Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Catholic Church: 19 Centuries of the Great Commission

I'm an American, born in this country: and not particularly ashamed of the fact. America isn't perfect, but I think it's one of humanity's better efforts.

I'm also a Catholic.

That makes me part of an outfit that has been around for just under two millennia, and spans the globe. If you believe the person who was tortured to death, returned to life three days later, got this Church going, and promised to be back at an unspecified time, the Church I go to will last as long as humanity does.

As a digression: quite a few people have claimed to be God, or something close to the Almighty. Sooner or later, people notice inconsistencies and re-categorize these individuals as 'nuts we've known.' Jesus the Christ claimed to be God. One of the more in-your-face instances is in John 8, where Jesus wound up the discussion by saying, " 'Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.' "

"Before Abraham came to be, I AM" Isn't Bad Grammar

Oh, great: now the digression has a backstory: Ancient Mesopotamian people were in the habit of giving their gods names that identified what their sphere of influence or particular characteristic was:
  • Atrahasis (AKA Ziusudra, Ziusura, Xisuthros)
    • "Surpassing Wise" or "Extra Wise"
  • Dagan (Hebrew Dagon*) - West Semitic corn god
    • "grain"
  • Ningikuga - the Sumerian goddess of reeds and marshes; goddess of dreams, interpretation, and insight
    • "Lady of the Pure Reed"
    ("Mesopotamian Character Glossary"
    Unit 1: The Age of Taurus, Mr. Hagin, Kennesaw State University (Fall 2006))
* Dagon is that Dagon: 1 Samuel 5, Judges 16, and elsewhere.

Where was I? Right: ancient Mesopotamians were used to the idea that the names of gods meant something - in the contemporary language - and had been for centuries by the time Moses got lured up the slopes of Sinai.

Moses, understandably, had quite a few questions about the little job God was giving him, including:
" 'But,' said Moses to God, 'when I go to the Israelites and say to them, "The God of your fathers has sent me to you," if they ask me, "What is his name?" what am I to tell them?' "

"God replied, 'I am who am.' Then he added, 'This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you.' "
(Exodus 3:13-14)
It's not that much of a stretch, I think, to think that God was telling Moses, and through him, the descendants of Abraham and Isaac, that he is in charge of existence.

However that may be, When Moses passed on what I AM had to say, it left quite an impression of the Israelites.

A quick review:
  • God to Moses, on Sinai:
    • "God replied, 'I am who am.' Then he added, 'This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you.' "
  • Jesus, to the scribes and the Pharisees, in the Temple area:
    • " 'Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.' "

A Few Centuries Later, in Jerusalem

Jesus had been throwing his weight around a bit, earlier in John 8. That's the chapter where the scribes and Pharisees (think "the establishment") brought a woman who could, legally, be stoned to death, before Jesus.

He'd said, "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." We still don't know what Jesus was writing on the ground - there's been quite a lot of speculation - but her accusers walked away. Embarrassing for them, I should think.

Then, after an less-than-cordial exchange of words, Jesus said, " 'Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.' " In other words, he was saying, "I am God."

Later in the same book, Jesus and his disciples are talking, and -
"Philip said to him, 'Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.'
"Jesus said to him, 'Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, "Show us the Father"?' "
(John 14:8-9)
There you have it: Jesus said, "before Abraham came to be, I AM." And, "Whoever has seen me has seen the father."

Not long after that, he was tortured to death and buried.

Normally, that would be the end of it. But three days later Jesus left the tomb, quite alive, met with a number of his disciples, and left.

Christians have been celebrating Easter ever since: and we make a rather big deal of it. It's April 12th this year, I see.

Ancient Roots

The Pentateuch went into written form about 26 centuries ago, around the time of Zarathustra. The oral tradition, and some writing, came before that.

Writing itself wasn't exactly a new information storage and retrieval technology by then. People had been making pictures on surfaces for something like 25 millennia, and we've had what I'll call proto-writing for around nine millennia. About six millennia back, a sort of writing was used to keep track of commercial transactions.

The idea of using symbols to record the words used in poetry, stories, conversations, and discussions, came later. (The History of Writing But that's a tangent I won't go off on.

19 Centuries And Counting

There's been some discussion of exactly which year Jesus was born in, thanks to Herodian politics, and, I think, to the failure of Imperial Roman authorities to anticipate the Gregorian calendar reform (which came about a thousand years after the the fall of Rome). And he may not have been born in December: which doesn't bother me. Royalty tends to have official birthdays celebrated at a time of year that's most suitable for either practical or symbolic reasons. If the King of Kings gets his birthday celebrated in the "wrong" month: so what?

If you count the beginning of the Catholic Church as the day Jesus was born, the Church has already been around for a trifle over two millennia. I tend to mark the date as either of these moments:
  • The day Jesus said to Peter,
    " 'Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.' "
    (Matthew 16:17-19)
  • After Jesus left the tomb, when he gave his disciples their marching orders:
    "The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, 'All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.' "
    (Matthew 28:16-20)
Either way, the Catholic Church is a little shy of its 2000th year.

As I said, I like being an American. But I also like being a part of an outfit with roots in antiquity, and which will, barring new orders from higher up, be around when America and the Ming Dynasty are as 'current' as Rome and the Delian League are today.

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