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Pilgrimage to the Holy Land – Dec. 23, 2018

I was privileged recently to go on a pilgrimage with Fr. Dwight Longenecker and forty-eight other pilgrims to the Holy Land.  We were retracing the steps of the Magi from Jordan into Israel.  The pilgrimage was based on the historical detective work that Fr. Longenecker produced in his book Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men. One of the main points of this intriguing book is to demythologize the story of the Magi and root them in history.  Why does this story need demythologizing?  There is nothing overtly harmful to the faith in the present-day retelling of the “three kings,” typically named “Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar,” who come from distant countries like “Persia, Babylonia, and India.”  The only issue is that parts of it are fable.  It is these fable-parts that are used to attack the faith, calling it just another made-up myth of the Church.  Fr. Longenecker’s book blunts this attack by placing the Magi in a historical context.

Modern secularists like to cast a wide net, portraying not only Christmas, but also the life of Christ as fable.  They say there was no virgin birth, no miracles, and no resurrection.  According to them, we can know very little about the historical Jesus, what he did or said, or even if he existed at all.  God becoming man is just another made-up story, falling into the genre of ancient Near East mystery religions.  In short, Jesus is a myth.  Worse yet, the people who believe the myth are foolhardy and weak of mind.  Marx and Lenin called religion the ‘opium for the people.’  Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins even goes so far as to write children’s books trying “to save kids” from the perils of religion.  Christmas is scary!  

In one sense, they are right.  Christianity is myth.  Christianity highlights the themes of good and evil, tragedy and triumph, supernatural feats and ordinary failings.  The archetypal hero with a thousand faces can be seen in the Bible.  These profound undercurrents of truth run deeply through the human soul.  Christianity is a myth, but it is, as C. S. Lewis called, a ‘true myth:’ “a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”  God’s myth is greater than man’s myth, as it is incarnational in nature.

C.S. Lewis’ good friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, penned a modern-day mythic tale in his Lord of the Rings books, weaving in Catholic themes about heroes, truth, death and redemption.  G.K. Chesterton spoke about Christianity as the fulfillment of myth as well: “The Catholic faith is the reconciliation because it is the realization both of mythology and philosophy.  It is a story and in that sense one of a hundred stories; only it is a true story.” God’s true story is revealed to us in the events of the life of Christ.    

Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton used myth in the truest and most profound sense of the word.  That is, all the spiritual truths that percolated up into ancient man’s mind found their realization in the person of Christ. The use of myth today is more of the petty, slanderous kind, with accusations of “untruth.” Think of the ancient Christian “Icthys”fish symbol (“Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” used by 1st century Christians to mark secret meeting spots in the time of pagan persecutions), which is now mocked on cars with the labels “science” or “Darwin.”  The irony is that the more science digs into Christianity, the more evidence of its truth is discovered.  This has been no more evident than in recent Biblical archeological discoveries.  

Fr. Longenecker’s book establishes the Magi in history, just as many of the archeological sites we visited on our pilgrimage fix Judaism and Christianity in history.  There are the caves at Qumran near the shores of the Dead Sea where nearly a thousand scrolls or fragments of scrolls were discovered beginning in 1947.  These are the writings from the Jewish religious sect known as the Essenes, contemporaries of Jesus.  The archeological discovery found copies, in part or in whole, for nearly all the books of the Hebrew Bible, except Esther. More importantly, the 2,000-year-old scrolls show only minor divergences from modern translations of the Old Testament. This proves the many textual critics of the Bible wrong.  The text of the Bible has remained intact and substantially unchanged throughout its history. 

The pilgrimage also allowed us to see first-hand that we are now in a ‘golden age’ of biblical archeology.  Ironically (to some), this golden age is powered by scientific advancements and new disciplines; things like archaeoastronomy, Lidar studies, and ground penetrating radar, to name just a few.  There are examples of new discoveries everywhere you go in Israel and Jordan. In 1986, two fisherman and amateur archeologists uncovered the “Jesus boat” in the muddy lakebed in the Sea of Galilee during a severe drought.  The fishing boat was radiocarbon-dated to between 120 B.C.-40 A.D., or roughly the time of Christ.  The Apostles would have fished in a boat exactly like this one.  In 2004, the “Pool of Siloam” was discovered, where Jesus cured a blind man by having him wash mud out of his eyes. (Jn. 9:7)  A drainage repair crew working on pipe maintenance uncovered large stone steps down into the pool.  In 2007, archeologists discovered the long-lost tomb of Herod at his Herodium fortress.  In 2009, while building a retreat house along the northern side of the Sea of Galilee, crews unearthed the remains of a first century synagogue at Magdala (home of Mary Magdalene).  This discovery is now the oldest synagogue in the Galilee, with the oldest known representation of the Temple on the “Magdala Stone,” and is likely one of the hallowed grounds where Jesus frequented and taught.  

In October 2016, a renovation project funded by National Geographic was done at the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  Some historians had previously believed that the original cave was not there, not that old, or doubted that this was the actual site of Christ’s burial (and resurrection) at all.  An archeologist using ground-penetrating radar, however, proved them wrong.  He was able to determine that the original cave walls were, in fact, still present. The simple cave is still there underneath the millennium of marble, icons and incense of the ornate Edicule shrine. 

Mortar samples, taken from between the limestone cave-surface and the marble slab of the tomb, carbon-dated to about 345 A.D.  This is exactly the right time frame when the Emperor Constantine would have discovered the tomb and built the current shrine around it.  The Emperor Hadrian had built a pagan temple to Venus over the Christian holy site, as a means to cover up Christ’s burial spot, and presumably to stop Christian worship there.  Constantine subsequently destroyed the pagan shrine and excavated the site around 326 A.D., nearly matching the 345 A.D. date, and lending credence to this being the actual location of Christ’s tomb.  Modern science again proved the historical veracity of Christianity.  

At no place in the pilgrimage did Old Testament typology burst forth more into New Testament history than at “Shepherd’s Field,” an eastern suburb of Bethlehem.  It is the site traditionally where the angel announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds tending to their sheep.  The shepherds were the precursors to the Magi in worshiping the Christ child.  The prophet Micah had made an ancient prophecy (8th century B.C.) of the birthplace of the Messiah in the city of David, Bethlehem: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me, one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”(Micah 5:2)  The Messiah, “the Son of David,” would be born in Bethlehem, like King David before him. 

This is the prophecy that was cited to king Herod by his wise men, when the Magi came looking for the newborn king of the Jews.  Herod also perverted this into his maniacal slaughter of the innocence in Bethlehem.  At Shepherd’s Field, the angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds, saying: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”(Lk. 2:12) This “sign” would be the fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy.  The shepherds and the location were not coincidental either.  

These were no ordinary sheep and no ordinary shepherds.  Shepherd’s Field is where thousands of lambs were born and used for the daily sacrifices, and more importantly, the Passover sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem, as intimated in the ancient Jewish oral tradition of the Mishnah(e.g., Shekalim, 7.4) and Alfred Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Bk.2, Ch.6).  The “shepherds” were not ordinary shepherds either, but most likely Levite priests.  They were specifically stationed there at Shepherd’s Field to pasture the sheep and preserve the newborn lambs ‘without blemish’or ‘broken bone,’ to meet the requirements of the Law for Temple sacrifices.  The unblemished lambs were then chosen from Shepherd’s Field in Bethlehem and kept for the annual Passover sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Shepherd’s Field and Bethlehem highlight the convergence of Christ, biblical prophecy, God’s true myth, and archeology.  Jesus was the fulfillment of the angel’s announcement to the shepherd-priests. It is fitting that when the shepherds came to the manger, they found not a baby lamb, but the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.  Jesus is the true ‘Lamb of God,’who was the fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice of the lamb, in order to take away sin and keep us from death.  John the Baptist knew Jesus fulfilled this typology of the Passover lamb, saying: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”(Jn. 1:29)  Like many of the Christian sites in the Holy Land, the scriptures, Old Testament typology, and history come together to reveal the divine plan in the person of Jesus Christ.

Diving even deeper into the Old Testament symbology, Jesus is the Passover lamb who must be eaten. He is the fulfillment of God’s true myth rooted in history.  The little town of Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’ in Hebrew and ‘house of meat’ in Arabic. Bethlehem intimates the ‘bread and flesh’ of Jesus in the Eucharist.  Jesus was also placed in a manger (i.e., a feeding trough), symbolism hinting that he is food that gives life.  It is no wonder that when the shepherd-priests found the newborn Christ-child, as the angel had announced, “all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.”(Lk. 2:18) This same wonder is with us still in the ongoing afterglow of the birth of Christ.

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Numbers 22-35:

Balak, King of Moab, Seeks to Curse Israel:
Israel is now camped out in Moab near the city of Jericho.  Balak, the king of Moab, summons Balam, a pagan gentile divinizer, to divinize and place a curse upon Israel.  God came to Balam and told him not to curse Israel for “they are blessed.”  Yet, in the morning Balam got up, rode on his ass to go see the king Balam, against the will of the Lord.  This angered God, so the “Angel of the Lord” stood in the road to block his way.

Balam’s Talking Donkey:
“Then the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” And Balaam said to the ass, “Because you have made sport of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.” (Num. 22:28-29)  “Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face.  And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your ass these three times? Behold, I have come forth to withstand you, because your way is perverse before me..” (Num. 22:31-32)  Balam then repents “I have sinned.”  Then, Balam went back to Balak to prophesy.

Balam’s First Oracle:
“And God met Balam.”  And, Balam offered seven bulls and seven rams to the Lord.  Balam spoke: “How can I curse whom God has not cursed?”  And, King Balak complained to him: “And Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, and behold, you have done nothing but bless them.” (Num. 23:11)

Balam’s Second Oracle:
“The Lord their God is with them, and the shout of a king is among them. God brings them out of Egypt; they have as it were the horns of the wild ox; For there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel;” (Num. 23:21-23)

Balam’s Third Oracle:
As Balam, the pagan Gentile, begins his third oracle, “And the Spirit of God came upon him.”  God does not abandon anyone who calls upon His name, even a gentile pagan. “Blessed be every one who blesses you, and cursed be every one who curses you.” (Num. 24:9)

Balam’s Fourth Oracle:
Now, Balam gives one of the most famous prophecies in the Old Testament.  “I will let you know what this people will do to your people in the latter days.”  Here is the prophesy:

“The oracle of Balaam the son of Be′or,
the oracle of the man whose eye is opened,
the oracle of him who hears the words of God,
and knows the knowledge of the Most High,
who sees the vision of the Almighty,
falling down, but having his eyes uncovered:
 I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not nigh:
a star shall come forth out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the foreheadof Moab,
and break down all the sons of Sheth.
Edom shall be dispossessed,
Se′ir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed,
while Israel does valiantly.
 By Jacob shall dominion be exercised,
and the survivors of cities be destroyed!”

Then he looked on Am′alek, and took up his discourse, and said, “Am′alek was the first of the nations, but in the end he shall come to destruction.” And he looked on the Kenite, and took up his discourse, and said,

“Enduring is your dwelling place,
and your nest is set in the rock;
nevertheless Kain shall be wasted.
How long shall Asshur take you away captive?” And he took up his discourse, and said, “Alas, who shall live when God does this? But ships shall come from Kittim
and shall afflict Asshur and Eber;
and he also shall come to destruction.”  (Num. 24:15-24)

Balam as a “Magi from the East:”
Here, Balam prophesies about the coming of the Messiah, “a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.”  After this, Balam and Balak went their separate ways. Balam is a kind-of “magus” from the East paralleling the Magi who come from the East to offer worship of the new Christ child (Mt. 2). Here, Balam, a precursor to the Magi, also prophesies about the future Magi who will come worship Christ.

The Israelites Worship Baal at Peor:
The picture of the “wilderness generation” of the Israelites is basically how not to walk with God.  It is a negative example to us of how we should not model our behavior.  This is a warning to future Christian generations to not fall into the same types of sins of unbelief, immorality and idolatry lest we be judged not to enter into the true Promised Land of Heaven.  The wilderness years are a disaster for the Israelites, and a nadir in their relationship with God.  With that in mind, back at Peor, the Israelites began to worship the Moabite false-god, Baal.  “While Israel dwelt in Shittim the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Ba′al of Pe′or. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel.” (Num. 25:1-3)  In the Lord’s anger, He instructs Moses: “Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.”

Sexual Immorality and Spiritual Apostasy Link:
After the plague is finally stayed, 24,000 Israelites have been killed! (Num. 25:9)  Intermingling and intermarrying with the Midianites led to their worshiping of Baal. So God tells Moses, “Harass the Mid′ianites, and smite them; for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Pe′or..” (Num. 25:16-17)  Sexual immorality again is linked with spiritual apostasy.  This is the same as what happened with the Golden Calf incident, spiritual apostasy and sexual immorality.  What the Golden Calf incident was to the Exodus (1st) generation, so too, was the Idolatry of Baal at Pe’or for the Wilderness (2nd) generation. But again, we see the link between spiritual apostasy and sexual immorality.

Phineas, son of Eleazar, Assuages God’s Anger:
“And the Lord said to Moses, “Phineas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace; and it shall be to him, and to his descendants after him, the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the people of Israel.’” (Num. 25:10-13)

Another Census, the Second Wilderness Generation:
The Lord calls for a new census to find out “all in Israel who are able to go forth to war.”  After the census is complete, it is determined: “This was the number of the people of Israel, six hundred and one thousand seven hundred and thirty.”(Num. 26:51)  That is, 601,730 Israelite men of fighting age.  And, “The Lord said to Moses: “To these the land shall be divided for inheritance according to the number of names.” (Num. 26:52-53)  The Promised Land is to be divided among this second generation and divided up according the size of each tribes’ population.  Only Joshua and Caleb are left of the first generation of the Exodus, and will be permitted to enter into the Promised Land.

Appointing Joshua the Successor to Moses:
“The Lord said to Moses, “Go up into this mountain of Ab′arim, and see the land which I have given to the people of Israel.  And when you have seen it, you also shall be gathered to your people, as your brother Aaron was gathered, because you rebelled against my word in the wilderness of Zin during the strife of the congregation, to sanctify me at the waters before their eyes.” (Num. 27:12-14) At this point, Joshua is commissioned to take over the leadership of the Israelites and lead them into the Promised Land.  Then, God told Moses: “Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand upon him; cause him to stand before Elea′zar the priest and all the congregation, and you shall commission him in their sight.  You shall invest him with some of your authority, that all the congregation of the people of Israel may obey.” (Num. 27:18-20)  Allegorically, it is not Moses (“the Old Testament”) that leads us to the Promised Land (“Heaven”), but it is Joshua (Greek for “Jesus”) and His Gospel of the New Covenant to the Promised Land of Heaven.

The Two Daily Offerings: Morning and Evening:
“This is the offering by fire which you shall offer to the Lord: two male lambs a year old without blemish, day by day, as a continual offering.  The one lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer in the evening.”  Along with the offerings of the two lambs, one in the morning and one in the evening, they are to offer a grain offering and a wine offering. (Num. 28:3-8)  The same offering is to be made every Sabbath as well, and a monthly offering.

Further Feast Offerings Described:
The Lord then described the proscriptions of offerings for the Passover Festival and the other holy Feasts and Festivals.  This includes the Feast of Weeks, Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and Booths.  Also, one interesting note about the offerings of the Feast of Booths, over the seven day festival the Israelites were to offer 70 bulls.  The 70 bulls are offered for the “70 gentile nations” of the world. Israel, the first-born son, is offering and interceding for the gentile nations of the world.

 War Against Midian:
“The Lord said to Moses, “Avenge the people of Israel on the Mid′ianites; afterward you shall be gathered to your people.” (Num. 31:1-2)  The Israelites then conquer the Midianites, and bring all the spoils and booty of war to present it all before Moses and Aaron.

The Beginning Conquests of Jordan and Canaan:
“We will pass over armed before the Lord into the land of Canaan, and the possession of our inheritance shall remain with us beyond the Jordan.” (Num. 32:32)  “And the Lord said to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho,  “Say to the people of Israel, When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan,  then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images, and demolish all their high places;  and you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it.” (Num. 33:50-53)

The Lord Sets the Boundaries of the Promised Land:
Here the Lord sets the boundaries of the Promised Land to the north, the south, the west, and the east. “Moses commanded the people of Israel, saying, “This is the land which you shall inherit by lot..” (Num. 34:13)

Ordinance Against Murder:
“And these things shall be for a statute and ordinance to you throughout your generations in all your dwellings.  If any one kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses; but no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness.” (Num. 35:29-30)

The Incarnation of God into Our Lives – December 25, 2015

The Incarnation of God as man is a scandal. The first century Jews were expecting a Messiah, but did not conceive that he would be the Son of God Himself. They expected a messianic political leader. Jesus, being the second person of the Trinity, could very well have descended from Heaven ablaze in His divine power and majesty to establish His kingdom. Yet, we know this is not what happened. The Son of God came in obscurity, humility and poverty. This is the second scandal of the Incarnation. The divine being was born as a baby, completely dependent and helpless, to a poor family in a small village, placed in an animal manger. God came as the least among us. Chesterton called this “an idea of undermining the world.” This is the great paradox of Christianity, God as man, and even, God as an infant, the divine hidden in the ordinary, the exalted humbled. So intimate is His love for us that the Creator entered His creation, coming personally in search of us. How few recognized the extraordinary baby in their midst in that most ordinary scene in Bethlehem? How often still do we fail to see God in our ordinary circumstances each day?

The Incarnation is, at its most basic and profound level, a love story. It is the love of an infinitely merciful God for a broken and lost humanity. God came into our world on a search and rescue mission, to save us from our sins. Jesus did not come as the expected conquering king, rather, He came as the unexpected suffering servant. He chose to enter into our state of life, to follow the same path as all of us, of being born, growing up, laboring as an adult, and ultimately, dying. In doing so, He chose to take on the lowliness of our human nature, the ordinariness of our circumstances, and the drudgery of our every day lives. This is truly an amazing thing to contemplate. Jesus, the divine being, chose to spend most of His life, approximately thirty years, living a private, ordinary existence just like yours and mine. God chose to live like us in the small, mundane details of our lives. But why?

We know the ultimate purpose of the Incarnation is the Redemption, culminating in Jesus’ passion and crucifixion. Yet, to state the obvious, Jesus was God even before His public ministry. When He worked as a carpenter in Joseph’s workshop, He was God. When He obeyed Mary His mother, He was God. Jesus’ redemptive mission did not begin with His public ministry. It began with His Incarnation and birth, and continued along the spectrum of His whole life. As the Catechism states, “Christ’s whole life is a mystery of redemption.” (CCC 517) One aspect of Jesus’ mission was to restore humankind to its original dignity and vocation. Jesus recapitulated within Himself all of our ordinary human actions, our daily routines, our human institutions, such as the family, our sufferings, our jobs, and our ordinary human vocations. Jesus lived all of this. God deemed no stage or circumstance of life unworthy of His presence. He lived these in order to sanctify them, consecrate them, and restore them.

Each of Jesus’ actions were performed with the salvific power of the Godhead, infusing them with infinite moral value not limited by time or space. We can be united, even now, with Jesus in our humanity. This is part of the on-going love story, and is perhaps the third scandal of the Incarnation. We can partake in Christ’s mysteries, and He can continue to live them in us and through us. If we do so, in communion with the Church, the infant Christ of Bethlehem will be born again into our hearts and our souls. And, we too, like the Magi in the Epiphany, can recognize Christ in our midst and adore His presence in our lives each day.



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