Friday, August 21
Luke 1:39-45: Three considerations of the Mother of the Lord seem especially appropriate with respect to this reading:
First, the Handmaid of the Lord. It is wise to begin our consideration of the Mother of Jesus by consulting her own words: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior, for He hath regarded the lowliness of His handmaiden.”
What is God to Mary? She calls Him, “my Savior.” Indeed, she is the first person in the New Testament speak of “God my Savior.”
Mary, then, is one of the redeemed. Her soul that magnifies the Lord is a soul purchased by the blood of the Lamb. Her spirit that rejoices in God her Savior is sanctified as every other Christian spirit is sanctified—by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Mary’s fundamental identity is handmaiden of the Lord. She is that before she is anything else. Her entire being was consecrated to the service of God, and she was consecrated by that service. This consecration included her very flesh, from which God’s eternal word assumed our humanity in the mystery of the Incarnation.
This is why the Church, from the very beginning, has recognized the fact of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Her body was consecrated by the physical presence of God’s Son, whom for nine months she bore and nurtured in her womb. That body and that womb belonged entirely to God by that prolonged consecration.
For that reason her body could never belong to anyone else. Such is the mystery of the Incarnation. According to the constant, uninterrupted teaching of the Church, Mary remained a consecrated virgin her whole life long: “Ever Virgin.” She remained a virgin for the same reason that we do not take the Eucharistic chalice and turn it into a beer stein. We do not take the Ark of the Covenant and turn it into clothes hamper.
In the Bible holiness is a physical thing. A man could be struck dead merely for laying an unwarranted hand on the Ark of the Covenant.
As the handmaiden of the Lord, therefore, Mary was totally consecrated to the service of God.
Second, the Queen Mother. Here we have the testimony of her cousin Elizabeth: “But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” This expression, “mother of my Lord” is also an essential feature of Mary’s identity. She is not only the handmaiden of the Lord; she is also the mother of the king, the last of the kings of Judah.
And what shall we say of the mothers of the kings of Judah? Holy Scripture obviously thinks them very important, because each of them is named in the Bible, a distinction that is given to no other royal line.
How does the Bible regard the Queen Mother? We may compare two biblical texts, a comparison that throws great light on this question. The first is 1 Kings 1, where Bathsheba entered into the presence of King David, her husband. The text says, “Bathsheba prostrated herself and did homage to the king.” Now let us contrast that text with the very next chapter of 1 Kings, which describes the entrance of Bathsheba into the presence of Solomon her son. The text says, “Bathsheba therefore went to King Solomon, to speak to him for Adonijah. And the king rose up to meet her and prostrated himself before her, and sat down on his throne and had a throne set for the king’s mother; so she sat at his right hand.”
This is where we find the Queen Mother in Psalm 45, enthroned at the right hand of the king. This is the position of Mary, to whom, St. Luke tells us, Jesus became subject. As in the kingdom of Judah, the Queen Mother is the second person in the Kingdom of heaven. If we assert less than this, we depart from the teaching of Holy Scripture. In the Bible the mother of the king of Judah is worthy of all respect and honor. In the case of Mary, in fact, all generations will call her blessed, and this is the blessing we hear already in the words of Elizabeth: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! . . . Blessed is she who believed.”
And what causes Elizabeth to call her blessed? Look closely at the Sacred Text: “when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Then she spoke out with a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed art thou among women.’”
When we address Mary, then, and cry out, like Elizabeth, with a loud voice, “Blessed art thou among women,” these words are put on our lips by the Holy Spirit. We call Mary blessed for the same reason we call Jesus Lord — because this is what the Holy Spirit prompts us to say. Indeed, we can only do this by the grace of the Holy Spirit, who would not have us honor Mary one whit less than Solomon honored Bathsheba.
Third, Mary’s vocation is that of the Bible itself. This is a very ancient insight of the Church. We still sing a Byzantine hymn of the 4th century in which she is addressed as “the sacred page on which the Father wrote with His own hand.” God caused His Word to be written, not only on the skins of sheep, but in the very flesh of the woman who in faith consented to become His mother. Luke twice tells us that she took all these things and pondered them in her heart. Mary so completely embodied God’s Holy Word as to give flesh to that Word.
Thus, all the mysteries of Holy Scripture come to a certain perfection in her own life and being. When she answered yes to God, she fulfilled the faith of Abraham, receiving in her very flesh the promise that was made to Abraham. She became the burning bush of God’s presence. She became the ladder of Jacob by which God descended to this earth. She became the Ark of the Covenant, before which the infant John danced like David. She so embodied the mysteries of Holy Scripture that Holy Scripture was fulfilled in her own flesh. She assumed into her own being all the law and all the prophets. The Father inscribed His word in her flesh.
Saturday, August 22
Psalm 104: The liturgical tradition of the Church understandably links this psalm to the evening. Indeed, in the Christian East, it is recited at Vespers each day, year round.
Though prayed in the lengthening shadows of evening, Vespers itself has always been thought of rather as an hour of light than of darkness, a perspective inspired both by the special quality of the gloaming and sunset and by the ritual lighting of the candles. This note of vesperal light is obvious in the traditional hymnody of both the East and the West. One thinks, for instance, of the ancient vesperal hymns Phos Hilaron (“O Gladsome Light”) in the East and Lucis Creator Optime (“Most Good Creator of the Light”) in the West. An early line of our psalm strengthens the same impression: “You are clothed in praise and majesty, adorning Yourself in a garment of light.”
Psalm 104 (Greek and Latin 103) is likewise one of those psalms for which the New Testament provides at least a partial interpretive key. An early verse of it is quoted in Hebrews with respect to the angels: “Who makes His angels spirits, / And His ministers a flame of fire” (1:7). This line of the Psalter is interpreted just a few verses later: “Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation?” (1:14).
Psalm 104 is not difficult. Indeed, the flow of its poetry has made it a favorite. The psalmist meditates on the various “days” of Creation, starting with the vast expanse of the heavens, then the ministry of the angels, then the earth and its myriad phenomena, the various plants and diverse animals, from sparrows and rabbits to deer and lions, and not excluding man, always with an emphasis on God’s generous provision for the needs of all: “Expectantly do all things look to You, to give them their food in due season. You give, and they gather in. When You open Your hand, all things are filled with goodness.”
Psalm 104 combines considerations of the natural order with those
of human commerce, suggesting a “cooperation” between God’s work and man’s. This perspective is true with regard to both the land (“You make grass to grow for the cattle, and vegetation for the service of man—to make bread spring from the earth, and wine to gladden his heart, and oil to shine on his face, and bread to strengthen his heart”) and the sea (“Here is the sea, great and wide, holding creatures without number, living things both great and small. Here too go the ships to and fro, and the great sea serpent that frolics therein”). Man’s own labor is matched by that of other creatures in nature, such as the hunting of the lions and the nest-building of the birds.
Toward the end our psalm speaks of God’s Holy Spirit at work in the world: “You will send forth Your Spirit, and they shall be created, and You will renew the face of the earth.” Perhaps inspired by this psalm, the poet G. M. Hopkins saw the sun’s daily rising as a sign that “the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
His older contemporary, J. H. Newman, especially liked the line about man going “forth to his work, and to his labor until the evening.” This was the text of his very first sermon, and it later became also the text for his last sermon as an Anglican, “The Parting of Friends.”
Sunday, August 23
Acts 27:1-12: Paul’s journey to and arrival at Rome, which fill the two final chapters of the book, form the climax to which the literary tension of the Acts of the Apostles has been building. It is in this journey that Acts most strikingly reminds the reader of the Aeneid of Vergil. Likewise, Luke’s inclusion of so many nautical details obliges us to slow down and savor the significance of the story. He does not deprive us of a single dram of the drama.
Paul and his companions boarded a ship whose homeport was Adramyttium (Acts 27:2). Since this prominent port city (cf. Plutarch, Cicero 4; Herodotus, 7.42; Strabo, 13.613–614), the modern Edremit, lay just south of Troy, Luke’s inclusion of the detail may be significant. Leaving Phoenicia, the ship cruised along the east and north sides of Cyprus, against strong head winds (27:4), and then turned north to Asia Minor. The vessel was obviously returning to its home port. At the city of Myra, on the south coast of Asia Minor, Paul’s company changed to an Alexandrian ship bound for Italy; it was perhaps a grain ship, so many of which brought wheat from Egypt to Rome. Still fighting contrary winds, they made their way to Salmone on the northeastern tip of Crete, a port well known to ancient navigators (cf. Strabo, Geography 10.3.20; Pliny, Natural History 4.58.71).
The “Fair Havens” they then reached on the south coast of Crete (Acts 27:8) is still known by that name in Greek, Kali Limenes. In the next verse Luke informs us that the Feast of the Atonement, or Yom Kippur, had already passed. If, as we are justified in suspecting, this was the year 59, then the Day of Atonement was October 5. That is to say, they were approaching the winter season when sailing on the Mediterranean was considered unsafe. Phoenix, where they hoped to winter, lay some forty miles further west on the south side of Crete (27:12).
Monday, August 24
Acts 27:13-29: When a light wind began to blow westward, the ship’s crew decided it was just what was needed to take the ship to Phoenix. Weighing anchor, they determined to risk it, endeavoring to hug the south coast of Crete. Not long after commencing this maneuver, however, the ship was hit by a “typhoon wind” (anemos typhonikos), a nor’easter blowing down from over Crete and sending the ship out to sea in a southwesterly direction. There was nothing to do but let her ride the storm. With no way to see either stars or moon, navigation became impossible, and soon they had no idea where they were or even in which direction they were headed. With no sunlight, the most basic sense of direction was lost (27:20). That is to say, the journey was no longer under human control. God would take the ship where he wanted it to go.
Presently, some twenty-seven miles due south of Phoenix, the very port the crew had hoped to reach before the storm came, Paul’s ship ran under the lee of the island of Cauda (cf. Pliny, Natural History 4.12), the modern Gozzo. A brief relief from the storm, as the ship sat below Cauda (Acts 27:16), enabled the sailors to undergird the hull with cables, to make the vessel’s planking tighter against the waves. To impede the ship’s wild movement in the storm, a kedge anchor was dropped (the correct meaning, I believe, of chalasantes to skevos), because the craft had been drifting south so fast that the crew feared running onto the reef shoals of the Libyan coast at Syrtis.
The shoals of Syrtis, west of Cyrene, to which Luke refers in Acts 27:17, consisted of two shallow bays, now known as the Gulf of Sidra and the Gulf of Cabes. “Syrtis,” a name meaning “sandbank” and related to the Greek verb syro, “to drag,” was a place frightful to mariners, who tried their best to avoid those shallows with their hidden rocks and their sands ever shifting in the tides and waves (Pliny, Natural History 5.4.27; Dio Chrysostom, Discourses 5.8–11). This was that “Syrtis, terrifying to whoever hears of it” (Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War 2.381).
This place was the same “unfriendly Syrtis” (inhospita Syrtis) that “confined” (cingunt) Carthage (Aeneid 4.41). It was at Syrtis that Aeneas’s ships ran aground (1.111,146; cf. 10.678), and, when he finally left Carthage, he carefully avoided sailing that way (5.51; 6.60; 7.302). (It did not bother Vergil’s purposes, obviously, that Syrtis lay much too far east to provide a landing for Carthage, nor should it, I suggest, bother us.)
Paul’s ship did not drift down to Syrtis, evidently because the wind shifted and drove it into what Luke identifies as the Adriatic Sea (Acts 27:27). This navigator’s calculation was surely made afterwards, however, because at the time no one on board had more than a guess where they might be. The ancients thought of the Adriatic as extending southward to include the waters between Crete and Sicily (Ptolemy, Geography 3.4.1; 17.1; Strabo, 2.123). Fierce storms were common there (Horace, Odes 1.33.15; 2.14.14; 3.3.5; 3.9.23).
Tuesday, August 25
Acts 27:30-44: Two years or so after St. Paul’s harrowing experience on the Adriatic, Flavius Josephus traveled to Rome on another ship that foundered in those very waters. His description is worth quoting at length:
I arrived at Rome, after much peril at sea. When our ship sank in the middle of the Adriatic, some of us, around six hundred in number, swam through the whole night, and about daybreak, by God’s providence, there appeared a ship of Cyrene. Myself and some others, about eighty all together, outstripped the others and were taken aboard (Vita 15).
Josephus went on to describe this ship’s landing at Puteoli, which the Italians, he noted, called Dicaearchia (Vita 16). This was the same port, on the Gulf of Naples, at which Paul had disembarked the previous year or so (Acts 28:13).
One is also struck, however, by a big difference between the descriptions that Josephus and Luke give us of their shipwrecks in the Adriatic. That of Josephus is very short and sparse in particulars, while Luke’s description is lengthy, dramatic, and very detailed. For Josephus, the shipwreck was an event; it happened and it was over. Luke’s shipwreck, however, was part of a larger epic, a historical saga of great significance. Therefore he takes particular care in his description of this experience that he shared with Paul. As for Paul himself, he was no stranger to shipwreck. Indeed, prior to the incident so minutely described by Luke, Paul had already been shipwrecked
on three different occasions, during one of which he had spent a night and a day clinging to some spar or other piece of ship’s rigging to stay afloat (2 Corinthians 11:25). Luke recorded none of those earlier disasters, though we suspect he knew of them. If he takes such care in his description of Paul’s shipwreck at Malta, then, he must see in it a special significance.
Luke tells us that their ship drifted for 14 days before crashing onto the rocks (27:41). This chronological detail renders improbable, I think, the KJV’s translation of diapheromenon as “driven up and down” (27:27). Luke’s expression is better translated as “tossed around,” because several changes of wind and current, of the sort suggested by the KJV translation, would make it unlikely for the ship to have reached Malta in just two weeks. It is more reasonable, surely, to think of a more or less steady drift westwards averaging maybe a knot or two each hour, or roughly 36 miles a day. This estimate would better account for the 480 or so miles between Cauda and Malta. Indeed, it works out to almost exactly thirteen and a half days, a calculation that brings us to the night before the shipwreck, when they “dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for day to come” (27:29).
Wednesday, August 26
Joshua 22: After wandering in the Sinai and Negev deserts for most of a generation, the people of Israel had now arrived at a place called Shittim, just east of the Jordan River and only about ten miles from Jericho. Then came a new crisis.
It was a moral crisis, involving some Israelite men of slack discipline with certain Moabite women of relaxed virtue. Fornication was the problem, that term understood both literally and in the figurative sense of their falling prey to the idolatrous worship of the Moabite god, Baal of Peor (Numbers 25:1-3).
The seduction of these Israelites, moreover, was not a mere boy-meets-girl happenstance. It resulted, rather, from a deliberate machination on the part of the Moabites, plotting to weaken the military resolve and moral will of the Israelites. Indeed, there is reason to believe that the scheme had been concocted in the mind of the religious philosopher Balaam, who was at that time in the service of the Moabite king (cf. Revelation 2:14).
Seeing it happen, the young priest Phineas discerned the peril of the hour, for an earlier experience had taught him the hazards of moral compromise. If he was sure of anything at all, Phineas was certain that God’s punishment of sin was invariably decisive and might very well be swift.
Phineas had been hardly more than a child when he saw the divine retribution visited on two of his priestly uncles, Nadab and Abihu, for a single offense in the service of God. Nor had those been insignificant men who were thus punished. On the contrary, Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron and his heirs in the priesthood, were men of stature and respect among the people. They had accompanied Moses, their very uncle, as he began his climb of Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:1), and had partly shared in his vision of the divine glory (24:9-10). Nonetheless, Nadab and Abihu had been instantly struck dead, devoured by a fire from the divine presence for just one moral lapse (Leviticus 10:1-3). The memory of that swift retribution had seared itself into the memory of young Phineas. He knew by experience that Israel’s Lord was a morally serious God, not some feather of a deity to be brushed away at one’s convenience.
At the time of the Moabite crisis, then, the reaction of Phineas was utterly decisive and equally swift. Responding to the Lord’s decree to punish the offenders (Numbers 25:4-6), he resolutely took the matter in hand and thus put an end to the divine wrath already plaguing the people (25:7-15). For his part in averting the evil, Phineas came to enjoy great respect in Israel. Not long afterwards, for instance, he was the priest chosen to accompany the army advancing against the Midianites (Numbers 31:6). After the Conquest, Phineas inherited land among the Ephraemites (cf. Joshua 24:33) and continued to be consulted by Israel, especially in times of crisis (cf. Judges 20:28). He would be remembered throughout the rest of biblical history, furthermore, as the very model of zeal in God’s service (cf. Psalms 105 :30; 1 Chronicles 9:20; Sirach 45:23).
If we knew only of Phineas's decisive action at the time of the Moabite trouble, it might be easy to think of him solely as an energetic, resolute, executive sort of man, but this would be an incomplete perspective. Phineas was also a thoughtful person, able to consider a delicate question in its fully nuanced complexities.
This latter trait of his character was revealed in the crisis later created by the construction of an altar to the east of the Jordan River by the Israelites who lived in that region (Joshua 22:10). Regarded as a rival altar outside of the strict confines of the Holy Land, this construction proved so provocative to the rest of Israel that there arose the real danger of civil war (22:12). Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and the decision was made to establish an eleven-member committee of inquiry to investigate the matter. Phineas was the head of that committee (22:13-14).
Probing into the construction of that altar, Phineas’s committee concluded that it was not intended to be used as such, but would serve merely as a monument to remind all the Israelites of their solidarity in the worship of their one God. Civil war was thus averted, and Phineas, once so swift unto bloodshed, was thus in large measure responsible for preventing it (22:21-34).
Thursday, August 27
Acts 28: 17-31: Because the events at Caesarea the previous autumn, culminating in Paul’s appeal to a higher court at Rome, had transpired so late in the year, precariously close to the winter, when sea travel and communication were no longer undertaken, no one in Rome had learned of those distant events. The Jews in Rome gained their first information on the matter three days after Paul’s arrival in the city (28:21).
He invited their local Jewish leaders to meet at his lodging, where he was under house arrest (28:16–17). It is significant to Luke’s literary and theological purpose to record Paul’s last rejection by the Jews—the last of so many that he has recounted—in that very city which is the capital of the Gentile world, the city towards which the dynamism of this narrative has been directed. Paul was at last in the capital of the Roman Empire, the city so closely tied to his and Peter’s destinies. It is precisely in Rome that Paul declares to the unbelieving Jews that “this salvation has been sent to the Gentiles” (28:28).
Here the story ends, not because Luke had run out of things to tell, but because he has now reached the geographical and thematic goal toward which his entire account has been moving. The movement from Jerusalem to Rome served for Luke as a symbol of the internationalizing of the gospel, bringing God’s message of salvation to the political center of universal human concern.
Friday, August 28
Psalm 22: Of all the psalms, Psalm 22 (Greek and Latin 21) is par excellence the canticle of the Lord’s suffering and death. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus is described as praying the opening line of this psalm as He hangs on the Cross: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). In Luke, on the other hand, the last recorded words of Jesus on the Cross are a line from Psalm 31 (Greek and Latin 30): “Into Your hands I commit My spirit” (23:46). From a juxtaposition of these two texts there arose in Christian sentiment the popular story that Jesus, while He hung on the Cross, silently recited all the lines of the Psalter that lie between these two verses.
Whatever is to be said of that story, there is no doubt about the importance of Psalm 22 in reference to the Lord’s suffering and death. Not only did Jesus pray this psalm’s opening lin
e on His gibbet of pain; other lines of it are also interpreted by the Church, even by the Evangelists themselves, as prophetic references to details in the drama of Holy Friday.
Consider, for instance, this verse of Psalm 22: “All who gazed at Me derided Me. With their lips they spoke and wagged their heads: ‘He hoped on the Lord. Let Him deliver him. Let Him save him, since He approves of him.’” One can hardly read this verse without recalling what is described in Matthew: “And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, . . . ‘If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ Likewise the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said, . . . ‘He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him’” (27:39–43).
The Gospels likewise tell of the soldiers dividing the garments of Jesus at the time of His Crucifixion. St. John’s description of this event is worth considering at length, because he actually quotes our psalm verbatim as a fulfilled prophecy:
Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments and made four parts, to each soldier a part, and also His tunic. Now the tunic was without seam, woven from the top in one piece. They said therefore among themselves, ”Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be,“ that the Scripture might be fulfilled which says: ‘They divided My garments among them, / And for My clothing they cast lots’” (19:23, 24).
Moreover, if Holy Church thinks of the Lord Himself as praying this psalm on the Cross, such an interpretation is amply justified by a later verse that says: “Like a potsherd has my strength been scorched, and my tongue cleaved to my palate.” Hardly can the Church read this line without calling to mind the Lord who said from the Cross: “I thirst” (John 19:28).
And as she thinks of the nails supporting the Lord’s body on the tree of redemption, the Church recognizes the voice that speaks yet another line of our psalm: “They have pierced my hands and feet; they have numbered all my bones.”
In addition, according to St. John, at the foot of the Cross stood the Mother of the Lord, a loyal disciple to the last, her soul transfixed by the sword that aged Simeon prophesied in the temple when she first presented the Child to God. To her the Lord Himself now makes reference in this psalm. Speaking of that consecration, Jesus says to His heavenly Father of his earthly mother, “You were He that drew me from the womb, ever my hope from my mother’s breasts. To You was I handed over from the womb. From the belly of my mother, You are my God.”
Outside of the Gospels, the New Testament’s most vivid references to the Lord’s Passion are arguably those in Hebrews, which speaks of the Lord’s sharing our flesh and blood so that “through death He might destroy him who had the power of death” (2:14). Quoting Psalm 22 in this context of the Passion, this author tells us that Jesus “is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: ‘I will declare Your name to My brethren; / In the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to You’” (2:11, 12).
Finally, just as each of the Lord’s three predictions of the Passion ends with a prediction of the Resurrection (cf. Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34), this psalm of the Passion appropriately finishes with the voice of victory and the growth of the Church: “My spirit lives for Him; my seed will serve Him. The coming generation shall be herald for the Lord, declaring His righteousness to a people yet unborn, whom the Lord created.”