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All You Need Is Louvre

The people of Armenia heard the Gospel rather early in history, and their land was the site of much activity during the patristic era. Armenian Christians knew persecution back then — and often again through the centuries since then. The International Herald Tribune can’t help but tell the story as it covers “Armenia Sacra,” an exhibit at the Louvre until May 21.

What mostly survives is the art of religion, the hard-core to which the persecuted cling and carry away if portable. Otherwise it is fragments collected from ruins. Hence the title … “Armenia Sacra” …

Armenia had a very long past when King Tiridate made it the first country where Christianity was declared the state religion around 313, when Byzantium only made its worship permissible…

[The influences of both eastern and western cultures are apparent in] the first art spawned by the advent of Christianity of which the earliest surviving fragments do not predate the 5th century A.D. However disparate these look stylistically, they mostly share a monumental quality and an austere gravity maintained even when startling irony creeps in. Figural art, sometimes rough, invariably explodes with vigor. On one capital of starkly geometrical shape from Dvin, a Virgin and Child carved in low relief stare hypnotically at the viewer. It has a Romanesque feel to it but is not later than the 5th or 6th century A.D.

The stem of a stone cross also from Dvin is topped by the head of Jesus in a style strangely reminiscent of the human masks found in early 1st millennium B.C. bronzes from Luristan, in western Iran.

This aesthetic diversity was maintained into the 7th century A.D. if the datings suggested by art historians are right.

Read on at IHT.

And see the little page at the Louvre’s site: “For the first time, the Louvre will present an exhibition devoted to Armenian Christian art, dating from Saint Gregory the Illuminator’s conversion of the country in the early 4th century to the dawn of the 19th century.”

“Gregory the Illuminator” — the name would have been perfect, really, for a character played by Arnold Schwarzenegger twenty years ago, in a movie with lots of special effects.

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Steel the One

News arrives that our fair city is once again declared the “most livable” in the United States. We’re not surprised, and neither is our esteemed neighbor and co-author at Ranking is based on a formula that scores housing affordability (cost of living); transportation; jobs; education; climate; crime; health care; recreation; and ambience (museums, performing arts, restaurants and historical districts). It’s quite accurate, in my estimation. I wasn’t born here, but here’s where I choose to live. It feels like a small town, but has everything I’d want in a city.

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Papy R Us

In the London Times, Mary Beard shows us The Strangely Familiar World of Oxyrhynchus. Oxyrhynchus is the Egyptian town where hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts were discovered in the early twentieth century — including fragments of Christian apocrypha and the New Testament. It’s an entertaining essay that raises important questions about how and why we read history. The occasion is the publication of City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish by Peter Parsons.

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Cover Me


It looks like this is the new cover of the new edition of The Mass of the Early Christians. The new one’s not available on Amazon yet, but can be pre-ordered from the publisher, Our Sunday Visitor. To order the expanded edition, call toll-free 1-800-348-2440 and make sure to request T-419.

What’s on the cover? It’s a fifth-century mosaic depicting loaves and fishes, a favorite eucharistic symbol of the patristic era. This particular mosaic was found in the remains of a Byzantine church in Tabgha, Israel, the traditional site of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:41).

Here are a few details on what’s new in this edition.

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Mamas and the Papas

I mentioned last week that my wife Terri and I contributed a chapter titled “Milk and Mystery: On Breastfeeding and the Theology of the Body” to a new collection, Catholic for a Reason IV: Scripture and the Mystery of Marriage and Family Life. A commenter asked, somewhat incredulously, what the Fathers could have to do with such an exclusively maternal activity as breastfeeding. It’s a good question, and she put it to me with three question marks. So it merits at least a partial answer. (For a full answer, you’ll have to buy the book!)

My wife and I begin the essay by reviewing the ample biblical material on breastfeeding — the customs observed in Israel, the blessings and curses associated with the practice, the use of nursing as a metaphor, and instances where the inspired authors used breastfeeding as an essential part of a narrative plot.

The second section deals with the world of the Fathers, and again we discuss the cultural norms for breastfeeding mothers. And then we provide many examples of the Fathers’ use of breastfeeding imagery. A few examples:

Odes of Solomon: breastmilk is a metaphor for the Eucharist.
Odes of Solomon: the Holy Spirit is compared to a nursing mother.
Irenaeus of Lyons: speaks of Scripture as the breast of the Church.
Clement of Alexandria: Christ and the Eucharist are compared to milk; salvation is compared with lactation.
Ephrem of Syria: Christ is called “the breast of life.”
The Book of Steps: compares the Church to a nursing mother.
Augustine: speaks of Christians as nurslings, Christ as milk, the Bible’s two testaments as two breasts, and the Church as a nursing mother. He also uses the mother-child nursing relationship to illustrate how God creates us to be interdependent.

Again, that’s just a sampling. Both Clement and Augustine ponder the act of breastfeeding from physiological, moral, and theological angles. The full treatment is in our essay, “Milk and Mystery: On Breastfeeding and the Theology of the Body,” in Catholic for a Reason IV: Scripture and the Mystery of Marriage and Family Life.

I have another post on the subject of breastfeeding, here, with links to some great scholarship.

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Origen’s Back

I don’t think Origen was waiting around anywhere for his rehabilitation. But if he was, it arrived yesterday.

In his Wednesday audience, Pope Benedict referred to the Man of Steel as “one of the most outstanding” of the “great figures of the ancient Church,” “a true teacher,” and concluded: “I invite you to welcome the teachings of this great teacher of the faith into your hearts.”

In our meditations on the great figures of the ancient Church, today we will get to know one of the most outstanding. Origen of Alexandria is one of the key people for the development of Christian thought. He draws on the teachings he inherited from Clement of Alexandria, whom we reflected upon last Wednesday, and brings them forward in a totally innovative way, creating an irreversible turn in Christian thought.

He was a true teacher; this is how his students nostalgically remembered him: not only as a brilliant theologian, but as an exemplary witness of the doctrine he taught. “He taught,” wrote Eusebius of Caesarea, his enthusiastic biographer, “that one’s conduct must correspond to the word, and it was for this reason above all that, helped by God’s grace, he led many to imitate him” (Hist. Eccl. 6,3,7).

His entire life was permeated by a desire for martyrdom. He was 17 years old when, in the 10th year of Septimius Severus’ reign, the persecution against Christians began in Alexandria.

Clement, his teacher, left the city, and Origen’s father, Leonides, was thrown into prison. His son ardently yearned for martyrdom, but he would not be able to fulfill this desire. Therefore, he wrote to his father, exhorting him to not renounce giving the supreme witness of the faith. And when Leonides was beheaded, young Origen felt he must follow the example of his father.

Forty years later, while he was preaching in Caesarea, he said: “I cannot rejoice in having had a father who was a martyr if I do not persevere in good conduct and I do not honor the nobility of my race, that is to the martyrdom of my father and the witness he gave in Christ” (Hom. Ez. 4,8).

In a later homily — when, thanks to the extreme tolerance of Emperor Philip the Arab, the possibility of ever becoming a martyr seemed to fade — Origen exclaimed: “If God would consent to let me be washed in my blood, receiving a second baptism by accepting death for Christ, I would surely go from this world. … But blessed are they who merit these things” (Hom. Lud. 7.12).

These words reveal Origen’s nostalgia for the baptism by blood. And finally, this irresistible desire was, in part, fulfilled. In 250, during the persecution by Decius, Origen was arrested and cruelly tortured. Severely weakened by the sufferings he endured, he died a few years later. He was not yet 70 years old.

We mentioned earlier the “irreversible turn” that Origen caused in the history of theology and Christian thought. But in what did this “turn” consist, this turning point so full of consequences?

In substance, he grounded theology in the explanations of the Scriptures; or we could also say that his theology is the perfect symbiosis between theology and exegesis. In truth, the characterizing mark of Origen’s doctrine seems to reside in his incessant invitation to pass from the letter to the spirit of the Scriptures, to progress in the knowledge of God.

And this “allegoristic” approach, wrote von Balthasar, coincides precisely “with the development of Christian dogma carried out by the teachings of the doctors of the Church,” who — in one way or another — accepted the “lesson” of Origen. In this way, Tradition and the magisterium, foundation and guarantee of theological research, reach the point of being “Scripture in act” (cf. “Origene: il mondo, Cristo e la Chiesa,” tr. it., Milano 1972, p. 43).

We can say, therefore, that the central nucleus of Origen’s immense literary works consists in his “three-pronged reading” of the Bible. But before talking about this “reading,” let us look at the literary production of the Alexandrian.

St. Jerome, in his Epistle 33, lists the titles of 320 books and 310 homilies by Origen. Unfortunately most of those works are now lost, but the few surviving works make him the most prolific author of the first three Christian centuries. His array of interests extended from exegesis to dogma, to philosophy, to apologetics, to asceticism and to mysticism. It is an important and global vision of Christian life.

The inspirational core of this work is, as we mentioned earlier, the “three-pronged reading” of the Scriptures developed by Origen during his life. With this expression we are alluding to the three most important ways — not in any order of importance — with which Origen dedicated himself to the study of Scripture.

He read the Bible with the intent to understand the text as best he could and to offer a trustworthy explanation. This, for example, is the first step: to know what is actually written and to know what this text wanted to say intentionally and initially. He carried out a great study with this in mind and created an edition of the Bible with six parallel columns, from right to left, with the Hebrew texts written in Hebrew — Origen had contact with rabbis to better understand the original Hebrew text of the Bible.

He then transliterated the Hebrew text into Greek and then did four different translations into Greek, which permitted him to compare the various possibilities for translation. This synopsis is called “Hexapla” (six columns). This is the first point: to know exactly what is written, the text in itself.

The second “reading” is Origen’s systematic reading of the Bible along with its most famous commentaries. They faithfully reproduce the explanations give by Origen to his students, in Alexandria and Caesarea. He proceeds almost verse by verse, probing amply and deeply, with philological and doctrinal notes. He works with great attention to exactness to better understand what the sacred authors wanted to say.

In conclusion, even before his ordination, Origen dedicated himself a great deal to the preaching of the Bible, adapting himself to varied audiences. In any case, as we see in his Homilies, the teacher, dedicated to systematic interpretation of verses, breaks them down into smaller verses.

Also in the Homilies, Origen takes every opportunity to mention the various senses of sacred Scripture that help or express a way of growth in faith: There is the “literal” sense, but this hides depths that are not apparent upon a first reading; the second dimension is the “moral” sense: what we must do as we live the Word; and in the end we have the “spiritual” sense, the unity of Scripture in its diversity.

This would be interesting to show. I tried somewhat, in my book “Jesus of Nazareth,” to show the multiple dimensions of the Word in today’s world, of sacred Scripture, that must first of all be respected in the historical sense. But this sense brings us toward Christ, in the light of the Holy Spirit, and shows us the way, how to live.

We find traces of this, for example in the ninth Homily on Numbers, where Origen compares the Scriptures to nuts: “The doctrine of the Law and of the Prophets in the school of Christ,” he affirms, “is bitter reading, like the peel, after which you come to the shell which is the moral doctrine, in the third place you will find the meaning of the mysteries, where the souls of the saints are fed in this life and in the next” (Hom. Num. 9,7).

Following along this path, Origen began promoting a “Christian reading” of the Old Testament, brilliantly overcoming the challenge of the heretics — above all the Gnostics and the Marcionites — who ended up rejecting the Old Testament.

The Alexandrian wrote about this in the same Homily on Numbers: “I do not call the Law an ‘Old Testament,’ if I understand it in the Spirit. The Law becomes an ‘Old Testament’ only for those that what to understand it in terms of the flesh,” that is to say, stopping at the mere reading of the text. But, “for us, we who understand it and apply it in the Spirit and in the sense of the Gospel, the Law is ever new, and the two Testaments are for us a new Testament, not because of a temporal date, but because of the newness of the meaning. … For the sinner on the other hand and those who do not respect the pact of charity, even the Gospels get old” (Hom. Num. 9,4).

I invite you to welcome the teachings of this great teacher of the faith into your hearts. He reminds us that in the prayerful reading of Scripture and in a coherent way of life, the Church is renewed and rejuvenated.

The Word of God, which never ages or has its meaning exhausted, is a privileged way of doing this. It is the Word of God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, which leads us always to the whole truth (cf. Benedict XVI, international congress for the 40th anniversary of the dogmatic constitution “Dei Verbum,” in Insegnamenti, vol. I, 2005, pp. 552-553).

Let us ask the Lord to enable us thinkers, theologians and exegetes of today to find this multidimensional nature, this permanent validity of sacred Scripture.

We pray that the Lord will help us to read the sacred Scriptures in a prayerful way, to really nourish ourselves on the true bread of life, his Word.

Origen played leading roles in my books The Fathers of the Church and The Mass of the Early Christians.

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Tom Finery

Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, the U.S. bishops’ chief doctrinal official, is in town to speak to catechetical leaders in our diocese. I had the great honor and pleasure of his company at dinner. Among Father Tom’s many great books is The Theology of St. Cyril of Alexandria: A Critical Appreciation. That’s my personal favorite. Much more affordable, though, is Jesus the Christ. For many years, he was at Oxford, directing great dissertations like this one. It’s good to have him back home in the States.

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On Your Mark

It’s the feast of St. Mark. Celebrate with the Christians of Alexandria, the Church founded and ruled by St. Mark. The Egyptian liturgy, of course, was named after Mark, and the Patriarchs (Popes) of Alexandria consider themselves his successors. St. Jerome counts Mark among his Illustrious Men:

Mark the disciple and interpreter of Peter wrote a short gospel at the request of the brethren at Rome embodying what he had heard Peter tell. When Peter had heard this, he approved it and published it to the churches to be read by his authority, as Clement in the sixth book of his Hypotyposes and Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, record. Peter also mentions this Mark in his first epistle, figuratively indicating Rome under the name of Babylon: “She who is in Babylon elect together with you salutes you and so does Mark my son.” So, taking the gospel which he himself composed, he went to Egypt and first preaching Christ at Alexandria he formed a church so admirable in doctrine and continence of living that he constrained all followers of Christ to his example. Philo, most learned of the Jews, seeing the first church at Alexandria still Jewish in a degree, wrote a book on their manner of life as something creditable to his nation telling how, as Luke says, the believers had all things in common at Jerusalem, so he recorded that he saw was done at Alexandria, under the learned Mark. He died in the eighth year of Nero and was buried at Alexandria, Annianus succeeding him.

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Big News!

Last year my publisher, Our Sunday Visitor, asked me to do an expanded version of yet another of my books — The Mass of the Early Christians. Earlier, OSV had released an expanded edition of The Fathers of the Church, and the response was great.

Well, we were all set to re-release The Mass of the Early Christians in late summer, just in time to be used as a college and high-school textbook for Fall semester. But we ran into a problem: sales surged for the first edition, and it’s almost sold out. So OSV is rushing the expanded edition into print in late May.

You can pre-order it now by calling OSV — toll-free at 1-800-348-2440 — and using item number T-419. For those of you who’d rather wait till it’s on Amazon: hang tight — I’ll let you know as soon as it’s up.

Here’s what reviewers said about the first edition:

“This is an excellent and exciting work. I wish that The Mass of the Early Christians was compulsory reading for all ordinands. Mike Aquilina is to be congratulated.”
Robert Beaken, New Directions (U.K.)

“All Christians from liturgical traditions can read this book with profit and find comfort in the firm historical basis of their own worship. Those who have shunned liturgical worship might after reading this book reconsider their position and wonder what they have been missing.”
Christian Book Reviews

“The Mass we know on Sunday—the Mass you encounter in this book—is where Tradition lives, where Church’s memory reigns ‘in the Spirit.’ Read this book, then, and remember.”
Scott Hahn, professor, Franciscan University

“Aquilina is to be congratulated for making these texts accessible to a new and wide-ranging audience allowing us to echo the cry voiced by the martyrs of North Africa in the third century: ‘we cannot live without the Mass!'”
Fr. Joseph Linck, rector, St. John Fisher Seminary

“Mike Aquilina has performed a needed service in making this heritage accessible to non-specialists.”
Oswald Sobrino, Esq.

“Aquilina has done us a great service in summarizing 300 years of church history in a 239-page book.”
Richard J. Vincent,

What’s new in the expanded edition? Lots. The book’s a good deal bigger. There are at least six new chapters — on Clement of Rome, Cornelius, Firmilian, the Anaphora of St. Mark, Eusebius, and the Council of Nicea. I added several more apocryphal texts, and included a discussion of the recently discovered Gospel of Judas. I also added more texts by Cyprian, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and others. Still other chapters were extensively rewritten based on more recent scholarship.

The publisher’s boasts make me blush, but I’ll share the promo copy with you anyway:

What did the first Christians believe about the Eucharist?

How did they follow Jesus’ command, “Do this in remembrance of me”?

How did they celebrate the Lord’s Day?

What would they recognize in today’s Mass?

The answers may surprise you.

In The Mass of the Early Christians, author Mike Aquilina reveals the Church’s most ancient Eucharistic beliefs and practices. Using the words of the early Christians themselves — from many documents and inscriptions — Aquilina traces the Mass’s history from Jesus’ lifetime through the fourth century. The Mass stood at the center of the Church’s life, evident in the Scriptures as well as the earliest Christian sermons, letters, artwork, tombstones, and architecture. Even the pagans bore witness to the Mass in the records of their persecutions.

In these legacies from the early Church, you’ll hear and “taste and see” the same worship Catholics know today: the altar, the priests, the chalice of wine, the bread, the Sign of the Cross … the “Lord, have mercy” … the “Holy, holy, holy” … and the Communion.

You’ll see vividly how Jesus followed through on his promise to be with us always, until the end of time.

Hope you’ll at least put it on your wish list! Thanks for celebrating with me. I do love this book.