Friday, December 21

Luke 1:57-66: Our reading of Luke’s Gospel today, illumined by our reading of the last chapter of Malachi, brings us now to the birth of John the Baptist, about whom three reflections suggest themselves.

First, John the Baptist was a distinctly cultured man. In fact, Luke says a great deal about the roots of culture. John was a Jewish priest by inheritance and blood. His mother was from the tribe of Levi, and of his father we read that he was a priest of “the division of Abijah.” He was the heir of a great spiritual legacy, and very early in life he began to assimilate that inheritance.

How early? According to Luke he was in his sixth month of gestation. Even at that age, however, he had already assimilated enough of his religious inheritance that he leaped in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice and the approach of the Son of God she carried.

That is to say, even three months before he was born, and without the slightest ability to reflect critically on his existence, he was already a believer. He already had faith, a faith proportionate to his age and condition. He was in possession of an infant’s faith, the only kind of faith of which he was capable. This is why, eight days after his birth, he was circumcised as a member of God’s people.

This infant faith has been essential to the history of the Christian Church, because it is a fact that the great majority of Christians did not come to the Christian faith as adults, but as infants and children. We baptize the infant members of the Church for exactly the same reason that John the Baptist was circumcised eight days after his birth. That is to say, such children are already believers, just as John the Baptist was a believer.

In the case of John the Baptist, moreover, this faith began before he was born. His ears could already hear the prayers of his mother and father. He could already listen to the hymns they sang at home and in the temple. The sounds of their voices were already giving shape to his soul. In proportion to his tiny abilities, his culture was already taking shape. He was already assuming his place in history.

This must be true of all the children that we raise in the Church of God. Through all five of their senses, we instruct them who they are and what they believe. We give them their faith. Because they are already believers, we baptize them, we chrismate them, we place the Holy Communion in their little mouths. We hand these children their inherited culture. We insert them into salvation history.

Second, John the Baptist was a man of character. We observe that John was never shaky about who he was. The lines of his identity were firmly in place: he had what the Greeks called “character.” He was severely tried over the course of his life, but he seems never to have had an identity crisis. He appears in the Gospels as a man of unusual self-confidence—enough self-confidence to call his whole generation to repentance! He was not afraid of the religious authorities in Judaism, and he was not the least intimidated by the political authorities that would eventually take his life.

He held his identity as a matter of memory, memory earlier than his ability to recall critically. This memory, for John, was primitive, more aboriginal than mere recollection. The man that finally placed his neck on the block for his beheading is the same person as the child that was awakened by the voice of the Virgin Mary as he nestled in his mother’s womb. Through all the vicissitudes of his life, there was a personal continuity in John the Baptist.

Third, John the Baptist was a humble man. Knowing quite clearly who he was, he was equally clear about who he wasn’t. In fact, John was much queried on this point: “Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed: ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him: ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?’ He said: ‘I am The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

Because he devoted his life to the service of God, it was obvious to John that he was not God. Knowing who he was, and being faithful to who he was, John did not try to be somebody else. Of his cousin, Jesus of Nazareth, John said, “He must increase, and I must decrease.”

Because he knew the identity of the Christ, and, indeed, he identified Christ to his contemporaries, John did not think of himself as very important. That is to say, he was a humble man. And in John’s case we perceive that humility has nothing to do with self-doubt or a lack of self-assurance. His humility came from his relation to Christ; it was not some sort of psychological game that he played with himself.

For this reason, John continued to grow, as the Evangelist Luke wrote of him. He increased in character as he grew in humility.

Saturday, December 22

Revelation 22:1-11: The biblical story begins and ends in paradise. Thus, in John’s vision of the river of paradise we remember the four-branched river of paradise in Genesis 2. Both here and in Ezekiel 47:1-12 there are monthly fruits growing on the banks of the river—twelve in number, obviously—and just as Adam’s curse drove him out of paradise, along with all his descendents, so the leaves of the paradisiacal tree of life are for the healing of the nations.

The theme of the living waters is very much central to the Johannine corpus (cf. John 4:7–15; 7:38; 19:34; 1 John 5:6–8).

Heaven, portrayed here as vision and worship with the angels (verses 8-9), is for all those whose foreheads are sealed with the mark of the living God. This sealing, of course, stands in contrast to the mark of beast. (It is curious to note that, outside of the Book of Revelation [7:2–3; 9:3–4; 13:16–18; 14:1.9; 17:5; 20:4], the word “forehead” does not appear in the New Testament.) The literary background of John’s sealing is apparently Ezekiel 9:1–4.

The urgency of John’s message is indicated by the command that he not seal it up for future generations. The Lord’s coming, in fact, will be soon, and it is imperative for John’s readers to “get out” the message. John’s visions are not sealed, concealed, esoteric codes to be deciphered by future generations. John clearly expects his own contemporaries to understand what he is writing. These things “must shortly take place” (verse 6); it will all happen “soon” (1:1, 3). John is warning his contemporaries that a special moment of judgment and grace is upon them and that they had better prepare themselves for it, because it is later than they think.

This final chapter of Revelation resembles in several particulars the first chapter of the book; one feature of which is that Jesus speaks to John directly. In both chapters He is called the Alpha and the Omega (verse 12; 1:8). As in that first chapter, likewise, the references to Jesus’ swift return (verse 7, for instance) do not pertain solely to His coming at the end of time; He is saying, rather, that in the hour of their trial those who belong to Jesus will find that He is there waiting for Him. The blessing in verse 7, therefore, resembles the blessing in 1:3.

In this book a great deal has been said about the worship in the heavenly sanctuary. Now we learn that Christians already share in the worship that the angels give to God (verses 8–9).

Verse 11 indicates a definite cut-off point in history, which is the final coming of Christ. Verse 12, which quotes Isaiah 40:10, promises the reward, which is access to the Holy City, eternal beatitude, the fullness of communion with God. In preparation for that reward, verses 14–16 have something of an altar call, an appeal for repentance, based on all that this book has said.

In referring to those “outside” the City, John is relying on an ancient Eucharistic discipline of the Church called “excommunication,” which literally excluded the person from receiving Holy Communion (cf. Didache 9.5; Justin Martyr, First Apology 66.1). One of the major problems of the Christian Church, in any age, is that of distinguishing itself from the world, and the Christian Church, like any institution in history, finds its identity threatened if it does not maintain “lines” that separate it from the world. In early Christian literature, beginning with the New Testament, we find the Church insistent on making those lines sharp and clear. This preoccupation is what accounts for the rather pronounced “them and us” mentality we find in the New Testament. It is an emphasis essential to maintain if the Church is to preserve her own identity down through history.

Sunday, December 23

Last Sunday of Advent: We stand now at the threshold of Christmas and the Mystery of the Incarnation. Rather early the Christian mind began to ask, “Why did God become man?” The Council of Nicaea declared simply that the Incarnation took place “for us men and for our salvation.” That is to say, it is a dogma of the Church that the intent of the Incarnation was soteriological. God’s Son took flesh in order to save us.

For the rest, however, the history of theology has witnessed a certain diversity in the ways this soteriological intent of the Incarnation was expressed. More specifically, the answer to the question “Why God became man?” depended in no small measure on the meaning of salvation, and Christians, even from New Testament times, have variously described salvation.

For example, the soteriological intent of the Incarnation was expressed very early in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which we begin reading tomorrow. According to this source, the Incarnation provided God’s Son with the means of suffering and dying in obedience to His Father. Commenting on Psalm 39 (40), the author wrote with respect to the Incarnation: “Therefore, when He came into the world, He said: / ‘Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, / But a body You have prepared for Me. / In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin / You had no pleasure. / Then I said, / Behold, I have come / In the volume of the book it is written of Me / To do Your will, O God’” (10:5–7). That is to say, the obedience of Christ was to fulfill and replace the various sacrifices of the Mosaic Law, and for this task the Son obviously required a body.

Moreover, the Son needed this body in order to suffer and die for the human race. Thus, commenting on Psalm 8, this author described in what way the Son became man for our salvation. “We see Jesus,” he wrote, “who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone” (2:9). (We will be reading this text on Christmas Day.)

In order to “taste death” in obedience to the Father, then, the Son assumed our flesh. In order to die as an act of sacrifice, he had to share the mortality of our flesh. Hebrews goes on to say, “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.”

In sum, two aspects of the soteriology of the Incarnation are especially to be observed in treatment of the theme in Hebrews. First, God’s Son assumed our flesh in order obediently to die in that flesh. Second, His death in the flesh meant the destruction of the devil, “who had the power of death.” According to Hebrews, then, God’s Son took flesh in order to die, and He died in order to overcome death and the devil. This line of theological reflection—Incarnation, death, victory—continued throughout Christian history, combining with other biblical themes along the way.

Monday, December 24

Christmas Eve: In the second century, Irenaeus, the second bishop of Lyons, also asked the question, “Why the Incarnation?”

In addressing this question, he followed the same theological line as the author of Hebrews, but he adorned it by introducing the Pauline contrast between Christ and Adam. According to Irenaeus the Word’s assumption of the flesh was required for our salvation because Adam’s sin had been committed in the flesh. Sin in the flesh required salvation in the flesh. He explained, “So the Word was made flesh in order that sin, destroyed by means of that same flesh through which it had gained mastery and taken hold and lorded it, should no longer be in us,” and “that so He might join battle on behalf of our forefathers and vanquish through Adam what had stricken us through Adam” (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 31).

As I noted, Irenaeus here is clearly the heir to St. Paul, who contrasted Christ and Adam in terms of “disobedience unto death” and “obedience unto life” (Romans 5:12–19).

In his treatment of salvation, however, Irenaeus stresses the Resurrection much more explicitly than is obvious in the Epistle to the Hebrews, and this in turn colors his approach to the Incarnation. Thus, he writes of “our Lord’s birth, which the Word of God underwent for our sake, to be made flesh, that He might reveal the resurrection of the flesh and take the lead of all in heaven.” In this way, explains Irenaeus, Christ becomes “the first-born of the dead, the head and source of the life unto God” (op.cit, 39).

In his development of this idea, Irenaeus is still following the lead of St. Paul, who contrasted Christ and Adam with respect to death and resurrection: (1 Corinthians 15:22, 45).

In tying the soteriological intent of the Incarnation to the Lord’s resurrection from the dead, Irenaeus advances an important doctrinal perspective. We may contrast this perspective with the soteriology of some later Christians, who concentrated entirely on the Lord’s atoning death as the means of our redemption, with scarcely any attention to the soteriological significance of the Resurrection.

Thus, Irenaeus, not neglecting the biblical theme of “obedience in the flesh,” sets himself to provide a more ample answer to the question “Why Incarnation?” His larger answer to this question, an answer that includes the Lord’s resurrection, colors his soteriology with a dominant concern for the total transformation of humanity, and all of creation, in Christ. This became a major theme in Irenaeus.

Tuesday, December 25

Christmas Day: Addressing the question, “Why did God become man?” Athanasius of Alexandria largely follows the lines of response already elaborated in the Epistle to the Hebrews and in Irenaeus of Lyons—namely, the Incarnation was required for man’s reconciliation with God.

Man’s repentance from sin, Athanasius contended, would not have been sufficient to restore him to friendship with God. To imagine otherwise is to suppose an inadequate and unbiblical view of sin. Sin is not a merely moral offense, after all, an injury readily cured by simple repentance. Still less is it just a forensic declaration of guilt that could be reversed by a contrary declaration of reprieve. Nor is sin just a spiritual state that can be altered by some kind of spiritual adjustment. And certainly sin is not the sort of affront that can be remedied by a sincere apology.

According to Holy Scripture sin is bondage to death and corruption. Death and corruption are not punishments imposed on sin from without. They are internal to sin itself, the very “embodiment” of sin. Man was warned, “in the day that you eat of it you will die!” Thus, the Apostle Paul declared that “sin reigned in death” (ebasilevsen he hamartia en to thanatoRomans 5:21). To deal with sin, it was necessary to deal with death.

For this reason, Athanasius argued, the power of sin, which is the corruption of death, had to be defeated in the flesh. This necessity of the Word’s enfleshment pertained to what Athanasius called “the divine reasonableness” (to evlogon to pros ton TheonOn the Incarnation 7).

Whereas many later theologians, especially in the West, thought of Redemption in terms of the divine justice, Athanasius thought of it in terms of the divine “reasonableness” or evlogon[—]that sustained propriety, coherence, consistency and proportion that distinguishes all of God’s dealings with men.

The death of Christ in the flesh, in the eyes of Athanasius, was directed, then, not at God’s offended justice, but at man’s bondage to corruption. God had not told Adam, “in the day that you eat of it, I will get terribly upset,” but “in the day that you eat of it, you will die.” Sin entered into man, not God.

For sin to be defeated, something in man had to change. Now, since man had fallen in the flesh, reasoned Athanasius, it was reasonable, symmetric, appropriate, and proportionate—in short, evlogon—that man be restored through the flesh. “For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world” (ibid. 8).

Thus, Athanasius explained, it pertained to the Word, “and to Him alone, to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to guard for the Father His reasonableness in all things (to hyper panton evlogon). Being the Word of the Father and above all, He alone was, consequently, able and qualified to recreate (anaktisai) all, to suffer for all (hyper panton pathein), and to represent all to the Father” (ibid. 7).

Following the line of argument that we find in Hebrews 2, Athanasius reasoned thus: “The Word understood that corruption could not be destroyed except through death. Yet, as God’s Word and Son, He was immortal and could in no wise die. For this reason He took on a body capable of dying.” By sharing the flesh of mortal human beings, Athanasius went on, God’s Word offered Himself on their behalf: “By surrendering to death the body that He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from defilement—by this proportionate offering—He obliterated death for all those who shared it with Him” (ibid. 9).

In order to overcome this corruption of sin, however, it was required, not only that God’s Word should die in the flesh, but also that He should rise again in the flesh. Only in the Resurrection was corruption abolished. Indeed, God’s Word assumed the body in order to be raised in the body: “It was the Lord’s chief concern to bring about (poiein), the resurrection of the body. With respect to death this was the trophy for public display, to be everyone’s guarantee that He had overcome corruption, and that their own bodies would in due course be incorrupt. It was in pledge thereto and as a declaration of everyone’s future resurrection that He preserved His own body incorrupt” (ibid. 22).

For this reason, wrote Athanasius, Christ died in order to rise: “death had to precede resurrection, for there could be no resurrection without it” (ibid. 23). “He descended in a body, and He rose again, because He was God in a body. . . . Death pertains to man. Therefore the Word, as God, became flesh in order that, being put to death in the flesh, He might give life to all men by the power that is proper to Him” (Against the Arians 1.44).

In Athanasius, then, whose Christology became the standard of orthodoxy in the fourth century, the Incarnation pertains essentially to the mystery of man’s redemption. He insisted that the Word’s assumption of our flesh was the condition of His death and Resurrection, because he perceived the “fleshly” nature of that redemption. For Athanasius the doctrine of the redemption meant that something changed in man, not in God.

Wednesday, December 26

The Day After Christmas: Although Church dogma did not define, until the Council of Chalcedon in 451, that Jesus Christ is one person “confessed in two natures,” versions of that formula had long been standard in theology, especially in the West.

For example, decades prior to Chalcedon, St. Augustine of Hippo had spoken of Jesus as “one person in each nature” (una persona in utraque naturaSermons 294.9) and had affirmed, “he who is God is the very one who is man, not by the confusion of nature but by unity of person” (Sermons 186.1; cf. Enchiridion 10.35; De Trinitate 1.7.14; 13.17.22). Jesus Christ, said Augustine, is “all God and all man” (totus Deus et totus homoSermons 293.7; cf. 130.3; Tractatus in Joannem 19.15; 47.12). Summing up his Christology near the end of his life (in 430), Augustine wrote that God’s Son assumed our humanity “in an incomparable union in such wise that He who assumed and that which was assumed is one person in the heart of the Trinity” (de Predestinatione Sanctorum 24.67).

If Augustine was a precursor to Chalcedon, however, he was also an heir of Nicaea. After spending his youth imagining Jesus “only as a man of excellent wisdom that no one could equal,” Augustine at last learned the correct Nicene Christology during the catechumenate that preceded his baptism in 387 (Confessions 7.19.25). We also know that he had begun to read St. Athanasius about that time (8.6.14–15; 10.23.50).

Like Athanasius (cf. On the Incarnation 7-9, 22-23; Against the Arians 1.44), Augustine approached the mystery of the Incarnation under the perspective of soteriology, specifically man’s deliverance from mortality and his liberation to immortality, his movement from death to life.

We see this in Augustine’s analysis of the mediation of Christ. When he treats of Jesus as our Mediator, he does so, like Athanasius, in terms of man’s passage from death to life. That is to say, God’s Son is the distributed middle, the medium between mortality and immortality. He assumed the first from us, wrote Augustine, in order to give us the second (de Consensu Evangelistarum 1.35.53). God’s Son took away our mortality through His death (Enchiridion 33; Enarrationes in Psalmos 103.8) and conferred His immortality upon us through His resurrection (The City of God 9.15; 10.24). “In His passion,” wrote Augustine, Christ “became the sacrifice, and in His resurrection He restored (innovavit) what had been killed and offered it as a first fruit to God” (Enarrationes in Psalmos 129.3.7). In the Incarnation, that is to say, He was born in our flesh in order to die and rise in our flesh.

Augustine returned to this theme repeatedly. “We need a Mediator,” he wrote, “who, united to us here below by the mortality of His body, should at the same time be able to give us truly divine help in cleansing and liberating us by means of the immortal righteousness of His spirit, whereby He remained heavenly even while here on earth” (The City of God 9.17).

For Augustine, then, the redemptive mediation of Christ was enacted, not in the single event of the cross, but in the full Christian mystery, from the first moment of the Incarnation until the final glorification of the risen Lord (Against Cresconius the Donatist 4.54, 64). Augustine’s perspective on this matter was historical. For him, the mediation between God and man was effected in all those historical events—Christ’s birth, His crucifixion, His death, and His resurrection—by which He, in our flesh, took away our sinful mortality and conferred on us His godly immortality (Tractatus in Joannem 23.15).

Indeed, Augustine viewed all of human history under the perspective of those things that the incarnate Word accomplished in the flesh (The City of God 18.46).

Because he thought of salvation as the attainment of immortality, nonetheless, Augustine believed that it was ultimately with a view to the resurrection that God’s Son assumed our flesh. The “Christian doctrine and religion,” Augustine wrote, “was defined in the resurrection of Christ” (18.54). Hence, he called Christ’s resurrection “the salvation of Christians”—salus Christianorum, apparently in the sense that resurrection is what Christians mean by salvation (Sermons 361.3). The risen Christ, he wrote, is the cause and the exemplar of our own final rising (Letters 102.1.5).

Thursday, December 27

John 1:1-18: In comparison with the other three gospels, John’s is perhaps most distinctive by the relative diminution of dominical preaching about the Kingdom. This very noun, basileia in Greek, appears in John only in the discourse with Nicodemus (3:3,5) and the trial before Pilate (18:36).

In the latter setting, Jesus calls Himself a King (18:37), a detail consonant with earlier parts of the Gospel (1:49; 6:15; 12:13, 15). In the Fourth Gospel, the theme of the Kingdom—so dominant in Matthew, Mark, and Luke—is shifted to Jesus Himself, an implicit recognition that He is the Kingdom. Under John’s pen, this theme becomes more immediately personal; the Kingdom is not even conceptually separable from Jesus. “He is the King of heaven,” wrote Origen in the third century, “and as He is wisdom itself [avtosophia], and He is righteousness itself [avtodikaiosyne], and He is truth itself [avtoaletheia], no less is He the kingdom itself [avtobasileia]” (Commentary on Matthew 14.7). For this reason, in John’s Gospel Christology embraces what the Synoptic Gospels call the Kingdom.

John begins by identifying God’s Son as the “Word,” a term used in this gospel only within its first fourteen verses. This restrained use is significant, because it leads to the culminating assertion, “and the Word became [egeneto] flesh and dwelt among us.” That is to say, the identification of the Word is relevant for John only with respect to the Incarnation, the Word’s becoming flesh, the eternal becoming temporal, the transcendent becoming spatial, the divine becoming human. Everything else that follows in John’s account—all the words (2:22; 4:41, 50; 5:24, 38; 7:36, 40; 8:31, 37, 43, 51, 52; 10:19; 12:48; 14:23, 24; 15:3, 20; 17:6, 14, 17) and signs (2:11, 23; 3:2; 4:54; 6:2, 14, 26; 7:31; 9:16; 11:47; 12:18, 37; 20:30) of Jesus—rests on the foundation of this “becoming” (egeneto), this radical event of the Incarnation.

This is the basis for all the revelation that comes through Jesus: “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him” (2 John 7). For John this is the most radical affirmation of the Christian faith: “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God” (1 John 4:2). The Incarnation is, moreover, the root of man’s new life, because the Word’s birth from man is what makes possible man’s birth from God (John 1:13; 1 John 5:18).

John’s identification of Jesus Christ as God’s Word, then, is not only metaphysical, but also soteriological. He is the Savior (4:42) because He is the Word made flesh. The Word’s life “was the light of men” (1:4). In Him God was revealed (1:14), and in this knowledge of God consists eternal life (17:3). This knowledge of God is conveyed in the living person of the Word made flesh. The signs that He enacts reveal the divine glory (2:11; 11:40; 12:41). God’s word is truth (17:17); the Word incarnate is the same truth (14:6).

For this reason, John identifies Christ as “the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” 1:9). It is impossible, perhaps, to exaggerate the importance of the image of light (phos) in John. Indeed, a simple word count is instructive here. In the Fourth Gospel this noun is found 23 times, whereas we find it only 15 times in the other three gospels combined. It is worth remarking that John does not use this noun after chapter 12, prior to the account of the Passion; this “light” pertains directly to the Lord’s public ministry, the manifestation of the divine glory in His words and signs.

This image of the light is also soteriological as well as metaphysical. That is to say, Jesus is the Light with specific reference to man’s salvation: “”I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (8:12). Hence, just prior to the Passion narrative Jesus warns: “A little while longer the light is with you. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you; he who walks in darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light” (12:35–36). And shortly later: “I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness” (12:46).

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)