordingly –  primarily, if not exclusively.  The quest for the virtues can be eclipsed by our quest to accumulate material wealth as the supreme virtue.  To live under the dollar sign can shrink one’s heart and squeeze the virtues of sympathy and compassion right out of it.  There can be a Scrooge hidden within all of us once the lure of the “$” becomes pervasive.   Jesus understood the nature of this struggle perfectly well: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon”  (MATT. 6:24).  And the Apostle Paul reinforces this in equally strong language:  “For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs” (I TIM. 6:10).  We are thus meant to use money, but not to serve or love money.   Christian Stewardship is about the vigilant use of time, talent and treasure, embracing these gifts both with a sense of gratitude for the blessings that ultimately derive from God; and an openness to share our treasure beyond our immediate and essential concerns.

We may have the best of intentions to place ourselves under the sign of the Cross, but then somehow drift off and find ourselves under the sign of the dollar –  or under any other sign that is foreign to the meaning of the Cross of Christ.  We are surrounded by endless temptations to shift our loyalties away from Christ to some other “lord” or “god.”  But if the “sign of the Son of Man” is the Cross, then challenging though it may be, this is the sign we want to live by and under as Christians.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Sign of the Son of Man, Part 1

Dear Parish Faithful,

 "Then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven…"
 (MATT. 24:30)

Contemporary scholars debate the meaning of the word “sign” in the words of Christ found in the above passage that describes, in highly symbolic terms, His parousia or return in glory.  This sign, whatever it may be, will be impossible to miss or misinterpret.  It will overwhelm those who are present to observe it and stand in its shadow, so to speak.  Yet, for many of the Church Fathers – including St. John Chrysostom - the word “sign” in this passage refers to the cross of the Savior.  Commenting on this passage as found in the Gospel According to St. Matthew, St. John writes the following:

“The cross will be brighter than the sun.  The sun will be darkened and hide itself.  The sun will appear at times when it would not normally appear. .. For having the cross as the greatest plea, the Son of man thus comes to that judgment seat, showing not only his wounds but also the reproach of his death.”  (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 76.3.)

The Church Fathers were in direct continuity with the New Testament in their emphasis on the Cross in the divine economy.  There was no conceivable way to legitimately underemphasize or somehow “get around” the centrality of the Cross. If Jesus was Lord, then His lordship had been fully revealed following His death on the Cross: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified”  (ACTS 2:36).   St. Paul knew that the Cross of the Lord was a “stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles” (I COR 1:23).  It was no different in the centuries to follow, including the great Patristic Age when the Church Fathers offered their great commentaries on the Scriptures.  And it is no different today:  there will always remain a deep sense of incomprehension before the mystery of the Cross.  How can suffering and death be the path to glorification and life with God?  St. Paul, however, did not flinch from what God had revealed, and he drew his own hard conclusion:  “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”  (I COR. 1:18).  Even more emphatically for the great apostle, the Cross and Christ are so closely bound together, that both are  considered to be “the wisdom of God” (I COR. 1:20-25).  The Cross may be “foolish,” “low,” and “despised,”  (I COR. 1:27,28) but it is Christ Jesus, the Crucified One, “whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption”  (I COR. 1:30).  In a beautiful image from St. John Chrysostom, we hear him say that “I call Him King because I see Him crucified.”

The Cross does not stand alone, but is always linked to the Resurrection of Christ, the event that reveals the inner meaning of the Cross and its fulfillment.  Without the resurrection of Christ, the Cross would indeed remain an instrument of suffering and death, having the “last word” in a fallen and irredeemable world.  We express the unity of Cross and Resurrection  liturgically, through the powerful hymn that accompanies our veneration of the Cross as now during the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross:

Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy resurrection, we glorify!

This organic and inextricable union of the Cross and Resurrection is beautifully expressed in every celebration of the Liturgy, when immediately after the reception of the Eucharist we chant:

Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only Sinless One.  We venerate Thy Cross, O Christ, and we praise and glorify Thy holy Resurrection; for Thou are our God, and we know no other than Thee; we call on Thy name.  Come all you faithful, let us venerate Christ’s holy Resurrection!  For, behold, through the Cross joy has come into all the world.  Let us ever bless the Lord, praising His Resurrection, for by enduring the Cross for us, He has destroyed death by death.

Christians live under and by the Sign of the Cross.  Many Christians – certainly the Orthodox -  even “make” this sign over their bodies when they “cross themselves.”  This can, of course, be nothing but an empty gesture, or a vestige of a cultural tradition that has long lost any power or significance in our lives.   The sign of the Cross can even be manipulated in a manner dangerously approaching superstition:  as if the cross was a sort of charm or talisman that protects one more-or-less magically.  However, let us assume that we are no longer subject to such crass temptations. Let us further assume that our intentions are to treat the sign of the Cross with respect and reverence.  At this point there may be additional and more subtle temptations that we must contend with.  If we compartmentalize our lives in such a way that “religion” –  or even God – is consciously or unconsciously only a part of our lives, or apart from our daily lives, then we can find ourselves living under or by a different “sign” than that of the Cross.  How can that happen?

(To be continued)

Friday, September 7, 2012

Conviction and Commitment in the Church New Year

Dear Parish Faithful,

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (MATT. 16:16)

We are well into the Church New Year as we will soon celebrate the first major Feast Day of the liturgical cycle – the Nativity of the Theotokos - on September 8.  A new year, of course, means a “new beginning” or the renewal of our lives in Christ;  and the opportunity to examine both our deepest convictions and commitments.  In fact, I believe that there is a profound connection between our convictions and our commitments.  What we are convinced of, we will commit to.  As baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christians who confess our sins and receive the Eucharist, I will assume that our deepest and dearest conviction is equal to that of the Apostle Peter:  that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of the living God.  This is what distinguishes us as a parish community – a shared conviction that unites us as the local Body of Christ. Here conviction is synonymous  with the content of our faith.  This is what we believe, a conviction expanded in the Nicene Creed that we confess at every  Liturgy we attend, and beginning with the words, “I believe.”  As our faith hopefully deepens through the years, we become further convinced that the convictions we hold are true.  Since these convictions are about God, then we are touching upon “ultimate reality.”  What this demands is seriousness and sobriety of both our minds and hearts:  “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!”  (HEB. 10:31)

Personally, I find it impossible to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and not to have that conviction as the most  important and significant aspect of one’s very existence.  I believe that this conviction transcends all others, and that it is the guiding force of our commitments.  Since, ultimately, this conviction chooses life over death, it is thus a matter of life and death.  This conviction transcends the difference between male or female; rich or poor; even Republican or Democrat!  The words of Christ make this clear.  How else can we interpret this “hard saying” of the Lord:  “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (MATT. 10:37)  Otherwise, we may just be fooling ourselves about our deepest convictions.  With the best of intentions, such a delusion can result in a certain hypocrisy.  However, if we look at this more positively, we can understand that  this is where conviction leads to commitment, or perhaps a renewal of our commitment if it has weakened.  Even if we continue to struggle with the battle between faith and doubt when assessing our conviction about Christ; or if we share the anguished cry of the anonymous father in the Gospel:  “I believe, help my unbelief!” (MK. 9:24); even then we realize that our convictions can remain abstract or sterile without a genuine commitment to embody them in our daily lives.  If we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then we must witness to this truth with all of our strength.  In other words, we commit to living as Christians tangibly, concretely, and as unhypocritically as possible.  Broadly understood, the words of Christ to the rich young man who was seeking the way to “eternal life” can serve as a sure guide to embodying our convictions about the Lord in a conscious commitment to following Him:

“If you would enter life, keep the commandments … You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (MATT. 16:17-19)

Even further, we can continually study and do our best to embody the moral and ethical teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the beatitudes.  Now there is an ennobling and worthy lifelong project that will probably never reach completion!

Be that as it may, I would like to focus more in the remainder of this meditation on our ecclesial lives which we live out on the parish level and which we take home with us during the week.  If the Church new year is a wonderful opportunity to (re)commit ourselves to our lives in Christ, then we can always begin with the ABCs of the spiritual life:  prayer, almsgiving and fasting (MATT. 6:1-18).  At home, on a daily basis we must commit to praying with regularity.  We need to have our eyes and then our hearts open to those who need our assistance.  And we need to practice the discipline of fasting according to the Church calendar as part of our ascetical efforts of freeing ourselves from over-dependence/obsession with food and drink.  Reading the Scriptures with regularity as part of our daily lives can certainly be added to this.  This is basic, but if we have forgotten it, then it can be restored through repentance and effort.

As a parish community, our most foundational commitment is to the Lord’s Day Liturgy.  The Eucharist on the Lord’s Day is the “alpha and omega” of our parish existence.  All parish life flows outward from the Eucharistic Liturgy and returns there for both sustenance and greater vision.  The sharing of our time, talent and treasure will, to a great extent, be determined by our joyful experience of God in and through the Liturgy.  A “reluctant giver” will view the Liturgy as a religious obligation that needs to be fulfilled; but a “cheerful giver” is one who approaches the Liturgy as an inexhaustible gift from the Lord.  For it is there, at the Liturgy, that we are truly a koinonia – a communion – of brothers and sisters in Christ; for we commune together of the Body and Blood of Christ, uniting ourselves with Christ and with one another.  When we speak of commitment in communal terms, it is our continuing presence at the Liturgy – and as  Eucharistic beings – that should define us.  I believe that this is one of the many strengths of our parish.  A very high percentage of our “parish census” is at the Lord’s Day Liturgy on any given Sunday.  (Arriving on time may just be another matter that needs to be worked on!).

Yet, as our society becomes ever more “secular,” there are increasing temptations to view Sunday as any other day with various attractions and things to do.  Sunday has lost its privileged status in our contemporary world. “Rest” is a rather quaint concept today, suitable for the unengaged, the elderly, or for those who cannot quite keep up with the fast-paced rhythms of today’ world.  Thus, a wide range of events have now spilled over into Sunday, posing an ever-widening challenge for our loyalties.  Among the clergy, at least, a major concern and topic of open discussion is the proliferation of children’s sporting events that are regularly scheduled now for Sunday morning.  Loyalty to the team is promoted in almost “evangelical” terms. This is one instance of the many pressures put upon the contemporary Christian family, and which demand careful thinking and hard decisions.  Yet, all decisions must return to the twin realities of conviction and commitment.

The Church New Year is a blessing that allows us the time for renewal, for reflection on our priorities, and for repentance if we have somehow lost sight of our “first love” – the conviction that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God; and if our commitment to Christ has somehow melted away into directions that do not necessarily lead to life.  Yet, “now is the acceptable time!”