Sometimes – this can’t just be me – a Gospel passage resists our attention. It’s too familiar for us to engage with it; or we think we know what it means and there’s nothing more to say; or we’re puzzled by some curious form of words or seemingly irrelevant detail.
At those moments, I don’t know of a better resource than the Catena Aurea (Golden Chain) of St Thomas Aquinas. In the Middle Ages the catena became a standard genre: a theologian would assemble the best remarks by the Church Fathers and other commentators on each passage from the four Gospels. So you get the text of a few verses, followed by a couple of sentences from what St Augustine said about it, what St Gregory said, etc. It’s the perfect format for an age of soundbites and status updates: distilled spiritual wisdom. Maybe the other catenas are even better than St Thomas’s, but his is the best-known, and you can find it in an English translation – in print and online – overseen by St John Henry Newman.
Since this magazine comes out around the Feast of All Saints, take the reading for that day: the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Verse 1: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain.” Why? Well, St Thomas reproduces ten brief comments from the Fathers: some interpret it as signifying the loftiness of the divine precepts he was about to teach. St John Chrysostom notes that Our Lord was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, “Get thee up into a mountain.”
Then the Gospel says that Our Lord sat down. Is that significant? Yes, it turns out. Rabanus suggests that it mystically signifies the Incarnation: “had He not taken flesh on Him, mankind could not have come to him.”
Or take, a little later in Matthew 5, the words “If you say, ‘You fool’, you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Does that mean you can never call anyone a fool? What about St Paul calling the Galatians fools? Here St Augustine steps in: what Jesus means is that you shouldn’t call someone a fool without good cause.
Again and again, when we encounter some difficulty – a confusing phrase, an apparent contradiction, a logical problem – it turns out that the Fathers had noticed the issue a while back and found a good answer. Their wisdom was both deep and commonsensical; the Catena Aurea makes it easily accessible.