Father Richard Barrett answers readers' questions
I AMENDED a seminar in my diocese recently where a visiting deacon gave us his interpretation of Luke 1:29, the story of Gabriel and Mary, and said we don't believe in angels really they are just biblical shorthand for God's care of his people. He then suggested we speak of the Spirit as She who guided Mary toward the acceptance of single motherhood. Is this really the official position of the Catholic Church on Lk 1:29?
NO, BUSSING in deacons from the Diana School of Theology to talk to professionals is always fraught with risk at RE Inset days. RE for most of the readers normally abbreviates a form of education connected with the supernatural. Even this sense of the word could have helped our doubt-ridden deacon to have focused on the text rather than himself but maybe such a leap of reason is beyond a devotee of Diana. Why Diana? There is a case of a feminine use of theos in the NT, at Acts 19:37, but as it occurs just once and refers to the goddess Diana or Artemis, then the deacon may wish to consider another belief system that can accommodate his notion of divinity. Shakespeare refers to Diana's altars in A Midsummer Night's Dream so maybe a return to the woods and faeries of Titania is on the cards for our deacon.
On the subject of angels, it is said that some Church officials are given a kind of negative gift which means they cannot see what to the rest of the known universe is blindingly obvious. Precisely at that moment when society is coming round to the existence of angelic beings, in waddles a dinosaur from the Sixties. Chaos ensues.
It seems that had the RE department of the diocese in question had the nous to invite younger beneficiaries to the session, those far wiser and younger girlies would have rescued our gobbling deacon from Christmas and pointed out that Robbie Williams had settled this question adequately enough for them with his song Angels.
They might have given him Hope Price's collection of anecdotes on angelic experiences and even a report in The Times recently which suggested that such experiences are much more
common than once imagined.
The only people then who find angelic visitations of the Scriptures hard to take are minor officials of the 20th century who have spent too much time talking to themselves.
Yet, to be fair. many rely on a German exegete of the 19th century who could nut cope with the idea that faith might have a bearing on history. Faith and history were opposed, he said — the logical conclusion of the flight from history begun by Martin Luther and company. Not so much the removal then of specific bits of Scripture but of the entire medium as a mediation of something bigger than a German forest. But we shall be kind and suggest that he simply denied the first canon of exegesis, i.e. the integrity of the text. I must say it is always something of a shock to find that a 21st century apparatchik has obtained copies of public records from the Roman administration in Palestine of the first century which clearly contradict the Gospel accounts.
My reading of Tacitus' account of the destruction of the Temple in 70AD suggests quite the opposite and given that the public records of the province were destroyed by Jewish terrorists in 65, it seems that a miracle has been performed by our Greek-speaking deacon, Servant of the Constant Artemis.
So evidently Mary was not visited by an angel but by someone looking suspiciously like John Powell with a copy of his book, Why Am I Afraid to Love? Mary may have sat there with her own manual on visitations from dodgy scribes entitled, Why I am Afraid to be Loved by People like You! Myth follows where history is jettisoned so that is why pre-cambrian commentators usually offer themselves instead of the text as food for the hungry. What of course is being suggested is that in the absence of contemporary but dissenting public records relating to the same period and the same material, the Received Text (textus recepius) should be trusted as a matter of principle.
If the Scriptures refer to dreams and angelic presences, then we should not as a matter of course simply delete such passages or explain them away as fictions. Indeed it would be better theologically to subject our own cosmological prejudices to scrutiny before we take the Gospels to the guillotine.
So why do dinosaurs find angelic beings so difficult to stomach? "Understanding is forgiving" is the golden rule of this little column so maybe we should explain doubts about angelic beings.
One has to understand that for those
who have reduced Christianity to Making Me Feel Better About Myself. there really is no need for all these metaphysical and supernatural props cluttering up the stage of the psyche. This is the Hollywood version of religion of course — therapy — philosophers would call it post-modernism. Basically it means that angels are really Mary's way of saying. "God loves me."
She was apparently quite deluded and today would be put on a couch somewhere in Santa Barbara. Anyway, there is enough material in the Greek text of Luke 1:29 for an entire lecture in dogmatic theology, but lack of space prevents us doing so here. Instead we could mention that the angelic greeting was not: "Hi, I'm John — this is my new book," but Kaire or something in the ancient world redolent of a diplomatic salutation. hence the Latin term in the New Vulgate, Ave.
The angel, Luke tells us, was sent to a parthenos, which is a feminine form of the second declension and means virgin. hence a parthenontas was a dwelling of virgins near a Parthenon or temple. So it is more than a biological virgin — it meant a girl dedicated to the service of the Temple —Mary was a prophetess.
The next word, kecharitomene, refers not to a blessing visited upon Mary by the angel, but to the recognition of a gift or charisma already received from God in the past. The eminent scripture scholar, lg-nace de la Potterie, suggested this to be the scriptural ground for that charism which today we call the Immaculate Conception, The next phrase, Ho kurios meta sou, is badly translated as: "The Lord is with you." It literally means, "The Lord is upon thee!" — not a greeting at a launderette in Eastenders but a cry of warning. This was why Mary was afraid.
Aristotle's solution for endemic sceptics could apply, but we would not dream of suggesting it for witless inability in a public forum. How about a new career instead? Deconstructing one Holy Family will be big business this year. Marx would approve and so would Che Guevara. But then maybe our deacon was already wearing the t-shirt.