Footnotes

Footnotes usually are not exciting and easily are overlooked by the casual reader. But footnotes are essential to demonstrate the reliability of research, the integrity of a term paper, the honesty of reporting. Even the four Gospels are supported by footnotes, after a fashion. And discovering relevant, important and compelling footnotes can be moving and consoling.

The most common "footnote" reference in the Gospel can be found in variations of the phrase, "so that Scripture would be fulfilled." In the accounts of the Passion of Christ, there are several references linking His Passion to the Psalms and prophets. In the garden at the time of His arrest: "I was daily with you in the temple teaching, and you did not lay hands on me. But that the Scriptures may be fulfilled" (Mk 14:49). At the foot of the cross: "'Let's not tear it,' they said to one another. 'Let's decide by lot who will get it.' This happened that the Scripture might be fulfilled that said, 'They divided my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment'" (Jn 19:24). The death of Jesus: "Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, 'I am thirsty.' A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant and lifted it to Jesus' lips. When He had received the drink, Jesus said, 'It is finished.' With that, He bowed His head and gave up His spirit" (Jn 19:28).

The purpose and effect is to link the words and deeds of Christ to the Old Testament ("Scripture") and to establish a unity of purpose in the ministry of Christ and the entire history of salvation.

After the Resurrection, the account of events on the road to Emmaus represents another significant footnote - this time with an exclamation mark - providing the correct context of the mighty words and deeds of Christ: "(Jesus) said to them, 'How foolish you are and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken. Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter His glory?' And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself" (Lk 24:25). Any doubts that the passion of Christ was not included in the ancient prophecies are put to rest with this grand finale footnote.

One significant "footnote" in the Gospels can be deduced by events. During the Transfiguration we read, "Jesus took Peter, James and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And He was transfigured before them, and His clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus" (Mk 9:2). Upon reflection, the message not only reveals the promise of heavenly glory in Christ; the event reaches back into history and elevates Moses (the law) and Elijah (the prophets) as key figures in the ministry and message of Jesus.

What is the overarching meaning of these Gospel "footnotes"? Unity of faith, confidence that comes with stability and the constant reliability of God's revelation: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Mt 5:17). Christ is not a revolutionary in a worldly way. He is not the militant son of the world we're inclined to choose over Christ, as the crowds chose Barabbas (Bar: "son of," Abbas: "the father" of this world). But His kingdom is not of this world (cf. Jn 18:36). Christ is Son of the Father, the God of the Old Testament and the New, and of all history. He is the Word made flesh, the Savior of the world.

These Gospel "footnotes" should have a profound effect on how we view Christ and His church. Church teaching is not revolutionary (except to the "revolutionary" extent we are transformed in Christ). God's gradual self-revelation as fulfilled in Christ provides the rock of our faith. The three "sources of revelation" - Scripture, tradition and magisterium - protect the deposit of faith as carried down through history with integrity. Need proof? Check any of the church's magisterial teachings (the Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example) and their footnotes extending back to the Scriptures.

Yet many persist in holding out a false (and ultimately self-destructive) hope that "someday the church will change" this or that teaching to "conform to contemporary expectations." (The attitude is rooted in a chronic inability - or more likely, refusal - to distinguish between the magisterial teachings and the other incidentals and accidentals of church disciplines and liturgical expressions which indeed can and do change over time.)

In our restlessness we always seem to be looking for "change we can believe in." But if this expectation is founded on reason, it would not only be necessary to deny the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the church, but to expunge the footnotes of ecclesiastical teaching documents throughout the history of the church. That would be a tall order and an expensive one at that. Even a major book-burning would be useless in eliminating the footnotes.

Indeed, footnotes can be very exciting because a rock solid faith in Christ and His teachings are affirmed in them. With God's grace and through a careful examination of the footnotes, we can overcome harmful doubts in our faith. Refreshed and renewed, with St. Augustine we, too, can exclaim, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

Fr. Pokorsky is pastor of St. Michael Church in Annandale.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015