Habemus Altare

Whereas my generation had been taught to preach in a very “experiential” way, taking a prompt from the biblical readings but then moving quickly to stories from our own experience, the most significant preachers of the great tradition, I learned, showed extraordinary patience with the complexity of the biblical world. In the manner of Karl Barth, they drew their readers and listeners through the thicket of the Scriptures.

This immersion in the preaching of the great systematicians convinced me that the historical-critical animus against theology was misguided. I saw that authentic doctrine grows organically out of the Bible itself, and nowhere is this clearer than in the work of Thomas Aquinas, who was first a magister sacrae paginae (a master of the holy page) and only secondarily and derivatively a theologian. The irony was thick: While contemporary Scripture specialists, soaked in the historical-critical method, had led me away from the Bible, the systematic theologians of the great tradition had led me back to it.

Thomas Aquinas spent nine years as a young man in the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino, where he was immersed in the world of the Bible, especially the Psalms. It is said that when he was imprisoned for a year by his family, who hoped to dissuade him from his Dominican vocation, he largely memorized the Sacred Scriptures. Thomas wrote massive and detailed commentaries on the prophet Isaiah, the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, the book of Job, the Gospel of John, and many other biblical texts.

He was undoubtedly shaped by his study of Aristotle, but the God whom Thomas describes owes far more to Isaiah than to Aristotle. His theology was an explication of the structuring logic of the biblical narratives, and this became eminently clear to me as I explored the peculiar manner in which the God of Israel manifested himself in the adventures of Samuel, Hannah, Saul, Jonathan, and David.

Did a systematic theologian have any business writing a commentary on Second Samuel? I suppose my readers have to decide. But in doing so, I was confidently standing with some of the greatest masters in the Christian tradition. And I was consciously bridging a false divide that has, unhappily, been visited upon both the Church and the academy.

In [Matthew 2, the evangelist describes] Gentile magi coming to worship the King of the Jews guided by divine revelation through the star, while Jewish leaders who have more precise revelation available in the Scrptures (Herod, the chief priests, and the scribes) seek to kill him - note the plural in 2:20: “Those who sought the child’s life.” One might falsely assume that in Matthew’s dualistic view there are only good Gentiles and bad Jews. Rather, the hero of Matthew’s infancy story is Joseph, a very sensitive Jewish observer of the Law, who is brought through God’s revelation to accept Jesus, saving him from destruction. For Matthew it was perfectly possible to be simultaneously a Law-observant Jew and a Christian, since Jesus proclaimed that every jot and tittle of the Law would be preserved (5:18), praised those who kept even the least commandments (5:19), and appreciated scribes who could treasure what is new along with what is old (13:52). Such Law-observant, believing Jews preserved the memory of Jesus and through their proclamations made disciples of the Gentiles (28:19). Thus, in Joseph, the evangelist was portraying what he thought a Jew should be and probably what he himself was.


In the proclamation of the annunciation scene, this point is worth developing. There is a poignancy in Matthew’s Joseph, righteously concerned for the Law of God, but seeking also to prevent Mary’s public disgrace. Obviously, Matthew’s story may imply Joseph’s love for his bride, but we should not contrast too simply obedience to the Law and love as the opposing motives in his behavior. Rather, Joseph understands that the Law in all its complexity allows behavior that is sensitive, neither assuming the worst nor seeking the maximum punishment. That is why Matthew can reconcile a profound obedience to the Law with an acceptance of Jesus. His objection to the legalists is not that they keep God’s Law exactly, but that they do not understand the depth of God’s purpose in the Law. In 12:1-8 he will describe Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath, accused of condoning violations of the Law, but truly perceptive as to how God has acted in past applications of the Law. In the church of our own times where a mention of law may evoke legalism (either because of past memories or unimaginative enforcement by those who should be interpreting), Matthew’s sensitive description of a Law-obedient or righteous Joseph may give new import to the invocation “St. Joseph.”

Father Raymond E. Brown, S.S.
Christ in the Gospels of the Liturgical Year
Kindle Location 1254
Paten and chalice in a traditional English designCommissioned by Saint Gregory the Great, an Ordinariate parish, in Massachusetts

Paten and chalice in a traditional English design
Commissioned by Saint Gregory the Great, an Ordinariate parish, in Massachusetts

But what of Mary’s relation to the people of Israel? Only once does Lumen Gentium allude to that relation, calling her “the exalted Daughter of Zion.” This image deserves far more attention than it receives in the document. When Scripture presents the people of Israel as a corporate reality, it normally speaks of the community using masculine language. When it speaks of the capital city of Jerusalem, however, the language is feminine. The city represents the corporate reality of the community in relation to God, her spouse, and the people themselves are her children. Just as Yeshua embodies Israel as priest, prophet, and king, so Mary embodies Zion, mother of all the faithful.

Mary is the type of the Church, but she becomes that type through her role as the individual representation of the holy city and of the temple that resided at its center. By neglecting this dimension of Mary’s identity, Lumen Gentium again accentuates discontinuity at the expense of continuity. As the Church is seen as a radically new reality, prefigured by but discontinuous with the old, so the imagery of Zion appears as but figurative prophetic foreshadowing of a new multinational community in which Jews are merely another redeemed ethnicity.

But is not Mary still a Jewish mother, just as Yeshua is still a Jewish messiah? In giving birth to the messiah, was she not an expression of Israel’s entire history and life, the sum of humble and faithful Jews through the centuries? If indeed Mary has a special place in the heavenly courts and if indeed she watches over her children on earth—do not her people according to the flesh have a special place in her heart among those beloved children?

Mark Kinzer
O Lord our God, true teacher that you are, when Moses your servant asked you for your name that he might proclaim it to the children of Israel, you, knowing what the mind of mortals could grasp of you, replied: ‘I am who I am,’ thus disclosing your blessed name. You are truly what it means to be, you are the whole of what it means to exist. This, if it be possible for me, I should like to know by way of demonstration. Help me then, O Lord, as I investigate how much our natural reason can learn about that true being which you are if we being with being which you have predicated of yourself.
Duns Scotus, Treatise On God as First Principle
It is impossible to believe on our own. Faith is not simply an individual decision which takes place in the depths of the believer’s heart, nor a completely private relationship between the “I” of the believer and the divine “Thou”, between an autonomous subject and God. By its very nature, faith is open to the “We” of the Church; it always takes place within her communion. We are reminded of this by the dialogical format of the creed used in the baptismal liturgy. Our belief is expressed in response to an invitation, to a word which must be heard and which is not my own; it exists as part of a dialogue and cannot be merely a profession originating in an individual. We can respond in the singular — “I believe” — only because we are part of a greater fellowship, only because we also say “We believe”. This openness to the ecclesial “We” reflects the openness of God’s own love, which is not only a relationship between the Father and the Son, between an “I” and a “Thou”, but is also, in the Spirit, a “We”, a communion of persons. Here we see why those who believe are never alone, and why faith tends to spread, as it invites others to share in its joy. Those who receive faith discover that their horizons expand as new and enriching relationships come to life. Tertullian puts this well when he describes the catechumens who, “after the cleansing which gives new birth” are welcomed into the house of their mother and, as part of a new family, pray the Our Father together with their brothers and sisters.
Enyclical Letter Lumen Fidei of Pope Francis I
29 June 2013
The Latin American ecclesial and theological movement known as “Liberation Theology”, which spread to other parts of the world after the Second Vatican Council, should in my opinion be included among the most important currents in 20th century Catholic theology.
Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (x)
Opening Mass of the Church Music Association of America’s Colloquium at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City

Opening Mass of the Church Music Association of America’s Colloquium at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City

Opening Mass of the Church Music Association of America’s Colloquium at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City

Opening Mass of the Church Music Association of America’s Colloquium at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City