Friday, March 31, 2023

Rough Month for the Forsythia

Having visited the forsythia bushes in my neighborhood (not just my own), the consensus seems to be that they have had a rough month. Crazy March 2023 –– “wow, it’s warm, let’s open up!” … “woah, freezing, we’re shriveling!” … “it’s HOT now, how nice…no, COLD!” Our favorite yellow flowers look a bit tired this Spring. They have muddled through, but I don’t think they “feel” very pretty.๐ŸŒผ๐ŸŒฟ๐ŸŒฆ☁️๐ŸŒฅ๐ŸŒพ

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

And The Winner is… China?

Allow me, for a moment, to engage in a bit of “fantasy-politics,” to make some sweeping generalizations about recent political events. They are connected to the ongoing war in Ukraine, and the increasing desperation and intransigence of the Kremlin in Moscow. We know much about the Kremlin’s tragic, self-inflated ambitions and the consequent injuries they continue to inflict on invaded Ukraine and Russia itself. But recently another agent appears to be entering the scene whose motives are more obscure. Therefore, I will employ rhetoric that paints a picture with a broad brush, in fantastic colors. We live in strange times, and we can hardly make them stranger by giving space to the imagination as we wonder about the optics of what happened last week.

First let us recall that, for centuries, nations and their proud leaders have tried to conquer Moscow. The Poles. The Swedes. Napoleon. Hitler. They have all failed, after lengthy and terrible battles.

Yet last week a very ordinary looking man in a business suit took the great Russian city and put it in his pocket in only three days. He did it without firing a shot. In fact, he didn’t even have to invade, because another man—who fancies himself the Tsar of “all the Russias” (including those who deny being part of Russia, who are internationally recognized independent nations)—invited the conqueror to come.

Ah yes, “the man in the business suit.” He seems like such a nice man.

I do not know what he wants for his country, other than power—stupendous power. He speaks about his desire to build a harmonious, moderately-prosperous society in a harmonious, interdependent world. He may have some very interesting ideas (remember, we’re still doing fantasy-politics here). Sometimes he seems like a “visionary,” a man with a Dream—a new proposal not only for his own people[s] but for the entire world order. Soon (if not now), he may be able to claim to be most powerful man on earth. He has ruled over one-fifth of the world’s population for over a decade (with no end in sight), and he has endured some crises during that time that would have defeated other less-focused, less self-confident leaders.

Of course, there is a “Dark Side” to this new political “Force.” He certainly prefers persuasion and consensus with willing allies for the growth of his dream. But since humans can be stubborn, he is willing to let the multitudinous forces under his command use other means: there is plenty of the ancient bureaucratic corruption and bribery, along with innovative 21st century techniques such as technological theft and social surveillance. Above all, his minions enforce obsessive restrictions on any kind of information (and people) that might disturb the existential slumber of 1.5 billion “patriotic dreamers” and/or others who go-with-the-flow while pursuing their own personal dreams of upward mobility and wealth. Groups who cause trouble are “re-educated,” using what one might call vigorous pedagogical techniques that our “man-in-the-business-suit” prefers not to share with the rest of the world. He is, after all, making enormous omelets in an unprecedentedly gigantic and unwieldy frying pan. Lots of “eggs get broken” in this messy process: large eggs, huge eggs, eggs as big as entire cultural, linguistic, and religious minority groups—into the Brave New Omelet they go… or into the trash.

The Russian Tsar Vladimir “Vlad-the-Bad” Putin is placing more weight on what he thinks is an alliance of sorts with the man-in-the-business-suit. But our man has a plan, a very, very big plan, and he regards Putin and Russia as a useful part of his plan. He has proven to be a brilliant opportunist whenever it becomes possible to integrate other nations into his plan (all for the sake of “harmony,” of course). Most people in the West don’t know his name, or—if they have seen it—they can’t pronounce it.

China’s current claimant of the Mandate of Heaven (“Leninist Heaven,” ironically) is Xi Jinping (SHEE jin-PING), and he is not a stupid man. That much can certainly be said. He has maneuvered himself into a lifetime grip on all the most important offices in China’s complicated and obtuse PartyState. Head of the Party, head of the “State” it controls, head of the Peoples Liberation Army, Xi has monopolized power in China in a way not seen since Mao Zedong. Yet he is very different from Mao; Xi is a ruthless practical idealist whereas Mao was an inflexible (and simplistic) ideologue, a tenacious guerrilla war leader and an ingenious manipulator of his collaborators, while also being a colossal megalomaniac prone to vast impractical visions—catastrophically so for countless millions of Chinese people who suffered under a quarter-century of his dysfunctional rule. The “beliefs” of Mao and Xi also seem to differ. Mao believed in Communism, revolution, and—above all—the quasi-divine status of himself. Xi is more humble (though it doesn’t take much to be more humble than Chairman Mao, the Great Helmsman, the Red-Sun-Rising-in-the-East).

Xi wears “Communism” lightly. He advocates for socialism, but what he really wants is a kind of “National Socialism” (of course, he doesn’t use this Nazi-tinged term, nor the similarly discredited “fascism”). Instead he calls it “Socialism-With-Chinese-Characteristics.” There is little left here of Lenin’s class-struggling, world-revolutionary Marxism led by an international Communist Party “vanguard.” What remains, however, are Lenin’s techniques for seizing and holding onto a kind of political power that invades every aspect of human life, and the multi-layered pervasive political organization (the Party) that “plans” the direction of national life, enforces a unified “party line,” and uses fanatical surveillance to crush—or at least marginalize—any kind of wider examination and discussion, sincere “constructive” criticism, and certainly dissent from the party line. 

Another Leninist standard that remains is utter lack of transparency regarding intra-Party activities: decision-making in secret. This doesn’t help us to understand what Xi’s real program is all about. We are required to distill some ideas from his actions, public speeches and writings, and propaganda. Xi is not looking to “conquer the world.” What he aspires to—it seems—is to reconstruct in the 21st century the legendary China as the center of the world, a China of widespread “moderate prosperity” for all its citizens that will be exemplary and honored everywhere, possessing powerful “influence” and connections in the development and economic endeavors of many nations, receiving gratitude and “given face” (this particularly East Asian sense of visible stature) from the rest of the world. And, of course, doing unhindered and lucrative business everywhere.

This is what many China-watchers surmise about Xi Jinping’s China Dream. The steps to achieving the dream require us to speculate, or else to listen to the Chinese Communist Party’s explanations of what it is trying to do. The problem here is that we are far from confident that in this realm the CCP has given up one of the most fundamental Leninist principles: LYING. Of course, every government lies when it deems it “necessary.” But history has never before seen anything like the systemic structure of lies that are woven into the very fabric of Communist parties. Xi Jinping is a creature of this structure. His words are subtle, to say the least.

This is why I think Xi’s most recent diplomatic visit to his struggling Russian “friend” Vladimir Putin in Moscow was a big win for the advancement of the China Dream. Notwithstanding China’s verbose “peace plan” (which distracted the West but scored leadership points with the many unaligned nations of the global south), the visit had little to do with the war in Ukraine. It was a publicity visit, large on glitter and show by the Russian host but small on perceivable content offered by the Chinese guest. The two countries have been trying to build a “comprehensive partnership” in recent years (especially since 2014, when Russia fell out with the West over the invasion and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine).

Obviously, Putin needs his new Asian partner more than ever these days. He needs to build back credibility with the Chinese, who are annoyed by this war that was supposed to take five days but is still raging after a year. The Chinese want global stability. They will not help Putin escalate a war that has exposed Russian military incompetence by giving him more weapons that will only make things worse. They wince at Putin’s nuclear threats. China also wants a stable, functional Ukraine to trade with and include in its future plans to connect with the rest of Europe. Making peace between Russia and Ukraine (and the West) is probably beyond China’s mediating powers at present, but it looks good for them to at least make a show of trying. 

Putin has more pressing needs from Xi right now. Sanctioned by the West, Russia needs to sell its abundant natural gas and China is buying it—at bargain prices. China is also stepping in to provide consumer products to Russia which will help make up somewhat for the absence of Western trade. Then the two countries have “common projects” in Eastern Russia as well: projects to tap into natural resources there. These were all matters of discussion that filled up pages of common statements at the most recent meeting. Putin was grateful that Xi was willing to stand with him on the global stage and treat him like something more than a disgraced world leader. For his part, Xi made no special promises other than glowing affirmations of “special friendship.”

All these circumstances have added up to Xi and the Chinese getting “lots of face” in the global village.

Xi wants to play (or at least appear to play) the role of peacemaker, a role China apparently carried off with such recent success in brokering a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Indeed, Xi aspires to make China a global diplomatic powerhouse, which complements well his plans to continue constructing the “new Silk Road” linking China across Central Asia to markets in Europe and Africa. This includes massive building and infrastructure projects in Central Asia (including several former Soviet republics), and Xi wanted to make it clear that these countries do not have a place in Putin’s hopes to restore a “Greater Russia” such as that which prevailed during the Soviet-era rule in those nations. Putin may mourn the collapse of the Soviet Union, but he cannot bring it back. Indeed, it is being clarified that Central Asia is no longer part of the wider Russian “sphere of influence.” The Chinese now have not only the claim and the investments, but also the leverage against their weakening Russian partners. China is the new influencer in the region.

Then, to the north, lies Russia’s access to ports on the increasingly navigable Arctic Ocean. Xi wants more freedom to use those arctic ports, and stake a few [or more than a few] claims on the vast riches of the region. Russia and China have been collaborating on a project to access liquid natural gas in Siberia, focusing on the arctic port city of Yamal. China has built a large (controlling?) presence in Yamal, but at their recent meeting Xi had to inform his friend Vladimir that the Chinese would have to “suspend” plans to help build a Siberian natural gas pipeline (which doesn’t prevent shipping Yamal’s LNG all over the world, which the Chinese would be glad to do). Working on a big infrastructure project with Russia right now is “problematic.” This is because Xi’s grand plans also require collaboration with Western friends (or, at least “frenemies”) and he cannot afford to brazenly ignore Western sanctions against Russia. Since their friendship is so “special,” Xi is confident that Putin will understand the delicate position that China is in right now (or if not, Putin will just have to swallow it—and he might as well get used to it, because he’ll have to take what he can get in the future from China).

The shift in Putin’s position of influence here is subtle. But one could see it as an example of “losing face.”

The Russia-China partnership is evolving in such a way that Russia increasingly finds itself the “junior partner” that may be required to depend even more on China if the war in Ukraine goes on.  That’s not exactly what one would call a “conquest,” but it is a material advantage that—in the increasingly wild world of the 21st century—may prove more efficient and lucrative for an ancient land that dreams anew of being “the center of the world” in the near future.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

“Play Ball!” 2023

A new baseball season begins on Thursday. I watched the final exhibition game of Spring Training, with the Nationals (just returned from Florida) playing the Yankees.

Put on a baseball game, and I forget I’m 60 years old. There is some kind of “magic” about those players in uniform, even if some of them are younger than my son (and even if they’re the 2023 Nats๐Ÿ˜œ). There is something “contemplative” about watching them make this subtle, precise, multifaceted physical-and-mental game unfold on the field. It seems to “connect me” to all the periods of my life.

Baseball is still the same game, with all its fascinating particulars, with all the “sounds” and motions and combination of skill and luck that I remember when I was 10 years old (and when John Paul was 10 years old). God willing, I’ll be able to enjoy it with Maria and/or other grandchildren in the future (just as I did with my grandfather and my father).⚾️

And it always comes with the beginning of Spring, which is starting to bud and bloom all around us.๐ŸŒฟ๐ŸŒธ

Sunday, March 26, 2023

He Restores Life to Us

From Pope Francis’s Angelus Message, with regard to the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent—the “Raising of Lazarus.”

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Annunciation: Celebrating the “Yes” of Mary

Happy Feast of the Annunciation!!!

Today marks nine months before Christmas, and is a SOLEMNITY in the midst of Lent. The Church’s liturgy in the Roman rite uses white instead of purple, the “Gloria” is sung, everything! (except the “A**lu*” that waits for Easter). Tomorrow, with the raising of Lazarus, we begin the journey with Jesus toward his public entry into Jerusalem and the great events of His suffering and death and resurrection. Today, we rejoice in Jesus in His wondrous human origin: in the unimaginable outpouring of God’s gratuitous love, in the silence of Mary’s Immaculate Heart, in her unlimited assent through which God gave us the fullness of the gift of Himself. 

The Word became flesh in the womb of a woman who said "Yes." So CELEBRATE on this beautiful day. 

(“Annunciation Scene” from the materials of the Montessori-inspired Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.)

Friday, March 24, 2023

Saint Oscar Romero, Archbishop and Martyr (March 24, 1980)

Today is the 43rd anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador in the small but greatly afflicted Central American nation of El Salvador. The world has changed in so many ways since that day, yet his witness and the hope he inspired are more relevant than ever, not only for “the Americas”—North, Central, and South—but for the whole world. St Oscar Romero, pray for us.

From a homily of Archbishop Romero in 1979: “The voice of the Church continues to be known and wants to be the voice that preaches the eternal message of the Lord. Despite the distortions and ill-will and slanders and defamation the voice of the Church wants to be that voice that from the heights of heaven draws all things unto herself so that we can speak about the meaning of death and life, the meaning of government and the struggle for just demands, the meaning of well-being and misery and living on the margins of society and the meaning of sin. The Church wants to speak about all these realities so that, illuminated with the vision of eternity, we make this earth what it was meant to be, a foretaste of heaven and not a war zone or a place where passions run wild. Indeed, as sisters and brothers, as children of God, we are all on a journey toward heaven, toward [Christ] the head of the body.”

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

“He Removes Our Transgressions…”

"As far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us" (Psalm 103:12).

Monday, March 20, 2023

Joseph May Not Have Thought What We Think He Thought

This is one of the most widely read (or at least “visited”) posts in the long history of the Never Give Up blog. Since the content never gets old, I like to run it again from time to time, especially when we read the one text in the New Testament that gives us some idea of the perspective of Saint Joseph when he was first called to play his unique role in God’s plan of salvation. 

This text from the first chapter of Matthew was the Gospel reading for today’s feast. How are we to understand it? Clearly, in the beginning, Joseph is… well… “perplexed” by the fact of Mary’s pregnancy. But what was actually his difficulty, and why was he “afraid”? I always have preferred (and used to teach in my classes) one ancient way of reading this text that was not the predominant interpretation, but which casts the whole series of events in a much different light. Many features of the original Greek favor this theory, moreover, and it is steadily gaining popularity among biblical exegetes. 

In this interpretation, Joseph never has the slightest doubt about Mary’s total innocence, nor of the miraculous origin of the child she is bearing. So, what is he thinking? What actually troubles him? And what exactly does the angel indicate and clarify in Joseph’s dream? The text may in fact be giving an account that is much more wonderful than the “standard” one that so many of us have assumed in the past. The account we will set forth seems more fitting to the greatness of this singularly important saint, and more connected to his specific vocation within the Holy Family.

Thus once again I present, for your reading (or rereading) consideration, this bloggy "digest" of some of my old undergraduate lecture material, entitled "Joseph May Not Have Thought What We Think He Thought." Happy Saint Joseph’s Day!


Everyone is familiar with the Gospel reading from today's liturgy. It was all about Jesus being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary... from the perspective of St. Joseph. We think we know what is going on in this passage, but perhaps we assume too much:
"When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins'" (Matthew 1:18-21).
Ah yes, that "touchy" little situation.

Thus we are introduced to St. Joseph, and the testimony of Divine Revelation to this greatest of saints after Mary herself is largely contained in these first two chapters of Matthew (along with some references in Luke 1-2). Indeed, this is one of his most important moments; it is the moment upon which his vocation is founded. What do we learn about him in this passage?

Perhaps it is something a little different from what we initially think. For a person like me, this story might enter into my mind and get mixed around and end up sounding something like this (note well -- the actual words of the Scripture are in bold type; the rest is JJ's imagination coloring in the details):
Joseph her husband, when he realized that Mary must of been... well... unfaithful to their betrothal (which really surprised him since Mary had been so completely, astonishingly, immaculately good up until then) since he was a righteous man, yet [YET?] unwilling to expose her to shame, (in other words he was "righteous" but he wasn't like "crazy righteous" -- the Law said an adulterous wife should be stoned to death [see Deuteronomy 22], but he decided to ignore the Law and let it slide because he was a nice guy,) decided to divorce her quietly. (Mary had this story about an angel and a miracle and the Holy Spirit, but as Joseph himself said in Zeffirelli's movie Jesus of Nazareth [and he must have said it, because we saw it], "That's too much for any man to believe!" But still, he was a nice guy so he was willing to break it off quietly.)Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David [why did he call him that?], do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. [PERIOD! That means the angel finishes his sentence here. Then he takes a deep breath and continues with the next sentence...For (in other words, after have taken his deep breath, the angel proceeds to explain to Joseph what really happened, setting the record straight that Mary was telling the truth after all) it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." At which point Joseph goes <FACEPALM> "If I had known, O angel, that Mary was really bearing the Messiah, the Son of God, in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit, I would never have 'divorced her quietly'! Oh no, I would have taken her into my home and taken upon myself the earthly responsibilities of fatherhood for... you know... God Incarnate...."
Okay, JJ... enough snarkiness. What's the point? Well, the point here is that if I step back and examine what seems to be the common sense interpretation of this text, it starts to raise all sorts of problems. There's not a whole lot of bold type in that long paragraph. I have to make a lot of assumptions, which is not unreasonable since these assumptions are generally made even by theologians (generally, but not universally, and -- as we shall see -- there is good reason for a different reading).

The interpretation fills in details that are precisely not mentioned in the text, but that seem necessary to make sense of it. The thinking is that Joseph is divorcing Mary for infidelity, and he is assuming that her pregnancy is a result of that infidelity (maybe she tried to explain it and he didn't believe her, or maybe she said nothing because of humility, in which case he still must have been somewhat flustered). He is a "just man," so he's not interested in getting revenge against the perpetrator, nor does he want to "press charges" according to the Law, but he also has no intention of covering the whole matter up by taking her in as his wife and presenting himself as the child's father. Then the angel appears to him and tells him not to be afraid to marry Mary because she is innocent and the child has been conceived by a miracle. The child, in fact, is the Savior. Problem solved. The marriage is back on.

Problem solved? On closer inspection, maybe not. Actually we have several problems here. The underlying problem is that we interpret this whole event based on a presupposition that is not in the text. In fact, a closer look at the text reveals that our presupposition (that Joseph is divorcing Mary because he thinks she's pregnant by human agency) is not supported; indeed, the implications lead in another direction entirely.

What I'm presenting here is theological and exegetical opinion, which has been much more precisely expressed by theologians and biblical exegetes (such as, for example, John McHugh, in his fascinating book The Mother of Jesus in the New Testament [1975] and Giorgio Buccellati, longtime professor of Ancient Near Eastern studies at UCLA [see e.g. "The Prophetic Dimension of Joseph," Communio, Spring 2006] -- just so you know that my ramblings here are backed by scholarly heavyweights). Scott Hahn refers to the two opinions on this text as the Suspicion Theory (Joseph thinks Mary committed adultery until the angel reveals otherwise) and the Reverence Theory (which is... well, let's see). Scott himself doesn't "take sides" here, but (to my reading) he also leans in the direction of the latter theory (see The Gospel of Matthew, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, p. 18).

That will have to suffice for scholarly "apparatus" in what is a decidedly non-scholarly blog post. JJ just wants to outline why he now sees this event in a different light, not only because it makes more sense, but also because St. Joseph is his homeboy. (Really, I don't know where I'd be without him.)

Let's take a closer look at this text. Mary "was found with child through the Holy Spirit." What does this mean? Exactly what it says (also in the Greek). Before Joseph took Mary into his home, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Once again, note well that does not say that she was "found with child and claimed that the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit." We might assume that the point here is that Mary was "found with child" and that Matthew just adds the Holy Spirit parenthetically. Is this assumption warranted? Let's examine further and see if we really need these invisible parentheses.

Clearly, Mary is with child and Joseph wants to end the relationship. He has no choice but to divorce Mary, since the betrothal is already a binding legal commitment. But he doesn't want to "bring shame" upon her (stoning to death and all that), so he decides to do it "quietly." And all of these assumptions hinge on Joseph being a "just" or "righteous" man, which means that he is a man devoted to the Law (hence divorce) who is simultaneously a man willing to set the Law aside (hence "quietly").


The quiet divorce is something of a head-scratcher. Our lectionary translation gives us something that is appropriately bumbling: "Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly." Since? Yet? He was righteous, but...? And while we're at it, let's look at this term that Matthew decides to toss in here: dikaios. This is Greek for the Hebrew saddiq. Such a title is not awarded lightly in the Scriptures. This is a profound and full sense of righteousness, such as is attributed to Noah and Abraham. This is the kind of "justice" out of which radical foundations can be made. Here is Joseph the Righteous.

And Matthew has introduced this term to explain to us (while also confusing us further) the reason why Joseph decided to be kind and merciful to his adulterous wife? Assuming that there's some wiggle room in the Law for this kind of arrangement (and we all assume this, of course), it would seem that a decent man could take this road without much heroic virtue. It hardly requires the righteousness of Noah or Abraham to walk away from an unfaithful spouse, without obligations and with a spotless reputation. The betrothed woman is allowed to live. We assume (again) that the "quiet" will succeed in smoothing over the situation for everybody, whereas in fact it refers only to refraining from filing a public charge. In such circumstances, the woman is still socially disgraced and even cast out of home and family, shamed for the rest of her life. It's not like she can go abroad for a year, have the baby, and then come back with nobody knowing anything about it. This is not the Hamptons. This is a Palestinian village. In 4 b.c. Everybody knows everything. As for Joseph? Not his problem anymore.

But, Matthew tells us, Joseph is not the average man who wants to cut his losses and get out of town. He is saddiq. He is just. He is righteous. The angel in the dream does not rebuke him nor cause some great moral conversion. Joseph is already the quintessential steadfast man. Still, given what we assume to be his understanding, he's not doing anything "wrong." (Or is he being shifty with the Law? Isn't there a better way? Oh gosh what a mixup!)

What's wrong with this picture?

Perhaps we can keep all these human assumptions (as many, but not all, church fathers and many, but not all, interpreters have) and still squeeze it all together and make it fit. It's all a big misunderstanding that the angel clears up, to our great relief, by telling Joseph the truth.

If only Joseph had known from the start that Mary had conceived by the Holy Spirit, then it would have been.... ? What "would it have been"? What if?

Consider this possibility: What if Mary told Joseph about the Annunciation, and Joseph did believe her? What if Joseph, the righteous man, totally, totally believed her?

Here also, we are assuming (or hypothesizing) something that the text doesn't come right out and state. But why do we assume that it didn't happen this way? There is nothing implausible about this communication between these particularly extraordinary betrothed spouses. I would think that Joseph would be the first person she would tell. What we do know of Mary from the Gospels indicates that she was humble and obedient, yes, but not timid. She was also practical.

This was something Joseph needed to know. I see no reason why Mary would not have told him the whole thing, right away.

And how far have we really departed from the text in "assuming" this? Matthew 1:18 says "she was found with child through the Holy Spirit." Matthew is giving us Joseph's perspective here (is any other person mentioned?). So who "found" out that she was "with child"? Joseph. And how did he find out? Mary told him. Is it possible that what Joseph "found" was that Mary was "with child through the Holy Spirit"?

"But, but..." we might say, "if he had known, there wouldn't have been any thought of divorce, right?"

On the contrary. In these circumstances we have precisely what we need to make sense of the "quiet 'divorce' of the 'just man'" -- this is where lots of pieces fall into place in a way that I find compelling. It is precisely at this point that Matthew tells us that Joseph is saddiq, that he is righteous with that sense of awe and wonder at the mystery of God; in fact he is one in a million, the man to whom the Lord had already entrusted His most magnificent creation: the Immaculate Virgin Mary. But what has Mary just told him? She has been "overshadowed" by the Most High and has now become, in a new way, the dwelling place of the Holy One. (When Mary asked the angel, "How?" in Luke 1, she got a very clear answer.) Both Mary and Joseph recognized in these terms the references to the Shekinah, the Glory of God who descended upon the Ark of the Covenant, who dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the temple.

Only those called specifically by God to the Levitical priesthood were allowed to pass beyond the veil and enter the Holy of Holies. But what was this that had happened to Mary? The Glory dwells in her. It is precisely because Joseph is "Just" according to God's own heart that he would never presume that a human betrothal gave him the right to take the New Ark of the Covenant by his own authority into his home. (I know, I'm coordinating Matthew and Luke here, but I'm one of these people who actually believes that whatever literary genres are being employed in these narratives, their purpose is to convey to us stuff that really happened.)

Joseph learns that Mary is "with child through the Holy Spirit" and that she has received a new, divine vocation. But he has had no revelation from God, no new vocation that corresponds with Mary's. What can he do? He is a "righteous man" and is able to understand that Mary has become a bearer of God's Glory. Surely, the Lord will make His will known for Mary and this extraordinary child. The Lord will assure that Mary is protected, no doubt by someone worthier than Joseph himself. The only role Joseph sees for himself here is to release Mary from the obligations of the betrothal (yes, the word for "divorce" can be understood in this way) to make room for whomever God chooses. Of course, Joseph will do it "quietly," secretly, because it would be manifestly more than unjust to expose Mary to shame. It would be wicked. "Joseph, since he was a righteous man" (1:19) would never do such a thing. He will release her right away, and keep her secret to himself.

For his own part, Joseph is filled with awe and humility. He is full of that eminently righteous gift which is the fear of the Lord. No doubt he wonders about many things, and is probably confused and "afraid" in the emotional sense. But above all, he is surrendering Mary to the mystery and the freedom of God's plan.

This is his intention when the angel appears. And here more things start to make sense. The angel says to him, "Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home." The "fear" indicated here is the kind that the human person has before the mystery of God. The "Suspicion Theory" has no way to explain this fear. If Joseph thinks Mary's pregnancy is ordinary, it's hard to see what he would be "afraid" of even in a purely human sense. He would be opposed to taking an adulteress into his house, not for any reasons of fear, much less the fear of the presence of God. He would be concerned for her dismal future. He would have no fear about himself; he has done the right thing.

But the angel invokes that fear in the presence of God and relates it directly to Joseph taking Mary into his home. That would make perfect sense if Mary in fact has the presence of God within her in a wholly new and unimaginable way.

But how do we account for the angel giving Joseph the news of Mary's miraculous conception in a way that seems "fresh" if he already knows about it? Isn't there a divinely inspired PERIOD that divides 1:20? "Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her." These two sentences do sound like the angel is relieving Joseph's "fear" by informing him that Mary's child is in fact of the Holy Spirit. But we've seen that this fact is the only meaningful reason for Joseph's fear in the first place.

Here's where we must realize the limitations of translation. The New Testament was written in the common Greek of the first century, with no word spacing or punctuation. Many terms that have various possible renderings get standardized by translators for a variety of reasons. Frankly I'm not a New Testament scholar or a Greek scholar. But here I'm relying on John McHugh (see above) who is both. McHugh says that it is legitimate to read this verse in a different way, pulling out the punctuation that isn't there in the first place and using some unwieldy clauses which don't sound great in English but render the sense more accurately.

The result is that the angel's words to Joseph actually emphasize that Joseph's knowledge of the miracle is the cause of his fear. What we should read here goes something like this: Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home on account of the fact that it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. Now that makes sense.

And there is a hint here too of what the angel's real purpose is in this vision: "Joseph, son of David..." he says. It's interesting that this narrative begins at verse 18. Last week we read the first 17 verses, which are a genealogy from Abraham through David (the King to whom the promise of God is given) to Jesus. When I hear the genealogies being read, I am tempted to zone out. I am even tempted to open Matthew's gospel and just start at verse 18. But this genealogy does catch my attention (and might cause consternation) because after all these carefully recorded names we arrive at "Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born" (1:16).

Wait! If Joseph is not Jesus's biological father, then what good is the genealogy? In fact, it's a lot of good, and it sets the stage and indicates the focus of the narrative that follows. Kingly inheritance passes from father to son in the Hebrew tradition. Mary's lineage has no legal significance and it is the legal claim to be a descendant of David that is necessary for Jesus to inherit the Davidic kingship and fulfill the promise. But there was no human father! The inheritance can only be handed on if a descendant of David steps in and acts as father to Jesus (we say that Joseph "adopts" Him, but I'm not sure that we have an entirely adequate term to describe the sui generis role that Joseph is called to play).

"She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus" (1:21). Now we know what this angelic visit is all about. The angel is giving Joseph his specific vocation; he is conveying God's authorization (indeed His command) that Joseph enter into a unique service to this new Shekinah, this new presence of God in the world: that he take his wife into his home without fear, because he, Joseph, is the one called by God to take on this responsibility. And he is called to this because he is a "son of David" and he therefore passes on the earthly line of the Messianic king to Mary's son, to whom he gives the name of Jesus.

Personally, I'm convinced. This has gotta be it. Remember that Scott Hahn called this the Reverence Theory, and I think we understand why. It's simple. It makes everything fit together. It's consistent with the details Matthew gives us and fits better into the context. It explains Matthew's statement that from the beginning Mary was "found to be with child through the Holy Spirit." It accounts eminently and in every respect for Joseph's title of saddiq, right in the place where Matthew introduces it (without resorting to casuistry about the Law, or a murky sense of what Joseph was up to or what human problem he was afraid of, or having to posit this odd, tense, and mistrustful beginning of the Holy Family).

The "Reverence Theory" corresponds to the singular sanctity of the man, St. Joseph -- always obedient, always steadfast, always following God's will and trusting in His wisdom. That is the St. Joseph I know, and I have no reason to believe he was ever otherwise.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Acknowledging That I am “the Pharisee”

Sometimes I feel like a hypocrite, doing all this writing about God.

Like most "religious people," I have an inner Pharisee with whom I must struggle. It's especially hard for someone whose profession is teaching and writing about religion, its history, and how everything else is related ultimately to religious questions and searching. Moreover, I “know the answer,” because I have been given the gift of faith in God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ who dwells among us in His Church. Yes, I am a Catholic. I have the fullness of the faith that God wants for everyone. Uh huh! “Thank God that I am not like the rest of men!” I have the Truth! (It’s so much easier and self-satisfying to say “I have the Truth” than to say, and to recognize, that “the Truth has me.”) It’s so easy to forget that being Christian is not about “status” but about service; that it means following Jesus, taking the lowest place, witnessing to His love not only in words but by pouring out one’s self in love, being the servant of all in Him who emptied Himself and took the form of a slave to save us and reveal to us the mystery of Love as gift of self

Clearly, I’m a long way from the wisdom of God (which is “foolishness” to the world). One thing I know as a Catholic Christian—and can properly claim “for myself”—is that I am a sinner. I need to beg for His mercy. 

But I also need to do my work. My work—to which I gave many years of my life to professional training in order to be academically certified, and which has led to my obtaining the title of “Professor”—is to talk about God, or write about God. I have to work, don’t I?

And it’s only natural to look for affirmation in the execution of one's profession, and to "feel good about one's self” in one’s achievements. One enjoys recognition and honor for the excellence of one’s work. 

But then one remembers that one is teaching and writing words about God.

Nevertheless, I have some measure of human ambition about my work. And I am indeed very much “like the rest of men [and women]”—my life has all the elements that go into the average person's professional and social interaction, including all the hypocrisy, self-promotion, dissimulation, cunning and self-seeking...and it's all wrapped up in teaching and writing about God! This is a psychologically complicated fact of my life. 

I love the first places at banquets, and being called "rabbi"! Woe unto me!

What can I do other than throw myself upon the mercy of God? I have been given the gift of expressing myself. I know that words are straw, but there is a place for straw in life and the task of making straw has been given to me. I have made tons of straw, and I shall continue to make more straw until I can’t do it anymore. Straw is necessary in a world populated by… ummm… “donkeys.”

See how humble I am? (“Oh, he’s so humble,” they say…)
Hah, don't be fooled by this humility routine. The inner Christian Pharisee loves when people recognize and admire his humility—his ego just eats it right up: “Thank God that I am not like the rest of theologians and religious thinkers. I am humble, not like those proud, divisive, arrogant, fundamentalist, revisionist, or just plain weird people back there…etc.” You see the problem here? 

Anyway, don’t be fooled by me. I an not much in the way of being humble. Rather, I am a struggling, divided heart. I am a Scribe. It comes with the profession. "I see," I say, and therefore I am blind. 

Yet I am also the blind man in the process of being healed, of beginning to see His face.

I am a human being but I am not just a religion professor. I am a human being who cries out in my helplessness to the Mystery who makes me and sustains me. I am a radical need that I cannot fulfill by myself. I am often stumbling in the dark, not knowing where my next steps may lead. 

But I am also a human being who—without in any way deserving it—has met the man Jesus Christ. For reasons that overwhelm me—but that I can only call “absolute gratuitous love”—He wants to accompany me and stay with me.

Mixed up with all my mashup of complicated self-serving motivations there is something else; there is a desire that He has placed in my heart because He wants to meet you and stay with you too.

This changes the meaning of my work, even if I am still trying to express His humanity in words, inadequate words, big intellectual words or sentimental, pious words; words that make it sound too easy, and that give me the false appearance of being "wise" as I toy with mysteries. 

All these words. All this straw. Use it for your bed. Throw it in your fire and be warmed. Let it dry up the damp ground under your feet. Find something in it.

From my own struggle, what I want you to see is that Mercy is at work. In all my efforts and words the great hope is that you might see His mercy. Because of Him, I have the audacity to hope that you might find it, even in me, in the midst of my many poor words.

Look for Him. Discover the beauty of His face. I know it's not as easy as it sounds. I know that. But still, He is here, and He is real.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

“I Will Hear Them…” Says The Lord

Entrance Antiphon for Roman Liturgy of today: “I am the salvation of the people, says the Lord. Should they cry to me in any distress, I will hear them, and I will be their Lord for ever.”

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

We Are Called to Live as Persons-in-Communion

Humans are both individual and social by nature. And according to the plan of God in Christ we are called to live a great and mysterious reality, to discover the fullness of life in an interpersonal community.

But building genuine interpersonal community is a seemingly impossible task. We seem always to be caught in a violent tension that pits personal freedom against collective security and affirmation.

Though some persons of unusual strength and pride attempt to affirm an absolute individualism, most of us are too vulnerable and too drawn to one another to be tempted directly by radical autonomy.

We recognize our value as persons, and also our orientation as persons toward relationship, to be-with-one-another, to live in community. We are born into families that are woven together through larger groups devoted to various purposes, and we also build up social groups through our own commitments.

Yet "groups" have their own cumulative momentum, their own gravitational pull, their powerful tendency to generate uniformity. People can surrender their own creativity and sense of identity to the "group mentality," and become increasingly determined in thought and action by those who possess the most power. Or they may become afraid of "losing themselves" to the perceived power of the group, and draw back from sharing life, distance themselves in some measure, and fall into a passive (and lonely) indifference.

The only energy that can transcend this dialectic is love — the love that corresponds to the dignity of the human person, the mystery of the person, the gift of the person.

“Group dynamics” in and of themselves inevitably end in factionalism and exclusion. Moreover, recent history should have taught us by now that true community can never be generated by violence, whether it be the external violence of barbed wire and iron bars or the internal violence of imposed ideology, “re-education,” propaganda, or psychological manipulation. These kinds of violence can make a “group” with a common surface mentality of ideological conformity, but they violate the freedom of persons and alienate them from themselves and one another. Often, the subconscious frustration that slowly burns beneath the surface of ideological conformism breeds resentment, which eventually breaks out into counter-violence against self and others.

In today’s world—with the immense capacities of multimedia for shaping personal perceptions and “environments” of social presuppositions—we should be especially attentive to the use (and the potential misuse) of “soft power.”  The cumulative impact of the manipulative configuration of perceptions under the pretext of providing “information” breeds a depersonalized conformism. It disconnects persons, leading them to interior withdrawal, passivity, and boredom. Or it engenders suppressed frustration and anger that become tinder for the irrational and counter-violent flames of reactionary upheavals. The sudden rise of factions bonded together by common grievances and resentment should not surprise us. The cycle of violence can take many forms. It is always the enemy of community.

Genuine community is the fruit of freedom and love.

And we are confident that love can prevail, because we know that we are sustained in being and called as persons-in-relationship, in community, by the One who is Love. The One who is Love and Communion is the source and fulfillment of everything.

Therefore, any "group" that is truly human is made up of persons who, in the original and radical sense, have been given to us by the mysterious design of Eternal Love, and to whom we have been given in turn, to love and be loved. And a group can only be truly human if it lives as a communion of persons, which means that it must respect and cherish every person within its sphere of vitality, because every person is made in the image of the One who is Love.

Each and every person in a group has a unique and unrepeatable value, and this must never be reduced to their productive contribution to building up the group and furthering its ends. This is true even (especially!) when a group is united in the pursuit of social, moral, or religious concerns. We must never forget this!

Each person is worthy of love for their own sake, above and beyond what they may or may not "do" for the group.

Even when a group is so large that we cannot know every individual person, we must always remember the dignity of every person. We can at least hold that love for every person in our hearts. We must cultivate the readiness of solidarity, the openness that welcomes the stranger and that lives human existence as a great companionship.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Yes, There Are Goats Too…

Over the years you have seen pictures of the cows and the horses and the chickens that share our living space in this small town/semi-rural environment. I don’t think I have ever featured goats before. But we do have goats around here, probably more that I realize. A goat can provide lots of milk, which tastes great… once you get used to it.๐Ÿ˜œ Recently, I happened to be in the right place at he right time to meet some goats up close, but also safely fenced in. They seemed enthusiastic about having their picture taken. I was happy to oblige.๐Ÿ™‚

Monday, March 13, 2023

Gratitude For Pope Francis’s Ten Years of Service

Dear Pope Francis,

Thank you for ten years of fidelity to the office to which God has called you—to be Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, Servant of the Servants of God, and a shepherd and father to us all.

You have reminded us every day of the loving presence of Jesus in our lives, and challenged us to share the joy of the Gospel with the whole world, to live with responsibility and gratitude for the beauty and value of all of God’s creation, and to cherish and support the irreplaceable, lifelong mutual love of husbands and wives as the essential foundation of family life. You have encouraged young people and—by word and example—taught us how to embrace growing old, and the mysterious value of the sufferings that we are called to endure. You have emphasized the special human gift of dialogue and mutual enrichment in the relationship of grandparents and grandchildren, of the elderly with the younger generations. This interaction is an important part of God’s providence: in this way life and history are informed by the union of wisdom and innocence, by experience of the past and hope for the future. 

You have always emphasized the special love of Jesus for the poor, the forgotten, the marginalized. Attention to their material needs (including their very real need for justice, mercy, and equity) is not motivated by utopian schemes but by fidelity to Jesus who calls us to recognize him and serve him concretely in the poor: “I was hungry and you gave me food… I was sick and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me… I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” You have exhorted us to work in the ways we can to build a more just, loving, fraternal society—to foster the “revolution of tenderness” that Jesus is working even in the midst of this temporal world, as the glowing light of his glory on the horizon of earthly life that has already begun to illuminate everything, as the foretaste of eternal life that sustains us on our historical journey with the promise of fulfillment. It is worthwhile, therefore, to glorify God through works of mercy, and even to work for the “civilization of love” (Saint Paul VI), the social vitality of Christ’s saving love that “already”—even NOW—embraces the whole human person and every aspect of human life. 

We are called to adore, worship, and live in gratitude and joy as children of God our Father, and to serve Jesus our brother in one another and especially in the poor, the abandoned, the lonely—because it is particularly through them that Jesus cries out to us and yearns for our love. God loves everyone, which means that his Catholic Christian disciples cannot rest in any form of self-satisfaction, but must always seek the face of Christ who has united himself to the fulfillment—the destiny—of every person.

In these ten years this has been the wisdom—the heart and soul—of your Petrine ministry. What you have proposed to us is often difficult, but it is the way of the Gospel, the truth we need to hear, the guidance and correction of a merciful father who is called to help us mature in Christ. It requires us to face our own weakness and incoherence, which humbles us. But it is good for us to be humble. Your Papacy remains an ongoing work of Christian love and service for which I am truly grateful.

Thank you, Pope Francis, for being a “father” to me in Christ in this past decade. You have consoled me, instructed me, provoked me to look more deeply at things I thought I already knew, helped me to be patient while living in the midst of an often-confusing and sometimes-terrifying society—to listen to the Holy Spirit and follow Jesus, to resist temptations to resentment, wounded vanity, grudges, gossip, or forgetting Christ’s lordship over history and trusting instead worldly ideologies that promise easy security (and revenge) if I am willing to sell my soul

I am so grateful for your paternal solicitude by word and example that has been a light for me during a decade filled with pain in my own life, unstable health, much sorrow and grief, so many changes in the passage of time, and—of course—many surprising and profound joys too. (The older I get, the more I find that sorrow and joy often come together in circumstances and events, because they are so full of the Mystery to whom they point, of whom they speak—the fulfillment that has already begun, and that hastens us onward.)

Dear Pope Francis, in your ministry you have accompanied me and encouraged me in so many ways, through so many words and gestures. Meanwhile, as you continue to bear the enormous sufferings that weigh upon individuals and peoples in the Church and in the world, I will continue to pray for you.

Your devoted son—and brother—in Christ and his Church,

~John Janaro

Sunday, March 12, 2023

As Christina Grimmie Turns 29, She Helps Us Grow Stronger

Today is Christina Grimmie’s 29th birthday. It is hard not to imagine what her voice would have been like at this age—what further depth, richness, and versatility she might have acquired in her singing, songwriting, and instrumental virtuosity.

Things turned out differently, of course.

Instead, she fulfilled her whole vocation in this world in a very brief period of time, but with extraordinary magnanimity and lucidity, inspired by her beautiful, ardent faith. Many of her frands who were teens or pre-teens when they first encountered Christina have since grown to adulthood. Yet she is not just a distant memory for them; she continues to inspire their lives today (as she does also for people of all ages, all over the world). Christina was a young woman with an enormous heart, who was drawn so powerfully by Jesus Christ that she seemed to want to embrace the whole world. She had a joy that poured itself out in music and in a tireless enterprise of connecting with people by all the means she could find.

She had a remarkable human strength and a particular gift for communication, and for encouraging others—especially those who were broken, damaged, lonely, or in great need. She also knew that she belonged to Jesus, and that all the value of her strength and talent came from Him. Christina was a very down-to-earth person too; she was a girl and a young woman who was just normal and relatable to her peers, who didn’t put on airs, who—apart from her amazing musical talent—seemed like an “ordinary person.” And yet she was different. She was very much an "earthen vessel" that nevertheless carried the treasure of Christ's love in a manner that communicated something of that love's heroic stature.

Christina knew that His love could sustain the human heart, and thereby foster healing and bring consolation and strength to those who struggled to discover their own self-worth. In April of 2014 she made a very short, spontaneous video that took its point of departure from eating disorders and self-harm issues but opened up from there. Anyone could articulate these kinds of statements on a video, of course, but what she expresses here has a palpable authenticity because it comes from within the context of her whole life as a daily risk, a radical availability to the people she met, a passion for Christ and her music and the people to whom she gave the gift of her music.

In this meme I designed from the video, the first panel summarizes a slightly longer discourse, but the other two panels are her exact words that she felt were so urgent, so significant for affirming the value of all the people who were touched by her music, and indeed of every human person who might watch it. I think the video is still accessible on YouTube. In any case, here is my graphic summary. I'm very struck by what she says.

never tried to sell her faith. When she did mention Jesus, it was to affirm a conviction that couldn't be expressed without an explicit reference to Him. Her own love, in its source and its urgency, its value and its significance as a gift to others, was inseparable from His love.

It requires a certain kind of audacity to tell people to love themselves and recognize the beauty in themselves 'because Jesus loves you... and I love you.'

It requires a certain kind of audacity to express and give ourselves in a way that says to our family, to our neighbors, to everyone we meet, that it is worth it to keep living 'because I love you.' This is the kind of love that is not afraid to open its arms to anyone, that is not afraid to open its arms because it always has confidence in the One whom it seeks to embrace. Such confidence engenders a real courage, a real audacity that is more powerful than all the harm that human beings can inflict upon others and themselves, more powerful than the violence that tries so terribly to negate it, but that cannot prevail in the end.

The world needs this kind of audacity. The world needs this kind of love.

Thank you, Christina, for your courage, for your legacy that is helping us to grow stronger. Happy Birthday!๐Ÿ’š๐ŸŽถ