Religion

Saint John the Baptist

Posted on Updated on

John the Baptist, Saint.—The principal sources of information concerning the life and ministry of St. John the Baptist are the canonical Gospels. Of these St. Luke is the most complete, giving as he does the wonderful circumstances accompanying the birth of the Precursor and items on his ministry and death. St. Matthew’s Gospel stands in close relation with that of St. Luke, as far as John’s public ministry is concerned, but contains nothing in reference to his early life. From St. Mark, whose account of the Precursor’s life is very meagre, no new detail can be gathered. Finally, the fourth Gospel has this special feature, that it gives the testimony of St. John after the Savior’s baptism. Besides the indications supplied by these writings, passing allusions occur in such passages as Acts, xiii, 24; xix, 1-6; but these are few and bear on the subject only indirectly. To the above should be added what Josephus relates in his Jewish Antiquities (XVIII, v, 2), but it should be remembered that he is woefully erratic in his dates, mistaken in proper names, and seems to arrange facts according to his own political views; however, his judgment of John, also what he tells us regarding the Precursor’s popularity, together with a few details of minor importance, are worthy of the historian’s attention. The same cannot be said of the apocryphal gospels, because the scant information they give of the Precursor is either copied from the canonical Gospels (and to these they can add no authority), or else is a mass of idle vagaries.

Zachary, the father of John the Baptist, was a priest of the course of Abia, the eighth of the twenty-four courses into which the priests were divided (I Par., xxiv, 7-19); Elizabeth, the Precursor’s mother, “was of the daughters of Aaron”, according to St. Luke (i, 5); the same Evangelist, a few verses farther on (i, 26), calls her the “cousin” (suggenis) of Mary. These two statements appear to be conflicting, for how, it will be asked, could a cousin of the Blessed Virgin be “of the daughters of Aaron”? The problem might be solved by adopting the reading given in an old Persian version, where we find “mother’s sister” (metradelphe) instead of “cousin”. A somewhat analogous explanation, probably borrowed from some apocryphal writing, and perhaps correct, is given by St. Hippolytus (in Nicephor., II, iii). According to him, Mathan had three daughters: Mary, Soba, and Ann. Mary, the oldest, married a man of Bethlehem and was the mother of Salome; Soba married at Bethlehem also, but a “son of Levi”, by whom she had Elizabeth; Ann wedded a Galilean (Joachim) and bore Mary, the Mother of God. Thus Salome, Elizabeth, and the Blessed Virgin were first cousins, and Elizabeth, “of the daughters of Aaron” on her father’s side, was, on her mother’s side, the cousin of Mary. Zachary’s home is designated only in a vague manner by St. Luke: it was “a city of Juda”, “in the hill-country” (i, 39). Reland, advocating the unwarranted assumption that Juda might be a misspelling of the name, proposed to read in its stead Jutta (Jos., xv, 55; xxi, 16; D.V.: Jota, Jeta), a priestly town south of Hebron. But priests did not always live in priestly towns (Mathathias’s home was at Modin; Simon Machabeus’s at Gaza). A tradition, which can be traced back to the time before the Crusades, points to the little town of Ain-Karim, five miles southwest of Jerusalem.

The birth of the Precursor was announced in a most striking manner. Zachary and Elizabeth, as we learn from St. Luke, “were both just before God, walking in all the commandments and justifications of the Lord without blame; and they had no son, for that Elizabeth was barren” (i, 6-7). Long they had prayed that their union might be blessed with off-spring; but, now that “they were both advanced in years”, the reproach of barrenness bore heavily upon them. “And it came to pass, when he executed the priestly function in the order of his course before God, according to the custom of the priestly office, it was his lot to offer incense, going into the temple of the Lord. And all the multitude of the people was praying without, at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zachary seeing him, was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him: Fear not, Zachary, for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John: and thou shalt have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice in his nativity. For he shall be great before the Lord; and shall drink no wine nor strong drink: and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. And he shall convert many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias; that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people” (i, 8-17). As Zachary was slow in believing this startling prediction, the angel, making himself known to him, announced that, in punishment of his incredulity, he should be stricken with dumbness until the promise was fulfilled. “And it came to pass, after the days of his office were accomplished, he departed to his own house. And after those days, Elizabeth his wife conceived, and hid herself five months” (i, 23-24).

Now during the sixth month, the Annunciation had taken place, and, as Mary had heard from the angel the fact of her cousin’s conceiving, she went “with haste” to congratulate her. “And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant”—filled, like the mother, with the Holy Ghost—”leaped for joy in her womb”, as if to acknowledge the presence of his Lord. Then was accomplished the prophetic utterance of the angel that the child should “be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb”. Now as the presence of any sin whatever is incompatible with the indwelling of the Holy Ghost in the soul, it follows that at this moment John was cleansed from the stain of original sin. When “Elizabeth’s full time of being delivered was come, … she brought forth a son” (i, 57); and “on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they called him by his father’s name Zachary. And his mother answering, said: Not so, but he shall be called John. And they said to her: There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called. And demanding a writing table, he wrote, saying: John is his name. And they all wondered” (i, 59-63). They were not aware that no better name could be applied (John, Hebr.: Jehohanan, i.e. “Jahweh hath mercy”) to him who, as his father prophesied, was to “go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways: to give knowledge of salvation to his people, unto remission of their sins: through the bowels of the mercy of our God” (i, 76-78). Moreover, all these events, to wit, a child born to an aged couple, Zachary’s sudden dumbness, his equally sudden recovery of speech, his astounding utterance might justly strike with wonderment the assembled neighbors; these could hardly help asking: “What an one, think ye, shall this child be?” (i, 66).

As to the date of the birth of John the Baptist, nothing can be said with certainty. The Gospel suggests that the Precursor was born about six months before Christ; but the year of Christ’s nativity has not so far been ascertained. Nor is there anything certain about the season of Christ’s birth, for it is well known that the assignment of the feast of Christmas to the twenty-fifth of December is not grounded on historical evidence, but is possibly suggested by merely astronomical considerations, also, perhaps, inferred from astronomico-theological reasonings. Besides, no calculations can be based upon the time of the year when the course of Abia was serving in the Temple, since each one of the twenty-four courses of priests had two turns a year. Of John’s early life St. Luke tells us only that “the child grew, and was strengthened in spirit; and was in the deserts, until the day of his manifestation to Israel” (i, 80). Should we ask just when the Precursor went into the wilderness, an old tradition echoed by Paul Warnefried (Paul the Deacon), in the hymn, “Ut queant laxis”, composed in honor of the saint, gives an answer hardly more definite than the statement of the Gospel: “Antra deserti teneris sub annis … petiit …” Other writers, however, thought they knew better. For instance, St. Peter of Alexandria believed St. John was taken into the desert to escape the wrath of Herod, who, if we may believe report, was impelled by fear of losing his kingdom to seek the life of the Precursor, just as he was, later on, to seek that of the newborn Savior. It was added also that Herod on this account had Zachary put to death between the temple and the altar, because he had prophesied the coming of the Messias (Baron., “Annal. Apparat.”, n. 53). These are worthless legends long since branded by St. Jerome as “apocryphorum somnia”.

Passing, then, with St. Luke, over a period of some thirty years, we reach what may be considered the beginning of the public ministry of St. John (see Biblical Chronology). Up to this he had led in the desert the life of an anchorite; now he comes forth to deliver his message to the world. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar … the word of the Lord was made unto John, the son of Zachary, in the desert. And he came into all the country about the Jordan, preaching” (Luke, iii, 1-3), clothed not in the soft garments of a courtier (Matt., xi, 8; Luke, vii, 24), but in those “of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle about his loins”; and “his meat “—he looked as if he came neither eating nor drinking (Matt., xi, 18; Luke, vii, 33)—”was locusts and wild honey” (Matt., iii, 4; Mark, i, 6); his whole countenance, far from suggesting the idea of a reed shaken by the wind (Matt., xi, 7; Luke, vii, 24), manifested undaunted constancy. A few incredulous scoffers feigned to be scandalized: “He hath a devil” (Matt., xi, 18). Nevertheless, “Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the country about Jordan” (Matt., iii, 5), drawn by his strong and winning personality, went out to him; the austerity of his life added immensely to the weight of his words; for the simple folk, he was truly a prophet (Matt., xi, 9; cf. Luke, i, 76, 77). “Do penance: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt., iii, 2), such was the burden of his teaching. Men of all conditions flocked round him.

Pharisees and Sadducees were there; the latter attracted perhaps by curiosity and scepticism, the former expecting possibly a word of praise for their multitudinous customs and practices, and, all, probably, more anxious to see which of the rival sects the new prophet would commend than to seek instruction. But John laid bare their hypocrisy. Drawing his similes from the surrounding scenery, and even, after the Oriental fashion, making use of a play on words (abanimbanim), he lashed their pride with this well-deserved rebuke: “Ye brood of vipers, who hath shewed you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of penance. And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham for our father. For I tell you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. For now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that doth not yield good fruit, shall be cut down, and cast into the fire” (Matt., iii 7-10; Luke, iii, 7-9). It was clear something had to be done. The men of good will among the listeners asked: “What shall we do?” (Probably some were wealthy and, according to the custom of people in such circumstances, were clad in two tunics.—Joseph., “Antiq.”, XVIII, v, 7.) “And he answering, said to them: He that hath two coats, let him give to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do in like manner” (Luke, iii, 11). Some were publicans; on them he enjoined not to exact more than the rate of taxes fixed by law (Luke, iii, 13). To the soldiers (probably Jewish police officers) he recommended not to do violence to any man, nor falsely to denounce anyone, and to be content with their pay (Luke, iii, 14). In other words, he cautioned them against trusting in their national privileges, he did not countenance the tenets of any sect, nor did he advocate the forsaking of one’s ordinary state of life, but faithfulness and honesty in the fulfillment of one’s duties, and the humble confession of one’s sins.

To confirm the good dispositions of his listeners, John baptized them in the Jordan, “saying that baptism was good, not so much to free one from certain sins [cf. St. Thom., “Summ. Theol.”, III, Q. xxxviii, a. 2 and 3] as to purify the body, the soul being already cleansed from its defilements by justice” (Joseph., “Antiq.”, XVIII, vii). This feature of his ministry, more than anything else, attracted public attention to such an extent that he was surnamed “the Baptist” (i.e. Baptizer) even during his lifetime (by Christ, Matt., xi, 11; by his own disciples, Luke, vii, 20; by Herod, Matt., xiv, 2; by Herodias, Matt., xiv, 3). Still his right to baptize was questioned by some (John, i, 25); the Pharisees and the lawyers refused to comply with this ceremony, on the plea that baptism, as a preparation for the kingdom of God, was connected only with the Messias (Ezech., xxxvi, 25; Zach., xiii, 1, etc.), Elias, and the prophet spoken of in Deut., xviii, 15. John’s reply was that he was Divinely “sent to baptize with water” (John, i, 33); to this, later on, our Savior bore testimony, when, in answer to the Pharisees trying to ensnare him, he implicitly declared that John’s baptism was from heaven (Mark, xi, 30). Whilst baptizing, John, lest the people might think “that perhaps he might be the Christ” (Luke, iii, 15), did not fail to insist that his was only a forerunner’s mission: “I indeed baptize you with water; but there shall come one mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to loose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: whose fan is in his hand and he will purge his floor; and will gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke, iii, 16, 17). Whatever John may have meant by this baptism “with fire”, he, at all events, in this declaration clearly defined his relation to the One to come.

Here it will not be amiss to touch on the scene of the Precursor’s ministry. The locality should be sought in that part of the Jordan valley (Luke, iii, 3) which is called the desert (Mark, i, 4). Two places are mentioned in the Fourth Gospel in this connection: Bethania (John, i, 28) and Ennon (A. V. Aenon, John, iii, 23). As to Bethania, the reading Bethabara, first given by Origen, should be discarded; but the Alexandrine scholar perhaps was less wrong in suggesting the other reading, Bethara, possibly a Greek form of Betharan; at any rate, the site in question must be looked for “beyond the Jordan” (John, i, 28). The second place, Ennon, “near Salim” (John, iii, 23), the extreme northern point marked in the Madaba mosaic map, is described in Eusebius’s “Onomasticon” as being eight miles south of Scythopolis (Beisan), and should be sought probably at Ed-Deir or El-Fatur, a short distance from the Jordan (Lagrange, in “Revue Biblique”, IV, 1895, pp. 502-05). Moreover, a long-standing tradition, traced back to A.D. 333, associates the activity of the Precursor, particularly the Baptism of the Lord, with the neighborhood of Deir Mar-Yuhanna (Qasr el-Yehud).

The Precursor had been preaching and baptizing for some time (just how long is not known), when Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan, to be baptized by him. Why, it might be asked, should He “who did no sin” (I Pet., ii, 22) seek John’s “baptism of penance for the remission of sins” (Luke, iii, 3)? The Fathers of the Church answer very appropriately that this was the occasion preordained by the Father when Jesus should be manifested to the world as the Son of God; then again, by submitting to it, Jesus sanctioned the baptism of John. “But John stayed him, saying: I ought to be baptized by thee, and comest thou to me?” (Matt., 14). These words, implying, as they do, that John knew Jesus, are in seeming conflict with a later declaration of John recorded in the Fourth Gospel: “I knew him not” (John, i, 33). Most interpreters take it that the Precursor had some intimation of Jesus being the Messias: they assign this as the reason why John at first refused to baptize him; but the heavenly manifestation had, a few moments later, changed this intimation into perfect knowledge. “And Jesus answering, said to him: Suffer it to be so now. For so it becometh us to fulfil all justice. Then he suffered him. And Jesus being baptized, forthwith came out of the water: and lo, the heavens were opened to him…. And, behold, a voice from heaven, saying: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt.,15-17).

After this baptism, while Jesus was preaching through the towns of Galilee, going into Judea only occasionally for the feast days, John continued his ministry in the valley of the Jordan. It was at this time that “the Jews sent from Jerusalem priests and Levites to him, to ask him: Who art thou? And he confessed, and did not deny: and he confessed: I am not the Christ. And they asked him: What then? Art thou Elias? And he said: I am not. Art thou the prophet? And he answered: No. They said, therefore, unto him: Who art thou, that we may give an answer to them that sent us? What sayest thou of thyself? He said: I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaias” (John, i, 19-23). John denied he was Elias, whom the Jews were looking for (Matt., xvii, 10; Mark, ix, 10). Nor did Jesus admit it, though His words to His disciples at first sight seem to point that way; “Elias indeed shall come, and restore all things. But I say to you, that Elias is already come” (Matt., xvii, 11; Mark, ix, 11-12). St. Matthew notes “the disciples understood, that he had spoken to them of John the Baptist” (Matt., xvii, 13). This was equal to saying, “Elias is not to come in the flesh.” But, in speaking of John before the multitude, Jesus made it plain that he called John Elias figuratively: “If you will receive it, he is Elias that is to come. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt., xi, 14, 15). This had been anticipated by the angel when, announcing John’s birth to Zachary, he foretold that the child would go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elias” (Luke, i, 17). “The next day, John saw Jesus coming to him and he saith: Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said: After me there cometh a man, who is preferred before me: because he was before me … that he may be made manifest in Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water…. And I knew him not; but he who sent me to baptize with water, said to me: He upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining upon him, he it is that baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and I gave testimony, that this is the Son of God” (John, i, 29-34).

Among the many listeners flocking to St. John, some, more deeply touched by his doctrine, stayed with him, thus forming, as around other famous doctors of the law, a group of disciples. These he exhorted to fast (Mark, ii, 18), these he taught special forms of prayer (Luke, v, 33; xi, 1). Their number, according to the pseudo-Clementine literature, reached thirty (Horn. ii, 23). Among them was Andrew of Bethsaida of Galilee (John, i, 44). One day, as Jesus was standing in the distance, John, pointing Him out, repeated his previous declaration: “Behold the Lamb of God”. Then Andrew, with another disciple of John, hearing this, followed Jesus (John, i, 36-38). This account of the calling of Andrew and Simon differs materially from that found in St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke; yet it should be noticed that St. Luke, in particular, so narrates the meeting of the two brothers with the Savior, as to let us infer they already knew Him. Now, on the other hand, since the Fourth Evangelist does not say that Andrew and his companions forthwith left their business to devote themselves exclusively to the Gospel or its preparation, there is clearly no absolute discordance between the narration of the first three Gospels and that of St. John.

The Precursor, after the lapse of several months, again appears on the scene, and he is still preaching and baptizing on the banks of the Jordan (John, iii, 23). Jesus, in the meantime, had gathered about Himself a following of disciples, and He came “into the land of Judea: and there He abode with them, and baptized (John, iii, 22),—”though Jesus himself did not baptize, but his disciples” (John, iv, 2).—”There arose a question between some of John’s disciples and the Jews [the best Greek texts have “a Jew”] concerning purification” (John, iii, 25), that is to say, as is suggested by the context, concerning the relative value of both baptisms. The disciples of John came to him: “Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond the Jordan, to whom thou gayest testimony, behold he baptizeth, and all men come to him” (John, iii, 26-27). They undoubtedly meant that Jesus should give way to John who had recommended Him, and that, by baptizing, He was encroaching upon the rights of John. “John answered and said: A man cannot receive any thing, unless it be given him from heaven. You yourselves do bear me witness, that I said, I am not Christ, but that I am sent before him. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, who standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth with joy because of the bridegroom’s voice. This my joy, therefore, is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. He that cometh from above, is above all. He that is of the earth, of the earth he is, and of the earth he speaketh. He that cometh from heaven, is above all. And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth….” (John, iii, 27-36).

The above narration recalls the fact before mentioned (John, i, 28), that part of the Baptist’s ministry was exercised in Perea: Ennon, another scene of his labors, was within the borders of Galilee; both Perea and Galilee made up the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas. This prince, a son worthy of his father Herod the Great, had married, likely for political reasons, the daughter of Aretas, king of the Nabathaeans. But on a visit to Rome, he fell in love with his niece Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip (son of the younger Mariamne), and induced her to come on to Galilee. When and where the Precursor met Herod, we are not told, but from the synoptic Gospels we learn that John dared to rebuke the tetrarch for his evil deeds, especially his public adultery. Herod, swayed by Herodias, did not allow the unwelcome reprover to go unpunished: he “sent and apprehended John and bound him in prison”. Josephus tells us quite another story, containing perhaps also an element of truth. “As great crowds clustered around John, Herod became afraid lest the Baptist should abuse his moral authority over them to incite them to rebellion, as they would do anything at his bidding; therefore he thought it wiser, so as to prevent possible happenings, to take away the dangerous preacher… and he imprisoned him in the fortress of Machaerus” (Antiq., XVIII, v, 2). Whatever may have been the chief motive of the tetrarch’s policy, it is certain that Herodias nourished a bitter hatred against John: “She laid snares for him: and was desirous to put him to death” (Mark, vi, 19). Although Herod first shared her desire, yet “he feared the people: because they esteemed him as a prophet” (Matt., xiv, 5). After some time this resentment on Herod’s part seems to have abated, for, according to Mark, vi, 19, 20, he heard John willingly and did many things at his suggestion.

John, in his fetters, was attended by some of his disciples, who kept him in touch with the events of the day. He thus learned of the wonders wrought by Jesus. At this point it cannot be supposed that John’s faith wavered in the least. Some of his disciples, however, would not be convinced by his words that Jesus was the Messias. Accordingly, he sent them to Jesus, bidding them say: “John the Baptist hath sent us to thee, saying: Art thou he that art to come; or look we for another? (And in that same hour, he cured many of their [the people’s] diseases, and hurts, and evil spirits; and to many that were blind he gave sight.) And answering, he said to them: Go and relate to John what you have heard and seen: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, to the poor the gospel is preached: and blessed is he whosoever shall not be scandalized in me” (Luke, vii, 20-23; Matt., xi, 3-6).

How this interview affected John’s disciples, we do not know; but we do know the encomium it occasioned of John from the lips of Jesus: “And when the messengers of John were departed, he began to speak to the multitudes concerning John. What went ye out into the desert to see? A reed shaken with the wind ? “All knew full well why John was in prison, and that in his captivity he was more than ever the undaunted champion of truth and virtue.—”But what went you out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Behold they that are in costly apparel, and live delicately, are in the houses of kings. But what went you out to see? a prophet? Yea, I say to you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written: Behold, I send my angel before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee. For I say to you: Amongst those that are born of women, there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (Luke, vii, 24-28). And continuing, Jesus pointed out the inconsistency of the world in its opinions both of himself and his precursor: “John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and you say: He hath a devil. The Son of man is come eating and drinking: and you say: Behold a man that is a glutton and a drinker of wine, a friend of publicans and sinners. And wisdom is justified by all her children” (Luke, vii, 33-35).

St. John languished probably for some time in the fortress of Machaerus; but the ire of Herodias, unlike that of Herod, never abated: she watched her chance. It came at the birthday feast which Herod, after Roman fashion, gave to the “princes, and tribunes, and chief men of Galilee. And when the daughter of the same Herodias [Josephus gives her name: Salome] had come in, and had danced, and pleased Herod and them that were at table with him, the king said to the damsel: Ask of me what thou wilt, and I will give it thee…. Who when she was gone out, said to her mother, what shall I ask? But she said: The head of John the Baptist. And when she was come in immediately with haste to the king, she asked, saying: I will that forthwith thou give me in a dish, the head of John the Baptist. And the king was struck sad. Yet because of his oath, and because of them that were with him at table, he would not displease her: but sending an executioner, he commanded that his head should be brought in a dish: and gave it to the damsel, and the damsel gave it to her mother” (Mark, vi, 21-28). Thus was done to death the greatest “amongst them that are born of women”, the prize awarded to a dancing girl, the toll exacted for an oath rashly taken and criminally kept (St. Augustine). At such an unjustifiable execution even the Jews were shocked, and they attributed to Divine vengeance the defeat Herod sustained afterwards at the hands of Aretas, his rightful father-in-law (Joseph., loc. cit.). John’s disciples, hearing of his death, “came, and took his body, and laid it in a tomb” (Mark, vi, 29), “and came and told Jesus” (Matt., xiv, 12).

The lasting impression made by the Precursor upon those who had come within his influence cannot be better illustrated than by mentioning the awe which seized upon Herod when he heard of the wonders wrought by Jesus who, in his mind, was no other than John the Baptist come to life (Matt., xiv, 1, 2, etc.). The Precursor’s influence did not die with him. It was far-reaching, too, as we learn from Acts, xviii, 25; xix, 3, where we find that proselytes at Ephesus had received from Apollo and others the baptism of John. Moreover, early Christian writers speak of a sect taking its name from John and holding only to his baptism. The date of John the Baptist’s death, August 29, assigned in the liturgical calendars can hardly be relied upon, because it is scarcely based upon trustworthy documents. His burial-place has been fixed by an old tradition at Sebaste (Samaria). But if there be any truth in Josephus’s assertion, that John was put to death at Machaerus, it is hard to understand why he was buried so far from the Herodian fortress. Still, it is quite possible that, at a later date unknown to us, his sacred remains were carried to Sebaste. At any rate, about the middle of the fourth century, his tomb was there honored, as we are informed on the testimony of Rufinus and Theodoretus. These authors add that the shrine was desecrated under Julian the Apostate (c. A.D. 362), the bones being partly burned. A portion of the rescued relics was carried to Jerusalem, then to Alexandria; and there, on May 27, 395, these relics were laid in the gorgeous basilica just dedicated to the Precursor on the site of the once famous temple of Serapis. The tomb at Sebaste continued nevertheless, to be visited by pious pilgrims, and St. Jerome bears witness to the miracles there wrought. Perhaps some of the relics had been brought back to Sebaste. Other portions at different times found their way to many sanctuaries of the Christian world, and long is the list of the churches claiming possession of some part of the precious treasure. What became of the head of the Precursor is difficult to determine. Nicephorus (I, ix) and Metaphrastes say Herodias had. it buried in the fortress of Machaerus; others insist that it was interred in Herod’s palace at Jerusalem; there it was found during the reign of Constantine, and thence secretly taken to Emesa, in Phoenicia, where it was concealed, the place remaining unknown for years, until it was manifested by revelation in 453. In the many and discordant relations concerning this relic, unfortunately much uncertainty prevails; their discrepancies in almost every point render the problem so intricate as to baffle solution. This signal relic, in whole or in part, is claimed by several churches, among them Amiens, Nemours, St-Jean d’Angeli (France), S. Silvestro in Capite (Rome). This fact Tillemont traces to a mistaking of one St. John for another, an explanation which, in certain cases, appears to be founded on good grounds and accounts well for this otherwise puzzling multiplication of relics.

The honor paid so early and in so many places to the relics of St. John the Baptist, the zeal with which many churches have maintained at all times their ill-founded claims to some of his relics, the numberless churches, abbeys, towns, and religious families placed under his patronage, the frequency of his name among Christian people, all attest the antiquity and widespread diffusion of the devotion to the Precursor. The commemoration of his Nativity is one of the oldest feasts, if not the oldest feast, introduced into both the Greek and Latin liturgies to honor a saint. But why is the feast proper, as it were, of St. John on the day of his nativity, whereas with other saints it is the day of their death? Because it was meet that the birth of him who, unlike the rest, was “filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb”, should be signalized as a day of triumph. The celebration of the Decollation of John the Baptist, on August 29, enjoys almost the same antiquity. We find also in the oldest martyrologies mention of a feast of the Conception of the Precursor on September 24. But the most solemn celebration in honor of this saint was always that of his Nativity, preceded until recently by a fast. Many places adopted the custom introduced by St. Sabas of having a double Office on this day, as on the day of the Nativity of the Lord. The first Office, intended to signify the time of the Law and the Prophets which lasted up to St. John (Luke, xvi, 16), began at sunset, and was chanted without Alleluia; the second, meant to celebrate the opening of the time of grace, and gladdened by the singing of Alleluia, was held during the night. The resemblance of the feast of St. John with that of Christmas was carried farther, for another feature of the 24th of June was the celebration of three masses: the first, in the dead of night, recalled his mission of Precursor; the second, at daybreak, commemorated the baptism he conferred; and the third, at the hour of Terce, honored his sanctity. The whole liturgy of the day, repeatedly enriched by the additions of several popes, was in suggestiveness and beauty on a par with the liturgy of Christmas. So sacred was St. John’s day deemed that two rival armies, meeting face to face on June 23, by common accord put off the battle until the morrow of the feast (Battle of Fontenay, 841). “Joy, which is the characteristic of the day, radiated from the sacred precincts. The lovely summer nights, at St. John’s tide, gave free scope to popular display of lively faith among various nationalities. Scarce had the last rays of the setting sun died away when, all the world over, immense columns of flame arose from every mountain-top, and in an instant, every town, and village, and hamlet was lighted up” (Gueranger). The custom of the “St. John’s fires”, whatever its origin, has, in certain regions, endured unto this day.

by Charles L. Souvay in catholic.com

Bible History Set in Stone

Posted on Updated on

A few weeks ago, while leading a pilgrimage tour to Israel, I couldn’t wait to bring the group to one of the greatest museums in the world: the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Packed with artifacts from the biblical period, it’s a treasure trove for anyone interested in the material remains of salvation history.

The museum also houses one of the more important archaeological finds of recent years: an artifact that has bolstered our confidence in the veracity of the Old Testament accounts of the kingdom of David, his son Solomon, and their successors.

Biblical “minimalists” had long contended that King David did not actually preside over a kingdom that originated circa the tenth century B.C., as the Bible states. Indeed, these scholars alleged that David, Solomon, and in fact the entire line of Davidic kings chronicled in the Old Testament, are nothing more than fictional characters invented by the writers of the Hebrew scriptures.

In favor of the “minimalist” argument was the lack of any evidence of David’s existence outside the Bible.

But here’s where archaeology came to the rescue. During the 1993-94 excavations at Tel Dan, in northern Israel, a stele (a stone slab bearing an inscription) was unearthed. Made from basalt, a volcanic rock plentiful in the region, it bears an account of a military victory. Scholars have postulated that the inscription commemorates an Aramean king’s defeat of Israelite forces. It may have been commissioned by Hazael or Ben-Hadad III, his son (cf. 2 Kings 10:32, 13:3, 22; 2 Chron. 22:5).

The key line on the monument, the stunning find, is the mention of the “House of David.” There it was, written in stone—independent confirmation of David’s existence and of a line of kings so powerful that defeating armies from this “House” warranted a public brag of sorts on this stele, for all passersby to read and marvel at.

Analysis of the stele dates it to the mid-ninth century BC, right around the time when, according to Scripture, David’s dynasty would have been flourishing. It appears that the stele was broken by the Israelites after they recaptured the area some time later, and was eventually repurposed into building blocks for the city wall.

After this discovery, as chronicled by Craig Evans, the minimalists changed their approach. “Okay, okay,” they admitted, “maybe David existed after all. But he was a nobody. A local tribal chief, at best, certainly not the originator of the vast, Iron-Age kingdom described in the Old Testament.”

At this point, faced with what seems like special pleading, one is tempted to respond like Jerry Seinfeld: “Really? Really?”

But don’t despair—again, archaeology is our friend here.

First of all, if David had been merely a small-time local yokel, what on earth were his descendants doing fighting battles all the way up north, near the modern-day border that separates Israel and Syria, far from his allegedly tiny operation in Jerusalem?

Also, a vast, centralized complex of buildings—in all likelihood, a government compound—has been unearthed in the Old City of Jerusalem, and can be seen on tours today. It’s located in what’s known as the “City of David” and dates to approximately the tenth century B.C.; once more, the time when Scripture says that David and Solomon were establishing their empire. Again, this seems fairly excessive if we’re talking about an insignificant tribal chieftain, but it does fit the biblical narrative of David’s expansive realm.

To this our minimalist might say, “I’ll grant you that David existed, and perhaps he did preside over a significantly large kingdom, but we still can’t trust what the Bible says about him. The people of David’s time would not have been significantly literate enough to record his exploits or those of his descendants”.

This last objection is at least partially answered by—you guessed it—yet another archaeological discovery. In 2008, an ostracon (an inscribed piece of pottery) dating to the tenth century B.C. was disinterred at the ancient fortress city of Khirbet Qeiyafa, which was the only fortified Judahite city during the reigns of David and his predecessor, King Saul (in fact, the Qeiyafa ostracon is the only extant relic that mentions Saul).

The famed French epigrapher Émile Puech regards the inscription as the earliest writing narrating the transition of Israel from a people ruled by judges into a kingdom. It shows that the people living around David’s time were literate, and in fact, more than capable of recording (and passing on) the annals of David’s dynasty, such as we see in the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles.

The Tel Dan stele and the Qeiyafa ostracon are just two examples from the multitude of archaeological discoveries in Israel that have bolstered our understanding of, and in many cases substantiated the reliability of, biblical records of history. Since only roughly five percent of all biblical sites have been excavated to date (which is unbelievable considering how much has already been found), It’s truly exciting to think of how many more such finds may be unearthed in the years to come.

by Cale Clarke, in catholic.com

The Story of the Crown of Thorns

Posted on

When the magnificent Cathedral of Our Lady (Notre Dame) in Paris caught fire earlier this week, the world was mesmerized by the apparent destruction of such an historical and holy edifice—one of the most widely recognized and frequently visited structures in the world.

Although the soaring Gothic cathedral is well known, until recent events relatively few people knew that it has been home to the holy relic of the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ during his Passion. The destructive fire sharpened the world’s focus on the cathedral, Paris, and the Catholic Church at the beginning of the holiest week of the year and, in God’s own providential way, made more widely known the existence of this singular relic.

It has also aroused skepticism and questions. How did one of the central relics of the Passion end up in the capital of France? How do we know this relic is authentic? Isn’t it more likely some pious myth?

The story of the arrival of the crown in Paris is a dramatic tale of the sacking of a majestic city, a bankrupt empire, and a saintly monarch desirous of manifesting leadership of Christendom in medieval Europe.

Three of the four Gospel narratives record that Jesus, during his Passion, was crowned with thorns by Roman soldiers (Mark 15:17, Matt 27:29, John 19:2, 5). However, documentary evidence for the crown’s whereabouts after the Crucifixion are scarce until the fifth century, when the Gallo-Roman bishop St. Paulinus of Nola (354-431) referenced the relics of the crown and the cross in his writings. A century later, the Roman senator and later monk Cassiodorus (c. 490-585) mentioned the relic of the crown of thorns in his commentary on Psalm 86.

Another sixth-century reference is found in the travel diary of the anonymous Pilgrim of Piacenza, a Christian from Italy who went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, who wrote, “There is in that church [the basilica Church of Hagia Zion] also the crown of thorns with which the Lord was crowned.” From the sixth to the tenth centuries, there are reports of the distribution of thorns from the crown to various persons including St. Germanus (c. 469-576), the bishop of Paris; Charlemagne (742-814), king of the Franks and holy roman emperor; and the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelstan (894-939). It is believed that sometime in the mid-eleventh century the crown was transferred from Jerusalem to Constantinople, where it remained for nearly two centuries.

In the thirteenth century, Robert de Clari (1170-1216), a French warrior who participated in the Fourth Crusade (1201-1205), provided a description of his Crusade activities. He describes in his chronicle the multitude of precious objects and sacred relics contained within the majestic city of Constantinople:

Within this chapel were found… two pieces of the true cross… two nails that were driven through the midst of his hands and through the midst of his feet. And there, too, was found the blessed crown wherewith he was crowned, which was wrought of sea rushes, sharp as dagger blades.”

The Fourth Crusade, in 1204, resulted in the sack of Constantinople, which Pope Innocent III (r.1198-1216) condemned, and the establishment of a Latin Empire (called “this new France” by Pope Honorius III and colloquially known as “Romania”) that lasted until 1261. The Latin Empire faced significant challenges in its short existence, including the presence of exiled Byzantines, who wanted their imperial capital back, and a lack of western military manpower. Many westerners left the Holy Land and settled in Latin-controlled Constantinople, which ultimately weakened Christian-controlled territory in the Latin East (Acre, one of the last major Christian cities in the Holy Land, fell to a Muslim army in 1291).

The last Latin emperor to rule in Constantinople was Baldwin II (r. 1228–1273), who was also the only Latin emperor born in the city. Faced with significant financial difficulties, Baldwin embarked on a tour of western Europe in a recruitment campaign for men and money. While in France, Baldwin received word that his barons had borrowed money from the Venetians and used the crown of thorns as collateral. He begged King St. Louis IX(1214–1270) to help him repay the loan to prevent the transfer of the precious relic to Venice. In return, Baldwin promised to gift the crown of thorns to Louis.

The saintly monarch envisioned France as a new Holy Land, and what better way to manifest that vision than with possession of the relics of the Lord’s Passion. The king earnestly believed that the offer from Baldwin was providential and agreed to provide the funds to the young emperor. King Louis sent two Dominicans (Jacques and André), one of whom had spent time in Constantinople and could verify the authenticity of the relic, with a royal letter to the imperial city. The royal messengers arrived on June 17, 1238, one day before the loan’s due date. The Venetians, disappointed that the prized relic would not permanently reside in their city, honored the king’s payment with the condition that Louis allow the crown to travel to Venice for a period of veneration by the inhabitants of the republic. Louis agreed to the request, and, in 1239, the crown was transported across the sea to Venice, where it was received with much adulation.

That same year, the relic began the overland journey to France. Miraculous occurrences were reported during its journey to Louis’s kingdom, including weather phenomena wherein no rain fell when the relic was transported by day but torrential rains when it was safely inside at night. The king planned to accompany the crown into Paris (along with his mother, brothers, several bishops, barons and knights), meeting it ninety miles away at the town of Villeneuve-l’Archevêque.

From there, the king and his entourage began a penitential procession to Sens, which welcomed the relic with great fanfare. Clerics brought out the city’s collection of saint relics to welcome the crown amid the ringing of church bells and the sound of organs. The relic’s journey of continued via the Yonne River from Sens to Vincennes over several days. As they neared Paris, Louis and his brother Robert carried the crown of thorns into the city barefoot, each wearing a single tunic. Once inside the city, the king took the crown to Notre Dame Cathedral for a brief period before its arrival at the royal palace, where it was placed in the Chapel of St. Nicholas.

Recognizing that such a holy relic should not remain in a small palace chapel, King St. Louis IX ordered the construction of a special chapel on the Île de la Cité, near Notre Dame. The Gothic style chapel, known as Sainte-Chapelle (Holy Chapel), containing fifteen exquisite stained glass windows that depict 1,113 scenes from the Bible, was consecrated on April 26, 1248.

The crown of thorns remained in Sainte-Chapelle for over 500 years until the French Revolution, which saw the crown removed to the National Library for several years until the archbishop of Paris received it back with the signing of the Concordat of 1801 between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII. Subsequently, the crown was placed in Notre Dame. Encased in a jeweled rock crystal reliquary and containing only a circlet of rushes and no thorns, the relic was displayed on First Fridays of the month and Fridays during Lent, including Good Friday when the faithful were allowed to venerate it.

Although the fire destroyed the spire and wooden roof of the almost 900-year-old cathedral, a courageous priest, Fr. Jean-Marc Fournier,  rescued the crown, along with other holy relics and the Blessed Sacrament, from the blaze. Let us hope and pray that the renewed interest and knowledge of Notre Dame Cathedral and the crown of thorns caused by the great fire of 2019 might bring a resurgence of faith to France—the Eldest Daughter of the Church—and the whole world.

by Steve Weidenkkopf in catholic.com

A Mystic for Our Time

Posted on Updated on

I have a power in my soul which is ever receptive to God. I am as certain [of that] as that I am a man, that nothing is so close to me as God. God is closer to me than I am to myself: my being depends on God’s being near me and present to me. — Meister Eckhart (circa 1260-1328)


The scenario is bleak: Consumerism and materialism dominate all aspects of social life. Older people look with alarm at the crumbling of civic and religious institutions. Young people view the future with a sense of foreboding. Politicians appear self-interested, religious leaders hypocritical, business people ever more corrupt. Violence is escalating at home and abroad, with no ready solution in sight. Alienation and disorientation are pervasive.

Whatever similarities we may find in our contemporary predicament, the society I’m describing is 14th-century Germany. As in 21st-century America, many people of the time, feeling battered by the world around them, sought spiritual wisdom and a more profound connection to the divine. In the early 1300s, this meant that a large number of practicing Christians, laypeople and clerics alike, were searching for a more direct and satisfying experience of God’s presence than what they found in familiar institutional practices.

The potential chaos embodied in these grassroots, subjective movements alarmed some Church leaders. From his seat in Avignon, Pope John XXII, while mostly concerned with matters of state, sought to rein in both the “radical” Franciscans, who preached the importance of apostolic poverty, and the women known as beguines, who formed what we would today call intentional religious communities — groups of spiritually likeminded laypeople, rather than members of a formal religious order, who lived and prayed together.

In the midst of this tumult, many Christian seekers in the Rhineland of what is today western Germany found life-altering wisdom in the preaching of a Dominican friar, Eckhart von Hochheim, better known as Meister (“Master”) Eckhart. An acclaimed scholar trained at the University of Paris, Meister Eckhart sought to bring the fruits of his many years of theological and philosophical study and contemplation to lay audiences — an unusual aspiration among priest-scholars, who typically considered such matters beyond the comprehension of average people.

Even more revolutionary was Eckhart’s message. Unlike most preachers of the day, who focused on sin and eternal punishment, he described a process he called “the divine birth,” in which true believers could experience God directly within them. The key lay in letting go of all worldly things, all desires and preconceptions — even one’s image of God himself: “The more completely you are able to draw in your powers to a unity and forget all those things and their images which you have absorbed, and the further you can get from creatures and their images, the nearer you are to this [divine birth] and the readier to receive it.”

Then, he said — “in the midst of silence” — God would come within the soul.

Meister Eckhart’s way to “know” God directly was shaped by two central insights, the products of many years of study and contemplation. The first was that the seeker must “unknow” everything he or she thinks about God. Human language and images are essentially metaphorical, comparing things to one another. But God is completely other. Obviously he is not an old man with a flowing white beard (or even a “he”), but he is also not a being in the sense that we normally mean. It is more accurate, according to Eckhart, to say that God is Being itself, since all existence derives from him. “We should learn not to give God any name . . . for God is above names and ineffable.” In fact, Eckhart warns, “if you think of anything he might be, he is not that.” This deconstruction of images of God, in which we come closer to knowing the ineffable divine by negative attributions — God does not exist in time or space, for instance — than by positive attributions, is known as negative theology, a tradition dating back to St. Augustine.

“We are the cause of all our hindrances. Guard yourself against yourself, then you will have guarded well.” — Meister Eckhart

God’s “unknowability” in word and image was a hard concession for a professional scholar who had invested himself in coming to know God through a rigorous probing of Scripture and Catholic tradition. But the more that Eckhart had tried to approach God rationally, the more frustrated he had become. Instead he came upon a second key insight: One could “know” God through direct experience. Later scholars would call such an approach “mystical,” but a more accurate and less loaded term for what Eckhart meant would be “intuitive”: Rather than trying to know God from the outside, through our senses and intellect, we should try to know him from the inside, from that divine presence already within each of us.

Eckhart called this presence “the divine spark.” He preached that, through a contemplative process of self-emptying, or “letting-go-ness,” the seeker will directly encounter the God within. Only with the death of the old and false self, in theological terms, could the new and true self be born.

The concept traces to St. Paul, who directed Christians to “put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.” In Eckhart’s interpretation, the resulting “divine birth” represented no mere metaphor but a direct encounter of the individual soul with the divine. The best news was that God was eager to fully embrace the seeker: “You need not seek him here or there,” he wrote. “He is no further than the door of your heart; there he stands patiently awaiting whoever is ready to open up and let him in. No need to call him from afar: He can hardly wait for you to open up. He longs for you a thousand times more than you long for him.”

Eckhart’s message both excited and unnerved the Christians of his day. Although he never denigrated the external forms of piety around him — he was an active priest — his focus on the internal, on contemplation, was highly unusual, even unsettling to many lay listeners. The Church they knew preached that each person’s salvation depended on the performance of good works and acts of contrition, yet these were absent from Eckhart’s teaching. The Church they knew revolved around the veneration of saints and the celebration of sacraments, yet these played no apparent role in the internal self-transcendence Eckhart described. The Church they knew esteemed monks, nuns and other contemplatives as closer to God than the layperson, yet Eckhart preached that direct experience of God was accessible to any true seeker, regardless of social or religious status.

It is a testament to the truly “catholic” nature of medieval Christianity that what Eckhart called  “a wayless way” to divine union — and subsequent commentators would call apophatic or imageless mysticism — coexisted peacefully with Eucharistic devotions, pilgrimages and penitential self-flagellation. Not until late in his life did Eckhart become caught up in an inquisitorial procedure, based largely on local politics, that culminated in several of his statements being condemned in a papal bull as “evil-sounding.” After eliminating these more controversial statements, his disciples Johannes Tauler and Blessed Heinrich Suso continued to attract followers after the master’s death in the late 1320s. Still, after several decades the master himself faded into obscurity.

Fast forward seven centuries and the medieval Dominican friar has emerged as something of a modern spiritual celebrity. Millions of Roman Catholics and other Christians now claim Meister Eckhart as one of their own, not to mention many Zen Buddhists, Sufi Muslims, Advaita Vedanta Hindus, Jewish Cabalists and a variety of other seekers who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” In the United States, interest in Eckhart owes much to the popularity of his namesake, Eckhart (born Ulrich) Tolle, a spiritual teacher and author whose beliefs weave together the medieval master’s teachings with an eclectic blend of contemporary Eastern and New Age concepts. Thanks in part to the massively influential endorsement of A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Oprah’s Book Club, the modern Eckhart’s books have together been translated into more than 30 languages and sold some 10 million copies worldwide.

What is it that all these people see in the words of this sage from a distant era? The most common denominator appears to be an attraction to Eckhart’s revolutionary method of direct access to God (or, for some, to ultimate reality) — a profoundly subjective approach that is at once intuitive and pragmatic, philosophical yet non-rational, and above all, universally accessible. Many modern Christian authors, such as the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr — who calls Eckhart a “mystic’s mystic” — view his teachings as part of a long Christian contemplative tradition.

“Where is this hidden God? It is just as if a man were to hide himself and then to give himself away by clearing his throat. God has done the same. No man could ever have found God, but he has revealed his presence.” — Meister Eckhart

Despite that noble pedigree, Meister Eckhart was late to gain notice among modern Christians. His attractiveness to many contemporary Catholics ironically owes much to the post-Vatican II Church’s intensified engagement with other world religions. The Council’s 1965 declaration Nostra aetate (“In Our Time”) is best known for its repudiation of Catholicism’s long tradition of anti-Semitic statements, but it also represented the Church’s first genuine outreach to Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and other non-Christian religious traditions. By a vote of 2,221 to 88, the Council affirmed that the Holy Spirit can indeed be at work in these faiths as well, although obviously not to the same degree as in Christ’s ordained Church.

Already by that time, several Catholic thinkers had begun to explore affinities with non-Christian religions, particularly those of Asia. One of the most famous of those spiritual explorers, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, engaged extensively with Zen Buddhist teachings before discovering a strikingly similar approach already present within his own tradition: Meister Eckhart. Merton agreed with his frequent correspondent, the Japanese scholar D. T. Suzuki, who called Eckhart “the one Zen thinker of the West.”

At the same time that medieval Japanese monks were formulating the core of Zen teaching, Eckhart drew deeply on centuries of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and pagan thought to develop a remarkably similar approach to experience of the divine. “Letting-go-ness” lines up with the Zen “no-mind” (wuxin) as well as the Taoist “no action” (wu wei). Buddhists also appreciate the master’s distinction between the constructed individual identity of each person — what we would call the ego and Eckhart calls the “false self” — and the common nature we all share, the authentic self, which the master identified as divine.

Like his Zen counterparts, Eckhart was wary of God-talk, which he thought more often obscured than revealed the divine, and he aspired to a unity with the ultimate. He called this a “second” or “divine” birth, which is in many ways similar to the Buddhist notion of satori, orenlightenment. The resulting “Christ nature” that he described, echoing St. Paul in Galatians 2:20 (“It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”) looks remarkably similar to the internal “Buddha nature” of the Mahayana tradition.

At the same time, Eckhart’s embrace of meditation anticipates by seven centuries its popularity, along with the practice of “mindfulness,” among people of faith as well as among the ever-growing number of New Age seekers, agnostics and avowed atheists and others who list their religious affiliation as “none.”

Obviously many important differences remain between the Catholic Eckhart and other faith traditions, most notably on the role and identity of Christ. But the significant convergences have attracted increasing attention since the 1960s. In that sense, Eckhart, whom Merton called “my life-raft,” has brought the contemplative tradition to non-Catholics while deepening the modern Church’s ecumenical dialogue with other spiritual traditions.

Of course, not all Catholics would view the similarity of Eckhart’s teachings to Zen Buddhist practices as a recommendation. While more ecumenical Catholic writers such as the priests Aelred Graham, OSB, Robert E. Kennedy, S.J., and Richard Rohr celebrate the affinity, other more conservative thinkers, such as James Hitchcock, have remained cautious about a full embrace of the medieval friar (particularly given Eckhart’s sermons on the Godhead, in which detractors detect hints of pantheism).

Other modern advocates of lay contemplative practices — particularly Father Thomas Keating, OCSO, and the other founders of Centering Prayer — have bypassed Eckhart altogether in favor of other mystical writings such as The Cloud of Unknowing, a work composed in Middle English a few decades after Eckhart’s death. Yet during the past 20 years, the tide among Catholics has shifted definitively. The two previous popes have spoken favorably of the once-censured Meister Eckhart, leading the Dominicans to request a formal rehabilitation of their late brother in 1992, only to be informed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2010 that, in the words of Father Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., former master of the order, “there was really no need, since he had never been condemned by name, just some propositions which he was supposed to have held, and so we are perfectly free to say that he is a good and orthodox theologian.”

“Mysticism” also remains a suspicious concept for many modern people, given its popular association with visions and other supernatural experiences. But Meister Eckhart never claimed any special powers or called himself a mystic — or anything other than a Catholic preacher of the gospel. If he was a mystic, he was a profoundly anti-obscurant, egalitarian and down-to-earth one, rooted in centuries of Catholic contemplative tradition. In that sense he may be the perfect mystic for our own troubled times.

By Joel Harrington in magazine.nd.edu


Joel Harrington is Centennial Professor of History at Vanderbilt University and the author or editor of seven books on premodern Germany. His Dangerous Mystic: Meister Eckhart’s Path to the God Within was published in March 2018 by Penguin Press.

Pentecost Benedictio Militis, Arraiolos 2018 – The Ceremony

Posted on Updated on

A substantial part of the ceremony of adoubement is conducted privately, only accessible to members of the Order. The act of adoubement itself, however, is public. It becomes a commitment not only to the Order but also to the world. Having this in mind, it’s not easy to describe the complete ceremony as it is conducted in the priory of Portugal, since it strictly follows Tradition, starting just moments before sunset, leading to a night long vigil where the future Knights and Dames are led to contemplate their life and prepare to partake of a new quality, that is both physical and spiritual, that could change their lives.

It is preferable, therefore, that we let images and quotes fill the gaps of what is customary to make public and what is deemed as more suitable to keep reserved and personal.

Alba Avis

“Once they have installed themselves in this holy house with their horses and their weapons, clean it”, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

Ex Occidente Lux

“Colors are light’s suffering and joy”, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Lux in Flamma

“Danger or victory depends on the disposition of heart”, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

In Tenebrae

“This is, I say, a new kind of knighthood and one unknown to the ages gone by. It ceaselessly wages a twofold war both against flesh and blood and against a spiritual army of evil in the heavens.”, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

Sola Fide

Spero in Fide

Post Tenebras Lux

“Go forth confidently”, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

Gaudium

Benedictio Militis

“If some perhaps find my work unsatisfactory or short of the mark, I shall be nonetheless content, since I have not failed to give you my best.”, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

All photos were taken by members of the Order, including Novices, Squires, Knights and Dames. For a full credit list, please visit our Facebook Group.

The Order has the following new Knights and Dames: Catarina Silva, DTJ; Cristina Vargas, DTJ; Filipe Silva, KTJ; Inês Ferreira, DTJ; João Gonçalves, KTJ; Jorge Amador, KTJ; Jorge Cravosa, KTJ; Pedro Bernardo, KTJ; Vera Reis, DTJ. The Order also received new Novices and Squires.

After the Benedictio Militis and the Pentecost Mass, the Order joined the Idegeo [Association] of Professor Manuel J. Gandra‘s celebration of Pentecost in Arraiolos. The Portuguese traditional Império do Divino Espírito Santo, in preparation for the Third Age announced by Joachim of Fiore or the Fifth Empire (of the Holy Spirit) referred to by poet Fernando Pessoa and many others, is comprised of an Auto, with the Parade and Coronation of the Child King, followed by the Bodo do Império, a popular feast and meal shared between all the participants as the anticipation of an era of the universal fraternity of mankind. This is the second year that the Priory of Portugal supports and attends these celebrations as part of the annual calendar.

For inquiries, feel free to email osmthu@mail.com

What exactly is the Holy Grail – and why has its meaning eluded us for centuries?

Posted on Updated on

Type “Holy Grail” into Google and … well, you probably don’t need me to finish that sentence. The sheer multiplicity of what any search engine throws up demonstrates that there is no clear consensus as to what the Grail is or was. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of people out there claiming to know its history, true meaning and even where to find it.

Modern authors, perhaps most (in)famously Dan Brown, offer new interpretations and, even when these are clearly and explicitly rooted in little more than imaginative fiction, they get picked up and bandied about as if a new scientific and irrefutable truth has been discovered. The Grail, though, will perhaps always eschew definition. But why?

The first known mention of a Grail (“un graal”) is made in a narrative spun by a 12th century writer of French romance, Chrétien de Troyes, who might reasonably be referred to as the Dan Brown of his day – though some scholars would argue that the quality of Chrétien’s writing far exceeds anything Brown has so far produced.

Chrétien’s Grail is mystical indeed – it is a dish, big and wide enough to take a salmon, that seems capable to delivering food and sustenance. To obtain the Grail requires asking a particular question at the Grail Castle. Unfortunately, the exact question (“Whom does the Grail serve?”) is only revealed after the Grail quester, the hapless Perceval, has missed the opportunity to ask it. It seems he is not quite ready, not quite mature enough, for the Grail.

But if this dish is the “first” Grail, then why do we now have so many possible Grails? Indeed, it is, at turns, depicted as the chalice of the Last Supper or of the Crucifixion or both, or as a stone containing the elixir of life, or even as the bloodline of Christ. And this list is hardly exhaustive. The reason most likely has to do with the fact that Chrétien appears to have died before completing his story, leaving the crucial questions as to what the Grail is and means tantalisingly unanswered. And it did not take long for others to try to answer them for him.

Robert de Boron, a poet writing within 20 or so years of Chrétien (circa 1190-1200), seems to have been the first to have associated the Grail with the cup of the Last Supper. In Robert’s prehistory of the object, Joseph of Arimathea took the Grail to the Crucifixion and used it to catch Christ’s blood. In the years that followed (1200-1230), anonymous writers of prose romances fixated upon the Last Supper’s Holy Chalice and made the Grail the subject of a quest by various knights of King Arthur’s court. In Germany, by contrast, the knight and poet Wolfram von Eschenbach reimagined the Grail as “Lapsit exillis” – an item more commonly referred to these days as the “Philosopher’s Stone”.

None of these is anything like Chrétien’s Grail, of course, so we can fairly ask: did medieval audiences have any more of a clue about the nature of the Holy Grail than we do today?

Publishing the Grail

My recent book delves into the medieval publishing history of the French romances that contain references to the Grail legend, asking questions about the narratives’ compilation into manuscript books. Sometimes, a given text will be bound alongside other types of texts, some of which seemingly have nothing to do with the Grail whatsoever. So, what sorts of texts do we find accompanying Grail narratives in medieval books? Can this tell us anything about what medieval audiences knew or understood of the Grail?

The picture is varied, but a broad chronological trend is possible to spot. Some of the few earliest manuscript books we still have see Grail narratives compiled alone, but a pattern quickly appears for including them into collected volumes. In these cases, Grail narratives can be found alongside historical, religious or other narrative (or fictional) texts. A picture emerges, therefore, of a Grail just as lacking in clear definition as that of today.

Perhaps the Grail served as a useful tool that could be deployed in all manner of contexts to help communicate the required message, whatever that message may have been. We still see this today, of course, such as when we use the phrase “The Holy Grail of…” to describe the practically unobtainable, but highly desirable prize in just about any area you can think of. There is even a guitar effect-pedal named “holy grail”.

Once the prose romances of the 13th century started to appear, though, the Grail took on a proper life of its own. Like a modern soap opera, these romances comprised vast reams of narrative threads, riddled with independent episodes and inconsistencies. They occupied entire books, often enormous and lavishly illustrated, and today these offer evidence that literature about the Grail evaded straightforward understanding and needed to be set apart – physically and figuratively. In other words, Grail literature had a distinctive quality – it was, as we might call it today, a genre in its own right.

In the absence of clear definition, it is human nature to impose meaning. This is what happens with the Grail today and, according to the evidence of medieval book compilation, it is almost certainly what happened in the Middle Ages, too. Just as modern guitarists use their “holy grail” to experiment with all kinds of sounds, so medieval writers and publishers of romance used the Grail as an adaptable and creative instrument for conveying a particular message to their audience, the nature of which could be very different from one book to the next.

Whether the audience always understood that message, of course, is another matter entirely.

in theconversation.com by Leah Tether

 

Last Supper: What Wine Was Served at Jesus and the Apostles’ Final Meal?

Posted on Updated on

The Bible offers a pretty comprehensive answer to the question ‘WWJD?’: what would Jesus do? But, as Christians observe Easter and the Last Supper another question arises: what would jesus drink?

To answer this question, the location and timing of the final meal that Jesus had with his disciples before he was crucified is key. And three of four of the accounts of Jesus’ life in the Bible – known as the Gospels – suggest that it took place on the last Thursday celebration of Passover in around AD 30,  Father Daniel Kendall, Professor of Theology and Scripture at the University of San Francisco told wine app Vivino.

“Unlike John the Baptist, Jesus drank wine,” explains Father Kendall, adding: “From the descriptions it was most likely a Seder meal. Since it was and is the most important of Jewish feasts, wine would have been part of the festivities.”

While grape varieties may not have been named and identified as they are now, wine had been made in this part of the Middle East since around 4000 BC.

Archaeological evidence suggests that around the time of the last supper, rich, concentrated wines were popular, says Dr Patrick McGovern, Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and director of Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia.

In Judah more specifically – near Jerusalem where the Last Supper is said to have taken place – archaeologists have found a jar inscribed with: “wine made from black raisins”. This means that winemakers may have used grapes dried on the vine or in the sun on mats to create sweet, thick drinks. At sites nearby in the region, jars labelled “smoked wine” and “very dark wine” have also been found.

While it was common to water down wine at the time, there was a taste in Jerusalem for rich, concentrated wine, according to Dr McGovern.

Spices and fruits – including pomegranates, mandrakes, saffron and cinnamon – were used to flavour such wines, and tree resin were added to help preserve them. So, the wine drank at the Last Supper, then, might resemble the mulled wine some of us drink at Christmas.

Today, comparable bottles would include Amarone, which is made in Northern Italy with grapes dried on straw mats.

While it’s unclear exactly which wine Jesus drank at the last supper, Dr McGovern jokes: “If someone can find me the Holy Grail and send it to my lab, we could analyse it and tell you.”

in The Independent