Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Blessed Virgin Mary and the Ark of the New Covenant

The Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the day on which the Western Church commemorates the events depicted in chapter 1, verses 39-56 of St. Luke’s Gospel.  Informed the by Angel Gabriel that her kinswoman Elizabeth has conceived in her old age and will bear a child, the Blessed Virgin Mary traveled to the hill country of Judea to see Elizabeth and her husband Zachariah.  As soon as the Mother of Our Lord entered into the house, the baby who would be remembered as St. John the Baptist “leaped for joy,” and then, filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth spoke out and proclaimed,

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  For, indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.  Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.’” 

Upon hearing these words, the Blessed Virgin Mary proclaimed one of the very first hymns in the Christian Church, the beautiful canticle known as The Magnificat.  The reader is then told that the two women remain together for three months before the Blessed Virgin Mary returned home.

This passage of Scripture is a deep mine of treasures which could become the subject of a year’s worth of messages.  The Magnificat itself could provide months worth of exhortation and encouragement even before one made comparisons to the Song of Hannah in I Samuel 2.  Yet somewhere deep in the mines of this passage is a gem that is hidden in two simple phrases and informs us about the truth of the identity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lord, and even ourselves.

Saint Elizabeth says, “Why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (v. 43) St.Luke tells us, “Mary remained with her about three months, and returned to her house.” (v. 56)  Neither of these passages is particularly striking on their own until one realizes that each bear a striking similarity to a passage in II Samuel 6.  In that passage David has defeated the Philistines and reclaimed the lost Ark of the Covenant.  After his first (and fatal) attempt to move the Ark, David cries out saying, “How can the ark of the LORD come to me?” (v. 9)  David was afraid to move the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem and, therefore, “The ark of the LORD remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite three months.” (v. 11) 

The second of the two pairings is very straightforward.  Both the Ark of the Covenant and the Blessed Virgin Mary remained in the hill country of Judea for three months.  The first of these pairings, on the other hand, is hardly identical, but are rather what we would call parallel.  They are structured similarly and convey similar meanings although they use slightly different wordings.  Consider the passages like so:

How can the ark of the LORD come to me?

But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?

Essentially you have an interrogatory phrase (“How” vs. “Why…”) that precedes “the _______ of the Lord [should] come to me.”  In II Samuel, it is the Ark of the Lord; in St. Luke’s Gospel, it is “the mother of my Lord.”  Could Saint Luke be suggesting that the Blessed Virgin Mary is somehow like the Ark of the Covenant?

What was the Ark of the Covenant?  For those who have not seen Raiders of the Lost Ark in a great while, the Ark of the Covenant was the ornate box within which the Jews carried the two stone tablets upon which were written the Ten Commandments.  The description of the Ark itself, complete with its two cherubim whose wings cover the Ark, can be found in Exodus 25:10-22.  While the Ark of the Covenant contained the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, some interpret passages in the Books of Moses to mean that the Ark also contained a jar of manna which the Lord had provided as well as Aaron’s staff which had budded as a symbol of his election to the High Priesthood. (Exodus 16:33-34; Numbers 17:10-11).  These additional contents are also mention by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. (4:9) 

Now, in a way, Jesus overshadows each of these objects.  The Prophet Jeremiah, speaking on behalf of the Lord declared,

“Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD.  But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” (31:31-33)

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews makes it expressly clear that this very passage pertains to Jesus Christ.  (See Hebrews 8 and following)

Following the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, Our Lord informs the crowd, “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” (St. John 6:41)  In doing so, Jesus is responding to concerns which have arisen from one of His earlier teachings.  Jesus had previous proclaimed, “Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (6:32-33)  Our Lord told His listeners that He was the manna.  The bread which sustained their fathers in the wilderness was only a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ who would ultimately give His blessed body to be the manna of the Eucharistic feast.

Finally, the Rod of Aaron represented both his priestly anointing and authority, as seen in Numbers 17, and his priestly-pastoral role, since shepherds always carried a rod to herd their flocks (recall Psalm 23:1, 4).  Of course, we remember that Our Lord declared that He was (and is) “The Good Shepherd” (St. John10:11) and we also remember that, according to the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus Christ is our “Great High Priest.” (4:14; 9:11)   Once again, the contents of the Ark of the Covenant foreshadow the coming of and nature of Jesus Christ.

An Icon used by CEC for Life

In a recent article, I discussed the word “type” in its religious context. (click HERE for that article.)  Each of the various elements contained in Ark of the Covenant is a type of Christ.  They represent and foreshadow some aspect of His character.  As such, the Ark of the Covenant, which contained all three of those elements, is a type as well.  Rather than being a type of Christ, the Ark of the Covenant is a type of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who contained within her womb the fulfillment of each of those Old Testament types.  Thus, St. Elizabeth need not have changed the words which she (knowingly or otherwise and under the influence of the Holy Spirit in either case) borrowed from King David.  When the Blessed Virgin Mary came into her own, St. Elizabeth could have rightly asked, “How can the Ark of the LORD come to me?”

Father in heaven, by whose grace the virgin mother of your incarnate Son was blessed in bearing him, but still more blessed in keeping your word: Grant us who honor the exaltation of her lowliness to follow the example of her devotion to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.   

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Why do you “Pray to Saints?”

 Well, I don’t.  When I pray, I pray to the Father through the mediation of Jesus Christ with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.  That being said, sometimes, when I find myself facing particularly troubling challenges, I ask others to pray with me.  I confide to a Christian brother or sister, for example, that my great-aunt is very ill, or my friend’s child is getting into trouble at school, or my dear friend does not know the Lord and then, after confiding in them, I ask them to pray for me.  Sometimes I do this with friends that I know here and sometimes I do this with the great saints of the church who have gone before in the Faith. 

What many Protestants disdainfully refer to as “praying to the saints” is really asking the saints to pray for us to the Father.  No one has a problem asking dear sister Winifred, “that saint of the Lord” to pray for them when they are struggling.  That is until she dies, and then asking that same “saint of the Lord” to pray for us somehow becomes taboo.  It was fine to ask her (or any other saintly parishioner) to pray for us as long as they were on the earth, but once they shuffle off this mortal coil and ascend into the heavenlies either we should cease asking or they will cease answering.  Does this make sense?

Now, those who raise this objection are usually well-intentioned and sincere.  There concerns come in large part from two passages of Holy Scripture.  The first is Deuteronomy 18:10-12 where Moses reminds the people,

“There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the LORD…”

This is indeed an abomination, but rather refers to conjuring spirits in a séance along the lines of the Witch of Endor in I Samuel 28.  Later we will discuss how different conjuring spirits in a séance is than the picture of heaven presented bySt. John.

The second primary scripture used against the intercession of the saints is I Timothy 2:5 which states, “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus…”  Indeed, this passage is unquestionably true, but there are limitless individuals who may go before Jesus on our behalf and ask Him to pray for us to the Father.  Again, if this passage were applied as some would suggest, asking the prayer warriors in your congregation to pray for you would be pointless. 

An Icon of the Saints surrounding Christ in Heaven

Up until now I have refuted negative arguments, rejecting the reasons “why not.”  Now let us turn our attentions to the reasons why this is a positive aspect of our faith.  In reciting the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds we affirm that we believe in the “Communion of the Saints.”  The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1)  Our Lord’s own parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (St.Luke 16:19-31) shows us that those who are in Sheol can ask for help on behalf of their loved ones after their deaths.  In the Revelation of St.John, the Beloved Disciple recounts his vision of Heaven.  At one point he describes, “the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” (5:8)  Later, the Apostle vividly depicts that “the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand.” (8:4)  Thus, these two passages from the most incredible vision of Heaven inform us that our prayers do rise up before the saints in Heaven as incense which are then brought before the Lord.  Finally, St. James tells us that “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” (5:16b)  Why would we limit the assistance we receive in prayer to those who are with us.  We can, of course, assume that those who are in Heaven are righteous, so why would we not ask them to pray for us?

Back to the original question: why do I (now correcting the language) ask the saints to pray with me?  Primarily, I do so because I can.  The Communion of Saints is a gift from God and the union of the Church Triumphant (those in Heaven) and the Church Militant (those of Earth) is a mystery of God that allows those of us still here on Earth to benefit from the sanctity of life and the prayers of those who have gone before.  I ask the saints who have gone before to pray for me because their prayers were successful on Earth, how much more effective are they when uttered the very throne of God Himself.  Finally, I ask the saints to intercede on my behalf because I can use all the help I can possibly get!

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Who is Melchizedek?

About a month ago, my mother sent me a question from one of her co-workers.  The question was: “Who was Melchizedek?  Was he a type of Christ or considered to be the Christ?”  That is a great question, but it requires some background to answer.

When most people think of the word “type,” they think of it as a word that describes the various kinds of something else.  For example, they might say, “andouille is a type of sausage,” or “Vidalia is a type of onion.”  Generally speaking, we use “type” and “kind” interchangeably.  Speaking in terms of theology, this is not the case.  When speaking about Holy Scriptures, particularly in the Old Testament, a “type” is a person or an event which foreshadows or prefigures some aspect of the life or ministry of Jesus Christ.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of examples in the Old Testament.  The example of Jonah is probably one of the best because Our Lord mentioned it Himself.

Some Pharisees approached Jesus and demanded that He perform a sign.  To this demand, Our Lord replied, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (St. Luke 11:39-40)  Our Lord makes the comparison quite clear.  Jonah foreshadowed Jesus in that Jonah was held captive in the belly of the great fish just as Jesus was in the tomb for three days.  All the more interesting is the fact that, in the Book of the Prophet Jonah, from the belly of the great fish itself, Jonah prays to the Lord saying,

“I cried out to the LORD because of my affliction,
And He answered me.
Out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
And You heard my voice.” (2:2)

“Sheol” is the Hebrew name for the place of the dead.  One reading suggests that Jonah was dead for three days.  (For a more thorough treatment of Sheol, click HERE.)

It is incredibly tempting to begin explaining some truly remarkable examples of types in the Old Testament.  Their meanings add such depth to Holy Scripture and bring such richness to the interpretations.  Nevertheless, let us now turn our attention to Melchizedek.  This mysterious figure appears in two Old Testament passages; the first is Genesis 14 and the second is Psalm 110.  In the first passage, we find:

Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. And he [Melchizedek] blessed him [Abram] and said:
          “Blessed be Abram of God Most High,
          Possessor of heaven and earth;
          And blessed be God Most High,
         Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.”
And he [Abram] gave him [Melchizedek] a tithe of all. (vv. 18-20)

For all of its three verses, this passage is tremendously full of meaning.  First off, Melchizedek’s names means “My King is Righteous” or “King of Righteousness.”  He is both the King of Salem, and earlier title forJerusalem, and a priest to God Most High.  While we call the citySalem, the Jews would have called it something that sounds more like “Shalom,” meaning “Peace.”  Since then, Jesus has been referred as both the King of Righteousness and the Prince (or King) of Peace.  The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews repeatedly refers to Psalm 110, which states,

An Icon of Melchizedek offering the Bread and Wine

The LORD has sworn
And will not relent,
“You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek.” (v. 4)

St. Peter used this Psalm in his Pentecost speech as Psalm which prophesied about the coming Messiah.  Verse 1 states, “The Lord said to my Lord…”  Clearly, the “You” in verse 4 likewise refers to Jesus Christ. (See Acts 2:29-36)   Thus, while not of Levitical descent (being of the Tribe of Judah), Jesus was able to serve as our Great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14) because He was a priest in the same manner (“according to the order of”) as Melchizedek was a priest of God Most High. Finally, no sacramentalist could ever read Genesis 14 without noticing that Melchizedek brought out “bread and wine.”  Now wine and bread were common in all sorts of religious observances, but if we are talking about a King of Righteousness and Prince of Peace who is both King and Priest, who also happens to bring out the same elements Our Lord referred to as His Body and His Blood at the Last Supper (St. Luke 22:19-20), we can by no means dismiss the similarities. 

So, yes, Melchizedek is a type of Christ in that he very much prefigures the coming of the Messiah who is both Priest and King and who offers Bread and Wine for us.  While this means that Melchizedek is a type of Christ, it does not mean that Melchizedek was Jesus.  We believe that the Incarnation was a unique event.  Jesus did not walk the earth as a man prior to His conception by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.  There may have been many types, even Angelic apparitions (see Genesis 18:1-10), but the Word did not “become flesh” until the Incarnation.  Thus, yes, Melchizedek is a type of Christ, but, no, he is not Jesus Himself.

A mosaic of Abel and Mechizedek offering their gifts to the Lord

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Fr. Looker Now Available for Speaking Engagements

Fr. Looker is making himself available for a variety of  speaking engagements.   Click on the “Speaking Engagements” tab above the bookshelf at the top of the page for more information.  Fr. Looker is open to speaking at church conferences, retreats, seminars, or Sunday morning services and specializes in the history of the Church, the lives of the Saints, spiritual growth, and the Biblical history.  To request Fr. Looker speaks at an event, contact him directly via e-mail or contact the Church of the Messiah at 904-721-4199.

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Why Do We Celebrate “Easter” and What Is the Deal with the Eggs?

Keeping in mind that it will still be Easter-tide until the Feast of Pentecost, May 12th this year, it seems appropriate to have an Easter “Stump the Priest” Question. This one comes from unwittingly walking in on a men’s accountability group at a diner one Saturday morning. The men asked, “Where do we get the word ‘Easter’ and what is the deal with the eggs?” Both are very good questions.

 

 The Eastern Orthodox (Greeks, Russians, and various Eastern European Christians) do not celebrate Easter per se. They celebrate Pascha, which is where we get the word “paschal,” as in paschal candle or paschal mysteries. Pascha is a Greek word that is derived from Pesach, the Hebrew word for Passover. That makes sense and seems easy enough to follow, but if that is the case, where does the word “Easter” come in?

 The origin is very obscure. The best explanation comes from the writings of a famous British monk known as the Venerable Bede. In his eighth century work De Temporum Ratione (or On the Reckoning of Time), the monk wrote,

A very modern drawing of what the goddess Eostre might have looked like, complete with bunnies.

“Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated ‘Paschal month,’ and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.” (Translation by Faith Wallis, 1999)

Essentially, what Bede is saying is that, the pre-Christian pagans called a month that corresponded to April “Easturmonath” or “Easter-Month” after their goddess Eostre. Once they became Christian and started celebrating the “Paschal Month” (give or take ten days or so), rather than calling the season something like Paschalmonath, they continued calling it Eosturmonath. As the season was still known as Easter-Monath, eventually the name of the Feast was replaced with the word “Easter,” it was “Easter-Month” after all.

Here is the amazing thing about the goddess Eostre. We know virtually nothing about her. Anthropologists and folklorists believe that she was either a goddess of Spring and fertility or a goddess associated with the sunrise. Aside from that, she is a complete mystery. We know that Christians took over many pagan feasts and renamed them. December 25th was the pagan feast of Saturnalia or Yule. November 1st was the pagan feast of Samhain; it has now become All Saints’ Day. Christians take over these previously pagan festivals, perform a baptism of sorts on them and make Christian religious celebrations out of them. In most cases, we retain the knowledge of what the original festival entailed. That is not so with Easter. The Christian take-over of the pagan festival was so complete that only the name remains.

What about the eggs? Surprisingly, they have nothing to do with the bunnies and do have a Christian origin. There are two legends that involve Easter eggs and both center around St. Mary Magdelene. In one story, St. Mary Magdalene was bringing a basket of eggs to the woman who had gone to the tomb of Jesus to finish His embalming. When the risen Jesus appeared to the saint, the basket of eggs miraculously turned the color of Our Lord’s blood. Similarly, another legend tells that, after the Ascension of Our Lord, St. Mary Magdalene left Jerusalem and went west. On one occasion she found herself dining with the Roman Emperor Tiberius (r. 14AD – 37AD). She greeted the Emperor with the words “Christ is Risen” (a tradition to this day among Eastern Orthodox Christians). The Emperor responded with a jaded, “Jesus could no more rise from the dead than that egg you are holding could turn red.” In response to the Emperor’s taunt, the egg, of course, miraculously turned red. This is why, in many Eastern Christian traditions, the only acceptable color to dye is red and why in many icons St. Mary Magdalene is depicted holding a red egg.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

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Saints Philip and James

“Remembering” was terribly important to the Jews.  The LORD repeatedly told them to set up altars, memorial stones, and even feasts of the year in order that they should remember the events that transpired there.  The Christian church has picked up that element of the faith and carried it forward into the New Covenant.  We not only recall the incredible events in the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ, but also the people who came alongside Our Lord and carried on His will after He ascended into Heaven.  The calendar of the Church year is chock full of these commemorations which we call feasts.  All of the Biblical Saints have a feast.  Some of them have more than one.  There are a few occasions, however, when some lesser accomplished saints find themselves sharing a day with two or three of their companions.  The first of May is one such day.

On the first of May, the Church commemorates Saints Philip and James.  These were the two apostles who did… rather, they said… well,… they were Apostles.  Sadly, there is not a great deal more to say about them.  In the Synoptic Gospels (Saints Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Saints Philip and James are mentioned in the various lists of the Apostles but nowhere else.  St. Philip receives a more substantial treatment fromSt. John in his account of the Life of Christ.  According to St. John, it is St. Philip, a native of Bethsaida, who leads Nathaniel (also known as Bartholomew in the other Gospels) to Jesus.  At the feeding of the five thousand, Our Lord asks St. Philip,

“Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?” But this He said to test him, for He Himself knew what He would do.
Philip answered Him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may have a little.” (St. John 6:5-7)

When the Greeks desire to speak with Jesus while He is preaching in theTemple, they approach Philip and ask him to speak on their behalf.  At the Last Supper, during Our Lord’s teaching, St. Philip asks a strikingly Petrine question.  Our Lord declares,

“If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him.”
Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us.”
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? (St. John 14:7-10)

St.James receives even less treatment.  This is, after all, the bearer of that name whom Holy Scripture and history have recorded as “James the Less.” (St.Mark 15:40)  This is not the James who was the son of Zebedee and brother of St. John, who along with his brother and St.Peter made up Our Lord’s “inner circle” of Apostles.  Nor it this James the brother of Jesus who became the first bishop of Jerusalem, presided over the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), and, because of his faithfulness and devotion in that city, was known as James the Just by both Jews and Christians alike.  It is not even the James who wrote the epistle which bears his name.  In fact, we do not know anything that St. James the Less actually said or did. 

So, what can we say about these two men?  What do we know about them that is worth celebrating?  We know with whom they were associated.  Our Lord chose them as two of His twelve closest disciples.  We know they were with Him from early on in His ministry and still gathered together when they believed that He was dead.  We know that they were Apostles, hand-picked by Jesus Christ to carry His message to the ends of the  world. 

Maybe that is a lesson in and of itself.  Perhaps it is the opposite of the old “if you sleep with the dog, you wake up with the fleas” adage.  We know nothing with certainty about these two other than they were “with Jesus.”  Now, we may never know what it like to be at the Wedding at Cana, the Sermon on the Mount, or the Last Supper, and we may never find ourselves laying around a campfire looking up at the Judean night sky with Jesus laying nearby, but we may have something the Apostles lacked when they were doing those things.  We have the Holy Spirit inside of us; we have Jesus Christ in our hearts.  Like Saints Philip and James, we have the opportunity to be “with Jesus,” and that may be the only thing we need to have written about us in the only book where it really matters, the Lamb’s Book of Life.

Almighty God, who gave to your apostles Philip and James grace and strength to bear witness to the truth: Grant that we, being mindful of their victory of faith, may glorify in life and death the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

An Icon of All Twelve Holy Apostles

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