*Updated early due to the Christmas holiday.
Friday, December 25
Christmas: All seven of the Church’s Ecumenical Councils have been concerned with a single question: “Who is Jesus?” Indeed, according to the Gospels Jesus Himself posed this question several times in various forms: "But who do you say that I am?" (Mark 8:29) "What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?" (Matthew 22:42)
The reason this question is important has to do with certain claims of Jesus, which indicate that the answer touches on the nature of God. When Jesus declares, for instance, that He and the Father are one (John 10:30), when He affirms that He is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through Him (14:6), when He claims that those who see Him see the Father (14:9)—in all such assertions Jesus of Nazareth forces Himself on the conscience of every human being who has ever lived.
The radical nature of these claims implies that their validity concerns the very being of God and, hence, the meaning of human existence. If these assertions are true, then there really is no God except the God revealed as the Father of this Palestinian carpenter.
This is extremely important, because it implies that all other religions—even if they are monotheistic—are intrinsically idolatrous. Apart from Jesus Christ, there is no access to the true God. The others are but thieves and robbers (10:8). Every competing religion is idol worship. What, after all, is idolatry but the worship of a false divinity? If the true God is known only in Jesus, then only Jesus can save mankind from bondage to false gods. Truly, if Jesus of Nazareth is who He says He is, then He is history’s only safeguard against idolatry. It is either Jesus or the idols. There is no other choice.
Strictly speaking, human history has had only one 'saint." At least that is what I infer from the Church's statement on the subject. When we chant the Great Doxology at the end of Matins, we declare to Christ our Lord, "Thou alone are holy" (Sy ei monos Hagios—Tu solus sanctus).
More needs to be said on this subject: When we speak of Christ, among all human beings, as "alone holy," the expression is not one of simple degree. It is not a quantitative assertion, declaring that Christ, being holier than the rest of us, is said to be the "only saint." He is not only holier than the rest of us. He is holy in a sense very different from the rest of us. His is not a derived holiness. It is the very holiness of God, "for in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily" (Colossians 2:9).
If Christ alone is holy, it is also His glory that fills the earth. "The whole earth is full of His glory," chant the Seraphim. Holiness is God's glory hidden and unseen. Glory is God's holiness openly revealed. Hence, it is the holiness of Christ that causes the glory of God to shine forth from His face (John 1:14; 2 Corinthians 4:4,6; 2 Peter 1:17-19). It is His face that conceals and reveals the mystery.
Taking seriously the claims of Jesus, the New Testament four times speaks of Him as our “Mediator,” our Mesites. Thus, the Apostle Paul calls Him the “one Mediator between God and men, the Man Jesus Christ” (1 Timothy 2:5), while the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, refers to Jesus as “the Mediator of the new covenant” (9:15; 12:24), the “Mediator of a better covenant” (8:6). Jesus is God’s Son who assumed our humanity and became thereby the one Mediator between God and Man. This is to say that in the person of Jesus both God’s nature and man’s are fixed forever in a unity that prompts us to speak of the God-Man. He joins both forms of existence in His own person.
Jesus’ mediation means that He is both God rendered visible and Man rendered acceptable. For our salvation, the Church insists, He must be both. Were He only a man, His death on the cross would be unavailing. Were He only God, His resurrection from the dead would have no significance. If we are truly redeemed, He must be both.
In the Incarnation God’s Son became our brother. He affirmed this truth when He said to Mary Magdalene, "Go and tell My brethren” (John 20:17). "I will declare Your name to My brethren," says He to the Father in Hebrews 2:12.
Most of all, however, Jesus claims brotherhood with all mankind in the context of history's final judgment, where we learn, "inasmuch as you did it to the least of My brethren, you did it to Me" (Matthew 25:40). Jesus' proclaimed solidarity of brotherhood with the whole human race means that the proper destiny of that race is a true community. It is not an assembly of self-made individuals, but the communion of the younger brothers and sisters of Jesus, who will be judged, at the end of history, on the basis of how they have treated one another.
Saturday, December 26
The Feast of Saint Stephan: 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 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).
Sunday, December 27
Hebrews 2:11-18: The mediation of Christ, which is a major theme of this book, requires His solidarity with the rest of the human race. To save us from our sins, He must be one of us. Such is the burden of this section, which speaks of Jesus in terms of brotherhood: “He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: ‘I will declare Your name to My brethren’ . . . Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God.” Before a priest can be a father, he must be a brother; that is to say, he must be “taken from among men” (5:1).
Thus, when Jesus sent Mary Magdalene to proclaim His Resurrection to the Church, He instructed her, "Go and tell My brethren" (John 20:17). More particularly, Jesus claims brotherhood with all mankind in the context of history's final judgment, where we learn, "inasmuch as you did it to the least of My brethren, you did it to Me" (Matthew 25:40). Jesus' proclaimed solidarity of brotherhood with the whole human race means that the proper destiny of that race is a true community, founded and centered on the Incarnation.
Here in Hebrews this solidarity with the rest of human beings especially pertains to death: God’s Son assumed our humanity in order to die as a human being. Some chapters later, our author will repeat this thesis, citing the Book of Psalms: "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.
In the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons commented on this theme in Hebrews: "So the Word was made flesh in order that sin, destroyed by means of that same flesh through which it had gained mastery and taken hold and lorded it, should no longer be in us," and "that so He might join battle on behalf of our forefathers and vanquish through Adam what had stricken us through Adam" (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 31).
Monday, December 28
Hebrews 3:1-6: Having contrasted Jesus to the prophets (1:1-2) and to the angels (1:5-14), the Epistle to the Hebrews proceeds to contrast Him to Moses. In all cases, God’s Son and Heir is contrasted with His mere servants. In the cases of the angels and Moses, the words used for “servant” have a religious meaning.
First, with respect to the angels the descriptive word is leitourgos (1:7), translated in the KJV as “minister.” In describing the angels further, the author resorts to an equivalent expression, leitourgika pnevmata, translated in the KJV as “ministering spirits.”
Second, with respect to Moses, the descriptive word is therapon (verse 5). Since this word is normally translated into English as simply “servant,” the reader may not suspect the religious meaning it sometimes has. The noun therapon often refers to someone who serves in a temple. This is how we should understand Moses as God’s “servant.”
In the LXX of Exodus 14:31 and Numbers 12:7-8, this ‘eved is translated as therapon. This preference of the translators probably reflects the importance of Moses in the institution of Israel’s priesthood and ritual worship.
This became a designation for Moses, as we see twice in the Wisdom of Solomon (10:16; 18:21).
Now it is passing curious that in early Christian literature, the word therapon is used only for Moses. It became virtually a technical designation for Moses. Our earliest example is the present text in Hebrews, where the “house” (oichos), over which Moses is the minister, is the Church.
Moses remains a permanent minister in God’s house. This is an important assertion of the role of Moses in the Church. He is the therapon, the servant of the temple, and from the beginning this is how Moses was regarded by Christians.
Near the end of the first century, Clement of Rome wrote to the rebellious congregation at Corinth: “Envy brought down Dathan and Abiram alive to Hades, through the sedition which they excited against God’s servant Moses [pros ton theraponta tou Theou Mousen] (4.12).
Perhaps quoting our text here in Hebrews (and/or Numbers 12:7-8, Clement later speaks of “the blessed Moses, “a faithful servant in all his house”—ho makarios pistos therapon en holo to oiko Mouses (43.1). Clement uses this noun three other times to refer to Moses (51.3,5; 53.5). It refers to Moses also in Pseudo-Barnabas 14.4. Thus, we find the word used seven times in Christian literature prior to about A.D. 110, and each time it refers to Moses.
Even as the author of Hebrews contrasts Jesus and Moses, he is careful not to permit this contrast to reflect badly on Moses. He is called a “faithful minister” (pistos therapon). This expression, used also by Clement, comes directly from the LXX of Numbers 12:7.
This twofold concern of the author of Hebrews—to show proper respect for the angels and Moses even when arguing for the preeminence of Jesus—is consistent with his attitude toward the Old Testament generally. He never permits the superiority of the New Covenant become an occasion to denigrate the Old.
Moses is arguably the most prominent Old Testament figure to appear in the Epistle to the Hebrews. He will return to this work several more times (7:14; 8:5; 9:19; 10:28; 11:23-27; 12:21).
Tuesday, December 29
Hebrews 3:7-19: The author of this work begins to introduce what is arguably his major moral concern: the danger of turning away from the faith professed by the Christian at the time of his baptismal rebirth.
He refers to this baptismal profession (homologia in the first verse of this chapter: “Consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession [homologia], Christ Jesus” (3:1). Explicit references to this baptismal profession appear two other times in Hebrews: “Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession “ (4:14). And again, “Let us hold fast the confession of hope without wavering” (10:23).
Throughout this work the author several times reveals some sense of alarm that his hearers are in danger of not finishing the course undertaken in that profession. In fact, this book contains the New Testament’s clearest warnings against apostasy.
To demonstrate the possibility of a radical falling away, our author’s first example comes from the period of the Israelites’ wandering in the Sinai desert. He was much impressed that only two adults, among the 600,000 who left Egypt, actually made it to the Promised Land. The rest of the people defected in the wilderness.
The author of Hebrews makes this point by citing Psalm 95 (94) and commenting on it over the space of two chapters: “Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, In the day of trial in the wilderness, Where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, And saw My works forty years. There
fore I was angry with that generation, And said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, And they have not known My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath,‘ They shall not enter My rest.’”
That psalm, used as an invitation to prayer (“Come, let us sing unto the Lord”), daily renewed in the mind of God’s people the terrible fate of that generation of Israelites for whom the Exodus itself came to naught. They left Egypt for nothing. They died without reaching the very purpose of the Exodus—arrival in the Promised Land. That psalm warned all Israelites that the same fate could befall them!
Our author, therefore, cites this text, and then he goes on to comment: “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God.”
Just like the Israelites who left Egypt and then died in the desert, it is possible to fail in the profession of the Christian faith. Ultimate defection is, therefore, a matter of grave concern. How concerned should Christians be on this point? Our author answers, “everyday!” He says, “but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our conviction steadfast to the end.”
Hebrews is not the only place where the New Testament examines that period of Israel’s history in order to learn a warning. St. Paul does exactly the same thing: “I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for they were scattered in the wilderness. . . . Now these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition” (1 Corinthians 10:1-5,11).
It is important to learn the life in Christ, not only from the good examples, but also from the bad. Why is the story of Judas Iscariot referred to six times in the New Testament, except as a warning to Christians who may become complacent and forsake the fear of the Lord? If the Word of God is truly a lamp unto our feet, it will surely illumine for us the pitfalls along the path. In this way, it is possible to learn as much from the impatience of Saul as from the patience of Job. The study of Ahaz can be, in its own way, as profitable as the study of Isaiah.
Wednesday, December 30
Hebrews 4:1-13: In his use of the Book of Psalms in this chapter, it is clear that the author of Hebrews believed that the meaning of that text was contemporary to himself and his readers. The cited text was of more than historical interest. The dominant word indicating this persuasion is “today” (semeron), which appears twice in verse 7. The voice of God, he says, must be heard today. He expounds this principle in verses 12-13, speaking of God’s word as living and efficacious, sharper than a sword. It penetrates and divides man’s inner being, judging the reflections and thoughts of his mind.
There is no stronger affirmation of the truth that God lays bare our being by the light of His word searching our souls. When the Bible is read, whether proclaimed loudly in the worship of the Church or pondered quietly in the intimacy of our homes, God speaks. His prophetic word of judgment sears into our being laying bare the secrets of our consciences. It is a “word of judgment”—logos kritikos (verse 12). It does not lie there inert on the page open before our eyes. We search the Scriptures so that the Scriptures may search us, cutting into our being to expose what we are within. This is what makes the Bible different from all other books. Only here does God speak prophetically, in the sense of placing our whole being radically under judgment.
Thus, we do not call the Bible into question. The Bible calls us into question. We imagine that we are alive, and the Bible is inert. On the contrary, the Bible is more alive than we are. It is vibrant and efficacious, because it is the word of God. We open its pages in order to share its life. We do not, then, truly open the Bible unless we open our hearts and invite God’s word to penetrate our minds. We come to the Bible, seeking its judgment, because only in being judged by God’s all holy word may we share in the redeeming life that is offered there.
Thursday, December 31
Hebrews 4:14—5:6: The chief point our author wants to make here, with respect to the priesthood of Jesus Christ, is His compassion for sinners. He is compassionate, says Hebrews, because He suffered temptation. This theme was already introduced in Hebrews, at the end of that section dealing with the Incarnation: “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” (2:17-18).
This author insists that this is kind of priest we need: He must feel the same weakness the rest of us feel: “For we do not have a High Priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but was, like ourselves, tempted in everything.”
The temptations faced by Jesus were recorded chiefly in two blocks of narrative in the New Testament: His temptation for forty days in the wilderness, and the agony in the garden. For all that, however, we should probably not imagine that these were the only times Jesus was subject to temptation. As the religious leaders of the Jewish people started to reject Jesus and His claims—an experience that apparently grew more intense during the course of His ministry—He began to realize that He would finish his life nailed to a cross. In fact, the gospels tell us, “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed” (Mark 8:31).
It is reasonable to think that the sadness and fear of Jesus, which became critical during His agony in the garden, took hold of His soul much earlier, as He came gradually to understand how sternly His fidelity to His Father would be tested.
Jesus also knew the Scriptures. He had long ago learned the stories of Elijah, Jeremiah, and Job. He was fully aware that all those who would serve God must endure suffering. He could take personal charge of the admonition laid down by Sirach: “Son, when thou comest to the service of God . . . prepare thy soul for temptation. . . . Humble thy heart, and endure. . . . Wait on God with patience: join thyself to God, and endure . . . Take all that shall be brought upon thee: and in thy sorrow endure, and in thy humiliation keep patience. For gold and silver are tried in the fire, but acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation” (Sirach 2:1-5).
This trial of Jesus’ spirit, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, made Him compassionate. Indeed, says Hebrews, compassion is quality God requires of every: “For every high priest taken from among men is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness.”
Friday, January 1
Hebrews 5:5-10: It is possible that the earliest extant version of the Agony in the Garden seems to come, not from the Gospels, but from the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is here that we read of Jesus, “who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He were a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (5:7-8).
In this precious text, the reference to ”vehement cries and tears” explains how the early believers knew about this event. There were witnesses to it, some of them only “a little farther” off (Matthew 26:39), “about a stone’s throw” (Luke 22:41). These disciples could hear those “vehement cries,” and they were able to see his kneeling posture (Mark 14:35).
All this happened, says Hebrews, “in the days of His flesh,” an expression indicating Jesus’ condition of human weakness, willingly assumed so “that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14).
The object of Jesus’ “prayers and supplications,” Hebrews tells us, was deliverance from death. This feature of His prayers corresponds to the Gospel accounts in which Jesus prays that He be spared the “cup” of His coming sufferings (Matthew 26:39,42) and that “the hour might pass from Him” (Mark 14:35).
It was in this hour, says Hebrews, that Jesus “learned obedience by the things which He suffered,” a parallel to the Gospel accounts in which Jesus, in His Agony, submits His own will obediently to that of His Father (Matthew 26:39,42; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42). Similarly, the Apostle Paul preserves part of a hymn that speaks of Jesus’ obedience unto death, “even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8).
These prayers and supplications of Jesus were themselves sacrificial, because Hebrews says that he “offered” them (prosenegkas). They are priestly prayers. That is to say, Jesus’ sacrifice has even now begun. The Lord’s Passion is a seamless whole. Already we perceive in His prayers and supplications the true essence of sacrifice, which is the inner oblation of oneself to God.
The Book of Hebrews insists, furthermore, that these “prayers and supplications” of Jesus were heard on high, precisely because of “His godly fear,” which is to say His godly piety and reverence (evlabeia; reverential in the Vulgate). Jesus’ obedient reverence is exactly what we find in the Gospel accounts of the Agony.
In what sense, then, was Jesus “heard” when he offered these prayers and supplications? Properly to answer this question, it is useful to remember a principle of all godly petition: “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us” (1 John 5:14). Now Jesus prayed explicitly according to God’s will; indeed, it was the very essence of His prayer. Therefore, His prayer was heard according to God’s will. He was not delivered from death in the sense that He avoided it, but in the sense that He conquered it, that He was victorious over death, that in His own death He trampled down death forever.
This is to say that Jesus’ resurrection and glorification were the Father’s response to His prayer in the Agony. It was in answer to this prayer, “Thy will be done,” that Jesus, “having been perfected, . . . became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9). This was God’s will, the will that Jesus prayed would be done. He was thus “made perfect through sufferings” (2:10). It was because Jesus became obedient unto death that “God also has highly exalted Him” (Philippians 2:9). The Paschal victory over death was the Father’s reply to the prayers and supplications offered by the true High Priest in the days of His flesh.