Friday, December 28
Psalm 2: The Book of Psalms, having begun on a theme associated with Wisdom, next turns to messianic considerations. Psalm 2 commences: “Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine something vain.” The “blessed man” introduced in Psalm 1, Jesus our Lord, is an affront to the wisdom of this world. The powers of this world cannot abide Him. The moral contrast described in Psalm 1 thus becomes the messianic conflict narrated in Psalm 2.
As we see in today’s Gospel, a king of this world, Herod, immediately felt threatened at the birth of God’s Anointed One. Well he should, for there can be no compromise nor compatibility between the wisdom and power of this world and the wisdom and power of God. They are at deep enmity (cf. 1 Cor. 2:4–14), and our second psalm is concerned with this historical conflict. Psalm 2 is a Christological interpretation of history.
Psalm 1 had spoken of the “counsel of the godless,” and now Psalm 2 will go on to describe that counsel: “The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered in counsel, against the Lord and against his anointed [Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek].” The counsel of this world will not endure the reign of God and Christ. “Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us,” they say.
The early Christians knew the meaning of these words, and they included them in one of their earliest recorded prayers: “Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the mouth of Your servant David have said: ‘Why did the nations rage, and the people plot vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against His Christ.” And about whom are these things being said? The prayer goes on: “For truly against Your holy Servant [pais, also meaning ‘servant’ or ‘boy’] Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together” (Acts 4:24–27).
The context of this prayer was the persecution of the Church by the authorities at Jerusalem (cf. all of Acts 3–4). That is to say, the psalm’s meaning, to those Christians, was not something in the distant past; it was something contemporary to ongoing Christian history.
This psalm is not impressed by all the sinful revolution against the reign of God and his Christ. Like the first psalm, Psalm 2 will finish on the theme of the divine judgment, which blesses the just and condemns the wicked. Both psalms end much like the Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge.”
Indeed, the parallels of Psalm 2 with the “last days” described in the Bible’s final book, Revelation, are quite remarkable: the anger of the nations and the wrath of God (Rev. 11:18), the political conspiracy against God (19:19), the Messiah’s “rod of iron” inflicted on His enemies (2:27; 12:5; 19:15).
God, meanwhile, may laugh at His enemies: “He that thrones in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord will hold them in derision.” His Chosen One and Heir is already anointed. In the verse that explains the Church’s partiality to this psalm at Christmas time, the Messiah proclaims: “The Lord said unto Me: ‘You are My Son; this day have I begotten You.” These words, partly reflected at the Lord’s Baptism (Matt. 3:17) and Transfiguration (Matt. 17:5; 2 Pet. 1:17), came to express the essential Christological faith of the Church. This verse is cited explicitly in the apostolic preaching (cf. Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5; also 1 John 5:9) and directly answers the major question posed by Christian evangelism in every age: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose Son is He?” The (most likely) earliest of the Gospels thus commences: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).
“This day,” God says, “today have I begotten You.” So early in the Book of Psalms is the Christian mind elevated to eternity, that undiminished “today” of Christ’s identity—“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). No one knows the Father except the Son and he to whom the Son chooses to reveal him (Matt. 11:27). That “blessed man” introduced in the first psalm is now proclaimed in the second psalm to be God’s only-begotten Son, the sole Mediator between God and man, the Man Jesus Christ. His is the only name under heaven given men by which we may be saved. Therefore, “Be wise now, you kings; be instructed, you judges of the earth. . . . Blessed are all that put their trust in Him.” (Take from P. H. Reardon, Christ in the Psalms, Conciliar Press 2000)
Saturday, December 29
Continuing John (1:19-28): For a long time it was supposed that John’s Gospel reflected the world of Hellenistic religious speculation more than (or perhaps instead of) the inherited biblical atmosphere of Palestine. If they were familiar with the rabbinical sources and the Jewish apocalyptic material just prior to the New Testament, readers of Matthew, Mark, and Luke found themselves in familiar territory.
In John, however, they were not at home. They were obliged to deal with apparently philosophical words like Logos and what appeared to be esoteric contrasts such as light/darkness and spirit/flesh, all of them without parallel in the Synoptic Gospels. These images reminded biblical scholars of Gnosticism, so they suspected that this latter may have been John’s background.
In John, moreover, they found no simple moral instructions (like the Sermon on the Mount), no parables with a moral intent (like that of the sown seed), and no polemics about the Torah. In short, John seemed to represent a social, religious, and cultural background significantly different from that of the Holy Land in the first century. This difference was taken for granted among scholars during the first half of the 20th century.
Since the end of World War II, nonetheless, the thesis respecting such a difference has been increasingly more difficult to sustain. There appear to be three reasons for this.
First, we now know a great deal more about Gnosticism. Near the end of 1945 an entire Gnostic library was discovered at the southern Egyptian city of Chenoboskion, or Nag Hammadi, so our knowledge of Gnosticism is no longer dominantly dependent on secondary sources like St. Irenaeus and its other patristic opponents.
A critical comparison of John and these newly discovered Gnostic documents shows that they are worlds apart. Clearly, now, there is not the slightest chance that John was a Gnostic of any stripe. Indeed, we may say that John was more nearly anti-Gnostic, in the sense that he opposed the philosophical and religious impulses that Gnosticism eventually embodied. His polemical intent, moreover, would amply account for the linguistic affinities that John shares with Gnosticism.
Second, we also know a great deal more about the religious atmosphere of first century Palestine. Less than two years after the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945, the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found at Qumran. The uncovering and deciphering of these documents spawned the gradual realization that many of those supposed Hellenistic elements in John—such as the contrasts of light/darkness and true/false—were common in the religious atmosphere of Palestine during the New Testament period. Familiar with the Qumran literature, the reader of John now finds himself right at home.
Third, there has been a growing appreciation of John’s affinities to the later works of Israel’s Wisdom tradition, specifically the books of Wisdom (of Solomon) and Sirach (Ecclesiasticus). Because they were not included in the biblical canon reflected in the Masoretic text, many scholars rather neglected the study of these two books. Until recently we had them only in translation, chiefly the Septuagint Greek. Since the discovery of three fragments of Sirach among the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, and a longer one at Masada, it is now clear that this work was widely known in Hebrew in Palestine during the time of the New Testament.
A comparison of Sirach and John demonstrates their common reflective, sapiential approach to biblical history. This is true also for the Book of Wisdom. Although this latter may originally have been written in Greek, it nonetheless reflects the same Jewish liturgical traditions (especially the Passover Haggadah and the Unetanneh Tokef prayer) familiar to students of John.
Moreover, I submit that John’s similarities to Sirach and Wisdom indicate the proper context in which to understand the Fourth Gospel. Like Sirach and Wisdom, John is espousing the inherited Wisdom of the Torah and the prophets against the Hellenistic wisdom of his day. Like these two sapiential books preserved in the Greek canon of the Old Testament, John’s Gospel is a theological meditation on the salvific history of the Bible, including Creation, the patriarchs, Moses and the Exodus, and the prophets. John develops this meditation through Christology, ecclesiology, and the sacraments. In doing so, he is the Christian heir to Israel’s later Wisdom literature and an excellent guide for the study of that tradition.
Sunday, December 30
John 1:29-34: ; John 1:29-34: This Gospel text begins, “The next day. . .” It contains John’s version of the preaching of John the Baptist.
This is important, because the common tradition reflected in the NT regards John the Baptist as the most primitive Christian preacher. The Gospel begins with the preaching of John. That is to say, the earliest interpreter of Jesus, before any of the Apostles and Gospel-writers, was John the Baptist.
It is to John, therefore, that we logically go to understand the most fundamental meaning of Jesus of Nazareth, and this is the presentation given us in these six verses of the 4th Gospel.
First, Jesus is identified with “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” For John the Baptist, who preached a baptism of repentance of sins, this was the most fundamental fact about Jesus of Nazareth—He is the sacrificial victim, the definitive sin-offering, by whose oblation the sin of the world is removed.
In identifying Jesus in this way, John sees Him as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 53: “You make His soul an offering for sin.” This image of the biblical sin-offering became the earliest of the categories of Christology. Before we find it in Epistles of St. Paul, even before we find it in the Lord’s own words at the Last Supper, we find this thematic image already in the preaching of John the Baptist. John is the first to proclaim the message of the Cross. He is the first determined to know nothing but Christ, and Him crucified.
John’s proclamation of the Cross pertains not only to the doctrine of Redemption; it pertains also to his own vocation. Because the One greater than he is the Lamb offered in sacrifice, John himself must accept in his own life and vocation the standard of the Cross. He too must taste the bitterness and the gall. He too must be mutilated in his flesh and bear the darkness of abandonment. Even before Jesus, John would die in testimony to the truth. Even with respect to the Cross, John would be the forerunner.
Second, John identifies Jesus as the One through whom the world receives the Holy Spirit: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’”
John himself could not confer the Holy Spirit. Baptism in the Holy Spirit is proper to Christ’s own Baptism. Indeed, this was made a point of later Christian preaching to the disciples of John the Baptist. We read in the Acts of the Apostles: “Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples he said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ So they said to him, ‘We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.’ And he said to them, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ So they said, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Then Paul said, ‘John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.’ When they heard this , they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.”
Luke thus portrays the continuity between the preaching of John the Baptist and the preaching of Paul. Obviously John’s own disciples had not been paying very close attention. Each of the four Gospels describes John as preaching about the Holy Spirit, and yet, years later, we still find John’s disciples saying, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.”
Third, John testifies that it was the Holy Spirit who revealed to him the identity of Jesus: “I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God.”
John, then, is the first preacher to proclaim that the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth can only be given in the Holy Spirit.
Monday, December 31
John 1:35-42: This Gospel reading presents us with the two quite different brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew. Even though Peter often served as a spokesman for the other Apostles, one has the impression that he sometimes went out of his way to distinguish himself, to set himself apart, from the rest of the apostles — “Even if all are made to stumble, yet I will not be” (Mark 1:29). A consummate alpha personality, Peter simply cannot be overlooked; like the very sun, a boisterous giant rejoicing to run his course, there is nothing hidden from his heat.
Andrew, on the contrary, appears never to draw attention to himself but serves entirely as a conduit for others to come to the Lord. Even in this scene that prompts the Church to remember him as the first-called, he immediately went to share his blessing with his sibling. It is no wonder that he was known among the first Christians simply as “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.” Andrew seems always to play adagio to Peter’s allegro.
Tuesday, January 1
More on John: Almost from the beginning of Christian history attentive readers of Holy Scripture have referred to the author of the Fourth Gospel as “John the Theologian,” thereby testifying to the special theological depth that seemed to set him apart among the evangelists. Only in recent times, however, have biblical students been disposed to analyze, critically and systematically, those distinctive features that render John so unique, and to arrange those features into a synthetic picture.
We may contrast their treatment of John, in this respect, with their treatment of Paul. Even as Christians referred to John as the “Theologian,” it was the theology of Paul that they critically and systematically analyzed and arranged into a synthetic whole. There seem to be three reasons for this anomaly.
First, it is a fact that the New Testament contains more information about Paul than about John. The Acts of the Apostles in particular provides a biographical outline, of sorts, for the Apostle to the Gentiles, an outline that gives the careful student a measure of critical and analytical control in the study of the Pauline epistles. (This was true for centuries. In more recent times, alas, these students have been largely controlled by non-biblical presuppositions that often prompted them to doubt the very authorship of various epistles of St. Paul.)
Thus, it is possible to detect a personal development in Paul’s theology. Under the influence of the Acts of the Apostles, a synthetic reading of Paul’s thought takes on something of a biographical character, which links his theology more closely to his person. Such an approach to Paul is discernable as far back as St. John Chrysostom.
This kind of approach is far more difficult in the case of John. Except for a few extra-biblical references, there is no historical way to control the study of John’s writings. Among the works traditionally ascribed to John, only the Book of Revelation actually claims to have been written by him (if it is the same John!). For this reason we do not have a clear picture of John, such as we have for Paul, so that we are somewhat deprived of a personal center around which to focus our study of Johannine thought.
This consideration leads immediately to a second reason why a synthetic study of John is so difficult. Readers of the Johannine corpus have often differed very much among themselves about which of the various Johannine writings should rightly be ascribed to John. To say the least, this situation makes it very difficult to form a synthesis of “Johannine theology.”
There is a third reason why a systematic, synthetic analysis of Johannine theology has been relatively slow in coming: Unlike Paul, who dominates the epistolary section of the New Testament, the Gospel of John, which is the major component of the Johannine corpus, is simply one of four gospels. Hence the study of John has tended to be just a subsection of a more ample category, namely, “Gospel Studies,” in which category John was compared and contrasted with the Synoptic Gospels. While it was always recognized that John is special among the four gospels, it was always a case of “among.” There was no consistent pattern of isolating John’s theology itself as distinctive, because the study of John was normally part of a larger picture.
Of these three impediments to a Johannine theology, the most difficult is surely the second—the determination of limits of the Johannine canon. How can we arrive at a synthesis of Johannine thought if we are uncertain about which books John really did write?
The problem in John’s canon usually has to do with the Book of Revelation. If this book is set aside from the Johannine corpus, however, the final product of Johannine study will be more abstract, less historical, because it will be missing the prophetic, apocalyptic dimension supplied by that book. We shall certainly end up with a different John if we eliminate the Book of Revelation, very much as those who deny the Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles end up with a different Paul.
How then should one proceed? I believe that the only viable presupposition on which to base a systematic study of John is the prior acceptance of Johannine authorship, at least broadly understood, for all the writings traditionally ascribed to him—to wit, the Fourth Gospel, three epistles, and the Book of Revelation. This hypothesis is not attractive to those who find it difficult to imagine that a single author was responsible for works that differ so much among themselves with respect to genre and style. I confess to a lack of sympathy for their failure of imagination.
I believe that the full synthesis of John’s theology requires the study of three different literary forms, each with its separate characteristics: meditative narrative, epistle, and apocalyptic vision. This combination is true of no other New Testament writer.
It is also my persuasion that the acceptance of this authorial hypothesis is amply justified by the resultant fruits of such a study.
Wednesday, January 2
Matthew 4:12-17: This text from Matthew, found only in Matthew in fact, stands at the beginning of our Lord’s ministry. It is a transitional text, a sort of preamble, as it were, to the Lord’s public ministry. It follows immediately on His baptism and temptation in the wilderness, and it comes immediately before His choosing of the first disciples.
There are three points to be made with respect to this text:
First, this passage sees the ministry of Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy. Indeed, a full half of today’s Gospel reading is taken up with a quotation from the Book of Isaiah, and this quotation is preceded by the words, “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet.”
I regard it as important to look closely at this word “fulfilled” with respect to prophecy: plerothê. That is to say, in Jesus Christ the Old Testament has achieved the fullness of its meaning. No other meaning can be legitimately derived from it except through the interpretive lens of Christ.
I make a point of this interpretive principle because a great deal of American religion ignores it completely. It has become a commonplace in American religion to read biblical prophecy according to norms other than those of its fulfillment in Christ.
Let us be clear on this principle. It will save us from the error of reading biblical prophecy as though it were a set of regulation about contemporary politics, especially geopolitics, and most particularly the politics of the Holy Land. To read the Bible this way is to impose on the Sacred Text a meaning that it does not have. To assert the Bible’s “fulfillment” in Christ is to deny the legitimacy of biblical meanings apart from Christ. It is to make the Bible say what the Bible does not say.
We insist, then, that Christians are to read and understand Holy Scriptures solely through the interpretive lens called Jesus Christ. This principle is taught everywhere in the New Testament.
Second, this is a story about Christ as the “light” to the Gentiles, which ties it to the account of our Lord’s Baptism: “When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship to the Trinity was made manifest; for the voice of the Father bare witness to Thee, calling Thee His beloved Son; and the Spirit in the form of a dove, confirmed the truthfulness of His word. Wherefore, O Christ, who didst Thyself and enlightened glory to Thee” (Eastern Orthodox hymn for the Baptism of our Lord).
This Gospel continues the theme of light to the Gentiles: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned.”
This is the set of bookends, as it were, that enclose the Gospel of Matthew. He begins with thoe Gentile Magi coming to worship Emmanuel, which means God with us, and he ends the Gospel with the Lord’s mission to “disciple-ize” all the nations and His assurance to be with us always even to the end of the world. In other words this continues the theme of Christmas itself.
And what is the way to enlightenment by Christ? Ongoing repentance: metanoeíte. The Greek present-tense imperative does not mean, “repent.” It means “keep on repenting.” Repentance is not something to be done once. It is to be done all the time. Our conversion is a repeated process, finally become a habit of soul. This is how we Gentiles are to receive the light of Christ.
Third, this is a story about Galilee, and it prepares for Jesus’ Galilean mission. In the Gospel of Matthew the public life of Jesus both begins and ends in Galilee. When Jesus gives the Great Commission to the Eleven at the end of Matthew, this takes place on a mountain in Galilee. This emphasis on Galilee is one of Matthew’s most significant traits.
What does Galilee mean for Matthew? Well, today he calls it the “Galilee of the Gentiles: “He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles.”
Galilee was that part of the Holy Land where Jews and Gentiles dwelt together, and this trait is what made it an image and type of the Church. The Church is the place where Jews and Gentiles worship together; it is the place where the diving wall has been broken down. The Church is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Israel, the fullness of the People of God.
Thursday, January 3
Matthew 4:18-22: There are many things to consider, if we reflect on what it means to “follow” Christ, but today we want to regard especially what “following Christ” says about Christ Himself.
First, Christ is our Leader, our archegos. I take this word from Hebrews 12:1-2—“let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.” In His humanity God’s Son has lived a perfect life of faith, and we keep Him constantly in our regard as our model of faith.
God’s Son has passed through the full human experience, and He is the one person in history who has done it right. He alone has lived completely as God intended human beings to live. He has modeled human life and death in His own life and death.
The author of Hebrews uses the present participle to indicate what is meant by “looking unto Jesus.” In Greek the present participle refers to sustained and continued action, not a single and isolated action.
Aphorontes, says Hebrews, which means continually looking at Jesus, not glancing at Him once in a while, from time to time. It does not mean looking at Him only on Sundays, or only when we pray. Aphorontes, which is a present participle, means fixing our eyes on Him at all times, not for a moment losing sight of Him.
In this respect Christ is the fulfillment of the Law. Just as the saints of the Old Testament were to have the Torah constantly in their minds, always before their eyes, we are to have constantly in our minds and always before our eyes the One who is the fulfillment of the Torah.
Christ is to become our fixation, not our “fix.” I think we all know what is commonly meant by a “fix,” a word that refers to a narcotic that is taken to “hold us over.” Jesus is not a fix; He is a fixation. We are not to take Christ in small doses, as it were, a weekly vaccination of the Jesus germ, a vaccination to guarantee that we never “catch” the real thing. Christ is not our “fix.” He is to become our fixation, the sustained and constant preoccupation of our minds and hearts.
If we are to run the race that He has run, then we must at all times know exactly where He is. This is why there must be something obsessive about the Christian life. If we are to be, as St. Paul says repeatedly, “in Christ,” then Christ must be our very atmosphere. Christ must become our constant mode of thought, which St. Paul refers to as “the mind of Christ.”
Second, Christ is our Teacher. In the Gospels, in fact, the disciples often address Him as “Rabbi,” a Semitic word that means “teacher.” He tells us to learn from Him. To learn, we all know, I think, is to be set free from ignorance and deception.
And what is required of someone who wants to learn? Docility, which is to say “teachableness.” The surest guarantee against learning anything is the sense that one already knows it all. Recently a six year-old was explaining to me how much he knows. Indeed, to hear him tell it, he knows more than just about anybody. He has spent a full six years in this world amassing great stores of information.
If this example seems amusing, it is no funnier than a young woman I met several years ago. In her late twenties, she complained to me that her priest would not permit her to preach in her parish. She explained that she was a seminary graduate and got good grades. She went on to remark, “I never get a chance to share with anyone all the theological knowledge I acquired in seminary.” That is a verbatim quote, by the way. While I listened to this complaint, I was careful to bite my tongue. I feared that my reaction to such folly might become intemperate. I cannot imagine any of the saints making such a silly remark about all their theological knowledge.
When Jesus invites us to learn from Him, He adds, “For I am meek and humble of heart.” If meekness and humility are the qualities of Christ our Teacher, what level of meekness and humility are required of us as His students? You see, the term ‘disciple’ is simply the Latin word for student. As Christians we are life-long students of Christ, always prepared to be instructed further, ever eager to learn more.
Third, Christ is our Helper. When we follow Him, He does not run out ahead of us as to lose track of us. It is He that sustains us in the struggle.
How does Jesus treat those that endeavor to follow Him?
St. Paul learned the answer to this question while he was first at Corinth. St. Luke tells us, “Now the Lord spoke to Paul in the night by a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but speak, and do not keep silent; for I am with you, and no one will attack you to hurt you; for I have many people in this city.’”
Christ our Lord does no less for us than He did for Paul.
When we stumble, He is always there to hold us up.
When we slip and fall, it is He that restores us to the race.
When we wander and become lost, He leaves the ninety-nine sheep on the mountain and goes out in search of us.
When we can no longer walk, He carries us.
When we are weary with toil and grow faint from the journey, He it is that upholds us.
In joy He strengthens us.
In despondency He cheers us.
In repentance, He forgives us.
In all things He teaches us.
The Leader and Teacher Christ, whom we follow, is our ever present Help in time of need, the food for our journey, our living water in the desert, our fortress in affliction, the healing of our hearts, our solace in every sorrow.
The name of Jesus, therefore, is seldom absent from our lips and never absent from our hearts.
With blind Bartimaeus we cry out to Him.
With Mary Magdalene we cling to Him.
With the leper we plead with Him.
With the widow of Nain we trust in Him.
With Thomas we love and adore Him.
With Martha of Bethany we strive in all things to serve Him,
and with her sister Mary we sit docile at His feet.
With Peter we walk on the very waters to come to Him.
With the Apostles and holy women, we prostrate ourselves before Him.
This is what it means to be a disciple, and to all this Jesus our Leader and Teacher invites us today, when He says to us, as He said to the first four of His disciples, “Come, follow Me!”
Friday, January 4
Hebrews 9:1-10: Of the appointments of the ancient Sanctuary, the author says, “we cannot now speak particularly.” In fact, however, I do want to speak about three of these things in particular.
First, let speak about the sanctuary itself. A cultured people, a civilized people, builds it entire life around its sanctuary. This is as it should be, for the simple reason that human beings are made to worship. and those who do not worship are living lives seriously less than human.
Worship is not simply one of the things we do. It is the most important thing we do. It is the activity that best defines us. Indeed, according to Holy Scripture, if we are pleasing to God, then we will spend all eternity in worship.
On the other hand, those who are not pleasing to God need not worry about it. Those who do not like to worship need not concern themselves. No one can force them to worship, either in this life or the next. If they don’t want to worship, no one will compel them. They will never have to worship again.
Since all human beings are designed—constructed—put together in order to worship, God sent His only Son into the world to make true worship possible, and it is only in this Son that we are able to offer to God that true worship for which we were created.
The Old Testament sanctuary, about which we read today, was constructed on a heavenly model, and it is in that heavenly sanctuary that the Son enables us to worship. Indeed, we already have access to that heavenly sanctuary. This same author says to us: “ye have come unto Mount Zion and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, who are written in Heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.”
He does not say, “Ye will come.” He says, rather, “Ye have come.” In Jesus our Mediator we stand already among the innumerable company of angels. It is already a fact. Because of His eloquent blood, we take our place already among the spirits of just men made perfect. This is why we invoke the saints in our worship of God. We are already in their presence, standing before the same Throne at which they worship.
People sometimes call the church and ask what time the service starts. I lie and tell them the times marked in the bulletin. Strictly speaking, these times are wrong, however, because the worship is already in progress before we get here. No matter how early we arrive, the worship has already started. The angels and the saints are already chanting the praises of God.
The Church of Jesus Christ does not offer a “worship service” distinct from the eternal worship already in progress. Eternity is now. Heaven is here. We have already come to Mount Zion.
Second, let us speak of the Bread that is central to biblical worship. In today’s reading there are two types or pre-figurations of this Bread: “the showbread . . . and . . . the golden pot that had manna.” These two forms of bread in the Old Testament sanctuary—the miraculous manna and the bread of the Presence—foreshadowed the living Bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.
In both the Old Testament and the New, some form of bread is central to the act of worship. Biblical worship is constructed around the Bread. Indeed, the central act of worship prescribed in the New Testament is called simply “the breaking of the Bread.” It did not have to be defined further. Everyone knew what was meant.
Without this Bread, there is no Church. It is this Bread that makes the Church: “The bread which we break: is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, being many, are one bread and one body, for we are all partakers of that one Bread.” The bread that Jesus gives, He tells us, is His flesh, given for the life of the world. In our worship the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, comes in power upon a loaf of bread—bread baked in an oven in a kitchen in a home within the local church—and the Holy Spirit transforms that bread into a type of the eternal manna, on which the servants of God will feed forever.
It is of this bread that Jesus said, “Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the Bread which cometh down from Heaven, that a man may eat thereof and not die.” Our worship, then, is a foretaste of the mysterious bread which will sustain us for all eternity.
Third, there was a candlestick in the sanctuary. Why? Because the area would otherwise be dark. The worship of God is an exercise of light. Worship, according to the Bible, begins with light.
In our eternal worship, according to St. John, there will be no night. The difference between heaven and hell is a matter of light. Everlasting loss is described as darkness, but eternal life is described as light.
The lamp in the sanctuary has seven branches, which symbolizes the perfection of light. That is to say, it symbolizes the divine light, of which St. John said, “This then is the message which we have heard from Him and declare unto you: that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.”
We worship God in order to remain in the light and to drive all darkness from our minds and hearts. “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin.”
The light is also the first of God’s creatures, which is a good reason for worshipping on Sunday, the first day of creation. This is the day on which the Lord said, “let there be light.” This original light was not only a fact: it was also a promise, because it pointed toward a greater Sunday and a more glorious light.