Friday, December 26
The Feast of St. Stephen: Generations of preachers have employed no little ingenuity, and sometimes a fair measure of eloquence, to expound the theological reasons for celebrating St. Stephen’s Day so close to Christmas. It is not to slight those rhetorical efforts that one reflects that “the feast of Stephen” was celebrated long before anyone thought of celebrating the birthday of the Savior. Stephen, that is to say, got into the liturgical calendar first.
Indeed, there is good reason to think that St. Stephen’s is among the oldest feast days in the Christian Church. Moreover, except for the days of Holy Week and the paschal cycle itself, it is possible that the annual commemoration of the martyrdom of St. Stephen is the oldest feast day in the Christian liturgical calendar.
We know, first of all, that very early the dates of the martyrs’ deaths were commemorated annually in their local churches. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, from Smyrna in AD 156, is our earliest explicit witness to this custom, but it seems already to have been traditional.
Stephen, the first martyr after the death of Jesus, was venerated in the earliest church, Jerusalem, from which all other Christian churches derived their liturgical precedents. Furthermore, primitive chronological collections affirm that the martyrdom of St. Stephen occurred on December 26 in the very year of our Redemption, and this was arguably the view of Eusebius of Caesarea. In short, then, when good King Wenceslaus, centuries later, “looked out on the feast of Stephen,” he was observing a commemoration that Christians have observed, literally, from the very beginning.
In Luke’s description of Stephen’s martyrdom, several features are worthy of remark.
First, like the Savior (John 20:19; Hebrews 13:12), Stephen is executed outside the city wall (Acts 7:58), because even in this massive miscarriage of basic justice, Stephen’s murderers adhere to the Mosaic prescription (Leviticus 24:14; Numbers 15:35–36). This is ironic, because in Lukan theology this exit from Jerusalem, for the murder of Stephen, symbolizes that outward movement of the witness from Jerusalem that is so strong a theme in the Book of Acts (1:8).
Second, and also as a feature of considerable irony, it is in this scene that St. Paul is first introduced in the Acts of the Apostles (7:58). This introduction of the Apostle to the Gentiles, at exactly this point in the narrative of Acts, is of a piece with the theological significance of Stephen’s dying outside of the walls. Later on, praying in a state of trance, Paul will say to Jesus, “And when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by consenting to his death, and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him” (22:20).
Third, there is a powerful emphasis on the Holy Spirit. It was early said that Stephen was “full of the Holy Spirit” (6:3, 5), but the statement is repeated once again in the context of his death (7:55). This emphasis, which relates Stephen’s death to the pentecostal outpouring, reflects the conviction of the early Church that martyrdom is the supreme charism of the Christian life, the final and crowning gift of the Holy Spirit that definitively seals and consecrates the testimony, the
martyria, of the Church and the believer. We meet this conviction some- what later in The Martyrdom of Polycarp and in the earliest treatises on martyrdom by the Christian apologists.
Lastly, there is a dramatic change in Stephen’s tone. Having bitterly denounced the Jews in his testimony before the Sanhedrin (7:51–53),
Stephen finishes his life by committing his soul to the Lord and devoutly praying for his persecutors (7:59–60). Luke thus takes great care to observe the similarities between the deaths of Jesus and Stephen (Luke
23:34, 46), as Irenaeus of Lyons early noted (Against the Heresies 3.12.13).
Saturday, December 27
The Feast of St John: It is often remarked that the omission of the Transfiguration account from the Fourth Gospel is properly explained by the fact that Jesus always appears transfigured in that Gospel. In its every scene, including the Passion narrative, Jesus is suffused with the radiance of the divine light. “We beheld His glory,” says St. John in the prologue, “the glory as of the only begotten of the Father” (1:14).
That prologue, which sets the theme for the entire story, is peculiar to John, whose Gospel otherwise adheres to the exact time span covered by the earliest apostolic preaching, namely, “all the time that the Lord
Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21–22). Adherence to this same primitive time frame is also characteristic of the message of Peter and Paul (10:36–42; 13:23–31), as well as the earliest of the Gospels, Mark. So too John, except for his prologue.
Matthew and Luke had expanded that original time frame by adding the stories of Jesus’ conception, birth, and infancy. John’s prologue, however, escapes the confines of time altogether, rising to God’s eternity, where “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Only then does this Gospel begin to speak of the ministry of John the Baptist (1:6, 15).
The Jesus presented in John’s Gospel, then, is the eternal Word, in whom “was life, and the life was the light of men” (1:4). Becoming flesh and dwelling among us (1:14), He is the living revelation of God on this earth. Even though “no one has seen God at any time,” John says, “the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (1:18).
These themes will appear again in the Lord’s Last Supper discourse and the long intercession that He prays at the end of it. There will He speak of His being “the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6) and refer to the glory that He had with the Father before the world began (17:5, 24).
John’s contemplative gaze at the glory of God on the face of Jesus also determines other features of his Gospel. We observe, for instance, his treatment of Jesus’ miracles. Although his narrative very intentionally includes fewer of these than do the other Gospels (20:30; 21:25),
John provides them greater theological elaboration.
John limits the number of recorded miracles, which he calls “signs,” to the sacred figure seven. Leading to the commitment of faith, these seven signs commence with the fine wine of the wedding feast: “This beginning [arche, the same word as in 1:1] of signs Jesus did in Cana of
Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him” 2:11).
The second sign John identifies as the curing of the nobleman’s son (4:46–54); as in the first case, the man himself “believed, and his whole household” (4:53, emphasis added). Next comes the curing of the paralytic at the pool (5:1–15), followed by the miracle of the bread (6:1–14), the walking on the water (6:15–21), and the healing of the man born blind (9:1–41). The final and culminating sign is the raising of Lazarus from the dead (11:1–44).
John’s recording of these revelatory signs is accompanied by theological comments on their significance, either in the detailed conversations of the narrative itself (as in the raising of Lazarus and the healing of the blind man) or by the Lord’s own further elaboration (as in the Bread of Life discourse). Thus, each of these events in the Lord’s life and ministry becomes a window through which we perceive the divine glory, and Jesus is transfigured with light through the whole narrative. In addition, two lengthy conversations, one with Nicodemus (3:1–21) and the other with the Samaritan woman (4:5–42), sound the depths of the revelation that takes place in the narrative.
At the end of the seven signs, John summarizes the tragedy of the unbelief with which the enemies of Jesus responded to His revelation
(12:37–41). This unbelief leads immediately to the Lord’s Passion, which is introduced by the great Last Supper discourse.
In every scene, then, from the Lord’s appearance at John’s baptismal site all the way through the Lord’s death and Resurrection, the divine light appears among men. John records all these things that we readers too may “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (20:31).
Sunday, December 28
Psalm 2: Psalm 1 began the book on a theme associated with Wisdom. It 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.
A king of this world, Herod, immediately felt threatened at the birth of God’s Anointed One, as we see in today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Well, Herod should be afraid, 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.”
Monday, December 29
The Prophecy of Zephaniah: The Scythians were Eurasian nomads who for centuries roamed the vast grasslands along the Dniepr, the Don, and the Volga. In Assyrian records they are known as the Ashguzai, and in the Bible, which calls them the Ashkenaz, they are descendants of Gomer, in the second generation after Noah (Genesis 10:3; 1 Chronicles 1:6). In ancient Persian their name, as preserved in an inscription of Darius, was corrupted to Skusha, from which was derived the Greek name by which we still call them, Scythians. In Greek mythology, the patriarch of the race was said to be Scythes, the son of Heracles (Herodotus 4.10). Antiquity remembered them as fearsome mounted archers.
In the seventh century before Christ, the Scythians wandered into the notice of history when they passed down through the Caucasian Gates and encroached on the Assyrian Empire. Although this contact was originally hostile, Esarhaddon (681–668) made allies of them, giving his daughter in marriage to the Scythian king, Bartatua. The Assyrians hoped to keep the newcomers around for a while, to help against the rising Babylonians and Medes.
The Scythians, however, could do pretty much what they wanted, because the Assyrian Empire was in full decline after Esarhaddon (and would collapse completely in 612). Moreover, these nomads rarely remained long in one place, and sometime between 630 and 625 they determined to go on a raiding expedition down the western half of the
Fertile Crescent. They actually had designs on Egypt, according to
Herodotus, who left us a record of what ensued: “When they arrived in that part of Syria called Palestine, Psammetichus, the King of Egypt
[Psamtek I, 664–610], met them with gifts and supplications to advance no further” (1.105). Although thus bought off from invading
Egypt, the Scythian hordes menaced much of the Holy Land, destroying the Philistine cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod.
Although the Medes, in due course, drove these invaders to the northern frontiers of the Mediterranean and up toward the Black Sea, they remained a threat to the Fertile Crescent for a long time. In the early years of the sixth century, Jeremiah still thought of them as a force to be reckoned with (51:27), and centuries later the Apostle Paul used their name as a synonym for barbarians (Colossians 3:11).
Herodotus says that the Scythian ascendancy in Asia lasted twenty-eight years, but their invasion of the Holy Land probably lasted for a only a few months. Even this brief time, nonetheless, was sufficient to inspire panic among the populace; they had already heard of those terrifying mounted archers whom even the Assyrians preferred not to fight.
One of Israel’s prophets took this Scythian invasion as a sign of God’s impending wrath. His name was Zephaniah. The Scythian attack came early in the reign of Josiah of Judah (640–609), before the Deuteronomic Reform that began in 622. Thus, Zephaniah was a contemporary of Jeremiah (Zephaniah 1:1). This dating would also explain Zephaniah’s preoccupation with popular religious syncretism, involving the worship of the Phoenician Baal, the Ammonite Milcom, and the Philistine Dagon (1:4–5, 9). It was chiefly against this syncretism that Josiah’s reform of 622 would be directed (2 Chronicles 34:8–33).
The imagery of warfare, of which the Scythians were currently providing a vivid example, prompted Zephaniah to view the judgment of God in terms of a cosmic overthrow, an undoing, as it were, of the work of Creation, especially of days five and six: “‘I will utterly consume everything / From the face of the land [‘adamah],’ / Says the Lord; / ‘I will consume man [‘adam] and beast; / I will consume the birds of the heavens, / The fish of the sea . . . / I will cut off man [‘adam] from the face of the land [‘adamah],’ / Says the Lord” (Zephaniah 1:2–3). Because man (‘adam) is taken from the very earth (‘adamah), this cutting out of the very ground from under human existence is the worst punishment Zephaniah could imagine; man’s life is left “up in the air.”
Zephaniah arguably gives us the Bible’s most detailed picture of the
Dies Irae, the Day of Wrath, “the day of the LORD” (1:14–16). It will visit all nations, not just local folks like the Philistines (2:4–7) and the small nations east of the Jordan (2:8–11), but also the Ethiopians at the southwestern corner of the Fertile Crescent (2:12) and the Assyrians at its other end (2:13–15). Most of all, warns Zephaniah, it will visit God’s holy city, Jerusalem (3:1–4). God will cut off all nations (3:6).
For all these dire warnings, Zephaniah must finally be regarded as a prophet of hope, because God is faithful to His promises. After the divine visitation of wrath has passed, God’s people are once again summoned to sing the renewal of grace (3:14–20). Even as man waited for the divine judgment, he was told, “Be silent in the presence of the Lord God” (1:7). And when His wrath is spent, this Lord God promises, “I will gather those who sorrow” (3:18).
Tuesday, December 30
John 1:29-34: This Gospel text begins, “The next day. . .” This is the reason that it is text read every year on January 7, the day after the Lord’s Baptism. It contains John’s version of the preaching of John the Baptist.
Careful note should be made of the expression, “the next day,” because it is the first of several chronological remarks that mark the opening chapters of John. It means that the author is counting the days, and he tells us that we have now arrived at the second day of his story. In verse 35 we will arrive at the third day. In verse 43 we will arrive at the fourth day. In 2:1 we jump three days. That is to say, the author goes to considerable effort to describe what transpired over the course of a week.
In fact, through 1:19 to 2:11 is an account of the first week of the New Creation. This week will culminate in the first of Jesus’ “Signs,” the miracle of Cana in Galilee. This is consonant with the beginning of John’s Gospel, which, like the Book of Genesis, commences with the words “in the beginning.”
It is with the ministry of John the Baptist that the Fourth Gospel narrative starts. 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.
In this section John the Baptist makes several points about Jesus:
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.
When Jesus is called the “Lamb” in the New Testament, two OT images come particularly to mind: the Paschal Lamb and the Lamb offered for sin on the Day of Atonement.
Jesus as the Paschal Lamb will later appear in John in the story of the Passion: “But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. . . . For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, ‘Not one of His bones shall be broken’” (19:36; Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12; Psalm 34:20). This also appears in Paul: “For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). Both Paul and John, then, regard Jesus as the true Paschal Lamb, who delivers the Chosen People on the night of the Exodus.
Among the Latin Fathers, it was usual to explain the present passage in John by reference to the Paschal Lamb.
This does not seem to be the sense in the present passage, however, and the Greek Fathers generally explain our present text with reference to the Lord’s Suffering Servant is likened in Isaiah 53. Because the Paschal Lamb was not sacrificed for sins, the sense in the present text seems to be that of the sin offering of Yom Kippur.
In identifying Jesus in this way, John sees Him as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 53 (verses 7-12): “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.
This image appears likewise in St Peter: “knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19).
Both images—the Paschal Lamb and the lamb offered for sins—seem to be present in the Book of Revelation, which most refers to Jesus as the Lamb (27 times).
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.
This is why, in the Christian Church, John is invariably named in honor immediately after the Lord’s own Mother. His image is always a central image in the church, for he was the first to proclaim Christ and Him crucified.
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.’”
Here in John’s Gospel, the Lord’s baptism by John the Baptist is not described, but it is clearly presupposed. John’s vision of the Dove (verse 32) corresponds to the Synoptic descriptions of Jesus’ baptism. We may observe here that the revelation at Jesus’ baptism is portrayed as an objective, not just a spiritual experience of Jesus.
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 Ho
ly 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.
In verse 34, some manuscripts read “the Chosen One of God” instead of “the Son of God.”
Wednesday, December 31
Only in this Gospel do we learn that Jesus’ first disciples had been disciples of John the Baptist.
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 not 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.” There is more attention given to Andrew in this Gospel than in the other three.
In verse 35 we arrive at the “third day” of the week of the New Creation.
We observe that John translates the word “rabbi,” something he would not do if he had only Jewish readers in mind (verse 38). The same is true for the names “Messiah” (verse 41 and “Kephas” (verse 42).
Thursday, January 1
Genesis 1: he opening chapter of Genesis has long been a favorite of Christians, and ancient commentators discovered in its lines profound levels of meaning. In more recent times, on the other hand, some readers of Genesis, distracted by apologetic concerns alien to the deeper interests of the Sacred Text, have failed to discover those depths. For example, even from boyhood I recall that some of my teachers were preoccupied with the length of the six “days” of Creation. Was it really necessary, they asked, to think of those “days” in the sense of having twenty-four hours? Might they not, instead, represent long periods of natural history?
The problem with such questions is that they distract the mind from the deeper message of the Sacred Text. It is safe to say that the Bible nowhere thinks of a day in our modern sense of the time required for a complete revolution of the earth. A biblical “day” is normally a standard of measurement, not an object to be measured.
Nearly from the beginning, therefore, Christians have been reluctant to measure the length of the days of Creation. This reluctance was perhaps summarized by St. Augustine of Hippo about the year 416: “What sort of days these were, it is very difficult or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say!” (The City of God 11.6).
Moreover, several ancient Christian readers of Genesis observed what seems to have escaped the notice of some modern readers—namely, that the sun was not created until the fourth day. There were three days of light and darkness before there was a sun to rise or set.
Indeed, this observation is partly the point. The setting and rising of the sun are not what determine day and night. We moderns think of the sunlight as that which creates the day, and the absence of sunlight as that which creates night. There is nothing of that idea here in Genesis. The Bible and its ancient commentators would have thought this a very shallow notion of day and night, light and darkness. In biblical thought, the sun “marks” the day; it does not create it. The day would be here, so to speak, whether the sun rose or not.
The purpose of the sun is to enable us see that it is day. Evening and morning, however, already existed for three days before there ever was a sun.
Day and night are simply the names of light and darkness (v. 5); light and darkness exist independent of the sun or any other heavenly body. We note that Genesis does not say that God creates darkness; darkness was, so to speak, already there. Darkness is nothingness; it is nonexistence. Therefore night itself is symbolic of nonexistence.
This is why night will eventually disappear (Revelation 22:5).
Light, on the other hand, is the first creation of God; “Let there be light” are His first recorded words (v. 3). The light, then, and the darkness, which are called day and night, refer to something far deeper in Creation than the phenomena that our eyes behold. Light is not simply a byproduct of solar energy. It is, rather, the principle of intelligibility in the structure of Creation. The light that God calls into being at the beginning of Genesis is that inner structure of intelligibility that the mind of man, in due course, will be created to discover and investigate. Man’s investigation of the light is called philosophy, just as his investigation of God’s Word is called theology.
Friday, 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.”
It is 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. Wher
efore, O Christ, who didst reveal Thyself and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee.”
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.”
There is a set of bookends, as it were, that enclose the Gospel of Matthew. He begins with those Gentile Magi coming to worship Emmanuel, which means God with us, and he ends the Gospel with the Lord’s mission to disciplelize 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. This present 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 dividing wall has been broken down. The Church is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Israel, the fullness of the People of God.