If you have ever been to a traditional Latin Mass, you no doubt noticed that the altar servers make a big ceremony out of carrying the big book to the left side of the altar before the priest reads the Gospel. Is there some kind of symbolism going on with left and right? Are we supposed to think of those who stand at our Lord’s left and right at the judgment?
It turns out that the ceremony has nothing to do with left and right.  According to the rubrics, the priest reads the Gospel toward the north. In fact, what we usually see at a Low Mass or High Mass is a compressed version of the full ceremony of a Solemn Mass, where the subdeacon chants the Epistle on the right side and the deacon, after a procession with candles, chants the Gospel on the left side of the Church, facing directly toward the north. We’re all aware that churches are traditionally oriented toward the east, and east is important because the rising sun symbolizes Christ coming. But in liturgical terms, north is also important because, by a long tradition, the north represents the dark realm where the light of the gospel has not yet shone. We read the Gospel toward the north to represent the Church’s mission to the unevangelized.
In fact, after the Council of Trent permission was given for churches to be oriented not just toward the east but in other directions, if needed for some reason—any direction, in fact, except to the north. No church shall point in the direction of evil.
As Wyoming Catholic College has shifted temporarily to online classes, a lot of us are recording conversations to share with the students. Happily, that makes it easier to share with you! Recently Kyle Washut and I discussed John Henry Newman’s Letter to Pusey, of the best treatments anywhere if Catholic doctrine and devotion concerning Mary. Wyoming Catholic College posted the video as well as an audio-only version, and I’ve snagged the links.
Here is the video:
You can download the audio-only from this link, or listen to it here:
Okay, Bible people, help me out. Explain Melchizedek to me please. Why did Abraham pay him tithes? What’s the connection to Jesus?
Great question! The strange thing is, I have never seen anyone really lay out the answer. Of course, the Letter to the Hebrews meditates on Melchizedek, and commentators repeat what Hebrews says, but to my knowledge no one has connected all the dots.
Really to answer the question, I need to connect exactly five dots. Let’s go!
Wyoming Catholic College’s “After Dinner Scholar” podcast has published an interview with me titled: “Getting Wisdom in 2019 with Dr. Jeremy Holmes”. If you are interested in the “wisdom books” of Scripture, have a listen for my two cents’ on the topic.
Looking through the archives, I find that the “After Dinner Scholar” has posted interviews with me quite a few times. I haven’t always noted them as they came out, so here’s a list (in order from most recent to oldest):
“The Splendor of Truth 25 Years Later”. A quick introduction to the fundamental questions and teachings in JPII’s Veritatis Splendor. To date, this is the most-downloaded of all “After Dinner Scholar” podcasts.
“The Philosophical Side of Theology: St. Thomas’s Compendium”. I talk about the relationship between philosophy and theology, and I introduce St. Thomas’s often under-appreciated little overview of theology, the Compendium Theologiae. One person contacted me after this podcast to say he wanted to read the Compendium with his son and wondered if there were anything like a companion or commentary. I’m working on it!
“The Pope, Authority, and ‘Religious Assent'”. A brief discussion of how we should handle cases where the Magisterium teaches something but does not teach it infallibly. Still a hot topic today. I have a very rough manuscript of a book on this subject, and maybe someday I’ll at least turn it into a series of audio posts.
The prophet Isaiah dominates the season of Advent. Old Testament readings at Mass are taken from Isaiah, the Office of Readings draws almost entirely from Isaiah, and many of our hymns and carols are based on one or another passage from Isaiah. One reason is of course the clarity of Isaiah’s prophecies, but another is the beauty and power of his poetry.
Prophecy and poetry were not cleanly distinguished ideas in antiquity. All the biblical prophets are poets, pagan oracles spoke in short poems, and Plato referred to poets as “inspired” or possessed by a “divine madness”. Today we often meet poetry that makes no claim to inspiration—perhaps a mere advertising ditty—and our prophets tend to write blog posts or newspaper columns rather than verse. As a result, we turn to a biblical prophet looking for the “content” or the “message” behind the poetic medium rather than through it. We treat as separable something Isaiah would not have seen so.
One of my students needed to know how “Lucifer” became a name for Satan. I thought there would be an easy dictionary entry somewhere, but neither she nor I could find one source that tracks the evolution of the name, so I spent a few minutes this morning pulling the facts together from various places. It was an enjoyable time—I haven’t had many opportunities over the past decade to indulge in my specialization.
It all starts with the idolatry of the Babylonians. They worshipped the morning star (Venus in her rising before the sun) under the name of Istar. So when the prophet Isaiah speaks the rise and fall of the king of Babylon (Isaiah 14), he refers to him metaphorically as haylayl, ben mishawmayim, literally, “shining one, son of the morning,” that is, the morning star (Isaiah 14:12). The Septuagint translated haylayl as heosphoros, “morning bearer,” another name for the morning star, which in Greek is also called phosophoros, “light-bearer.” The Vulgate translated the word as Lucifer, which is a Latinization of phosophoros and also names the morning star as “light bearer”. When the Bible began to be translated into English, this word was simply carried over, so that until 1611 English Bibles also rendered the term as “Lucifer” (so says the OED).
Early Jewish traditions, which seem to pre-dating Christ, understood Isaiah 14 as speaking about the rise and fall of Satan. We can see this interpretation reflected for example in the Apocalypse of Elijah 4:11 and in Life of Adam and Eve 12:1 and 15:3, and many other places. While the term “Lucifer” or heosphoros occurs in the New Testament only in a positive sense (2Peter 1:19), the Jewish traditions regarding angels and demons are clearly reflected, and the general Jewish interpretation of the meaning of Babylon in Isaiah 14 comes out in Revelation (see especially 18:12, but it’s present throughout). In the early centuries of the Church, the name “Lucifer” was not yet exclusively associated with evil, so that we even have a “Saint Lucifer” from the 3rd Century who died for the Nicene faith (celebrated in the Church’s calendar on May 20). But Jerome passes on the traditional interpretation of Isaiah 14:12, and Augustine takes “Lucifer” as a proper name for Satan in his description of how one who was enlightened became dark. So at least by the 4th and 5th Centuries “Lucifer” had become one of the Adversary’s proper names.
And there we have it! There is more to the story, for sure, but that’s what came to hand from my personal library.
Over the past year, I have made slow progress toward deepening my grasp of moral philosophy. As a philosopher, I am still not ready to join all the discussions that swirl around the Internet.
But when people began to wrangle about Pope Francis’s comments on the death penalty, I noticed a few points that I could contribute as a theologian. Here are some key lines from the Holy Father’s remarks:
It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity. It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which—ultimately—only God is the true judge and guarantor.
St. Augustine was confident that the Beatitudes are the key to the Sermon on the Mount. They lay out the goal toward which the entire Christian life—and so, implicitly, the entire Sermon—is ordered, and they describe the person who attains the goal. When Augustine commented on the Our Father, the model for all Christian prayer, he was similarly confident that the Beatitudes must somehow be the key. Our prayer should be directed to the goal of our life, right?
This past week, I took part in the continual feast that was the Wyoming School of Catholic Thought. All us profs were asked to bring a side, so my contribution was a lecture on “The Life of Moses.”
In just under an hour, I recounted the story of Moses in a way that not only pulls his “biography” together but also provides a key to the story of the Exodus. You can download the lecture here, or listen using this audio player (you can’t see the audio player while viewing this post in your e-mail):
I had dreamed that today, as I turn 40 years old, I would ship out my finished book to a publisher. But God had other plans. As I round the pole and head on back toward the finish line of life, I have:
a beautiful, snugly baby boy
two (close to three!) teenagers who enjoy me and like to talk with me
a whole pack of middle kids who want to sing songs and hear stories
fifty or so fun and thoughtful students who are committed to learning (except for the day before Thanksgiving Break)
a new lead on solving these health issues
a wife who is still sane despite everything I just listed.
Oh, and I have a draft of the book. It’s a theology of Scripture inspired by St. Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine. Footnotes need work (bother footnotes), and the last chapter is just a ta-a-ad incomplete, but it’s a book.