Good Friday, April 10
Zechariah 13: Maintaining his emphasis on the Lord’s Passion and Death, the prophet goes on to speak of the striking of the Shepherd and the consequent dispersal of His disciples (verse 7), a text interpreted for us in Matthew 26:31 (cf. Mark 14:27; John 16:31).
This is the event by which the false gods are defeated (verse 1). These are the demonic forces brought to naught by the death of the First Born. Questioned about the marks of the wounds in His flesh, the Lord responds, “These wounds I received in the house of My friends” (verse 6).
Cyril of Alexandria wrote in the fifth century: “when the Only Begotten Word of God ascended into the heavens in the flesh to which He was united, there was something new to be seen in the heavens. The multitude of holy angels was astounded, seeing the King of glory and the Lord of hosts being made in a form like ourselves. . . . Then the angels asked this, ‘What are these wounds in Your hands?’ And He said to them, ‘These wounds I received in the house of My friends.’” These are the wounds that He will show to His disciples after His resurrection. He bears these wounds in his glorified flesh forever, as He stands before the Father, “as though slain,” being the one Mediator between God and Man (Revelation 5:6).
Matthew 25:57—26:61: Since the story of Pilate's wife is found only in the Gospel of Matthew (27:19), it seems reasonable to examine it specifically through the perspective of Matthew. What function is served by that very short narrative in that particular Gospel?
Commentators have remarked that Pilate's wife, a Gentile woman who pleads the innocence of Jesus ("that just man") serves as a literary foil to the Jewish leaders who clamor for his crucifixion (27:23). This comment is surely accurate, but it does not indicate a larger context nor an intention specific to Matthew.
Indeed, this is the sort of story we might more readily have expected in Luke. The latter, after all, is rather preoccupied with showing that the Roman authorities regarded Jesus as innocent (Luke 23:4,14-15,20,47), and among the four evangelists he is certainly the one that writes most often about women, whether in Jesus’ parables or in actual associates of our Lord.
It seems, then, that a closer examination of Matthew 27:19 is required. The text says that while Pilate "was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, 'Have nothing to do with that just Man, for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of Him.'"
This woman is portrayed, not only as resistant to the official plot to murder Jesus, but as having "suffered many things today in a dream because of Him." The most striking item here, I suggest, is her dream. The dream, then, is the place to start.
This Gentile's dream near the end of Matthew clearly forms a literary inclusion with the dream of certain other Gentiles near that Gospel's beginning. There we are told, with respect to the Magi, that "being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way" (2:12). That is the last appearance of the Magi.
The contexts of these two dreams are strikingly similar. In each case the dream takes place in connection with an official plot to kill Jesus. In the instance of the Magi this plot includes the official representative of the Roman government, King Herod, who has "gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together" (2:4). In the instance of Pilate's wife, the murderous plot involves "all the chief priests and elders of the people" (27:1,12,20; the scribes are included in 27:41). In both cases the dreams of the Gentiles are contrasted with the plots of Jesus' enemies. Pilate's wife near the end of Matthew stands parallel to the Magi near its beginning.
In each case, moreover, the plot to murder Jesus has to do with His kingship, His status as the Messiah. In the example of the Magi, these come from the East "to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?'" (2:1-2). The usurping Herod, threatened by the suspected appearance of Israel's true king, takes all the necessary precautions, including the murder of "all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under" (2:16).
The expression "King of the Jews" does not appear in Matthew again until the final plot against Jesus. It is while Pilate officiates in his judgment seat, and just before receiving the message from his wife, that he inquires, "Are You the King of the Jews?" (27:11). The source of Pilate's question here is indicated in the next verse, which tells us that "He was being accused by the chief priests and elders" (27:12). These chief priests and others correspond to the group that Herod summoned earlier when he made his own inquiry about the King of the Jews.
Matthew tells us that Pilate "knew that they had handed Him over because of envy." Indeed, he mentions this in the verse immediately preceding the message from his wife (27:18-19). This envy of Jesus' enemies readily puts the reader in mind of the earlier envy of Herod, when he too was confronted with the real King of the Jews.
There is a special irony, then, to the title by which Pilate's soldiers address Jesus in their mockery: "Hail, King of the Jews" (27:29). Pilate, moreover, apparently with a view to mocking the Jews themselves, attaches to the cross the official accusation against Jesus: "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews" (27:39). At last is answered that question first put by the Magi, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?" (2:2:2) He is on the cross, the just Man dying for the sins of the world.
Thus, the dream of Pilate's wife, which had revealed Jesus to be a just Man, completes the earlier dream of the Magi. The testimony from the East is matched by the testimony from the West, both cases representing those regarding whom Jesus commanded His Church, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (28:19).
Holy Saturday, April 11
Zechariah 14: A nun from Gaul, named Egeria, who visited the Christians at Jerusalem in the late fourth century, left us a description of the various liturgical practices of that ancient church. In the course of it, she described how, on Ascension Thursday, the believers gathered on the Mount of Olives, from which Jesus had ascended into heaven. And what did they do? They read the entire account, from the Gospel according to John, of the Lord’s suffering and death.
This remarkable detail reveals how closely the Christians of old thought to be related the various actions of the Lord by which we were redeemed. They did not think of redemption as taking place solely on the Cross, where the price of our sins was paid by our Lord’s blood (1 Peter 1:19), but as involving also the other events integral to the mystery of the Cross. The accomplishing of our redemption included also the event we celebrate today, Holy Saturday, when Jesus descended into the nether world to free the bondsmen whom Satan held there (3:19).
It included likewise His rising from the dead of Easter, inasmuch as Jesus “was delivered up for our offenses, and was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:25). As was suggested by Egeria’s account of the celebration of Ascension Thursday, the mystery of our redemption included also our Lord’s ascent into heaven and His taking His throne at the right hand of the Father, having been made for ever a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. This latter theme, of course, provides the major images of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
With this in mind, we should not be surprised that the Book of Zechariah, in the final chapter of its section dealing more explicitly with the sufferings of ou
r Lord, prophesies the Lord’s standing on the Mount of Olives (verse 4), which are symbolically divided, much as He once divided the Red Sea and the River Jordan. His ascent from the Mount of Olives will cause to flow the living waters of redemption (verses 8-9) and the reunion of all God’s people in the Holy City (verses 14-21).
Matthew 27:62-55: Matthew alone tells the story of the elaborate security provided by the Jewish leaders to guarantee that the body of Jesus would not be stolen. This account must be completed by a later one (28:11-13),in which those same enemies insist that the body was stolen! Matthew’s interest here is likewise apologetic.
Pilate’s answer to those leaders made no attempt to disguise his impatience and scorn: “You have a guard. Get out of here and guard the tomb. You know how” (verse 65).
Matthew’s style is freighted with irony. Quoting their fear that “the last deception will be worse than the first,” he identifies the deceivers as Jesus’ enemies. This last ruse of theirs will truly be worse than the earlier efforts.
Matthew recorded all this material, of course, looking back through the lens of what finally transpired!
Easter Sunday, April 12
The First Epistle to the Corinthians: This letter of the Apostle Paul was written from Ephesus in the spring. Indeed, it contains an unmistakable indication that, at the very time of its composition, Christians were already observing this new Christian Passover feast: “Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us. Therefore, let us keep the feast” (5:7f.). The next feast, Pentecost (50 days after Passover), would soon be upon them, and Paul planned to stay at Ephesus until then (16:8). If the reader keeps this seasonal timetable in mind, Paul’s special emphasis on the Resurrection in chapter 15 will seem perfectly consonant with a specific historical setting. From other chronological considerations derived from the New Testament, it further seems that the year was probably 55. If so, this Epistle was written near the end of the three years that Paul spent in that Asian city (Acts 20:31).
Paul had started the mission in Corinth in the winter of 49–50 and was to remain in the city for 18 months (Acts 18:11). He had come to Corinth from Athens, and his spirit was still trying to recover from his experience in that other city. In his final sermon to the philosophers on Mars Hill near the center of Athens, he had managed to preach for 10 verses without once mentioning the Cross or even the name of Jesus (17:22–31); very few had been converted by that effort (17:34). By the time he reached Corinth, Paul was deeply discouraged; perhaps he wondered if he had treated the gospel as a kind of philosophy. Had he gone too far in accommodating his sermon to those worldly philosophers on Mars Hill? He wondered. He was upset. He later described his feelings as those of being “in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3). He resolved that there would be no more of what had occurred at Athens. No more concessions to philosophy; no more worldly wisdom; no more “excellency of speech.” Among the Corinthians, he would “know nothing but Jesus and him crucified” (2:1f.).
That was Paul’s resolve when he began the Corinthian mission, and it quickly bore fruit. Within 18 months he was able to leave the pastoral task to others, while he headed back eastward (Acts 18:18f.). Shortly after his departure, supervision of the pastorate at Corinth was taken over by quite another kind of preacher, a man named Apollos (Acts 19:1)—“an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures” (18:24). Apollos was a native of Alexandria, one of the great intellectual centers of the ancient world.
Now it is a matter of constant experience among Christians that different preachers seem to appeal to different sorts of people, so it was no wonder that Apollos was able to bring to conversion many individuals that Paul himself had never been able to reach. The church at Corinth continued to grow. Alas, however, as it grew, it also began to divide along lines of a displaced loyalty to the individual preachers. Before long, there were those who thought of themselves as Paul’s people, others as Apollos’s people, and then a third group who had somewhere along the line been converted by Cephas (Simon Peter). These last, accordingly, thought of themselves as Cephas’s people. By the spring of 55, none of those three preachers was any longer at Corinth, but now the Corinthian Christians found themselves divided into perhaps four groups, the last one apparently calling themselves Christ’s people! (1 Corinthians 1:12). It was not a good situation.
In the spring of 55, then, the current leadership at Corinth sent a delegation to Ephesus to seek help from the founder of their congregation, the Apostle Paul. He himself was disposed to send Apollos back to Corinth to straighten things out, but Apollos, probably embarrassed by the scandalous situation, did not feel “up to” the task (1 Corinthians 16:12). Paul himself was not yet ready to leave Ephesus, so he decided to send our present Epistle, First Corinthians, by way of dealing with the strained relationships among the believers at Corinth.
The Song of Solomon: The reason the synagogue lectionary appoints this book to be read at Passover is suggested in 2:10-12: “My beloved spoke and said to me: ‘Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grapes give a good smell. Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away!’”
The damp winter weather has departed, and the spring of deliverance has arrived, says the voice of God, who now speaks tenderly to Israel, taking His espoused people by the hand to leave the bondage of Egypt: “Rise up, and come away!” Truly, “the time of singing has come.” In its deepest meaning, this is a book about the divine espousals of the Exodus, in which God says of His bride: “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, will bring her into the wilderness and speak comfort to her. I will give her her vineyards from there, and the Valley of Achor as a door of hope. She shall sing there, as in the days of her youth, as in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt” (Hosea 2:14-15). Here are the grapes, the song, and the intimacy of divine love.
When God led His people forth from bondage, He did so in a cloud, and the cloud of the Exodus is spoken of in this book (3:6). Israel the bride is portrayed as walking majestically in the wilderness (6:10; 8:5). The Song of Solomon is proclaimed at Passover because it celebrates the Exodus nuptials of God with Israel. Accordingly, we will follow our reading of The Song of Solomon by reading the Book of Exodus.
Christians appropriately proclaim the Song of Solomon during Paschal season, because this season celebrates Christ’s espousal of the Church to Himself. This is the marriage season of the Lamb and His bride, proclaimed in the closing chapters of Revelation. We read the Song of Solomon at this season because it is a book about marriage, and marriage, by its very nature and structure, is an image and type of the union of Christ and His Church. This is not a level of meaning artificially imposed upon the Sacred Text. It is based on the doctrinal meaning of marriage itself (Ephesians 5:22-33). The Church is the New Eve drawn from the pierced side of the New Adam as He hung in sleep upon the Cross.
Easter Monday, April 13
The Song of Solomon 2: The assertion that this book, in its deepest level, refers to the union of God with His people does not in any way invalidate the book’s more obvious sense, celebrating the sexual love between husband and wife. Indeed, this more obvious meaning is presupposed, very much as the erotic intimacy between husband and wi
fe is also presupposed in the assertion that marriage is an image of Christ and His Church. To declare that marriage is the mystic type of a higher spiritual reality is not to denigrate marriage itself.
And in this book the erotic intimacies of marriage are very much affirmed, even celebrated. The rapturous dialogue in the book describes in greater detail the truth expressed in the line, “Now Adam knew Eve his wife” (Genesis 3:1). What Adam knew in knowing Eve is here spelled out in great erotic particulars. Truly, Holy Scripture goes to some lengths to assert the God-willed goodness of these particulars, which constitute the immense pleasure and joy that God intends for husband and wife to find in sexual intimacy. Indeed, the wise man is exhorted to cherish these erotic aspects of his wife’s body (cf. Proverbs 5:19, compared with verses 9 and 17 of today’s chapter). Those who believe that the Bible’s attitude toward sex is mainly negative demonstrate a lamentable unfamiliarity with certain parts of the Sacred Text.
The bible’s attitude toward sex is always positive, even when it seems to be negative. Take, for instance, the Bible’s prohibitions against sexual activities outside of marriage. This prohibition is really just an affirmation of the dignity of marital intimacy, a declaration that there is no substitute for it. Similarly, the Bible’s prohibition against polygamy (cf. Mark 10:2-9). In this respect G. K. Chesterton remarked that the biblical prohibition against having more than one wife is a very small price to pay for the privilege of even seeing one woman. A close reading of The Song of Solomon demonstrates that a sexual commitment to one person is the proper context and imperative condition for the sexual intimacy narrated in it. The Song of Solomon may be described as the grammar of a lifelong erotic covenant. This is called marriage.
Easter Tuesday, April 14
The Song of Solomon 3: If the imagery of this book seems too erotic to have a spiritual meaning, it would be good to remind ourselves that there are other biblical texts where the imagery is just as erotic and the spiritual meaning is even more explicit. For example, here is how Ezekiel describes the Exodus: “‘I made you thrive like a plant in the field; and you grew, matured, and became very beautiful. Your breasts were formed, your hair grew, but you were naked and bare. When I passed by you again and looked upon you, indeed your time was the time of love; so I spread My wing over you and covered your nakedness. Yes, I swore an oath to you and entered into a covenant with you, and you became Mine,’ says the Lord God” (16:7-8).
Today’s mention of “King Solomon with the crown with which his other crowned him on the day of his wedding, the day of the gladness of his heart” (verse 11) has long been read by Christians as a reference to Jesus’ crowning with thorns by His mother, the synagogue that condemned Him on the day that He took the Church to Himself as His Bride forever. Indeed, among the Christians of the East the standard icon of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns, which is very much used during the liturgical services of Holy Week, is still known simply as Ho Nymphios, “The Bridegroom.”
Easter Wednesday, April 15
The Song of Solomon 4: It should not surprise us that the ancient rabbis and the Church Fathers sometimes employed considerable poetic imagination to interpret this book. The book itself is highly poetic and imaginative. Even in their most literal sense, the individual verses of The Song of Solomon describe the details of sexual intimacy in the most exalted and extravagant poetic terms.
The Bible does not usually describe sex. Normally it just states the sexual act as a fact, such as “Elkanah knew Hannah his wife” (1 Samuel 1:19). There is no elaboration on these matters in the narrative parts of the Bible. It is very significant, therefore, that the Bible, when it does speak more in detail about sex, does not do so in graphic or explicit terms. When it is treated in detail, sex is treated by the Bible in terms of enthusiastic romance.
Poetry prevails. Kisses are likened to the taste of wine. Breasts are described as clusters of grapes. Eyes are like pools (7:4). Constant are the references to fruits and flowers and exotic aromas. There are frequent allusions to birds, flocks and frolicking animals. Lips are likened to scarlet lace, and cheeks and temples look and feel like pomegranates and apples.
There is lots of honey in this book, of course, often mixed with milk and wine. Myrrh is everywhere (1:13; 3:6; 4:6,14; 5:1,5,13). This exotic imagery represents God’s attitude toward the sexual intimacy of husband and wife. It is not something crudely physical or merely biological. It is the heady stuff of romance and poetry. Were this not the case, the union between husband and wife could hardly serve as the symbol of a higher and more spiritual mystery.
Easter Thursday, April 16
The Song of Solomon 5: Arguably the best commentary on the Song of Solomon comes to us from the pen of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk of the twelfth century. Although he preached eighty-six sermons on this book to his monks before he died, he barely made it into Chapter Two! Writing in the older tradition of the Alexandrian Fathers, going back to the third century, Bernard’s approach to the Song of Solomon is very sober and spiritual. There is nothing in Bernard of the morbid spiritual eroticism of later ages.
For example, in interpreting the “bundle of myrrh” that the bride places between her breasts (1:13), Bernard recalls that myrrh was used for the anointing of the dead. The myrrh of the Song of Solomon, then, refers to the death of Christ, by which He purchased the Church as His Bride. What would it mean, in these terms, for the Bride to bear the bundle of myrrh between her breasts? This description, answers Bernard, refers to the constant memory of the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ, cherished in love in the Christian heart. He reminds his monks, in his sermon on this verse, that the sufferings and death of Jesus were seldom absent from his lips, and never absent from his heart. Bernard interprets this verse, in other words, in the spirit of St. Paul who, speaking of the sufferings and death of Jesus, wrote of “the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Easter Friday, April 17
The Song of Solomon 6: It is important that the erotic imagery of The Song of Solomon is not separated from its covenant context. The bride in this book is not just any pretty girl. She is the unique beloved, his one and only, and she is constantly referred to in those terms. She is his sealed fountain (4:12; cf. Proverbs 5:15-19). This is a book about covenant fidelity, even beyond the grave (cf. 8:6-7).
At the same time, and like all love poetry, it stresses the theme of losing and finding one another, because in so many instances husbands and wives do this their whole life long. Great attention is given to presence and absence (4:8; 6:1), and therefore searching (3:1-5; 5:2-8).
Very important to this book is the imagery of the garden, for which the Song of Solomon uses the Persian word paradeisos, the very place where Jesus said He would meet the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43). This garden evokes, of course, the original garden, the garden of man’s innocence, where he lived in intimacy with God. It was in that garden, too, that man and woman enjoyed the intimacy of their married love, in the days before clothing was deemed necessary. The joys of sexual intimacy between husband and wife, as they are described in this book, attempt to approximate man’s original state in that original garden. This joy which husband and wife find in one another is one of the basic human blessings that was not entirely lost by man’s fall.