Friday, December 19
Revelation 20:1-6: The most controversial part of this passage is the “thousand years,” to which several references are made. In order to prepare ourselves to understand John here, it may be useful to reflect on the literary image of the thousand years already well known to John. In the Judaism of John’s time there was the popular belief that the Messiah would reign on the earth a thousand years (as there was, more recently, in Hitler’s fantasy of a “thousand-year Reich”). This popular belief is extant in Jewish literature of the time, such as The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs and some sayings of famous rabbis. We also find a variation on this theme in the Dead Sea scrolls, which speak of the just who live a thousand generations.
John’s scene of the Messiah reigning with His loyal followers for a thousand years seems in large measure inspired by Daniel 7, in which God is portrayed as a very old man, the “Ancient of Days,” who would take the authority from the fourth beast and give it to God’s holy ones, those who are suffering persecution for His sake (Daniel 7:9-10,22,26-27). The early Christians were fond of this passage, because Jesus had identified Himself as the Son of Man, who appears in this same scene in Daniel (7:13-14).
We note that Daniel 7 speaks of “thrones” in the plural, which Christians understood to mean that they too would take part in the judgment of the beast. In other words, they too would sit on thrones along with the Messiah (Matthew 19:28). (Indeed, St. Paul would apply this idea to a practical ethical question that arose in the early Church, in 1 Corinthians 6:1-3). To say that the believers will judge does not mean, of course, that they will judge in the same sense that God does, because only God has access to the depths of the human heart.
Nonetheless, there is a true and genuine sense in which believers stand in judgment with Christ over history. In the Holy Spirit they are given to know which elements of history are good, and which bad; they are given to discern those components of history that are of value in the sight of God, and those that are not. That is to say, the disciples of Christ are forever passing true judgment over history. They are already on their thrones with the Messiah. The final judgment, at history’s end, will simply reveal that they were, all along, the authentic judges of history.
This, then, is their thousand years’ reign. It is that area of Christian experience in which Christians are already seated in the high places with Christ, already on their thrones, already judges of history. They are said to reign because they are not slaves to the beast and its image. Their reign, nonetheless, is not yet complete, because they still have ahead of them the battle with Gog and Magog.
Gog was already well known to readers of Ezekiel 38-39, who would scarcely have been surprised to hear of him, for it was the name of a person from the somewhat recent past. The Hebrew name Gog(or Gug) corresponds to the Assyrian (Gugu and the Greek Gyges. He was a famous seventh-century king of Lydia in Asia Minor, who had died in 644. Accounts of the original Gog are found in Assyrian annals and History of Herodotus. The name is not especially important for the identification of the invader; like all the other names in these chapters of Ezekiel, it is symbolic of evil realities much larger and more menacing than their historical references. Thus understood, Gog and his forces appear here in Revelation 20. (“Magog,” by the way, appears to be an abbreviation of the Hebrew min-Gog, “from Gog.” Here in Revelation he is a derived ally of Gog, much as, elsewhere in the book, one beast shares his authority with the other beast in 13:4.)
In verses 11-15 everything testifies to its own contamination by “fleeing” from the throne of God. In Chapter 4 John had seen that throne as the origin of all things, and now he sees it as the arbiter of history. Everything flees before it. This is the final judgment, and it belongs to God alone. Here we meet once again the image of the “Book of Life” that appeared earlier in 3:5; 13:8; 17:8.
Saturday, December 20
Revelation 21:1-13: We now come to the final two chapters of John’s book of prophetic visions. Now we see no more battles, no more bloodshed, no more persecution. John sees, rather, the holy city, New Jerusalem, as the ultimate reality that gives meaning to all that preceded it.
In this final vision, which lasts two chapters, John is aware that seven things are gone forever: the sea, death, grief, crying, pain, the curse, and the night (21:1,4; 22:3,5). Here we are dealing with the definitive abolition of conflict, the end of chaos. The first symbol of this chaos is the sea, which has only such shape as it is given from outside of itself. The sea represents the nothingness out of which God creates all things, conferring meaning upon them. This chaos is both metaphysical and moral. It represents a nothingness replaced by the lake of fire, the second death. The sea is the hiding place of the monster and the setting where the scarlet woman sits enthroned. This sea disappears at the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.
If we take the earth to represent man’s empirical and categorical experience, and heaven to represent man’s experience of transcendence, then the appearance of the new heaven and the new earth means the transformation of all of man’s experience. All of it is made new. The grace of God in Christ does not sanctify just a part of man’s existence, but his whole being. Man is not a partially redeemed creature. Both his heaven and his earth are made new.
Both heaven and earth are part of God’s final gift to man, the New Jerusalem, the “dwelling of God with man.” This dwelling, skene in Greek and mishkan in Hebrew (both, if one looks closely, having the same triliteral root, skn), was originally a tent made of “skins,” as the same etymological root is expressed in English. During the desert wandering after the Exodus, this tent of skins was the abode of God’s presence with His people. Indeed, sometimes the word was simply the metaphor for the divine presence (verse 3). For instance, in Leviticus 26:11 we read, “I will set My mishkan among you . . . . I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people.”
Sunday, 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 child
ren. 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.
Monday, December 22
Revelation 21:15-27: All of history is symbolized in two women, who are two cities. We have already considered the scarlet woman who is Babylon/Rome. The other woman is the Bride, the New Jerusalem, whose proper place is heaven, but who also flees to the desert, where she does battle with Satan (Chapter 12). Now that battle is over, however, and she appears here in her glory. That other city was seated, as we saw, on seven hills, but this New Jerusalem also sits on a very high mountain, which everyone understood to be symbolized in Mount Zion (cf. Ezekiel 40:1-2). John’s vision of the gates on the city is reminiscent of Ezekiel 48.
John’s vision here, especially verses 19-21, is also related to Ezekiel 28:12-15, where we find joined the themes of the mountain and the precious stones, for this city is also the Garden of Eden, where those stones first grew (cf. Genesis 2:10-12).
The symbolic number here is twelve, which we already considered in Chapter 12, where it was the number of the stars around the head of the heavenly woman. The identification of twelve stars with twelve stones is obvious in our own custom of birthstones to represent zodiacal signs. The symbol is not only astrological, however, but also historical, because it is the number of the patriarchs and apostles. Here, in fact, the twelve gates bear the names of the twelve tribes, who are the seed of the twelve patriarchs, while the twelve foundation stones of the city are identified as the twelve apostles.
We recall that the one hundred and forty-four thousand—the number of the righteous—partly involves squaring of the number twelve. In the present chapter John stresses that the plain geometry of the holy city is square, as in Ezekiel 45 and 48. John goes beyond Ezekiel, however, in viewing the New Jerusalem as a cube, as in the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:20).
Tuesday, December 23
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.
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 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, and 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 that 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.
Wednesday, December 24
Matthew 1:18-25: In today’s reading Joseph receives two commands that affect his legal relationship to Jesus: “Take to you Mary your wife” and “You shall call His name Jesus.” In fulfilling these commands, Joseph establishes the legal relationship of King David to Jesus. It is for this reason that Joseph is here addressed as “Joseph, son of David”; this is the only instance in the New Testament where “son of David” refers to someone besides Jesus.
Every vocation is unique, surely, in the sense that the Good Shepherd calls each of His sheep by its own proper name. Still, there was something more particularly unique about the vocation of St. Joseph.
Just how does a man learn the proper form and method for being the foster-father of God’s Son and the spouse of that divine Son’s virgin mother? One suspects that there were no manuals on the subject. Joseph was obliged simply to follow God’s call wherever it led. Like Abraham, “he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). And if Abraham, in thus following God by faith, is called “our father” (Romans 4:12), there must be some sense in which St. Joseph serves as our foster-father.
With so distinctive and demanding a vocation, we might excuse Joseph if, on occasion, he sometimes felt anxious and insecure. The available evidence, however, indicates that this was not the case. Joseph appears four times in the Gospel of Matthew, an
d every single time he is sound asleep. Whatever troubles Joseph endured, they did not include insomnia. Joseph’s vocation was not simply difficult; it was impossible. Consequently, he realized that all of it, in the end, depended on God, not himself.
Two other features of this text should be noted: First, the name Emmanuel, which is translated as “God with us,” ties this passage to the very last verse of the Gospel of Matthew, the Lord’s promise to be with us always.
Second, the expression “that it might be fulfilled,” which here appears for the first of the eleven times that it is found in Matthew, more than in all of the other three Gospels combined.
Thursday, December 25
Hebrews 2:1-18: 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.
The soteriological intent of the Incarnation was expressed very early in the Epistle to the Hebrews. 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).
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.
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 somewhat 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).