Each weekday, you'll find a new question and answer. Check back for the new question and scroll down to see previous day's entries! Let us know what you think - - or question! -- by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Question of the Day for Friday, January 4, 2008
Q. The media reported just before Christmas that Dr. Rowan Williams, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury (England), declared in a radio interview that St. Matthew’s account of the Magi visiting Christ is only a “legend.” He went on to “debunk” other aspects of the scene commonly depicted in Nativity scenes. What is he talking about? -- F. H., via email
A. I read those reports. If he was quoted accurately, then I’m dismayed that such a prominent leader of a Christian denomination could cause scandal in this way. There are certainly biblical scholars who insist that the Magi story is only a legend; in fact, if you look hard enough, you can find a biblical scholar to attempt a “debunking” of nearly every imaginable detail of Scripture.
Nevertheless, the Catholic Church teaches that we can rely on the historicity of the Gospel accounts. Here’s what the Second Vatican Council said about the matter in Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation), sec. 19 (emphasis added):
“Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels … whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1:1). … The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus. For their intention in writing was that either from their own memory and recollections, or from the witness of those who “themselves from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word” we might know “the truth” concerning those matters about which we have been instructed (see Luke 1:2-4).”
Keep in mind, of course, that several of the details in the popular description and depiction of the Nativity have no basis in Scripture or ancient Tradition. Rowan accurately identified some of those details: the number of Magi; their identification as “kings”; the snow; the presence nearby of particular animals when Christ was born. As for the date of December 25, see the question I posted for Christmas Day.
Question of the Day for Thursday, January 3, 2008
Q. If the name “Jesus” is supposed to be the same as “Joshua,” why don’t we refer to Jesus as Joshua instead? Could the names be interchangeable, as in “The Book of Jesus” instead of “The Book of Joshua”? -- D. C., Clio, Mich.
A. That’s a great question to answer this day, which the Church has dedicated to the honor of “the Most Holy Name of Jesus”!
When names move from one language to another, they usually undergo some change in pronunciation and notation, since languages don’t use all the same sounds and symbols. “Joshua” is actually an English version of a biblical Hebrew name that is more accurately transliterated (that is, written in the letters of a different language) as Yehoshua, meaning “God saves” or “God is salvation”. Over the centuries in ancient times, the name Yehoshua developed a shortened form, Yeshua. Both forms were given as names to Jewish boys in Jesus’ day.
“Jesus” is the English version of the Late Latin Iesus, which itself is from the New Testament Greek word transliterated in English as Iesous. The latter seems to be itself a Greek transliteration of either Yehoshua or Yeshua.
That Jesus’ given name was indeed the Hebrew or Aramaic Yehoshua or Yeshua (Aramaic is the closely related Semitic language probably spoken by Jesus’ family) is suggested by the angel’s words to Joseph, Mary’s husband: “She will bear a son and you are to name Him Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins” (Mt 1:21).
To sum up: Through a complex path of historical development across several cultures, various forms of this name have come down to us. Rather than viewing them all as interchangeable, however, I think it makes sense within a contemporary Christian setting to reserve the name “Joshua” for the Old Testament figure and “Jesus” for Our Lord.
Question of the Day for Wednesday, January 2, 2008
Q. St. Paul in his epistles seems to refer to all Christians as “saints.” Why does the Catholic Church use the term to apply only to those who have been formally canonized? -- I. K., Raleigh, N.C.
A. The New Testament Greek word we translate as “saint” means literally “holy one.” In four of his epistles (2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians), St. Paul refers to the people of those congregations as “saints” or “holy ones.” In two of his epistles (Romans, 1 Corinthians), he addresses himself to all the people, who are “called to be saints” (or “holy ones”).
The Apostle recognized that by virtue of our baptism and confirmation, we’ve received the gifts of the Holy Spirit and are God’s holy people, called to become perfected in holiness so that we can, in the end, see God face to face in heaven. The Catholic Church affirms this truth; in this generic sense, we’re all called to be “saints.”
At the same time, however, there are Christians whose lives on earth demonstrated exceptional holiness, who even then were “saints” or “holy ones” to an extraordinary degree. When the Church has convincing evidence (miracles through their intercession) that these people are now face to face with God in heaven, she seeks to recognize them in a formal way so that Christians can follow their example and ask for their intercession. It’s only reasonable, then, that she would give them the formal title “Saint.”
Meanwhile, keep in mind that the Catholic Church doesn’t restrict the term “saints” only to those who have been canonized. While she singles out certain persons whose sanctity has been especially noteworthy, she also recognizes that there are countless members of the Church who in relative obscurity lived saintly lives and are now with God in heaven. That’s one reason we celebrate All Saints’ Day: so we can honor all those now in heaven with God, known or unknown to us now.
Question of the Day for Tuesday, January 1, 2008
Q. My friends who aren’t Catholic don’t understand why we would call Mary the “Mother of God.” They say it sounds as she has existed eternally and gave birth to God the Father. How should I respond? -- T. S., Chicago, Ill.
A. From the very beginning, the Church has proclaimed that Jesus Christ is both God and Man. Jesus claimed for Himself the very name of God revealed to Moses, “I AM” (Jn 8:58), and He assumed divine prerogatives such as the forgiveness of sin (see Lk 5:18–26).
The apostles testified to this reality. St. Thomas, for example, having known Jesus in His humanity, affirmed His divinity as well when he said to Him after His resurrection, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28).
St. John wrote in his Gospel that Jesus was “the Word” who “became flesh and dwelt among us,” and that this “Word was God” (Jn 1:1, 14). St. Paul taught that in Christ “dwells the whole fullness of the deity bodily” (Col 2:9).
When early Christians pondered these and other declarations of the apostolic witness, they wondered: How exactly was Christ both human and divine? Was He, as some claimed, simply God and only appeared to be human? Was He, as others speculated, a human to whom God attached himself in a special way, dwelling inside Him? Or was He, as still others imagined, a kind of hybrid, partly human and partly divine?
Ultimately, in the light of Scripture and Tradition, and led by the Holy Spirit, the Church concluded that none of the above answers is correct. The Council of Ephesus, an ecumenical Church council held in the year 431, helped to resolve the issue. That council was provoked by a controversy over one particular question: Can we legitimately call Mary “the Mother of God”?
One prominent archbishop, named Nestorius, began to preach against the use of the Marian title Theotokos, which means literally “God-bearer,” or “the one who gives birth to God.” Christ was two persons, he claimed — one human, One divine — joined together in Christ. Though Mary was the bearer (or mother) of the human person in Christ, she was not the mother of the divine Person (God the Son). So she could not rightly be called the Mother of God.
After examining this teaching, the Church pronounced Nestorius mistaken. Christ was not a combination of two persons, one human and One divine. That would be close to saying that He was simply a man to whom God was joined in a uniquely intimate way — a man specially indwelled by God, like one of the Old Testament prophets.
Instead, the Church declared, Christ is only one divine Person — the Second Person of the Trinity. This single Person took our human nature and joined it to His own divine nature, so that He possesses two natures (Jn 1:1-3, 14).
But those natures don’t constitute two different persons. Christ is not a committee. The two natures belong to one and the same Person, the divine Son of God. And those two natures, though not to be confused, cannot be separated.
In this light, the Church concluded not only that it’s correct to call Mary the Mother of God, but that it’s important to do so. Mary conceived and bore in her womb the one Person, Jesus Christ, who is God in the flesh. If we deny that she is the Mother of God, then we are denying that her Son, Christ himself, is God, come down from heaven.
For this reason, Catholics today follow the ancients in calling Mary Theotokos, “the God-bearer.” The apostolic witness is clear: As St. Paul put it succinctly, “God sent His Son, born of a woman” (Gal 4:4).
Question of the Day for Monday, December 31, 2007
Q. My New Year’s resolution this time is to read the entire Bible through this year. Any advice on how to do that? -- P. H., via email
A. I have just the thing for you: It’s calledMy Daily Catholic Bible: 20-Minute Daily Readings (Our Sunday Visitor, 2004). To create this one-year strategy for reading the entire biblical text, I divided up the Scripture (including all the books in the Catholic Bible) into 365 readings, one for each day of the year. If you read the selection for each day, within a year you’ll have read the whole book.
Each day offers a “bite size” bit of the Bible — it takes about twenty minutes to read. That way the task isn’t so intimidating. (I’m reminded of the old riddle: “How do you eat an elephant? One forkful at a time.”)
Each day I’ve included one passage from the Old Testament and one from the New. In addition, I note if it’s a feast day (including memorials of the saints), and there’s also a quote from a saint to meditate on.
Since 2008 is a leap year, I suppose you can take the day off on February 29, or better yet, re-read the selection for one of the other days.
Let me know how it goes!
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