Saturday, 13 April 2013

Bible Study the Catholic Way

I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel. (Genesis 3:15)

I wrote the following as a response to an amaetur 'sceptic' with whom I am in dialogue on Facebook. He has used, as the basis for his biblical scepticism, the author and priest, Fr Raymond E Brown. I find it sad that a Priest should leave his readers in so much doubt that people outside of the Church use his work as ammunition against the holy doctrines of the One True Church. If readers find any heresy or error within the following, please alert it to the author so that I may correct it.

The Fathers of the Church saw in Genesis a prophecy, since it is evident that God promised to the serpent (who we understand to be the Devil who tempted our first parents) that it would be a woman that would destroy his designs.   

Indeed, much of the Old Testament points to a messianic future in which all of God’s promises will find fulfilment. The New Testament is the fulfilment of these promises written down by the Evangelists since the promises of the Old Testament point to Christ. This is Catholic belief. What is this prophecy in Genesis? The prophecy is that the ‘seed’ of the woman will crush him and that the Devil ‘shall lie in wait for her heel.’

This ending of this ‘waiting’, the Fathers considered, arrived with the Blessed Virgin Mary. Our Lady is not referred to a greal deal in the Gospels, hence why someone like Fr Raymond E. Brown can say that, in his critical examination of the Gospels he can find no reference to Mary’s perpetual Virginity etc, but it is clear that Fr Brown has decided to examine the Gospels in isolation and to set aside, if only for his own particular purposes in writing, the patristic underpinnings of Catholic theology.  This is, essentially, how Protestants treat the Bible – out of context of Catholic belief down the ages. Sadly, it is most likely the way in which the Bible is treated by many Catholic institutions today.

When Our Lady was pregnant with Jesus, it is recorded in the Gospel that she went to visit St Elizabeth, who was pregnant with St John the Baptist.  

The Gospel of St Luke tells us:

‘And Mary rising up in those days, went into the hill country with haste into a city of Juda. And she entered into the house of Zachary, and saluted Elizabeth. And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she cried out with a loud voice, and said: Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed art thou that hast believed, because those things shall be accomplished that were spoken to thee by the Lord.’ (St Luke, 1:39-45)

What is Mary’s response as recorded in St Luke’s Gospel? Mary’s response is the Magnificat, the hymn of praise to God who had fulfilled His promises made throughout the Old Testament through the Prophets that God sent to Israel.

 My soul doth magnify the Lord.
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid;
for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
Because he that is mighty,
hath done great things to me;
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is from generation unto generations,
to them that fear him.
He hath shewed might in his arm:
he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble.
He hath filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath received Israel his servant,
being mindful of his mercy:
As he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his seed for ever.

So, though Mary is not recorded much in the Gospels, she says little, but what she does say is of profound theological importance to us Catholics and whenever she is mentioned there is deep theological meaning imparted. Her Magnificat alone beautifully illustrates her total belief that she is carrying within her sacred and virginal womb the messianic Promise foretold by the Prophets. She says that ‘all generations shall call me blessed’. Why would they do that unless she is carrying the Messiah? In the Hail Mary, we repeat a combination of the Angel Gabriel’s salutation before her conception of the Lord, ‘Hail, Mary, full of grace…’ and Elizabeth’s salutation, as we say, ‘Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.’  

For someone carrying your average baby, Our Lady sounds awfully excited. No, this is no ordinary child and Our Lady is no ordinary lady. This is the long anticipated Messiah she carries within her womb. She believes it, St Elizabeth believes it since she says, ‘Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’ and even the unborn St John the Baptist believes it, since the child leaps in the womb of his mother because he supernaturally realises that he is physically close to his Saviour. This is the unborn infant who will later cry out, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the World!’ and who will be Christ’s forerunner and herald, preparing the people to receive the Messiah.

In her womb Mary is carrying the Promise made by God to the serpent of his destruction, made to Abraham and made to Israel through the Prophets. To write of all the incidences in which the promises made by God to Israel of the Christ would take an entire book. I write these things only to make a small illustration of how Catholics read the Bible in the light of Holy Tradition. At the beginning of His Ministry – the first ‘showing’ or manifestation of His Divinity, we have the Wedding at Cana.

Mary is there, Jesus is there, His disciples are there, the party has run out of wine and we see in her interaction with her Son, the maternal intercession that we cherish whenever we pray to Our Lady:

And the third day, there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee: and the mother of Jesus was there. And Jesus also was invited, and his disciples, to the marriage. And the wine failing, the mother of Jesus saith to him: They have no wine. And Jesus saith to her: Woman, what is that to me and to thee? my hour is not yet come. His mother saith to the waiters: Whatsoever he shall say to you, do ye. (St John 2:1-5)

Notice what Our Lord says to Mary. He does not call her ‘Mother’. No, instead, he gives her a rather different title and says to her ‘Woman’. Why? The Fathers of the Church go back to Genesis and see in Our Lord’s description of Mary as ‘Woman’ the promise of the ‘Woman’ whose heel will crush the serpent (the Devil) and who will bring to humanity the hope of Salvation.

Note that Paradise was lost to the human race through the disobedience to God of one woman and one man. It is her seed, Eve’s seed (Luke’s genealogy traces Jesus right back to Adam) that will destroy the power of the Evil one. Mary is the ‘new Eve’ and Jesus is therefore the ‘new Adam’. By their obedience to the Eternal Father, these two will restore mankind not only to new life, but something better than the earthly Paradise – the sanctity and holiness of the sons and daughters of God – called to be co-sharers in God’s very life by virtue of their Baptism.

Remember, Jesus takes His divinity from Heaven from whence He came when He descended at the moment that Our Lady said to the Angel Gabriel, ‘Let it be done to me according to thy word.’ However, Jesus takes His flesh from Mary. He is truly God and yet He is truly Man. Jesus takes His flesh from the seed planted in Mary’s womb and she is descended directly not just from Abraham, but from the woman, Eve. Within Eve was the seed that would eventually result in Mary and in Mary is the seed, the womb, that will bring forth the Saviour of the World.

Where else do we see Mary? At the Cross:

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus, his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalen.  When Jesus therefore had seen his mother and the disciple standing whom he loved, he saith to his mother:  Woman, behold thy son. After that, he saith to the disciple: Behold thy mother. And from that hour, the disciple took her to his own. (St John 19:26-27)

At this moment, the Fathers of the Church teach us, Jesus entrusted ‘the beloved disciple’ to Mary.  We believe that the beloved disciple is John, but it need not necessarily be. The beloved disciple stands there as representing the Church.  Mary stands there, beneath the Cross, as the Mother of Jesus but Jesus gives to the Church Mary as Mother. Jesus entrusts to the ‘Woman’ motherhood of the Christian disciple who we take to mean the Church. He tells the Church, quite explicitly, that Mary is its Mother, when He says, ‘Son, behold thy Mother.’ He says this at the moment before He entrusts Himself to His Father when He says, ‘It is finished’.  If Eve is ‘mother of all the living’ as referred to in Genesis,  then Mary is the Mother of those who will be alive in Christ.

 Again, at this moment, Our Lord calls Mary, his Mother, ‘Woman’.  The Cross, the fulfilment of Jesus’s earthly ministry is the moment at which the powers of evil are vanquished. By his obedience to the Eternal Father, Jesus sheds His Blood for mankind, the ‘new wine’, the ‘new and everlasting covenant’ that will bring spiritual health and holiness to those who were under the power of evil. 

Notice that at the Wedding at Cana, Jesus told his mother, ‘My hour has not yet come’. What is His hour? His hour is the Cross.  This is the moment of His wedding, the hour at which He unites Himself entirely to His Bride, the Church , in pouring out His blood! Consumatus est!

I could go on and on and on, but I write these things to make the assertion that reading the Catholic Bible without the Catholic Faith and outside of the Catholic tradition is a fruitless endeavour.  In Catholic reading of the Bible, we see in Ecclesiastes even, a reference to Mary when the writer speaks of Holy Wisdom.

‘I am the mother of fair love, and of fear, and of knowledge, and of holy hope.’ (Ecclesiastes 24.)

Once more in Latin:

‘Ego mater pulchrae dilectionis, et timoris, et agnitionist, et sanctae spei.’

Especially Bishops!

After all, St John was a Bishop!

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