February 2005

Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament 1b, Matthew 14-28..  Edited by Manlio Simonetti. InterVarsity Press. 344 pages. $No price given..

There are 28 volumes to this series. I am reporting on only one, the one that covers just 15 chapters -- or approximately half -- of the Gospel of Matthew. The size of the undertaking gives you an idea of the care and dedication that have been exerted in compiling this collection, of its attention to important detail. The translations are fresh and dynamic, the commentaries lively.

The book Matthew 14-28 is organized as a standard reference book would be organized. Passages (technically called "pericopes") are arranged in the order of their appearance in the Gospel and are labeled according to the significance they have come to have in the liturgy and theology of the Church. The biblical text is first quoted in full in the English of the Revised Standard Version. Then follows an overview, in which the editors summarize the major points of agreement by the Christian writers who have commented on the passage under consideration. Once the larger meaning has been clarified, the individual verses of the passage receive attention; this is where one finds detailed insights that have been offered by the most respected Christian writers, those known to have pondered deeply on the spiritual significance of the revealed Word.

Suppose you opened the volume to Matthew 17:1-13, with a desire to penetrate more deeply into the experience of the Transfiguration. You would be led almost as Peter and James and John were led, "up a high mountain apart," to the very scene that they had witnessed. It is set vividly before you in the words of Matthew himself: And Jesus "was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light." Much as Jesus talked with Moses and Elijah, you will be addressed by John Chrysostom, Origen, Jerome, and Augustine -- Origen who said that "in his Transfiguration Jesus is beheld as truly in the form of God while remaining no less truly human"; Jerome who added that "his body had become spiritual, so that even his garments were transformed," and Augustine who moves from the literal fact to its significance, pointing out that "Jesus shone as the sun, indicating that he is the light that illuminates everyone who comes into the world."

What are we to make of Peter's desire to erect three booths? Why did the disciples fall on their knees in awe? Why does Jesus say that John the Baptist is Elijah and Elijah has already come? Answers to such questions -- the inevitable questions raised in us by the passage and the same questions our Christian ancestors have been pondering since the Scriptures were compiled -- are offered by Leo the Great, Cyril of Alexandria, Apollinaris, and in finely translated English.

Thus far one is glimpsing the unity of interpretation. But the passages collected to illustrate particular comments on individual verses demonstrate the variety of interpretations that have been presented by particular preachers or commentators at particular moments in history. In these sections of the commentary on the Transfiguration, you find yourself actually entering into the meditations of some of the holiest men in the history of our faith. These passages are a joy to read -- it's not "work" but absolute pleasure to pass from one to the next to see how such personages as Jerome, Augustine, Origen, Leo, Hilary, or Chrysostom related to and interacted with the lives of Jesus and the Apostles through the words of Matthew.

I admire the concept that inspired this series and conclude with just a brief excerpt from the publisher's statement of purpose: "This commentary has been intentionally prepared for a general lay audience of non-professionals who study the Bible regularly and who earnestly wish to have classic Christian observation on the text readily available to them. The series is targeted to anyone who wants to reflect and meditate with the early church about the plain sense, theological wisdom and moral meaning of particular Scripture texts. A commentary dedicated to allowing ancient Christian exegetes to speak for themselves will refrain from the temptation to fixate endlessly upon contemporary criticism. Rather, it will stand ready to provide resources from a distinguished history of exegesis that has remained massively inaccessible and shockingly disregarded during the last century."

I have no hesitation in recommending these volumes to anyone who shares the compilers' goal of "the revitalization of Christian teaching."

- Elaine Hallett



The Resurrection of the Son of God.  By N.T. Wright. Fortress Press. 738 pages. $39.

This acclaimed work is fascinating for anyone interested in the first Easter. In the past century or so, modernist theologians have tried to cast doubt on the Bible's account of the physical rising of Jesus. These "experts" have lectured us that the Gospels are just propaganda of the early Church or fables that simple folk misunderstood.

The Resurrection of the Son of God is an antidote to this. One common view put forward by the skeptics is that Christianity is just a retelling of pagan or Jewish myth. Wright reviews both pagan and Jewish worldviews on the subject of people coming back from the dead. He shows clearly that the pagan world had no tradition of resurrection, and the Greeks and Romans abhorred such a concept when they encountered it.

Wright explains how resurrection developed within Judaism. Though resurrection was a strand of Jewish belief, that tradition did not envision that one man would really die, then come back with a body that was his own body, but was in other ways significantly changed.

Wright studies the Bible and the Church Fathers with a fresh eye, and makes a strong case that the only reasonable conclusion that can be made is that the disciples did indeed encounter a Jesus who had really died, then really returned, not "spiritually" or mythically or symbolically, but with a body that had been transformed by a powerful new act by God. Moreover, Wright stresses the "here and now" importance of the Resurrection as a testament to God's power of creation. Easter reveals that we live in a new creation that is right now transforming the cosmos.

The Resurrection of the Son of God achieves two remarkable feats. It finds fresh yet orthodox insights into an event that has been discussed for nearly 2,000 years. It is sometimes believed that the only way to be truly original in discussing the Bible is to come up with a thesis that the original writers would never have imagined under any circumstances. Wright demonstrates that the freshest ideas come from studying what the Bible actually says.

The second feat is that a 738-page book of biblical exegesis is a good read. Wright's prose is clear and lively without being simplistic or cute. One night, as I went to fetch it with a feeling of anticipated pleasure, I remembered with a pang of disappointment that I had just finished it.

There are few books, of any kind, that so greatly repay the reader.

- Jim Tynen



The Very Rich Hours of Jacques Maritain: A Spiritual Life.  By Ralph McInerny. University of Notre Dame Press. 235 pages. $32.

A "book of hours," in medieval times, offered the faithful the daily offices prescribed by the liturgy. In some cases these books were beautifully, even sumptuously illustrated. In all cases those who prayed the hours raised their hearts and minds to God.

Ralph McInerny, doyen of Jacques Maritain scholars, has had a splendid idea -- one that suits scholar and non-scholar alike. Why not a book about Maritain's life (1881-1973), illustrating its "hours," or stages, with their distinctive spiritual themes? And so he did, thus offering us this new volume.

An immediate assurance is in order. Jacques Maritain seldom spoke of his work without a heartfelt tribute to his wife, Raissa. The two met in their 20s while students at the Sorbonne, a notorious bastion of positivism. For Jacques, Raissa was the contemplative spirit of their marriage. She was its poet, and her poetry emerged from her habit of prayer. With insight and candor, McInerny interweaves Raissa's story with Jacques's.

We, of course, will doubtless read the Maritains' story through our own eyes, and rightly so. For their part, Jacques and Raissa attracted a wide range of people who brought their own perspective to what Raissa called "adventures in grace." There were philosophers and poets, yes. But there were artists and politicians too. The religious came, yes. But seekers and skeptics also came forward. Such was the case in France and the U.S.; it was so as well in Canada, Chile, and Italy. This appeal, and the bonds it forged and continues to forge, remains the case today. (To verify this, attend a conference of the American Maritain Association, the last two of which were at Princeton and the University of Chicago, fitting venues since Maritain lectured at both Universities.)

Still, one suspects that not all perspectives are equally illuminating. There is, in any case, one way to read The Very Rich Hours of Jacques Maritainthat, to my mind, is most especially illuminating -- and constantly challenging.

This "interpretive key" that opens for us Jacques and Raissa's shared story is what we've come to term "the universal call to holiness." We are all to be holy; and if we are to be holy, we must call others to holiness. The Maritains, themselves converts, learned this truth from Leon Bloy. Indeed, it would be Bloy who served as their godfather when, in 1906, they were baptized into the Church.

And who was Leon Bloy? He was a poet, and Lady Poverty was his muse. He was also a prophet who indicted the bourgeois affectations of French Catholics. Bloy's great gift to the Maritains was a blunt answer to a tortured question. The question, which they could not resolve on their own, was why are we alive? Leon Bloy's reply, which he ceaselessly gave, was in order to be a saint. The one final tragedy, he taught, was not to be a saint.

Yet this call to holiness is simultaneously a call to evangelize. How can we be holy without calling others to be holy? Jacques and Raissa took on this mission of evangelization for holiness well before Vatican II. They preached the Word, in season and out of season, in the intellectual and artistic and political centers of the day. They preached, moreover, authentic conversion. Nor did they confuse a dynamic inculturation with a merely passive assimilation.

This authentic conversion is a twofold one that integrates faith and reason. Jacques Maritain answered a call to do philosophy in faith. If the call imposed a burden, he found it to be one that liberates. Not surprisingly, in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, John Paul II cites Jacques Maritain by name as an exemplar for those who today see faith and reason as two wings that, working together, can bring us to the God who is Truth.

- James G. Hanink





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