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By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Does the Bible Contain Fiction?

Q U I C K S C A N

Is the Book of Jonah True?
Why a Skull? Why Is Christ's Head Tilted?
Liturgical Colors
'Should I Have Told Her?'
Minimum Age for Witnesses at Weddings?

Is the Book of Jonah True?

Q: Several months ago a priest from another country was visiting our parish on a Sunday when we had a reading from the Book of Jonah.

When he said in his homily that this book is fiction, I was so stunned that I did not hear much else that he said. Never in my Catholic education did anyone ever say that this book, one of my favorites, is fiction.

I have maintained the childlike faith that the Bible speaks of, and I am very hurt by the suggestion that this book was not inspired by God. I thoroughly believe that each book of the Bible was inspired by God.

A: The Bible is the unique and authentic self-revelation of God. Each book is inspired—no matter whether it was written by more than one person, whether it was written over the course of several centuries or whether we are certain who wrote it.

Inspiration does not mean that God simply dictated the text to the biblical writers or that, with 144 hours of videotape, you could have captured exactly what is described in the first creation account (Genesis 1:1—2:4a). Of course, there is a second creation account (starting with Genesis 2:4b).

Even if your videocamera had recorded a different process or sequence for creation, that would not make the two accounts in the Book of Genesis untrue. They are true in the sense of what God wants those writings to communicate (for example, that God is the source of all creation, that God's creation is good, that women and men were both made in God's image and likeness).

We need to accept the Bible on its own terms (the self-revelation of God) and not expect it to be something that it does not promise to be. Some parts of the Bible are historical records. Parts that are not historical records are as much inspired as those that are. God can and does inspire fiction, which has its own way of telling the truth. A poem can be just as true as a documentary, although each is true in its own way.

The Book of Jonah is part of the Bible because God inspired some writer to tell the story of Jonah as a challenge to the smug idea that God loves only the Israelites and hates all gentiles (non-Jews).

The Book of Jonah's affirmation that God loves all peoples and wants them to repent and be saved—a message  indeed divinely inspired—has lost none of its importance over the centuries. People are always tempted to whittle God down to a comfortable size. The Book of Jonah truthfully and forcefully challenges that temptation.

Why a Skull? Why Is Christ's Head Tilted?

Q: I recently acquired a crucifix that has been in my family for years. There is a skull with bones at the base of it. I have never seen that before. What do they mean?

Also, I have noticed that on some crucifixes the head of Christ faces forward and on others it is tilted down to his right side.

A: The skull and bones are probably meant to symbolize Adam. According to one Christian tradition, he was buried on Mt. Calvary; there is no biblical or archaeological evidence that says he was buried there. This tradition is a way of connecting Jesus' life and mission to the story of Adam and Eve, of presenting Jesus as "the new Adam." St. Paul wrote, "For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life..." (1 Corinthians 15:22). The skull at the base of that crucifix may be a reminder that the Hebrew word Golgotha means skull place.

Up until the 13th century in the West, on most crucifixes Jesus was very erect, looking straight out at the viewer, often with very little blood coming from his wounds. On some of these crucifixes, Jesus almost looks already resurrected.

Starting in the 1200s, partly because of the influence of St. Francis of Assisi, artists began to portray Jesus more clearly as suffering. That included placing one hip off to the side and having Jesus' head turned and down. This change was intended to draw the viewer more into this event.

Liturgical Colors

Q: Why do the colors of the vestments vary from Sunday to Sunday? I recently became co-leader of a small church community, and I would like to have a candle/flower arrangement/altar cloth to match the vestment colors.

A: According to the Dictionary of the Liturgy, by Jovian Lang, O.F.M. (Catholic Book Publishing Co.), vestments were white until the ninth century when other colors (like green for hope) were introduced to reflect different seasons or feasts.

Green is used during Ordinary Time (after the Baptism of the Lord until Ash Wednesday and then after Trinity Sunday until the First Sunday of Advent). On Sundays and weekdays in Advent and Lent, the celebrant wears purple.

White is used during the Christmas season, the Easter season and on feasts of the Lord that fall on a Sunday (for example, Ascension Thursday in most dioceses in the United States). White is the color for most feasts of the Lord and the saints and is often used in Masses for the Dead.

Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Pentecost, the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (which is sometimes celebrated on a Sunday) and feasts of saints who were martyrs are celebrated with red vestments.

Gold vestments can be worn on especially solemn occasions. On the Third Sunday of Advent and the Fourth Sunday of Lent, rose vestments are often worn. Black can still be worn for funeral Masses, but white is used more commonly.

'Should I Have Told Her?'

Q: After dating a girl for three months, I recently emptied all the skeletons in my closet, so to speak. I told her that, before meeting her, I had several relationships with girls that I met online.

I was a virgin before I had sexual intercourse with four women over a three-year period. My present girlfriend was devastated, saying that she thought that I might be a sex addict.

I was hurt when she said that. I waited until I was 26 to have sexual intercourse; I am 30 now. I have been so guilty living with this sin. I spent 20 minutes praying about this in church today and will talk to a priest.

My girlfriend is a virgin, and she said this has changed the way she thinks of me. I love her very much and felt that I couldn't live with my silence about this any longer. Should I have told her? Does she have the right to hold this against me even though it is in my past?

A: You were very honest with her. Should she break off this relationship, perhaps the next man with whom she falls in love will not be as honest with her as you have been.

I cannot condone premarital or extramarital intercourse; I encourage you to confess your sins promptly. The fact that you were 26 before you began this may argue against the suggestion that you are a sex addict. These experiences have indicated to you that "easy intimacy" does not ensure a long-term relationship, which is what you would like this current relationship to be.

Does she have a right to hold your past against you? She cannot "unknow" what she knows. That is true for all of us. If she wants her relationship with you to mature, she will have to come to terms with this information. You were probably right to tell her because this secret was tearing you up inside.

We cannot undo our past. Each day, however, we make decisions that either reinforce or dilute that past. You have lately been making decisions to dilute that part of your past. I encourage you to keep that up. Remember the strong parts of your past. Continue to build on them!

Minimum Age for Witnesses at Weddings?

Q: Is there a minimum age to be a witness at a wedding? We are having a disagreement in our neighborhood over this issue since a man is getting married in a few months and he wants his 14-year-old nephew to be his best man.

A: A liturgy professor to whom I posed your question responded that there is no minimum age according to Church law. The person must be old enough to know what he or she is witnessing. The law presumes the use of reason at age seven. There may be a minimum age according to the civil law of the place where the wedding is celebrated.

A person could argue that, if the Catholic Church today will not recognize a marriage unless the man has completed his 16th year and the woman has completed her 14th year (Code of Canon Law, Canon 1083:1), then the witnesses ought to be at least those ages.


If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

 

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