Friday, December 17
Revelation 19:1-10: The previous chapter spoke of the destruction of Babylon, pictured as a woman dressed in scarlet. The present chapter speaks of a contrasting woman, dressed in white, who is called the Bride. A wedding is planned. There is no vision of the Bride just yet, however, nor does John specifically identify her. He will see and describe her in Chapter 21.
We begin the chapter with the “Alleluia.” Although our own experience may prompt us to associate that fine prayer with the sight and scent of lilies, here in Revelation it resounds against the background of smoke rising from a destroyed city. The worship scene portrayed here is related to victory over the forces of hell. The word “avenge” at the end of verse 2 reminds us there is a principle of vengeance built into the theological structure of history, for the judgments of God are true and righteous. Sodom and Gomorrah come to mind when we read of this smoke ascending for ever and ever. The worship becomes so warm at verse 6 that Handel decided to set it to music.
By portraying the reign of God as a marriage feast, John brings together three themes, all of them familiar to the Christians of his day: First, the kingdom of God as a banquet, such as we find in Isaiah 25:6. Jesus interpreted the banquet, however, as a marriage feast (Luke 14:15-16). John stresses readiness for the feast (verse 7), much as we find in the parable of the ten maidens at the beginning of Matthew 25.
Second, the marriage theme itself, as a symbol of the union of God with man. We find this theme in the prophets (most notably Hosea, but also Isaiah and Jeremiah) and the New Testament (Ephesians 5:32, for instance). The Lamb, who is the groom here, has already been identified earlier in Revelation.
Third, the theme of the garments, which now become the clothing required for attendance at the feast. John has appealed to this imagery several times already (3:4; 6:11; 7:14). The identification of the white garments with righteous deeds puts one in mind of the parable in Matthew 22:11-13.
Luke 1:26-38: Luke’s earliest reference to the Holy Spirit comes in a line where Gabriel to speaks to Zacharias about John the Baptist: “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15).
This striking prophecy is fulfilled only twenty-six verses later, when the unborn infant’s response to this filling with the Holy Spirit is to jump for joy inside his mother’s body. Indeed, the mother herself is filled with the Holy Spirit: “And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41).
Furthermore, Elizabeth credits this outpouring of the Holy Spirit to the sound of Mary’s voice: “For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy” (1:44).
And what does the Holy Spirit prompt Elizabeth to say to Mary? “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (1:42). This is the way that one addresses the Mother of God, if one is filled with the Holy Spirit.
This point is emphatic. The word “blessed” in Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary is not the makarios, or “happy,” of the Beatitudes (though this is used in the same context in Luke 1:45, 48). It is, rather, eulogemene, the participle of the verb “to bless.” This particular “blessed” is of the same root as the “blessed” (eulogetos) in Zacharias’s “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel,” a detail surely significant inasmuch as Zacharias himself is also described in that passage as “filled with the Holy Spirit” when he said it (1:67–68). Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary was bound to become part of the faith and piety of God’s Church, inasmuch as it is explicitly said to have been given by the Holy Spirit. Like “Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15) and “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3), “Blessed are you among women” is a pronouncement prompted by the Holy Spirit. “Blessed are you among women” pertains to the Spirit-given substance of the Christian faith. Like Elizabeth who “cried out with a loud voice,” Christians render this identical greeting to the one whom they know as “the mother of my Lord” (1:42–43).
Saturday, December 18
Revelation 19:11-21: The chapter continues on a different theme, warfare (verses 11-21). Jesus, pictured before as the Lamb, is here portrayed as a warrior on a white destrier. The emphasis is on His vindication of justice, the motif with which the chapter began. He is called “faithful and true,” adjectives referring to Him in 3:14. These adjectives should be considered especially in the context of martyrdom. That is to say, when a person is about to die a terrible death for the name of Jesus, "faithful and true” are the words he needs to know with respect to Jesus. Like the martyrs, Jesus is here clothed in white. His eyes (verse 12) are flames of fire, much as in John’s inaugural vision (1:12-16). His garment (verse 13) is spattered with blood, a detail we saw in 14:18-20. The literary inspiration of this portrayal is the canticle in Isaiah 63:1-3.
One of the Christological titles found here is “king of kings and lord of lords,” a title going back to the ancient Assyrian emperors, who were kings over other kings. John tells us that this title appears on the “thigh,” of the Rider on the white horse. The thigh here is the place of the scabbard, where the sword hangs. It was common in antiquity to speak of the thigh as the place of the sword. With regard to Achilles, for example, Homer wrote: “And anger came on Peleus’s son, and within his shaggy breast the heart was divided two ways, pondering whether to draw from his thigh the sharp sword, driving away all those who stood between and kill the son of Atreus, or else to check his spleen within and keep down his anger” (Iliad 1.188-192). The same idiom is found in the Odyssey 11.231 and the Aeneid 10.788. The exact idiom is likewise biblical; “Gird your sword on your thigh, everyone of you,” commanded Moses to the Levites (Exodus 32:27). The expression occurs twice in Judges 3 and in Psalms 45 (44):3. Finally, in the Song of Solomon there is a description of the sixty valiant men around the king, “each with his sword upon his thigh, against alarms by night” (3:8). The title on the Warrior’s thigh, then, is inscribed on His scabbard.
The sword itself, however, is described as coming forth from His mouth, as in John’s inaugural vision in the first chapter. This image, of course, identifies the sword with the word, as in Hebrews 4:12 and Ephesians 6:17. The image of God’s word as a sword seems to have been very common among the early Christians, so we are not surprised to see it here. The Rider Himself is called “the Word of God,” in the only instance of this expression with reference to Jesus outside of the beginning of John’s Gospel.
The summoning of the scavenger birds in verse 17 is reminiscent of Ezekiel 39, which describes the defeat of the armies of Gog. We will say more about this battle scene in Ezekiel in our discussion of Revelation 20.
Sunday, December 19
Revelation 20:1-15: 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.
Monday, December 20
Revelation 21:1-8: 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 thrones. 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.”
Luke 1:57-66: Our reading of Luke’s Gospel today, brings us now to the birth of John the Baptist.
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. John 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 have not come to the Christian faith as adults, but as infants and children. 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.
Tuesday, December 21
Revelation 21:9-27: 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 plane 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).
Psalm 67 (Greek and Latin 66): Over the centuries, many Christians, have recited this psalm at the break of dawn each morning. Thus, just as the sunlight began to break through the darkness on the eastern horizon and to extend, bit by bit, its ever-ranging rays still further to lands in the distant west, holy Church employed this psalm to summon all these myriad peoples to proclaim the praises of God: “O God, have compassion on us and bless us, and let Your face shine upon us, to make known Your way upon the earth, and Your salvation to all the nations.”
Twice during this psalm will come the double refrain: “May the peoples bless You, O Lord, may all the peoples bless You.” Just as God begins, at the opening of the day, to cause His sun to shine alike on both the just and the unjust, all the earth is invited to laud His universal mercy.
Wednesday, December 22
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. Just as Adam’s curse drove the whole human race out of paradise, so the leaves of the paradisiacal tree of life are for the healing of all the nations.
The theme of the living waters is very much central to the Johannine corpus (cf. John 4:7-15; 7:38; 19:34; 1 John 5:6-8).
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.
Matthew 1:1-17: The Evangelist, St. Matthew, as though encouraging the preacher to deliver a three-point sermon on the subject, is careful to break the genealogy of Jesus into three parts. He writes, “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations.”
This very simple chronological sequence thus divides salvation history—from Abraham to Jesus—according to the history of the monarchy. Thus, the three sections are pre-monarchical, extending from the 18th century before Christ to the beginning of the 10th; then, the period of the monarchy, from the year 1000 to the Babylonia Captivity in the 6th century; and finally, the post-monarchical period, from the sixth century, starting in 538, to the birth of Jesus.
Saint Augustine speculated that the period from Abraham to David could be called man’s adolescence—adulescentia, whereas his “youth” (iuventus, classically understood as the period between ages twenty and forty) began with David. This is why, says Augustine, history is divided at this point (The City of God 16.43).
If one observes it closely, Matthew’s historical division also corresponds roughly to the three parts of the Hebrew canonical Scriptures: the Torah in the pre-monarchical period, the Prophets during the monarchical period, and the Writings during the post-monarchical period.
Thursday, December 23
Revelation 22:12-21: This final chapter of Revelation resembles in several particulars the first chapter of the book, one of which is that in both places 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 them. 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—the fullness of communion with God. In preparation for that reward, verses 14-16 are 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.
Friday, December 24
Christmas Eve: Few themes, I suppose, are more pronounced in the teaching of Jesus than that of God's invitation. Whether to a banquet or a wedding, Jesus sees man as invited by God. I believe this divine invitation implies many considerations of anthropology, but I limit myself here to one: human dignity. God invites man for pretty much the same reason we send invitations to one another—friendship. Orthodox Christian theology has always insisted that His motive is friendship.
It is difficult, it is bewildering, and it is more than slightly frightening to assimilate the notion that God finds us loveable. It is among the most astounding truths in Holy Scripture. What could God possibly find loveable in us?
Indeed, even some Christians are so bewildered by this idea that they resort to subtleties to parse away the paradox of it. They may explain, for example, that God, being love, cannot help loving us, even though He finds nothing intrinsically loveable in us. It is taken for granted, in certain Christian circles, that God could not possibly find human beings desirable. It is assumed as obvious that there is nothing in us that would attract Him. It is impossible for God to love us for our own sake, we are told, but only because of His loving nature. He is forced to love us, as it were, because love is His definition.
Let me suggest that theories like this are difficult to reconcile with what God has told us about Himself—and us. In Holy Scripture He describes Himself as a bridegroom rejoicing over a bride, who is the apple of His eye. He speaks of Himself as a father who celebrates the return of a faithless son, in whom He recognizes His own image. Surely, these are the teachings that justify that beautiful adjective by which Holy Church addresses God: philanthropos.
When the Church calls God the "lover of mankind," She affirms an important truth about the human race: God finds man attractive. Indeed, when God made man, He put into his composition a radical point of attraction that man is incapable of destroying.
This favorable and loving attitude of God toward human beings perhaps justifies our speaking of a divine anthropotropism. God shows every sign of being drawn to man. It is hard for us to fathom this. It is as though the sun felt for the sunflower the same powerful attraction the sunflower feels for the sun. We would have to imagine a solar antheotropism prompting the sun to rush its rising each morning for another glimpse of the jonquil, the iris and the buttercup.
Holy Scripture, however, says no less of God's feelings for man. Numerous times Jeremiah, that most tenderhearted of poets, speaks of God "rising up early" to speak to the human soul (7:13,25; 11:7; 25:3,4; 26:5; 29:19; 32:33; 35:14,15; 44:4).
It is arguable, indeed, that Jeremiah was the prophet who best understood this aspect of God—and of man. It was in Israel's supremely dark hour, the dreadful day of Nebuchadnezzar and the destruction of the First Temple, that this philanthropic God declared through the lips of Jeremiah, " I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore have I drawn thee with mercy" (31:3). It is this everlasting love of God that summons humanity; it is His undying mercy that prompts the invitation He dispatches to human beings throughout the ages.
God loves us and desires us because He formed us in His own image, which is essential to—and inalienable from—the very definition of human nature. God's love for us is His response to the attraction He has made intrinsic to our being. There is absolutely nothing we can do to make God stop desiring us. Even the souls in hell are the object of His relentless affection, because they are formed in His image, the same image He saw on the day His hands gave them shape.
The truth is that God is drawn to us by love—that He has forcefully thrown in His lot with us, to the point of become one of us. This act of God—His deliberate assumption of our historical experience in order to make it His own—is what theology calls Divine Revelation, and its defining manifestation is the Mystery of the Incarnation. In the person of His Son, God has united humanity to Himself by an indissoluble bond that theology calls the Hypostatic Union—the union of divinity and humanity in the single person (hypostasis) of Jesus Christ. Human theotropism and divine anthropotropism are both fulfilled.