The two great saints of Antioch

The Feast of Saint Luke the Evangelist

The 17th and 18th of October combine to celebrate the greatness of the gifts that the See of Antioch, Saint Ignatius and Saint Luke, gave to the Church.  Antakya is now a dusty and forgotten town in the region of Hatay near the Turkish Syrian border, but in the first century of the Incarnation it was a crossroads of the world and the third city of the Roman Empire after Rome herself and Alexandria.  She was the first great city outside of Palestine to receive the Gospel and she returned much fruit: the Evangelist who gave us the most well written of the Gospels and one of the great early martyrs, who himself knew the Apostles and left us a series of letters written on his way to martyrdom in Rome that give us a vivid portrait of the life Church’s life in the generation that followed the death of that first generation who had seen the deeds and heard the words of Christ themselves.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch was martyred in Rome under the Emperor Trajan likely in the first decade of the second century of the Incarnation.  He is thought to have been born around the middle of the first century and ancient tradition tells us that he was brought from Antioch to Rome on the orders of the Emperor Trajan himself to be martyred in the Colosseum sometime in the first years of the second century.  His seven letters written to the churches of Ephesus, of Magnesia, of Tralles, of Rome, of Philadelphia, of Smyrna, and to his friend Polycarp give a great understanding of the life of the Church during those years immediately following the end of the apostolic age.

In his letter to the Church of Smyrna chapter 8 Ignatius gives us the first written record of the phrase “Catholic Church,” saying “wherever the Catholic Church is there is Jesus Christ.”  He echoes here both the words of Jesus Christ in Mt. 18:20 that he undoubtedly heard from the apostles and St. Paul’s theology of the Church as Mystical Body of Christ.  And the familiarity with which he uses the words “Catholic Church” indicates that his audience already at the beginning of the second century was quite familiar with the concept.  In this chapter he also gives voice for the first time in the written record of the idea of a Catholic living in a particular diocese being loyal to the bishop of that diocese thus providing concrete early support for a concept that has governed the life of the Church ever since.

In chapter 7 of that same letter to the Smyrnaeans Ignatius calls the Eucharist the “flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.”  This is the same theme as that which had only been written down a few years before in Saint John’s Gospel, chapter 6 by our modern rendering.  And it is also unsurprising since both Ignatius and his friend Polycarp were reputed in later generations to have been hearers of the Apostle John.  So yes the idea of the Real Presence of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament also goes back to the beginning.  It really is remarkable to read Saint Ignatius’ collection of letters to see how many of the beliefs that are central to the life of the Church today were equally central in the generation that followed the apostles.  The collection can be found here.

What can we say about Saint Luke?  He is universally regarded by the ancient sources of the third Gospel which bears his name; he is additionally the author of the Acts of the Apostles, the only volume that gives us a history of the early Church from the Ascension of our Lord stretching to the years just before the martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul in Rome; and he is mentioned in several of Saint Paul’s epistles.

Saint Luke begins his Gospel with the acknowledgement that others had written accounts of the life and doings of our Lord before him, but that he felt the need to go over all of the facts from the beginning and render his own to the mysterious figure Theophilus.  He speaks of hearing the story of Jesus Christ from “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” who had preceded him.  The first of these must have been Saint Paul.  He acknowledges himself as a frequent companion to Saint Paul in the Acts of the Apostles, including in the famous ‘we’ sections which are the only first person narrative accounts in all of Sacred Scripture including the journey of Paul from Jerusalem to Rome, the place of his eventual martyrdom.  Saint Paul offers vary little biographical information concerning our Lord in his epistles but if you ever wonder what the story he told to his hearers about the life of Christ was it would be wise to consult Saint Luke’s Gospel.

But there were other eyewitnesses too.  Saint Luke was not of Jewish origin, but born a pagan: the ancient sources are virtually unanimous that he was born a pagan in the city of Antioch.  In fact his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles are the only books of Sacred Scripture written by someone who was not a blood descendant of Abraham.  And it also seems that he spoke with the Mother of God herself, the Blessed Virgin Mary.  He is the only Evangelist who gives us an account of the Annunciation, of the birth of John the Baptist, of the shepherds in the field at Bethlehem, and of the old priest Simeon and his prophecy to the Immaculate Virgin Mother of God at the presentation of our Lord in the Temple.  He gives us the great hymns of the Magnificat, the Benedictus (the Canticle of Zechariah), and the Nunc Dimmitis the canticle of old Simeon when he laid eyes on our Lord.  All of these hymns are still used in the Divine Office of the Western Church more than nineteen centuries after Saint Luke’s Gospel was written.

And I would like to stress once more Saint Luke’s relationship with Saint Paul.  It has been said by more than a few scholars that all of Christian theology since has merely been a footnote to Saint Paul.  There is much to recommend this point of view.  And if you want to understand the story that was the source for Paul’s dazzling theology it would be wise to meditate on the Gospel that the great saint and Evangelist of the now decrepit See of Antioch once gave us, and to meditate on the relationship between the concepts illustrated in Paul’s epistles and the stories told in the Gospel of Saint Luke.  And pray for the resurrection of Antioch.

Pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.  And join the Rosary Confraternity!



What is Islam Part 4: The Mother of God in Islam

The Feast of Saints Joachim and Anne

The Second Vatican Council in its declaration on the relationship of the Catholic Church with non-Christian religions Nostra Aetate declared that “The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems… (who) also honor Mary, His (Jesus’) Virgin Mother, and at times they also call on her with devotion.”  That is true, as far as it goes, but incomplete.  There are very important differences in the understanding of the Virgin Mary’s role in human history which reflect on the entirely different worldview that the Catholic has regarding his Creator, his relationship with that Creator, and his destiny.

The Qur’an relates the story of the Annunciation twice, both in sura 3 (The Family of Imran) and in sura 19 (Maryam).  Both of these episodes reveal a strong familiarity with Saint Luke’s account (they both begin with the message of the angel to Zechariah concerning John the Baptist and an altered version of his subsequent dumbness) of the same event, but both are also a manipulation and a strategic mutilation of this event and its significance for the human race.

The accounts in sura 3 and sura 19 are slightly different but for our purposes in this brief post they serve the same function.

Here is the account given in the Qur’an in sura 19, Maryam (16-22):

وَاذْكُرْ فِي الْكِتَابِ مَرْيَمَ إِذِ انتَبَذَتْ مِنْ أَهْلِهَا مَكَانًا شَرْقِيًّا ﴿١٦فَاتَّخَذَتْ مِن دُونِهِمْ حِجَابًا فَأَرْسَلْنَا إِلَيْهَا رُوحَنَا فَتَمَثَّلَ لَهَا بَشَرًا سَوِيًّا ﴿١٧ قَالَتْ إِنِّي أَعُوذُ بِالرَّحْمَـٰنِ مِنكَ إِن كُنتَ تَقِيًّا ﴿١٨قَالَ إِنَّمَا أَنَا رَسُولُ رَبِّكِ لِأَهَبَ لَكِ غُلَامًا زَكِيًّا ﴿١٩ قَالَتْ أَنَّىٰ يَكُونُ لِي غُلَامٌ وَلَمْ يَمْسَسْنِي بَشَرٌ وَلَمْ أَكُ بَغِيًّا ﴿٢٠ قَالَ كَذَٰلِكِ قَالَ رَبُّكِ هُوَ عَلَيَّ هَيِّنٌ ۖ وَلِنَجْعَلَهُ آيَةً لِّلنَّاسِ وَرَحْمَةً مِّنَّا ۚ وَكَانَ أَمْرًا مَّقْضِيًّا ﴿٢١ فَحَمَلَتْهُ فَانتَبَذَتْ بِهِ مَكَانًا قَصِيًّ

English translation by Maulana Muhammad Ali

And mention Mary in the Book.  When she drew aside from her family to an eastern place.  So she screened herself from them.  Then We sent Our spirit and it appeared to her as a well-made man.

 She said: I flee for refuge from thee to the Beneficent, if thou art one guarding against evil.

 He said I am only bearer of a message of the Lord: That I will give thee a pure boy.

 She said: How can I have a son and no mortal has yet touched me nor have I been unchaste?

 He said: So (it will be).  Thy Lord says: It is easy to Me; and that We may make him a sign to men and a mercy from Us.  And it is a matter decreed.

 Then she conceived him; and withdrew with him to a remote place.

Notice anything missing there?  Let’s take a look at Saint Luke’s (1: 26-38) account of the same event written more than half a millennium before in the Douay-Rheims Challoner translation:

 And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.  And the angle being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.

 Who having heard, was troubled at his saying, and thought with herself what manner of salutation this should be.

 And the angel said to her: Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God.  Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus.  He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob forever.  And of his kingdom there shall be no end.

 And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man?

 And the angel answering, said to her: the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee.  And therefore also the Holy which shall  be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.  And behold they cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with here that is called barren:  because no word shall be impossible with God.

 And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.

Just looking at these two passages alone, one from the Qur’an and the other from the Gospel of Luke, one can see immediately the depth and richness of the Catholic Faith compared to the paltriness of Islam.  In Saint Luke’s account of the Annunciation the depth of the human being’s relationship with God that comes to its fullness in the person of Jesus Christ is in full view while in the Qur’an things happen in a strange and nonsensical way: the spirit of Allah appearing to Mary in some eastern place as a well made man?  What is that?  But we are getting beyond my point here.

What is missing from the account in the Qur’an?  Many things, but one thing in particular: the Blessed Mother’s fiat, the most significant event in human history.  Because here it was that a choice was made.  By the Virgin Mother of God’s yes to God she reversed the choice of Adam and of Eve and made it possible for each one of us to make the same choice each day of our lives.  Her yes brought a new world into being and made all of us sons of God by adoption through her son our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Angelus prayer reminds us that the Blessed Mother’s fiat brought about the Incarnation of God in human flesh and the Redemption of mankind.  And it is a reminder to all of us that our way of participating in our own salvation and that of mankind is to issue our own fiat to the will of God each day of our lives.

This is what the Qur’an denies.  In the Qur’an the answer of the angel to the virgin’s question is simply something along the lines of “Allah can do whatever he wants.”  She neither accepts nor rejects this scenario but conceives and withdraws to a desert place.

And this is Islam’s view of the universe.  Allah is an arbitrary god, giving and taking away often for no particular reason.  Human beings must follow the law as revealed to them in the Qur’an but there is zero sense of any cooperation with the divine will.  Just as they reject the divine Nature of Jesus Christ, in fact because they do this, there is no possibility of a human being sharing in the life of the Holy Trinity because for them there is no Trinity.  For Catholics God is relationship.  For Muslims Allah is necessarily solitary and alone, all powerful, aloof and distant.  In truth Allah must be a dead god, because he has not the life of relationship in him.  Muslims hope to achieve some worldly paradise after death at the whim of Allah but can never hope to share in his life because, in the end, he has none.

Pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.  And join the Rosary Confraternity!