Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Royal Priesthood

Hierarchical by its very nature

The students in my 6th-grade Wednesday Sunday School class never mention this verse:

"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." (1Pet 2:9 RSVCE)

But it used to come up in RCIA & adult classes without fail. Usually a Sola Scriptura catechumen would ask: if we're members of a royal priesthood, why do we need a layer of priests between us and Jesus? How can the Catholic Church maintain its hierarchical priestly structure in spite of that passage? It's a good question. I would answer that the Church does so, not in spite of, but in conformance with Peter's Epistle.

First, most Christians accept that in using the term "royal priesthood," Peter was not inventing a new idea, but extending an Old Covenant concept into the New Covenant by borrowing from the Book of Exodus: "...you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Ex 19:6) I say most Christians, because I've spoken to some who don't find it at all persuasive that the English phrases "royal priesthood" and "kingdom of priests" necessarily mean the same thing; and so Peter's words aren't subject to the context of Exodus. To get over that hump let's learn a little Greek and Hebrew.

The book of Exodus was originally written in Hebrew. The two Hebrew words which are translated into English as "kingdom of priests" are mamlakha (ממלכה) and kohen (כהן), which mean, you guessed it, 'kingdom' and 'priest.' Very straightforward- and you're probably already familiar with Kohen/ Cohen/ Kohn/ Cohn as a Jewish surname. And the English translation of Peter's Epistle is equally plain. Written in Greek, the phrase βασίλειος ἱεράτευμα/ basileus ierateuma translates directly as 'royal priesthood.' You already know some of this Greek: basileus/ king is a cognate of basilica, and the given names Basil and Vassily; and (h)ier is the Greek root for sacred, as in hierarchy. 

For those who simply must know, -teuma is Greek for order; an hier-a-teuma is therefore a sacred-order...a priesthood. This is not going to become an article on language, I mean it. That's it.

Where was I? Oh yeah, so anyway, if Peter meant to say "kingdom of priests," why didn't he, like, just say "kingdom of priests" in Greek, y'know? Oh. Umm. Ehhh. Well, probably because neither Peter nor his scribe could read much Hebrew. They'd've used the Greek translation of the Old Testament written in the second century BC, the Septuagint. So if Peter wanted to quote directly from Exodus, he'd likely use the Greek Old Testament to do so. And what would the Greek translation of mamlakha kohen be? Why, it's basileus ierateuma, "royal priesthood," imagine that. But why did the Septuagint translators not say "kingdom of priests" in Greek to keep it simple? I. Don't. Know. Maybe it sounds better in Greek. And we have similar problems in English: "royal priesthood" sounds better than "kingly priesthood," or "kingdom of priests." But by now you are wondering, if Peter's scribe quoted the Greek O.T., why don't our Bibles say "royal priesthood" in Exodus? Because most (if not all) Bibles in English translate the O.T. directly from Hebrew, not Greek. That becomes a problem when the N.T. writers did their quoting from the Greek version, not the Hebrew. So words & phrases which were the same to them may not be to us. Did I say this was not going to become an article on language? I really mean it this time.

So to wrap up this fabulous digression, Peter was directly quoting the Septuagint Exodus when he said "royal priesthood" in his Epistle. In Greek. See? This may be the right moment to say, "If English was good enough for St. Peter it's good enough for me," but I'm not sure, so I won't say it.

Anyway- why does this matter? Because we may now with confidence look at the Exodus passage to understand what Peter meant when he said, "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people..." Did he mean that because we are all priests that the Catholic church should jettison its hierarchy, eliminate those celibate guys that get between Jesus and his people? Let's see.

In quoting Exodus, Peter didn't offer any modifications to the O.T. source, in contrast to the writer of Hebrews, for example. He had a whole lotta 'splainin' to do in his comparison of Melchizedek, Aaron, Moses, and the Temple with their New Covenant counterparts. But not Peter; he just zoomed along. Apparently the Old Covenant model of a royal priesthood didn't need any adjustments to suit Peter in his New Covenant context.

So...how did that model work? Let's see!

Three months after leaving Egypt, the Israelites reached Mt. Sinai. "And Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel."

The people agreed to this covenant, which was a much better deal than the average pagan would get from his god. "And the LORD said to Moses, "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments, and be ready by the third day; for on the third day the LORD will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people." As befits priests, the people had to clean and consecrate themselves. But then, "And you shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, 'Take heed that you do not go up into the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death.." So right off the bat the royal priesthood has bounds set around it at the bottom of the mountain.

And the LORD came down upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain; and the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. And the LORD said to Moses, "Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the LORD to gaze and many of them perish. And also let the priests who come near to the LORD consecrate themselves, lest the LORD break out upon them." And Moses said to the LORD, "The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai; for thou thyself did charge us, saying, 'Set bounds about the mountain, and consecrate it.'" And the LORD said to him, "Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you; but do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the LORD, lest he break out against them."  So Moses goes up, and then Aaron goes up; but not the priests & people.

Then follow 3 chapters of commandments and ordinances. Once those are communicated, "...he said to Moses, "Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu.." that is, Aaron and his two elder sons.  And in addition, "seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship afar off.  Moses alone shall come near to the LORD; but the others shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him." So now not only are Moses and Aaron allowed up, but also Aaron's sons, and seventy elders (in the Greek Septuagint, πρεσβυτέρων, presbuteron, whence the English word priest).

Then Moses went back down to inform the people, the royal priesthood, of God's commandments and ordinances. They agreed to the rules. And being a royal priesthood, the people participated with Moses in a sacrifice: "the people of Israel...offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the LORD...And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, "Behold the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words." Following this, "Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel..."

So: there is a mountain. At the bottom is the royal priesthood which is explicitly limited in its participation in priestly functions. At the top without exception is Moses. And in between, depending on the occasion, are Aaron, his two elder sons, and seventy more elders, who are higher up the mountain than the royal priesthood, but usually lower than Moses. So not only is this arrangement on Mt. Sinai hierarchical in concept, it's a physical hierarchy as well, just to drive the point home. There's nothing in Exodus that suggests the royal priesthood, which outranks mere pagans, isn't itself outranked by another group of priests who mediate between it and God. In fact, being at the bottom is as far down as you can get and still be a member of the club.

And remember, this is all before the people, the royal priesthood, worship the Golden Calf and trigger a whole 'nother batch of instructions from God which add oodles of Levitical refinements and burdens to this very basic hierarchy. My point is that a visible, explicit hierarchy was put in place in the best of circumstances, when the people were still in God's good graces.

So based on Exodus and 1Peter, are Catholics part of  "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light"? Indeed we are. Does the royal nature of our shared priesthood allow us to dispense with intermediaries? It does not. How do we know? Well, among other reasons, because the Bible tells us so.

This post has been linked to Amazing Catechists.

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Proper Introduction

This post has been linked to Amazing Catechists and RAnn's Sunday Snippets

 In Wednesday Sunday School the subject matter may jump around from minute to minute. The kids' nimble brains like to flit about anyway; it's important to go sideways (not just up and down) when developing a concept; and it pays to connect Catholicism to the wider world across time and culture. If we're already developing a concept, e.g., the Eucharist as miracle food, I'll just say "new topic" to start a new direction that will tie back to the Eucharist within the next few minutes. But if we're going to go in a new direction and develop it, the kids should have a more thorough introduction than just hearing "new topic." They should see the new topic is connected to things they already know, not just an isolated idea floating out there in Catholic Space. I want them engaged in the new topic before they even know what it is, like so:

"Somebody tell me please, what's a fable? It's a story. Are fables true stories? No they're made up. Yes. Are all made-up stories fables? No, some are just stories. Yes. What's the difference between a fable and a story? Fables have animals. Well, yeah, usually....who can tell me the Tortoise & the Hare fable? Me! Go ahead, tell it. They had a race and the hare ran fast and then took a nap, but the tortoise won the race before the hare woke up. Yes, the slow animal won the race, why? Because he didn't quit when he was losing. Right. What's the point? The tortoise didn't give up, but the hare was lazy. I mean, what's the point for you? Don't give up? Yes. We say, "the moral of the story is 'slow but steady wins the race'." Most fables end like that: "the moral of the story is thus and so"...why is that? Because fables are about being good or bad. Yes. Jesus told fables too; we call them parables. The words 'parable' and 'fable' are cousins, they mean "to tell a tale"; and they teach moral lessons. Como se llama to speak in Spanish? Hablar! Yes. Hablar is related to fable and parable, too.

Y'all remember last class we discussed one of my favorite parts of the Mass, when the priest says "Blessed are those who are called to the wedding feast of the Lamb." Tell me please, who is the Lamb? Jesus. Yes, and who is Jesus marrying? The Church? Yes, and is the Church male or female? What? Well, is Jesus the Lamb going to marry a man or a woman? Umm...a woman? Yes, that's why we refer to the Church as "she" or a "bride adorned for her husband." D'ya think I love my wife? Yes. And how about Jesus? What about him? Does he love his wife? Jesus didn't get married. Uh, I think the Lamb does get married, but not to an earthly bride....oh, the Church. Yes. Does He love the Church? Yes! Enough to die for her, as it turns out.

Speaking of wedding feasts, let's look at a parable Jesus told, which is called the Parable of the Wedding Feast. Matthew's Gospel says, "And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son..."

And off we go.

(I wouldn't have the Queen's job for all the tea in China)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Eclogue for Piano and Strings

This post has been linked to RAnn's Sunday Snippets

 In 1901 Gerald Finzi, a descendant of Italian-Jewish immigrants, was born in England. I thought his last name was 'Finsey' until I saw it written down. He's one of a batch of 20th century English composers that I'm fond of.

His 'Eclogue for Piano and Strings' is something I've returned to repeatedly over the last 20 years or so. It was written between 1925 and 1929; which is to say, after Britain's Pyrrhic victory in the First World War, and before the utter exhaustion of the Second.

I always hope to hear in a piece of music an echo of the time in which it was written. In the case of the Eclogue, I hear a traumatized nation hoping the world might be beautiful again; but also accepting that it might not.
Eclogue for Piano and Strings  (10 minutes)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Rembrandt & Wednesday Sunday School

Each year around Easter, our class discusses the state of Jesus's mind and body between the Resurrection and the Ascension. After having escorted the Old Testament saints from the waiting room of Sheol into Heaven, and in possession of his resurrected Easter body, Jesus just doesn't have much to do on Earth anymore. He says a few (important) things, flits in and out of dimensional reality, exhibits a langorousness that surely was not in evidence during his 3-year ministry. He's no longer at home in the sinful world. He may appear in it occasionally, but he belongs in heaven.

I like Rembrandt, especially his later work, which becomes more and more concerned with the message than the medium. For example, look at these two portrayals of the 'Supper at Emmaus.'

This one dates from 1628:


In 1628 Rembrandt was a 22-year-old hot hand, as we'd say in architecture school. Look at that dramatic rendering of the moment in Matthew's Gospel: "When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight." (Mt 24:30-31) The light; the darkness; the astonishment! It's very literal, and is a terrific illustration of the moment, perfect for engaging the kids, right?

Well...no. I wouldn't use that 1628 painting in class.

I'd use this one:

Here Rembrandt shows the benefits of twenty more years of reflection. I can use this portrait to deepen the kids' understanding as well.

First, the apostle's recognition of Jesus happens in the company of people who don't recognize him at all. This isn't so different from any number of people (thousands, I suppose) who saw and heard Jesus; and lacking faith, paid him no particular mind. This lack of recognition ties in well with a quick recap of one of Isaiah's Christmas prophecies: "The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master's manger; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand." (Is 1:3)

Next, the recognition focuses more on spiritual recognition than physical. The apostle's bodily reaction is so muted that the others don't notice; but his face reveals his gradual realization that this is Jesus.

And this Jesus, what a gift. This Jesus is barely there, on the verge of vanishing, already disengaged from the fallen world. A heavenly Jesus who didn't want to be touched by Mary Magdalene on Easter morning. One whose attention is quite reasonably elsewhere, counting the minutes until he at last ascends to the Father.

This is the image to teach from.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Arks & Tabernacles

This post is linked to RAnn's Sunday Snippets

continued from Wedding Reception

Mass is almost over now that we have received Communion; in a few minutes the feast will be over. This is a good time to look at how a Catholic church helps the feast take place.

But first, does anyone know who Balaam [on the board] is? No? How about Balaam's Ass [on the board]? (giggles & snickers) No? OK then: Balaam was a pagan who lived when the Israelites were getting established in the Promised Land after their 40 years of wandering in the desert. He was famous for blessing and cursing people, and making it stick. Well, the Israelites had been whipping their local enemies in battle so thoroughly that Balak, the king of Moab, wanted to pay Balaam to curse the Israelites. He didn't want to be next on their whipping schedule. Y-H-W-H (don't say it!) told Balaam not to visit Balak, but the Book of Numbers says, "Balaam rose in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab."(more giggles & snickers)  OK, what's 'ass' mean? Donkey? Yes. Now this is your last chance to act like babies when I say 'ass'...ready?  Ass. (fewer giggles & snickers) Alright, that was it. No more giggling like 5-year-olds. "But God grew angry because he went; and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as his adversary." An angel blocked the way to Moab. "And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the ass, to turn her into the road." [I act all this out] "Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she pushed against the wall, and pressed Balaam's foot against the wall; so he struck her again." Poor donkey, she's doing Balaam a favor! "Then the angel of the LORD went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. When the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam; and in anger Balaam beat the ass with his stick." Now I love this: "Then the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said to Balaam, "What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?"  And Balaam said to the ass, "...I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you." Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face." Balaam decided to get himself some humility in a hurry. Trick question: why was Balaam riding the donkey with his eyes closed? His eyes weren't closed!  No? It says, "the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel." Doesn't that mean his eyes were shut? No, it means he couldn't see the angel until God let him. Oh. But the donkey saw the angel the whole time...how come? No guesses. Tell me, can we see water wash sins off a baby at Baptism? No. Can a saint see it happen? Yes. Why? No guesses? Put it this way: why can't we see it? 'Cause we're sinners! Yes, sin makes us...blind! Yes! So Balaam couldn't see the angel...'cause he was a sinner! Yes; but Balaam's ass could see the angel because...animals don't sin? Maybe so, the story doesn't say. But remember in one of Isaiah's Christmas prophecies, he said the people of Israel didn't know their master, but the the ox and ass did.

Now, back to the feast, listen again to another bit of Isaiah you've heard before: "And he will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations." Are 'all people' sitting under a giant blanket? No, it's not real. So what is covering them, what sort of veil is it? Is it sin? Yes, at Isaiah's feast the veil of sin will be "destroyed" so people will be able to see God clearly. And if sin is destroyed, where must the feast be? In Heaven. Yes.

Now let's look at this handout again, you've seen it before:

What's the first plan? Moses' Meeting Tent. Yes...did Moses design it? No, God did. Yes, God gave instructions about every detail of the Tent: "And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. According to all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it." God showed Moses the heavenly pattern of all the stuff that went in the tent, even including little things like the candlesticks. And if God "dwelled" in the tent, then it was...his house? Yes, he lived in a tent because his people, the Israelites, lived in tents.

Somebody tell me, what's a tavern? Is it like a bar? Yes. Up North, like in Pennsylvania, people will say 'tavern' when we say 'bar'; I think tavern sounds more civilized. Anyway, taberna [on the board] is a Latin word for house. Yes? Why does it have a b? Because b's and v's sound almost the same in some languages. Somebody digame, como se llama twenty in Español? Somebody say twenty in Spanish.  Veinte [on the board]! Yes. See, it's spelled with a v, but listen to the sound, please say it again. Veinte. Does it sound like a b or a v? Kind of in between. Yes.

So taberna means house, and a tabernaculum [adding to taberna] is a little house, or a tent or a log cabin. Where an English Bible says 'tent,' a Latin Bible will say tabernaculum. What word do we get  from that? Tabernacle. Yes. We have a tabernacle in church! Yes, good, we're getting to that. The whole meeting tent was the tabernacle, God's dwelling. Now look at the Holy Spaces where only the priests could go: what separates them? A veil. Yes. Is it a real veil? Yes!  Right, it was a beautiful curtain that prevented everyone from seeing what? The Ark!  Yes. Only one person could go behind the veil...who? The High Priest? Yes. The other priests could tootle around the rest of the Meeting Tent, but they couldn't go past the veil. So who would offer the most important sacrifices to Y-H-W-H? The High Priest. Yes; he offered sacrifices for the whole nation, all the people of Israel, right in front of God. Was God there physically? Well, God doesn't have a body. Right; but Y-H-W-H's presence was right above the Ark, between the cherubim. What's ark mean? A container! Yes, good. And what was in the Ark? Come on, y'all know this. Umm...the Ten Commandments? Yes, and...the miracle bread...manna!  Yes, a pot of manna; and Aaron's staff. Are those things God? Ummm, no? Right; God wouldn't live in a box. God's stuff is in the box. But the Israelites had super-respect for that box of stuff.

Now look at Solomon's Temple: it's bigger and nicer and more permanent than the Meeting Tent; but it has the same pattern as the Tent. Who designed the pattern? God! Yes. Is that a real veil? Yes!  Right; just like in the Tent. And look at the Church: tell me about the pattern. It's the same! Yes, almost.

In the New Testament there's an Epistle to the Hebrews...what's Epistle mean? Letter. Yes, so it's a letter written to Jews who had become Christians. I think they might've been worried about not going to the Temple in Jerusalem every year and sacrificing a Passover Lamb. The Epistle explains to them that it's not necessary anymore, because "we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God...who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man, but by the Lord." So where is the "true tent"? In Heaven! Yes; tell me, who is the High Priest in the church? Jesus. Yes, and where is the High Priest? In Heaven. Yes, he's the slain Lamb, a perfect Lamb, who offers himself right in front of the Father's throne in Heaven, in the true tent. So the Hebrew Christians didn't need the Temple priests to sacrifice and offer lambs for them anymore. And how long will Jesus be a High Priest? Umm...forever? Yes, at least until the Final Judgment in Revelations. The Epistle says we have "a hope that enters into the inner shrine behind the veil, where Jesus [has] become a high priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek." What's the deal with Melchizedek? He offered bread and wine! Yes; like...Jesus! Yes, at...the Last Supper! Yes! Y'all are too smart!

At Mass, can we see Jesus offer himself in Heaven? No. Right; now tell me about the veil on the church plan. It's not in the church! Right; is it a real veil? No, it's sin! Yes, sin veiled Balaam's eyes from seeing the angel, and sin veils us from seeing what's in Heaven. But if we become saints, and free from sin...then we can see. Yes. So the pattern in a church stops at the veil of sin, and the rest of the offering of the sacrifice takes place beyond that veil, in...Heaven, yes which is the true tent, not an earthly copy.

Now tell me about the Ark in the church plan. There isn't an Ark, there's a tabernacle. Yes; what's the difference? No guesses? What's ark mean? Container! Yes, in this case, a box. And what goes in a box...people? No, stuff!  Yes. Is Jesus stuff?  No, a person! Yes, and if Jesus wants to dwell with us in church, would you have him live in a box? No!  What do people live in? A house? Yes, so Jesus...has to have a house. Yes, but he doesn't take up much room under the appearance of bread; he doesn't need a full-size taberna, but a...tabernacle! Yes, a "little house."  Why do tabernacles often look like little houses? Because Jesus lives there. Yes, as the Bible might say, Jesus dwells with us in the Tabernacle.

Now in the Tent and the Temple the Jews had great respect for the box of God's stuff. But what should get more respect: God's stuff in a box, or God himself in his little house? God in his little house! Yes, so always behave in church with the respect that Jesus deserves.

Now after people eat a feast, what needs to be washed and put away? The dishes? Yes; who does them...the guests? No, the person who invited them. Yes, the host or hostess. Well, after Communion, the priest does the dishes. When he's done, Jesus is put back into his little house, and we all sit down. Following a short prayer and any announcements, the priests blesses us and says, "Go forth, the Mass is ended." Somebody digame how to say Mass in Spanish. Misa! Yes [on the board]. It comes from this Latin word: missa [on the board]. At the end of Mass in Latin, the priest says "Ite, missa est" [on the board]. It means "Go, it's the dismissal." That's where we get the word Mass, from the dismissal. And the people say...thanks be to God! Yes. Then what happens? Well, we leave? Yes, the Mass is over.

And our year of 6th grade Wednesday Sunday School is over too, along with all your misery. I do hope y'all learned a thing or two while y'all suffered so dreadfully. And for the rest of your lives, if you have a question about being Catholic, or the Bible, or the Mass, or whatever, get a hold of me and I'll find you an answer.

Before class is "dismissed" I want to draw one last picture that pulls together a lot of what we learned this year. [I draw] What's this? The altar. Yes, which is also a...table...yes. It represents...Mass? Yes...and here's the priest, who stands in for...Jesus. Yes. Now around the Mass I want y'all to name six things we learned that tie into the Mass. The Last Supper! Yes, and? A man who offered bread and wine...Melchizedek! Yes, and...blood on the doorposts...Passover! Yes....miracle bread in the desert...Manna! Yes...miracle bread...Jesus...apostles...Loaves & Fishes! Yes, and last of all...we learned it tonight...wedding...Wedding Feast! of...the Lamb! who is... Jesus! Yes, good children!

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Now and Forever!

Class over!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Res Ipsa Loquitur 3

 Here are the audio files of the class recounted in the post Manoah and the Angel. The written account is a condensation of this class, and classes from prior years covering the same material, so the audio and the post vary a bit in content & flow.

For more live classes, click on the Res Ipsa Loquitur label at lower right.