A Homily – John 3:16 – 18 ©

The Gospel According to John – 2017.06.11

 

 

Hope and Fear

 

The gift of life is not transactional. It is free. We do not have to ask for it, just as we did not ask to be born, like true love, eternal life comes to us without conditions.

 

God, the creator of the universe, came to us in the person of Jesus. If you trust in the teachings of Jesus you will find peace in this world, you will understand that the things we endure here: pain, suffering, alienation, uncertainty, hunger, disease and death, these are all temporary.

 

You will see the world of light and life beyond the veil that is the inheritance of every one of us.

 

There is no condemnation in God, or in the ministry of Jesus. There is hope, and love, and mercy.

 

No one is condemned because they refuse to believe in the scriptures, in Christian doctrine, or the dogma of the church. God continuously pours out the divine love on all creation.

 

There is no magic power in a name, or an article of belief, but rather if you do not trust in the way of Jesus, and trust is the meaning of faith, if you are not able to trust in it, and you are selfish, instead of giving, malicious instead of loving, harmful instead of healing, then you will suffer in this world.

 

Faith in Jesus, means liberation in the here and now, in the present reality, which is a blessing to everyone who finds it, and to all whom they encounter.

 

 

The Gift of Love, and Life

 

Jesus said to Nicodemus:

 

‘God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life. For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved. No one who believes in him will be condemned; but whoever refuses to believe is condemned already, because he has refused to believe in the name of God’s only Son.’

 

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Sunday of the Most Holy Trinity

 

A Homily – Matthew 26:14 – 27:66 ©

The Gospel According to Matthew – 2017.04.09

 

 

The Passion

 

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

 

Key: N. Narrator. ✠ Jesus. O. Other single speaker. C. Crowd, or more than one speaker.

  1. One of the Twelve, the man called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said,
  2. What are you prepared to give me if I hand him over to you?
  3. They paid him thirty silver pieces, and from that moment he looked for an opportunity to betray him.

Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus to say,

  1. Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the passover?
  2. He replied:

✠ Go to so-and-so in the city and say to him, ‘The Master says: My time is near. It is at your house that I am keeping Passover with my disciples.’

  1. The disciples did what Jesus told them and prepared the Passover.

When evening came he was at table with the twelve disciples. And while they were eating he said:

✠ I tell you solemnly, one of you is about to betray me.

  1. They were greatly distressed and started asking him in turn,
  2. Not I, Lord, surely?
  3. He answered,

✠ Someone who has dipped his hand into the dish with me will betray me. The Son of Man is going to his fate, as the scriptures say he will, but alas for that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! Better for that man if he had never been born!

  1. Judas, who was to betray him, asked in his turn,
  2. Not I, Rabbi, surely?
  3. Jesus answered:

✠ They are your own words.

  1. Now as they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and when he had said the blessing he broke it and gave it to the disciples and said:

✠ Take it and eat; this is my body.

  1. Then he took a cup, and when he had returned thanks he gave it to them, saying:

✠ Drink, all of you, from this, for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which is to be poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. From now on, I tell you, I shall not drink wine until the day I drink the new wine with you in the kingdom of my Father.

  1. After psalms had been sung they left for the Mount of Olives. Then Jesus said to them,

✠ You will all lose faith in me this night, for the scripture says: I shall strike the shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered, but after my resurrection I shall go before you to Galilee.

  1. At this, Peter said,
  2. Though all lose faith in you, I will never lose faith.
  3. Jesus answered him,

✠ I tell you solemnly, this very night, before the cock crows, you will have disowned me three times.

  1. Peter said to him,
  2. Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.
  3. And all the disciples said the same.

Then Jesus came with them to a small estate called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples,

✠ Stay here while I go over there to pray.

  1. He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee with him. And sadness came over him, and great distress. Then he said to them,

✠ My soul is sorrowful to the point of death. Wait here and keep awake with me.

  1. And going on a little further he fell on his face and prayed:

✠ My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it.

  1. He came back to the disciples and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter:

✠ So you had not the strength to keep awake with me one hour? You should be awake, and praying not to be put to the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

  1. Again, a second time, he went away and prayed:

✠ My Father, if this cup cannot pass by without my drinking it, your will be done!

  1. And he came back again and found them sleeping, their eyes were so heavy. Leaving them there, he went away again and prayed for the third time, repeating the same words. Then he came back to the disciples and said to them,

✠ You can sleep on now and take your rest. Now the hour has come when the Son of Man is to be betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up! Let us go! My betrayer is already close at hand.

  1. He was still speaking when Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared, and with him a large number of men armed with swords and clubs, sent by the chief priests and elders of the people. Now the traitor had arranged a sign with them. He had said,
  2. ‘The one I kiss, he is the man. Take him in charge.’
  3. So he went straight up to Jesus and said,
  4. Greetings, Rabbi.
  5. and kissed him. Jesus said to him,

✠ My friend, do what you are here for.

  1. Then they came forward, seized Jesus and took him in charge. At that, one of the followers of Jesus grasped his sword and drew it; he struck out at the high priest’s servant, and cut off his ear. Jesus then said,

✠ Put your sword back, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father who would promptly send more than twelve legions of angels to my defence? But then, how would the scriptures be fulfilled that say this is the way it must be?

  1. It was at this time that Jesus said to the crowds,

✠ Am I a brigand, that you had to set out to capture me with swords and clubs? I sat teaching in the Temple day after day and you never laid hands on me.

  1. Now all this happened to fulfil the prophecies in scripture. Then all the disciples deserted him and ran away.

The men who had arrested Jesus led him off to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were assembled. Peter followed him at a distance, and when he reached the high priest’s palace, he went in and sat down with the attendants to see what the end would be.

The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus, however false, on which they might pass the death sentence. But they could not find any, though several lying witnesses came forward. Eventually two stepped forward and made a statement,

  1. This man said: ‘I have power to destroy the Temple of God and in three days build it up.’
  2. The high priest then stood up and said to him,
  3. Have you no answer to that? What is this evidence these men are bringing against you?
  4. But Jesus was silent. And the high priest said to him,
  5. I put you on oath by the living God to tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.
  6. Jesus answered:

✠ The words are your own. Moreover, I tell you that from this time onward you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.

  1. At this, the high priest tore his clothes and said,
  2. He has blasphemed. What need of witnesses have we now? There! You have just heard the blasphemy. What is your opinion?
  3. They answered,
  4. He deserves to die.
  5. Then they spat in his face and hit him with their fists; others said as they struck him,
  6. Play the prophet, Christ! Who hit you then?
  7. Meanwhile Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard, and a servant-girl came up to him and said,
  8. You too were with Jesus the Galilean.
  9. But he denied it in front of them all, saying:
  10. I do not know what you are talking about.
  11. When he went out to the gateway another servant-girl saw him and said to the people there,
  12. This man was with Jesus the Nazarene.
  13. And again, with an oath, he denied it:
  14. I do not know the man.
  15. A little later the bystanders came up and said to Peter,
  16. You are one of them for sure! Why, your accent gives you away.

Then he started calling down curses on himself and swearing:

  1. I do not know the man.
  2. At that moment the cock crew, and Peter remembered what Jesus had said, ‘Before the cock crows you will have disowned me three times.’ And he went outside and wept bitterly.

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people met in council to bring about the death of Jesus. They had him bound, and led him away to hand him over to Pilate, the governor.

When he found that Jesus had been condemned, Judas his betrayer was filled with remorse and took the thirty silver pieces back to the chief priests and elders, saying:

  1. I have sinned. I have betrayed innocent blood.
  2. They replied:
  3. What is that to us? That is your concern.
  4. And flinging down the silver pieces in the sanctuary he made off and hanged himself. The chief priests picked up the silver pieces and said,
  5. It is against the Law to put this into the treasury: it is blood-money.
  6. So they discussed the matter and bought the potter’s field with it as a graveyard for foreigners, and this is why the field is called the Field of Blood today. The words of the prophet Jeremiah were then fulfilled: And they took the thirty silver pieces, the sum at which the precious One was priced by children of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, just as the Lord directed me.

Jesus, then, was brought before the governor, and the governor put to him this question:

  1. Are you the king of the Jews?
  2. Jesus replied,

✠ It is you who say it.

  1. But when he was accused by the chief priests and the elders he refused to answer at all. Pilate then said to him,
  2. Do you not hear how many charges they have brought against you?
  3. But to the governor’s complete amazement, he offered no reply to any of the charges.

At festival time it was the governor’s practice to release a prisoner for the people, anyone they chose. Now there was at that time a notorious prisoner whose name was Barabbas. So when the crowd gathered, Pilate said to them,

  1. Which do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?
  2. For Pilate knew it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. Now as he was seated in the chair of judgement, his wife sent him a message,
  3. Have nothing to do with that man; I have been upset all day by a dream I had about him.
  4. The chief priests and the elders, however, had persuaded the crowd to demand the release of Barabbas and the execution of Jesus. So when the governor spoke and asked them,
  5. Which of the two do you want me to release for you?
  6. they said,
  7. Barabbas.
  8. Pilate said to them:
  9. But in that case, what am I to do with Jesus who is called Christ?
  10. They all said:
  11. Let him be crucified!
  12. Pilate asked:
  13. Why? What harm has he done?
  14. But they shouted all the louder,
  15. Let him be crucified!
  16. Then Pilate saw that he was making no impression, that in fact a riot was imminent. So he took some water, washed his hands in front of the crowd and said,
  17. I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your concern.
  18. And the people, to a man, shouted back,
  19. His blood be on us and on our children!
  20. Then he released Barabbas for them. He ordered Jesus to be first scourged and then handed over to be crucified.

The governor’s soldiers took Jesus with them into the Praetorium and collected the whole cohort round him. Then they stripped him and made him wear a scarlet cloak, and having twisted some thorns into a crown they put this on his head and placed a reed in his right hand. To make fun of him they knelt to him saying,

  1. Hail, king of the Jews!
  2. And they spat on him and took the reed and struck him on the head with it. And when they had finished making fun of him, they took off the cloak and dressed him in his own clothes and led him away to crucify him.

On their way out, they came across a man from Cyrene, Simon by name, and enlisted him to carry his cross. When they had reached a place called Golgotha, that is, the place of the skull, they gave him wine to drink mixed with gall, which he tasted but refused to drink. When they had finished crucifying him they shared out his clothing by casting lots, and then sat down and stayed there keeping guard over him.

Above his head was placed the charge against him; it read: ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’ At the same time two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left.

The passers-by jeered at him; they shook their heads and said,

  1. So you would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days! Then save yourself! If you are God’s son, come down from the cross!
  2. The chief priests with the scribes and elders mocked him in the same way, saying:
  3. He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the king of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He puts his trust in God; now let God rescue him if he wants him. For he did say, ‘I am the son of God.’
  4. Even the robbers who were crucified with him taunted him in the same way.

From the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a loud voice,

✠ Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?

  1. That is, ‘My God, my God, why have you deserted me?’ When some of those who stood there heard this, they said,
  2. The man is calling on Elijah.
  3. and one of them quickly ran to get a sponge which he dipped in vinegar and, putting it on a reed, gave it him to drink. The rest of them said:
  4. Wait! See if Elijah will come to save him.
  5. But Jesus, again crying out in a loud voice, yielded up his spirit.

Here all kneel and pause for a short time.

At that, the veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom; the earth quaked; the rocks were split; the tombs opened and the bodies of many holy men rose from the dead, and these, after his resurrection, came out of the tombs, entered the Holy City and appeared to a number of people. Meanwhile the centurion, together with the others guarding Jesus, had seen the earthquake and all that was taking place, and they were terrified and said,

  1. In truth this was a son of God.
  2. And many women were there, watching from a distance, the same women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and looked after him. Among them were Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.

When it was evening, there came a rich man of Arimathaea, called Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate thereupon ordered it to be handed over. So Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean shroud and put it in his own new tomb which he had hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a large stone across the entrance of the tomb and went away. Now Mary of Magdala and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the sepulchre.

Next day, that is, when Preparation Day was over, the chief priests and the Pharisees went in a body to Pilate and said to him,

  1. Your Excellency, we recall that this impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I shall rise again.’ Therefore give the order to have the sepulchre kept secure until the third day, for fear his disciples come and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead.’ This last piece of fraud would be worse than what went before.
  2. Pilate said to them:
  3. You may have your guard. Go and make all as secure as you know how.
  4. So they went and made the sepulchre secure, putting seals on the stone and mounting a guard.

 

 

Propaganda

 

Jesus lived and died, and death was not the end of him (if you believe it).

 

This is the central message of the Christian faith, even a man who was executed as a blasphemer, and a criminal, could receive resurrected to the afterlife, a world of hope, and comfort and joy.

 

This faith is a blessing to the poor, to the marginalized, to the outcast. The faith instructs them that they are known, and loved by God, the creator of the universe, that they will be cared for in the world to come.

 

Every other element of this story should be stripped away. It is all propaganda.

 

 

The core of this narrative may be true, but the everything that drapes from it is embellishment. Jesus did not die in fulfillment of prophecy. Jesus, and the rest of the prophets were not miracle workers and fortune tellers. They were human beings, who died as human beings, at the hands of human beings, for ordinary human purposes; fear and the desire to retain power.

 

Palm Sunday

A Homily – Matthew 4:1 – 11 ©

The Gospel According to Matthew – 2017.03.05

 

 

Temptation (In Fable)

 

Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which he was very hungry, and the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to turn into loaves.’ But he replied, ‘Scripture says:

 

Man does not live on bread alone

but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’

 

The devil then took him to the holy city and made him stand on the parapet of the Temple.

 

‘If you are the Son of God’ he said ‘throw yourself down; for scripture says:

 

He will put you in his angels’ charge,

and they will support you on their hands

in case you hurt your foot against a stone.’

Jesus said to him, ‘Scripture also says:

 

You must not put the Lord your God to the test.’

 

Next, taking him to a very high mountain, the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. ‘I will give you all these’ he said, ‘if you fall at my feet and worship me.’ Then Jesus replied, ‘Be off, Satan! For scripture says:

 

You must worship the Lord your God,

and serve him alone.’

 

Then the devil left him, and angels appeared and looked after him.

 

 

Temptation (In Reality)

 

There is no devil, except the deceiver that lies in our heart.

 

God, the creator of the universe, has given us the ability to know the truth, and to discern good from evil.

 

God has also given each of us the ability to deny the truth, reject it and lie.

 

The lies we tell always originate in our own heart. We tell them first to ourselves, before we try to convince others.

 

We face many temptations as human beings. The reading for today highlights three of the most basic forms that the temptation to do evil might take.

 

The temptation to turn stones into bread is not the temptation to perform a magic trick, it is an acknowledgement that we are at times tempted toward injustice by the simplest and most ordinary things…by hunger, and thirst, by the necessity of meeting our most basic needs.

 

Any of us, when faced with making those hard choices, the choice to feed ourselves, our children, the ones we love, we will contemplate not only breaking the laws of the state, but the laws of God as well.

 

The temptation to throw himself off the wall of the temple, was not the temptation to rely on a supernatural power for safety and protection, it was the temptation to vanity. The temptation was to believe in ourselves so much that we can risk any danger, even risk our own lives, and therefore the well-being of everyone who depends on you, out of a belief that you can do no wrong, or that nothing can harm you.

 

The third temptation was not the temptation to rule the world, because that is the temptation to fantasy. The temptation is based on the love of wealth and power in any of its species. This is the most ordinary temptation of all.

 

To succumb to these temptation, to any of them, is to suborn our faith in the way that Jesus taught us, and to put in its place faith in the way of the world.

 

The way of Christ is the way he summarized in the golden rule; do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Love God with all your strength, and all your heart, and all your mind, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.

 

 

1st Sunday of Lent

A Homily – Matthew 5: 17 – 37 ©

The Gospel According to Matthew – 2017.02.12

 

 

The Law

 

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them. I tell you solemnly, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law until its purpose is achieved. Therefore, the man who infringes even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of heaven; but the man who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the kingdom of heaven.

 

‘For I tell you, if your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.

 

‘You have learnt how it was said to our ancestors: You must not kill; and if anyone does kill he must answer for it before the court. But I say this to you: anyone who is angry with his brother will answer for it before the court; if a man calls his brother “Fool” he will answer for it before the Sanhedrin; and if a man calls him “Renegade” he will answer for it in hell fire. So then, if you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back and present your offering. Come to terms with your opponent in good time while you are still on the way to the court with him, or he may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison. I tell you solemnly, you will not get out till you have paid the last penny.

 

‘You have learnt how it was said: You must not commit adultery. But I say this to you: if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye should cause you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body thrown into hell. And if your right hand should cause you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of you than to have your whole body go to hell.

 

‘It has also been said: Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a writ of dismissal. But I say this to you: everyone who divorces his wife, except for the case of fornication, makes her an adulteress; and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

 

‘Again, you have learnt how it was said to our ancestors: You must not break your oath, but must fulfil your oaths to the Lord. But I say this to you: do not swear at all, either by heaven, since that is God’s throne; or by the earth, since that is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, since that is the city of the great king. Do not swear by your own head either, since you cannot turn a single hair white or black. All you need say is “Yes” if you mean yes, “No” if you mean no; anything more than this comes from the evil one.’

 

The Way

 

The divine way is simple and elegant, and it is also the greatest of mysteries and the most difficult of challenges.

 

The writers of Matthew’s Gospel attempted to summarize Jesus’ teaching on the law. Those who had known Jesus, or had been instructed in the faith by those who had, they believed sincerely that they knew what was in Jesus’ heart.

 

Nevertheless, their summary of it fell short of the mark, because, as with all matters pertaining to the divine, to God, the creator of the universe, our human understanding falls short.

 

Know this, in this passage, the kingdom of heaven which Jesus refers to, is not a place beyond this world. It is the world we live in, not as it is, but as it could be, if we and it were free from sin.

 

Know this, the hell which the gospels refer to is not a place beyond this world, it is not the diametric opposite of heaven, it is the place where we are, as we are still caught up in the inclination toward sin.

 

We have a choice, a choice we can exercise right now; to live in the divine way, in a community of peace and love, or to live in a world a strife and pain.

 

If we chose the way, no matter how much we may desire it, we cannot have it, be in it, bring others to it, if we are not reconciled to the community that we live in. If we hold a grudge, if there is enmity, we must address this first and bring it to the place of healing. We have departed from the way (or have never entered it) if we do not.

 

In the divine way, our deeds matter, yes, the things we do matter, but our intentions matter as much or more.

 

A person may not be a thief, but if they covet their neighbor’s possessions there is no peace between them. What we hold in our heart, that determines the nature of our relationships.

 

Forgive and be forgiven, this is not a transaction, it is a simple injunction.

 

Let go of the hardness and covetousness in your heart, accept the understanding and mercy that is offered to you.

 

Be loved, and love.

 

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time

A Homily – The Gospel of Matthew 3:13 – 17 ©

The Gospel of the Day – 2017.01.08

 

 

Jesus Baptized

 

Jesus appeared: he came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptised by John. John tried to dissuade him. ‘It is I who need baptism from you’ he said ‘and yet you come to me!’ But Jesus replied, ‘Leave it like this for the time being; it is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that righteousness demands.’ At this, John gave in to him.

 

As soon as Jesus was baptised he came up from the water, and suddenly the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. And a voice spoke from heaven, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him.’

 

Propaganda

 

Jesus was baptized by John.

 

It was the first moment of his public career.

 

He was baptized, he was purified, he was shriven.

 

The forms had been obeyed, and the gathered crowds were there to witness, the heaven open, and the Spirit of God, creator of the universe, descending on Jesus like a dove.

 

John was like Moses at the river Jordan. He was never meant to walk in the promised land. Jesus was like Joshua, he ushered the people in.

 

John was the elder son, he was not meant to inherit. Jesus was the promised son, in whom the hope of humanity was carried.

 

John was the goat, at the rite of expiation, Jesus was the lamb taken to slaughter.

 

High priest and king, they were one with each other.

 

Believing it does not make it true.

 

 

3rd Sunday of Christmas

A Homily – The Gospel of Luke 2:16 – 21 ©

The Gospel of the Day – 2017.01.01

 

 

The Three Shepherds

 

The shepherds hurried away to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw the child they repeated what they had been told about him, and everyone who heard it was astonished at what the shepherds had to say. As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds went back glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen; it was exactly as they had been told.

 

When the eighth day came and the child was to be circumcised, they gave him the name Jesus, the name the angel had given him before his conception

 

 

Propaganda

 

There is a lot packed into this short passage.

 

Before we begin to explicate its meaning we must understand that, Luke the Apostle, he never met Jesus. Luke was not one of the disciples. Luke was a protégé of Paul, and Paul had never met Jesus either.

 

Luke and Paul, travelled broadly and met many of those that had followed Jesus during his life. Paul met with James, who was Jesus’ brother, but they never met Jesus, and everything they knew about Jesus was heresay.

 

It is also important to note, that while the Gospel of Luke bears Luke’s name, it was not written by Luke. None of the Gospels were written by individuals, that were exercises in collective development, and the writing of them took place over generations, as the communities who authored them did their best to narrate their understanding of the life and mission of Jesus in terms their audience would understand.

 

The Gospel of Luke says that Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus were visited by three shepherds. This is presented in distinction to Matthews Gospel which says that they holy family was visited by three Magi, who were “wise men” and Kings.

 

The Gospel of John, the earliest Gospel, and that of Mark, they do not treat the subject at all.

 

Matthew’s community, and Luke’s community, they were writing to very different audiences. As such, they tailored the narrative of the birth of Jesus to their audience. They each in their way created a fiction that was pleasing to the people to whom they were preaching.

 

This is propaganda.

 

To understand the Gospels, this must be understood first of all. The Gospels contain some legitimate historical data, but the facts are difficult to sift out. They are the product of artifice, they are fictions. The Gospels speak to some truths that are universal, and relate some true events, but cannot be relied on as a true account.

 

They are propaganda, and that is not to say that they are bad, but it is to say that they must be seen for what they are. Because the gospels are propaganda, they are less reliable as a tool to teach us about Jesus and more appropriately used to teach us about the diverse Near Eastern and Mediterranean communities that formed the early church.

 

2nd Sunday of Christmas (The Solemnity of Mary)

On Jesus and Mithra – A Christmas Essay

Part One

 

Everything we know about Jesus is tangled in myth. The narratives of his birth, and childhood are complete fiction. Even the narrative of his adult ministry, beginning around the year 30 C.E. is imbued with metaphor and allegory, so much so that none of it is reliable as history. The narrative that we have received from the tradition is so thoroughly syncretized to the broader cultural context of the Near East that we do not even refer to him by his given name; Joshua, but instead we call him by a Greek variant. If we desire to understand this story, (as we should) understand how it came to be, we must engage that broader narrative. We must engage the complete societal, and theological context from which the Christian story emerged. We must journey beyond the Palestinian crossroads that was ancient Judea, beyond the Greco-Roman world, we must go to Persia. That is where the story begins, with Mithra.

 

The “Cult of Mithras” is understudied. It is commonly regarded only as a competitor of the early Christian Church. It was much more than that. Mithraic worship, as it was practiced by the Romans, (principally by members of the Roman army) in the first four centuries of the common era, has its roots in ancient Persia. It is an offshoot of Zoroastrianism (c. 700 BCE),[1] evolving through the centuries until it reached its final form as a “mystery cult” within the Roman army. Throughout its evolution, propelled by the extensive influence of the Persian Empire, Mithraism had a significant impact on every society it encountered, and every form of worship in the Mediterranean region, the Near East, and Southwest Asia.

 

This essay is an attempt to communicate the multiple ways by which Mithraism has influenced the development of other faith traditions, most importantly the Judea-Christian tradition, and most significantly our beliefs about Jesus.

 

Scholarship on Mithraism is scant. Most scholarly research tends to downplay the connection between the form of Mithraism that was practiced by the Roman army, and the ancient form of Mithraism that was practiced in the heart of Persia. To justify this, these scholars will site some obvious iconographic and liturgical differences between the two forms of worship, as if to say that the presence of a few notable, but subtle differences is enough to argue for a complete separation, and distinction of the traditions, despite the greater number of obvious similarities. The following paragraph from David Ulansey’s book The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries illustrates this point clearly. He says:

 

“The Western mystery cult of Mithraism as it appeared in the Roman Empire derived its very identity from a number of characteristics which were completely absent from the Iranian worship of Mithra: a series of initiations into ever higher levels of the cult accompanied by strict secrecy about the cult’s doctrines; the distinctive cave like temples in which the cult’s devotees met; and, most important, the iconography of the cult, in particular the tauroctony. None of these essential characteristics of Western Mithraism were to be found in the Iranian worship of Mithra.[2]

 

Some of his Ulansey’s predecessors have suggested that the differences between the Persian-Iranian form of Mithraism and that of the Roman army are the product of natural transformations that occur in all belief systems as they move from one cultural to another, across great expanses of geography, and time. His particular criticisms have to do with extrinsic matters of form, and ritual activity, which are the structures that we would expect to change over time and distance. The seven stages of initiation, the tauroctony (slaying of the bull), the codes of secrecy, and the type of temple worship have little to do with the central tenets of Mithraism, the closely held beliefs that had existed from the earliest times in Persia, through its final incarnation as a Roman mystery cult. The central theme remains the same; a belief in the immortality of the soul, and the notion of personal salvation.

 

 

Part Two

 

In the ancient Persian form Mithraism; Mithra is a demi-god. He is viewed as the incarnated scion of Ahura-Mahzda, and Ahura-Mahzda is believed to be the source of all goodness, creator of the Universe, God of light, and source of life.

 

Some scholars believe that in its original form; Mithraism was strictly monotheistic (perhaps the first truly monotheistic belief system), holding that Ahura-Mahzda as the only deity, and that there were no others. However, if Mithraism was originally monotheistic, at some point in its evolution the belief system became dualistic. Another deity was established through doctrine, as a counterpart to Ahura-Mahzda; together they formed a pantheon of sorts. This secondary deity was given the name Angra-Mainyu (from whose name we have been given the term anger). Angra-Mainyu was believed to be the “uncreated” source of evil in the world, whose agency was in diametric opposition to the light and life of Ahura-Mahzda.

 

This dualistic view of reality suggests that the drama of our lives on Earth is a reflection of the struggle between these two cosmic powers. This clearly defined dualism would be of great relevance to both Judaism and Christianity in the centuries to come.

 

In the later form of Mithraism, the Mithraism of the Roman Empire, the demi-god Mithra is again depicted in that same relationship to the high God. In this cultural context, the high God is given the name Sol Invictus, and is iconographically represented as the sun. Mithra is the hero, demi-god and offspring of Sol.

 

In both the ancient Persian form of Mithraism and the Roman form of Mithraism, the demi-god Mithra is seen as being sent to Earth by the deity responsible for the creation of the universe. In the former tradition this is Ahura-Mahzda, in the latter tradition Sol Invictus. In the Roman form of Mithraism the purpose of sending Mithra to Earth is for him to slay the “Primal Bull.” Upon slaying the bull, Mithra and Sol Invictus feast together from its flesh. This feast has the effect that Mithra and Sol become con-joined, because they have dined together, they are now “one.” They are joined together as one being with coextensive attributes each sharing the title Invictus, meaning unconquered. In Roman Mithraism this meal was considered to be the effective means of salvation for all human beings, and that by participating in a recreation of the sacred meal, properly sequenced through the rites of initiation. the individual would become one with Mithra, and therefore one with Sol Invictus, thereby gaining a place in the heavenly worlds of the afterlife.

 

As I indicated earlier in my reference to Ulansey’s work, Persian Mithraism did not depict Mithra as the “bull-slayer.” The narrative from Persia is as follows: Mithra does not kill the primal-bull, rather Mithra and the bull are sent to Earth by Ahura-Mahzda, where they are assailed by the “evil-one.” Angra-Mainyu slays Mithra and the bull together, in an act of violence. Angra-Mainyu attempts to destroy Mithra and the bull, but his efforts are frustrated by Ahura-Mazda. Through the power of the god of light, stalks of wheat, and the grape vine spring from the carcass of the bull. All manner of good things, and good creatures flow from the bull to fill, and populate the created world, and now are to be used for the benefit of human beings. Ahura-Mahzda trasforms the violence of Angra-Mainyu into a new creation. New life springs from the bull, Mithra is restored, and returns to Ahura-Mahzda in heaven.

 

There is no significant discrepancy between these two forms of the myth. In both versions of the myth, Mithra is sent to Earth by a God of greater authority than himself. In both versions of the myth, the bull is slain and its death is productive; both of new life, and of all good things on the Earth. In the Roman version of the myth, the slaying of the bull is an explicit sacrifice. In the Persian version of the myth, the intentionality of the sacrifice is implicit. The Roman version is not etiological, it does not address the origins of life on Earth, the Persian version is. The Roman version it is primarily a teleological myth having to do with human destiny, salvation, and the life of the immortal soul, it is eschatological. The Persian version balances these two concerns.

 

In the Persian account, Mithra and the Bull are sent to Earth by the creator deity; their death is a vehicle by which the drama of life on Earth begins, making it a myth of origins. Their death, while being the result of violence perpetrated by the “evil-one” does not serve the interest of Angra-Mainyu, but does serve the interest of Ahura-Mahzda. Mithra does not die. His soul is immortal, and returns to heaven. From the body of the bull comes an abundance of life, demonstrating that Ahura-Mahzda is greater, because, not only having the power to create goodness sui generous (in itself), but also having the power to bring good out of evil; making the fruit of the labor of Angra-Mainyu effectively nothing. This profound hope is apparent within the structure of myth itself. In both the Roman and the Persian versions of the myth, the death of the primal bull is emblematic of life. It is the creation of life itself. It is life restored.

 

The principal actor in both versions of the myth is God. It is the creator, figured as either Ahura-Mahzda, or Sol Invictus, respectively. Whether it is Mithra who kills the bull, or Angra-Mainyu, that does not matter. The slaying of the bull serves the purpose of the principal actor, Ahura-Mahzda/Sol Invictus, God of life, God of light, God of good.

 

What is significant and most consistent in the worship of Mithra from c. 700 BCE through c. 400 CE, from Rome to Persia? It is the belief in the immortality of the soul, and the notion of personal salvation. In Mithraism, this theology underwent a profound development that would have a lasting and significant impact on other faith traditions.

 

 

Part Three

 

There are several clues that we can follow. They will help us understand the significance of Mithraism in relation to other Mediterranean religions; especially Judaism and Christianity, which we can uncover in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

 

A close study of the Hebrew scriptures reveals that the Jewish people did not always have (and do not now have) a strong belief either in the immortality of the soul, or the afterlife. However, there was a period of time in which these beliefs did flourish.

 

After the Babylonian exile, which began in 586 BCE, these beliefs enter their tradition, and over the centuries become more clearly developed. When the Jewish people were released from captivity in Babylon, it was by the Persians, under their king Cyrus,[3] who had just recently conquered the Babylonians. Cyrus is depicted by the Jewish people, in the Hebrew scriptures, as a servant of their God, Yahweh:

 

“22 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia—to fulfil the word of Yahweh through Jeremiah—Yahweh roused the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia to issue a proclamation and to have it publicly displayed throughout his kingdom. 23 ‘Cyrus king of Persia says this, “Yahweh, the God of Heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has appointed me to build him a Temple in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all his people, may his God be with him! Let him go up.”’[4]

 

This passage does not shed any light on what Cyrus’s theological disposition might have actually been, or what his personal beliefs were. Whatever that theology was (or was perceived to be), we can conclude that it did not present a significant conflict with Hebrew theology at that time. This passage indicates that there was no essential antagonism between the theological claims of these two cultures. Furthermore, it is likely that Cyrus, or his priests, saw a considerable amount of compatibility between their belief systems. At this time, Persian Mithraism and Judaism were both essentially monotheistic, though neither of them were perfectly so. They both held, as basic beliefs, that creation was good. Mithraism had a strongly held belief in the immortality of the soul. At this time Judaism did not, but immediately following this period a movement within Judaism would develop this theme in profoundly consequential ways. The adherents of this movement became known within the Judean world, as the Pharisees. The designation Pharisee, is derived from the name of the Persian priests of Zoroaster, who were called the Parsees. This etymology clearly shows the intimate connection between Pharisaic Judaism, and the religious traditions of the Persian Empire.

 

Even in Jesus’ time, 500 years after the Babylonian exile; belief in the immortality of the soul had not fully entered the mainstream of Jewish life, especially inside the borders of Judea itself. This belief was taught primarily by the Pharisees, among groups of Jews living outside Judea, in what is known as the posy Babylonian diaspora. It was taught by the Essenes, in the remote desert community of Qumran. Belief in the immortality of the soul was popular among Jewish people for whom the synagogue was the center of their faith life, and not the temple in Jerusalem.

 

In addition to belief in the immortality of the soul, the Pharisees and the Essenes of Qumran, also had significantly developed angelologies. This belief in the existence of angels (divine messengers) was another matter that took a long time to develop in Judaism, but which was already present in Mithraism at the time of the Babylonian exile. Many scholars say that it is impossible to state with certainty that the Pharisees, received these teachings directly from the Parsees when they were exposed to Mithraism at the time of the Babylonian captivity. It is also impossible to rule it out. What we can say for certain, is that the Pharisees came into existence just after the Babylonian exile. I do not believe that these belief systems developed independently of one another, because I do not believe in that type of coincidence, therefore I take the Pharisaic movement within Judaism to be a case of pure theological syncretism.

 

The Babylonian exile and the subsequent release of the Jewish people by the Persian king Cyrus were the first of many major impacts that Mithraism would have on the Judeo-Christian tradition. Prior to the Babylonian exile; a belief in angels and the immortality of the soul did not exist as fully developed doctrines, but they did exist in germ, in a latent form, as an aspect of generalized beliefs permeating the Mediterranean region, and the Near East at this time.

 

It should be noted that in most Mediterranean and Near Eastern traditions, the concept of a blessed afterlife, to the extent that such ideas existed, included the idea that those blessed places were reserved for people of heroic stature. Because common people, and slaves did not have the ability to lead a heroic life, they had no hope of enjoying a blessed state in the hereafter. Mithraism, and more importantly Christianity would change all of that; by promising the hope of salvation to anyone, regardless of gender, class, or status, if they sought to align themselves with the God of creation, the God of light, and the God goodness, through an initiation into their mysteries.

 

 

Part Four

 

In the first century BCE, the most important center for Mithraic worship in the Hellenistic world was in the region of Cilicia, in the city of Tarsus. Officially, the patron deity of this city was the Greek demi-god Perseus, but as Ulansey points out, Perseus as he was worshipped in Tarsus, was identical to the Persian Mithra in almost every way. The Roman general Pompey, in his journals, points out the fact that the people of Tarsus worship Mithra[5] and this is the point of origin for the spread of the Cult of Mithra in the Roman world.

 

I want to preface my discussion of the relationship between Mithra and Perseus with an acknowledgement of the profuse pluralism at work in the Greco-Roman world at this time. Parallels to Mithra and Perseus can be found in the stories of many other heroes. Not all of the adventures attributed to Perseus should be attributed to Mithra, and vice versa. In the Greco-Roman world, the gods and heroes were regarded differently, in different cities, and different regions, at different times. The heroes and gods in Greco-Roman mythology are extremely malleable and blend with one another quite extensively. However, in Tarsus the parallels between Mithra and Perseus go deep; as I will demonstrate:

 

“According to Plutarch, Mithraism began among the pirates of Cilicia, the province bordering on the southern coast of Asia Minor. These pirates, whose ships “numbered more than a thousand, and the cities captured by them four hundred,” and whom Pompey was sent to subdue in 67 BCE, “offered strange rites of there own at Olympus, and celebrated there certain secret rites among which those of Mithras continue to the present time having been first instituted by them.”..For our purposes, the most important aspect of Plutarch’s evidence tracing the origins of Mithraism to the region of Cilicia is the fact that Cilicia—and in particular its capitol city of Tarsus—was the home of a deeply rooted cult of the hero Perseus.[6]

 

Among the Greeks Perseus is considered to be the founder of the city of Tarsus. Tarsus is the city bearing the name of the “Primal-Bull,” Taurus. Perseus, like Mithra is intimately linked to the sun, referred to as either: Apollo, Helios or Sol. Sometimes Apollo is depicted as making oblations before Perseus, just as Sol is sometimes depicted as kneeling before Mithra. Also, the order is at times reversed with Mithra or Perseus kneeling before the deity representing the sun,[7] this is done in keeping with the themes of mutuality, and co-extensive identity between the two. The two are one.

 

In Greek mythology Perseus is strongly connected with the Persian Empire. The Greeks believed that his son, Perses, was the founder of the Persian Empire. Furthermore, Perseus is always depicted as wearing a Phrygian cap indicating his Asiatic (read Persian) origins.

 

“The evidence for a connection between the figures of Mithras and Perseus is of three kinds: first, there is the astronomical evidence consisting of the fact that the constellation Perseus occupies a position in the sky exactly analogous to that occupied by Mithras in the tauroctony; second, there are a number of striking iconographical and mythological parallels between the two figures, such as Perseus’ Phrygian cap, his connection with Persia, and the fact that like Perseus, Mithras always looks away from his victim; third there is the historical-geographical evidence linking the origins of Mithraism with Cilicia, the site of an important Perseus cult.[8]

 

The astronomical evidence cited above concerns the fact that the constellation Mithra-Perseus is located directly above the constellation of Taurus the bull, making it so that if the two constellations are viewed together the figure of Mithra-Perseus is seen kneeling on the back of the bull, sword in hand, ready to make the ritual cut while looking away from the sacrificial victim, just as Mithra is always depicted in the artwork of Mithraic temples, in the tauroctony.

 

These similarities are too many to ignore. The Cults of Mithra, and Perseus were the dominant cults of the city. Each of these Gods are depicted time, and time again on Tarsian coins. Perseus is the patron deity of the city, and the city itself is named after the “Primal Bull” of Mithraic worship.  In the city of Tarsus, Mithra is Perseus, at least insofar as they were worship.

 

The city of Tarsus figures prominently in the syncretism between Mithraism and Christianity. The origins of Tarsus were as a Hittite city in the second millennium BCE. The Greek historian and geographer Strabo[9] notes that it was a significant intellectual center “surpassing Athens and Alexandria.” It was known for its astronomers and produced the renowned philosophers Athenodorus and Nestor.[10] More significant to our thesis is this, it was the birthplace, and home of Saint Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, a Jew, a Pharisee, and the most prominent writer of the early Christian Church.

 

There is no research explicitly stating that Paul was aware of, or was influenced by Mithraism, but to suggest that Paul would not have been aware of the basic tenets of belief promoted by the major Cult of the city he called home, that would be improbable. Furthermore, Paul was a Pharisee. As I have already indicated in my introduction to the origins of the Pharisaic sect; the beliefs that Pharisees and Mithraites shared included beliefs about the immortality of the soul, the notion of personal salvation, and the ministry of angels.

 

If Paul was not directly influenced by Mithraism he was indirectly influenced by Mithraic ideas, which we may conclude simply by virtue of the fact that Paul was a Pharisee. Furthermore, the prominence of his ministry, its influence on Christian doctrine, constitutes a second infusion of Persian cosmology and theology, and soterieology on the Judeo-Christian tradition, the first being located within the timeframe of the Babylonian exile, and diaspora. Mithraism influenced the Judeo-Christian tradition, first through the teachings of the Pharisaic sect in general, second through the teaching of St. Paul of Taursus (himself a Pharisee). I do not contend that through Mithraism anything substantially “new” was imparted to the burgeoning Christian movement, but that the prevailing ideas of the “Persian-Mithraic worldview” were syncretized and concretized.

 

 

Part Five

 

By the fourth century CE Mithraism had spread both by merchants, and through the Roman army as far North as Hadrian’s wall in Bremenium, as far West as Olisipo on the Western coast of Spain; it had permeated the Roman provinces of North Africa, and Egypt, and it  was thriving in its home land of Persia; stretching its influence all the way through Persia to India. As much as two percent of the population of the Roman Empire may have been initiated into the mysteries of the Cult of Mithra.

 

The traditional date to celebrate the birth of Mithra, going back as far as 750 BCE, is a date significant in the Roman calendar known as Saturnalius, December 25th. This date is also the celebrated birthday of such notable people as Julius Caesar, his son by adoption Caesar Augustus, as well as the first Christian emperor, Constantine; and most famously Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that all of these people shared the same birthday does not constitute proof of anything regarding the relationship between Mithraism and Christianity. The Romans used a different calendar in those days, and in that time December 25th was the date of the winter solstice. It was celebrated in nearly every culture in the Northern hemisphere, because it is that point in the yearly cycle that the light returns, the days get longer, and the deepest dark recedes.

 

The Cult of Mithra was a “mystery religion,” meaning that it was secretive, closed to outsiders, closed to anyone that did not go through a significant ritual of initiation. Like other mystery religions, it purported to disclose to its initiates, the mysteries of the universe.

 

Outside of Persia, the main adherents of the Cult of Mithra were members of the Roman army. There is no evidence that Mithraites were ever persecuted as Christians were, but like a number of other closed societies in ancient Rome, they had to keep to themselves and guard their secrets. The necessity of secrecy for the cult of Mithra, as with that of many other cults, had much to do with the paranoid mindset of the Roman emperors. All manner of private groups, trade guilds, and burial societies, were periodically outlawed by one emperor or another; this on account of the fact that most of the emperors were insecure in their power, and were constantly suspicious of treason. The fact that the Cult of Mithra recruited many of its members from the army probably spared it from persecution because the emperors always ruled by fragile alliances, and loose coalitions with the army. They were always dependent on the power of the armies to keep them in the seat of power. If the emperors were to alienate large groups of their supporters (the army) through a persecution of their faith, it was guaranteed that they would lose power.

 

As I noted earlier, Ulansey saw the secrecy of the cult of Mithra, as practiced in the Roman Empire as something distinct from the Persian form of Mithraism. There are differences between the two systems of belief, but not so great as to merit the claim that they are distinct from one another. A close look at the structure of these religious systems; their icons, rituals and beliefs will reveal crucial things about that relationship, and also concerning the close relationship between Mithraism and Christianity.

 

 

Part Six

 

In the Persian form of Mithraism (also referred to as Zoarastrianism), the priests were called Parsees. Outside of Persia they were known as the Magi. It is from the Magi that we have derived the term magic.

 

In the Roman form of Mithraism; the chief of a Mithraic temple was called father. To be a “father,” the individual had to have risen through all seven stages of Mithraic initiation.

 

The Magi are of historical significance to the history of Christianity. Magi are present in the infancy narrative of Matthew. They give witness to the birth of Jesus. In the Gospels they were presented as wise men, and astronomers, just as the priests of Mithras and Zoroaster were purported to be. Because the infancy narrative of Matthew is myth, and not an accurate retelling of history, the presence of the Magi in his narrative is not accidental. It is purposeful and it definitely indicates a sympathetic relationship between early Christians, and first century CE Mithraites.

 

Why would a sympathetic relationship exist?

 

Both Christians and Mithraites believed in the immortality of the soul, the reality of personal salvation, the ministry of the angelic host, a God of goodness and light, as well as a final battle with the cosmic forces of darkness, sin, and evil.

 

In the Roman world, by the first century CE, Mithra had taken on the aspect of the incarnate son of Sol. Furthermore, in his exalted state, after the feast made from the “Primal Bull,” Mithra is seen as being identical to Sol. Mithra like Christ is seen as being a mediator between Heaven and Earth, responsible for guiding the souls of the elect to paradise. The se iconographic similarities explain the sympatico between the two faiths.

 

Ulansey stated that the worship of Mithra in caves, as it was done among the Romans, was markedly distinct from the Persian form of worship, saying that we cannot explain this as something that occurred by way of a natural syncretic transformation. However, there is a clear path of transformation that can be marked out through the cult of Perseus. As noted earlier through the iconography in the city of Tarsus, Perseus and Mithra are one and the same.

 

Perseus is the son of the Olympian Zeus, and the human Danae. When Zeus impregnates Danae he comes to her in the form of a shower of gold; not in the form of a human being, or other animal (as was often the case with Zeus). The impregnation of Danae is the only scene like this in all of the Greek mythologies. Zeus impregnates Danae in his spirit form, through the use of the ephemeral, and exalted “shower of gold,” the most idealized and spiritual form Zeus could take. The impregnation of Danae in this manner, and the subsequent birth of Perseus, is the closest thing in all of the Greek mythologies to a “virgin birth,” a conception narrative analogous to that of Mary conceiving Jesus by the Holy Spirit.

 

Danae gives birth to Perseus in an underground cavern. In astronomy the figure of Taurus (the Primal Bull) is the primary symbol of earth. Insofar as Mithra is transformed and exalted through the death and “new-life” of the bull, Mithra is also born of the earth. As a result, the iconographic narratives of the births of both Perseus and Mithra, often depict them as emerging from a rock. And it is not unreasonable to suppose that the underground worship of Mithra served to highlight these features. The earth is the womb wherein we are nurtured, and from which we are born, like Mithra, like Perseus, we are born into new life.[11]

 

The worship of Mithra in underground caverns had the effect of limiting Mithraic circles to small groups of people. The worship of Mithra is thought to have been exclusively male, though some scholars believe that in some regions women had their own form of Mithraic devotion.

 

In army outposts, at the fringes of the Empire, the worship chambers were often very small, consisting of a narrow room with rows of benches. In urban centers the size and splendor of the temples varied with the demographics of the cities they were in, from simple to ostentatious. However, most worship places were small, and intimate. The intimacy of these temples bears a close similarity to the “house churches” of the early Christians. Many of the Mithraic temples found in Roman cities, such as Ostia, were later converted to Christian worship.

 

 

Part Seven

 

Among the Romans, Mithraism, like Christianity was centered in the “house church.” The practice was carried out among people who were intimate with one another. Individual practitioners believed that initiation into the mysteries allowed them to receive immortality through Mithra, but also as a part of a community. Mithraism, like Christianity promoted the notion that its teachings would transform the individual spiritually, while leaving them in the same social position. The transformation of the individual was interior. It took place in the heart. It manifested itself in their position in the life of the Mithraic temple, or Mithraic shrine, as they advanced through the stages of initiation, but that did not mean that their status, or rank, outside of the Mithraic community would change. A slave would remain a slave, a plebian would remain a plebian. The activities of the cult were closed to the general society, they were secret and mysterious, and therefore not a cause for disturbance in the social order outside of the community.

 

In Roman Mithraism there were seven stages of initiation; the Crow, the Griffin, the Soldier, the Lion, the Persian, the Helio-Dromus (or Sun-Runner), and finally the Father. The symbolism of the number seven should not be lost on us, as in Christianity, there are seven sacraments, seven virtues, seven deadly sins etc…

 

The Order of Initiates were grouped in two classes; those in the first four stages counted as one class, and the last three stages counted as another class. An initiate would move through the stages of initiation until he became one with the Father, and thus become the Father himself. At each stage of initiation, the initiate would learn a secret code that later, after death, would be used to get him into the heavenly realm appropriate to his rank. This belief in ranked heavenly planes, and secret passwords that would allow the individual through the gate of paradise, was widely believed among practitioners of Hebrew Kabala (coming out of the Pharisaic Sect), as well as among groups of Christians who had fallen into the heretical errors of Gnosticism.

 

A ceremony of initiation was called a Telete, from the Greek word telos, meaning goal or end. In the ceremony of initiation, the initiate would first kneel before the Father. The Father would then perform a “laying on of hands,” followed by a rite similar to baptism, wherein the Father would pour water over the head of the initiate from the horn of a bull. Sometimes the rite of water would be done by full immersion.

 

In cases where the ceremony of initiation was accompanied by an actual animal sacrifice, the initiate would be splattered with the blood of the sacrificial animal, or slapped in the face with a shank of meat. In other cases the blood would be replaced by wine. This rite of blood, wine, or water is referred to as the purgation, a ritual cleansing of the individual from their sins. Sometimes the ceremony of purgation would be completed by passing a torch over the head of the individual, or even touching the individual with the torch in order to symbolize a baptism of both fire and water. The purgation would be followed by the consecration or coronation where a golden crown would be placed on the head of the initiate; this crown was called the “solar crown.” Iconographically the solar crown was analogous to the Christian halo, which term is derived from the Greek; meaning disk of the sun.

 

There is much in this symbolism that recalls Christian rituals of initiation; so much that I will not even make an argument for how intimately linked the two systems of ritual initiation are. I will simply let the record speak for itself.

 

In Roman Mithraism, the initiation ceremony would be followed by a feast meant to symbolize the feast shared by Mithra and Sol. Ideally, the feast would come from the sacrifice of a bull, but this feast was not required. While the sacrifice of a bull was central to Mithraic worship, as the cult spread through the empire, and as worship became confined to house churches, it is thought the sacrifice of the bull was replaced with a symbolic alternative. Any animal could serve for the feat, or even a meal of bread and wine. Because the death of the “Primal Bull” was productive of all “good things” on the Earth; any of those “good things” that come from the bull were suitable to be used in the sacred meal. This meal itself, much like the Christian Eucharist, was thought to be an effective means of salvation for the worshippers of Mithra.[12]

 

 

In Conclusion

 

Among the Romans, the first Christian emperor was Saint Constantine, Constantine the Great, who, prior to his death-bed conversion to Christianity, was also a devotee of Mithras-Sol Invictus. When Constantine was made emperor, the first coins struck in his honor depicted his face with the inscription Sol Invictus. Constantine thought that he was himself, an incarnation of Sol Invictus. This may seem somewhat confusing considering that we know that Constantine attributed his victory over his enemies to Jesus Christ. Constantine’s famous vision of the Christian symbol, the Chi-Ro (Px), at the battle of the Milvian bridge (312 CE), is thought to have enabled his victory when his army was at the gates of Rome. However, in the minds of many practitioners of Mithraism, Jesus and Mithra may have been considered to have been the same person; believing that Jesus was an incarnation of Mithra. If this is true, it begs the question; if Constantine thought he was Mithra-Sol Invictus, and if Jesus was also believed to be an incarnation of Mithra, did Constantine think that he was Christ?

 

One thing that I know for sure, Christianity and Mithraism, as religious and spiritual philosophies, are both filled with hope. Hope for the life of the individual; hope that the individual will ultimately experience justice. Belief that God is good, and that God has given a light to humankind that will guide us in the way to paradise.

 

Mithraism was less accessible to the average person than Christianity. Mithraism wanted to keep to its secret ways, at a time when Christianity was opening itself to the world, defining the terms of its orthodoxy, and rooting out those groups of heretics, the Gnostics, who had those same tendencies toward secrecy and exclusion.

 

Bibliography

Mithraic Iconography and Ideology, by Leroy A. Campbell, published by E. J. Brill, 1968

 

Mithraic Studies, edited by John R. Hinnells, published by Manchester University Press, 1975

 

Mithraism in Ostia, edited by Samuel Laeuchli, published by Northwestern University Press, 1967

 

The Mithras Liturgy, edited and translated by Marvin W. Meyer, published by Scholars Press, 1976

 

Mysteries of Mithras, by Franz Cumont, translated by Thomas J. McCormack, published by The Open Court Publishing Company, 1903

 

The New Jerusalem Bible, Standard Edition, published by Doubleday, 1989

 

The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, by David Ulansey, published by Oxford University Press, 1989

 

The New Oxford Companion to the Bible, edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, published by Oxford University Press, 1993

 

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, published by Oxford University Press, 1997

 

 

[1] By 700 BCE the Royal court of Persia had fully converted to the religion of Zoroastrianism and its demi-god Mithra. However, Zoroastrianism likely emerged sometime between 2500 – 1200 BCE.

[2] The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, by David Ulansey, pg. 8, par. 4

[3] The New Oxford Companion to the Bible, edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, pg.72, par. 3

[4] The New Jerusalem Bible, standard edition, Doubleday, 2 Chronicles 36: 22-23, pg. 448, col. 2, par. 2

[5] The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, by David Ulansey, pg. 40, par. 1

[6] The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, by David Ulansey, pg. 40, par. 1 and pg. 41, par. 3

[7] The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, by David Ulansey, pg. 44, par. 1

[8] The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, by David Ulansey, pg. 45, par. 2

[9] Strabo 64 B.C.E. – 21 C.E.

[10] The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, by David Ulansey, pg. 68

[11] The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, by David Ulansey, pg. 34-36

[12] Mithraic Iconography and Ideology, by Leroy A. Campbell, pgs. 291-305

A Homily – Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews 1:1 – 6 ©

The Epistle, The 2nd Reading – 2016.12.25

 

 

The Light of God

 

At various times in the past and in various different ways, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but in our own time, the last days, he has spoken to us through his Son, the Son that he has appointed to inherit everything and through whom he made everything there is. He is the radiant light of God’s glory and the perfect copy of his nature, sustaining the universe by his powerful command; and now that he has destroyed the defilement of sin, he has gone to take his place in heaven at the right hand of divine Majesty. So he is now as far above the angels as the title which he has inherited is higher than their own name.

  God has never said to any angel: You are my Son, today I have become your father; or: I will be a father to him and he a son to me. Again, when he brings the First-Born into the world, he says: Let all the angels of God worship him.

 

(NJB)

 

Well intentioned and Confused

 

The Apostle makes a fundamental error when he writes about the station that Jesus occupies.

 

I do not fault the Apostle for this, not personally, he is a product of his time. He had even less freedom in his consciousness to uncouple himself from a hierarchical view of the world than we do today, and we still struggle with this in our own time.

 

The Apostle tell us that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God, through whom all of creation, the entire universe, everything that is, was or will ever be, came to be.

 

The Apostle tells us that Jesus of Nazareth possesses the exact copy of God’s nature, expressing his faith in the categories of Platonic thinking.

 

The Apostle tells us that the universe itself is sustained by the power that resided in Jesus of Nazareth, and that in this same power the defilement of sin has been destroyed, which is an odd statement insofar as it is clear to anyone who observes our world that sin is a constant reality that every human being struggles with.

 

The Apostle tells us that this perfect copy of God, the creator of the universe, sits at the right of God, the creator of the universe, and is per se the creator of the universe.

 

The Apostle begins to express concern that we, his audience, properly understand the majesty of Jesus, a majesty above all of the angels, because he, Jesus has inherited the title, Son of God, a title belonging to no other.

 

This begs the questions; are we not all, each and every one of us the children of God? Is Jesus only the Son of God by inherited title? Will God be the father of Jesus, or was God always the father of Jesus?

 

We must understand that Paul, the Apostle, he was winging it here. He did not know what he was talking about. But he was trying to say that God, the creator of the universe dwelt within Jesus of Nazareth in a special way, and as a result Jesus is a unique being, a being fundamental to God’s sovereignty of the universe, and whose life was the critical instrument in the resolution of sin and evil in the world.

 

The Apostle’s message gets muddies with his incessant commentary on the hierarchy of the angelic hosts, the role of sonship, qualities of majesty, position and station.

 

It would have been better for the world if he had spoken plainly.

 

Jesus was a child of the creator, he was our brother. In Jesus the conflict of sin was resolved, by following the example of his life we may resolve it for ourselves. The entirety of the eternal and infinite God dwelt perfectly within Jesus, as it dwells perfectly within each of us, whether we know it, believe it, or not.

 

The whole is in the part, undivided, and one.

 

1st Sunday of Christmas

A Homily – The Gospel of Matthew 11:2 – 11 ©

The Gospel of the Day – 2016.12.11

 

 

John and Jesus

 

John in his prison had heard what Christ was doing and he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or have we got to wait for someone else?’ Jesus answered, ‘Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor; and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me.’

 

As the messengers were leaving, Jesus began to talk to the people about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swaying in the breeze? No? Then what did you go out to see? A man wearing fine clothes? Oh no, those who wear fine clothes are to be found in palaces. Then what did you go out for? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and much more than a prophet: he is the one of whom scripture says:

 

‘Look, I am going to send my messenger before you;

he will prepare your way before you.

 

‘I tell you solemnly, of all the children born of women, a greater than John the Baptist has never been seen; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is.’

 

Politics and The Way

 

John came before Jesus. It is said that they were cousins, but the evidence for this claim is scant.

 

It is said that the James, the apostle and the bishop of Jerusalem was Jesus’ brother, but that claim has long been rejected by the church.

 

There is no way for us to know the veracity of these claims, and it does not matter.

 

John came before Jesus, for a time the worked as contemporaries. It is said that they met at the river Jordan, where John was carrying out his ministry of baptism, healing, and repentance.

 

John baptized Jesus at that time, the moment is presented in the Gospel as a passing of the torch from John to Jesus.

 

John prepared the way for Jesus as the Gospel for today indicates. He was arrested shortly thereafter, and shortly thereafter he was murdered.

John and Jesus belonged to a movement, a movement of the people, for the people, a movement calling for justice, for unity, for salvation.

 

They saw their work as something connected to the prophets, they were reformers, they were people whose preaching synthesized the sacred texts. They boiled the commandments down to their essence and returned them to the people in their simplest form.

 

“Love God, with all your strength and all your heart, and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

 

That is the whole of the law, and all the words of the prophet were summarized therein.

 

Many of John’s followers became followers of Jesus. Leaders in John’s group became leaders among Jesus’ disciples.

 

But not all who had followed John came along. It is to these people that this gospel is pointed.

 

It was written to remind them of the sequence of events; first John, then Jesus. It was an ancient theme among the Hebrews. It is a story reflected in the most ancient narratives, God’s expressed favoritism for the younger son; for Able over Cain, for Isaac over Ishmael, for Jacob (Israel) over Esau, for Joseph over all of his brothers.

 

The gospel of today is a piece of politics. It is a message to the holdouts among John’s camp, expressing love and pride in the work of John, while telling them in no uncertain terms the way forward was with Jesus.

 

This was the beginning of Church politics. And as with all such actions, it healed some aspects of the divide, while exasperating others.

 

Such is the way of human beings.

 

 

3rd Sunday of Advent

A Homily – The Gospel of Matthew 3:1 – 12 ©

The Gospel of the Day – 2016.12.04

 

 

The Preacher in the Wilderness

 

In due course John the Baptist appeared; he preached in the wilderness of Judaea and this was his message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’ This was the man the prophet Isaiah spoke of when he said:

 

A voice cries in the wilderness:

Prepare a way for the Lord,

make his paths straight.

 

This man John wore a garment made of camel-hair with a leather belt round his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judaea and the whole Jordan district made their way to him, and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins. But when he saw a number of Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers, who warned you to fly from the retribution that is coming? But if you are repentant, produce the appropriate fruit, and do not presume to tell yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father,” because, I tell you, God can raise children for Abraham from these stones. Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the trees, so that any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire. I baptise you in water for repentance, but the one who follows me is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to carry his sandals; he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fan is in his hand; he will clear his threshing-floor and gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out.’

 

 

Fire

 

 

John the Baptist was a prophet. He was a social critic, and that is the role of the prophet. To stand within a tradition, and criticize the institutions of that tradition.

 

In his day John the Baptist was not alone in this, but he and those who saw the same troubles that he saw, they were on the margins. They were on the margins both figuratively, and literally, they represented a new movement, and preached a new path for his people, they were so controversial that they had to do their preaching away from the towns and cities. That is what they did, the preached in the wilderness and the people came out to see them.

 

Isaiah did not foretell the coming of John the Baptist. Isaiah was most likely not a real historical figure. But the school of Isaiah, those who wrote in his name, they offered their criticism of their tradition, and assured people that when they were gone others would come,

 

John did the same thing. He knew his days were numbered, and he knew another would come after him. He might even have known that this other was Jesus, but that fact is unimportant, because he knew that if not Jesus, then another would follow; sooner or later another would follow.

 

That is still true today.

 

The prophets are among us, they are preaching and teaching and pointing the way. They are present in every generation. The voice of the prophet is present in the heart of every human being; waiting, nascent, patient, desiring to be voiced and heard.

 

Do not believe that being baptized and being a Christian makes you special. Being a member of one of the tribes of Israel did not make the Sadducees or the Pharisees special.

 

What is special is doing good, loving justice, and being merciful to all of those within your power, or whom you have the power to help.

 

Do not be distressed or afraid of the harsh language in this gospel. Do not be afraid of the fire, because in scripture, fire is a symbol of the encounter with God. The fire that never ends, the eternal fire in the fire of God. We know this because God, and God alone is the arbiter of the eternal, and there is no other eternal being who is not God.

 

The encounter with God is a moment of transformation, transfiguration, it comes to every person, and depending on who you are or how ready you are to receive the encounter, it might be painful, but it is not destructive. The fire of God refines, just as the power of love, and justice, and mercy do.

 

Be like John. Preach the faith, love what is good, walk humbly in justice and mercy.

 

That is the good news.

 

 

2nd Sunday of Advent