TCA Faith for January/February 2014

“With Me in Paradise?”

Q. What is meant by the verse, “And he [Jesus] said to him [the penitent thief], ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’” (Lk 23:43, RSV).

Darryl, via email

A. Attempting to interpret this verse raises several issues. The first centers on the word “today.” The Greek word used for today is quite distinct. It means “this day,” “now,” “the present day.” As presently punctuated, the verse states Jesus’ promise to be carried out that very day.

But that day Jesus did not go to “Paradise” (more about this term later). He went into the tomb where he was buried for three days. Moreover, according to John 20:17, after His resurrection Jesus said to Mary, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (Jn 20:17). So, three days after His death, He had not yet ascended into heaven.

resurrection
Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock

Furthermore, St. Paul lists a number of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7.

If Jesus did promise to take that thief to paradise that day, He did not keep His promise.

The Greek version of this verse has no punctuation. The commas in Luke 23:43 are the result of guesswork on the part of translators. I agree with some modern commentators who contend the comma before “today” should come after. Thus: “I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” This would reflect a common Hebrew idiom used for emphasis: “I declare to you this day, that you shall perish” (Dt 30:18, RSV); “‘I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you” (Acts 20:26, RSV).

Now, “Paradise.” There are varying opinions about the meaning of the term. I find persuasive what the New Oxford Annotated Bible offers. In a footnote to Luke 23:43, this version notes, “Paradise (like ‘Abraham’s bosom’ in 16:22) was a contemporary Jewish term for the lodging place of the righteous dead prior to resurrection.”

Satan or satan?

Q. Why do Catholic publications capitalize the name of satan [sic]? An organization that promotes devotion to the Blessed Mother brought this to my attention. By capitalizing his name the Catholic publications have put him on the same level as Jesus. My personal opinion is, he shouldn’t be on anyone’s level. Even my spell-checker wants me to capitalize it.

Annette, via email

A. It is simply common practice to capitalize all names of persons and particular places. The capitalization of names has nothing to do with the status of the persons so designated. The capital “s” in “Satan” only tells us there is a certain being known by that name. Nothing more.

Protestants and Communion

Q. How is it best to explain to a Protestant why he can’t receive communion in the Catholic Church?

Karen, via email

A. First of all, make it plain that this restriction does not mean the Church is passing judgment on non-Catholics. Rather, the rule reflects what the Church teaches about receiving Communion at a Catholic altar.

In receiving Communion, a Catholic implicitly and publicly affirms his or her solidarity with the Church and her teaching. Tragically, there remain serious doctrinal divisions between the Church and all non-Catholic traditions. It would be dishonest of a Protestant to come to a Catholic altar, therefore, because he or she does not hold to the Church’s teaching.

By the same token, it would be dishonest of a Catholic to receive communion in a non-Catholic Church. He or she would thereby publicly state his or her oneness with that particular denomination, which would be untrue.

Chapter and Verse?

Q. When and why were the Old Testament and the New Testament divided into chapters and different verses? When I look at many of them there seems to be no rhyme or reason why they stop or start. Some verses are short, others much longer. I have learned (and re-learned) so much from The Catholic Answer. Thank you.

Patti, via email

A. The Bible was divided into chapters and verses to enable readers to find their way in this large volume of material. The Old Testament now consists of 1,074 chapters and 27,570 verses, and the New Testament 260 chapters and 7,956 verses. Imagine trying to find your way in the Bible without these divisions.

Mordecai Nathan, a Jew, divided the Old Testament into chapters in 1445. He and another scholar named Athias generally are credited with the numbering of verses in the Old Testament.

Stephen Langton, an archbishop of Canterbury, worked out our present chapter divisions around the year 1227. In 1551, an English printer, Robert Stephens, subdivided the New Testament chapters into verses. His version has been further refined in modern versions of the New Testament.

Do Not Resist Evil?

Q. Can you help me understand Matthew 5:39: “But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.” I have struggled to explain this to my children. I wonder why Jesus would say that we should not resist an evil person. Our daughter is named after St. Maria Goretti who resisted an evildoer, and it cost her life. For this she is honored as a saint.

Gary Giorgio, Wadsworth, Ohio

A. To understand Our Lord’s words we need the context provided by the preceding verse: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’” (v. 38; see also Lv 24:20 and Dt 19:21). The Chosen People were Semites, among whom vengeance was commonly practiced. It resulted in endless strife and crimes. At first glance, the “eye for an eye” rule may seem bloodthirsty, but in fact it outlawed the ancient practice of vengeance — that is, it specified that punishment could be no greater than the crime.

By His teaching (verse 39) Our Lord is not telling us we must not resist evil. Rather, He is telling us the spirit in which resistance is to be offered: a spirit of forgiveness in which retaliation can have no part. This spirit is reflected in Romans 12:17: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all.”

What Do Unitarians Believe?

Q. Could you explain what exactly the Unitarians believe? I can’t figure it out.

Daniel, via email

A. My seminary training began at Harvard Divinity School. One day I was stopped by a fellow seminarian who had come to Harvard a fundamentalist and had been led to become Unitarian. He asked me, “Have you heard the Unitarian creed?” “Nonsense,” I said, “you people don’t have a creed.” “Yes, we do,” he insisted. “I believe in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man in the neighborhood of Boston.”

Those who are affiliated with the Unitarian movement are free to believe anything they like. William Ellery Channing is generally regarded as the founder of the Unitarian denomination. A sermon he preached in Baltimore in 1815 is, for them, the Magna Carta of Unitarianism.

As their name indicates, they reject the divinity of Jesus Christ. They hold Him to be an exalted moral teacher. The Unitarian tradition embraces an ironic inconsistency.

They believe and try to practice what Jesus taught, but they reject what he said about himself. For Unitarians, if His claims for himself are false, why should one trust His ethical teaching?

Green Wood?

Q. Can you explain for me what Jesus meant when he made the comment in Luke 23:27-32 that the wood being green, “what will happen when it is dry?” Also, can you list the spots in the Old Testament that prophesy the coming of Jesus? I think there are a number of them in Isaiah and at least one in Deuteronomy.

Alan Reifenheiser, via email

A. The wood of which Jesus speaks is a symbol for the city of Jerusalem. Wood which is green is not good for burning. The inhabitants of Jerusalem still have time and opportunity to respond in faith to the Messiah. Jerusalem’s continuing rejection of the Messiah will make it dry and inflammable.

In these words Our Lord seems to have in mind Ezekiel 15:1-8, in which the prophet declares the rebellious city (Jerusalem) will be punished by fire. In addressing “Daughters of Jerusalem” Jesus may be identifying them with the righteous Israelites named by Ezekiel (see Ez 14:22) who will escape coming tribulation.

Clearly, he is urging the women not to weep for him but for the sins which were bringing about His passion.

Now, for the instances in which the Old Testament prophesies the coming of Jesus. I cannot give you a carefully drawn list of these prophecies, because there are so many. Before noting the most important ones, I must refer you to Google under “Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah.” One listing gives 44 prophecies, another gives 324.

The most important prophecies concerning the Messiah come to us through the prophet Isaiah.

In the latter half of the Book of Isaiah we find four Suffering Servant songs: 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13—53:12. The latter song is the Old Testament’s ultimate statement about the Messiah. Its depiction of the Servant’s suffering and redemptive death remarkably anticipates the details of Our Lord’s passion.

Many?

Q. A word in the Eucharistic prayer still bothers me, though we’ve had a year to get used to it. It’s the word “many”: “the blood of the eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many.” We continually declare in the Nicene Creed that Jesus Christ is the savior of the human race. Scripture assures us that Jesus is the redeemer of all. I recognize that “for many” is the correct translation of “pro multis.” How can we reconcile the universality of salvation with the restriction of “many”?

Name withheld by request

A. A number of passages in sacred Scripture plainly affirm the universal salvation Jesus Christ has accomplished. To note just a few, recall John 6:51; Romans 8:32; 2 Corinthians 5:14; 1 Timothy 2:4,6; 1 John 2:2.

Yet we do have Our Lord’s own words about the benefit of His salvation: “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many” (Mk 14:24). The clearest Old Testament forecast of the Messiah is the fourth Suffering Servant song (Is 52:13—53:12). At the climax of this song we read “he bore the sin of many” (53:12, RSV).

From the beginning of our Eucharistic liturgy many, many centuries ago, it has always used the phrase “pro multis.” The post-Second Vatican Council liturgy gave us the phrase “for all.” This was not a translation; it was an interpretation by liturgists who “reformed” the ancient liturgy.

Four hundred and fifty years ago the Church taught us how, in your words, to reconcile universal salvation with the restriction of “many.” The Catechism of the Council of Trent (1556) gave this explanation:. “For if we look to its value, we must confess that the Redeemer shed His blood for the salvation of all; but if we look to the fruit which mankind have received from it, we shall easily find that it pertains not unto all, but to many of the human race.”

The assumption is that not all human beings will respond to God’s offer of salvation. See the question in this column on what is a Universalist, which takes up where this answer leaves off.

Garden Mystery

Q. I am confused about something in the Garden of Gethsemane. If the apostles were all asleep during Jesus’ agony, how do we know anything about it?

Karen, via email

A. This is a good question. Scripture tells us Our Lord spent some time with His apostles and others after His resurrection, yet before His ascension. I assume that He shared with them the details of His passion.

Is Easter Pagan?

Q. How do I refute a friend’s claim that Easter is nothing more than a pagan festival taken over by the Church?

Name withheld by request, via email

A. You can point to the events which Easter celebrates. When Christ died on the cross, His apostles were totally defeated, hiding in seclusion.

By Christ’s resurrection this handful of ordinary working men were transformed into powerful evangelists who took the Gospel of Christ to much of the known world.

By that Gospel thousands and thousands, and eventually millions, of lives were given access to heaven through Christ and His Church. That Church has become the only truly universal institution in the world. And it is still expanding its outreach today, bringing new life to the world.

Pagan festivals, however, are one-time things, human celebrations. They have no lasting positive consequences.

Is Suicide Ever Justified?

Q. Is suicide ever morally justified? Say, for example, a Special Services soldier is about to be captured and subsequently tortured by the enemy. The soldier is aware of highly sensitive information, which is likely to result in the deaths of others if he were to reveal it. The enemy is aware of this, and they are determined to capture him alive. To prevent this, would suicide be morally justified?

P.T., Indiana

A. The Catholic tradition rejects the notion that “the end justifies the means.” It is never permissible to commit an evil act even for a good end. Regardless of the state of the person who takes his own life, suicide itself is a great evil.

If the hypothetical soldier were a devout Christian, God could give him the strength to resist torture, even to the end. That torture would by a kind of martyrdom, with the eternal blessings which martyrdom brings.

“Why Have You Forsaken Me?”

Q. Why did Christ cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (see Mt 27:46, et al.)? What did He mean by that? Was He in despair?

Name withheld by request, via email

A. This cry which burst from our divine Savior’s lips in His agony is the opening of Psalm 22. With indescribable suffering the Messiah was undergoing the most cruel, the most ignominious, death the ancient world inflicted on its criminals. Yet His outburst was far more than a cry of desolation. We must keep in mind Jewish practice of citing the psalms. To quote the opening of a psalm was implicitly to refer to the entire psalm.

Though the psalmist feels God is not responding to his cry for help, three different times he speaks to the Lord as “my God.” As we read toward the end of Psalm 22, the earlier desolation turns to trust and victory and even glory. The risen Lord rhetorically asked the two disciples He met on the road to Emmaus, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Lk 24:26).

One thought more, a personal opinion: Throughout His earthly life Our Lord was in perfect communion with the Father. The one ultimate dimension of human suffering He had not undergone was to have felt deserted by God. I believe that in those last moments on the cross His divine nature enabled Him, at least momentarily and clearly, to feel abandoned by God.

Only momentarily, for by that final identification with deepest suffering the Incarnation was complete. And only by that final identification.

Is Fornication a Mortal Sin?

Q. If you are living with someone and are not married, can you still take Communion? Both are Catholics and attend the same church. Is fornication a mortal sin?

Name withheld by request, via email

A. Today, the euphemistic term for unmarried persons living together is “cohabitation.” It is mortal sin not only in the sexual dimension. It is mortal sin because those persons necessarily are using one another for their selfish ends. Each may have conscious feelings of love for the other, but they refuse publicly to commit their lives. Apart from that commitment, they can never know true marital love. Cohabitation is a case of “I love you today, baby; let’s not talk about tomorrow.”

What is a Universalist?

Q. One of my friends is a Universalist. He assures me that at the end of human history hell will be empty because all finally will be saved. Isn’t this a heresy condemned by the Church?

E.R., via email

A. The Catholic Church condemned Universalism as a heresy in 543 in its dealing with the Origenists. In His relationship with us, we know God goes to great lengths to respect our freedom. Assume that however strongly a person resists God in this life that at the end of that life God says, “I win!” and takes that person into the glory of heaven. This assumption clearly denies free will.

The Catehism of the Catholic Church tells us the sin of Satan and his angels will be forever excluded from heaven. “It is the irrevocable character of their choice, and not a defect in the infinite divine mercy, that makes the angels’ sin unforgivable” (No. 393). That teaching itself takes for granted the reality of an eternal condemnation.

Why did Jesus repeatedly warn against the danger of being cast into hell? Read again Matthew 5:22,29-30, with parallels in Mark 9:43-47, Matthew 7:22-23 and Luke 12:5. Or note the teaching about the reality of hell in James 3:6 and 2 Peter 2:4. Is all this merely an idle threat? What other than the reality of eternal punishment did Jesus have in mind when He said about His betrayer, Judas Iscariot, “It would be better for that man if he had never been born” (Mt 26:24, et al.)?

On one occasion Jesus was asked, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” His answer was, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough” (see Lk 13:23-24).

Who are Elohim and Yahweh?

Q. There seems to be a difference between Elohim and Yahweh in the Old Testament. Is that true? What do the names mean?

Elaine, via email

A. Indeed there is a difference in these two names. The word Elohim (“God”) is consistently used in Genesis 1. Yet starting in Genesis 2:4 the sacred text uses the term Yahweh (“the Lord God”) to refer to our Creator. This difference reflects the change in subject matter in early Genesis. Chapter 1 reveals God as creator, while Chapter 2 speaks of His personal relationship with His creatures. This pattern is consistently followed in later sections. Elohim names the transcendent God and Creator; Yahweh names the God in personal relationship with His children.

Psalm 19 offers a clear example of this distinction. The first part of the psalm speaks of God (“Elohim”) as creator and His relation to is creation. In the middle of the psalm the psalmist begins using Yahweh when his subject is God’s relationship with the Chosen People.

YHWH (English version of the Hebrew) is known as the “sacred Tetragrammaton.” The latter word comes from the Greek word for “four letters.” The vowels “a” and “e” have been added to the Tetragrammaton for purposes of pronunciation in English.

This word is sacred to religious Jews. They never utter it. They use instead the term Adonai in reading the Torah. The U.S. bishops are sensitive to this Jewish practice. They have asked Catholics not to use the term Yahweh in speaking of God.

Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D., serves as chaplain for several national Catholic apostolates, an adjunct professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and an assistant pastor at St. Peter’s Church in the same city.