In the readings for a Sunday Mass, the first reading (usually taken from the Old Testament) and the Gospel are usually connected by some sort of theme. It is rare for the readings to all connect with each other thematically. It is even rarer for the Second Reading (usually from the Epistles) to connect with the Gospel while the First Reading is only tangentially related (more than that later).
To the Church at Thessalonika
Such is the case this Sunday. In the passage from his first epistle to the church at Thessalonika, Saint Paul writes of the fate of those who have died before the return of Christ. Here, it is important to note that epistle is likely the first New Testament writing. It was composed in A.D. 52, less than twenty years after the death and Resurrection of Our Lord. At this time, the early Christians believed that Christ’s Second Coming, or Parousia, was imminent and that most of those alive at the time would witness His return. Thus, what will happen to those who have died before this blessed advent was of paramount concern.
Saint Paul tells the Thessalonians that those who have died have only “fallen asleep” and will wake to new life when Christ returns. A person who is asleep is expected to awaken. Not only will they share in the experience of witnessing the returning, glorified Christ but they will share in His Resurrection before those who are alive. “We who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep.” Those who are alive when Christ returns must be “sober and awake” as Saint Peter would say in order to be adequately prepared for the Lord’s return.
The image of a wedding feast or banquet is often used as a metaphor for the joy of the blessed in Heaven. The Bridegroom coming to claim his Bride and take her into His home is a well-known image for the return of Christ in glory. Those whom Saint Paul talks about rising to meet the Lord in the air are like the members of the wedding party who, in ancient times, when the arrival of the bridegroom was announced, would go out to meet him and accompany him as we went to claim his bride. This is illustrated in the parable from this week’s Gospel reading. It is interesting that Saint Paul and most of the early Christians believed that Christ’s return was imminent when Our Lord’s own words here hint that was not to be the case.
Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins
In the culture of the time, wedding feasts were extravagant. Part of the ceremony involved a procession, at night, during which the bridegroom would come to take his wife into his home, where the wedding feast would take place. His way was let by attendants, usually young virgins, with lamps or torches. In the parable, the Bridegroom is “long delayed” and as a result the virgins whose job it is to light his way fall asleep. When the imminent arrival of the bridegroom is announced, the wise virgins do not have enough oil. However, the wise virgins, who thought that the bridegroom might be delayed, brought extra oil.
This week’s readings are the first in a series of eschatological readings focusing on the end times. As the Church approaches the end of the liturgical year and starts to prepare for the celebration of Our Lord’s First Coming, she calls for us to be mindful of his Second Coming.
It is almost cliché to ask, but if Our Lord returned in glory tomorrow would He find us prepared? In every age, Christians have asked the question if their time was the one in which Christ would return. That day will come, sooner or later. Will we be prepared? Or will we have become drowsy and fallen asleep because He was “long delayed”?
Every Christian who has lived from A.D 33 until 2017 has meet Our Lord, not at His coming in glory, but at that person’s individual death. Such will likely be the fate for all Christians alive at this moment on the planet. We may not be alive to witness the glorious return of Our Lord, but we will certainly all die one day. Either situation ends with judgment on our souls by Our Lord.
An old Latin proverb says Tempus fugit. Memento mori. (“Time flies. Remember death.”) To most of us, our deaths seem a far way off. Yet, our hora mortis could be this week, tomorrow or this very hour. It could come upon us suddenly and unlike the return of Christ, without signs to give us warning. Are we prepared for death? When was the last time you went to Confession? Do not delay. “For you do not know the day or the hour”
In His infinite mercy, God sends every person every grace he needs to purify his soul prior to death. However, because these graces take the form of sufferings, we reject them and thus must suffer the pains of Purgatory in order to properly purify our souls. In this way, are we prepared for death? Of course, the priority is insuring that our souls are in a state of grace, but provided that they are, have we taken the necessary steps to ensure that our souls are in a “more perfect” state so that we may behold our Bridegroom that much sooner?
The virgins are prepared because they are wise. How does one become wise? By seeking wisdom. The First Reading personifies Wisdom as a woman, who is easily found when she is sought and does not spurn the attentions of those who love her. We need only seek Wisdom to know what we must do to be prepared for meeting Christ, either at the hour of our death or at His Second Coming, and thus share in His glorious Resurrection.
A tragic hero is defined as a dramatic character who starts out as noble, but possesses a certain tragic flaw. This flaw is usually a normally ennobling trait, but the hero carries it to excess, and that becomes his downfall. Sometimes, the tragic hero undergoes some form of redemption, but he is never restored to the fullness of his former position.
The mythical Oedipus the King is considered the archetypical tragic hero, while later playwrights have perfected the tragic hero. Most notable among these is William Shakespeare who has unforgettable tragic heroes in such characters as King Lear and Hamlet. There are poignant renditions of the tragic hero in more modern works of literature and drama, such as Boromir of Gondor and Anakin Skywalker.
Martin Luther=Tragic Hero?
No Catholic should, and no properly formed Catholic would, consider Martin Luther to be a hero. However, as I have read and studied more about Luther, he does seem to be a bit of a tragic figure.
Luther became a priest despite the objections of his father, who wanted him to be a lawyer. The young Luther appeared zealous for his faith, to the point that he annoyed his fellow Augustinians who had grown more lax in their observance. Here, Luther’s tragic flaw takes center stage. He became overly scrupulous, to the point that he would confess the same sin, multiple times. No doubt his experience of a difficult earthly father, whom he also seemed to displease, made him view his Heavenly Father in the same way. Nothing he could do was good enough.
Road to Revolt
He thus became convinced that he was unworthy of being forgiven and that nothing he could due would keep him out of Hell. This would tragically lead to Luther twisting verses of Scripture, particularly from the Epistle to the Romans, to come up with a doctrine by which no one could merit salvation by his works but is saved solely by the unmerited grace of God. The doctrine of sola fide, taken to its logical conclusion, completely removes the need for an institutional Church.
Prior to his development of this novel doctrine, Luther went to Rome in 1505. While there, he saw all the depraved debauchery and corruption for which Renaissance era Rome was so notorious. He heard priests openly deny the doctrine of transubstantiation and saw them rush through Mass as a result. This deeply scandalized Luther.
Both of these issues came to a roaring head in 1517, when Johan Tetzel came to Wittenberg, where Luther was teaching in the University, to sell indulgences. Technically, the indulgence was attached to a donation for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica, but to Luther that was a distinction without a difference. Having seen the corruption of Rome, Luther felt that there was no way that the bishop of that city was fit to erase the penalties due to sins in the often grandiose way that Tetzel preached he could via the indulgence. And Luther’s doctrine of sola fide made such a thing unnecessary anyway, because salvation was a free gift and could not be earned by any work, least of all by paying a fee. Thus, the twin tragic flaws of scandal at sins of the clergy and a scrupulous attentive to one’s salvation and acknowledgment of one’s sinfulness, led to Luther’s downfall.
But the posting of the Ninety-Theses on October 31, 1517 was not the end, but only the beginning, of Luther’s downfall. Almost a year after posting the Theses, Luther penned a letter to Pope Leo X in which he argued his case. In his letter, he remains respectful of papal authority, even writing toward the end “Perhaps I am shamelessly bold in seeming to teach so great a head, by whom all men ought to be taught.” It took the Pope almost two years to respond with the papal bull Exsurge Domine (“Arise, O Lord”) on June 15, 1520. In it, the Pope rightly condemned certain parts of Luther’s writings as heretical, but completely ignored all of the valid concerns that Luther had raised.
At this point, the quintessential tragic flaw of hubris cemented Luther’s downfall. Luther had fallen victim to pride, the root of all sins. In the two years between his letter to the Pope and the papal bull, Luther had engaged in numerous disputations with papal legates and other representatives of the Church and had only become more hardened and persistent in his heresy. On December 10, 1520; Luther demonstrated his repudiation of papal authority by burning a copy of the papal bull. This act, more than his posting of the Ninety-Five Theses, marks his definitive break from Rome.
Had Luther humbly submitted to the authority of the Pope and recanted, then worked to reform the abuses in the Church rather than changing doctrine, we would be remembered very differently. He might have even been rightly considered a heroic reformer, and viewed in the same way that the Church views saints like Francis of Assisi. Instead, he is remembered, like Judas, as a traitor and heresiarch who rent Western Christendom asunder.
500 Years…and counting
Five full centuries later, the Church is once again scandalized by the sinful and indifferent behavior of many clerics, even at the highest of ecclesiastical echelons. Doctrine is repudiated, if not in actual words, then certainly by actions and omissions. The Pope refuses to listen to or respond to those with legitimate concerns and criticisms and instead asserts his authority in a draconian fashion. Nevertheless, we must not give into the temptation to follow Luther’s example. We must stay in communion with the Holy Father, because even if he is shockingly wrong on discipline, he cannot teach false doctrine and he remains the Vicar of Christ. The most tragic aspect of the whole tragedy of Martin Luther is how the sins and corruptions of clergy led to the pulling of so many souls out of the Barque of the Peter, outside of which there is no salvation.
I must confess that I find it hard to imagine Martin Luther enjoying the Beatific Vision. I have little doubt that upon his passing from this life, Our Lord Jesus Christ called him to task for the revolt against His Church that Luther incited and more importantly for the deadly fruits of it, both temporal and, more importantly, spiritual. Yet, I have equally little doubt that the same can be said of Pope Leo X, Johan Tetzel and every other cleric whose sin scandalized Luther and caused so many to follow him down his path of rebellion. Still, one of the few things Luther got right was the infinite nature of God’s mercy. How ironic would it be for Martin Luther to be languishing in Purgatory, a doctrine he condemned, and see how many souls are freed from suffering thanks to the indulgences against which he railed.
One never knows. Perhaps, as we prepare on this All Hallows’ Eve for the Solemnity of All Saints, we might spare a prayer for the soul of Martin Luther, that he might one day be included in their number. At any rate, we should certainly pray for humility, for our Holy Father and for the Church, while echoing the Priestly Prayer of Our Lord Jesus Christ: “That all may be one.”
Of the countless works of fiction written and published during the twenty-six year pontificate of John Paul II, two stand out. They are Pierced by a Sword by Bud McFarlane Jr. and The Last Fisherman by Randy England. Both these were books written by Catholic authors, primarily for a Catholic audience. They were certainly reflective of the general mood in the Church at the time, as Catholics all over the world prepared to enter the Third Millennium since the birth of Christ. Perhaps for this reason, they both deal with eschatology.
As its name would suggest, Pierced by the Sword is heavily influenced by the recent wave of alleged Marian apparitions, which seemed to reach fever pitch in the Nineties. All the events supposedly prophesied in these apparitions: the Warning, the Miracle, the Chastisement and Three Days of Darkness. The novel ends not with the Second Coming of Christ but with the Triumph of the Two Hearts and inauguration of the Age of Peace, also known as the Eucharistic Reign. In contrast, The Last Fisherman is really your standard Christian End Times fiction, with Catholic elements (banning of the Mass, Enoch and Elijah as Witnesses instead of Moses and Elijah) added in. The last line of the book describes the sound of the Trumpet as Christ returns in glory.
Both these works feature as a main character a Pope of Irish extraction who takes a decidedly Irish regnal name that has never been used before. In Pierced by the Sword, an Irish cardinal is elected as the successor to John Paul II and predictably takes the name Pope Patrick. The eponymous hero of The Last Fisherman is Bishop Brendan Shea (not only not a cardinal but an auxiliary bishop) who becomes the first pope since the short-lived Marcellus II in 1555 to retain his baptismal name as his regnal name.
Most importantly, a key point of both these works is the Pope being forced to flee from Rome, and an antipope reigning in his place. In TheLast Fisherman, (fictional) Pope Clement XV appoints eight cardinals to elect his successor. The elect Brendan, who was only present as an aide to the Cardinal-Archbishop for whom he is an auxiliary. The rest of the College of Cardinals revolts against this and elects an antipope to oppose him.In Pierced by the Sword, Pope Patrick is the victim of an assassination attempt. (It is heavily implied that John Paul II, like his predecessor, is murdered with drugs to induce a heart attack.) Patrick barely survives, but the world believes him to be dead, and another cardinal is elected to succeed. This cardinal is part of a shadowy cabal called the Society of Builders (clearly meant to be Freemasons) who has “arranged” for him to be elected as the successor of John Paul II but is initially stymied by the election of Patrick. (Sound familiar?)
In both novels, this antipope quickly sets about repudiating doctrines of the Faith. Mass is outlawed, contraceptives are allowed, and women are ordained as priests. And in both novels, the antipope takes the name John XXIV.
This is not a phenomenon strictly relegated to works of Catholic apocalyptic fiction. The wildly successful, dispensationalist Protestant Left Behind series is anything but Catholic. It also features a John XXIV, although he is not an antipope and is presumably intended as the successor to John Paul II. (Tribulation Force, the book in which he is mentioned, was published in 1995, around the same as both Pierced by the Sword and The Last Fisherman.) In the novels, John XXIV is among those who vanish in the Rapture. When I first read this, I was happy. I thought that this was a Protestant nod to ecumenism that acknowledged that the leader of the Catholic Church could be among the blessed in heaven. As revealed later in the novel, it was actually a slap in the face to Catholics because the only reason that John XXIV was raptured was because he embraced the doctrine sola fidei justification that had been held by Martin Luther. Thus, rather than a compliment to Catholics, this detail was swipe at both the doctrines of papal infallibility and justification by faith and works. In short, John XXIV was a heretic.
Almost Pope John XXIV
Why is it so easy for Christian creative minds, both Protestant and Catholic, to imagine that a papal claimant who would repudiate Church doctrines and try to change both her teachings and practice would be named John? Perhaps it has something to do with the impression, both within and without the Church, that the Second Vatican Council, opened by John XXIII, was meant as a definitive change in the Church. Thus, if a Pope were to choose John as his regnal name, it would signal that he wished to carry on in that spirit, and perhaps institute even more radical change than what was foisted upon the Church at the Second Vatican Council.
For these reasons, it was rather startling to read that had he been elected Pope in the 2005 Conclave, Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio would have taken the name John XXIV. He is reported to have told the late Francesco Cardinal Marchisano “John, I would have called myself John, like the Good Pope; I would have been completely inspired by him” Of course, he finished second in that conclave and would go on to succeed the man who beat him in that election when Benedict XVI abdicated in 2013. It was after his election in that conclave that Bergoglio, upon the admonition of Claudio Cardinal Hummes to not “forget the poor,” chose the never before used regnal name of Francis.
Despite his taking of the name Francis, it would appear that the Holy Father is more than “completely inspired” Pope John XXIII. A number of actions taken by Pope Francis indicate that he identifies with and seeks to carry on the work of John XXIII. Chief among these is, of course, his canonization of John XXIII, which occurred, along with that of John Paul II, on April 27, 2014. From the time that cries of “Santo Subito” rang out in St. Peter’s Square immediately following his death in 2005, the canonization of John Paul II, has been all but a foregone conclusion. What was far more surprising was the announcement that John XXIII would be canonized along with him.
John XXIII was beatified by the pope with whom he would be canonized on June 3, 2000. John Paul II beatified Pope Pius IX on the same day. Even at the time, this was considered unusual. It was theorized that the beatification of Pius IX was a political move, “to balance out” the beatification of a pope who even at that time was seen as an icon of progressivism with that of a noted reactionary pontiff. Ironically, some of the ideas condemned in Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors would enter the thinking of the Church following the Council that John XXIII convened.
Then, in 2014 it was announced that Pope Francis would canonize John XXIII on the same day as the pope who canonized him. There was already more than a little controversy over the canonization of John Paul II for, among others reasons, coming less than a decade after his death (although St. Francis of Assisi was canonized less than two years after his death, for example). John Paul II at least had the requisite miracles attributed to his intercession. John XXIII did not, yet Francis saw fit to raise him to the altars nevertheless. This is certainly within papal prerogative, but the entire current canonization process was instituted to prevent dubious canonizations (such as that of the emperor Charlemagne by antipope Paschal III 1165, which was annulled in 1179).
A less reported, but nevertheless, crucial announcement that came within months of the election of Francis and gives some insight into why he chose to canonize John XXIII. On the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker in 2013, it was announced that Pope Francis had ordered that the name of St. Joseph be added to every Eucharistic Prayer. The explanation that was usually offered was that because his papal inauguration was on March 19, the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Pope Francis had a special devotion to Saint Joseph and wished to ensure that he was probably honored.
The Legacy of John XXIII
However, St. Joseph has not always been commemorated in the Roman Canon. On November 13, 1962, Pope John XXIII added St. Joseph to the Roman Canon. At that time, of course, the Roman Canon was the only option for a “Eucharistic Prayer.” After Vatican II, three more Eucharistic Prayers were added, but none of them commemorated St. Joseph (or any other saint besides the Blessed Virgin Mary). Thus, in a way, the addition of the commemoration of St. Joseph to the other Eucharistic Prayers is emblematic of the desire of Pope Francis to visibly carry on in the tradition of John XXIII.
It is certainly nothing new for a Pope to honor and even glorify his predecessors, often in ways that help that advance that particular pontiff’s agenda. Pope St. Damasus I did just that with Popes Sixtus II, Cornelius, Eusebius, Marcellus I and possibly Marcus. However, the legacy of John XIII is troubled, at best. Moreover, the regnal name of John is associated with heterodoxy in the creative imaginations of Christians, both Catholic and Protestant. The actions of Pope Francis himself, appear to indicate that he is eager to change, if not doctrine, at least the discipline of the Church. All these factors make the close identification of Pope Francis both John XXIII and his legacy deeply disconcerting, to say the least.
Jerome had written a letter to Damasus between 376 and 377, asking Damasus to intervene in a crisis that was currently embroiling Jerome’s home see of Antioch. In 330, a synod at Antioch, instigated by Eusebius of Nicomedia, deposed and subsequently exiled Eustathius on the grounds the he held to the doctrine of Sabellianism The see of Antioch was held by a succession of Arian and Semi-Arian bishops, culminating with Eudoxius in 358.299 Meanwhile, the Nicaean resistance in Antioch, led by a presbyter named Paulinus, continued to consider Eustathius to be the rightful bishop of Antioch until his death in 337. When Eudoxius became the bishop of Constantinople, Meletius was elected to succeed him. Socrates wrote that Meletius “at first avoided all doctrinal questions…but subsequently he expounded to his auditors the Nicene creed, and asserted the doctrine of the homoousion. The emperor being informed of this, ordered that he should be sent into exile and caused Euzoius, who had before been deposed together with Arius, to be installed bishop of Antioch in his stead.”
Despite this demonstration, at cost, of adherence to the doctrine of Nicaea, the followers of Eustathius still refused to recognize Meletius as rightful bishop due to his prior connections with the Arian party. In 361, Constantius died and was succeeded by Julian, who annulled all his predecessor’s decrees of expulsion in an effort to weaken the Christians with division. In this, he succeeded. Along with Meletius, returned the rigorist Lucifer of Cagliari. Soon to start a schism of his own, Lucifer exacerbated the one at Antioch by beating Meletius to the city and consecrating Paulinus as bishop.302 The adherents of Nicaea were thus divided and unable to present a united front against the Arians.
In his letter, Jerome explained that members of the Meletian party were harassing him in an effort to ascertain which candidate he supported and determine his orthodoxy.303 Eastern Christians tended the use of the formula of “three hypostases in one ousias” to describe the Trinity. In so doing, they hoped to avoid the charge of Sabellianism that the followers of Arius so often hurled at the adherents of Nicaea. For rigorists adherents of Nicaea, including the followers of Eustathius, this was a dangerous innovation on the Nicene Creed that bordered on Arianism. Although he claims to be neutral, Jerome shows himself to at least a sympathizer of Paulinus by referring to the three hypostases as an “unheard of formula” and calling the Meletians “Arians.”
In the letter, Jerome urges Damasus to use his position as bishop of Rome to do something about the schism. Ever the student of rhetoric, Jerome uses grandiose and hyperbolic language to describe his allegiance to the bishop of Rome. He goes as far as to state that he will abide by whatever ruling Damasus might give, even if it were to go against the doctrine established at Nicaea. Jerome indicates that he has such great trust in Damasus because as bishop of Rome, he is the successor of Peter. “My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church was built!”
Surprisingly, Damasus does not take this opportunity to assert the authority Jerome strongly believes him to possess. Less than a year later, Jerome once again wrote to Damasus to renew his plea. He opens the letter with allusions to a number of New Testament parables where a supplicant receives that for which he asks through unrelenting persistence. Jerome reiterates his submission to the authority of the pope by stating “He who clings to the chair of Peter is accepted by me.” His additional statement that all three claimants to the see of Antioch claim to do so as well, indicates the prestige that the see of Rome held at this time. There is no recorded response of Damasus to this letter.
The crisis came to a head at the Council of Constantinople in 381. Damasus supported Paulinus, but the Meletian party stubbornly elected Flavian to succeed Meletius when he died during the course of the council. Following the close of the Council of Constantinople, Jerome travelled to Rome with Paulinus. In Rome, Jerome met Damasus, who recognized the presbyter’s skills and employed him in a secretarial capacity. Jerome himself wrote of “helping Damasus bishop of Rome with his ecclesiastical correspondence, and writing his answers to the questions referred to him by the councils of east and west.” In his letter to Asella, Jerome writes that “Damasus, of blessed memory, spoke no words but mine.” This simple, albeit no doubt exaggerated, comment reflects the level of influence Jerome exerted, or thought he exerted, on the aging pontiff. In that way, it would fit well with Jerome’s earlier statement, in the same latter, that “almost everyone” judged him as a viable candidate to succeed Damasus as bishop of Rome.
Although Jerome did not enter the orbit of Damasus until the last five years of his pontificate, he played a substantial role in the elderly pope’s expansion of power. In his extensive study of the relationship between late antique Christianity and monetary wealth, Peter Brown argued that Damasus consciously presented himself as a patron of the finest arts. To this end, Damasus had scholars and other experts work on projects that he patronized. One such artist was Furius Dionysius Filocalus, who had designed and carved the script for the epigrams of Damasus.
Working for Damasus
Jerome was another scholar/expert whom Damasus patronized. Brown argued that Jerome saw an opportunity and played on the need of Damasus for scholars. “Jerome knew that Damasus needed experts. He was quick to present himself as indispensable as a translator and a critic of the texts.” Damasus had a great deal to gain from patronizing Jerome. In the preface to his translation of Origen’s commentary on the Song of Songs, Jerome states that his work “would require almost boundless leisure and labor and money.”These were the very thing which an aristocrat possessed that allowed them to patronize artists and scholars. By patronizing the work of Jerome, Damasus was able to further the image of himself that he wished to project.
The basis of Jerome’s career had been the patronage of Damasus: therefore, the reputation of Jerome rested on that of his patron. As such, Jerome was eager to present a favorable image of Damasus. In De viris illustribus, Jerome writes that Damasus, “had a fine talent in making verses and published many works in heroic meter.” If Damasus had indeed been talented in composing poetry, then he could certainly be trusted as a connoisseur who would only patronize work of the highest quality. Modern critics have not been as kind as Jerome to Damasus. J.N.D. Kelly found the epigrams of Damasus to be “sonorous-sounding, if rather vacuous.” Even less kindly, Alan Cameron characterized Damasus as a “poor stylist” and described one particular epitaph as “typically frigid…a tissue of tags and clichés shakily strung together and barelysqueezed into the meter.”
Kelly argued that Jerome’s secretarial position was initially only supposed to last for the duration of the synod, but that Jerome proved his worth and stayed on in the same position after the synod. The document known as the Decretum Gelasianum takes its name from Pope Gelasius I (492-496) during whose pontificate the document likely took its final form. However, the beginning part of the Decretum is likely based on earlier documents dating from the synod convened by Damasus at Rome in 392, in which Jerome took part. In these earlier parts, the Decretum contains the canon or list of approved Scriptural texts. It is clear that in the closing years of his pontificate, Damasus began to take an interest in Scripture. To this end, it was at this time that Damasus commissioned Jerome to revise the Old Latin translations of the Gospels from the Greek. This was the beginning of the project for which Jerome is best known: the Latin Vulgate.
Jerome addressed the preface of his revised translation to Damasus. He wrote, “You urge me to revise the old Latin version, and, as it were, to sit in judgment on the copies of the Scriptures…and, inasmuch as they differ from one another, you would have me decide which of them agree with the Greek original. The labour is one of love, but at the same time both perilous and presumptuous; for in judging others I must be content to be judged by all.” Andrew Cain has argued that Jerome was fully aware that this new translation would generate significant controversy. For this reason, he carefully crafted the preface to “insulate himself pre-emptively from criticism” and emphasize “Damasus’ ultimate accountability for the project.” Jerome often defended himself and his work by appealing to the authority and, after his death, the memory of Damasus. In one instance, he pointed out that Damasus, whom he called an “excellent man—versed in Scriptures as he was,” found nothing objectionable in Jerome’s discourse on the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary. Cain argued that Jerome intentionally circulated the correspondence between himself and Damasus in order to validate his exegetical expertise with the aura of papal approval and “to announce to Christians there that he was the personal Scriptural advisor to a renowned pope.” Cain also mentions a theme of Hebraica veritas running through the letters Jerome writes in response to Damasus. Jerome strongly advocates going back to the original Hebrew when there are conflicts between the Latin and Greek translations of the Scriptural texts. This idea will figure prominently in the work that Jerome will do on the translation of the Old Testament following the death of Damasus. In the last letter that Damasus wrote to Jerome, he presents five exegetical questions for Jerome to answer. Another exegete at Rome named Ambrosiaster had already posed and answered these questions. Damasus is apparently asking Jerome for a second opinion.
Translating the Vulgate
Annelise Volgers argued that Damasus was merely interested to know what Jerome thought on some exegetical matters he had heard being discussed recently.294 Jerome on the other hand, according to Cain, carefully crafted his response in order to subtly demonstrate the superiority of his own method of exegesis over that of Ambrosiaster. Cain offered the possibility that the criticism of Ambrosiaster was deliberately indirect because “Jerome knew or suspected that Damasus was partial to Ambrosiaster’s work or the man himself.”295 Brown identified Ambrosiaster as a member of the Roman clergy of Damasus.296 While this hardly indicates partiality, it does demonstrate that Damasus had a certain degree of familiarity with Ambrosiaster and familiarity can be leveraged into influence. Jerome certainly would have needed to walk a fine line between assuring that Ambrosiaster did not supplant him and offending Damasus by criticizing one of his presbyters too strongly. Ambrosiaster and Jerome would have agreed on one thing. Ambrosiaster had argued that a congregation praying in a language that it could not understand offered no gain for the people involved because they could not understand what they said. Thus it is likely that Ambrosiaster would have been in favor of changing the liturgical language to Latin, a process that began under Damasus. However, unlike Ambrosiaster, Jerome was someone who could actually assist in the implementation of the Latinizing initiative through his revision of the old translations of Scripture. Damasus understood that Jerome was someone with whom he could work in advancing his aims. Ambrosiaster was not. Thus, Jerome had little to fear while Damasus lived.
Ultimately, Ambrosiaster was a member of the Roman clergy, the “low-profile but tenacious body of men” who had “rallied behind” Damasus. The clergy had always seen the monastic Jerome as an outsider and interloper. After Damasus died on December 11, 384; the clergy elected the deacon Siricius to succeed him as pope. With Damasus gone to his eternal reward, Jerome no longer had anyone with either the ability or desire to support him in Rome. By August of the next year, Jerome had left Rome at the express orders of the new pope, never to return. He returned to the East, where he would spend the next twenty-two years of his life completing the great work his friend Damasus had given to him.
“And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves” –Luke 21:25 RSV
For the past four years and (almost) 8 months, a series of celestial signs have occurred. Now, such signs are not, in and of themselves, anything portentous. We are not to do as the Romans and other ancient cultures did and spend our days constantly looking to the sky for some omen from which to divine the will of the gods. Yet, the concentration of these signs and their connection to each other would cause any reasonable believer to sit up and take notice. Additionally, all these signs are connected in some way to the Blessed Virgin Mary and through her, to the Apocalypse of Saint John, usually referred to as the Book of Revelation.
Know not the Day nor the Hour
Bringing up such things, especially in light of the Apocalyptic connection, will surely elicit a quotation of the following Scripture:
“But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” –Mark 13: 32 RSV
However, just like the Protestant who quotes the third verse of the third chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John to say one must be “born again” yet ignores the surrounding verses (especially the fifth) that explain the manner in which one must be “born again,” to use this verse to say that we can never know when the End is nigh is to take it out of context and lose its meaning.
In fact, just prior to this verse, Christ tells His Apostles,
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know the summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you that know that He is near, at the very gates.” –Mark 13:28-29 RSV
Our Lord’s meaning is quite clear. “These things” are signs to tell us that His coming is near. “At the very gates” was an idiom that would have been unmistakable to an ancient audience, evoking images of a walled city beset by an invader with battle beginning at any moment. The modern equivalent might be “knocking on the door.” Christ wanted His followers to watch for signs of His imminent advent. The thirty-second verse is simply a warning that despite all those signs, we will never know the exact moment at which He will arrive.
What are “these things” that will be signs of His arrival? In the preceding verses, Our Lord neatly lists them.
“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” –Mark 13:-24-26 RSV
The other two Synoptic Gospels, clearly using Mark as a source, have similar parallel verses. Here, Christ is clearly alluding to verses from the book of the prophet Joel.
“And I will give portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.” –Joel 2:30-31 RSV
“Preterists” hold that apocalyptic prophecies in Scripture all had their fulfillment in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Most scholars agree that the beginning of the Mount Olivet Discourse in the Synoptic Gospels (Chapters 24, 13 and 21 of the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark and Luke, respectively) is a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans. However, the second part of the discourse is clearly a reference to an event that takes place after the Fall of Jerusalem.
Note that Our Lord prefaces His words about the signs in heaven with “after that tribulation.” The tribulation in question is certainly the Fall and Destruction of Jerusalem as evidenced by details in the preceding verses.
“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.” –Luke 21:20 RSV
Ergo, the first part of the Mount of Olives discourse is Christ’s prophecy of the Destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. The second part refers to His Coming in Glory and the signs that will accompany it. Now, most Christians in the early days of the Church believed that the two sets of events would closely follow each other. (The miniseries A.D. The Bible Continues does an excellent job of dramatizing this.) History has of course proven that there is to be a much longer interval between the destruction of Jerusalem and the Return of Christ.
I will say right now that I do not claim to know what these signs mean. They could be a coincidence. Nothing could happen. Even if something does happen, it will almost certainly not be The End and probably will not even be the beginning of it. The purpose of this is not to convince anyone that any particular thing is about to happen in the near future. It is simply to lay out the particulars of a series of heavenly signs with connections to each that are fascinating…and arguably frightening. They could be nothing. But if they are something, then it would profit everyone to pay attention and, perhaps, prepare.
Vatican Lightning Strikes
On February 11, 2013 lightning struck the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City twice. A big deal was made of these particular lightning strikes, even in the secular media, because they occurred within hours of Pope Benedict XVI announcing that he would become the first pope to voluntarily abdicate the papacy in 719 years. Notably, the date of Benedict XVI’s abdication, and therefore the lightning strikes was the memorial (double major feast on the Tridentine calendar) of Our Lady of Lourdes.
In the Gospel according to Saint Luke, Christ tells His disciples “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” (Luke 10:18 RSV). It would be ludicrous to state the somehow Satan literally fell on February 11, 2013 or October 7, 2016. However, the image of Satan’s fall as a lightning fits with the next two heavenly signs.
On August 21, 2017 a total solar eclipse occurred. It was referred as the Great American Eclipse because the path of totality cut across the continental United States. Throughout the course of the eclipse, somewhere in the United States, the light of the sun was completely obscured by the moon. Because the hours of the solar eclipse were from noon until 3 p.m., it was eerily reminiscent of the darkness that accompanied Our Lord’s Crucifixion
And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.-Mark 15:33 RSV
The Queenship of the Blessed Virgin had originally been commemorated on May 31. (That date is now the Feast of the Visitation in the New Calendar) Bl. Pope Paul VI moved it to August 22. On the Tridentine Calendar, however, August 22 is still a Marian feast: the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Thus, the Great American Eclipse becomes the second (or fourth, if one counts each lightning strike as a separate event) celestial sign occurring close to or during the centennial year of Our Lady’s apparition at Fatima on a Marian feast day. However that is not the only connection with the previous celestial sign.
As stated earlier, In the Gospel according to St. Luke, Christ describes the fall of Satan from Heaven as resembling the suddenness of a lightning strike. In the Apocalypse of St. John, it is St. Michael the Archangel casts Satan out of Heaven and down to earth.
Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world — he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. –Revelation 12:7-9 RSV
Besides St. Francis of Assisi, the most well known stigmatist is likely St. Pius of Pietreclina, better known as Padre Pio. Like St. Francis, Padre Pio’s first experience of the Stigmata was during St. Michael’s Lent. In Padre Pio’s case, this was on September 20, 1918. Fifty years later, almost to the day, Padre Pio went to his eternal reward. That day, September 23, is now the liturgical memorial of St. Pio. And on that day, in the centennial year of Our Lady of Fatima, a great sign will appear in the sky that is also connected with the Apocalypse of St. John and St. Michael the Archangel.
St. Michael’s defeat and casting out of the Dragon and his angels occurs at the end of the twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse. This chapter starts with one of the most striking of Biblical Marian images: the Woman Clothed with the Sun.
And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. –Revelation 12:1-2
Astronomers have mapped out a conjunction of astronomical phenomenon that correspond to this verse with startling precision. They consist of the constellations Virgo (Latin for “Virgin”) and Leo (Latin for “Lion”—a symbol of the tribe of Judah; Jesus is also referred as the “Lion of Judah” in the Apocalypse), the star Regulus (the “king” star from the regis: Latin for “of the king”) and the planets Jupiter (the king planet because Jupiter was king of the Roman gods) and Venus (the “mother” planet).
As part of what one researcher calls a “starry dance,” Regulus and Jupiter join together in a “coronation” within Leo, which could symbolize “King of the Jews.” This “king star” then joins Venus in a conjunction that produces an exceedingly bright star. At this time, constellation Virgo rises behind Leo, in such a way that it appears to be “a woman clothed with the Sun with the moon under her feet.”
This phenomenon was repeated, with some variation, on November 20, 2016. This is the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe in the New Liturgical Calendar. It was the last day of the Jublilee Year of Mercy promulgated by Pope Francis. On that day, Jupiter appeared to enter the body or “womb” of Virgo. It remained there for nine and a half months, which is the approximate gestational period for a pregnancy. On the day that Jupiter leaves the womb of Virgo and is “born” the sun will rise directly behind Virgo and the moon will be at her feet. And there will be a crown of twelve stars upon her head, made up of the nine stars that compose the constellation Leo and the planets Mercury, Venus and Mars.
This day is September 23, 2017. As stated above, on the New Calendar it is the memorial of St. Pio of Pietreclina. On the Tridentine Calendar it is the (semi-double) feast of Pope St. Linus, successor of St. Peter, and St. Thecla, virgin martyr and companion of St. Paul. However it is also the feast of Our Lady of Walsingham, the mother shine of all England and patroness, and by extension, of English speakers, which would include Americans.
Shortly after the appearance of the celestial sign mentioned above, there will be a second sign in the sky that matches the second portent in the Twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse of St. John.
And another portent appeared in heaven; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. –Revelation 12:3-4
The Draconid meteor shower occurs every year in October. It is so named because it originates in the constellation Draco (Latin for “dragon”). Anyone who has seen a meteor shower, or even just a “shooting star”, can attest that it has the appearance of stars “falling” from sky. This year, the Draconid meteor shower takes place on October 7, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.
Although hurricanes are technically in the sky, one would not ordinarily think of them when speaking of “signs in the sky.” However, Our Lord did mention “the roaring of the seas and the waves” in connection with the “signs in the sun and moon and star.” Moreover, two of these years’ more powerful hurricanes fit the pattern of having Marian connections. A lot of people have made something out of two powerful hurricanes in the Atlantic bearing the names Jose and Maria, the Spanish cognates for Joseph and Mary. That is not the Marian connection that I wish to make
I write on a bit of personal note here, but I believe it is important. The 2005 Hurricane season was the most powerful since such things have been recorded. It is infamous most for the damage Hurricane Katrina wreaked on New Orleans (where I was born and where my parish youth group had completed a mission trip just two weeks prior). However, when I moved to southeast Louisiana (three hours west of New Orleans), I learned just how destructive Rita, a hurricane later in the season, was for this part of the state.
Twelve years later, I am living in Lake Charles, Louisiana and my wife and I have to make the decision of whether or not we are evacuating with Hurricane Harvey. Although we took precautions, we ultimately decided to not evacuate, which turned out to be a good call. We were barely affected. My parents live in Brunswick, Georgia which was in the direct path of Hurricane Irma, an incredibly strong Category 5 hurricane, just two weeks after we dodged Harvey. Needless to say, they evacuated. Fortunately, Irma veered to the west and the damage to their house and property was minimal, consisting mainly of downed tree limbs crashing into fences. Their area did have flooding in some places and was, as a whole, more affected by Irma than we were by Harvey.
Harvey made landfall in Texas as a Category 4, dissipated and went back into the Gulf of Mexico, then made landfall again as a Tropical Storm closer to where my family and I live. This second landfall was within territory of the Diocese of Lake Charles in Cameron Parish (Louisiana has parishes instead of counties.) Cameron Parish includes the church Our Lady, Star of the Sea which boasts an image of Our Lady with the inscription “Do Not Harm My Children.” Interestingly, in the county just south of the one in which my parents live, the only Catholic parish is also named Our Lady, Star of the Sea. I firmly believe that both these locations were sparred more severe damage from the hurricanes this year thanks to the intercession of Our Lady, Star of the Sea.
Earthquakes are even less celestial than hurricanes. However, they do have apocalyptic connotations. There are two earthquakes in the Apocalypse (in the sixth and sixteenth chapters, respectively) that are caused by the wrath of God.
In the 33 days from the solar eclipse to September 23, there have been three major earthquakes. Two were in Mexico. The largest of these was a 7.1 magnitude quake that rocked Mexico City. Mexico City was the location of the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1531. The miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe left behind on the tilma of St. Juan Diego has often been connected with the Twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse because in it, Our Lady is clothed with the sun and has a crescent moon at her feet. The title Guadalupe is actually a Spanish corruption of the name Our Lady gave herself in the ancient Aztec language: coatlaxopeuh (“she who crushes the serpent). In the Apocalypse, the Dragon is also referred to as “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan.” (Revelation 12:9)
Earlier in the month a 5.3 earthquake hit Akita, Japan. Akita is the site of a fairly recent apparition of Our Lady, which occurred in 1973. The visionary, Sr. Agnes Sasagawa received the last message from Our Lady on October 13, fifty-six years to the day from the final apparition at Fatima. Many people consider Akita to be a “sequel” or “reminder” apparition of those at Fatima. The earthquake occurred on September 8, which is the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Since the memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes in 2013, which was the same date upon which Pope Benedict XVI announced his abdication, there have been anywhere from four to nine (depending on how you count separate incidents of the some kind of event) events that share a connection to each through the Blessed Virgin Mary, a number of her apparitions and the Twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse of St. John.
Two lightning strikes at St. Peter’s Basilica on the memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes (February 11, 2013) and another on that of Our Lady of the Rosary (October 7, 2016)
A total solar eclipse that occurred on the feast of Our Lady of Knock (August 21, 2017) and the vigil of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary (August 22, 2017), as well as the first day of the 40 day period known as St. Michael’s Lent that ends on the Feast of Sts. Michael, Gabriel and Raphael (September 29, 2017)
On the feast of Our Lady of Walsingham (September 23, 2017), a sign appeared in the sky consisting of the constellations Virgo (the Virgin), Leo (the Lion), the sun, moon and the planets Jupiter, Mercury, Venus and Mars that matches first two verses of the Twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse with startling precision.
Two earthquakes hit Mexico, the strongest of which hit Mexico City, the site of the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the image of whom matches the description of the Woman in the Twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse. On the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (September 8, 2017) an earthquake hit Akita, Japan, site of an apparition considered by many to be a continuation of that of Our Lady of Fatima
The Draconid meteor shower, originating in the constellation Draco (the Dragon) will occur on the memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary and appear as stars falling from the Dragon, in line with the third and fourth verses of the Twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse.
Except for the lightning strikes all of these signs have (or will) occur not only within the year leading up to the Centennial of the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima but within the same five month period that the apparitions originally occurred.
What does any of this mean? I do not dare to even claim to know. It certainly does NOT mean that the world is ending today or at any time in the near future. It could be nothing. But I do not think it is. I think Our Lord and His Mother are trying to tell the world something. Personally, I think we would all do well to pay attention to the skies above and the world around us and follow these words of Our Lord.
“Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”-Matthew 24:42
In order for Rome to be legitimately considered to be the center of Christianity, the city needed to be Christianized. This was an aim of Pope Damasus I in composing his epigrams which are riddled with allusions to and lines taken from classical authors, most notably Virgil. In some cases, Damasus appropriated classical themes for Christ and the martyrs, as he did by comparing Peter and Paul to Romulus and Remus or Castor and Pollux. In others, he uses classical allusions to subtly subvert Roman cultural values and replace them with Christian ideals.
Nereus and Achilleus were soldiers, most likely Praetorian Guards, in the reign of either Nero or Domitian. The epigraph written in their honor by Pope Damasus is translated as follows
They had enlisted for military service and were performing their
cruel duty, in like manner attentive to the tyrant’s commands,
ready to obey orders, compelled by fear.
Marvelous yet true! Suddenly they laid aside their fury;
converted they fled; they abandoned the commander’s wicked camp.
They flung away their shields, their decorations and their bloody weapons.
Having confessed, they rejoiced to carry the triumphs of Christ.
Believe through Damasus what the glory of Christ can achieve.
Nereus and Achilleus are buried in the Catacomb of Domatilla. This Domatilla is usually identified with Flavia Domatilla, the wife of the consul Titus Flavius Clemens. Clemens was executed for the charge of “atheism” which was usually the charge laid against those who converted to Christianity.
Domatilla, despite being a niece of the emperor Domitian, was apparently banished for a similar offense and is venerated as a saint. Nereus and Achilleus being buried in her catacomb lends itself to the conclusion that they were martyred during the persecution of Domitian, rather than that of Nero. Nevertheless, they remain the earliest martyrs recognized by Damasus, besides Sts. Peter and Paul. Their location deep within the catacomb also supports the conclusion that they were early martyrs.
Damasus describes their military service as a “savage office” and stated that they were “looking equally to the commands of the tyrant.” Damasus often refers to persecutions as the “commands of tyrants.” It is a direct challenge to Romans who embraced traditional republican values which were often defined as opposition to tyranny. Once the saints convert, they flee the camp and cast down their arms.
Contrast with Roman Society
Traditional Roman values would see these actions as cowardice in battle but the pair is allowed “to bear the triumphs of Christ,” signifying that they have won victory in battle. The Latin word that Damasus uses is tropaeum, which is used for the “trophies” taken by victorious troops from the conquered and paraded through the streets of Rome in triumph. This is not a fate that would usually await soldiers who have flung away their swords or their shields (Shields were heavy so flinging them away made it easier to retreat quickly. Hence, the Spartan saying “With your shield, or upon it” meaning to come back either victorious or dead.)
Thus, Damasus is subverting Roman societal conventions with his epigram. He uses the story of Nereus and Achilleus to demonstrate that faith has the ability “to put aside furor.” Lafferty points out that in the Aeneid, Virgil uses the word furor to describe “the forces that resist the efforts of both Aeneas and the foundation of Rome.” Thus, Damasus argued that in casting down their arms, Nereus and Achilleus actually cast aside what prevented them from becoming truly Christian. The epigrams of Damasus reveal his belief not only that to be Christian is to be Roman but that to be genuinely Roman is to be Christian.
Achilleus vs. Achilles
Furthermore, the use of the word furor is meant to play off of the name of Achilleus.
Achilleus is the Latin form of Achilles, the Greek hero most famous for his rage. Homer’s epic Iliad begins with a furious Achilles quitting the battlefield in response to an insult by Agamemnon, leader of the Greek force. It is only when he is consumed by a greater fury upon the death of his beloved Patroculus, that Achilles returns to the war, defeats the Trojan prince Hektor and wins glory for himself. In contrast, Achilleus and Nereus set aside their furor to gain glory. With these classical references, Damasus is trying to show that one can be a Christian but still know, appreciate and make reference to earlier classical literature. Yet, the Faith shines a new light upon and brings new meaning to these stories.
Christians and Military Service
The story of Nereus and Achilleus brings up an interesting point. The epigraph of Damasus makes it explicitly that when the two convert, they abandon their military service. The Church honors many warrior saints. We all know the stories of men like Sts. Sebastian, George, Maurice and many others, who faithfully served their nation but were killed for not putting that duty before their duty to God. Less well known are the stories of saints who were martyred because they believed their Faith required that them to refuse to serve in the military.
Today, of course, we understand about the virtue of patriotism and that military service is a noble calling in which, if pursued in accordance with the holy will of God, a person can attain true holiness. It’s important to note, however, that the Church was still figuring things out in regards to the relationship between Christians and the society around them. They were living in a pagan culture. This was a society that was actively persecuting them. How far could one go before what he was doing became collaboration with paganism?
As early as A.D. 50, in the fifteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, the Pope (St. Peter) is gathering the bishops (the Apostles) together in council (at Jerusalem) to determine the answers to some of these questions. However, the first ecumenical (worldwide) council with not take place until the persecutions are over, in A.D. 325. Even then, the authority of the Pope was not well defined, so during the second and third centuries, it was more or less up to the local churches to figure things out as best they could with it sometimes coming down to individual Christians themselves.
As for Nereus and Achilleus, while it is clear that their new Faith compelled them abandon their military service, it is not entirely clear why. Damasus describes their duty as “cruel,” the weapons as “bloody” and their emperor as a “tyrant.” This would certainly be an apt description of either Domitian or Nero. Damasus also writes that they were compelled to obey orders “out of fear.”
This is a common reasons why atrocities are carried out. Soldiers are afraid to disobey orders they know to be immoral. This is usually the case with tyrants, such as Hitler and Stalin. It is not at all unlikely that as soldiers serving under an emperor as bad as Domitian or Nero, that Nereus and Achilleus would have been ordered to carry out some atrocities, perhaps even the martyrdom of Christians. Perhaps, being honorable men, this was starting to wear on their consciences. After the conversion, the grace of their baptism grants them the courage to refuse to obey orders and cast down their arms, which leads to their martyrdom. If this is the case, they would be good patrons for servicemen and women who could ask their intercession to never give into fear that would cause them to carry out an immoral order.
Sts. Nereus and Achilleus, glorious martyrs, ora pro nobis!
Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s slave and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus- John 18:10 RSV
Servant of the High Priest
When the Temple guards arrive in Gethsemane to arrest Jesus, among them is a person referred to as the servant, or slave, of the High Priest. John is the only evangelist who provides the name of the servant: Malchus. Perhaps this was because John knew the man personally. (In the Gospel according to John, the “other disciple” who accompanies Peter to the house of the High Priest in order to witness the trial of Jesus is “known” to the household and allowed to enter. It is generally accepted that the “other disciple” is John himself, so it would make sense for him to know the High Priest’s servant personally.)
All four Gospels record that one of the disciples of Jesus cut off the ear of Malchus (or at least part of it). Only the Gospel according to John identifies that disciple as Simon Peter. Thus, Malchus is the sole victim of the sole abortive attempt by one of Christ’s disciples to save him from arrest and eventual execution.
In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus heals Malchus by replacing his ear. This is the first of three ways in which Luke’s Passion Account differs from the other Synoptics. The Gospel according to Luke, which is the only one that includes the parable of the Prodigal Son, is often referred to as the “Gospel of Mercy.” In each instance, Christ is shown demonstrated mercy or consolation to someone in the course of His Passion. This first instance is notable, because Christ shows mercy by healing someone who has been wounded in the process of arresting Him, an arrest that will lead to His death. Here, as in everything He does, Christ shows us a perfect example of how to live. In this case, He radically practices what He preached when He said, “Love your enemy and do good to those who persecute you.” Healing the ear of Malchus is the last miracle that Jesus performs before His Resurrection.
Scripture makes no mention of Malchus after the arrest of Jesus. For some reason, no detailed tradition has risen up around him as it has other minor figures in the Passion narrative. In The Passion of the Christ, Malchus stays kneeling on the ground dazed, in the exact spot where Christ healed him, for several moments before being roused by one of his comrades. In TheSpear, Malchus is mentioned, alongside Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, as part of the crowd listening to Peter preach on Pentecost. It is implied that he is baptized (presumably by the man who sliced off his ear 53 days earlier!) and becomes a Christian. In her Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, (which both The Spear and The Passion of the Christ use as source) Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich wrote, “Malchus was instantly converted by the cure wrought upon him, and during the time of the Passion his employment was to carry messages backwards and forwards to Mary and the other friends of our Lord.”
In The Bible miniseries, he is still in the employ of the High Priest after Pentecost and gives the order for Peter and John to be flogged after their arrest. If that was what actually happened, perhaps it simply took him a little bit longer to come to the light. Perhaps, witnessing such a change in Peter and the other Apostles from what Malchus briefly witnessed in the Garden, sealed the deal on a nascent belief he had nurtured since that fateful night. Being healed of a grievous wound by the man whom you were sent to arrest would undoubtedly have had a profound effect on Malchus. It is highly unlikely that he would have been unchanged or continued in opposition to Him after His Resurrection.
And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but Thine, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in an agony He prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground.
–Luke 22:41-44 RSV
The First Sorrowful Mystery
The First Sorrowful Mystery of the Rosary is the Agony in the Garden. The Agony in the Garden is the beginning of Christ’s Passion. It is where Our Lord first begins to suffer. The bloody sweat recorded by Saint Luke are also the first drops of blood shed by Our Lord.
Saint Luke, who is believed to have been a physician, describes an actual medical condition known as hematridosis. It occurs when capillary blood vessels burst, causing them to fill the sweat glands with blood. It is extremely rare and is only caused by extreme physical and emotional stress. In Gospel according to Matthew, Christ tells His Apostles that He is “sorrowful, even to the point of death.” Thus, the stress to his soul was so great that His capillaries burst, causing Him to sweat blood. Even before His Crucifixion, Christ was undergoing the most intense suffering and anguish known to man.
Why was Christ in such great anguish?
Saint Luke writes that when the time approached for Jesus to travel to Jerusalem for the final time, that He “set his face” (some translations include, “like flint”). The image brought to mind is of a person who knows that he is about to undergo something painful but who resolutely sets himself to do it and endeavors to not yet his pain or trepidation show in his face. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus prophesies His Passion in words that make it clear that He knows exactly what is in store for Him. Thus, He was no doubt inwardly preparing Himself for His Passion for a long time.
Yet, on the night before His death, His resolve seems to falter. He prays, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but Thine, be done.” He does so not once, not twice, but three times. He is not rejecting His saving mission but He is asking His Father if there is not some other that it can be accomplished.
To enter fully into the mystery of the Incarnation is to understand that Jesus was fully human. Not only did He have a human body, but he had a human mind and soul, human emotions and a human will. (To deny any of these is to embrace heresies that have long been declared anathema by the Church.) All of these were of course hypostatically united to His divine will which was itself in perfect union with that of His Heavenly Father but that does not mean that Jesus, as a human, did not fear the excruciating pain of a crucifixion.
Yet, none of that means that He was unwilling to undergo His Passion. Nor does it somehow diminish His Passion and Death for us. If anything, it amplifies it. Our Lord asked His Father if there was another way. When His Father answered there was not, He willingly and fully submitted Himself to His Father’s will and went to meet those who were sent to arrest Him.
When Saint Christopher bore the Christ Child across the raging river on his shoulders, the Child grew so heavy that the exceedingly strong Christopher could barely carry Him. When Christopher to the Child that He felt as heavy as the whole world, the Child responded that was because he “bore the sins of the whole world.”
In the Song of the Suffering Servant, the prophet Isaiah prophesies of Christ, “On Him was laid the iniquity of us all.” In order for the death of Christ to serve as atonement for sins, He had to take on the guilt of those sins. This was every sin that had been committed up to that point and every sin that would be committed from that point until the end of time, from the most banal venial sin to the most heinous of mortal sins.
Saints have hypothesized that in the Garden, Christ witnessed all these sins at once as He accepted the burden of them upon His soul. Sin not only offends God, but it grievously wounds His Heart and this pain must have been intensely overwhelming for Our Lord. In addition to this, sin separates the sinner from God. Upon accepting the guilt of these sins, it stands to reason that Jesus would have felt an intense separation for His Father, made all the more excruciating as He prepared to endure His Passion.
Interestingly, in none of these portrayals is there an angelic appearance to counteract the demonic, despite the mention of an angel in the Gospel according to Saint Luke. The Gospel according to Saint Matthew mentions angels coming and ministering to Jesus after His temptations in the desert. While we might be tempted to think of the angelic presence as a soothing comfort from Christ’s agony, Saint Luke writes that the angel was sent “to strengthen Him.” I believe that this is a hint of Satan’s presence in the Garden, with the angel being sent as “back-up” (so to speak) for Jesus in His conflict with the Tempter. One wonders as well if perhaps the “twelve legions of angels” that Our Lord reminds His Apostles He can call upon His Father to send to His aide were not actually present, invisible, waiting for their Lord’s command to drive off the demonic powers arrayed against Him.
Mary did this first at the Annunciation with her fiat (“Let it be done to me according to thy word”) and Christ does it now with His words, “Not my will but Thine be done!” In the Garden of Eden, the first Adam rejected the Will of God and disobediently stretched out his hand to the tree and brought sin and, as a result, death into the world. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the new Adam accepts the Will of God and will obediently stretch out His arms upon the tree to erase sin and give life unto the world.
Lord Jesus Christ,
Grant us, we pray, the grace to be truly sorrowful for our sins, for which you suffered so greatly and which caused you such bitter agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Amen.
The glory of these forty days we celebrate with songs of praise; for Christ, by whom all things were made, himself has fasted and has prayed.
– Attributed to Pope St. Gregory the Great
Today marks the beginning of the forty day period of penitence before the celebration of Our Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection during the Paschal Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil. It is forty days because of the forty days that Christ spent in the wilderness prayer, fasting and being tempted by the Devil immediately prior to the beginning of his public ministry.
The funny thing is that Lent is not actually forty days, by anyone’s calculations. If you count the number of days from Ash Wednesday until Holy Saturday (the day before Easter) you get 46 (7×6+4). Now, most people do not count Sundays as days of Lent because technically every Sunday is a celebration of Our Lord’s Resurrection and therefore a time of rejoicing. It’s the same reason that except for the highest of holydays, if a feast falls on Sunday, the Sunday celebration takes precedence or is moved (this year, the Solemnity of St. Joseph gets bumped forward to Monday because March 19th is a Sunday). If you subtract the Sundays, you get forty days.
But…then you run into the problem of the Triduum which is technically one giant feast and it’s own liturgical season. (Pay attention this year: there is no dismissal from the Mass of Our Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday and no greeting of the people at the Easter Vigil. It is one, three-day long liturgy.) So you would have to subtract the last three days of the forty day period and come up with thirty-seven days. Adding back the Sundays does not help because now we have forty-three days.
But I digress…
Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust
Contrary to popular belief, Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. You would never know this because so many Catholics go to Mass to get ashes. Even Catholics who do not make it to Mass for holydays of obligation or even most Sundays, make it to Mass for Ash Wednesday. While that is kind of sad, a priest can use this opportunity to call those wayward Catholics in the pews (as well as the rest of us…we are all wayward in some way or another) to a deeper sense of repentance.
After all, that is really what Lent is all about: repentance. In the ancient times, those who wished to show repentance from sin would publicly rend their garments, put on sackcloth and sprinkle ashes in their hair. (As an example, this is what the people of Nineveh did in order to avert the destruction prophesied by the prophet Jonah) When the priest or minister puts the ashes on a person’s forehead, he does so with an admonition. The classic is “Remember man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” This is a warning of our own mortality that hearkens back to what God told Adam after he sinned in the Garden of Eden. This connection makes it a reminder that as St. Paul wrote, “The wages of sin are death” and that one day, we will die, and be judged for our sins. Now, is the time to repent, for we could be called before the judgment seat of God any day, no matter how young or healthy we might be.
More recently, priests and ministers have been offering a more straightforward (and less somber) admonition: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” This is taken from Scripture as well, as they are the words of both John the Baptist and Jesus Himself as they preached the imminent Kingdom of God. It is a simple statement of what we are called to do during Lent, and the ashes on the forehead are an outward symbol of that.
The Real Point of Lent
To further our discipline, which is an absolute requirement to battle sin and, ultimately its author, most Catholics, during Lent, embrace some form of penitential practice, above and beyond what the Church obliges each and every able-bodied Catholic to do, under pain of mortal sin. While this often takes the form of a mortification of the flesh, such as giving up certain foods or sleeping without a blanket, it can also take the form of engaging in some sort of pious exercise such as praying the Rosary or going to daily Mass.
While I plan to do both of the aforementioned types of penitential practices, one thing I hope to accomplish this Lent is to write meditations on different aspects of Our Lord’s Passion. The Church provides multiple devotional frameworks for such meditations. Chief among these are the fourteen Stations of the Cross, the five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and the seven Last Words of Christ. Added together this only make twenty-six. Since, I would like to make this a devotional practice for Lent, I have decided to add enough to make it forty, primarily by also meditating on the Passion as seen by some of the players in it such as Malchus, Pontius Pilate, Simon of Cyrene, Veronica, Dismas and Longinus. Adding meditations on the Sunday Gospels as well one of two one-offs on various subjects related to the Passion would bring that number to (more or less) forty.
The Catholic Church has patron saints for almost anything you can think of. There are also numerous reasons that one might venerate a saint as his patron. There is of course the saint you are named after, but is also the patron saint for your vocation, your profession, your nationality or ethnic background. There are patrons for numerous special conditions or situations that might apply to you as well.
One patronage that is not as commonly thought of as the others is the patron of your birthday, that is to say the saint whose feast falls on the day you were born. Now, not every day has a saint commemorated on the official Church calendar. However, every canonized saint has an assigned feast day, even if his or her name is not on the official calendar. If the your birthday lacks a saint’s feast on the current calendar, there is always the Traditional Calendar (the one that is used for offering the Extraordinary Form a.k.a. the Latin Mass), which generally had a lot more saints on it.
My Birthday Saint
I remember growing up and being a little bummed because my “birthday saint” was not one of the “cool” or “famous” saints. (I was born three weeks early. If I’d just waited 15 days to come out, I could have been born on the memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas!) However, in my research for my Master’s thesis (which, if you are so inclined, you can read HERE), I discovered just how awesome and important St. Hilarius, a.k.a. Hilary, of Potiers, really was.
Quick note: I have always felt bad for St. Hilary because nowadays, Hilary is typically considered to be a girl’s name. In light of that fact as well as the recent Presidential election, I will be referring to the saint by his Latin name of Hilarius hereafter. (For the most part, I prefer the Latin versions of the names anyway).
Hilarius was bishop of the city of Pictavium, modern day Poitiers, France, in the mid-fourth century. During this time, the Church was embroiled in the Arian Crisis. Despite having been anathematized at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, the teachings of Arius that the Son was not “consubstantial” with the Father but merely the highest of created beings, enjoyed favor with the Roman emperor Constantius II, son of Constantine the Great.
The Liberian Controversy
Hilarius wrote Historia Arianorum, which is an invaluable account of this controversy. He was such a staunch opponent of the Arian heresy that he is known as the “Athanasius of the West.” Like Athanasius, Hilarius was exiled by Constantius II for opposing Arianism and refusing to accept the appointments of Arian or Arian sympathetic bishops. A document known as Quae gesta sunt inter Liberium et Felicem episcopos, “That which occurred between the bishops Liberius and Felix,” (hereafter: Gesta) lists Hilarius, along with Eusebius, bishop of Vercelli; Lucifer, (yes…you read that right) bishop of Cagliari; and Liberius, bishop of Rome; as bishops of the West whom Constantius exiled.
Of these men, two (Hilarius and Eusebius) are saints; and two (Liberius and Lucifer) are not. In place of Liberius, Constantius appointed an antipope named Felix (II). The Roman people refused to accept him as their bishop and when Constantius visited Rome two years later, they successfully petitioned him to allow Liberius to return.
The accounts of the pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus, and Christian historians Socrates Scholasticus and Theodoret all agree that the actions ofChristians of Rome brought about the return of Liberius. The author of the Gesta concurs but adds an ominous caveat to the acquiescence of Constantius. “He soon agreed, saying, ‘You may have Liberius, who will return to you better than he was when he departed.’ But this revealed that by his agreement he was extending the hand of treachery.” Frustratingly, there is no further elaboration on this point. Sozomen supplies the details that the author of the Gesta omits. Constantius once again summoned Liberius before him and “urged him…to confess that the Son is not of the same substance as the Father.” Sozomen, a Church historian, states that the Arian bishops of the East produced a document which condemned the doctrines of Sabellianism. Sabellianism is the heresy which states that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not three distinct persons in one God but three different aspects or “modes” of the same God. Arians often erroneously equated the doctrine of Nicaea with this earlier heresy.
Liberius assented to the document, which included a confession of faith which deliberately omitted the term homoousias (Greek form of “consubstantial”) In fact, it made no mention of “substance” at all. These creeds were not technically heretical. They did not state false doctrine but neither did they affirm the doctrine of the homoousion that had been accepted at Nicaea. Upon this basis, the Arian party “circulated the report that Liberius had renounced the term ‘consubstantial,’ and had admitted that the Son is dissimilar from the Father.”
There are three possibilities. The first is that Liberius, worn down by exile, capitulated and did in fact sign the document, with full knowledge of its contents. The second is that he signed but did not realize or fully understand what he was signing. The final is that he did not sign but that the Arians simply circulated the report that he had signed in order to discredit him.
The reason of Lucifer is related to that of Liberius. (It has nothing to do with his unfortunate name. The name Lucifer was not associated with Satan until Jerome’s Vulgate translation, which he undertook late in the pontificate, and at the behest of, Damasus, successor of Liberius) Lucifer refused to accept Liberius as the lawful bishop of Rome after hearing of his capitulation and went into schism. This schism continued into the pontificate of Pope St. Damasus I, who succeeded Liberius. Two Luciferian presbyters named Marcellinus and Faustinus went so far as to write a letter to the emperors Theodosius, Valentinus and Arcadius denouncing Damasus.
For my wife and I, one big factor when choosing the name for our daughter was on which saint’s feast she would be born on or close to. Since her due date was July 27, we decided we would either name her Kateri or Anna with the middle name of Therese.
She was born July 11. That is the memorial of St. Benedict but I was not able to convince my wife to name her Benedicta. As it turned out, her first Mass, which we attended the day after she left the hospital, was July 14: the memorial of St. Kateri Tekawitha. Six weeks later she was baptized on August 28, which would have been the memorial of St. Augustine if it had not fallen on a Sunday
Men, I encourage you to, if you have not already done so, research your patron saints. Start with the usual: name, vocation, profession, nationality. But do not forget about your birthday saint or even your baptism saint. Do not be afraid to invoke their intercession. If you have children, research their patron saints and teach your children about them. Teach them to invoke their intercession and treat them like friends in Heaven.
Named after Sts. Kateri Tekawitha and Thérèse of Lisieux, born on the memorial of St. Benedict and born again on the memorial of St. Augustine, I am glad that my daughter has powerful patrons and protectors in Heaven and I will encourage her from an early age to call on their help and protection.