So who invented Lent anyway? It’s been around for as long as I can remember.

Our Lenten observance is based on tradition, and certainly our church is traditional. So where did this tradition originate? Looking to the Scriptures, we find numerous examples of a penitential time lasting 40 days and 40 nights.

In Genesis, the Lord cleansed the world of its sins by sending the great flood, with rains lasting 40 days and 40 nights, saving only Noah and his family.

In Exodus, the Lord saved His people Israel by rescuing them from slavery from the Egyptians and sending them into the desert. Near the beginning of their journey he called Moses to Mount Sinai. On the mountaintop the Lord provided Moses with detailed instructions on the construction of His sanctuary, and the method of worship. The detail was such that it took seven Chapters of Exodus to record. As we know, Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on the mountaintop receiving these instructions, but the people Israel got tired of waiting, so they constructed a golden calf to worship. When Moses found out, he was pissed. So much so that he smashed the stone tablets containing the laws that he received from the Lord on the ground. Seeing what happened, The Lord again called Moses to the top of Mount Sinai, where, as we learn in Exodus:

“And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.”  [Exodus 34:28] And we know that Israel then wandered about the desert for 40 years.

In the Book of Kings, the prophet Elijah was visited by an angel, “And he arose, and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.” [1 Kings 19:8]

And of course in the New Testament, Matthew relates that after His baptism in the Jordan, at the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus went into the desert, “And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry.” [Matthew 4:2]  Matthew certainly had a knack for understatement.

While some of the earliest references to forty days of fasting before Easter date back to the time of Sts. Leo and Jerome in the fifth century, we are certain it was recognized at the end of the sixth century, and was quite strict at that, since we find Pope St. Gregory writing to St. Augustine of England advising him, “We abstain from flesh meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs.” As time went on, the rules loosened up a bit.

Historically, Lent has varied from a week to three weeks to the present configuration of 46 days. The forty-day fast, however, has been more stable. The Sundays of Lent are certainly part of the Time of Lent, but they are not prescribed days of fast and abstinence.

Our requirements are handed down in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which specifies the obligations of Latin Rite Catholics, since the Eastern Rite Catholics have their own penitential practices as specified by the Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches.

  • Canon Law proscribes that all Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days throughout the entire Church. [Canon 1250:]
  • Of course, we have to fast and abstain on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but Canon Law still provides that we must also abstain from eating meat on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities, as proscribed by the conference of bishops. [Canon 1251:] Here in the United States the American Bishops have allowed us to choose a different form of penance rather than abstaining from meat on every Friday, but there must be some form of penance. The bishops stress that “[a]mong the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance…we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat.” [Pastoral Statement on Fasting and Abstinence].
  • Everyone above the age of 14 is bound by the law of abstinence; fasting is required up to the age of 60. [Canon 1252]
  • Finally, it leaves it up to the bishops to determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence and to substitute in whole or in part for fast and abstinence other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety. [Canon 1253:] Since St. Patrick’s Day normally falls during Lent, those of us who are Irish, or who celebrate as if they were, are grateful for a dispensation when his feast day falls on a Friday, so we can enjoy our corned beef and cabbage.

The Lord’s Prayer

This past December, when it was reported that our Holy Father suggested that the Lord’s Prayer be changed, I was deeply concerned. How could a prayer that was taught to us by our Lord and Savior be wrong? Pope Francis indicated that he was troubled with the phrase, “and lead us not into temptation”, because certainly it was not God that leads us into temptation, but the evil one.

Once again, this subject inspired me to further investigation. I looked to Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, and prominent theologians for guidance.  In Matthew, Chapters 5-7, we find the Sermon on the Mount, of which the Lord’s Prayer is an integral part. Luke (11:1) introduces the Lord’s Prayer with Peter’s request, “Lord, teach us to pray”.

We are reminded of His instruction every time we celebrate the Eucharist, when, after the Eucharistic Prayer, at the beginning of the Communion Rite, we stand as the Celebrant says, “At the Savior’s command and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say,”…

Yes, the very words our Savior gave us, when he was asked by his Apostles how to pray to God our Father, form the very words of the prayer we learned as children, and continue to pray this day.

In the original writings of the Evangelists, the language used to transcribe the words our Savior spoke in Aramaic was Greek. Translating the text from Greek to English has caused some issues and confusion.

Saint Augustine, one of the Doctors of the Church, sheds some light on this very topic, when he writes about the Lord’s Prayer, explaining:

“The sixth petition is “And bring us not into temptation” (cf. Mt. 6:13). Some manuscripts have the word “lead,” which is, I judge, equivalent in meaning, for both translations have arisen from the one Greek word that is used. But many who pray express themselves thus: “Allow us not to be led into temptation,” explaining in what sense the word “lead” is used. For God does not Himself lead, but allows that man whom He has deprived of His assistance to be led into temptation, in accordance with a most hidden arrangement, and with what he deserves. Often, for manifest reasons, He also judges him worthy of being so deprived and allowed to be led into temptation.” (St. Augustine of Hippo, On the Sermon on the Mount, Chapter 9).

In the Letter of James, we find the author saying, “No one experiencing temptation should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God is not subject to temptation to evil, and he himself tempts no one.” (James 1:13)

After the Last Supper, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Our Lord told his disciples twice to pray to the Father to be protected against temptation: When they first arrived at the garden, He said to them, “Pray that you may not undergo the test.” (Luke 22:40).  Again in the garden, after praying to the Father to let this cup pass if it be His will, He returned and found his disciples asleep, and said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not undergo the test.” (Luke 22:46). The “test”, of course, is temptation.

Christ himself was not exempt from temptation.  At the beginning of his ministry, after his baptism in the Jordan, Matthew tells us: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4:1).

It is interesting to note that the Greek verb for “lead” is different here from the one in the Lord’s Prayer, and the idea is more emphatic. The Gospel of Mark tells the same story; Mark says that “At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert” (Mk. 1:12).  Modern-day theologian Dr. Scott Hahn, Chair of Biblical Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, points out: “the Greek verb translated as “drove” means, literally, “threw”! If Jesus Himself was “thrown” into severe temptation, we should not complain that we are unloved by God when He “leads” us into temptation. For, like God’s other beloved, we will shine more brightly when we, with God’s help, have struggled successfully.”

Our Creator has created us in His image, providing us with free will – to choose to love and obey Him and thereby to enjoy eternal life – or not. He wants us to choose Him but has given us the opportunity to choose otherwise. He did not lead Adam and Eve to temptation by providing them with the fruit from the tree of life in the garden of Eden, but he made it possible for them to accept or reject Him by endowing them with a free will.

He provided Abraham with a free will and instructed him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Abraham certainly could have opted to ignore this command, but instead Abraham chose to trust completely in the Lord and was rewarded with “descendants as countless as the stars in the sky.” (Gen 22:1-19)

Every day we are provided with choices. We are tested, as were the ancient Hebrews, to accept God Our Father or to turn away from Him.  The correct choice is the one for which we will be eternally grateful.

The Epiphany

This past Sunday we celebrated the Solemnity of the Epiphany of our Lord. We have long associated this feast with the visit of the Magi. In the early church, however, this feast was associated with not one, but three events: the visit of the Magi, the Baptism of our Lord, and the Wedding Feast at Cana. It wasn’t until 1955 that Pope Pius XII instituted the Feast of the Baptism as a separate liturgical commemoration, which this year we celebrated on Monday.

Although we frequently sing, “We Three Kings” when we celebrate Mass on the Epiphany, there is no evidence that those who visited our Lord in Bethlehem were kings, or even that there were three of them.

The evangelist Matthew, who alone provides the narrative of the Magi’s visit, simply tells us that “magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem” and they “offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” As the prophet Isaiah wrote, “…the wealth of nations shall be brought to you. Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come, bearing gifts of gold and frankincense…”

So who are “magi”, anyway? A reading of the works of the Greek historian Herodotus suggests that the Magi were the sacred caste of the Medes that provided priests throughout the Arabian Peninsula for several hundred years. Although some suggest that the Magi were sorcerers or magicians, the religion of the Magi was fundamentally that of Zoroaster and forbade sorcery; their astrology and skill in interpreting dreams were what led them to find our Lord.

What is significant about Matthew’s narrative is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, and the good news that Christ’s appearance was not only for salvation of the Jews, but for the whole world. The Magi represent all of us. This event is what Pope St. Leo the Great referred to as “the day of our first harvesting, of the first calling of the Gentiles.”

Getting back to the Magi, where did they actually come from? Isaiah’s prophecy referred to Ephah, Midian and Sheba. Midian is the Old Testament name for what was, in Jesus’ time, the Kingdom of the Nabateans.  It lies directly east and south of Jerusalem — in present-day Jordan. Ephah was a city of Midian further south in the Arabian Peninsula, and the ancient Kingdom of Sheba was centered in what is present-day Yemen, also to the east and at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula.

So if the Scriptures are any indication, Isaiah suggests that the Wise Men, “coming from afar” probably came from what is now Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  If so, they undoubtedly traveled on camels, since Midian especially was known for its abundance of camels.

The gifts offered also provide a clue as to the origin of the Magi. Yemen is the present-day location of the ancient civilization of Sheba.  The kingdom’s fabulous wealth was based on gold mines in Ethiopia, which lies just to its west, across the Red Sea. The Arabian Peninsula — especially the area of Midian and Sheba — is the only place in the world where the specific plants grow from which are harvested the resin to make both incense and myrrh.  These two rich gifts — used for their aroma and for medicinal purposes — were, in those days, equivalent in value to gold, and were the “cash crops” in this part of the world.

The Old Testament Book of Kings chronicles the visit of the queen of Sheba who came to bear gifts to the Jewish king Solomon. During Jesus’ time, the Kings of Sheba were Jewish. Given their faith, they certainly would have an interest in a newborn King of the Jews that had been prophesied. Traveling to Bethlehem (or to Jerusalem) to pay him homage – or more likely sending their emissaries to do so – would not be surprising.

Even the New Testament hints of this, when in Matthew 12:42 Jesus refers to the queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon, and then – referring to himself – says, “there is something greater than Solomon here.”

The distance from Sheba, or today’s Yemen, to Jerusaem is about 1400 miles. To travel that distance by camel would take anywhere from three to twelve months, depending on the weather, availability of water, and the disposition of the camels, who are useful as a beast of burden, but are renowned for their ornery disposition. Besides the travel time, there were probably many weeks of preparation after the star’s appearance. Rather than arriving a few days after His birth, it is far more likely that the Magi arrived about the time of His first birthday. This timing also seems to make sense in light of two events recorded by Matthew:

  • In Chapter 2, verses 10-11 we are told that the Magi “were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.”

Note that they did not find Him in the stable, but in a house with His mother. By this time, the Holy Family had apparently taken up residence in the area.

  • Then there is the matter of Herod’s decree. As Matthew relates in 2:16: “When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.”

Herod did not order the killing of all newborn infant boys in Bethlehem, but all of those two years and under in Bethlehem and its vicinity, since the Magi provided Herod with the approximate time of Our Lord’s birth, which coincided with the appearance of the star.

So whether Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar actually made the trip from Sheba to the Jerusalem/Bethlehem area (they are only about 6 miles apart), or whether other individuals came from a different country, we are not certain. What we are sure of is that our Lord and Savior was miraculously born to a Virgin over 20 centuries ago, and we continue to celebrate his birth today.

The Birthday of Our Lord

This month, all over the Christian world, we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior.  Why do we celebrate on that particular day, December 25?  When I was little, I was taught that Christmas Day was Jesus’ birthday.  Later on, I was told that we are not certain of the year, much less the day, of His birth.  The Bible narrative says that on that day, the shepherds were in their fields tending their flock. Certainly shepherds wouldn’t be in their fields at the beginning of winter, but more likely in the spring. I also recall being told that early-on, Christianity “adopted” that date in order to co-opt a pagan winter festival that was being celebrated at the time.

The cover story of this month’s National Geographic is titled, “The Real Jesus – What Archeology Reveals About His Life.” Unfortunately, it reveals very little about His birthplace in Bethlehem.  As the article says, “…the physical evidence being too elusive to make a call…the old adage I learned in Archaeology 101 – ‘Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence’ – applies here.”

So that got me thinking.  How do we know what day to celebrate our own birthdays? Well, it’s the day that appears on our birth certificate. Who is the one person in this world that can certify that we were born on a specific day?  Our mother, of course, the person that provided the information for our birth certificate.

In contrast to the other evangelists, Saint Luke is the only one who records certain events involving the Blessed Virgin Mary and the infancy narratives: The foretelling of the Birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, the Annunciation of Christ’s Birth to Mary, the Visitation, the Circumcision and Presentation, and the Finding of Jesus in the Temple.

So where do you suppose Luke got his information? I think there are a few clues in his Gospel itself: First, he begins by saying, “those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us”.  After describing the visit of the shepherds on Christmas night, he says, “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart”.  Similarly, after finding 12-year-old Jesus in the temple and recording the conversation he had with Mary, Luke relates, “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.”  Since Luke was a contemporary of Mary and the Apostles, it certainly seems reasonable that his information was obtained from those primary sources.  In fact, when we read the Acts of the Apostles, Luke initially describes their activities in the third person, explaining what “they” did, but in Chapter 16 the perspective changes to “we”, as Luke apparently joins as a companion of Paul.

Unfortunately, Luke doesn’t record the date of Christ’s birth, but describes the event, its location, and time frame. Caesar Augustus was the Roman Emperor; we know that he reigned from about 27 B.C. to A.D. 14.  There is no record of a universal census as described by Luke outside of the New Testament.  From other sources, however, we know that there is a cave in Bethlehem that was venerated as His birthplace by the early Christians. This was recorded, according to Pope Benedict, as early as Justin Martyr (who died in 165) and church theologian Origen of Alexandria (who died in 254).  Looking back a bit further, much of what we know about that time comes from Josephus, who was the most notable Jewish historian from the first century.

Now the dating of our calendar now in use to indicate the Christian Era was effected in the sixth century, when a Roman monk named Dionysius was asked by Pope John I to calculate upcoming Easter dates.  As part of this exercise, he also calculated the date of Christ’s birth, which he pegged at December 25.   Christ’s circumcision occurred eight days later, on January 1 of A.D. 1, and the crucifixion was in the year A.D. 33.  From Matthew we learn that Herod was King of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth.  Josephus, however, places the death of King Herod at what we today refer to as 4 B.C..  When scholars became aware of Josephus’ chronology in the 1600s, it created the uncertainty we still have today.

Recent studies of Josephus, however, indicate that his recording of dates was not entirely accurate.  There are about 100 instances where he contradicts verified history and even his own chronology.  Just to cite one example, In his Jewish War, Josephus records that Aristobulus, from the second century B.C., took the title of “king” 471 years after the Babylonian captivity. Yet in his Antiquities, he says it was 481 years, a ten-year difference, but modern historians now know that it was 490 years. Josephus is wrong on all accounts.  In the Antiquities Josephus records a different date for Herod’s death, which would equate to 8 A.D. in our modern calendar.

What is more likely, I think, is to rely on another citation by Josephus that can be astronomically verified.  In all of his writings, Josephus mentions a lunar eclipse only once, and indicates that Herod died shortly after the eclipse.  While an eclipse was visible in Judea on March 13, 4 B.C., this eclipse was a minor, partial eclipse that occurred late at night.  After that, there was another that occurred on December 29, 1 B.C. which rose at 53% eclipse and more likely to be noticed and recorded, which fits nicely with a December birthday.

As noted by a physics professor who provided the lunar eclipse information, “Perhaps the much-maligned monk who calculated the change of era was not quite so far off as has been supposed.”

Our Lady of Fatima – Epilogue

For the past three months we have celebrated the story of Our Lady of Fatima in commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of her appearances.  This month, we bring the message of Fatima to its conclusion by reflecting on the impact Our Lady had on the lives of two men whose lives were intertwined with the message.  Both men nearly lost their lives prematurely to an assassin’s bullet.  Both believed their lives were miraculously spared for a special purpose, to bring an end to atheistic Soviet communism.

On June 7, 1982 President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II met at the Vatican to compare notes.  On March 30, 1981 Reagan had been shot on the left side of his chest.  A month and a half later, on May 13 – the Feast Day of Our Lady of Fatima – the Pope was shot in the abdomen.  Both men were profoundly anti-communist during their formative years.  Reagan battled the influence of card-carrying members of the Communist Party USA in the film industry in the 1940s and 50s, while during the same time Karol Wojtyla, who also worked as an actor at that time, experienced first-hand the takeover of his homeland by the Soviets in the post-World War II era.

In October of 1978 Cardinal Wojtyla was elected the first non-Italian pope in over 400 years.  His devotion to Mary became apparent from the very start of this Papacy, as he accepted his election with these words: “With obedience in faith to Christ, my Lord, and with trust in the Mother of Christ and the Church, in spite of great difficulties, I accept.” Less than a year later, in June of 1979, the Pontiff made the first pastoral visit by a Pope to a communist country when he visited his Polish homeland.  The following year, the trade union Solidarity was founded, which gained the support of the Catholic Church.

During the next few years, John Paul made eight additional trips to Poland, the most visited country during his papacy.  It was during his second visit in June of 1983 that he met with Solidarity leader Lech Walesa in a private meeting.

In January of 1984, diplomatic relations between the United States and the Holy See were re-established when President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II agreed to exchange Ambassadors.  In April, The United States established an embassy to the Holy See, when William A. Wilson presented his credentials to the Pope, elevating his position from Personal Representative of the President to U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See.  The following month, the two met in Fairbanks, Alaska.  President Reagan’s words on that occasion reflected a new partnership between the United States and the Holy See:

“To us, Your Holiness, the Holy See and your pastorate represent one of humanity’s greatest moral and spiritual forces. And your visit is particularly significant, coming as it does soon after the reestablishment of relations between the Holy See and the United States. For over a century we maintained warm and fruitful, but informal relations. Now we have exchanged Ambassadors, and we hope to build on this new relationship to our mutual benefit and to the benefit of peace-loving people everywhere.”

And build they did, establishing a partnership that would see the demise of the “Evil Empire”.  But this partnership may have had some divine assistance.  In 1987 President Reagan addressed the Assembly of the Republic of Portugal. His appearance before that legislative chamber was boycotted by the communist members of the assembly.  During his address, he invoked the Blessed Virgin Mary and her appearance to the children at Fatima:

“No one has done more to remind the world of the truth of human dignity, as well as the truth that peace and justice begins with each of us, than the special man who came to Portugal a few years ago after a terrible attempt on his life. He came here to Fatima, the site of your great religious shrine, to fulfill his special devotion to Mary, to plead for forgiveness and compassion among men, to pray for peace and the recognition of human dignity throughout the world.

“When I met Pope John Paul II a year ago in Alaska, I thanked him for his life and his apostolate. And I dared to suggest to him the example of men like himself and in the prayers of simple people everywhere, simple people like the children of Fatima, there resides more power than in all the great armies and statesmen of the world.”

Well just two years later, the prayers of a simple people were answered.  In the interim, Pope John Paul II worked behind the scenes with Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement in Poland, while in Berlin President Reagan challenged Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”.  In 1989 the Berlin Wall did come down, and so did the Iron Curtain surrounding Poland and eastern Europe.  Open elections were held in Poland, Solidarity won a landslide victory and formed a coalition government. The following year Lech Walesa was elected as Poland’s president, transforming the country into a market economy.