We’re reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews these days at Mass. Raymond Brown calls the work “a conundrum” in his “Introduction to the New Testament”. Who wrote it, where and when it was written, to whom, why? Hard to figure out.
Indications are the letter was written after the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD to Jewish-Christians, perhaps in Rome, who wanted to reconstruct the temple and renew worship there. Martin Goodman’s “Rome and Jerusalem” (New York 2008) offers an interesting picture of the longing Jews and Jewish Christians had afterwards to rebuild the temple and revive its rites.
Our letter sees Christ as fulfilling the Jewish past and creating something new. Without dismissing the past, he completes it.
Do we face something like this today as our world and our church face change, drastic change? We hang on to the past, not knowing the future and afraid of what it will bring, yet we can’t recreate what has been, something new lies before us.
The Letter to the Hebrews tells us to face the future bravely, and keep before us the One who holds the key to what is to come. In his lifetime, Jesus struggled with the past, present and future.Remember his struggle. It’s ours.
“Keep your eye fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith, For the sake of the joy put before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and has taken his place at the right hand of the Father. Consider how he faced such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.”
“To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?” ( Mark 4, 30) Jesus turned to the land where he lived and the life lived around him to answer that question.
It was a changeable land. If you stand on the roof of the Passionist house in Bethany near Jerusalem, as I did some years ago, you can still see ordered rows of olive trees growing beneath you. As night falls, the sky over the Mount of Olives raises questions of its own. Jesus knew this land.
Then, looking eastward to Jericho and the Dead Sea, there’s the barren desert. Then, from Jericho to Galilee the land turns from desert to lush farmland. A changing land.
Jesus experienced a changing landscape as he left Nazareth for the Jordan River and then the Sea of Galilee; it influenced the way he spoke. His parables are rich with the language of the sower and the seed. Like us, he was influenced by the place and life around him.
In a book written in the 1930s Gustaf Dalman, an expert on the geography and environment of Palestine, observes that when Jesus went from the highlands of Nazareth, 1,100 feet above sea level to the fishing towns along the Sea of Galilee, 680 feet below sea level, he entered a different world.
For one thing, he ate better – more fish and nuts and fruits were available than in the hill town where he grew up. He looked out at the Sea of Galilee instead of the hills and valleys around his mountain village. He saw a great variety of birds, like the white pelicans and black cormorants challenging the fishermen on the lake. He saw trees and plants and flowers that grew abundantly around the lake, but were not around Nazareth.
Instead of the chalky limestone of Nazareth, Jesus walked on the hard black basalt around the lake. Basalt provided building material for houses and synagogues there. They were sturdy structures, but they were dark and drab inside. They needed light. Light on a lampstand became one of his parables. (Mark 4,21)
Basalt also made for a rich soil where everything could grow. “… here plants shoot up more exuberantly than in the limestone district. Where there are fields, they yield a produce greater than anyone has any notion of in the highlands.” (Dalman, p123)
Farmland in Galilee
The volcanic soil on the land around the lake produced a rich harvest. The Jewish historian, Josephus, praised that part of Galilee for its fruitfulness, its palm trees, fruit trees, walnut trees, vines, wheat. But thistles, wild mustard, wild fennel grew quickly too and could choke anything else that was sown. The land around the Sea of Galilee was fertile then; even today it has some of the best farmland in Palestine.
Soil near the Sea of Galilee
The weather in the Lake District was not the same as in the mountains, warmer in winter, much hotter and humid in summer, which begins in May. “It is difficult for anyone used to living in the mountains to work by day and sleep by night…Out of doors one misses the refreshing breeze, which the mountains along the lake cut off…one is tempted to think that Jesus, who had settled there, must often have made occasion to escape from this pitiless climate to his beloved mountains.” (Dalman, p. 124)
You won’t find these observations in the gospels, of course, but they help us appreciate the world in which Jesus lived and the parables he drew from it. He was influenced by where he lived, as we are.
And what about us? We’re experiencing climate change now, aren’t we? It’s going to influence our spirituality, how we see, how we live, how we react to the world around us.
Pilgims enteing the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
This ancient ecumenical feast, celebrated by Christian churches throughout the world, commemorates the dedication of a great church in Jerusalem at the place where Jesus died and rose again. Called the Anastasis ( Resurrection) or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, it was built by the Emperor Constantine and was dedicated on September 13, 325 AD, It’s one of Christianity’s holiest places.
Liturgies celebrated in this church, especially its Holy Week liturgy, influenced churches throughout the world. Devotional practices like the Stations of the Cross grew up around this church. Christian pilgrims brought relics and memories from here to every part of the world. Christian mystics were drawn to this church and this feast.
Tomb of Jesus
Pilgrims still visit the church and the tomb of Jesus, recently renovated , after sixteen centuries of wars, earthquakes, fires and natural disasters. They venerate the rock of Calvary where Jesus died on a cross. The building today is smaller and shabbier than the resplendent church Constantine built, because the original structure was largely destroyed in the 1009 by the mad Moslem caliph al-Hakim. Half of the church was hastily rebuilt by the Crusaders; the present building still bears the scars of time.
Scars of a divided Christendom can also be seen here. Various Christian groups, representing churches of the east and the west, claim age-old rights and warily guard their separate responsibilities. One understands here why Jesus prayed that ” All may be one.”
Egyptian Coptic Christians
Seventeenth century Enlightenment scholars expressed doubts about the authenticity of Jesus’ tomb and the place where he died, Calvary. Is this really it? Alternative spots were proposed, but scientific opinion today favors this site as the place where Jesus suffered, died and was buried.
From the 4th century the Emperor Constantine and his successors built churches over important biblical sites in the Holy Land. One of the churches was built near the ancient pool of Bethesda, just north of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.
John’s gospel pointed out the place: “Now there was in Jerusalem at the Sheep Gate, a pool in Hebrew Bethesda, with five porticoes. In these lay a large number of the blind, lame and crippled,” (John 5,2) Jesus healed a paralyzed man at this healing place, where pagan gods like Asclepius and Serapis were honored.
The church over the ancient healing pool became associated with Mary, the mother of Jesus, early on. Traditions from the 3rd century placed her home in this area of Jerusalem, and so Mary’s birth and early life came to be remembered here. By the 5th century, Mary’s birth was celebrated here and Christian pilgrims, returning home, celebrated the feast of her birth in their own churches September 8.
In the last century archeologists uncovered the ancient healing pool with its porticoes, parts of an ancient church and ruins of a temple of Asclepius (2nd-4th century) ..
Early Christian traditions from the 3rd century placed Mary’s home in this area of Jerusalem, and so Mary’s birth and early life came to be remembered here.
Mary’s mother was Anne and her father Joachim, who provided sheep for the temple sacrifices, the early traditions said. But they were looked down upon, because they were old and childless. Then, angels told them they were to conceive a daughter. Their faith, like that of Abraham and Sarah, was miraculously rewarded.
The stories of the birth of Mary and her childhood strongly influenced the spirituality and devotional life of all the early Christian churches of the east and west, which celebrate this feast together today September 8 . Her parents are honored September 9 by the Greek Church. The Roman Church celebrates their feast July 26th.
When the Crusaders conquered the Holy Land in the 11th century, they rebuilt the small church over the healing pool, fallen into ruins, and built a new, larger church honoring St. Anne, the mother of Mary, southeast of the pool.
The present Church of St. Ann, today one of the most beautiful of Jerusalem’s churches, stands overlooking the remains of the old church and the healing pool, a favorite destination for pilgrims.
Readings for the feast of Mary’s Birth see her birth awaited by all her ancestors. The gospel, St.Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, begins with Abraham. Mary fulfilled his hopes and the hopes of generations before him by bringing Jesus Christ into the world.. “We commemorate the birth of the blessed Virgin Mary, a descendant of Abraham, born of the tribe of Judah and of David’s seed,” (Antiphon, 1st Vespers, Roman rite)
“This feast of the birth of the Mother of God is the prelude, while the final act is the foreordained union of the Word with flesh. Today, the Virgin is born, tended and formed and prepared for her role as Mother of God, who is the universal King of the ages…
Today the created world is raised to the dignity of a holy place for him who made all things. The creature is newly prepared to be a divine dwelling place for the Creator.”
(St. Andrew of Crete, bishop, Office of Readings, Roman rite)
This feast of Mary is the first great feast in the calendar of the Orthodox Church, which begins in September. Their calendar begins with Mary’s birth and ends with the feast of her Dormition, on August 15th.
The Orthodox liturgy sees Mary as the mysterious ladder that Jacob saw in a dream reaching from earth to heaven. (Genesis 28,10-17) She is the way the Word comes down to earth’s lowest point, death itself, and returns to heaven having redeemed humanity. The Orthodox liturgy also associates Mary with the miracle of the paralyzed man at the Pool of Bethesda. She has a role in healing our paralyzed humanity.
August 24th is the feast of the apostle Bartholomew, also identified as Nathaniel, from Cana in Galilee, only a few miles from Nazareth. Like Nazareth, Cana attracted little interest in Jesus’ time, yet it played a major role in Jesus’ early life and mission.
In John’s gospel, Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding in Cana, his first “sign” that God’s kingdom would come. (Jn 2, 1-12) The family faced a wedding nightmare: the wine was running out and embarrassment was sure to come.
Catholic Church, Cana
Was the family related to Jesus? Or Bartholomew? At least they were close. Why else would Jesus, his mother and his disciples be at the celebration?
The miracle was special,. More than saving a family from embarrassment, it’s a sign in John’s gospel of God’s great love for ordinary people in ordinary towns everywhere. God delights in them, says the Prophet Isaiah, whose words often accompany the Cana miracle, Cana signifies poor Israel, whom God loves with all the ardor of a “young man marrying a virgin,” God’s love, bountiful, restoring, overflowing with delight, goes out to this poor place, as well as poor places everywhere.
Jesus performed another miracle at Cana, John’s gospel says, another sign of the coming kingdom. Besides the miracle at the wedding, Jesus cured the dying son of a government official from Capernaum, whose ” father came to Cana because he heard that Jesus was there. (John 4.46-54) Jesus saved his son from death.
Through the centuries Cana hasn’t prospered much. It’s not much to look at today. In the late 19th century, a visiting English vicar described it this way:
“ (Kefr Kenna) lies on high ground, but not on a hill…A broad prickly pear led to the group of houses which perhaps represents the New Testament Cana. Loose stones were scattered around the slope. There may be, possibly, 150 inhabitants, but one cannot envy them their huts of mud and stone, with dunghills at every corner. Huge mud ovens, like great beehives, stood at the sides of some of the houses.
“ In one house a worthy Moslem was squatting on the ground with a number of children, all with slates on which verses of the Koran had been written, which they repeated together. It was the village school, perhaps like that at Nazareth eighteen hundred years ago.
“ A small Franciscan church of white stone with a nice railed wall, with a beautiful garden at the side, had over its doorway these startling words in Latin: ‘Here Jesus Christ from water made wine.’ Some large water jars are shown inside as actually those used in the miracle, but such mock relics, however believed in by simple monks, do the faith of other people more harm than good.”
Cana’s still a poor town. Like other poor places in the world it’s waiting to be raised up to share in the splendor of the heavenly Jerusalem. God loves poor places like this, the Cana miracle says. Bartholomew came from here.
We‘re reading the Prophet Ezekiel now at Mass. He was a priest brought as a captive to Babylon along with King Johoiachin and members of the Jewish elite after the Babylonians crushed the Jewish revolt against them in 597 BC. He would be one of those pictured above, on their way to exile .
The Jewish elite who were taken to Babylon had been convinced God would never permit Jerusalem to be destroyed. When it was destroyed, they were just as convinced it would be rebuilt quickly. You’re wrong in both cases, Ezekiel tells them. Jerusalem will be destroyed and it won’t be God’s fault– it’s yours. You are unfaithful leaders.
“Thus says the Lord GOD: Woe to the shepherds of Israel
who have been pasturing themselves!
Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep?
You have fed off their milk, worn their wool,
and slaughtered the fatlings,
but the sheep you have not pastured.
You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick
nor bind up the injured.”
Jerusalem won’t be restored by your power either, Ezekiel says. It will take time, and it will come in God’s time, not yours, by God’s power, not yours. In the meantime, ask God to take away your hearts of stone and give you natural hearts.
The Jewish leaders didn’t like Ezekiel’s message:
“Son of man, listen! The house of Israel is saying, ‘The vision he sees is a long time off; he prophesies for distant times!’ Say to them therefore: Thus says the Lord GOD: None of my words shall be delayed any longer. Whatever I say is final; it shall be done.”
Hard times lead to impatience, to blaming others, to thinking God is absent, but hard times are blessed times, Ezekiel says, when God is more present than ever. God will save his people.
“Thus says the Lord GOD,”
I swear I am coming… I will claim my sheep…I will save my sheep…
I myself will look after and tend my sheep.” (Ezekiel 34,1-11)
On today’s feast of St. James, the apostle, Matthew’s gospel describes Salome, the mother of James and John, asking Jesus to give her sons privileged places in his kingdom. “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.”
I’m not sure Salome would have fallen at Jesus’ feet as she’s pictured in the illustration above. They were related, after all, and she was a senior relative of his. She probably reminded Jesus that James and John were his cousins, and remember, I know your mother. Family ties always help people get ahead.
Jesus doesn’t dismiss her altogether, but he reminds her that his followers are to serve and not be served. It’s a service that will cost them, even their lives. Following him doesn’t mean that they and their family would gain. Like the Son of Man James and John will have to give their lives “for many.”
They’re called by God to reach out, and reaching out can be hard, sometimes painful. It means going beyond those we call our own, our families and friends. It means reaching out to those we don’t know, even to those we don’t like. It means going beyond what we’re used to.
Later stories say that James and John went to places far beyond the Sea of Galilee where they fished with their father Zebedee and were cared for by a mother who had their interests at heart. Our church is a missionary church. It reaches out to the whole world. That’s what Jesus last words in Matthew’s gospel says to do: “Go out to the whole world, baptizing and teaching.”
That’s still his word today. Go out to the whole world, even if the world is changing and the future is uncertain. “I am with you all days,” Jesus says.
James, brother of John, is also known as James the Greater, to distinguish him from James the Less, the other disciple mentioned in the New Testament. James was the first of the apostles to die for Christ; he was beheaded in Jerusalem by King Herod Agrippa in 42 AD.
Later Traditions About James
Some 4th century Christian writers say that one of the apostles went to Spain and a 6th century source identifies the apostle as James, who preached briefly in Spain and converted only a few before returning to Jerusalem and his death.
Modern scholars are divided about the truth of the tradition. Relics said to be of St. James were discovered in Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain in the 9th century, a major event in Spanish history. His shrine at Compostella became a major pilgrimage center for the people of Spain and Europe, rivaling even Rome and Jerusalem in its popularity.
From the 9th century onward, James was patron of the Spanish peoples and a rallying cry in their fight to free their land from the Moors. At four battles – Clavijo (9th c.), Simancas (10th c.), Coimbra (11th c.) and Las Navas de Tolosa (1212) – legends say he appeared as a warrior astride a great white horse with a sword in his hand. Throughout the Middle Ages, soldiers and knights came as pilgrims to Compostela to seek the saint’s protection.
In 1492, when Spain was finally free of Moorish domination, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella came to Compostela to give thanks to St.James in the name of the Spanish people.
How old are the relics of St.James? Pilgrims from Galicia were frequent visitors to the Holy Land as early as the 4th century and may have brought the relics back to their native land. Colorful legends from medieval times, however, brought the story back further to the time of the apostle himself, saying that disciples of James fled with his body after he was beheaded and, escaping by boat, drifted to the coast of Spain where, after many adventures they buried him. These legends about James appear frequently in medieval art and in numerous churches built in his honor in France, England, and later in the Spanish colonies of the New World. Cities such as Santiago, Chile, Santiago, Cuba,San Diego, California, are named after him. The feast of St.James is July 25.
We wonder where the gospel events took place, especially during Holy Week.. Where was Jesus judged by Pilate? What way did he go to Calvary? Where was he crucified and where was he buried?
Reliable historians generally agree that the tomb of Jesus and the site of Calvary are in the Church of the Holy Sepucher. “Is this the place where Christ died and was buried?” Jerome Murphy-O’Connor asks in his solidly researched “The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide” (New York, 2008). “Yes, very probably,” he answers. (p 49)
Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
Jerusalem’s “Via Dolorosa”, the traditional way of the cross, is less historically reliable. Beginning near St. Stephen’s Gate, where the Fortress Antonia once stood, it winds up at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Murphy-O Connor says it is “defined by faith and not by history.” (pp 37-38) Early Christian pilgrims created it.
Pilgrims on the Vis Dolorosa
After the Christian church was established by Constantine in the 4th century, pilgrims from Mount of Olives, where many stayed, walked through St. Stephen’s Gate up to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, stopping at certain places to recall incidents from the passion of Jesus. The present Via Dolorosa was formed from their devotions over the centuries. (cf. Murphy-O’Connor, p 37) Pilgrims, not archeologists, have given us the present Via Dolorosa.
Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus
Is their a more reliable way? A reconstruction of Jerusalem (above) from the time of Jesus at the Israel Museum–somewhat altered here– suggests another way that Jesus was led to Calvary. At the bottom right is the luxurious palace complex built by Herod the Great. (below) When Pontius Pilate came from Caesaria Maritima for Passover he probably stayed there and judged Jesus in the courtyard outside the palace.
Herod’s Palace, the Citadel
After sentencing Jesus to death, Pilate handed him over to a detachment of soldiers quartered somewhere in the great towers to the left of the palace, who scourged him and crowned him with thorns.
They then led him away to Calvary, probably parading him through part of the upper city as a warning to others. In our map of Jerusalem above, the rock outcropping near to the city wall is the site of Calvary where Jesus was crucified. The gospels say he was buried in a tomb only a stone’s throw away.
In Jerusalem today the Citadel stands on the ruins of Herod’s palace, still dominating the western part of the Old City.
You can walk on the southern ramparts of the city wall where Herod’s palace once stood and view some few remains of Herod’s building; the towers have been rebuilt.
Murphy-O’Connor suggests a way Jesus was taken to Calvary from here. “If, as seems likely, Jesus was brought into the city on his way to execution, the approximate route would have been east on David Street, north on the Triple Suk, and then west to Golgotha.” (p.38)
I walked that way some years ago, down David Street, to the Triple Suk and then west to Golgotha and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. My sense is Murphy-O’Connor is right, but I think we better not change the Via Dolorosa. For one thing, good piety has given us the present Via Dolorosa and it has a truth and beauty all its own. More importantly, it would start a war in Jerusalem, and the city has enough grief now.
For more information on the places of the Passion, see
Readings Jesus went from Galilee up to Jerusalem for the feast of the Tabernacles where “the Jews were trying to kill him” . (John 7, 1-39) It was a popular Autumn feast drawing crowds of visitors to the city. The “inhabitants of the city” notice him. Who are they?
They’re not the leaders who will later put him to death. They’re the ordinary people who watch the leaders, who know what’s happening in the city, who follow the trends and pass the gossip. They watch Jesus with curiosity as he enters the temple area and begins to teach.
“Do our leaders now believe he’s the Messiah?” “How can he be, because he’s from Galilee and no one will know where the Messiah is from?” They go back and forth– they’re the undecided who wait to see who wins before they take sides.
Jesus cried out against them, because they think they know what’s going on but know nothing. They are a far cry from the crowds in Capernaum that lined up around the door of Peter’s house when Jesus began his ministry. They’re blind to the Word in their midst.
When we think about those responsible for the death of Jesus, we shouldn’t leave out “the inhabitants of the city.” Terrible things happen because the undecided choose to stay on the sidelines and become uninvolved.
The reading from the Book of Wisdom for today talks about people like that–the people who wait and see. “Let us see whether his words be true; let us find out what will happen to him.” (Wisdom 2,12-24)
Prayer helps us to see what is real, the spiritual masters teach. To see what is real we have to put aside the ordinary ways we see and judge and act. The way we think often blinds us to the truth. Then, we have to act. Whether we’re learned theologians, practiced priests, informed church-goers, or “inhabitants of Jerusalem” we need to humble ourselves before God.
We are the inhabitants of the city,
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
READINGS Our readings from John’s gospel continue today with the healing of the paralyzed man at the pool at Bethesda (John 5,1-18). Compare him with the official in our previous story who came from Capernaum to Cana looking for a cure for his son. The official was obviously an important man. He knew how to get things done and came to get Jesus to do something for him. He’s resourceful.
The paralytic at Bethesda, on the other hand, seems utterly resourceless. For 38 years he’s come to a healing pool– archeologists identify its location near the present church of St. Anne in Jerusalem– and he can’t find a way into the water when it’s stirring. Paralyzed, too slow, he can’t even get anybody to help him. He doesn’t approach Jesus; Jesus approaches him, asking: “Do you want to be well?”
Instead of lowering him into the water, Jesus cures the paralyzed man directly and tells him to take up the mat he was lying on and walk. The man has no idea who cured him until Jesus tells him later in the temple area. He’s slow in more ways than one.
“God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in this world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God,” St. Paul tells the Corinthians.
Here’s one of the weak, the lowly, the nobodies God chooses, and he wont be the last. The mystics saw weakness differently that most do. It’s a time God acts, St. Paul of the Cross say it that way:
“Be of good heart, my good friend, for the time has come for you to be cured. Night will be as illumined as day. As his night, so is his day. A great difference takes place in the Presence of God; rejoice in this Divine Presence. Have nothing, my dear one; allow yourself to be deprived of all pleasure. Do not look your sufferings in the face, but accept them with resignation and satisfaction in the higher part of your soul as if they were jewels, and so they truly are. Ah! let your loving soul be freed from all that is created and pay no attention to suffering or to enjoyment, but give your attention to your beloved Good. (Letter 41)
like the paralytic I wait for you,
not knowing when or how you will come.
But I wait, O Lord,
however long you may be.