Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wednesday of the First Week in Ordinary Time

(Hebrews 2:14-18; Mark 1:29-39)

For centuries the Church believed that St. Paul wrote the Letter to the Hebrews. There were a few dissenters in early times, but only in the sixteenth century did the great Erasmus begin to persuade the majority of scholars that Paul could not have authored the document. As an enlightened theologian of the third century put it, “Everyone who is able to discern differences in style” would know that the letter did not come directly from the pen of Paul. The actual identity of the author, however, remains unknown.

Determining authorship is only one of the difficulties in studying the Letter to the Hebrews. It is also full of obscure terms and ideas that challenge the modern mind. In today’s passage, for example, we may scratch our heads wondering how humans “through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.” Is the letter trying to say that humans are coerced into being good by the fear of death?

No, that is not the case. Although such a servile fear falls short of the freedom of God’s children, it at least encourages us to do what is right. The fear to which the letter refers is a deeper anxiety that would paralyze us from doing any good at all. It is a fear that would so preoccupy us with the terror of death that we could not love God or assist our neighbor. The letter tells us, however, that Christ has eliminated this kind of fear by his resurrection from the dead. Now we can, in the words of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, “befriend death” because it only unites us securely with Christ in eternal life.