To understand the Gospels and the other writings of what we call the New Testament, we must understand the Old Testament, what the Jews call the Hebrew Bible, or the Septuagint.
The Bible is God’s word, and so it has depths which require a lifetime of reading, depths which will never be plumbed, no matter how many times we read the books of the Bible.
Within the Bible there are many different literary forms. Many books of the Bible contain passages written by different human authors, subsequently edited and assembled into a whole. The books of the Bible were written mainly in Hebrew, and in Greek. So, anyone who pursues a scholarly interest in the Bible must become proficient in both ancient languages, as well as knowing the history and literature of the world in which the Bible was written.
As the books of the Bible were written and edited in different eras, a scholar must be familiar with the world of what we call the Middle East, including the civilisations that originated between the Tigris and Euphrates and that spread throughout the Fertile Crescent; the history of Egypt; the history of the Phoenicians; the Assyrian empire; the Babylonian empire; the Persian empire; the conquests of Alexander the Great, and his Hellenistic successors; the Roman empire…
As most of us are not scholars, we must rely on scholars who bring to their work not only scholarship, but also faith–for without faith, the Bible cannot be understood.
The Book of Hosea was written in what was the northern kingdom of Israel, then under Assyrian rule, around 750-725 BC.
Hosea expresses themes which foreshadow the Gospels. For instance, God loves us steadfastly and faithfully, no matter what our sins. God calls us to repentance and conversion. God is like a spouse, steadfast and faithful in love for a spouse who has gone astray; like a parent who remains steadfast and faithful, no matter what. God does not seek empty rituals, but heartfelt action-mercy not sacrifice; knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings. God seeks that the sinner return to him. The message of Hosea is: by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.
Repentance and Conversion
That same message of Hosea is expressed seven hundred years later by St John the Baptist, and by his cousin Jesus of Nazareth, each in their own way, calling to repentance and conversion. John the Baptist urges–“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John the Baptist urges generosity: “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none, and he who has food, let him do likewise.” And to the police of the time, he urges honesty, demonstrating that nothing ever changes: “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
Jesus of Nazareth
St Matthew recounts among Jesus’ first words at the beginning of his public ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” St Mark recounts Jesus’ first words as including: “Repent and believe the Gospel“. Implicit in almost every encounter of Jesus recorded in the Gospels is the urging to repentance and conversion. Come back!
The message of repentance and conversion is the same message of repentance and conversion brought to us today in the Advent liturgy as we await the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Australian lawyer, Frank Sheed, wrote a number of works – To Know Christ Jesus, Knowing God, Theology and Sanity, Theology for Beginners, Society and Sanity, A Map of Life, Christ in Eclipse – and translated St Augustine’s Confessions. These works remain as well worth reading today as when they were first written. Frank Sheed provides a comprehensive, scholarly, yet readable introduction to Christianity.
Frank Sheed argues that Christianity is a social religion. We come to Jesus of Nazareth, to God, with our family and friends, with our work colleagues, not as solitary individuals, but together with others, by participation in Mass and in the Sacraments. Our Christianity is reflected in our daily life, in our family life, in our work, in our leisure, in our friendships, in our participation in the affairs of the community, in our casual conversations.
This is relevant at a time of Covid when, for health reasons, we may have stopped going to Mass, and participating in the Sacraments. The pandemic is, perhaps, over, or nearly over – whilst seemingly covid is not yet finished. While Covid is still a serious matter, perhaps for most it will not now have the serious consequences first feared.
We must come back! We must, if we have not already done so, resume regular attendance at Mass and participation in the sacraments. We must participate in the life of the community, not sheltering by ourselves, or with our very immediate families at home. We must return to a normal lifestyle. Possibly that means working more from home on a permanent basis, but we must mix with others, resuming our friendships, dealing with others.
Precepts of the Church
What the Catechism says about the Precepts of the Church is a good guide to what is required:
The precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life. The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbour:
The first precept (“You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation.”) requires the faithful to participate in the Eucharistic celebration when the Christian community gathers together on the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord.
The second precept (“You shall confess your sins at least once a year.”) ensures preparation for the Eucharist by the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation, which continues Baptism’s work of conversion and forgiveness.
The third precept (“You shall humbly receive your Creator in Holy Communion at least during the Easter season.”) guarantees as a minimum the reception of the Lord’s Body and Blood in connection with the Paschal feasts, the origin and centre of the Christian liturgy.
The fourth precept (“You shall keep holy the holy days of obligation.”) completes the Sunday observance by participation in the principal liturgical feasts which honor the mysteries of the Lord, the Virgin Mary, and the saints.
The fifth precept (“You shall observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence.”) ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts; they help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.
The faithful also have the duty of providing for the material needs of the Church, each according to his abilities.
Christ must be incarnated in our lives, in the lives of our families, in our friendships, in our work, in our social activities, in the life of the community, as he was 2000 years ago. The precepts of the Church are a guide to the minimum required for living a Christian life.
Frank Sheed argues that we are bodily beings, that we grow in knowledge and love of Jesus of Nazareth, of God, not on a simply cerebral basis. Hence marriage and the family in which, hopefully, we see others living a Christian life! Hence the great art! the great music! the imaginative literature! the great architecture! which has always been a feature of Catholic Christianity. Hence the processions! the pilgrimages! whether to Canterbury, or the Holy Land, or Santiago de Compostela! hence the fiestas! which have been so much part of Christianity. Hence the schools, universities, hospitals and other institutions in which the faith is lived and passed on! Hence the beauty of the Mass, when celebrated with reverence, and participated in by all who attend! Hence the Stations of the Cross! the visits to the Blessed Sacrament! the Rosary! Hence the friendships in which Jesus of Nazareth is present.
Message of Advent
From Hosea to John the Baptist, to Jesus of Nazareth, to Frank Sheed, to some dying person becoming reconciled as life ebbs away, slipping in the door at the last moment, repentance and conversion is the message of Advent, a message for all time. We must change for the better! day by day! month by month! year by year! We must struggle against ourselves! sometimes losing! sometimes winning! we must imitate Jesus of Nazareth in our daily life! No matter who we are, nor what our circumstances!
25 November 2022