Mary 6 – Brothers

Posted: January 16th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 6 – Brothers

In the comments to Elizabeth Esther’s post, there were primarily two objections from Scripture raised against the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The more common one asks about his brothers — two of whom are also considered to have written books of the New Testament. If Mary didn’t have any more children, how is it that Jesus had brothers? I think the fact that it’s such a common and sincere question illustrates how completely disconnected so many modern Christians have become from the historical tradition of the Church. It was my impression that most of the people who asked about Jesus’ brothers in the comments on EE’s post weren’t consciously disagreeing with the tradition of the Church; rather, they knew nothing about it.

The oldest, and I believe most likely, tradition is that Joseph was an older man, a widower, and a father. Thus the siblings of Jesus were Joseph’s children from his prior marriage. That feels right to me on multiple levels. First, we are told that Joseph had earned the name or reputation of tsadiq or righteous. In the context of an externalized honor-shame culture, that public name is even more significant. While I suppose it’s possible a young man could be numbered among the tsadiqim, it feels more like the sort of recognition an older, more established man would have earned — especially in a culture that already tended to respect age over youth.

Also, the snippets of encounters in the Gospels (Mark 3:31-32 and Matthew 12:46-47) have always felt to me more like older brothers trying to straighten out a younger sibling who isn’t doing what they expected him to do. But perhaps that’s just the eldest sibling (and eldest first cousin, for that matter) in me.

And finally, we know that Joseph died sometime after teaching Jesus a trade, but before the Theophany at our Lord’s baptism. While people can and could die at any age from many causes, this fact fits with the idea that he was an older man when he was betrothed to Mary.

A different tradition arose in the West, casting Joseph as a younger man closer to Mary in age. In that tradition, the brothers of Jesus are actually his cousins raised in close proximity to him and possibly even in the same household. (The nuclear family as we understand it is quite different from ancient households and families.) That’s certainly possible. It’s true that ancient Aramaic used the same word for all close male relations of a similar age or generation. And the Greek word used also does not necessarily describe a sibling relationship, though it can. From everything I’ve been able to discover, this tradition arises later and exclusively in the West. Jerusalem and the regions in the Gospels are all in the East and this tradition never took root there. For both those reasons, it seems less likely to me.

Finally there is John 19:25-27 to consider.

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.

I’ve only been a member of a Southern Baptist Church as a Christian, so I’m familiar with the modern, Protestant understanding of the above passage. Basically it goes that as the eldest son, Jesus was responsible for his widowed mother and since his brothers did not believe he was the Messiah and had rejected him (an assertion, I’ll note, for which there really isn’t any evidence), he chose to have John care for Mary. I suppose that makes sense to our modern sensibilities, but it’s completely anachronistic. First, all the sons of a widow were responsible for her care. And it was an automatic obligation on the eldest surviving son. It wasn’t something that had to be passed along.

Now, think back to my post on the way honor-shame culture works. In that culture, if others believe that I have done something wrong, even if I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong, I am still shamed and dishonored. So under the above interpretation of John’s gospel account, what’s really happening is that Jesus, John, and Mary are all colluding to publicly shame her other sons. I just don’t believe that’s the case. It doesn’t fit the character of any of them as captured in the gospels. It’s certainly difficult to imagine James, after being so dishonored by Jesus himself, becoming the first leading Bishop of the Jerusalem Church and such an influential early Christian figure.

No, the most reasonable interpretation of the text is that Jesus was Mary’s only son so he gave her into the care of John to ensure she didn’t suffer the fate of widows with no sons. (The ancient world was pretty harsh and there was no social safety net. Widows with no sons often did not survive long.) That’s not to say that his community of followers and extended family wouldn’t have cared for Mary anyway, but by doing this Jesus faithfully discharged even this last obligation. Remember, in Christian understanding, Jesus is the one, true faithful man and the fulfillment of faithful Israel.

Of course, John is known as the theological gospel and everything in it has multiple layers of meaning. This text is no different. However,  those layers of theology are grounded in an actual event. At least, most Christians agree it’s an actual event.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 10

Posted: January 20th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 10

32. It was indeed indispensable that He who is by nature the Creator of the being of all things should Himself, through grace, accomplish their deification, and in this way reveal Himself to be not only the author of being but also the giver of eternal well-being. Every creature is totally ignorant both of its own essential being and of that of every other created thing; in consequence no created thing has by nature foreknowledge of anything that will come into existence. Only God has such foreknowledge, and He transcends created things. For He knows what He is in His essence and He knows of the existence of everything made by Him before it comes into being; and it is His purpose to endow created things through grace with a knowledge both of their own essential being and of that of other things; for He will reveal to them the inner principles of their creation, pre-existent in a unified manner within Himself.

We don’t know God. We don’t truly know each other. And often, we do not even know ourselves. We can’t follow Polonius’ maxim, “To thine own self be true,” because we do not know our deepest self or how to be true to it. Before we can be deified, before we can be one with God, we have to be healed. We no longer know what it means to be a human being and we cannot know ourselves or be one with others until we have our true humanity restored. Jesus, in part, became man to restore to us our humanity. That’s one of the reasons it’s so important that Jesus was fully human in every way except sin. He became the faithful man we could not be.


Behold the Man!

Posted: April 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Behold the Man!

I was looking through some things I had written in the past and ran across the following reflection on Pilate. It was written to be performed during a Good Friday service. One of the many layered themes in John’s gospel is a recapitulation of the creation narrative leading up to the new eighth day. On the sixth day in the Genesis 1 narrative, God created mankind. On the sixth “day” in John, we find Pilate declaring, “Behold the Man!”, as Jesus recapitulates our story and becomes the true Eucharistic man, the faithful man — all the way to the Cross.

Formed and shaped as I was growing up, I’ve also always been struck by Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” Of course, for Pilate, truth lay in the strength of the Roman sword. Power was the only “truth” that really mattered. Still, our modern world is now at least as pluralistic as ancient Rome. (And it’s no less besotted with its power.) And within that pluralism, “truth” is … difficult to discern. Truth according to whom? Very likely, that’s probably one of the reasons I tend to use words like “reality” instead. And here again, John’s gospel was helpful. Jesus, after all, says that he is truth. If you follow him, obey his commands, and grow to know him better, then you will know Truth. And when you do that, truth will not bind you or destroy you, as it will in so many other contexts. No, when you perceive reality through the lens that Christ offers, when you follow him and obey his commands, then and only then will the Truth set you free.

Behold the Man!

“Qui est veritas?” That was my response to this man’s impertinent claim. ‘Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to him?’ Utter nonsense! “What is truth?”, I asked. And to that question he had no reply. In fact, he has had little to say at all.

The Jewish leaders claim this man calls himself a king. It’s the only charge they bring against him, aside from some meaningless prattle about blasphemy against their god. I asked him if it was true, did he really believe he was some sort of king? His answer? Nothing but a bare acknowledgment that I had spoken. So arrogant! These Jews all display
such arrogance. If we’re going to discuss ‘truth’, then in truth I would gladly crucify them all. That would end their incessant rebellion. But no, I am expected to maintain the Pax Romana or pay the price of failure. And peace has been in short supply of late.

Truth … who cares about truth anyway? Position. Influence. Money. Power. Those matter. But truth? It means nothing. Often less than nothing.

My wife fears this man is a god or has been sent by the gods. Dreams can certainly be portents at time, but just look at him. Beaten, bloody, and helpless. Surely a god could save himself.

Still, I did see and hear his many followers loudly praising him a few days ago. If I crucify him, they may riot. Yet if I release him, this mob surely will. The flogging failed to quell their blood lust as I hoped it might.

How then shall I resolve the issue? I’ve already tried to release him. The mob demanded the murderer instead. And I’ve declared his innocence more than once. As far as I can tell, it’s even true that he’s innocent, yet more evidence of the uselessness of truth.

Hmmmm. If I present the mob their beaten ‘king’, I’m certain they’ll yet again demand his execution. Their priests and leaders have made certain of that. I could then wash my hands of the matter, crucify this fool, and place the blame on them. If his followers then rise up, it will be against the Jewish leaders. The Jews can fight amongst themselves and leave Rome out of it. Yes … that may even satisfy my wife’s concerns. Perfect.

Just look at this Jesus. Such a fool, angering the wrong people at the wrong time. Pitiful. Behold the ‘King of the Jews.’

Behold the Man!


Amen! Amen!

Posted: February 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

This post is a reflection on something I’ve heard or read a number of times over the past several months from some pretty different sources. Although I wouldn’t say that any aspect of it was something I didn’t know beforehand, it’s been bouncing around my head now for some time. It’s time to express those thoughts in writing.

We know some things about the rabbinic strand of Judaism that began during the exile and continued into the second temple period in which the Christian gospels are rooted. The things we learn about that period historically sometimes cast a particular light on something in the gospels. For instance, there was and is a rabbinic teaching (Berachot 6a) that wherever two or three are gathered together studying Torah, the shekinah of God (the presence and glory of God that, for example, filled Solomon’s temple) is with them. When you understand that teaching, it sheds a deeper light on Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20 (originally written, remember, for a Jewish audience): “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”

When a rabbi taught or spoke, those listening would say “Amen” when he finished if they concurred. “Amen” is the transliteration of an aramaic word that means, in essence, “I agree. I accept it.” Those listening to the rabbi would thus give their “amen”, their agreement after the rabbi had spoken.

That becomes significant as you read the accounts of Jesus teaching in the New Testament. Again and again, Jesus starts his teaching with “verily” (KJV), “truly” (many translations), or “I tell you the truth” (a lot of the more modern translations). We’ve gotten so used to it, I’m not even sure we tend to notice the phrase as we read the gospels. The phrase being translated, though, is “Amen” or “Amen Amen”. When Jesus says that at the start of something he is saying, it stands in sharp contract to typical rabbinic practice of the time. Basically, he is not only giving his own “amen” at the start, he is telling those listening that their “amen” is unnecessary. Jesus doesn’t need it. He is saying that his words are truth whether or not the hearers agree. When people said that he did not speak as other teachers did, that he spoke with authority, that’s certainly a part of what they meant.

That can be a difficult concept for me in many ways. Of course, on one level, it’s obvious that if God is who we find in Jesus of Nazareth, then many things we can imagine about the nature of reality are necessarily ruled out. If reality is resurrection, then reincarnation is ruled out. If reality is love and mercy, then at some level we have to let go of our ideas of karmic retribution. If reality is unfailing love, then we have to let go of the capricious gods that have dominated human history. And yet, the idea that reality is a particular way and does not require my “amen” still at some level bothers me. “Everybody wants to rule the world” as they say — or least their little slice of reality.

And, of course, not only does Jesus need no “amen”, not only does he give his own “amen” before he speaks, we see in Revelation that he is even named the Amen. I sense in that name that Jesus is the Amen of man. He is the true man, the faithful man, the man who gave to God his Amen. And as the faithful man, he recapitulates our story, joining our nature once again with God’s. We withheld our “amen” from God. Jesus stands as the Amen of man to God.


On the Incarnation of the Word 54 – He Was Made Man That We Might Be Made God

Posted: November 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

In this next section, Athanasius makes one of the more profound statements. It captures the process and goal of salvation and our union with Christ in one phrase. It’s the sort of thing that packs an enormous amount into just a few words. Read and reflect on the whole section.

For He was made man that we might be made God

Jesus was made one of us. In the language of Irenaeus (and Paul), Jesus lived the life of the faithful man, overturning our choice as the unfaithful man. In that recapitulation, he broke the power of death over us. Jesus restores us to God, our only source of life. And as we participate in the life, we become participants in the life of God. Because of Christ’s union with humanity, we are able to share in the communion of the life and love of the Triune God. This is the underlying reality that makes Christianity so powerful and compelling. Our God is a God of self-sufficient, eternal love. And we are created to be participants in that life of love.

And, in a word, the achievements of the Saviour, resulting from His becoming man, are of such kind and number, that if one should wish to enumerate them, he may be compared to men who gaze at the expanse of the sea and wish to count its waves. For as one cannot take in the whole of the waves with his eyes, for those which are coming on baffle the sense of him that attempts it; so for him that would take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, it is impossible to take in the whole, even by reckoning them up, as those which go beyond his thought are more than those he thinks he has taken in.

I love this analogy. Have you ever tried to follow the waves of the ocean with your eyes? Have you ever tried to focus and follow a single part, even a single wave? It’s impossible. So it is that our minds cannot compass the wonder of Christ. But as we can stare at the ocean in awe and wonder, so we can behold Christ, even as minds are overwhelmed.


Pentecost – The Healing of Babel

Posted: June 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Pentecost – The Healing of Babel

I keep finding in Orthodoxy not a new perspective, but rather a tradition that says things that have long been my perspective. Father Stephen’s post on Pentecost is but the latest example. This arc of the story had always seemed obvious to me. The narrative of “fall” ends with the tale of Babel and the dispersion of man into nations who stand against each other and who speak with different tongues. That’s immediately followed by God calling a man to form a people and the long story of the people of God culminating in the faithful man, the faithful Israelite, Jesus of Nazareth. In him, God then forms one people from the nations exemplified by the healing of the division of Babel at Pentecost.

In Father Stephen’s post I read that that has always been the way the Orthodox Church looked at it. Further, they extend it to the healing of creation.

Thus the trees.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 9

Posted: May 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I closed my train of thought in my last post with the idea that, though God has not given me celiac disease for any reason whatsoever, he has been quietly at work preparing me and giving me the tools, should I care to employ them, to stand and perhaps even grow in the face of this disease. For the reality is this: though the diagnosis is still so new to me that I have a difficult time truly wrapping my head around it, celiac disease has been working havoc in my body for years now. My gastroenterologist can’t even say how long it’s been active, but from the visible evidence and the other physical effects, it has clearly been a long time. That means that for at least some significant portion of the journey of discovery about Christian fasting that I have described in this series, I was actually suffering from this autoimmune disease.

I may not have known I had celiac disease, but God certainly did.

Now, I suppose I could be angry at God for knowing I was sick and doing nothing to heal me or somehow making me aware of it sooner. But that seems rather pointless to me. Further, I know that God’s purpose is to bring me into his life, to have me and all humanity participate in union with God and with each other, to conform us to the image of his Son, who lived the life of the faithful man God intended each of us to live.

My core cultural formation was such that the center of my being was shaped in more hedonistic and narcissistic ways than not. Would God physically healing me, especially if I didn’t even know I was sick, move me closer toward the center of the life of God? Or is my true and holistic healing to be found in the proper ascetical practice that allows me to heal from the effects of this disease? Might not that path carry healing not only of body, but also of spirit and will? I see the possibility. I see it through the lens of all I have read and heard and encountered of Christian fasting. No, I’m not angry at God at all. I know him. I know how much he loves all of us. And I’m beginning, just beginning, to understand something of the way of life. I understand enough to know that I desire more than simply a body which functions properly. I want to become truly human.

So no, this is not the fast I’ve chosen. It’s not a fast I want. But this is the fast I’ve been given. Will I have it be a fast for the physical and spiritual healing of my whole soul? Or will I have it be a fast of misery and destruction? Will I take advantage of the tools that God has graciously prepared me to use, even if I am still a neophyte and clumsy in their use? Will I choose instead to fast the fast of demons, a narcissistic fast, a fast that is all about me? Or will I ignore the fast altogether and destroy my body? Those are truly the only real choices I face at this  juncture. As the Didache says, “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.” Narrow is the way of life. Broad is the way of death and destruction.

I choose life, in the fullness of the sense of the word.

This is my fast.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 8

Posted: May 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 8

If God is not any of those images of God from my last post in this series, then what sort of God is he? Why does it matter that he is not a God who sends illness and disease? The answer to both of those questions is the same: Jesus of Nazareth.

It seems to me that many in the modern era, whether they profess belief in the Christian God or not, profoundly misunderstand the so-called “miracles” of Jesus. I hear the miracles believed (and disbelieved) as these interventions into the natural order that Jesus did in order to prove that he was divine. The secular division between things that are natural or normal or mundane and things that are of God and holy is accepted almost universally except by those who believe the second category entirely unnecessary. The first category seems everywhere assumed.

The Incarnation itself gives the lie to these ideas. It is less an external intervention into creation than the ultimate coming alongside or joining of the creator and his created. God reveals himself within his creation not as its powerful sustainer on whom it is all contingent from moment to moment (though God is certainly that), but as one with his eikon, man. He joins his nature with ours. He shares in all we are. He participates with us in the most intimate manner possible.

The miracles are never about Jesus proving anything. God had nothing to prove. He was giving up his natural honor and becoming the servant of all. The things we call miracles, excepting the special and unique nature of the Resurrection, always are presented as what happens when God joins his nature to ours, when creation begins to be healed.

Jesus commands the elements. Man was created to rule creation and reflect God into it. We were meant to be the steward of all and lovingly order and care for creation. Of course, the storm bows before the true and faithful man.

Jesus feeds the people. This is what God has always done. From the garden to the desert, God provided food for his eikon. Now, in Jesus, he has come that we might consume God himself and receive life. Of course Jesus fed the people. Where else would we find life?

The demons and invisible powers bow before him and flee his presence. They have long ruled mankind through deceit and the power of death. But their tools are useless against the undeceived man, against the God-man who has come to break the power of death over us all. They have no power over Jesus and they see him as he truly is. I would suggest they see him as he was glimpsed by his followers during the transfiguration. Of course they flee the uncreated light of his glory. His simple presence must have burned them with the knowledge of what they had made themselves to be.

And Jesus healed. What are disease and sickness but the fruit of death at work in our bodies? Our bodies sicken and die because we, collectively as mankind, choose non-existence over life. We make that choice every time we turn from God and in some timeless manner we make creation what it is. There is no singular fall of mankind, some distant past event in which I share no responsibility or culpability. I don’t get to blame some faceless, distant ancestor. Every time I face the void and choose that which is not God, I share in the fall of man, I participate in the ruin of creation. In the Incarnation, God wed his nature to ours in order to enter death and break its power over us. This is the mystery of the Resurrection. Death swallowed a man on the Cross and found it had swallowed God instead. How can disease and illness and death, simultaneously the physical symptom and cause of sin (they are so inextricably intertwined) not flee from the very fount of life itself? Jesus heals sin and heals disease, often together and at the same time. This is part and parcel of the renewal of creation and a foretaste of the ultimate defeat of death.

Now, that is not to say that we get sick because we sin. It’s bigger than that, less individually focused. It is true that we can certainly damage our bodies through our thoughts and actions. But most illness and disease are simply part and parcel of a disordered creation. Did Jesus get sick in the Incarnation when he fully assumed the human nature? It seems likely to me that he did. We know he so fully assumed our nature that he was able to die. And could he have experienced all that we experience, could he have been tempted in every way we are tempted if he was never tempted to blame God for an illness? It’s one of the oldest temptations. I recall what Job’s wife said to Job when he was sitting in dung covered with boils. “Curse God and die!” Would a Jesus never so tempted ever even understand, much less have been faithful through, so basic a human temptation?

No, God did not give me celiac disease. That would be an almost blasphemous claim. But perhaps he did work to prepare me for this disease. Let’s explore that idea next in this series.