For even the keenest lay reader the Gospels, and indeed the Bible more generally, can often seem a daunting read. Should we begin from page one and read through or open at random in the hope that whatever passage we happen on will strike a chord in our own lives? In his new book, A Shortcut to the Gospels, Oliver Crilly offers a few personal signposts to guide the ordinary reader into the landscape of the Bible.
Fr Crilly focuses on key passages from each Gospel which act as a starting point for the whole. He goes on to examine the different representations of the Passion of Christ as evidenced in each of the four books not as different versions, but as four visions of Christ in his total reality. He thinks visually, and speaks from a lifelong interest in religious and Celtic art. His final chapter provides a fascinating study of the Crucifixion in early Irish art. A Shortcut to the Gospels is a valuable aid to reflection at any time, but particularly as we enter Lent and Holy Week.
Fr Oliver Crilly has been a parish priest in the Derry Diocese in the parishes of Melmount, Ardmore and Greenlough. A past Director of Veritas, his interest in parish pastoral councils was stimulated by the NCPI Conferences on collaborative ministry in the 1980s, led by Brother Loughlan Sofield.
For even the keenest lay reader the Gospels, and indeed the Bible more generally, can often seem a daunting read. Should we begin from page one and read through, or open at random in the hope that whatever passage we happen on will strike a chord in our own lives? In his new book, A Shortcut to the Gospels, Oliver Crilly offers a few personal signposts to guide the ordinary reader into the landscape of the Bible. Fr Crilly focuses on some key passages from the Old Testament and each of the Gospels which act as a starting point for the whole. He goes on to examine the presentation of the Passion of Christ in each of the four Gospels, not as versions of a single narrative, but as four visions of Christ in his total reality. He thinks visually, and speaks from a lifelong interest in religious and Celtic art. His final chapter provides a fascinating study of the Crucifixion in early Irish art. A Shortcut to the Gospels is a valuable aid to reflection at any time, but particularly as we enter Lent and Holy Week. CatholicIreland.net in 2006.
Fr Crilly is a parish priests at Ardmore in Northern Ireland, and the author a couple of years ago of Is it About a Bicycle? - a little book of thoughts still worth seeking out. He tells us that though he is not a Scripture scholar, he loves the Scriptures...He quotes the insight of one scholar that the Gospels are at once a window into the life of Jesus and a mirror of our own lives. He gives the reader signposts too, dealing in turn with the presentation of the Passion in each of the Gospels as "four visions of Christ in his total reality." An interesting section is his final chapter which deals with the Maghera Crucifixion in the context of early Irish art. St Jerome, when he finished the Vulgate, is believed to have said: "The job is not finished. We have only translated it into Latin now we have to translate it into practice." The Irish Catholic
- Chapter 1 - Opening the Bible
Approaching the Bible
In December 1966 the spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, received a telephone call asking if he would write an introduction for an edition of the Bible to be published by Time-Life Books. He set about writing the introduction, though with some hesitation. The following year Time-Life dropped the idea, but Mertons introduction was later published as a small book, Opening the Bible. Its a delightful little book, but its not hard to understand why the writer was hesitant about taking on the project. He wasnt a professional biblical scholar, and he wasnt keen on mass media projects on spiritual themes. Opening the Bible for an unknown mass audience may have seemed a bit like writing a guide book about a country the readers were unlikely ever to visit.
Im inclined to approach the Bible from the opposite direction: this little book is meant for people who think they dont know a lot about the Bible, but who are continually coming across the word of God in the Scriptures at Mass or other acts of worship. Every time a child is christened, for example, we pause before going to the font; we sit and listen to the Scripture readings, to help us appreciate the wonderful event that is about to take place. Readings like the story of the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan take on a whole new meaning and depth when we apply them to our own child and our own situation. The baby will be immersed, not only in water, but in the faith of this family and community.
Outside of this kind of faith situation, the Bible may seem too vast to approach. It is a big book. Its really more of a library than a book. Where could you start? I know some people say they read the Bible by starting at the Book of Genesis (the Beginning) and working their way, a few pages at a time, right through to the end of the Book of Revelation. It makes me weak to think of it, even though Im very fond of books. Other people open a page of the Bible at random and take the first sentence they see. That becomes their guide or pointer for whatever situation theyre in at the time. Again, Im sure people find that helpful. God can guide us in all sorts of ways if were open to his Spirit. But Im thinking of something between those two extremes. How can we find a few stepping stones or shortcuts that will help us to approach the Bible without biting off more than we can chew?
A Wandering Aramean
One thing we can do is enjoy the parts of the Bible we already know, our favourite passages, or texts we hear repeatedly at weddings or funerals or baptisms. We probably know far more Scripture texts than we realise. Some parts of the Bible seem to be almost designed to help us to manage in spite of our ignorance. My favourite example is a text from the Old Testament, in chapter twenty-six of the Book of Deuteronomy. Its a summary in ten or eleven lines of the whole history of the Old Testament: the story of salvation from the call of Abraham to the Exodus from Egypt and the arrival in the Promised Land:
A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil and our oppression; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which thou, O Lord, hast given me.
If we read it in terms of an individual, the wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt and sojourned there refers to Jacob, but we can also read it as a personification of the people of Israel: He became a nation, great, mighty and populous.
The text attracts me because it saves me reading half a library in the effort to find out what God was doing with his people in the great books of the Old Testament, what the Hebrew Bible calls the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. Here it is, in a very handy summary, and in a summary which points us towards what is significant in the story, even though it has only a few lines of text in which to do it. The interesting thing is that after the briefest reference to Jacob and the time of the Patriarchs, the text focuses on the time of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt. We find this kind of perspective in both the Old Testament and in the New Testament: the earlier history of Gods dealings with his people is understood in the light of a pivotal later event. In this case it is the Exodus; for the early Church it will be the cross and the resurrection of Jesus.
The Exodus experience bridges Old and New Testament: Jesus will die during the feast of the Passover, the celebration of the Exodus and the blood of the lamb which was smeared on the doorposts to save the people of Israel. In the story of the Transfiguration in the Gospel of St Luke, Moses and Elijah are seen talking with Jesus, and they are talking about his exodus, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. Pope John Paul II has a lovely reference to the significance of the Transfiguration in his comments on the Mysteries of Light in his apostolic letter on the Rosary, Rosarium Virginis Mariae:
The mystery of light par excellence is the Transfiguration, traditionally believed to have taken place on Mount Tabor. The glory of the Godhead shines forth from the face of Christ as the Father commands the astonished Apostles to listen to him (cf. Lk 9:35 and parallels) and to prepare to experience with him the agony of the Passion, so as to come with him to the joy of the Resurrection and a life transfigured by the Holy Spirit.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen, in his Life of Christ, makes the connection between the lamb of the Passover and the death of Jesus on the cross:
As these words (the last words of Jesus on the cross) were spoken, there came from the opposite hill of Jerusalem the sound of thousands of lambs who were being slain in the outer court of the temple that their blood might be offered before the Lord God on the altar, and their flesh might be eaten by the people. Whether there is any truth in the teaching of the Rabbis that it was on the same day that Cain slew Abel that God made the Covenant with Abraham, that Isaac was led up the mountain for sacrifice, that Melchisedech offered bread and wine to Abraham, and that Esau sold his birthright to Jacob, we know not; but on this day the Lamb of God was slain and all the prophecies were fulfilled. The work of Redemption was finished. There was a rupture of a heart in a rapture of love; the Son of Man bowed His head and willed to die.
Returning to the wandering Aramean, Jacob is the subject of another of my favourite passages from the Old Testament. It is the story of Jacobs Ladder in Genesis 28:
Jacob left Beersheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place,- he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you. Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, Surely the Lord is in this place - and I did not know it. And he was afraid, and said, How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel.
One of the reasons why I like this passage is because it creates a great sense of mystery, of being on the edge of human reality in a place which is touched by a greater power. When I go away for a time of prayer or retreat, I read this passage very early on, and it sets the scene for me. Wherever I am, it creates the sense of being in a sacred place, in the presence of God.
Another reason why it is special to me is that it was quoted to me by a young Rwandan man who was checking my bags at Kigali airport in 1994. He saw my Bible, and asked for a word of Scripture for his country at that terrible time of war and massacre. I quoted Joel 2:25, where the Lord said: I will restore the years that the locust has devoured. The young man thanked me, and then he said: I will also give you a word of Scripture: "Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and he embraced me like a long lost brother. I knew the quotation was familiar, but it was only after I had arrived back home that I realised it was from this passage which means so much to me.
The main reason for quoting this passage now, however, is that it too bridges the Old and New Testaments. In the first chapter of St Johns Gospel, Philip brings Nathanael to Jesus:
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit! Nathanael asked him, Where did you come to know me? Jesus answered, I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you. Nathanael replied, Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel! Jesus answered, Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these, And he said to him, Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.
Clearly, the reference to the angels ascending and descending is an echo of the Jacobs Ladder story from Genesis 28. I hadnt really given it much thought until I received a gift from the artist Patrick Pye. It was a print of his etching of Jacobs Ladder. Suddenly I could see the ambivalence of the representation: the figure at the foot of the ladder on which the angels were moving up and down could be Jacob, in fact in the first instance had to be Jacob, but it could also be Jesus - the visual statement could do what the text could not: it could show both the Genesis story and the passage from the Gospel of John at once, like an overlay which could flick from the one to the other.
It was only then that the words of Jesus in the story about Nathanael began to make sense to me. What St John was doing in presenting this incident was not just telling us about Nathanael, this true Israelite whom Jesus had seen at prayer in the shade of the fig tree. Nor was he just telling the story of how Jesus had called his first disciples. He was also telling us symbolically something very important about Jesus himself. In the Old Testament the presence of God could be experienced in certain places, as Jacob had experienced Gods presence at Bethel- Beit El, the House of God or as the Ark of the Covenant and the Temple were privileged places of the presence of God. John in his Gospel points out that this Old Testament experience is to be surpassed. Instead of the privileged places of Gods presence, and that includes even the Temple, Gods presence will be experienced through a person. Jesus is the privileged location of the presence of God. The angels of God who ascended and descended on the sacred place of Gods presence at Bethel now ascend and descend on Jesus, the Son of God, the King of Israel.
Some texts bridge the Old and New Testaments because of the themes which link one with the other, or because the fulfilment of an Old Testament text is highlighted by the New Testament authors. But Old Testament texts can also be used very directly. A text, or a version of a text, can simply be placed in a new setting. It wasnt as simple as using a cut and paste technique in a word processing application on a computer. But texts were used for prayer and reflection, as we use the readings in celebrating Mass and the Sacraments, and also for study. Its not hard to imagine familiar texts, or the flavour of familiar texts, being incorporated into new texts like the Gospels.
Many of the Psalms lend themselves to this kind of application, and traditionally can help to personalise for us the suffering of Jesus and his response to his suffering. So too can texts like the Suffering Servant texts from the prophet Isaiah. But there are other texts which have provided a source for reflection, for building up the context in which the story of the life and death of Jesus can be meditated on. The Book of Wisdom, chapter two, suggests the mentality of those who mocked Jesus on the cross - a mentality which his faithful followers would have found difficult to identify with or express in words:
Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child of the Lord.
He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;
the very sight of him is a burden to us,
because his manner of life is unlike that of others,
and his ways are strange.
We are considered by him as something base,
and he avoids our ways as unclean;
he calls the last end of the righteous happy,
and boasts that God is his father.
Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
for if the righteous man is Gods child, he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
Let us test him with insult and torture,
so that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.
One of the most dramatic of the texts which cross over from the Old Testament to the New Testament is Ezekiel chapter thirty-seven. It is the story of the bringing back to life of the dry bones:
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, Mortal, can these bones live? I answered, O Lord God, you know. Then he said to me, Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: "O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord." I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
Then he said to me, Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely." Therefore prophesy, and say to them, "Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord."
This passage, with the image of the dry bones coming back to life, is one of the most evocative pieces of Scripture in Israels memory. The original setting of Ezekiels prophecy is during the Exile, when the Jewish people have been dragged away from their land and their temple and oppressed by their conquerors. It is the setting in which they expressed their despair and their depression in the famous psalm By the waters of Babylon. Ezekiel proclaims Gods faithfulness against a background of hopelessness. The vision of God breathing life into the dry bones and bringing his people back to the land of Israel became popular again during the Roman occupation at the time of Jesus, and particularly around 70AD when the Romans suppressed the Jewish uprising and destroyed the Temple.
One story highlights probably more than any other the deep significance of Ezekiel 37 to the Jews in adversity. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, a group of Zealots kept up the resistance to Rome. They fled to the mountain of Massada, beside the Dead Sea. This is a flat-topped mountain, approachable only by what was called the snake path. A few men could defend it against an army, and the Zealots, joined by a few of the Essene community, known from the Dead Sea Scrolls, defended Massada for three years, until the Romans built a huge earth-work, like a parallel mountain, and reached the top. They found most of the Zealots dead, for they had decided to kill themselves rather than fall into the hands of the Romans.
It wasnt until nearly two thousand years later, when Massada was excavated by the new State of Israel in the early 1960s, that the full story was revealed. One of the extraordinary discoveries was in the synagogue which the Zealots had built on top of Massada. Under the floor was discovered a hiding place, and in the hiding place was discovered one text, on material and in a handwriting resembling the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was the text of Ezekiel 37. As the Zealots and Essenes watched the Roman army climb ever closer, as they realised death was inevitable, they clung to that classic text from the Jewish faith tradition which expressed their belief that God would be with them even in the face of their worst suffering, even in the face of death.
The text is one of those which creates a bridge between the Old Testament and the New. In the period between the two Testaments, in what is sometimes called intertestamental Judaism, it was already being interpreted as pointing to the Messiah, and it is not strange that when St Matthew came to present his reflection on the death and resurrection of Jesus, in the Passion narrative of his Gospel, he should draw on this most evocative of texts in Israels memory to reassure his readers that the relationship of the trusting believer and the trustworthy God is not broken by death.
The same theme appears in Psalm 22, which begins with the words of Jesus on the cross in St Marks Gospel: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?. It begins with a cry of anguish, yet as it proceeds, it becomes a statement of Gods presence with his servant even in the darkest suffering:
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, -and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
Even within the opening line there is the paradox which we must cherish: the same person who cries out, Why have you forsaken me? speaks from a faith which persists in spite of overwhelming anguish: My God, my God. If we were to look for a twenty-first century setting which could convey the sense of clinging to faith in the midst of overwhelming anguish, it might be the singing of Liam Lawtons The Clouds Veil at the service of commemoration in New York after the 9/11 destruction of the twin tower blocks. Applied to Jesus on the cross it is in continuity with his persevering prayer to the Father throughout his life.