Of Eunuchs, Emmaus, and Holy Water Fonts

Rick BeckerRichard Becker, RN, MS, MA

Associate Faculty, Bethel College, School of Nursing

Co-Director of Religious Education, St. Matthew Cathedral 

Editors’ note: This post first appeared on God-Haunted Lunatic.

Baptism is enough, it is sufficient to evangelize.
Pope Francis

Katharine made her First Holy Communion on May 4 – a momentous event, a holy moment! Naturally, she received some gifts to mark the occasion: A scapular (the plastic bothered her; I’ll get her a cloth one), a child’s Bible, and a beautiful ceramic holy water font. The font clearly caught her fancy, and she asked me that same evening how we could get the “special” water for it.

Fortunately,BoyAtHolyWaterFont-b I already had a small bottle of holy water in the house, so we hung up the font near her bed, filled the reservoir, and then dipped our fingers to bless ourselves. She went to bed very content – happy to have received Jesus in one Sacrament earlier in the day, and then encounter him again in that mini-Sacramental reminder just before sleep.

My guess is that she’s been using that font pretty regularly since then because of what happened soon after First Communion. After donning her PJs, Kath sought me out, holding up one hand very solemnly above the other. Without saying anything, she touched her wet fingers to my forehead, made the sign of the cross, and then headed off to bed. It was a blessed moment, come and gone so quickly, and so profound: My daughter, blessing me, and giving me such an intimate reminder of my baptismal dignity.

That profound encounter came to mind as I listened to the first reading on May 8 about St. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. You remember: The seemingly chance encounter on the road; an explication of opaque biblical texts; an entreaty to linger followed by the administration of a sacrament; and finally, a miraculous disappearance that paved the way for an apostolic journey.

Then it dawned on me: I’d just heard the same basic story during Katharine’s First Communion Mass! Only then, it was Luke telling about the two disciples who ran into Jesus on the Road to Emmaus.

Cradle Catholics will have grown up hearing the Emmaus story as an image of the Mass: The Lord’s explaining the Scriptures parallels the Liturgy of the Word, and then, in Emmaus itself, there’s a meal that concludes with the breaking of bread in which the disciples “recognized the Lord” – an obvious parallel to the Liturgy of Jan_Wildens_Landscape_with_Christ_and_his_Disciples_on_the_Road_to_Emmausthe Eucharist.

The implications of those parallels are made plain in the sudden disappearance of Jesus precisely at the moment he was recognized – the moment, that is, when his bodily presence became almost redundant since he had become truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. In other words, those disciples in Emmaus had nothing on us: We have Jesus here today in our Tabernacles just as much as they did around that Emmaus dinner table!

But, back to Philip and the eunuch – the similarities with the Emmaus story are striking, and many scholars have commented on it. Besides, both stories were recorded by St. Luke – the Emmaus story in his Gospel, and the Ethiopian eunuch story in his Gospel sequel, the Book of Acts. Coincidence? I don’t think so. And, as I mentioned, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what Luke was intending in the Emmaus narrative, but what about the Ethiopian convert? And why the parallels?

Here’s a few thoughts inspired by Kath’s holy water font.

First, Luke uses the eunuch story to teach us about baptism – that we’re all utterly unworthy of the divine life it transmits to us, and there’s nothing we can do to earn it. It’s totally free – like Kath coming to me and bestowing her blessing that evening. Completely unexpected; a startlingly fresh gift. “Look, there is water,” the man asks Philip. “What is to prevent my being baptized?”

Apparently not anything! Not the brevity of his catechetical formation, not his pagan background, and not even the fact that he was mutilated and made impotent – something that would’ve prevented his being fully admitted to God’s family under Mosaic law. The adoption of this complete outsider into the body of believers marks the newfangled Way of Christ as radically open – extravagant, even. As extra(c) National Trust, Anglesey Abbey; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundationvagant as God himself!

But there’s a responsibility that comes with the gift, and that leads to my second point – the disappearance. When Christ disappears in the Emmaus story we understand that to mean that the Lord had become present in the Eucharist. So, in the Acts narrative? When Philip vanishes? What else can Luke mean than that the apostolic authority has now become manifest in the newly baptized!

What? He can’t be serious! The foreigner had barely covered a rudimentary overview of the whole Judeo-Christian enterprise, and now we’re to see him on the same level as an Apostle appointed by Christ himself?

Yes, indeed. Luke records that the eunuch “continued on his way rejoicing.” And we, who also have been baptized, are called to that as well. And every single one of those cute little infants we baptize in our churches on Sunday mornings. They’re all called to be apostles – we’re all called – to spread the Gospel, to preach the Faith. Even the Pope says so:

Do we believe in this? That baptism is enough – sufficient to evangelize? [All of the baptized must] announce Jesus with our life, with our witness and with our words. When we do this, the church becomes a mother church that bears children. But when we don’t do it, the church becomes not a mother but a baby sitter church, which takes care of the child to put him to sleep.

And that leads to my final point: The whole eunuch thing – what’s that all about, right? Very awkward. Like trying to talk to junior high boys about St. Paul’s teaching on circumcision. (NOTE: I’ve tried this – forget it. It’s impossible. If you ask me, just skip to the Parables and forget about circumcision until they get into college.)

Nevertheless, awkward or no, the eunuch must be dealt with. On a superficial level, Luke notes that the Ethiopian official is a eunuch simply because it was the case – it was noteworthy in Luke’s mind, perhaps as a way of identifying the actual individual in question. We have to keep in mind that the Ethiopian eunuch and other biblical characters aren’t just literary devices utilized by authors to make theological points. Although it’s true that Scripture doesn’t record events the same way the New York Times would today, those whom God inspired to compose Holy writ were still jotting down actual occurrearticle-2538097-1A97C26800000578-298_634x645nces involving actual people. It’s God who orchestrated events to reveal truths; the human writers just recorded and reflected on them.

That being the case, the fact that this early catechumen-turned-neophyte in Acts was a eunuch takes on a deeper meaning which Luke draws out. Obviously, a eunuch is infertile by definition, and yet, once baptized, this eunuch immediately sets out to proclaim the Gospel and plant seeds of faith. Tradition even goes so far as to associate this early convert with the foundation of the very ancient church in Ethiopia. The infertile transformed into the fertile  that should be me, too!

Ah, but there’s risk involved in being an apostle – a risk of humiliation and shunning, even a risk of death. It’s no accident, I think, that this story of the pagan Ethiopian convert shows up in Acts on the heels of Luke’s mention of the martyrdom of St. Stephen and its aftermath:

And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria.

Baptism is an infinite boon folded in with a dire warning: Beware! Danger ahead! And yet, new life as well. More life than you can possibly imagine! So much life that the risk of martyrdom will pale in comparison! The Catechism, quoting Vatican II, teaches us as much:

“Reborn as sons of God, [the baptized] must profess before men the faith they have received from God through the Church” and participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the People of God.

Thus, when my daughter dips her fingers in the font to cross herself or me? It’s no small thing. It’s a reminder of baptismal grace, to be sure, but also a reminder of apostolic burden: Be a missionary; proclaim the Word; make Jesus present wherever you find yourself, no matter the cost!

Next time I dunk my own fingers in Kathy’s holy water font, I’ll think twice, and pray for strength – for both of us.

Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness

“The more numerous are our acts of charity, self-denial, and forbearance, of course the JohnHenryNewmanmore will our minds be schooled into a charitable, self-denying, and forbearing temper. The more frequent are our prayers, the more humble, patient, and religious are our daily deeds, this communion with God, these holy works, will be the means of making our hearts holy, and of preparing us for the future presence of God. Outward acts, done on principle, create inward habits. I repeat, the separate acts of obedience to the will of God, severing us from this world of sense, and impressing our hearts with a heavenly character” (John Henry Newman, “Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness”).

‘Tis the Month of Our Mother…

Danielle PetersDanielle M. Peters, S.T.D.
Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Institute for Church Life,
University of Notre Dame

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Love for the Blessed Mother has found a variety of expressions during the month of May. I recall a solemn May Opening and daily May devotions in my parish church. We had a light blue booklet with prayers for each day of May and with Marian hymns that could only be sung during “the month of our Mother.”

May Crowning 1My most cherished memories, however, are related to a special May altar we and many other Catholic families built in the home. The designated place for our Marian altar was the triangular shelf of the corner seat in our dining room. As May approached, we children would start decorating this place with a white doily, on top of which we placed a statue of Mary. A candle was lit during meal times, and each day we picked the best flowers we could find and arranged them in a little vase to give honor to the Queen of May. Somehow our hearts beat faster during this month, during which we gave Mary a special place in our home. Even my mom—still Lutheran at that time—gladly joined in, since it seemed that Mary’s presence made us better children!

This took place way back in Germany. Here in the United States, there are other devotions and practices to honor the Queen of May. For example, many parishes, Marian shrines, and grottos have a May crowning ceremony. Before a wreath of flowers is placed on a statue or image of Mary, there is often a procession during which children and adults alike can honor Our Lady by placing flowers in vases arranged before her icon. Then, everyone’s eyes are glued on the person selected to offer the crown on behalf of all to Mary.[1]

Why do we crown Mary?
In the Litany of Loreto, several invocations honor Mary as Queen. Theologians like Origen († 253/254) and Ephrem the Syrian († 373) were the first to attribute this title to Mary. Still today we intone the Marian antiphons Salve Regina, Regina coeli, and Ave Regina coelorum, all of which honor the Queen of heaven and earth.

May CrowningYet, the New Testament does not refer to Mary of Galilee as queen. In fact, Mary speaks of herself as the handmaid of the Lord (Lk. 1:38). In the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah foretells the birth of a child who will be called Prince of Peace (Is 9:5), whose reign is without end. This reign, as we know, is different from all earthly monarchies. Christ taught us that His mission was one of service (cf. Mt. 20:28). Mary—the Mother of this Prince—became the first to abide by her Son’s teaching. As the handmaid of the Lord she is Queen because in her Son’s Kingdom, to reign means to serve![2] Thus she is praised as the Queen of all saints and even of the angels.

Mary’s royal dignity has its source in her election. From the first moment of her existence, she is enveloped by God’s love; she is full of grace! Indeed, she is the Queen, conceived without original sin. Throughout her earthly pilgrimage, Mary preserved God’s gift in its purity and matured in her love for God and others, so that when her earthly life was complete, God welcomed Mary—body and soul—into heavenly glory.[3]

The crowning of a life refers to that which excels all expectations. The crowning of Mary’s life was her vocation to be the mother of a king. Yet this royal family did not live in a palace, nor did they wear sumptuous robes and a crown. Christ’s throne was His Cross and His crown was made from thorns. Mary walked this royal way next to her Son. Her faithful and sacrificial love received its reward when Mary “was exalted by the Lord as Queen of the Universe, in order that she might be the more thoroughly conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords (cf. Rev. 19:16) and the conqueror of sin and death.”[4]

By crowning Mary we recall what God did at her entry into heaven. With this act we acknowledge that she is Queen not only in heaven but also here on earth. Implicitly this means that Mary is also Queen of our life! This thought has concrete ramifications for every aspect of our being and acting. Above all, it reminds us that we are royal children! The French have a saying—noblesse oblige—whichthe Dictionnaire de l’Académie française translates as follows:

  1. Whoever claims to be noble must conduct himself nobly.
  2. One must act in a fashion that conforms to one’s position, and with the reputation that one has earned.

Coronation of the Virgin-Fra AngelicoWhen offering a crown to Mary, not only do we acknowledge what God did for her in heaven or hail her as Queen of Peace; we also ask her to intercede for us that we might receive grace to live up to our calling as royal children of God. We invite her to be the Queen of our hearts!

I would like to close with a prayer written by Father Joseph Kentenich, the founder of Schoenstatt, while he was imprisoned in the concentration camp of Dachau. Turning to Mary, Fr. Kentenich prayed for an awareness of this royal calling in an environment where human dignity was mocked and many human beings acted like animals. May we also be aware of our royal dignity as children of God and of Mary, and may we live that dignity as Mary did in imitation of her Son Jesus by offering lives of service in praise of the God who created us.

Let us walk like you through life,
let us mirror you forever,
strong and noble, meek and mild,
peace and love be our endeavor.
Walk in us through our world,
make it ready for the Lord.[5]


[1]In 1987, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the U.S. even published the Order of crowning an image of the Blessed Virgin Marywith several options for a liturgical celebration during or outside of holy Mass.

[2] Cf. John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater 41.

[3]Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus (1950); DS 3903; LG 59; cf. Rev. 19:16.

[4] John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater, 41.

[5] Joseph Kentenich, Heavenwards: Prayers for the Use of the Schoenstatt Family. (Waukesha, 1992), 171.


Breaking Open the Word: The Season of Easter (Cycle A, Weeks 1-5)

FrCharlieGordonCSCRev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C.

Co-Director, Garaventa Center

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Easter Sunday

The Sequence puts it well, “Death and life were locked together ResurrectedChristin a unique struggle.  Life’s captain died; now he reigns, never more to die… Christ my hope has risen.  He will go before you into Galilee.”  Christ is risen.  In him, we have won a great victory over death –our greatest and most ancient foe.  It only remains for us to share in the fruits of that victory.

2nd Sunday of Easter

Christ responds to Thomas’s expression of faith by asking, “HaveThomas
you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” That’s us. We’re the one’s who’ve not seen the marks in Our Lord’s body, yet believe. But, with eyes of faith, we can recognize in one another the kind of things that he would say – the kind of things that he would do.

3rd Sunday of Easter

Then the resurrected Christ himself joined the two disciples on their walk. He said to them, “What little sense you have! How slow you are to believe all that the prophets have spoken.” And he proceeded to explain to them every passage of Scripture that referred to him. So they had all the facts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. They had the Scriptures. They had Jesus Christ himself explaining the meaning of the Scriptures.
Yet the two disciples still didn’t recognize Jesus. Apparently RoadtoEmmausnothing could make them realize the truth of Jesus’ identity.

4th Sunday of Easter

ChristShepherdWhen morning came, the sheep had to be sorted out into their
individual flocks for another day’s quest for water and good grazing. But how could this be done? The sheep weren’t branded like cattle in a western movie. They weren’t marked with paint the way modern flocks are. Instead, each shepherd would come to the gate and call out to his flock. The sheep knew their shepherd’s voice and responded to it. They came out of the pen and followed him into the hills.

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Something similar may be happening in our Gospel today. The LastsupperDiscourseapostles are gathered around Jesus. He is in the midst of his farewell discourse. It had to be evident to the apostles that these solemn words of their master’s were profoundly important: a kind of summation of all that he had taught and of everything they had experienced together. They must
have been hanging on his every word.

The Liturgical University

Reading this account of Christian worship and the University this afternoon. What do folks think:

DesiringtheKingdomFrom James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation

…if we begin from that humans are liturgical animals, and that the Christian social imaginary is carried in the practices of Christian worship, then a very different picture should emerge: the role of the chapel is not to stir our emotions or merely fuel our ‘spiritual’ needs; rather, it is the space in which the ecclesial university community gathers to practice (for) the kingdom by engaging in the liturgical practices that form the imagination. If Christian education is formation, and such formation happens in the full-bodied practices of worship, then worship is the sine qua non of Christian education. Worship, in others words, is the crucial incubator for hatching Christian accounts of the world (224).

Made Alive in the Spirit

John CavadiniJohn C. Cavadini, Ph.D.

McGrath-Cavadini Director,
Institute for Church Life
Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame


Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Thursday, April 24, 2014 (Thursday within the Octave of Easter). We are grateful for the author’s permission to share it here.

The reason why Christ died for sins once for all,
the just man for the sake of the unjust,
was that he might lead you to God.
He was put to death
insofar as fleshly existence goes,
but was given life
in the realm of the spirit.
He went to heaven and is at God’s right hand,
with angelic rulers and powers subjected to him.
(1 Peter 3:18, 22)

Put to death in the flesh
But made alive in the spirit …

This is a simpler translation than the one above that is printed in the Liturgy of the Hours. This is from the NRSV, translating what is a lapidary and enigmatic passage in the Greek:

Thanatotheis men sarki
Zoopoietheis de pneumati

Emmaus iconThe New American Bible has also left behind the translation of the 1970 version of its earlier self, still alive in the flesh of the Liturgy of the Hours, but made alive in the spirit in the 1986 revised text, having given up trying to micromanage our imagination, and deciding to remain content with the simple opposition presented in the Greek:

Put to death in the flesh,
He was brought to life in the spirit …

I know it is somewhat insufferably academic to attempt a ponderous point about translation from the Greek in a simple reflection such as this, but the earlier translation, and its ultimate death in the flesh, the unrighteous for the righteous, is instructive. It illustrates a tendency that I think we all have, or at least I know I have, in thinking about the Resurrected Lord. We seem to want more, and we are given less.  The Greek text of 1 Peter 3:18 in its simplicity offers an invitation to the Christian imagination by its refusal to give much more beyond a contrast between death in the flesh and life in the spirit, and we don’t even know if there should be a capital “S” in English, as the King James version does supply, along with a “by” instead of an “in”:

Being put to death in the flesh,
But quickened by the Spirit.

I can’t resist pointing out that the 1963 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine version, a revision of the Challenor-Rheims translation, does leave the simple opposition of the Greek intact:

Put to death indeed in the flesh,
He was brought to life in the spirit …

But it reserves its micromanaging for the notes, where it explains that “brought to life in the spirit” is “a reference to the new activity of Christ’s soul in limbo” (let us concede—it is somewhat justified by the next verse, left out of today’s reading, in which also he went and preached to those spirits that were in prison (v. 19).

Even the note in the NRSV, which I won’t quote now, seems to want to get into the act of not allowing the laconic contrast we are given to invite, and so to challenge, the Christian imagination.

The New Testament seems aware that we Christians want to micromanage our Risen Lord. Has it ever made you, as a Christian believer, a little squeamish that it sometimes seems to take so long for the disciples to recognize the risen Jesus? That long, long walk on the road to Emmaus? All that time?? The disciples even tell Jesus about himself without recognizing Him?? And at the end of the Gospel of John, at the breakfast on the seashore, none of the disciples dared ask him Who are you, because they knew, we are assured, it was the Lord (Jn 21:12). Then why would they be tempted to ask? And, of course, Mary Magadalene mistakes him for the gardener. But when she does recognize Him (who actually is the Gardener in the New Garden of Paradise) Jesus tells her, Do not touch me! (Jn 20:17).

The New Testament is aware that we want to “touch” Jesus prematurely, to slap Him on the back like He just made a homerun or a 100% legal return on a really risky investment, — Great going, Big Guy! Glad you’re Back! — reassuring ourselves that what happened is almost next to nothing, now that it is over, here He is, back in the flesh exactly as before …

Noli Me Tangere-Ciro FerriBut He says, “Do not touch me—do not seize me and narrow me down to your terms, I’m not risen on your terms, I’m here to bust up your terms, I am not “yours,” rather, you are Mine. I am the righteous, put to death for the unrighteous; — I joined the unrighteous truly, but on my terms, righteousness; yet I did not shrink from your terms—narrowness, injustice, sin and death—but accepted them, on my terms, the just for the unjust, the righteous for the unrighteous, and so what lives now—in the spirit—is my terms — you are Mine, on My terms — don’t try to go back — THAT’s what you should forget about—those old terms—I died in the flesh and with it died those old terms — please don’t go back — can you recognize Me now? Not in a micromanaged “realm of the spirit” but right here —alive on My terms, in the spirit—can you dare to risk it — life in the spirit? — because if you do, not only will you get a return on your investment, you will forget about your investment completely, the return will be so large, for it is Me, Me Myself—beyond and above your terms and your calculations — that is offered as your return, and — “the wedding feast of the Lamb has begun” — and — “his bride is prepared to welcome him.” Won’t you leave the old terms behind and come? — the Spirit and the Bride say, Come! — indeed — let everyone who is thirsty, come! (Rev 22:17)  Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!  (Rev 22:20)