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No. 134 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program March 2008

  - A Brief Commentary on Matthew 2 according to the Four Senses of Sacred Scripture  by John F. McCarthy
  - Inaugural Mass in Latin According to the Ordinary Usage of the Roman Rite  by Brian W. Harrison

A Brief Commentary on Matthew 2 according to the Four Senses of Sacred Scripture

by John F. McCarthy

1. For several centuries, and above all during the last hundred years, it has been the custom of scholars to comment on the literal sense alone of Sacred Scripture. As a result, the spiritual sense and spiritual sub-senses have fallen into obscurity except in such areas as spiritual writing and the sacred liturgy. An indication that an awakening to the spiritual sense of Scripture is now in order and being called for is given in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 115 to 119, where the method of the Four Senses is described as the way in which the inspired word is to be read and interpreted. The present article is an attempt to show how this can be done, but it is necessarily sketchy and non-definitive, since so little work has been done by scholars along these lines for a long period of time. My approach here is to take the Commentary of St. Thomas Aquinas on the Gospel according to St. Matthew, along with the remarks and quotations from the Fathers of the Church and other approved writers in his Catena Aurea, in order to show how the beginning of a contemporary, that is, a neo-patristic, interpretation can be constructed from the work that he did, without presupposing a critical study on my part regarding the accuracy of the sources he quotes in these two books. An invitation to a critical re-working and expansion of the following brief exposition is hereby extended to other neo-patristic scholars.

2. The basic framework of the neo-patristic approach of the Four Senses of Sacred Scripture is explained by St. Thomas in the Summa Theologiae, part 1, question 1, article 10, together with his Quodlibet Seven, question 6, and his Commentary on the Letter of St. Paul to the Galatians. This framework is based on the idea that given statements in Sacred Scripture often have more than one intended meaning, in such a way that some statements have only a literal meaning, while others have one, two, or even three additional meanings representing the spiritual sense of the text. The literal and historical sense is, then, the immediate and most obvious sense of the words (Quodlibet 7, q. 6, art. 3), while the spiritual sense is based upon things inasmuch as they are the figures of other things (Quodlibet 7, q. 6, art. 2). The spiritual sense is divided into three sub-senses: the allegorical (or typical) sense, in which events of the Old Testament are seen in relation to Christ and to his Church; the tropological (or moral) sense, in which one sees how to act righteously; and the anagogical (final, or eschatological) sense, in which the New and Old Testaments together signify the Church Triumphant (ibid.).1

3. I might add that the perception of the literal and historical sense requires an adequate use of historical method in the true meaning of the term, while the perception of the spiritual senses requires an effective use of the supernatural virtues of faith, hope and charity. The perception of the allegory of Christ and of his Church requires a use of the analogy of faith based upon solid belief in the historical truth of Sacred Scripture and an affirmation that the supernatural things and events presented in the Bible belong to the one continuum that we call reality. The tropology is the appropriation of the truth and holiness of Sacred Scripture to the souls of individual believers, and it is based upon a prior awareness of the pattern of supernatural virtues available to the sanctified Christian believer. The tropology presupposes an openness of the heart of the reader to the truth and holiness of the text and a willingness to let the moral truth impact upon his own consciousness. This is a function of the supernatural virtue of charity. The anagogy pertains to the Four Last Things of death, judgment, Heaven or Hell, and to the signature, or hallmark, of the Most Holy Trinity impressed here and there upon the sacred text. The perception of this final sense requires an exercise of the supernatural virtue of hope. Aware­ness of what is affirmed in Sacred Scripture pertains to the virtue of knowledge; awareness of the meaning of what is affirmed pertains to the virtue of understanding; and living the truth and holiness of what is affirmed in Sacred Scripture pertains to the virtue of wisdom.

4. Matt 2:1. Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea. Literal sense. It pertains to the virtue of knowledge to realize that Jesus was in fact born in Bethlehem of Judea. there came wise men (magi) from the East to Jerusalem. Originally the word magi applied to Persian philos­ophers, and it came to apply in the Hellenistic world to wise men from that part of the world. It was also used in common parlance to mean wizards (Rabanus Maurus in the Catena Aurea2) or astrologers, but not here in the text of Matthew.

5. Matt 2:2. For we have seen his star in the East. Literal sense. There is question as to whether “in the East” means that the star was in the East or that they were in the East when they began to see it (Ordinary Gloss in the Catena), but it seems more likely that they were in the East. How did they understand from the sight of this unusual “star” that the great King of the Jews had been born? According to St. Augustine (Aquinas, Commentary3) and St. Leo the Great (Sermon 34, “On the Epiphany,” in the Catena), the Magi were instructed by some revelation or interior enlightenment.4 This was not a star in the usual sense of the word, because a star existing an immense distance away could not have guided them to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem (John Chrysostom in the Catena). Rather, it was a small, luminous body situated a short distance above the surface of the earth. Speculation that this star was a supernova or something of that nature that rose in the eastern sky is based upon the presupposition that the visit of the Magi is a story made up later by Christian believers who were intellectually too dependent to have invented it all by themselves, and who, therefore, needed some previous story (such as the “star that shall rise out of Jacob” in Num 24:17) to help them. It is based also on the naturalistic presupposition that it would have been impossible for a luminous body to have been miraculously created to guide the Magi. But there is no physical or historical evidence that this did not really happen, and our faith tells us that it did. However, several of the Fathers did affirm that the prediction of the star of Jacob helped the Magi to understand that the Savior had come (Cornelius a Lapide, Great Commentary, vol. 15, p. 75A).5 Others have conjectured that the luminous body was the Holy Spirit or an angel or was moved by an angel (Cornelius, p. 75B).

6. Matt 2:1-2. Spiritual sense. The word “Bethlehem” means “house of bread,” and, in the allegory of Christ and his Church, the name signifies the Church, in which dwells Jesus eucharistically under the appearance of bread (Gregory the Great in the Catena, p. 70), and spiritually, because He is the Bread of Life (Jn 6:35) (Aquinas, Commentary, no. 162). The Magi were the first of the Gentiles to come to adore Jesus, and they represent tropologically the many Gentiles who have come and continue to come into the Church over the span of history. Christians adore in faith the body of Christ, and they seek in hope to see Him in his divinity face to face in the next life.

7. Matt 2:3. When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Literal sense. Herod’s worldly ambition and his focus solely upon the natural world and its allurements made him fear exceedingly any seeming threat to his throne and to confuse heavenly highness with earthly highness (Gregory the Great in Aquinas, Commentary, no. 179). The coming of a new kingdom had been prophesied: “But in the days of those kings the God of Heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed ….” (Dan 2:44). But this would be a spiritual kingdom, not a kingdom of this world (Jn 18:36). The expression all Jerusalem here means those in Jerusalem who were closely around Herod. Herod feared, and the Devil, his master, feared even more (Jn 12:31) (Aquinas, Commentary, no. 177). Thus, Pseudo-Chrysostom in the Catena (p. 70): The Devil instigated Herod. Allegorically, Herod represents the Devil, who was greatly grieved by the calling of the Gentiles and by this new threat to his power over the people of this world (Leo the Great, Sermon 36, in the Catena, p. 69). Again, Herod represents the Devil attacking and killing those who are new and weak in faith and virtue and having only the first inspirations and good thoughts in their minds before they grow and become strong (Leo the Great, Sermon 2 “On the Epiphany”). Tropologically, Herod represents every man acting under the influence of the world, the flesh, and the Devil (Gregory the Great, Homily 10, cited in Cornelius, p. 82A).

8. Matt 2:6. And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah ... (Micah, 5:2). Literal sense. The prophecy actually reads as follows: And you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, are a little one among the thousands of Judah: out of you shall he come forth unto me who is to be the ruler in Israel; and his going forth (is) from ancient times, from the days of eternity. Thus, the prophecy does not regard a merely human ruler, and so Herod probably would not have become so concerned if his advisers had cited to him the whole prophecy (Pseudo-Chrysostom, in the Catena, p. 71). This prophecy does not literally regard the worldly state or kingdom of Israel, but the spiritual kingdom of Israel, composed of those Jews who would believe in Christ and of all Gentiles who would also adhere to Him (cf. Chrysostom in the Catena, p. 72). Aquinas points out that in this way the birth of Jesus the Messiah is confirmed by two witnesses, as required in Deut 19:15: the star and the prophecy in Micah (Commentary, no. 184).

9. Matthew 2:7. “. . . the time of the star . . . Literal sense. There have been various guesses on the time when the star first appeared. Some say two years before the nativity of Jesus or at least a long time before, others say on the day of the nativity (Catena, p. 73). Cornelius a Lapide holds that the star appeared on the day of the birth of Jesus, and that it took just thirteen days for the Magi to arrive in Bethlehem, probably from Arabia. Cornelius reasons that it would have taken Herod about fifteen months first to realize that the Magi had deluded him and then to set up the slaughter and get the permission of Caesar Augustus to carry it out (pp. 85B-86B). But it seems more likely that the star appeared on the day of the virginal conception of Jesus, and that it took about nine months for the Magi to arrive in Jerusalem. Nine months is vaguely close to a year, and Herod, in his vicious cruelty, would probably have doubled the one year to two for the slaughter of the innocents just to make sure that he did get the Infant King, although a Lapide and others have conjec­tured that the mothers and their babies were actually called together beforehand, having birth certificates in hand (Cornelius, p. 86B).

10. Matt 2:8. . . . that I also may come and do him homage. Literal sense. When the malicious are secretly intending to harm someone, they often pretend to be well-intentioned and affectionate toward him (Pseudo-Chrysostom in the Catena, p. 74).

11. Matt 2:9. . . . and behold the star which they had seen in the East went before them until it came and stood over where the child was. Literal sense. The star was in the atmosphere, and came close above the house in which the divine child was (Ambrose in the Catena, p. 74). Allegorical sense. The star of the Magi, the star of Bethlehem, is a figure of Jesus, who arose out of Jacob through the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jesus says: I am the root and stock of David, the bright and morning star (Rev 22:16). And it also represents the Virgin Mary, who is the Star of the Sea (St. Bernard of Clairvaux). The star leads the way to Jesus and to salvation, and the way is Jesus (cf. Ambrose, ibid.). “. . . and nations that knew you not shall run to you” (Isa 55:5). The star is a figure of the light of grace in Jesus, and the house is a figure of the Church, while Herod is a figure of the Devil. Whoever turns to the Devil loses the light of grace, but, when he turns away from the Devil, he regains this light leading to Jesus in the Church (cf. Remigius in the Catena, p. 75). Tropologically, the star of the Magi prefigures the light of faith and divine inspiration leading those who are sincerely searching for Jesus to a knowledge of the truth and to higher levels of goodness and holiness. Anagogically, the star represents the destiny of those who lead others to truth and holiness: But they that are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and they that instruct many to justice like stars for ever and ever (Dan 12:3). “He who has a taste for the things that are above . . . is in a sense a heavenly light. And while he preserves the brightness of a holy life, he shows to many the way to the Lord like a star” (Leo the Great, Sermon 3 “On the Epiphany,” quoted in Cornelius, p. 77A).

12. Matt 2:11. and entering into the house they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him. Literal sense. While seeing the child, they acknowledged Him as God (Pseudo-Chrysostom in the Catena, p. 76). Tropological sense. Those who truly find Jesus find Him in the house which is the true Church of Christ and always with Mary his mother. Those who truly adore Jesus also give special veneration to Mary his mother and the Mother of the Church. . . . and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh. Prophetic sense. Isa 60:6: A multitude of camels shall cover you, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah: all they from Sheba shall come, bringing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming praise to the Lord. Allegorically. They brought gold as to a king (cf. Jer 23:5), frankincense as a sacrifice to God, and myrrh as for the embalming of a dead person (Gregory the Great in the Catena, p. 76). Or they brought myrrh as to one who was to die for the sins of all (Augustine, ibid.). While the Magi may not have understood the mystical significance of the gifts they brought, the same grace that moved them to give the gifts brought about their mystical meaning as well (Chrysostom, ibid.). The three gifts represent Jesus, who offered on the Cross the gold of his love for God the Father and for his fellow men, the incense of his submission to the Father, and the myrrh of his suffering and death (Cornelius, p. 81B). Tropologically, the three gifts represent in the devout believer the gold of an increase of wisdom and charity, the incense of prayer, and the myrrh of a mortified and uncorrupted life (Gregory the Great, Homily 10, in Cornelius, p. 80B). Again, the three gifts can represent the three principal kinds of good works: the gold represents the voluntary giving away of money and goods to the poor; the incense represents the prayer of those detached from the spirit of this world; and the myrrh represents the mortification of fasting and abstinence (Cornelius, p. 82A). Again, the gold may typify wisdom; the frank­incense may typify the power of prayer; and the myrrh may typify the mortification of the flesh (Gregory the Great, ibid.). Anagogically, the gold represents the price given by Jesus for our redemption from the power of the Devil; the incense signifies the large-scale ending of Devil-worship on earth; and the myrrh suggests the restoration of our bodies in the final resurrection (Maximus, Homily 3 “On the Epiphany,” cited in Cornelius, p. 82A). Again, the opening of their treasures may typify the profession from the hearts of believers of their faith in the Three Divine Persons of the Most Holy Trinity, or, for the verbal allegory, it may represent the three spiritual senses of Sacred Scripture (compare and contrast Anselm in the Catena, p. 77).

13. Matt 2:12. . . . they (the Magi) went back by another way to their own country . . . . Tropologically. This shows that, in order to return to the Paradise from which we sprang, we must walk in obedience to God (cf. Prov 4:27) (Aquinas, Commentary, no. 204).

14. Matt 2:13. Arise, and take the child and his mother, and flee into Egypt . . . . Tropologically. In order to flee successfully from sin, it is necessary to shake off laziness (Eph 5:14) and have trust in the Virgin and her Child (Sirach 24:24) (Aquinas, Commentary, no. 211). Trials and troubles are on the road to Heaven. God, as it were, weaves our failures and successes into a crown of glory (Chrysostom, in Cornelius, p. 84A).

15. Matt 2:14. Who arose and took the child and his mother by night and retired into Egypt . . . . Tropologically. The strong flee for a good reason, and not out of fear. Jesus was carried to Egypt also to teach us to take no account of exile, since we are pilgrims on our way to Heaven (Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 28, in Cornelius, p. 84A).

16. Matt 2:15. That it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’ Literal sense. The prophecy is in Hosea 11:1: When Israel was a child, I loved him: and out of Egypt I have called my son. The prophecy in its literal sense applies to the children of Jacob, that is, of Israel, and is a statement made in reference to a past already accomplished, since the children of Jacob, the Israelites, had already long before been called out of Egypt. Compare this prophecy with that in Numbers 23:22. Allegorical sense. Jacob/Israel, called out of Egypt in the Exodus as represented by his descendants, is a type, or prefigurement, of Jesus (Jerome in the Catena), who is by nature the only true and only-begotten Son of God, whereas his followers become children of God through adoption into his Mystical Body and only to the extent that they bear a likeness to Him (cf. Aquinas, Commentary, no. 216). In the Old Testament prophecies, the coming of Christ and the call of the Gentiles are foreshown in such wise that the thread of history is never broken (Jerome in the Catena, p. 81). John Chrysostom points out that this kind of fulfillment is not unusual, because Old Testament prophecies are often said of some and fulfilled in others, and he gives as another example the prophecy of Jacob in Gen 49:7 regarding Simeon and Levi, which was fulfilled, not in them but in their descendants (Chrysostom in the Catena, p. 81).

17. Matt 2:16. . . . and (Herod) sending, killed all the male children that were in Bethlehem and in all the borders thereof, from two years and old and under . . . Literal sense. This slaughter of the innocents really took place. Some historical critics have objected that such a massacre would not have escaped the attention of historians of that time, but actually mass killings were rather common in those times, especially in the case of certain peoples. This King Herod was noted for the frequency and magnitude of his killings. Of his six sons, he had three put to death, and, knowing that he was no object of love among the Jews, just before his death he tried to make sure that there would be weeping at the time of his funeral by leaving orders that many noble Jews should be captured and killed on that occasion (Aquinas, Commentary, nos. 235 and 238). Note also that people can become so accustomed to the mass killing of humans that it becomes no longer noteworthy, such as is the case with tens of millions of human infants in the womb that are in these days being slaughtered therapeutically with no notice from historians and the secular press. Tropologically, these Holy Innocents represent all of the martyrs killed in their humility and innocence of heart, who in their lifetimes had turned and become spiritually like little children (Matt 18:3) (Bede in the Catena, p. 83), and, in the allegory of numbers, the age of two years of the infants may represent tropologically the supernatural virtues of love for God and neighbor (Aquinas, Commentary, no. 224), or anagogically, the intended attack of the Devil against the life of the incarnate Son of God, since the number two can represent the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.

18. Matt 2:18. A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and great mourning: Rachel, bewailing her children, and she would not be comforted, because they are not. Literal sense. This prophecy in Jeremiah 31:15 is again a prophecy of the past, because it refers literally to the earlier massacre of virtually all of the able-bodied men of the tribe of Benjamin as narrated in Judges 20 (Aquinas, Commentary, no. 226). But, according to St. Thomas, the prophecy may have had a twofold future fulfillment. It may first have been fulfilled literally when the descendents of Benjamin and of the other tribes of Israel were being led away into the Babylonian captivity, because on the way they passed through Bethlehem near Ramah, where Rachel was buried (Gen 35:19), and she is predicted here metaphorically to weep for them as they go by. More to the point, the prophecy, he says, refers to the slaughter of the innocents. The word Ramah means “on high,” and the passage says that a voice was heard on high, namely, the voice of Rachel. But Leah, not Rachel, was the mother of Judah and his descendents, so why would Rachel be singled out as weeping? St. Jerome considers that the killing spilled over from Judah into the territory of Benjamin. Augustine suggests that Rachel wept for her sister at the loss of her sister’s descendents, because the killers came from the territory of Benjamin, and they were thus incurring eternal damnation (Aquinas, Commentary, no. 227). Or perhaps Rachel is described as weeping because, in a true sense, she represents all Israelite women, since she was the principal and predilect wife of Jacob. In the allegorical sense, Rachel, whose name means “ewe,” is the sheep who weeps over the slaughter of her little lambs.

19. Matt 2:20-2:22. . . . go into the land of Israel. . . . But, hearing that Archelaus reigned in Judea in place of Herod his father, he was afraid to go there: and, being warned in sleep, (he) retired into the district of Galilee. Literal sense. Form-critics question the reality of this event partly on the ground that an angel of God, if there were any such, would not logically have commanded Joseph first to go to Judea and then afterwards have changed the destination to Galilee. But the passage does not say that Joseph was ordered first to go to Judea and afterwards to Galilee. He was first ordered to go into the land of Israel, which, in the general sense, includes both Judea and Galilee, and then, more specifically, to go into Galilee (Augustine in the Catena, p. 89). On a more general level, mainline form-critics, using faulty historical methods, deny the existence of angels and call into question the historical truth of the whole second chapter of Matthew.6 Form-critics reason in a circle in the sense that they first assume that the supernatural events recorded in the Bible couldn’t have taken place, and then they reason from this premise that they didn’t take place.

20. Matt 2:23. and he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled that he would be called a Nazorean. Literal sense. Some English translations render the final words of this verse as a direct quotation, e.g., “He shall be called a Nazorean,” or “He shall be called a Nazarene,” basing their wording upon the fact that in classical Greek the word hoti is often used (pleonastically) to set off a direct quotation. But this same Greek word is equally used to introduce an indirect citation, as in this case where Matthew is not referring to something said by one prophet, but rather by “the prophets.” Two Greek words have often been translated into English by the one word “Nazarene.” The word Nazoraios (Nazorean) appears exactly thirteen times in Matthew, John, Luke, and Acts, while its counterpart Nazarenos appears six times in Mark and Luke. These two Greek denominations seem to have been used interchangeably in common parlance to denote a person from Nazareth, but the word Nazoraios (Nazorean) does seem to have a particular meaning in some cases, and especially here in Matt 2:23. Thus, in answer to the objection that nowhere in the Old Testament is it stated that Jesus would be a Nazorean, Thomas Aquinas summarizes the speculations of some of the Fathers of the Church where he says that this prophecy can be gathered from several places, such as a) if the word Nazoraios is understood to mean “holy,” that is, consecrated and set apart (from the Hebrew root nazir (and a Nazirite was a “holy man”): then the prophecy occurs in Daniel 9:24, where it says that the holy one be anointed, or b) if the word Nazoraios is taken to mean “flowering” (from the Hebrew noun netser, meaning “branch” or “flower”), then the prophecy occurs in Isa 11:1, where it says that there shall go forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots; again in Cant 2:1, where it is written I am the flower of the field and the lily of the valleys (Aquinas, Commentary, no. 240). Compare these with Zech 6:12: Behold the man whose name is the branch, for he shall grow up in his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord. William F. Albright, in his thoroughgoing research into the possible origin of the name Nazareth (nazret), concluded that, in view of the linguistic phenomenon of “consonant shift,” either nzr or netser could be the original root. A third etymological possibility, also from the root nzr is the noun nezer, meaning “crown.” The tiara of the high priest of the Old Testament, on which was inscribed “holiness of the Lord,” was called nezer, that is, “crown of holiness” (Cornelius, p. 91B). Thus to David in Psalm 131 (132):17-18: There will I make a horn to sprout for David: I have prepared a lamp for my anointed. His enemies I will clothe with confusion, but upon him shall his crown (nizri) flourish.

21. Matt 2:23. Spiritual sense. It seems that the reader of Matt 2:23 is being challenged to find a profound spiritual meaning behind the surface of the text, and this is illustrated by the way in which the four preceding prophecies have been cited. In the prophecy from Isa 7:14 in Matt 1:23, Jesus, by reason of his virginal conception and by the presence of his divine Person, is holy, not only in that He is saturated with the grace of the Holy Spirit, but also because He is consecrated and set apart from the sinfulness of his Adamite brothers and from the political and cultural milieu of the evil kings of Judah. And this is confirmed in the prophecy from Micah 5:2 in Matt 2:6, in that Jesus was not called to be a political or military leader of Israel, but rather a spiritual leader in a new and better way. The prophecy from Hosea 11:1 in Matt 2:15 refers literally to the Exodus of the Chosen People out of Egypt, and it goes on to say: The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning incense to idols, but Matthew here sees it fulfilled figuratively in this sense that the original Israel (Jacob) was a prototype of Jesus, and the promise of God to Jacob and his seed was fulfilled in Jesus (cf. Gal 3:16). The prophecy from Jeremiah 31:15, as mentioned above, applies literally to the biological mothers of these Holy Innocents of Bethlehem and its surroundings, but it has also a spiritual fulfillment, as is made clear by the continuing words of Jeremiah in verse 16: Thus says the Lord: ‘Let your voice cease from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work,” says the Lord, ‘and they shall return out of the land of the enemy. And there is hope for your last end,’ says the Lord, ‘and your children shall return to their own borders.’ Thus, in the allegory of Christ and his Church, Rachel weeping prefigures the Church weeping for these her slain children but comforted by hope in their future resurrection (Rabanus in the Catena). Then, there is the special allegory of the Blessed Virgin Mary as Mother of the Church. As Jeremiah goes on in verse 22 of the same chapter to predict that a woman shall encompass a man, so the Virgin Mary shall literally conceive without the use of male seed the God-Man who would become the Lamb of God, so that in the special allegory of Mary, Rachel, whose name means ewe, may well prefigure in this prophecy the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Lamb and Mother of the Church, the sheep who gave birth to the Lamb of God, and who wept, indeed, for her lost children during her earthly life but is now happily with them in Heaven.

22. The spiritual interpretation of these four preceding prophecies in Matt 1-2 gives some indication of the spiritual sense of Matt 2:23. In speculating on the possible Hebrew roots of the name Nazareth, the notion of ‘holy’ (from nazir) is paramount. Literally speaking, Jesus is a Nazarene, a man from Nazareth. Allegorically speaking, Jesus is a Nazorean, the “holy man,” par excellence, in the sense that he has been preeminently “set aside,” and “crowned with holiness” as well as “conse­crated to the Lord” from his mother’s womb in many ways, such as, in his divine origin, in his virginal conception, in his hypostatic union, in his heavenward vocation, in his sacrificial mission, and in his saturation with the holiness of the Holy Spirit. Behind Matt 2:23 and behind the whole infancy narrative of Matthew is the allegory of Christ and of his Church. This is an extended metaphor which is not an analogy contrived after the fact, but is rather a spiritual dimension instilled by God from the beginning into the history of the events and into the meaning of the proph­ecies. Jesus was to be a man from Nazareth who fulfilled and exemplified the supposed (popular) origin of its name. Related to this fulfillment was the mission of Jesus to establish a spiritual Kingdom of God distinct from the common Jewish understanding of the same, which envisioned an earthly kingdom in which there was no distinction between the land, the people, and the religion.

23. The two more likely roots of the name Nazareth are complementary to one another, because whoever is detached from earthly pleasures is also flowering with virtue (Jerome, in Cornelius, p. 92B). Did Matthew add this prophetic reason for returning to Nazareth, or was this reason already in the story that Matthew received? Either case is possible. We do know that Nazareth was Mary’s home town and that Jesus was conceived in Nazareth. We know also that Joseph, having been warned in a dream, went on from Judea to Nazareth. It is not out of the question that Joseph had been thinking of settling in Bethlehem or Jerusalem in view of the fact that Jesus was the Messiah, the great future King of the Jews, but, after having been advised in a dream by an angel and after discussing this matter with Mary, he came to see the prophetic value of bringing the Child to Nazareth as it is expressed in Matt 2:23. Note in this regard that in Luke 1:35 the Angel Gabriel prophesied to the Virgin Mary concerning Jesus: He will be called holy. If the word used by the angel for “holy” was a derivative of nazir, then by this the reference to “the prophets” in Matt 2:23 is doubly confirmed.

24. Matt 2:23. The Tropological sense of this verse regards the appropriation of the truth and holiness of Jesus the Nazorean to the minds and hearts of his followers, who carry their crosses after Him on their way to heavenly glory, and the supernatural virtues that flower in their souls. All of the members of the Kingdom of God and of the Mystical Body of Christ have been set apart from the spirit of this world by their vocation to eternal life, and so they are all called to be Nazoreans of the Holy Spirit, and this title belongs in a particular manner to those who dedicate themselves to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience. “The word ‘Galilee’ means ‘transmigration’ and ‘Nazareth’ means ‘flower,’ because the more the Church transmigrates to heavenly things, so much the more does she abound in the flower of virtues’ (Rabanus, as quoted in Cornelius, p. 91A). Or the word “Galilee” means “circle” (Young’s Analytical Concordance) or “turning of the wheel” (Cruden’s Complete Concordance), because the more the faithful turn from earthly to heavenly things, so much the more do they abound in the flower of virtues. Again, the Virgin Mary is a descendant of David, and, in the supernatural fertility of her virginal soul, she is the Virgin of Virgins. The prophecy in Matt 2:23 was also fulfilled in her in the sense, not only that the word Nazareth is feminine in gender, but especially that Mary too was “consecrated to the Lord” from her mother’s womb (cf. Num 6:2), and she was “set apart” by reason of her immaculate conception free from any taint of Original Sin. She lived a life full of grace and virtue in her vocation to prayer and virginal chastity. Thus, on a spiritual level, Jesus was a Nazorean also in the sense that He was “from the Virgin Mary,” who received Him into her body and into her heart. This further relationship of the name Nazorean pertains to the special tropology of the Blessed Virgin Mary.


1 For an exposition of the framework of the Four Senses according to St. Thomas Aquinas, see Thomas P. Kuffel, “St. Thomas’ Method of Biblical Exegesis,” in Living Tradition 38 (November 1991).

2 St. Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea, English translation, vol. I, part I (Albany, N.Y.: Preserving Christian Publications, 1993), p. 70.

3 St. Thomas Aquinas, Super Evangelium sancti Matthaei lectura (Turin: Marietti, 1951), no. 162. This work has never been translated into English. For some further speculations on the star of Bethlehem by the Fathers of the Church, see Robert A. Sungenis, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, in The Catholic Apologetics Study Bible, vol 1 (Queenship Publishing, P.O. Box 220, Goleta, California 93116, A.D. 2003), pp. 209-215).

4 Cornelius a Lapide, Commentaria in Scripturam Sacram, edited by Augustinus Crampon (vol. 15 – on Sts. Matthew and Mark – Paris: Vivès, 1877). For an answer to the devastating form-critical analyses of Matt 2:23 by Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann, see J.F. McCarthy, “Really Called by the Prophets a Nazorean (Matt 2:23),” in Living Tradition 85 (January 2000). For a neo-patristic answer to Father Raymond Brown’s form-critical analysis of Matthew 2, see J.F. McCarthy, “Regarding the Background of Matthew 2, in Living Tradition 86.

5 Cf. W.F. Albright, “The names ‘Nazareth’ and ‘Nazoraean,’” in the Journal of Biblical Literature 65 (1946), pp. 399-400.

6 For fuller treatment of this prophecy in Matt 2:23, see the article, “Called by the Prophets a Nazorean (Matthew 2:23)” in Living Tradition 84 (November 1999). In paragraphs 15-17, I have listed 31 Old Testament parallels to these possible Hebrew roots of the names Nazareth and Nazorean.

Inaugural Mass in Latin According to the Ordinary Usage of the Roman Rite

Homily delivered at St Mary of Victories Church, Old St. Louis,
on February 10, 2008, First Sunday of Lent

by the celebrant, Fr. Brian Harrison, O.S.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

The beginning of Lent can always rightly be seen as the opening of a new chapter in our earthly pilgrimage towards that union with God, through his Son Jesus Christ, which is the true purpose of our existence. The Church gives us this special yearly opportunity to turn back to God with all our hearts, recognizing our weakness, our sinfulness, and yet, trusting with childlike simplicity and poverty of spirit in that merciful Father who will always tenderly welcome us as prodigal children, back to his house. Here in St. Louis, right at the beginning of this season wherein we humbly recognize the shame and tragedy of human sin, the full force of its bitter and deadly reality has struck us directly in the form of the dreadful massacre last Thursday that is still sending its shock waves round the entire nation.

In view of this need for each one of us personally to begin that new chapter in our spiritual lives, it seems fitting that in the spirit of quiet simplicity that marks the first Sunday in Lent, a new chapter is also quietly and modestly being opened today in the long history of St. Mary of Victories Church, by means of our inauguration of the only regular Sunday Mass of its kind being offered in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. As you all know, we are using the new rite for the Eucharistic liturgy, reformed after Vatican Council II, but celebrated in Latin, the Church’s ancient common language which manifests so well both her bimillennial heritage and her catholicity – her universality among all peoples and nations. Indeed, the Mass we celebrate here every Sunday at 9: 30 a.m. will be bringing St. Mary of Victories back to her roots in more ways than one. Not only will the language of worship be once again that in which all Masses were celebrated here for the first one hundred and twenty-five years of her existence, but her magnificent high altar, sanctified by the relics of dozens of great saints and raised by Pope Leo XIII in 1879 to the dignity of being a Privileged Altar, will once again be used regularly at this Mass after lying in disuse for nearly forty years. We will also be offering you, at Com­­munion time, the option of kneeling to receive the Lord’s Body, thus once again using these beautiful wooden altar rails for their original purpose.

This beautiful and venerable church in the heart of old St. Louis – the second oldest in the city after the Old Cathedral – was raised by the devotion of the city’s German immigrant community in 1843, under the guidance of the Most Rev. Peter Richard Kenrick, who in that same year began his more than half a century of distinguished service, first as bishop, then as the first archbishop, of St. Louis. The year 1843 also represents yet another link with the history of this church, one especially worth remembering as we begin this season dedicated to conversion and reconciliation. For in that year a young Redemptorist priest arrived in the United States from Germany to begin the traditional mission apostolate of that Order: the apostolate of converting sinners – of reconciling them with God and their brethren. His name was Fr. Francis Xavier Seelos, and he quickly gained a reputation, not only for his powerful and zealous preaching, but also for his outstanding kindness, graciousness, and holiness. From October 1st to 16th of 1865, he preached a mission right here in this church. That was just a few months after the terrible devastation of the Civil War had come to an end, when tension and bitterness between North and South, blacks and whites, were still running very deep. Fr. Seelos revealed the true, healing spirit of Christ in that situation, ministering with the same ardent charity to all, regardless of race, ethnic background or political persuasion. In 2000 he was declared Blessed by Pope John Paul II. There, against the south wall of our church that was graced for two weeks by the ministry of this saintly priest now reigning with Jesus in Heaven, you can see the altar and statue dedicated to him.

Let us return to reflect for a few more minutes on today’s Gospel – the Forty Days of our Lord’s fasting and temptations in the desert. I believe we can see a providential symbolic resonance to our new liturgical initiative here in St. Mary of Victories. In a few weeks’ time we will be beginning the fortieth year since Pope Paul VI’s historic Apostolic Constitution of April 3, 1969, promulgating the new post-Vatican-II rite of Mass – the rite we are using today (although slightly modified in the latest typical edition). Forty years, of course, is also a biblical period commemorated in the Church’s liturgy and traditional spirituality during Lent – the forty austere years in which the newly liberated people of Israel struggled through the desert in their pilgrimage toward the Promised Land.

Now, it has been noted over the centuries by some of our spiritual masters that the Church, as the Mystical Body of Christ, sometimes seems destined to share, or to relive, as it were, some of the trials that her Divine Head had to endure during his own life on earth. And as Jesus exposed his human nature to the effects of its weakness and vulnerability to temptation during those forty days, I believe we can say that an honest gaze at the life of the Church over these last forty years also shows all too clearly the weaknesses of her human dimension, and her own vulnerability to severe temptations by the Enemy. Especially in the developed Western countries that had been the heartland of the Faith for many centuries, the renewal and revitalization of the Church, so confidently expected as fruits of the Council by Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, has failed to come about. Although some positive results of Vatican II can indeed be noted, the general picture has been decidedly bleak. Mass attendance, conversions to Catholicism, and vocations to the priesthood and religious life have all sharply declined; doctrinal confusion and dissent have proliferated; and rebellion against the Pope and the church’s holy disciplinary laws has become commonplace. Within a few years of the Council, Pope Paul, whose discourses before and during the Council were so full of optimism, found himself obliged to lament publicly that a great crisis of faith had swept into the Church, along with what he famously described as “the smoke of Satan” infiltrating the temple of God.

This, in fact, was the situation that explains the existence of the community presenting this Mass here for you today, the Oblates of Wisdom. Most of you will not be too familiar with who we are, and so I will take this opportunity for a brief word of introduction. We are not a religious order of the classic kind; in fact our men are all juridically diocesan priests. By around the end of Paul VI’s pontificate, when the post-conciliar crisis was arguably reaching its most critical point, Msgr. John McCarthy had learnt by experience that many good priests, amid the waves of fashionable adaptation to worldly standards, were finding themselves isolated and marginalized in their respective dioceses simply because they were remaining faithful to the Holy Father and to the Church’s orthodox doctrine, sound discipline, and holy traditions.

Monsignor was given the discernment, however, to realize that the solution to this problem was not to react, as some did, into a radical and disobedient form of ‘traditionalism’ that further wounded the unity of the Church by setting up parallel structures and movements in defiance of her legitimate pastors from the Pope on down. Rather, he adopted the approach that Benedict XVI has now called a “hermeneutic of continuity” in understanding and applying the directives of the Second Vatican Council. That is, an effort to underline, in both theory and practice, the substantial organic unity of the post-conciliar Church with her own great bimillennial Tradition. Thus, in 1979, Monsignor McCarthy founded the Society of the Oblates of Wisdom as a fraternity of diocesan priests who, while remaining obediently in their existing pastoral assignments in different dioceses, could seek mutual strengthening and sanctification by networking with each other and adopting a common rule of life. This would be concretized by a new kind of private vow: a vow to pursue divine Wisdom, at a time when so many false prophets within and without the Church were wreaking havoc by the diffusion of a spurious wisdom masquerading as “progress” and “renewal”. Although this Mass today is our first really public activity in the archdiocese, it is now actually two-and-a-half years since Archbishop Raymond Burke, a valued patron of our community, graciously allowed us to establish what is now our central house and Study Center here in the rectory of St. Mary of Victories.

From the beginning, a special feature of the Oblates’ charism in the pursuit of true wisdom has been a response to an often-underestimated problem that was, however, emphasized by Paul VI in his 1970 Apostolic Exhortation Quinque iam Anni, commenting on the very mixed results of the first very troubled five years after the Council. Lamenting the outbreak of an ecclesial epidemic that he described as “a Christianity cut off from the unbroken Tradition which links it to the faith of the Apostles”, Pope Paul added by way of example, “Even the divine authority of Scripture is not left unquestioned by a radical demythologization”. As Oblates of Wisdom, we have as one of our main emphases what we call a ‘neo-patristic’ approach to Scripture studies which upholds the authentic and perennial doctrine of the Church on the inerrancy and historical value of both Old and New Testaments.

The Sacred Liturgy, too, has constantly been one of our main concerns as Oblates of Wisdom. Probably no aspect of the Church’s 40-year ‘temptation in the desert’ that we contemplate at the beginning of Lent, 2008, has impacted more directly on ordinary members of the faithful than the temptation to subvert the holiness of our worship. In his Letter to the Bishops that accompanied last year’s Motu Proprio recognizing the Traditional Latin Mass as the “extraordinary” form of the Roman rite, Pope Benedict has frankly acknowledged this decades-long plague of false adaptation and so-called liturgical “creativity”. It is interesting to note, as we consider today’s Gospel, that, although Satan repeatedly challenges our Lord to display his divinity in direct and spectacular ways, the temptations are really, at the same time, an effort to get our Lord to fall into excessively and inappropriately human ways of thinking that would mitigate the austere demands of his true mission and thus effectively nullify it. “It’s only human to feel hungry! Come on, now, why make such a big deal of all this fasting? Change these stones into bread!” “It’s only human to see the beauty and attractiveness of all that this modern world and its kingdoms have to offer. I can help you with that! Think of all the good you can do with that closer involvement with the world!” “Surely it’s only human – it’s only natural! – for you to want everyone to recognize you for who you really are. And here’s an easy way you can do that: go and throw yourself off the top of the temple in Jerusalem with the angels appearing to grab you safely in mid-air in the sight of all the people! Wow! The media will lap it up! You’ll have it made! Mission accomplished! Everyone will just have to believe you’re the Son of God!”

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I would suggest that precisely these kinds of excessively “humanizing” innovations have also been the great temptation we have endured during forty years of liturgical change. Why, isn’t it only human and natural to eliminate that dead language, Latin, completely from our worship, so as to have every single word readily comprehensible in our own language? Won’t it be more humanly attractive to use more currently popular styles of music at Mass, and get rid once and for all of that weird old Gregorian chant from the Dark Ages that has no catchy melody and no clear beat to it? Isn’t it humanly more attractive to be pluralistic in our worship, and offer a wide variety of optional ceremonies, prayers and rubrics at Mass? After all, our culture is now one of creativity and self-serve supermarkets! Won’t our worship be more humanly attractive in this age of dialogue if we have the priest presider face to face with the people through the whole of Mass, so that even during the consecration he can be relating to them directly more as a real human person by his facial expressions, gestures and eye contact?

I could go on with many more examples, but I think you get the general picture. Indeed, I am sure you know it all too well. There are just two points I would emphasize. First, Vatican Council II’s Sacred Constitution on the Liturgy did not call for the far-reaching innovations – both licit and illicit – that we have seen in our worship in these last forty years. And secondly, the changes in any case have not produced the effects that were hoped for. In our Western countries, above all, a far lower percentage of Catholics now attend Mass regularly than before the new liturgy came in. And even among those that do attend, reliable and repeated surveys show that our ‘over-humanized’ liturgies have been accompanied, not surprisingly, by an over-humanization of our faith in the sublime Eucharistic mystery itself. An alarmingly large proportion of contemporary Catholics have practically no knowledge or belief in the essential sacrificial character of the Mass, and do not even believe in the great mysterium fidei, the Real Presence of the true Body and Blood of Christ under the appearances of bread and wine. A humanized, Protestantized style of worship has led all too many to a humanized, Protestantized belief that the Eucharistic bread and wine merely symbolize the Lord’s Body and Blood.

In doing what we can to help address this critical situation in accordance with our own charism as Oblates of Wisdom, we have preferred not to follow those groups who have opted, with the Church’s blessing, to use exclusively the Traditional Latin rites for Mass and the other sacraments, although it goes without saying that we admire and respect them. Some of us Oblates, including myself, also frequently use the Traditional or ‘extraordinary’ form of the rite, especially in private celebration. Our choice in accord with the idea of a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’, has been to emphasize, rather, that the new rite of Mass can be lawfully celebrated with traditional options, in a way that shows the kind of organic harmony with the great tradition of the Roman rite liturgy that the Fathers of Vatican Council II originally had in mind. That is why the red booklets in your hands today are very appropriately entitled “The Mass of Vatican II”. This form of worship maintains both the key elements of the Roman rite tradition, while at the same time incorporating the three principal legitimate developments called for by the Council: a moderate use of the vernacular (in our Mass, the opening greeting, Scripture readings and prayer of the faithful); a greater active participation of the faithful (we cordially invite you all to join in singing and reciting all the Latin parts of the ordinary as indicated in your red booklets); and finally, the much wider selection of Scripture readings that the Church has now made available with the new Lectionary.

We hope, naturally, that if you find that our style of Eucharistic celebration today helps you to come closer to God, some of you will become weekly worshippers with us. However, we realize that most of you will have regular commitments with your own parishes, and we don’t want to pull you away from that. However, I would like to conclude with this invitation: Please spread the word among your friends about our new Novus Ordo Latin Mass, and perhaps try to join us, say, once a month here at St. Mary of Victories at 9:30 a.m. This will be important for another vital reason. Repeatedly in recent years there has loomed the danger of having to close down this beautiful and historic church because of the burden of costs, now that almost nobody lives nearby and there is no longer a regular parish here. (The St. Louis Hungarian community, to whose patron, St. Stephen of Hungary, the church is also now dedicated, has the only other public Mass celebrated here in the course of each week.) Closing down this venerable house of God would be a heart-breaking decision, my dear friends; so please remember that your generosity with collection money from this new regular Sunday Mass will be important in helping to keep St. Mary of Victories open and active. And finally, remember that by supporting a Mass like this which combines, we believe, the best elements of the old and new ways of offering the Roman Rite liturgy, you are worshipping, as it were, at the heart and center of the Church, manifesting her subsisting continuity and helping towards the recovery of her deeper unity, at a time when divergent factions within the Mystical Body remain in urgent need of reconciliation. In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

St. Mary of Victories Church

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