– Marco Carvalho
“What we find in the Bible is a deep dialogue between theology and anthropology”
The Catholic Church dedicates the current liturgical year to the Gospel of Saint Luke and the Diocese of Macau has invited a very well known biblical specialist, Carmelite priest Armindo Vaz, to explain what distinguishes Luke’s Gospel from the other three. A visiting professor at the University of Saint Joseph, Father Vaz says that the Evangelist – the only biblical author who was not a Hebrew – offers a very particular perspective on the life of Christ and the salvation history proposed by Jesus. The legacy of the Gospel of Saint Luke will be discussed at the Cathedral of the Nativity of Our Lady at the end of the month. Armindo Vaz explains why Luke’s Gospel is still relevant today.
We see theology and theological studies being sought after by a growing number of laymen and non-ordained Catholics. What does this trend says about the future of the Church? Does it belong to lay people?
Yes, undoubtedly. We are witnessing this trend ever since the Second Vatican Council was organized. Laymen are showing a renewed interest on theology and on the Bible and this is a phenomenon that happened on the Council’s recommendation. The Council has invited the Catholic to read the Holy Scriptures regularly. Laymen understood that reading the Bible is an important task. They felt and still feel that life cannot be reduced to materiality, to the act of managing and taking care of our earthly endeavours. They have realized that there’s more to life. That life needs to have a meaning. Not any meaning, but a transcendental one. The Holy Scriptures and theology will help them to attain that meaning. We are fully convicted that the future of the Church belongs to laymen. The last few Popes made that purpose very clear. Even though they are not ordained ministers, their role is of utmost importance for the life of the Church. They need, nevertheless, to grasp the message of Christ and the Gospel to fulfil their role as accurately as possible. Laymen need to understand that their contribution to the transmission of the faith, both at home and in society, is essential for the Church to progress. Without them, it can’t reach in a capillary way those who need faith the most.
The Bible is said to be the most published book ever. Is it also the most read? The Catholics … do they know the Bible as they should?
The Bible still is, as you were saying, the most purchased, the most read and the most translated and people are aware there are some very good reasons for that to happen. Its quite obvious that we owe a lot to the classics, be they Greek or be they Latin, but we also know that the Bible dialogues very well with classical literature, namely the Greek and Latin literatures. This is something that still happens today. The classic masterpieces try to explain human life and the Bible wants to do just the same thing. The Bible is important for all mankind – and not only for believers – to the extent that its authors tried to understand human history in the light of the Divine, in the light of transcendence. They tried to understand the events in human history under God’s light, by noticing how he intervenes. He doesn’t act in an obvious, interventionist way, but by faith. This same faith made the Biblical authors feel that God is part of this world and this world wouldn’t be anything without him. What we find in the Bible is, actually, a deep dialogue between theology and anthropology: a dialogue between a conception of God that begins with the human being and a conception of the human being that begins with God. The Bible gave us the highest possible idea about the human being and this starts in page one of the Bible, in which men is said to have been created in the image of God. This is the higher and most noble way of understanding human existence. We have to understand that we are witnessing faith at work whenever we say He made men in his own image. The Bible sets a dialogue between these two protagonists: God on one side and the human being in the other.
The Biblical authors understood the importance of God in men’s very own existence and they made sure they realized that right from the beginning of the Bible. I would say that the Bible is a conception of human history under the light of God. That’s the reason why it begins by describing the creation of the world and the creation of humanity and ends with the description of its end. From the outset of the first chapter of the Book of Genesis up to the Book of the Apocalypse, we can devise a positive tension in human history. A history which is seen by the biblical authors as a permeated history, impregnated with the continual presence of God. There is, in the Bible, a great buoyancy, in which God is seen as an actor. He is seen as a real actor, although spiritual and invisible, one that gives purpose to human existence. The entire human history is told between these two great books, Genesis and the Apocalypse, a history that is impregnated all over with the action of God himself.
Is Biblical exegesis sufficiently cultivated by the Catholic Church? Many Catholics seem to have a somehow superficial knowledge of the Word of God and there are many that look to the Holy Scriptures as if they were some sort of esoteric knowledge. Is the Church promoting a deeper knowledge of the Bible? Or should the Vatican do even more?
It certainly is. Some of the last Popes – Pius XII and Paul VI, but mainly John Paul II and Benedict XVI – gave particular relevance to the techniques, the rules, the principles and the methodologies accordingly, to which Sacred Scripture should be read and understood. The Church has taught us how to properly read the Gospels, so we can avoid being entrapped in a literal reading of the Holy Scriptures. The Bible should not be read as if everything that is narrated had actually happened as it is described there. We can’t read the Bible this way. We will fall in a quagmire of fundamentalism if we do so. I recognize this still happens a lot and it doesn’t happen only among Protestant believers, but also among Catholics. We still find many that believe that everything that is within the Bible is true. They are not wrong, but they often see the message of the Bible in a literal way. The Biblical exegesis methods proposed by the Church require from us a certain accuracy and we should be able to understand that the Bible is not history because it is not historically accurate. The Bible is literature …
Literature with an important message, nevertheless …
Exactly. It is sacred literature. The Bible, as I was saying tells a sacred story, a story that is impregnated by the very own spirit of God. The Biblical exegesis should be able to bring to the surface the spiritual and human message of each and every passage. What we should be looking at is the spiritual message hidden in each text. We should try to understand what those texts meant when the author wrote them, because the author was trying to convey his own faith. On one hand, we need to understand the original meaning of the text, but also – and mainly – the author’s intention. On the other hand, we also need to devise the extent to which the Bible and the Biblical text will help us to live our lives nowadays. The challenges we face are obviously different from the challenges people had to face two thousand years or one thousand years ago.
You were talking about fundamentalism. The Catholic Church has changed a lot since the Second Vatican Council and the challenges that it faces are also very different … In Europe we are witnessing some very unusual trends: the number of believers that take part in Masses which are celebrated in Latin is increasing. Is this sort of orthodoxy a normal response to the challenges the Church faces? Or there’s a certain nostalgia that the Vatican should be aware of?
Well, we have to understand that the Catholic Church, despite the existence of dogmas and the guidance that it conveys, doesn’t try to force the Catholics to live faith exactly the same way. We need to recognize and to understand there are different ways of living our Christian faith. Those different ways – for instance, to go to a Mass celebrated in Latin – are seen by those believers as a legitimate and appropriate way for them to express themselves as children of God. Should we consider them fundamentalist? I don’t think we can call this fundamentalism. I would call them different ways of praying. To be a fundamentalist would be, for instance, to take the Holy Scriptures at word and to interpret the Gospels, for example, as if they were a biography of Jesus or history itself. They aren’t. That is fundamentalism. It is this kind of fundamentalism that we should avoid.
You are in Macau to teach at the University of Saint Joseph, but you will also deliver a presentation on the Gospel of Saint Luke. What makes his Gospel different?
I was asked to deliver a presentation on the evangelist that is being celebrated by the Church on the current liturgical year. This year, the Church is celebrating Saint Luke and I will produce a very generic presentation on Luke’s Gospel, where I will try to show the particular characteristics and specificities that we will find on it when compared with the remaining Gospels. Luke is actually a very particular author. He is the only Biblical writer with non-Jew roots. He was, as it seems, an Hellenized Christian, a Greek that converted to Christianity. That’s the firs particular aspect, but there’s more and some of them are really surprising. We will find in his Gospel narratives, verses and details that we won’t find in the other Gospels. What I will try to convey is that Luke has a very particular vision not only of Christ’s life, but also of salvation history. It is a salvation history that Luke will find already structured in the old Hebrew Scriptures, the set of books that the Catholics call the Old Testament. Luke tries to interpret the life of Jesus in the light of those Sacred Scriptures, setting a dialogue between the Christian faith he was already living, some 40 or 50 years after Jesus’ resurrection, and the salvation history he discovered on those old Hebrew Scriptures that were adopted by the Church. The primal Church created its Old Testament from a set of 46 books that Luke knew very well. He had a very particular sensibility about the universal character of the idea of salvation as Christ saw it and he builds his Gospel around a very well defined theological and biblical category, which is the Exodus and the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery and their return to the Promised Land.
In the central part of his Gospel, from chapter 9 to chapter 19, Luke tell us about the long journey that Jesus makes and that takes him all over the land of Israel. He starts in the North, in Galilee, goes through the centre of Israel and Samaria and he visits Jericho before finishing his tour in Jerusalem, already in Judea. Luke shows us that Jesus made this journey as if it was an exodus. He actually uses the word in the beginning of his narrative, in chapter 9, where he tells the episode of the transfiguration of Christ. Jesus travels all through the land of Israel and Luke uses this journey to insert many of the teachings that he receives from the apostolic tradition, from Christ’s public ministry, the three years Jesus spent preaching, healing people, taking care and nurturing them. Those three years, in which Jesus told his disciples to spread the message of the Gospel, are told by Luke in a very particular way, so the reader is lead to understand Christ’s life as a form of liberation: Exodus and Easter. The same way the Hebrews had to leave Egypt and were forced to travel through the desert and to submit to their own exodus in order to reach the Promised Land, so did Jesus, Luke suggests. The journey Jesus makes all through the Land of Israel is also a personal journey through the desert of sufferance, through passion and death, until he is liberated by resurrection first and then by his ascension to heaven. In a certain sense, Luke suggests the reader should be able to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. Jesus made his exodus and so should the reader, because salvation isn’t something that one can delegate. Everybody needs to travel his own path. This is the message that Luke has for his readers, whether they live today or they have lived two thousand years ago. We all have to complete our own exodus, our own journey of liberation.
As you were mentioning, Luke’s Gospel was written many years after Christ’s resurrection …
Yes, it was written around year 70 or 80 …
Having been written by a non-Jew, how does the Gospel of Luke reflect something that was already happening by then and which is the projection of the message of Christ behind the borders of the Holy Land?
Luke, more than Matthew and Mark, underlines the universality of the message and of the salvation of Christ. He promotes this aspect in several different ways, by stressing, for instance, that Jesus dedicated himself very particularly to the pagans and to the Samaritans – which were seen as pagans by the Jews – that he found on his way. He has shown mercy and compassion for those that came from abroad, from Phoenicia and the lands surrounding Israel. Luke underscores the universality of the message of Christ already in his programmatic speech. It’s precisely there that we have to focus in order to recover this universality in all its splendour. His programmatic speech, which corresponds roughly to the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel, is the speech that Jesus makes at Nazareth synagogue. Preaching to their countrymen, to the people of the village of Nazareth, Jesus suggests that he came for all and not only for them, not only to save the Jews. He came for the salvation of all, he suggested. The Nazarenes didn’t’ like what they were told and they even advocated to throw him down a hill. Seeing their reaction, Jesus told them: “You are well aware that there were many poor widows in Israel, but not a single one of them was visited by the prophet Elijah. He was sent, as you know, to a foreigner, a widow in Sarepta, in Phoenicia,” he recalled.
“There were also” – Jesus continued – “many lepers in Israel when Elisha roamed the Earth, but none of them was visited by Elisha. He was sent to a Syrian general, Naaman, and he cured him. But it was to a foreigner that Elisha was sent.”
What Jesus was saying was precisely that salvation came for all and this same message was already an old one: “In the Old Testament we have already many examples that God wants us all. He has sent his prophets to foreigners and salvation is not limited to the Jews. You should realize that,” he said. They didn’t accept his message and they suggested, once again, to throw him down the hill. We can devise in the words of Luke the universality of the message of Christ. We will find, nevertheless, this very same universality right at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, when he described the journey made by the Three Wise Men only to adore Jesus. When they arrive at Jerusalem the Jews knew nothing about the birth of the Savior. Those Wise Men, who were pagan, asked around: “Where is the king of the Jews? Where was he born? We came to adore him,” Matthew – who was a Jew – writes. Nobody knew about anything. Matthew suggests that, while the Hebrews didn’t even realize about the birth of the Messiah, the pagans came to adore him, to venerate him as if he was their own king. The Gospel says they prostrated themselves in adoration. They accepted him as their king, having realized that the message of Jesus is a message that fits all Humanity.