Current Issue
September, 2019
Volume 45, Number 3
5 April 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Pope Francis blesses the faithful with holy water on Palm Sunday in St. Peter’s Square. Water has powerful religious and spiritual meaning in both Judaism and Christianity.
(photo: CNS/Tony Gentile, Reuters)

Among Christians of all denominations, the end of Lent and the beginning of the Easter Season involves the blessing of water. We saw an example of this vividly last weekend when, in the Easter Vigil, Catholics throughout the world blessed water and celebrated the sacrament of baptism.

It served to remind us that water has great significance and importance in both Judaism and Christianity. Although water can and is seen as something dangerous and wild, that refers mostly to the waters of the sea, which the Hebrews held in some dread. In ancient Mesopotamia, the deity Tiamat, “the Deep,” was seen as an all devouring dragon. Water — fresh water — on the other hand was clearly a source of life. The Second Creation Account (Gen. 2:5-3:24) starts off in a dry and lifeless desert: “as yet there was no grass or shrubbery that has sprung up because God had not caused it to rain...” (Gen 2:5) Creation begins when God causes moisture (Hebrew: ’ēd) to rise from the earth.

With moisture — water — life begins.

It carries other connotations, as well. In the ancient Near East, water is often connected with the goddess of wisdom. Wisdom brings life and order. The desert is a frightening place, a “howling desert” (Deut 32:10), “a land of horror” (Isa 21:1), filled with strange and dangerous animals. There is neither city nor civilization in the desert. But with water, the wild chaos of the desert gives way to life, order and civilization — the gifts of Wisdom. We see this in scripture; in the book of Proverbs, wisdom is often connected with water (Prov 18:4; 20:5). In the New Testament, something similar can be found in the Gospel of John, which frequently connects Jesus with the Wisdom of the Hebrew Bible. Scholars have long noticed that the Prologue of John’s Gospel (1:1-18) sounds very much like the poem about Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs (8:22-31). Later in the Gospel, Jesus calls those who thirst to come to him and drink (John 7:37-39). Echoing the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well, the water which Jesus offers — his teaching — is spirit and springs up to eternal life.

The cleansing properties of water were, of course, not lost on the people of the Bible. Ritual purity was very important for the priests who served in the Temple. Purity was also important for all — priest and non-priest — who would worship at the Temple. There were many things which could render a person impure or unfit to worship in the Temple — everything from touching a dead body to coming into contact with pork. The impure person was purified by washing with water. Even today among some Jews there is the ritual of the miqveh. A miqveh is a pool connected with running (“living”) water that is used for purification. Converts to Judaism — as well as Jewish men and women who have incurred ritual impurity — are required to immerse themselves in the waters of the miqveh in order to become ritually pure once again. The Jewish community at Qumran, who were the copiers of the so-called “Dead Sea Scrolls,” left behind extensive ruins. A very visible part of the ruins are ritual baths or miqveh. So important is the miqveh that Jewish religious authorities hold that new Jewish communities should build a miqveh even before they build a synagogue.

Clearly Christianity has taken over a great deal of the symbolism of water found in the Hebrew Bible and incorporated it into our own faith and ritual. We observed this recently, when those symbols played a central role in the observances of Holy Week. The washing of the feet at the Holy Thursday liturgy underlines the cleansing power of water but also stresses that it is a requirement to be with Jesus (John 13:9). The symbols found in the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday reflect the destructive power of water in recalling the destruction of the Egyptians at the Sea. The waters of baptism are also a symbol of Christ’s death (Rom 6:3). However, the life-giving and cleansing powers of water are also stressed in the waters of baptism which bring newness of life.

Throughout the Bible, in both Testaments, the powerful symbolism of water is a common theme. For Christians, the recent observance of Holy Week provided a call to reflect on the powerful role of water in the faith of Christians and Jews — and a bond we share that stretches back through the centuries.

22 February 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

A sister serves a midday meal in Ghaziabad, India. (photo: John Mathew)

This past Tuesday, on 20 February, the UN observed the World Day for Social Justice. In one sense the concept of justice and social justice as a basic human right is a relatively new phenomenon in world history. In the past, highly stratified societies with very inequitable sharing of resources were considered to be part of the natural order. The poor were poor, it was believed, because God did not create them nobles. On the other hand, a notion of social justice and the call to a more equitable sharing of resources are as old as the prophetic tradition. The three great monotheistic religions of the world — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — not only believe in the same one God, they all also have a strong prophetic tradition of justice. CNEWA’s roots are — as its name implies — in the Near East, the home of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Among the people we serve many are Christians and Muslims. The home of the prophetic call to justice is in a real sense also the home of CNEWA.

In the tradition of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, or Law, stressed the importance of taking care of the weak and poor and offering them the same legal justice as the strong and powerful. In Leviticus, farmers are told not to harvest their entire fields and to leave whatever parts of their harvest fall to the ground, so that the poor may glean them (Lev. 19:9 ff.) The handicapped are not to be taken advantage of (19:14-15). The Bible demands that the administration of justice not be overawed by the wealthy and powerful (Exod. 22:20; Lev. 19:34). Repeatedly the bible demands justice for the widow, the orphan and the alien. In Deut. 10:17-18 it reads “...Yahweh your God is God of is he who sees justice done for the orphan and the widow, who loves the alien and gives him food and clothing.”

In the books of the prophets, justice is more central than worship. In Isaiah 1:11-17, God says, “...I am sick of holocausts of rams...bring me your worthless offerings no more....Take your evildoing out of my sight. Learn to do good, search for justice, help the oppressed, be just to the orphan, plead for the widow.” Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, God abhors usury, false weights and measure of merchants (Amos 8:4 ff.) and withholding wages from workers (Lev. 19:13).

In the New Testament Jesus describes his ministry as, among other things, “to bring good news to the poor” (Lk. 4:18). The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Lk. 16:19-31) describes the horrible fate of the rich man who ignored the poverty-stricken Lazarus. In Christ’s description of the Last Judgement (Mt. 25:31-46), the difference between the righteous and the damned is that the righteous fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick, etc., etc. and the damned did not. Although often conveniently overlooked by the entitled and comfortable, social justice is the ultimate “orthodoxy” for the followers of Jesus in the Gospels.

A similar situation can be found in Islam. The Qur’an constantly calls for the protection of the poor and the weak. Zakat, donations for the poor, is one of the Pillars of Islam. Qur’an 4:136 reads “ strict in observing justice and be witnesses for God, even though it be against yourselves or against parents or relatives...” One of the most extraordinary Surahs (chapters) of the Qur’an is Surah 80, ‘Abasa. It begins “He {Muhammad} frowned (‘abasa) and turned away....” It relates the story of a blind man approaching the Prophet who is speaking/preaching to some people. God rebukes the Prophet for ignoring the handicapped man and paying attention to “him who is disdainfully indifferent.” For Muslims, even the Holy Prophet of Islam is not absolved from caring for the poor, outcast and handicapped and is rebuked when he fails in this.

For many of us — and perhaps, at times, all of us — social justice is something quite secondary, little more than a decoration on the Christmas tree of our lives of virtue. That is really quite amazing. While there are things in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qur’an that are esoteric, hard to understand or appear only once, the demands of social justice are found boldly woven throughout all our sacred texts like a shockingly bright pattern on a fabric — a pattern than cannot be overlooked. There is neither reason nor excuse to ignore it.

The UN is a relatively recent organization. World Day for Social Justice is even more recent.

But the call for social justice is — literally — as old as the Bible.

15 February 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

This mosaic shows Satan tempting Christ while he is fasting in the desert — offering him stones to turn into bread. It comes from the Chora Church in Constantinople. Parts of the church date to the 11th century. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

For the western church, yesterday — Ash Wednesday — marked the beginning of Lent, a penitential season in preparation for Easter. Basically patterned on the Gospel stories of Jesus’ fast and temptation in the desert (Mt. 4:1-11; Mk. 1:12-13 and Luke 4:1-13), Lent is usually counted as 40 days, sometimes with some creative calculations involved. For some of CNEWA’s partners who are Orthodox, the preparation for Easter this year does not begin until Monday 19 February, which is the beginning of the Great Fast.

Fasting is something common to almost all the religions of the world. It is connected often with asceticism — those practices which help the believer overcome the drives of the body and elevate the spirit to a higher reality. However, for members of monotheistic religions who believe in the one God — Judaism, Islam and Christianity — fasting plays a central and important role.

Again and again in the Hebrew Scriptures we find the Israelites proclaiming a fast to atone for some transgression or to avert some tragedy. The biblical book of the Prophet Joel revolves entirely around a period of fasting and repentance. It seems that a plague of locusts had attacked the land and was devastating the crops. Joel compares the locust to an army of countless warriors, devouring the land and hurling the people into a deadly famine. Joel exclaims “order a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly!” (1:13; 2:15) God calls the people to repent, “..come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning...” (2:12 ff.) Fasting and repentance are outward signs of an inner conversion to the justice which God demands (Isa 58:5-7). Fasting focuses the spirit and purifies prayer throughout the Hebrew Bible. The tradition continues to this day; for contemporary Jews the Holy Day of Yom Kippur, the Day of the Atonement, is a day of fasting, prayer and repentance.

For Muslims, fasting also plays a major role. The holy month of Ramadan is the month of fasting. For a lunar month, Muslims observe a total fast in which nothing enters the body. Whereas Christian fasting does not include water, Muslims go further; they abstain from food, water, smoking and sexual activity from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan. Unlike the case with Judaism and Christianity, Muslim fasting during the month of Ramadan does not have a strong penitential element. For Muslims, the fast of Ramadan is rather a joyful thing — an act of self-control, to be sure, but also primarily an act of worship to God.

Finally, in the New Testament fasting plays an important role and is connected for Christians with penance and prayer. Fasting here understandably has roots deep in the Hebrew tradition. And it is mentioned with surprising frequency. We tend to overlook how often people in the New Testament are presented as “praying and fasting.” It is so common that it is almost self-evident and often mentioned merely in passing. In Luke, the prophetess Anna spends her time in the Temple with “prayer and fasting” (Lk 2:37). In 2 Corinthians, Paul reminds his readers of the times he has spent praying and fasting (2 Cor 6:5; 11:27). Simply assuming that his followers will fast, Jesus warns them against making an outward show of their fasting (Mt. 6 passim). Although it is often overlooked, fasting in both the Old and New Testaments is closely connected with acts of charity and justice (see especially Isa 58).

For Christians, then, the fasting of Lent has several levels of meaning deeply rooted in the Scriptures. Outwardly fasting is an act of self-denial and self-discipline. But it is far more than just self-discipline. It is an act of stripping away the non-essential and focusing on what is central. It focuses inward, as the believer focuses on God and the act of God in Jesus Christ. And focusing inwardly on the saving act of God in Christ, the Christian is impelled to focus externally to bring about the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus — a kingdom of justice, peace and compassion.

8 February 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

The video above offered a preview of the interfaith gathering at Assisi in 2011, with context and history about what the meetings there have meant. (video: Rome Reports/YouTube)

The promulgation of “Nostra Ætate” (“The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”) on 28 October 1965 committed the Catholic Church to dialogue with the great religious traditions in the world. The declaration was groundbreaking, in that the Catholic Church declared that it “rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these [non-Christian] religions” and called Catholics to “enter ... into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions.”

It’s worth looking at how that “discussion and collaboration” came out — and how it is being carried out to this day.

On Pentecost Sunday 1964, a year before the promulgation of “Nostra Ætate,” Pope Paul VI set up the Secretariat for Non-Christians whose work was “to promote mutual understanding, respect and collaboration between Catholics and the followers of other religious traditions.” In the decades since, that work has only deepened. As the Catholic Church became more sophisticated and deeply engaged in this dialogue, Pope John Paul II in 1988 restructured the Roman Curia (the central administration of the Catholic Church), creating the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID).

This stressed the importance of dialogue with other religions and expressed it more positively. As a result, no longer does the Catholic Church express its relationship to other religions as “non-Christians,” but sees the endeavor as more broadly conceived, attempting to understand the religions of the world on their own terms and not merely as “not us.”

In addition to maintaining bi-lateral dialogues with the great religious traditions of the world, the PCID encourages and promotes local dialogues. Three times a year it publishes “Pro Dialogo,” containing articles on theological topics related to inter religious dialogue; it also reports on the work of local dialogues throughout the year.

This work has entailed not only words, but also concrete actions. Three popes — John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis — have hosted major interfaith events in Assisi. At these gatherings, religious leaders from around the world gathered to reflect on the values they hold in common and on how they might work together for a more just add peaceful world. In addition, every year the Holy See sends out greetings to members of other religions — including Hindus, on the feast of Diwali (the festival of lights) in November and Muslims on ‘Eid ul Fitr — the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. Other religious traditions are included throughout the year, as well.

The PCID also has a special committee for relations with Muslims. The proximity of the two faiths and their often unfortunate histories together convinced the church to pay special attention to Islam. While the Holy See maintains diplomatic relations with many different Muslim majority countries, the PCID focuses primarily on religious issues. Recently, relations between the Catholic Church and Al Azhar University, perhaps the premier Sunni Muslim university in the world, were resumed with the hope of increased cooperation between Muslim and Catholic theologians and thinkers.

While the work of the PCID may seem remote to Catholics in general and also to CNEWA, nothing could be further from the truth. Catholics all over the world are increasingly encountering members of other religions. More and more, they are our neighbors. In the U.S., Europe and elsewhere mosques, Hindu mandirs (temples), Buddhist sanghas (religious communities), Sikh gurudwara (temples/centers) are becoming familiar fixtures in urban — and even rural — landscapes.

CNEWA works in the Middle East and southern India. In both regions, Christians are a minority surrounded by much larger religious communities — Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Good relations with these faiths in imperative. Often, members of these religions benefit from programs which CNEWA maintains.

Over the years the popes have stressed the importance of interreligious dialogue for the survival of the planet. The Catholic Church recognizes that centuries of interreligious conflict must be replaced by interreligious dialogue and understanding. Again and again popes have stressed that this not something added on to Catholicism but part and parcel of what it means to be Catholic.

1 February 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Pope Francis lights a candle during an interfaith peace gathering outside the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, on 20 September 2016. The pope and other religious leaders were attending a peace gathering marking the 30th anniversary of the first peace encounter. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)

The United Nations observes World Interfaith Harmony Week every year beginning on 1 February. Although the UN is not a religious organization, its primary concern is for peace in the world — and religion can help bring this about. While the claim that religion is the basis of all conflict in the world is unfair and untrue, neither is it true that religion plays no role in conflicts around the world. The Pew Research Center reports on the state of religions around the world clearly show that almost every part of the globe experiences some kind of conflict that has at very least a religious component. Religions consciously and unconsciously provide powerful symbols that intensify conflicts, demonize the Other and make compromises more difficult for all parties involved. While interfaith harmony would not solve all conflicts in the world, it would greatly alleviate many of them.

Interfaith harmony — and the lack thereof — is something CNEWA experiences every day in the countries where we work. The Middle East, for example, has been an arena for incredible sectarian violence with thousands of people — Christians, Yazidis, Shabak and others — being killed and literally millions being displaced. However, it is also the place where Muslim youths in Mosul helped clean up a Christian church damaged in the battle against ISIS. Both religious harmony and sectarian hatred exist in our world. During this week the UN wishes to remind the world of the importance of interfaith harmony for every person — religious or not — on the planet.

Although there have always been great and open spirits in the Catholic Church who respected and loved people who were not Christians — we need think only of St. Francis meeting with Sultan Malik al-Kamil during the 4th Crusade — the Church committed itself officially to working for interfaith harmony at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). On 28 October 1965 the decree Nostra Ætate (“In Our Times”) was promulgated. Officially known as the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, this short document made extraordinary advances. Noting that all religions attempt to address and provide answers to the great questions of human existence, it went on to declare: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions.” Further, it stated, the Church “urges her sons {sic} to enter ...into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions.”

The document speaks with great respect about Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. Recognizing centuries of conflict, vituperation and downright hatred that often existed between Christians, Muslims and Jews, the church called on all to forget the past, to strive for mutual understanding and to work together to “preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values.” With the declaration that not “all Jews indiscriminately at that time {the death of Jesus} nor Jews today, can be charged with crimes committed during his {[Christ’s} passion,” the Catholic Church thereby officially rejected the long-held claim that Jews were deicides, i.e. god killers, worthy of persecution and even hatred.

Great strides have been made in promoting interfaith understanding and harmony since that October day in 1965. Dialogues have been set up on international, national and local levels to help believers understand the Other, to promote cooperation and prevent conflict. Almost every Christian Church and every world religion is engaged in some type of dialogue and exchange.

Clearly there is still a great deal more to be done. However, the UN International Interfaith Harmony Week adds a special urgency to the interfaith endeavor. As mentioned earlier, the UN is not a religious organization. But this single week underlines the fact that interfaith harmony is not something which impacts only religious people; it is crucial for the very survival of a planet already wracked with too many conflicts with religious components.

25 January 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Pope Francis visits the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem in this 26 May 2014 file photo. The United Nations observes Holocaust Memorial Day this Saturday 27 January.
(photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano via EPA)

On 27 January every year, the UN observes Holocaust Memorial Day in memory of the millions of Jews who lost their lives in the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe. That singular event cast a long shadow over the 20th century and helped shape the very world that CNEWA serves. Significantly, it reminds us of our association’s work to uplift human dignity and aid those suffering from persecution of all kinds — part of our mission that continues in so many places today. Attention must be paid.

There are some things which non-Jews need to know about the UN observance. First, it is not the same as the Jewish , Yom Hashoah, “Day of the Holocaust,” which is observed every year on the 27th day of the Jewish month of Nisan (April/May), 13 days after the beginning of Passover. Because the Jewish calendar follows the moon, Yom Hashoah falls on a different day every year in the calendar used in the secular world. In 2018 Yom Hashoah falls on 12 April. The UN observance of Holocaust Memorial Day falls on the same day every year.

There needs to be another clarification for non-Jews. The Hebrew word , shô’ah, is commonly translated holocaust, which is derived from the Greek ὁλὁκαυστοç, holokaustos, which referred to a sacrifice which was completely burnt. The term appears in many translations of the Bible; see, for example Leviticus 17:9 “any man... among you who offers a holocaust or sacrifice....” The Hebrew word which “holocaust” is translating is , ‘olah — a sacrifice totally consumed by fire. Although the Hebrew words shô’ah and ‘olah are both translated into English as “holocaust,” the two should never be confused. ‘olah refers to a religious act; shô’ah means total, devastating destruction that has nothing to do with worshiping God.

The Shoah was a defining moment in the history of the West and, indeed, of the entire world. In Nazi Germany, the ideology of anti-Semitism was able to use modern technology in a demonically thorough way. Over six million Jews, an estimated two-thirds of the European Jewish community, were slaughtered in a Europe that considered itself “enlightened.” While many of the elements of the Shoah were and remain unique, the 20th century witnessed the invention of the word megadeath. In the 20th century millions of people were slaughtered because of who they were — Jews in Nazi Europe, Armenian and Assyrian Christians in the Ottoman Empire, opponents of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and others.

As it unfolded, the 20th century came to be seen by many as a time of great progress. The Shoah and other genocidal actions shocked the world out of its often self-righteous complacency. It was learned to our horror that progress is a two-edged sword. It can be used to improve peoples’ lives — or used to kill with an efficiency only the modern world could muster.

Pope Francis kisses the hand of a Holocaust survivor during a ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. (photo: CNS/Abir Sultan, EPA)

The Shoah forced Europe and European Christians to face centuries of anti-Semitism in culture, politics and even religion. Major figures such as Anne Frank, Corrie ten Boom, Elie Wiesel, Jules Isaac and others aroused the world’s conscience. Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, helped Jews escape the Nazi’s while he was stationed in Istanbul. Later as pope, he had a crucial encounter with the Jewish philosopher Jules Isaac, who wrote about the “teaching of contempt,” which Christians had used to dehumanize Jews for centuries. The experience of the horror of the Shoah was certainly in the background when Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). It was this council which produced the document Nostra Ætate (28 October 1965) which made it the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church that “neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time {i.e. the death of Jesus}, nor Jews today can be charged with the crimes committed during his {i.e. Jesus’} passion” (par. 4). The age-old accusation that Jews were deicides, or “God killers,” was rejected by the Catholic Church. Other churches soon followed suit.

We humans have short memories, however, and ancient pathologies, prejudices and hatreds have a tendency to resurface as if we had learned nothing. Both the Jewish observance of Yom Hashoah and the UN observance of Holocaust Memorial Day are not merely observances of past history. They are potent reminders of the depths to which we humans can sink at any time, and powerful calls to vigilance against that murderous hatred and bigotry which can erupt when we become indifferent and forgetful of the past.

18 January 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Pope Francis walks with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre on 25 May 2014, the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras. (photo: CNS/Abir Sultan, EPA)

One hundred ten years ago today (18 January 1908) the first Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was observed. Founded as the Church Unity Octave by the Rev. Paul Wattson, and initially observed only by the Friars and Sisters of the Atonement, the week was dedicated to prayer for the unity of a divided Christianity.

But just eight years later, in 1916, Pope Benedict XV extended the observance of the Week of Prayer to the entire Catholic Church.

Half a century later, with the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church committed itself fully to the ecumenical movement, the work of restoring unity between Christians.

In writing about this year’s observance of the Week of Prayer, I would like to reflect on some of results it has accomplished. Happily, these correspond to the work and mission of CNEWA, of which Father Paul was a co-founder.

Father Paul was always fascinated by the Churches of the East — both Catholic and Orthodox. After World War I Christians in the Middle East suffered greatly. In addition to the expected results of war — such as loss of life, destruction of property, famine and being driven from one’s home — something new was happening. In the lands which had been part of the defeated Ottoman Empire, Christians — Armenians, Assyrians and others — were targeted for extermination.

In a perverse way, the persecution of Christians was “ecumenical.” It made no difference if one were Orthodox or Catholic, all Christians were slated for extermination. The persecutors ironically grasped the unity between Christians better than did the Christians themselves.

In this situation, Father Paul saw CNEWA as a way to help Christians in the Middle East survive. It came at a moment of great division. In the early 20th century, relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches were far from good. At the time of the first observance of the Week of Prayer, Orthodox and Catholic Churches in the Middle East — separated since 1054 by mutual excommunications — barely communicated and deeply distrusted each other.

But from that period of hostility and division, what has been achieved in the last 110 years through prayer and dialogue is truly remarkable — and, even, inspiring.

One of the most amazing changes since 1908 has been in relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. On an institutional level, Vatican II set the Catholic Church on a path of dialogue with the Orthodox churches. The encounter between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in the Holy Land on 6 January 1964 began a tradition of genuine friendship between the Bishop of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople. A year after the encounter in the Holy Land, on 7 December 1965, Pope Paul VI in Rome and Patriarch Athenagoras in Constantinople solemnly proclaimed that the mutual excommunications of 1054 were rescinded.

This work has born abundant good fruit. The Holy See and the Phanar (the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople) exchange high level visits twice a year. Catholic and Orthodox theologians work together and meet regularly, attempting to overcome theological differences between the two churches.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew, who can be described as friends, have worked together on issues such as Christian responsibility for the planet. The pope’s encyclical Laudato Si’ on the environment was written with input from Orthodox theologians and both the pope and patriarch have spoken in unison about the importance of the issue.

In the Middle East, where CNEWA works, the situation for Christians has become dire. Both Catholic and Orthodox Christians face the real possibility of extinction in the lands where Christianity was born. Pope Francis speaks of “the ecumenism of blood” in which Christians find themselves thrown together, persecuted not because they are Orthodox or Catholic, but because they are all Christians. The experience in the Middle East has led the churches to a deep realization that what they have in common is far deeper than that which divides them.

As we begin the 110th observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the challenges facing us are admittedly daunting. However, by reflecting on how things have changed since 1908 between Catholics and Orthodox (as well as Catholics and Protestants), we are filled with encouragement and hope.

There are signs that this annual Week of Prayer really has made a difference among those who call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ.

11 January 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

This version of a 19th engraving by an unknown artist shows a traveler putting his head under the edge of the firmament, depicting the gap between the earth and the heavens. The movement of the earth through the heavens continues to guide the Church’s seasons. (photo: Wikipedia Commons)

At the start of the new year, we all start following a new calendar, as Earth charts another course around the sun. It’s a good opportunity to look at how the Church marks the year — and that can get complicated.

For the Catholic Church and many other churches in the West, the liturgical year is divided into several sections or “seasons.” Two great seasons dominate the year. In order of chronological appearance, the first great season is the just-concluded Advent-Christmas Season, which runs from the First Sunday of Advent until the Feast of the Epiphany. The second — but more important — season is the Lenten-Easter Season, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends the day after Pentecost Sunday. Although Sundays between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, and from the day after Pentecost until the First Sunday of Advent, once had different names, those Sundays are all now referred to as “Ordinary Time.”

As is the case with so many things we humans consider “ordinary” or “normal,” a closer look at world-wide Christianity reveals that “ordinary” and “normal” really mean “how we do it” and not “how everyone does it.” This is certainly the case with the Christian calendar. The difference in observances and traditions begins in the Christmas season. For example, while most Christians in the West celebrate the birth of Jesus on 25 December, Armenian Orthodox celebrate it on 6 January and many Orthodox Churches celebrate it on 7 January.

But the differences become more noticeable and important when it comes to the celebration of Easter.

After centuries of discussions and arguments on when to calculate the date for Easter, the Western Church opted to celebrate it on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox (the beginning of spring). The problem arose from the fact that the existing Julian calendar estimated the year to be 365 days and 6 hours long. The calculations, while good for the time, were off; the year is really 10 minutes and 48 seconds shorter than the Julian calendar reckoned.

Of course, that did not make a great difference at first. But over centuries it made a big difference. By the time of Pope Gregory XIII (1582), the vernal equinox, the first day of spring, was falling on 11 March and not 21 March. Pope Gregory moved to reform the way we calculate our days, and instituted what we now call the Gregorian calendar. On 24 February 1582, the new calendar was inaugurated and 10 days were just dropped.

Even though it was far more accurate than the Julian calendar, the Gregorian calendar was not immediately accepted around the world. That fact that it came from Christians made is suspect to some non-Christians; the fact that it came from the pope, made it suspect to non-Catholics, both Protestant and Orthodox who were not about to let the pope of Rome tell them what to do.

What this means is that in many, if not most, of the countries where CNEWA serves, Catholic and Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter (and to some extent Christmas) on different days.

Eventually the entire world took over the Gregorian calendar. Other cultural and religious calendars like the Muslim, Jewish, Iranian, Chinese, etc. remained. The Gregorian calendar. however, became standard for all “secular” transactions.

But then there’s Easter. The calculation of Easter is, however, most definitely not a secular transaction. As a result, the Orthodox churches, existing in countries which accept the Gregorian calendar, nevertheless continue to use the Julian calendar to calculate Easter. Since the vernal equinox is central to the calculation, the problem is that the two calendars have different times for it. The Gregorian calendar, as we noted, has the first day of spring on 20 or 21 of March. The Julian calendar has it 13 days earlier and it gets earlier ever year. By 2100 the Julian first day of spring will be 14 days earlier than the Gregorian.

So once again, what is “normal” is normal for us and not normal for others.

The problem of Christians celebrating Easter at different times — sometimes almost a month apart — is seen by some as a sign of disunity among Christians (it is) and a weakening of Christian witness to the Resurrection (it might be) to the non-Christian world. As a result, there have been several recent attempts to “normalize” Easter Sunday so that Christians all over the world might celebrate it on the same day. Still, despite support from popes and patriarchs, the attempt has met with mixed success at best. Consensus has been impossible to achieve. Easter still awaits a unified date.

For Catholics, “Ordinary Time” in 2018 began on 7 January. Recognizing that what is ordinary for us is not ordinary for all Christians provides us with an ecumenical challenge. Instead of “ordinary” here being ho-hum, run of the mill, it can provide us with a challenge — a challenge all the more important since the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity runs from 18-25 January. Ordinary time — by the very fact that it is not “ordinary” — thus challenges us to work together so that once again Christians all over the world can celebrate the Resurrection of the one Lord on the same day.

4 January 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

A mosaic depicting the adoration of the Magi in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo dates to the sixth century. (photo: CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The feast of the Epiphany, also known at the feast of the Three Kings and Twelfth Night, officially brings the Christmas season to a close this weekend — but in many of the places CNEWA serves, particularly those with deep Orthodox and Byzantine roots, it is just as grand a feast as Christmas, with distinct traditions and celebrations.

The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek ἐπιφαίνω (epi-phaino), which means “to shine forth, manifest, reveal.” The feast celebrates the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, which is recounted only in the Gospel of Matthew — and even there, with very little detail. Despite the traditions that have grown up around the feast, Matthew does not tell us who these visitors are, where they came from other than “from the East,” or even how many there were. Christian tradition has “filled in the blanks” for 2,000 years and has had as many as 14 visitors, coming from all over Asia and Africa (which is not “from the East”) and even given them different names. Ultimately in the West, Christians settled on the number three because of the number of gifts. San Apolinare Nuovo, a sixth-century church in Ravenna, Italy, has a magnificent mosaic of three Magi, named Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar, indicating that the tradition was beginning to solidify at least in the West just a few hundred years after the time of Christ.

For Matthew, who is writing primarily for Jewish converts to Christianity, it is important to stress the universal mission of the Messiah born in Bethlehem. Regardless of how many there were or where they came from, it is absolutely clear that the Magi are Gentiles. In Matthew’s Gospel the Gentiles are among the first to recognize Jesus. For Matthew the visit of the exotic strangers is truly an epiphany in that the true person and mission of Jesus “shines forth” and reveals itself. Jesus is not merely the hoped for Messiah who has come to save the Jews, but he is also the “shining forth,” the revelation of God’s Son to the entire world, Jew and Gentile alike.

Many local traditions have grown up around the feast of the Epiphany. In many Latin countries, the visit of the Three Kings is celebrated with parades and gift giving. In German villages, there is often a procession through the town. The pastor, accompanied by three children dressed as “Magi,” goes through the town blessing the homes. As each home is blessed, the letters C M B and the year are written in chalk over the main door of the house. The letters C M B stand not only for Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar but also for Christus Mansionen Benedicat — “may Christ bless the house.”

Liturgically since very ancient times, the Epiphany and the end of the Advent-Christmas season was seen as part of a series of epiphanies. The Gospel readings at the eucharistic celebration immediately following the feast of the Epiphany have traditionally dealt with the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan and the Marriage Feast at Cana.

The Gospel accounts of the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan are found in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and each recounts a voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be the “Beloved Son.” In all the Gospel accounts, including John, a voice from heaven and the descent of the Spirit in the form of a dove form an epiphany, a revelation of who Jesus is and what his mission is.

The Wedding at Cana appears only in the Gospel of John (2:1-12) and is also an epiphany. At the end of the account of Jesus turning the water into wine, the evangelist comments: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee and manifested (ἐφανέρωσεν from φαίνω, “to shine forth, manifest”) his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

In sum, this period after Christmas is a time of light and revelation — and, really, three epiphanies.

The first epiphany is what we traditionally refer to as “the Epiphany” and is the shining forth of Jesus as a “light of revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32). The second epiphany at the Jordan reveals Jesus as the Beloved Son of the Father and the third and last epiphany of the season is the revelation of Jesus as the worker of might deeds and miracles at Cana.

Thus by the end of the Christmas season the Church through the liturgy not only proclaims that Christ was born in Bethlehem, but also teaches who he is and what his mission is.

Tags: Christianity Christian

21 December 2017
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

The adoration of the Magi is depicted in this icon by artist Ayman Fayez. The observance and celebration of Christmas vary around the world, with some places putting greater emphasis on Epiphany, and the visit of the Three Kings. (photo: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Christmas is the most beloved feast in the Christian calendar. We see this again and again throughout the world CNEWA serves, with varying traditions and customs in different regions. This is true even if it is not the most important feast — which is, of course, Easter.

It’s interesting to compare and contrast these two feasts and how they are observed.

Christmas and Easter differ in many interesting ways, beginning with the date.The entire church year revolves around Easter, which is the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring. Although it is always a Sunday, it can occur on any date between the first and second full moon of spring. The reason for this is that it is known that Jesus died on Friday the 13 or 14 of Nisan in the Jewish calendar. Christmas, on the other hand, is always on the 25th of December. The date for Christmas, on the other hand, is arbitrary, since nowhere in the Bible is it mentioned on which day or even month Jesus was born. The December date for Christmas was probably chosen to replace the Roman Saturnalia and other pagan celebrations which greeted the “return” of the invincible sun (sol invictus) after the winter solstice.

The feasts also differ in their liturgical observance. The liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil are unique and occur only once a year, but the liturgy at Christmas is really no different from that of any major feast with its own readings and prayers.

Then there are scriptural differences. The events of Holy Week and Easter are recounted in each of the four Gospels and echo throughout the entire New Testament. The conception and birth of Jesus, however, appear only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and are quite different from each other.

Matthew, for example, has the story about the visit of the Magi, the massacre of the innocent children and the flight into Egypt. This Gospel also mentions that the Magi visited the Holy Family in a house (ὀικία Matthew 2:11).

Luke, on the other hand, makes no mention of the Magi, the massacre or the flight into Egypt. For Luke, the fact that Jesus is lying in a manger (φάτνη Luke 2:7, 12) is a “sign” to the shepherds in the field at the time of the birth.

Perhaps because of the varying accounts in the Gospels, Christmas is much more open to creative expression and observance. That is perhaps one reason why it is celebrated so differently around the world. In some parts of the Western Church the emphasis is strongly on 25 December; in other parts of the West, the focus is placed on the Epiphany, the feast of “Three Kings.” But were there really just three? Matthew does not say how many Magi visited the Holy Family — over the centuries, the tradition has been as high as fourteen! — but, the number three has become standard for the simple reason that there were three gifts. No one came empty-handed.

The very “openness” of Christmas to attract to itself new and different traditions is sometimes lamented and even condemned. While things certainly can get out of hand, for the most part, the “adaptability” of Christmas is, I believe, very much in line with what this great feast is about.

Christmas is the celebration of our belief that the Eternal Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, became human, i.e. “one (tested) like us in all things but sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Over the centuries some Christians have attempted to deny the full humanity of Jesus and hold that he only “appeared to be human.” The Church has always rejected that but has not always appreciated its full meaning. As the feast celebrating the humanity of the Word of God, Christmas shares in all those things which are human — diversity, adaptation, change, a certain unpredictability, even messiness. If Christmas is, in a sense, the most physical and bodily feast of the Christian calendar, that is because it is supposed to be precisely that — the celebration that God has taken on our nature, our physicality in all things but sin.

The Eternal Word was made flesh — and that is what Christmas is about.

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