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By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

The Resurrection Anchors Our Faith

Why Sunday and Not Saturday?

Q: What is the basis for the Catholic Church changing the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday? I need one that is biblically based.

A: Our Christian faith is based on the Lord’s resurrection from the dead, which happened on Easter Sunday. Jews celebrated Saturday as the Lord’s Day. Except for Seventh-Day Adventists, most Christians have judged it best to observe the Lord’s Day on Sunday.

Two quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church may help explain the reason for this change. “Jesus rose from the dead ‘on the first day of the week.’ Because it is the ‘first day,’ the day of Christ’s Resurrection recalls the first creation. Because it is the ‘eighth day’ following the sabbath, it symbolizes the new creation ushered in by Christ’s Resurrection” (#2174).

“Sunday is expressly distinguished from the sabbath which it follows chronologically every week; for Christians its ceremonial observance replaces that of the sabbath. In Christ’s Passover, Sunday fulfills the spiritual truth of the Jewish sabbath and announces man’s eternal rest in God” (#2175).

Aren’t these reasons biblically based? The resurrection of Jesus is the key event of the New Testament. St. Paul writes in First Corinthians: “And if Christ has not been raised, then empty is our preaching; empty, too, your faith” (15:14).

Calendars in some European and Asian countries indicate Monday as the first day of the week and Sunday as the seventh day. I once found that out by assuming Day 1 on a German train schedule meant Sunday when it really meant Monday! Many U.S. plane schedules indicate Monday as Day 1.

Our Catholic UpdateSunday Mass: Easter All Year Long” (C0399) is a shortened version of Pope John Paul II’s 1998 apostolic letter Day of the Lord [Dies Domini] about celebrating Sunday.

The pope says that the Christian Sunday leads “the faithful each week to ponder and live the event of Easter, true source of the world’s salvation.”

Why the Skull and Crossbones?

Q: A friend of mine has a crucifix with the strangest thing I have ever seen. There is a small skull with crossed bones on the crucifix, about an inch below the figure of Jesus. What does this mean?

A: There is a non-biblical tradition that Adam was buried on Calvary. That tradition probably reflects St. Paul’s reference to Jesus as the “new Adam” (Romans 5:12 and 1 Corinthians 15:45).

Some people see Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection as counterbalancing Adam’s sin. At times a tradition may be more eager to make a theological point than a historical one. The skull and bones you saw represent Adam.

The word Calvary is related to the Latin word for skull-shaped. Perhaps for that reason the Romans used this spot (immediately outside Jerusalem in Jesus’ day) to execute criminals.

What Is the Gospel of Thomas?

Q: I am very curious to learn more about the Gospel of Jesus that was found in 1945. Is this true? Why are we hiding it from being released? I have not been very successful finding information on this. I have also heard about a Gospel of Thomas and a Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

A: I think you are referring to the Gospel of Thomas, one of 300 Gnostic writings discovered in December 1945, at Nag Hammadi, Egypt. This writing exists completely only in the Coptic language; there are three fragments of it in Greek.

According to Anthony Saldarini in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, of the 114 sayings of this gospel (division made by modern scholars), 79 of them have some parallel in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke which, with the Gospel of John, are called canonical. They belong to the canon or list of New Testament writings.

The Gospel of Thomas is called apocryphal because it is not in the New Testament. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is also in this category.

Gnostics were people who relied on secret knowledge; gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge. Special teachers enabled Gnostics to hand on secret information not intended for everyone. In that general sense, Gnostics could be pagan, Jewish or Christian.

Scholars date the Gospel of Thomas to the start of the third century. It had a Gnostic final editor, at least.

Christian Gnostics claimed that Jesus wanted only a few of his followers to have the teachings they possessed. This knowledge was handed on by Gnostic teachers.

The mainstream Christian community answered the Gnostic challenge by saying that Jesus intended bishops, successors of the apostles, as reliable teachers about him. They also said that the Christian community considered as inspired only the canonical books in the New Testament and the Old Testament.

The Scriptures were given to a faith community (Old Testament to the Jews, New Testament to Christians). They should be read with that in mind. If we trust those faith communities enough to tell us which writings are inspired by God, should we not also trust them to interpret them?

You may find these Gnostic gospel texts, as well as more background, at your public library.

What Causes the Stigmata?

Q: The only people who have the stigmata are people who are deeply religious believers in Christ, right? What causes the stigmata and how do people receive the marks?

A: I am not aware of any case where someone who did not believe in Jesus or who had a lukewarm Christian faith received the stigmata. On the other hand, the holiest people do not necessarily receive the stigmata.

The Roman Catholic Church tends to be very cautious about reported instances of the stigmata for two reasons: the possibility of a hoax (and thus all faith in God might seem questionable) and the possibility that some people could distort the meaning of the stigmata.

For example, these marks might appear more central to a person’s faith than the passion-death-resurrection of Jesus, the Scriptures, the sacraments or many other things that are more central to faith than the stigmata are.

Holy Year Indulgence

Q: During the Holy Year, why can a person receive an indulgence only for visiting some special place like a cathedral?

A: There is a Holy Year indulgence which can be gained by visiting special churches. Most dioceses or archdioceses have designated several. It is possible, however, to gain an indulgence by visiting other churches.

Some historical background is needed to understand the Holy Year custom of visiting special churches.

The Roman Catholic teaching on indulgences expanded after the Crusades began in 1095 A.D. At that time, only three shrines could be visited any day of the year to obtain a plenary indulgence: the Holy Sepulcher (Jerusalem), St. Peter’s Basilica (Rome) and Santiago de Compostela (northwest Spain).

Francis of Assisi asked for the same privilege for the Portiuncula, a tiny chapel he had rebuilt outside Assisi. Pope Honorius III agreed but restricted the indulgence to the anniversary of the chapel’s dedication (August 2). That indulgence now includes all churches.

As part of the Holy Year celebration, Pope John Paul II has asked bishops to designate several local churches as pilgrimage sites for people unable to travel to Rome or to the Holy Land.

A person who visits any church any day of the year and prays before the Blessed Sacrament for half an hour can gain a plenary indulgence, according to the 1986 Handbook of Indulgences (Grant #3).

The person must pray the Our Father and the Creed and go to confession and Communion several days before or after praying before the Blessed Sacrament. The person must also pray for the pope’s intentions.

Other actions which can lead to a plenary indulgence include making a three-day retreat, making the Stations of the Cross, reciting the rosary in church or with one’s family, attending a parish mission or reading the Bible for half an hour.

Leavened or Unleavened?

Q: When did the Catholic Church change from using bread and wine to wafers and wine in the Eucharist? Why the change?

A: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke present Jesus’ Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist as part of a Passover meal. The Jewish Passover has always used unleavened bread (Exodus 12:14-20).

The Roman Catholic Church has continued to follow this Jewish custom. Wafers are unmistakably unleavened bread.

By the 11th century, the Churches in the East were using leavened bread and they continue to do so. I think that all Protestant denominations have followed the custom of the Eastern Churches (the Orthodox and the Churches in full union with the Bishop of Rome).

Each year the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is celebrated during the annual meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Leavened bread is used at that Mass.

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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