Reflection on Revelation on the Fifth Sunday of Easter

The Church takes its second reading on the Sundays of Easter from the book of Revelation in order to meditate on the implications of Jesus’ resurrection for us.  This Fifth Sunday the reading is from John’s vision of the ultimate future for God’s people.  Here is a comment and reflection on Rev 21:1-5a from Peter S. Williamson Revelation (forthcoming, Fall 2014).

In his final series of visions John sees the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy to create a new heaven and a new earth where “the things of the past shall not be remembered or come to mind.  Instead, there shall always be rejoicing and happiness in what I create” (Isa 65:17-18).  The mention of a new Jerusalem is entirely fitting here since the prophecy that promises a new heaven and earth also promises that God will “create Jerusalem to be a joy and its people to be a delight” (Isa 65:18).

John sees this city coming down out of heaven from God to indicate that the city where God’s people will live is not be the result of human effort, but will be God’s doing, God’s provision

It is significant that the heavenly Jerusalem (mentioned in 3:12) descends and is established in all its fullness on a re-created earth.  This text reveals that God’s ultimate plan for the human race is not that we go to heaven, but that heaven, the dwelling of God, descends to a re-created earth.  When the resurrection occurs, besides receiving back real but radically transformed bodies, we will live on a transformed earth.

Most Catholics think that if they remain faithful, their ultimate future will be to spend eternity with God in heaven.  But this is not the teaching of Revelation and not exactly the teaching of the Catholic Church.  A close look at the Catechism shows that it devotes one section to “Heaven” (par. 1023-1029), and, after the section on the “Last Judgment” (par. 1038-41), a separate section to “The Hope of the New Heaven and the New Earth” (par. 1042-50).

Summing up the Catechism, heaven is where the souls of “those who die in God’s grace and friendship” go to live with Christ immediately after death (or after their purification is complete in Purgatory) before the resurrection of their bodies (1023).  There they live in a “communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed” (1024), a reality beyond human understanding. Already, “They reign with Christ.” (1029). In heaven God gives souls the ability to see God in his heavenly glory, what theologians describe as “the beatific vision” (1028).

However, turning now to Catechism 1042-1048, the ultimate future of God’s people, after they have been raised in their glorified bodies and passed through the last judgment, is to reign with Christ in a re-created cosmos. Then “the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness….The righteous will reign forever with Christ, glorified in body and soul.  The universe itself will be renewed” (1042). “Sacred Scripture calls this mysterious renewal, which will transform humanity and the world, “new heavens and a new earth” (1043). “In this new universe, the heavenly Jerusalem, God will have his dwelling among men” (1044).  “For man, this consummation will be the final realization of the unity of the human race, which God willed from creation…. Those who are united with Christ will form the community of the redeemed, “the holy city of God, “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb…. The beatific vision… will be the ever-flowing well-spring of happiness, peace, and mutual communion” (1045). “For the cosmos, Revelation affirms the profound common destiny of the material world and man (1046). The visible universe… is itself destined to be transformed, ‘so that the world itself, restored to its original state… would be at the service of the just,’ sharing their glorification in the risen Jesus Christ” (1047). “‘We know neither the moment of the consummation of the earth and of man, nor the way in which the universe will be transformed’” (1048).

So what’s the difference?  When the kingdom of God comes in its fullness, God’s people will receive their resurrected bodies and live on a renewed earth.

Nevertheless, there is continuity between heaven now and the new creation in the future age.  In both human beings enjoy the beatific vision; in both they reign with Christ, in both they are freed from all suffering and sorrow. If heaven is defined as where God is present and reigns completely, it is clear that when the new heavens and the new earth are created, heaven comes to earth.

Reflecting on Second Corinthians for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

From Second Corinthians by Thomas D. Stegman, SJ, commenting on 5:17-21:

For Catholics, the ministry of reconciliation is enacted in a privilege and unsurpassed manner in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In fact, the opening words of the prayer of absolution make the connection explicit: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself” (employing the words of 2 Cor 5:18-19). Because sin damages our relationship with God and others, it is necessary to seek reconciliation with God and the Church. Penitents confess their sins to a priest or bishop, who is an instrument of God’s merciful love and forgiveness. The priest or bishop also represents the community, whose witness to Christ and fraternal bonds are weakened by the sin of its members. The words of absolution–which are prayed by the priest or bishop after the penitent’s confession of sins, act of contrition, and resolution to do penance–are extremely powerful, for by means of them God brings about what he intended through the sacrificial death of Christ. Priests and bishops thus have the awesome privilege and responsibility of continuing the work of Jesus the Good Shepherd. Their demeanor and comportment in the confessional, especially when marked by patience and compassion, can have life-changing consequences. I have found that intimacy with Jesus’ Sacred Heart and recognition of my own sinfulness are essential aids to celebrating this beautiful sacrament.

In the Liturgy:

On the fourth Sunday of Lent (Year C), 2 Cor 5:17-21 is read alongside Luke 15:11-32, the parable of the Prodigal Son. The parable dramatically portrays in narrative form what Paul sets forth: namely, God’s mercy and desire to reconcile sinners to himself. In particular, Jesus’ description of the father–who races to embrace and receive back his humiliated, bedraggled, repentant son–illuminates Paul’s description of God. In short, the two passages together reveal that God is a loving Father who magnanimously offers us forgiveness and restoration to his family when we acknowledge our sinfulness.

© 2010 Thomas Stegman and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on First Corinthians for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From First Corinthians by George T. Montague, SM, commenting on 13:4-7:

This section begins with two positive traits of love, next lists eight faults that it is not, then returns with five positive traits. Love here is personified, and commentators point out that these are traits of Jesus. To take on these traits is to become more like him. In the Greek, Paul expresses each trait as a verb (e.g., “love patients”), which is impossible to render in English. The effect of the verb in Greek is to show that love is active. “Unlike other loves, which can remain hidden in the heart, it is essential to charity to manifest itself, to demonstrate itself, to provide proofs, to put itself on display, so much so that in the NT it would almost always be necessary to translate agape as ‘demonstration of love.'”*

*quote from Ceslas Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, trans. and ed. by James D. Ernest (Hendrickson, 1994), 1:12.
© 2011 George T. Montauge and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on First Corinthians for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

From First Corinthians by George T. Montague, SM, commenting on 12:4-6:

Here Paul describes these “spirituals” (pneumatika; 12:1) by three other terms: they are “charisms” (charismata, translated here as spiritual gifts), different forms of service, and different workings. A fourth term is used in verse 7, “manifestation of the Spirit.” Each depicts a different aspect of one and the same phenomenon. On the one hand, they are gifts, not something one produces by one’s own efforts, and hence we should be careful not to equate them with acquired skills, although the gift could bring a new and Spirit-filled anointing to such abilities. A musical ability could, for example, become a gift of the Spirit to the degree that it is placed lovingly at the service of the community, so that it is no longer entertainment but a ministry that truly builds up the body and is recognized as such (see 14:26).

That the gifts are different forms of service indicates that they are not given primarily for the benefit of the individual, though if a gift is a work of the Spirit, there would normally be a good effect in the one exercising the gift, as Paul will later say about praying in tongues (14:4). Nor are they given to establish a spiritual ranking or elitism. Rather, they are given for the good of the community and should be governed by that purpose. Different workings refers to activities that take place in the community and that are inspired by God.

© 2011 George T. Montauge and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Titus for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

From First and Second Timothy, Titus by George T. Montague, SM, commenting on Titus 2:12:

In the Old Testament training most often meant educating children in the law of God and disciplining them, even punishing them (Deut 21:18; Sir 7:23), something that God himself does for his children (Deut 8:5; Prov 3:11–12; Heb 12:5–11). In the opinion of some authors, Paul is thinking of the severe physical discipline accompanying education in the Greek world and implying that the cross and suffering is the way Christians get trained. But here it is grace that educates. The thought is very Pauline: in the face of God’s overwhelming kindness shown in Jesus Christ, one cannot help but be transformed, for one is gazing on his brilliant glory through the power of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 3:18). The energy comes more from awareness of God’s love than from his commands or the trials he sends. Suffering itself is of no avail for transformation unless its darkness is bathed in the overwhelming light of God’s love and grace.

The effect of this transforming light is first of all to bring about in the believer a decisive rejection of its opposite: godless ways and worldly desires, the rebellion against God so characteristic of pagan life (Rom 1:18) and the accompanying passions, which Paul earlier calls the flesh (8:3–8; Gal 5:16) and 1 John 2:16 calls the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and worldly pride. Titus 2:12 may echo a baptismal formula recited by converts in the rite of initiation; it is similar to 2 Pet 1:4: “escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire.”

The positive effects of God’s training grace are threefold, expressed by three adverbs that, interestingly, address the three objects of charity: (1) Oneself: live temperately—temperance or self-control, highly regarded among the Greek ethicists, was also listed by Paul via another Greek word as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:23). (2) Others: justly—justice regulates one’s relationships with others. (3) God: devoutly—devotion or piety directs one’s relationship with God. That God’s grace could accomplish this in those who must live in this world corrupted by sin and ruled by Satan (2 Cor 4:4; John 17:15–16) is amazing indeed.

© 2008 George T. Montauge and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Matthew for the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

From The Gospel of Matthew by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 2:1:

The word magi originally described members of the Median and Persian priestly caste who advised the king and interpreted dreams. The term later was used more broadly to denote those who possessed mystical knowledge as priests, astrologers, soothsayers, or sages. Their popular association with kings today may be based on Old Testament passages that recount kings bringing gifts to the royal Davidic son (Ps 72:10–11), including gifts of gold and frankincense (Isa 60:3–6). In the Jewish tradition magi would bring to mind the opponents of Daniel in Babylon, who were associated with enchanters and sorcerers and claimed to interpret dreams and signs (Dan 1:20; 2:2; 4:6–7; 5:7 LXX). Hence, one would not expect magi from the east to be among the first to pay homage to the Jewish messiah. This account thus sets up a theme that will be repeated throughout Matthew’s Gospel: Israel’s king is welcomed by those one would least expect while Jewish leaders work against him (2:4).

© 2010 Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Ephesians for the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

From Ephesians by Peter S. Williamson, reflecting on Ephesians 3:4-6

Gentiles welcome. To Christians of the twenty-first century, most of whom are Gentiles, it is hard to grasp the significance of this “mystery.” It seems old news that Gentiles can belong to the people of God. But for the nineteen centuries between the time of Abraham and the time of Christ, only the Jewish people had been the heirs of God’s promises, and these promises distinguished them from all the other peoples of the earth (Deut 7:6–7). It might be possible to think that this is simply Jewish chauvinism on Paul’s part, but that would be mistaken. Jesus himself, when the Canaanite woman sought deliverance for her daughter from a demon, confirms that the Gentiles did not have an equal claim to God’s provision that had been promised to the children of Israel (Matt 15:22–28).

Beginning with the death and resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, however, a new age has dawned in which all the peoples of the earth are invited to share in the blessings previously promised to one particular nation. This is the “mystery,” the secret plan of God, that has now been revealed. God always loved and took concern for all peoples of the world (Jon 4:10–11; Acts 14:16–17) and intended from the beginning to bless all nations through Abraham and his descendants (Gen 12:3; 18:18; Gal 3:8–9). Although the prophets spoke on many occasions of God’s future blessings for the nations (e.g., Isa 49:6; 66:18–20), Israel never imagined this would involve making the Gentiles “coheirs,” and “copartners in the promise,” joining them “in the same body.” Israel was chosen, as we Christians have now been chosen, to bring God’s blessing to others. Christians do this by proclaiming the gospel.

The basis of church teaching. Catholic doctrine rests on the apostles’ testimony to what Christ did and taught and what the Holy Spirit revealed to them after Jesus’ death and resurrection, including an understanding of the Old Testament in light of Christ (Dei Verbum 8–9). The apostles’ teaching has been handed on to us in Scripture and Tradition that together “form one sacred deposit of the word of God, entrusted to the Church” (Dei Verbum 10), authoritatively interpreted by the apostles’ successors, the pope and bishops.

© 2009 Peter S. Williamson and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on the Gospel for the Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Today)

From The Gospel of Mark by Mary Healy, reflecting on Mark 13: 14

The desolating abomination is an expression from Daniel (9:27; 11:31; 12:11), where it alludes to the terrible sacrilege committed by the Syrian ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 167 BC. After plundering Jerusalem, this infamous tyrant erected an idol of the Greek god Zeus on the altar of sacrifice in the temple (see 1 Macc 1:31, 54–59). A desolating abomination is one so egregious that it leads to the utter destruction of the temple and city, turning it into a desolate wasteland. Here that tragic event of the past is viewed as a foreshadowing of the final desecration of the temple that will lead to its destruction by the pagan armies of Rome (see Matt 24:15; Luke 21:20). Standing where he should not is precisely in the temple sanctuary, the holy place where the living God is worshipped. The masculine “he” suggests that this evil will be carried out by an individual, perhaps a military general, who is a kind of anti-Messiah figure (see 2 Thess 2:3–4).

Let the reader understand is probably intended as part of Jesus’ discourse, calling his disciples to pay close attention to hidden clues in the book of Daniel (see Matt 24:15). According to Daniel, both the sacrilege and the ensuing destruction, although carried out by wicked men, are a consequence of the sins of God’s people (see Dan 9:24). But God allows these disasters so that his people can be “refined, purified, and tested” (Dan 12:10). Jesus is hinting that the appearance of a horrendous sacrilege will signal the onset of a most devastating period of tribulation by which God’s people will be severely tried.

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on the Gospel for the Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark by Mary Healy, reflecting on Mark 12:41-44:

Jesus’ comments on the destitute widow are an example of the divine logic that overturns human ways of thinking. Who looked like pillars of the temple that day? Surely it was the well-to-do who helped make possible the splendid  adornment of Herod’s renovated temple. But it was different in the eyes of Jesus. Who contributes most to the flourishing of the Church today? Perhaps it is those who are overlooked and insignificant in human terms. This point brings to mind the story of the third-century martyr St. Lawrence, who was archdeacon of Rome and distributor of the Church’s alms. In 258, by decree of the emperor, the pope and six deacons were beheaded, leaving Lawrence the ranking Church official in Rome. The city prefect summoned Lawrence and demanded that he hand over the treasures of the Church. Lawrence responded that the Church was indeed very rich, and asked for a little time to gather its treasures. He then went all over the city seeking out the poor and infirm. On the third day, he gathered together a great crowd of orphans, widows, and people who were lame, blind, maimed, or suffering various diseases, and invited the prefect to come and see “the wondrous riches of our God.” The prefect was furious; in a rage he ordered Lawrence to be put to death on a gridiron over a slow fire. Lawrence is honored as one of the great martyrs of the early Church.

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on the Gospel for the Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark by Mary Healy, comnenting on Mark 12:29-30:

To love God is to have a profound reverence and affection for him, to give ourselves over to him and desire to please him above all else. Jesus is spelling out what he had said earlier about repaying to God what belongs to him (12:17).

Jesus uses four terms that, taken together, signify not distinct faculties or parts of the human being but different ways of referring to the whole person. The heart (kardia) is the inner depths of a person, the wellspring from which all our decisions and actions flow (see 7:19). The soul (psychē) is our whole self as a living being, that which Jesus said we must be willing to give up for his sake (8:35) and which he will give up for our sake (10:45). Jesus adds another term, mind, to emphasize that even our thoughts and reasoning must be animated by love for God. The last phrase, with all your strength, emphasizes that love for God is not a sentiment that arises spontaneously, but a commitment that calls for every ounce of our energy. How can such love without measure be possible? Only by our first knowing and experiencing God’s love for us (Rom 5:5, 8; 1 John 4:11).

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.