Geography is probably not a topic we often associate with spirituality. In this liturgical year of Luke, however, we find that geography does matter, for it touches the very mission of the Church.
Geography in Luke and Acts
To get an overview of why geography matters to Luke, we have to take a bird’s-eye view of Luke and Acts together, the only two-volume work in the New Testament. We can immediately see that the geographical context of each book matters. The Gospel of Luke begins in Jerusalem and is quickly localized in the Temple where Zechariah, an elderly priest soon to become the father of John the Baptist, ministers.
|Luke saw in the geographical realities of his day a means to promote the Gospel of Jesus. The Crosiers
Luke has indicated in his prologue (1:1-4) that he consciously sets out to recount the Gospel story in “an orderly sequence” so that its truth would be readily apparent to his reader, Theophilus. Though this is likely a real person, the name, which means “friend of God,” can also serve well as a cipher for every person of faith and every would-be disciple. In any case, Zechariah and his elderly wife Elizabeth are portrayed as righteous, pious and Law-observant Jews. Their lives revolve around the Jerusalem temple and obeying God’s commandments.
Shifting to the end of the Gospel, we note that the setting is once again in Jerusalem. Indeed, the last words of the Gospel recount how the disciples, after Jesus’ ascension, “returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God” (24:52-53). The temple is once again featured, and this time the eleven remaining apostles of Jesus are portrayed as pious.
Then we jump to the beginning of Acts. The prologue of this second volume tells Theophilus that Luke now picks up the story of Jesus once more in Jerusalem. That is where the apostles were told to remain until they received “the promise of the Father,” that is, the Holy Spirit.
It seems like not a lot of progress has been made geographically after 24 chapters of Luke! We are still in Jerusalem. But there is a spiritual agenda in this geographic reality. Just before the second account of Jesus’ ascension, He says to His apostles: “. . .you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
This may not have the precision of Google maps or some GPS device, but it signals a geographic design to the Gospel message. The apostles are sent on a worldwide mission that begins in Jerusalem. They are to go to the farthest ends of the earth, step-by-step, region-by-region, bearing witness to the teachings and deeds of Jesus Christ. As the story of Acts unfolds — the parallel story of the risen Jesus now present in His Church — the progress of this mission proceeds, guided by the Holy Spirit. Arriving at the end of Acts, we see where the story leads. Paul, foremost evangelizer, is in prison in Rome, center of the known world, seat of the Roman Empire.
True enough, Rome is not “the ends of the earth.” But if all roads led to Rome, then they also led from Rome. Expectantly, Acts ends with Paul in prison yet “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (28:31). Rome symbolizes access to the whole world. This is a preview of the success of the worldwide mission accomplished under guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Geography and Evangelization
This little excursion into biblical interpretation of Luke–Acts is not merely an academic exercise. In the wake of the October 2012 synod of bishops on “the new evangelization and the transmission of the faith” the issue of geography once more has come to the fore. Instrumentum Laboris, the working document for the synod, brought up the issues of culture and globalization with regard to the challenges faced by the Church today in proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ [See Instrumentum Laboris, esp., Nos. 52, 55 and 62]. Several points made in this document hark back to the challenges faced by the evangelist Luke and the community for whom he wrote.
First, there is the question of culture. Luke wrote to a predominantly Gentile community but was very conscious of the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. Some scholars suggest that he even set out to present to the Roman empire a defense or apology for the Christian faith, showing that it was not a threat. Be that as it may, Luke–Acts bears witness to the clash of cultures that inevitably arose when the Christian faith began to spread quickly from Jerusalem to “the ends of the earth.”
Likewise today, the influence of culture is a predominant question for the Church. Virtually no diocese or parish in the United States today is untouched by immigration, by the influx of new peoples who are very much on the move. Some of them come from cultures quite different from Western and U.S. culture. Some come with very limited knowledge of the English language and unfamiliarity with the local customs.
Almost all people today are touched in some fashion by secularization, the influence of modern secular thought. Some of this, of course, brings many benefits, such as raising the standard of living and promoting education. But some of it fosters an anti-religious, anti-clerical, anti-institutional prejudice that can be difficult to surmount. So, cultural influences matter greatly.
A second, related theme is globalization. The Instrumentum Laboris for the synod noted that evangelization is no longer merely a question of North–South or East–West movement [Instrumentum Laboris, No. 70]. The context is infinitely more global. For Luke, Rome was the very center of the universe in a sense. It represented the power of the day. Rome was a kind of melting pot where people from all over the empire congregated. It thus represented a goal to which the apostles would be sent on mission, and at the same time, the starting point for going to the rest of the world. Rome was where the Pentecost event would eventually lead, embracing all cultures and languages.
Today one cannot say that any given geographic local or city represents such a symbol. As the Instrumentum says, today’s Christian mission extends to all five continents. The boundaries of geography have been extended. The spiritual mission of the Church now embraces all humankind in their diversity and in the diverse contexts in which we find ourselves. This has doubtless made the task of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ more complex, but the fact is that modern travel, communications, and immigration have simply brought the far corners of the world closer together.
A third issue touches the area of diverse religions today. Just as Luke and the early Christians had to proclaim a Christian message in an often hostile, pagan and religiously diverse context, so today the Church’s message must be proclaimed in an extremely diverse religious context.
Inter-faith dialogue is an urgent need and one of the reasons for the new evangelization. Moreover, the existence of fundamentalists in most religions and the phenomenon of increasing religious intolerance produce a certain emotional edge to such encounters. The Instrumentum speaks of Christians boldly entering the situation of these “new areopaghi,” alluding to the famous story of Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus in Athens [Acts 17:22-34 and Instrumentum Laboris, No. 62].
Paul is very creative in this sermon. He mentions the “altar to an unknown God” and asserts that Jesus of Nazareth fits this bill neatly! But when he recounts the heart of the Gospel, Jesus’ death and resurrection in particular, he gets a mixed reaction. Some scoff, though a few become believers. In any case, Paul was bold enough to proclaim the Gospel in such a pagan context, and the synod called on Catholics today to be equally courageous.
As priests and frontline preachers of the good news in our day, we are left, I believe, with the question of where to go with this perspective. My suggestion is to take advantage of this year of Luke to flesh out the Church’s evangelical mission in the spirit of the new evangelization. The task is much more complex than I have described here, but Luke presents us with an opportunity not to be missed.
The spiritual message of the Gospel in our day is intimately tied to our contemporary geographical realities. Luke’s world was assuredly different from our own, but he saw in the geographical realities of his day a means to promote the spiritual message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That remains our task today.
FATHER WITHERUP, S.S., is Superior General of the Society of Saint Sulpice and a frequent contributor to The Priest. He recently published Gold Tested in Fire: A New Pentecost for the Catholic Priesthood (Liturgical Press, 2012), and a set of CDs, Treasure in Earthen Vessels: The Spirituality of Paul the Apostle (Now You Know Media, 2012).