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 moment 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.
Saturday, December 25
Christmas: When Athanasius of Alexandria, in the fourth century, addressed the question, "Why did God become man?" the lines of his response followed those already elaborated in the Epistle to the Hebrews and in Irenaeus of Lyons—namely, the Incarnation was required for man's reconciliation with God.
Man's simple repentance from sin, Athanasius contended, would not have been sufficient to restore him to friendship with God. To imagine otherwise is to suppose an inadequate and unbiblical view of sin. Sin is not a merely moral offense, after all, an injury readily cured by simple repentance. Still less is it just a forensic declaration of guilt that could be reversed by a contrary declaration of reprieve. Nor is sin just a spiritual state that could be altered by some kind of spiritual adjustment. And certainly sin is not the sort of affront that can be remedied by a sincere apology.
According to Holy Scripture sin is bondage to death and corruption. Death and corruption are not punishments imposed on sin from without; they are internal to sin itself, the very "embodiment" of sin. Man was warned, “in the day that you eat of it you will die!” Thus the Apostle Paul declared that "sin reigned in death" (ebasilevsen he hamartia en to thanato–Romans 5:21). To deal with sin, it was necessary to deal with death.
For this reason, Athanasius argued, the power of sin, which is the corruption of death, had to be defeated in the flesh. This necessity of the Word's enfleshment pertained to what Athanasius called "the divine reasonableness" (to evlogon to pros ton Theon—On the Incarnation 7).
Whereas many later theologians, especially in the West, thought of Redemption in terms of the divine honor or the divine justice, Athanasius thought of it in terms of the divine “reasonableness” or evlogon, the sustained propriety, coherence, consistency, and proportion that distinguishes all of God's dealings with men.
The death of Christ in the flesh, in the eyes of Athanasius, was directed, then, not at satisfying the divine honor—much less of meeting the requirements of the divine justice—but at loosing man's bondage to corruption. God had not told Adam, “in the day that you eat of it, I will get terribly upset,” but “in the day that you eat of it, you will died.” Sin entered into man, not God. For sin to be defeated, something in man had to change.
Now, since man had fallen in the flesh, reasoned Athanasius, it was reasonable, symmetric, appropriate, and proportionate—in short, evlogon—that man be restored through the flesh. "For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world" (ibid. 8).
Thus, Athanasius explained, it pertained to the Word, "and to Him alone, to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to guard for the Father His reasonableness in all things (to hyper panton evlogon). Being the Word of the Father and above all, He alone was consequently able and qualified to recreate (anaktisai) all, to suffer for all (hyper panton pathein), and to represent all to the Father" (ibid. 7).
Following the line of argument that we find in Hebrews 2, Athanasius reasoned thus: "The Word understood that corruption could not be destroyed except through death. Yet, as God's Word and Son, He was immortal and could in no wise die. For this reason He took on a body capable of dying." By sharing the flesh of mortal human beings, Athanasius went on, God's Word offered Himself on their behalf: "By surrendering to death the body that He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from defilement—by this proportionate offering—He obliterated death for all those who shared it with Him" (ibid. 9).
In order to overcome this corruption of sin, however, it was required, not only that God's Word should die in the flesh, but also that He should rise again in the flesh. Only in the Resurrection was corruption abolished. Indeed, God's Word assumed the body in order to be raised in the body: "It was the Lord's chief concern to bring about (poiein) the resurrection of the body. With respect to death this was the trophy for public display, to be everyone's guarantee that He had overcome corruption, and that their own bodies would in due course be incorrupt. It was in pledge thereto and as a declaration of everyone's future resurrection that He preserved His own body incorrupt" (ibid. 22).
For this reason, wrote Athanasius, Christ died in order to rise: "death had to precede resurrection, for there could be no resurrection without it" (ibid. 23). "He descended in a body, and He rose again, because He was God in a body. . . . Death pertains to man. Therefore the Word, as God, became flesh in order that, being put to death in the flesh, He might give life to all men by the power that is proper to Him" (Against the Arians 1.44).
In Athanasius, then, whose Christology became the standard of orthodoxy in the fourth century, the Incarnation pertains essentially to the mystery of man’s redemption. He insisted that the Word’s assumption of our flesh was the condition of His death and Resurrection, because he perceived the “fleshly” nature of that redemption. For Athanasius, redemption means that something changed in man, not in God.
Sunday, December 26
Matthew 2:1-15: Among the notable features proper to the Gospel according to St. Matthew is the way it includes the verb “to adore” (proskyneo) in passages where that verb does not appear in parallel accounts in the other Gospels. Thus, Matthew describes various people falling in adoration be- fore Christ in scenes where they are not said to be doing so in the other Gospel versions of the same stories. These instances include the accounts of the cleansing of the leper (8:2), the petition of Jairus (9:18), the walking on the water (14:33), the prayer of the Canaanite woman (15:25), and the request of Zebedee’s wife for her two sons (20:20). A pronounced emphasis on Christ-ward adoration, then, is a distinguishing characteristic of Matthew’s narrative.
There is, furthermore, a special parallelism between the first and last instances of this verb in Matthew’s composition. These are the two scenes of the coming of the Magi, near the beginning of the Gospel, and the Great Commission to the Church at the very end. In the former of these, the verb proskyneo, “to adore,” is found three times (2:2, 8, 11), which is Matthew’s highest concentration of that word in a single scene.
A literal reading of the Great Commission passage makes it appear that the Eleven Apostles are actually bowed over in adoration before the risen Jesus at the very time when the Great Commission is given to them (28:9). Thus, not only does Matthew portray various individuals adoring the Lord, but his entire Gospel can be said to begin and to end with that picture in mind.
There is a further important parallelism between the Christmas story of the Magi and the account of the Great Commission; namely, the theme of the Church’s universal mission. Whereas Matthew ends his story with the Apostles’ being sent forth with the command, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (28:19), he begins his whole account with a kind of foreshadowing of that final mission by the arrival of the Magi, those wise searchers from the East who come to adore the newborn King of Israel. These two passages, then, thus embrace Matthew’s entire story of Jesus.
There is more suggested by the juxtaposition of these parallel texts, however, for the very purpose of the Great Commission is to transform the whole of humanity as the rightful heirs of the Magi. Like the stars themselves, the Apostles are sent forth to lead all nations into that path first followed by the wise men from the East.
Indeed, St. Paul compared the Apostles to those very heavens that “declare the glory of God,” quoting in their regard the Psalmist’s affirmation that “Their line has gone out through all the earth, / And their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 18:4; Romans 10:18). The stars and the Apostles proclaim the same universal message, and that message is the Gospel.
These Magi have come to the Messiah, moreover, precisely because they are star-watchers. “For we have seen His star in the East,” they affirm, “and have come to worship [or adore] Him” (Matthew 2:2).
Likewise, the mission of the Apostles is to bring all nations even unto Bethlehem, that “house of the Bread” (for such is the meaning of “Bethlehem”), where all who eat the one loaf are one body in Christ, to join with the Magi in their eternal adoration.
This adoration takes place within the “house,” which is the Church formed by those who break and share the one Bread: “And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped [or adored] Him” (Matthew 2:11).
For this reason, it was entirely proper that the Apostles, as they were being commissioned for the great work of universal evangelism, should manifest in their very posture the Christ-ward adoration which is the final goal of that evangelism (Matthew 28:9).
Monday, December 27
Saint John: It is often remarked that the omission of the Transfiguration account from the Fourth Gospel is properly explained by the fact that Jesus always appears transfigured in that Gospel. In its every scene, including the Passion narrative, Jesus is suffused with the radiance of the divine light. “We beheld His glory,” says St. John in the prologue, “the glory as of the only begotten of the Father” (1:14).
That prologue, which sets the theme for the entire story, is peculiar to John, whose narrative otherwise adheres to the exact time span covered by the earliest apostolic preaching, namely, “all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21–22). Adherence to this same primitive time frame is also characteristic of the message of Peter and Paul (10:36–42; 13:23–31), as well as the earliest of the Gospels, Mark. So too John, except for this prologue, which we read today.
Matthew and Luke had expanded that original time frame by adding the stories of Jesus’ conception, birth, and infancy. John’s prologue, however, escapes the confines of time altogether, rising to God’s eternity, where “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Only then does this Gospel begin to speak of the ministry of John the Baptist (1:6, 15).
The Jesus presented in John’s Gospel, then, is the eternal Word, in whom “was life, and the life was the light of men” (1:4). Becoming flesh and dwelling among us (1:14), He is the living revelation of God on this earth. Even though “no one has seen God at any time,” John says, “the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (1:18).
These themes will appear again in the Lord’s Last Supper discourse and the long intercession that He prays at the end of it. There will He speak of His being “the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6) and refer to the glory that He had with the Father before the world began (17:5, 24).
In every scene, then, from the Lord’s appearance at John’s baptismal site all the way through the Lord’s death and Resurrection, the divine light appears among men. John records all these things that we readers too may “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (20:31).
Tuesday, December 28
Psalm 2: Psalm 2 commences: “Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine something vain.” The “blessed man” introduced in Psalm 1, Jesus our Lord, is an affront to the wisdom of this world. The powers of this world cannot abide Him. The moral contrast described in Psalm 1 thus becomes the messianic conflict narrated in Psalm 2.
One of the kings of this world, Herod, immediately felt threatened at the birth of God’s Anointed One. He felt so threatened that he killed every little boy who could possibly be the Christ. Well he should fear, for there can be no compromise nor compatibility between the wisdom and power of this world and the wisdom and power of God. They are at deep enmity (cf. 1 Cor. 2:4–14), and our second psalm is concerned with this historical conflict. Psalm 2 is a Christological interpretation of history.
Psalm 1 had spoken of the “counsel of the godless,” and now Psalm 2 will go on to describe that counsel: “The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered in counsel, against the Lord and against his anointed [Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek].” The counsel of this world will not endure the reign of God and Christ. “Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us,” they say.
The early Christians knew the meaning of these words, and they included them in one of their earliest recorded prayers: “Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the mouth of Your servant David have said: ‘Why did the nations rage, and the people plot vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the LORD and against His Christ.” And about whom are these things being said? The prayer goes on: “For truly against Your holy Servant [pais, also meaning ‘servant’ or ‘boy’] Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together” (Acts 4:24–27).
This psalm is not impressed by all the sinful revolution against the reign of God and his Christ. Like the first psalm, Psalm 2 will finish on the theme of the divine judgment, which blesses the just and condemns the wicked. Both psalms end much like the Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge.”
Indeed, the parallels of Psalm 2 with the “last days” described in the Bible’s final book, Revelation, are quite remarkable: the anger of the nations and the wrath of God (Rev. 11:18), the political conspiracy against God (19:19), the Messiah’s “rod of iron” inflicted on His enemies (2:27; 12:5; 19:15).
God, meanwhile, may laugh at His enemies: “He that thrones in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord will hold them in derision.” His Chosen One and Heir is already anointed. In the verse that explains the Church’s partiality to this psalm at Christmas time, the Messiah proclaims: “The Lord said unto Me: ‘You are My Son; this day have I begotten You.” These words, partly reflected at the Lord’s Baptism (Matt. 3:17) and Transfiguration (Matt. 17:5; 2 Pet. 1:17), came to express the essential Christological faith of the Church. This verse is cited explicitly in the apostolic preaching (cf. Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5; also 1 John 5:9) and directly answers the major question posed by Christian evangelism in every age: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose Son is He?” The (most likely) earliest of the Gospels thus commences: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).
“This day,” God says, “today have I begotten You.” So early in the Book of Psalms is the Christian mind elevated to eternity, that undiminished “today” of Christ’s identity—“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). No one knows the Father except the Son and he to whom the Son chooses to reveal him (Matt. 11:27). That “blessed man” introduced in the first psalm is now proclaimed in the second psalm to be God’s only-begotten Son, the sole Mediator between God and man, the Man Jesus Christ. His is the only name under heaven given men by which we may be saved. Therefore, “Be wise now, you kings; be instructed, you judges of the earth. . . . Blessed are all that put their trust in Him.”
Wednesday, December 29
John 1:19-28: The Evangelist continues with a double interrogation of John the Baptist by the religious leaders from Jerusalem.
It appears that John has conflated stories of two delegations, one from the Sadducees (priests and Levites), the other from the Pharisees. He found it easy to conflate the two interrogations, since both groups apparently asked very much the same questions—all of them about John’s identity. We should presume that John the Baptist was questioned on this point several times (cf. Luke 3:7-18).
Both groups of questioners are said to represent “the Jews,” an expression that now appears for the first time in John’s Gospel. In most of the instances of this word in John, it designates Jesus’ enemies—the “Jews” as distinct from the Christians. That is to say, John’s use of this word appears to come from a period in which the Church was becoming an entity readily distinguished from the Synagogue.
Although not consistently, we find the word “Jews” already use in this sense long before John. Indeed, it appears in the earliest book of the New Testament, twenty years before the destruction of Jerusalem. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us” (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15).
By the time of John’s Gospel this form of expression has become consistent. The “Jews” represent a religion that has set itself against Jesus the Messiah. In that context, the Church became “of age,” as it were; indeed, She has been expelled from Judaism and has begun to think of herself as a separate quid.
In John’s Gospel Jesus prophesies, in fact, “They will put you out of the synagogues” (16:2). The Greek expression here is aposynagógous poiesousin hymas, literally “they will unsynagogue you.” The Church has become “unsynagogued.”
John’s Gospel reflects the period (after Jerusalem’s destruction and the rabbinical gathering at Jamnia) when Jesus’ disciples had, in fact, been expelled from the Synagogue in a rather definitive way. John speaks of this several times.
Thus, we read in about the parents of the blind man in 9:22: “His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had agreed already that if anyone confessed [homologese] that He was Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue.” Here the expelling is being done by the Jews, and here too we find the same expression, aposynagogos, “unsynagogued.” What, indeed, have the parents of the blind man just told these Jews? “He is of age; ask him. He will speak for himself.” What, in fact, do they do to the blind man? “They cast him out” (12:34). This is John’s portrayal of the Church: She has come of age; she is no longer just part of the Synagogue. She did not reject the Synagogue; the Synagogue rejected Her! It was a simple fact of history: the Church must find her own way, apart from Judaism.
John returns to this idea in 12:42-43: “Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess, lest they should be put out of the synagogue [aposynagogoi] ; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” That is to say, the rulers of the Jewish people had pressed the point, and one was forced to decide between being a Jew and being a Christian.
Clearly, then, John does not use the word Jew in a racial or ethnic sense. The word means, rather, someone who practices the Jewish religion, which has now become something incompatible with Christian faith and discipleship. This sense of the word “Jew” is carried over in many Christian liturgical texts, where it appears in a negative sense. It would be a mammoth distortion of the truth to regard those liturgical references as racial or anti-Semitic.
The first delegation comes to John from a delegation sent by the priestly family (verses 19-23). This line of questioning has to do with John’s identity: Is he the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy 19? John answers “no” to each question. John’s reiterated denial may be contrasted with Jesus’ own use of the words “I AM” all through this Gospel. This continues the contrast between Jesus and John, begun with the assertion regarding John, “He was not that light, but in order to bear witness to that light.”
Of these three negations by John the Baptist, the first is the most important: “I am not the Messiah.” He also denies being Elijah, the prophet expected to return in immediate preparation for the coming of the Messiah (cf. Malachi 3:23; Sirach 48:4-12; Luke 1:17). Although John the Baptist did not regard himself as the Prophet Elijah, Jesus regarded in the light of those prophecies of Elijah’s return (cf. Matthew 11:14; 17:12).
John also denies being the Prophet foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15,18 (cf. Acts 7:37). According tp this Gospel, there were those who suspected that Jesus Himself was that Prophet foretold by Moses (6:14; 7:40).
Finally, when John is asked point-blank, “Who are you?” he responds by quoting Isaiah 40:3—“The voice of someone crying in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” John’s understanding of himself in the light of this Isaian text is found in the Synoptic Traditions as well (cf. Matthew 3:3).
The questioning continues with the second delegation, that of the Pharisees (verses 24-27): Why does John baptize? What is the significance of his baptism, if he is neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet foretold by Moses? The Pharisees, always suspicious of innovations, are at least curious on the matter.
By way of response, John the Baptist simply refers to someone the reader is expected to identify as Jesus: “I baptize in water. In the midst of you stands One you do not know: He who comes after me, of whom I am not worthy that I should loose the strap of the sandal.” This reference is cryptic and actually fails to answer the question from the Pharisees. The reader expects to find a contrast between John’s baptism and that of Jesus, as he finds in the Synoptic Traditions (Mark 1:8; Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16). This will not occur, however, until verse 33.
In telling of the questioners of John the Baptist, the Evangelist has now introduced those responsible for the death of Jesus.
The final verse in this section says, “These things came to be in Bethany, on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” Some manuscripts have altered the name of the place to Bethabara, since it was well known that Bethany sits on the Mount of Olives, nowhere near the Jordan River. It appears, however, that there was another town named Bethany, this one on the Jordan River.
Thursday, December 30
John 1:29-34: This Gospel text begins, “The next day. . .” This is the reason that it is text read every year on January 7, the day after the Lord’s Baptism. It contains John’s version of the preaching of John the Baptist.
Careful note should be made of the expression, “the next day,” because it is the first of several chronological remarks that mark the opening chapters of John. It means that the author is counting the days, and he tells us that we have now arrived at the second day of his story. In verse 35 we will arrive at the third day. In verse 43 we will arrive at the fourth day. In 2:1 we jump three days. That is to say, the author goes to considerable effort to describe what transpired over the course of a week.
In fact, through 1:19 to 2:11 is an account of the first week of the New Creation. This week will culminate in the first of Jesus’ “Signs,” the miracle of Cana in Galilee. This is consonant with the beginning of John’s Gospel, which, like the Book of Genesis, commences with the words “in the beginning.”
It is with the ministry of John the Baptist that the Fourth Gospel narrative starts. This is important, because the common tradition reflected in the NT regards John the Baptist as the most primitive Christian preacher. The Gospel begins with the preaching of John. That is to say, the earliest interpreter of Jesus, before any of the Apostles and Gospel-writers, was John the Baptist.
In this section John the Baptist makes several points about Jesus:
First, Jesus is identified with “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” For John the Baptist, who preached a baptism of repentance of sins, this was the most fundamental fact about Jesus of Nazareth—He is the sacrificial victim, the definitive sin-offering, by whose oblation the sin of the world is removed.
When Jesus is called the “Lamb” in the New Testament, two OT images come particularly to mind: the Paschal Lamb and the Lamb offered for sin on the Day of Atonement.
Jesus as the Paschal Lamb will later appear in John in the story of the Passion: “But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. . . . For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, ‘Not one of His bones shall be broken’” (19:36; Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12; Psalm 34:20). This also appears in Paul: “For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). Both Paul and John, then, regard Jesus as the true Paschal Lamb, who delivers the Chosen People on the night of the Exodus.
Among the Latin Fathers, it was usual to explain the present passage in John by reference to the Paschal Lamb.
This does not seem to be the sense in the present passage, however, and the Greek Fathers generally explain our present text with reference to the Lord’s Suffering Servant is likened in Isaiah 53. Because the Paschal Lamb was not sacrificed for sins, the sense in the present text seems to be that of the sin offering of Yom Kippur.
In identifying Jesus in this way, John sees Him as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 53 (verses 7-12): “You make His soul an offering for sin.” This image of the biblical sin-offering became the earliest of the categories of Christology. Before we find it in Epistles of St. Paul, even before we find it in the Lord’s own words at the Last Supper, we find this thematic image already in the preaching of John the Baptist. John is the first to proclaim the message of the Cross. He is the first determined to know nothing but Christ, and Him crucified.
This image appears likewise in St Peter: “knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19).
Indeed, this image appears in the earliest preaching of the Christian Church, as we see in Acts 8:32, where Isaiah 53 is quoted (by Philip to the eunuch) and explained.
Both images—the Paschal Lamb and the lamb offered for sins—seem to be present in the Book of Revelation, which most refers to Jesus as the Lamb (27 times).
John’s proclamation of the Cross pertains not only to the doctrine of Redemption; it pertains also to his own vocation. Because the One greater than he is the Lamb offered in sacrifice, John himself must accept in his own life and vocation the standard of the Cross. He too must taste the bitterness and the gall. He too must be mutilated in his flesh and bear the darkness of abandonment. Even before Jesus, John would die in testimony to the truth. Even with respect to the Cross, John would be the forerunner.
Second, John identifies Jesus as the One through whom the world receives the Holy Spirit: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’”
Here in John’s Gospel, the Lord’s baptism by John the Baptist is not described, but it is clearly presupposed. John’s vision of the Dove (verse 32) corresponds to the Synoptic descriptions of Jesus’ baptism. We may observe here that the revelation at Jesus’ baptism is portrayed as an objective, not just a spiritual experience of Jesus.
John recognizes Jesus as Messiah by reason of that outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as the prophets had foretold (cf. Joel 2:28-29; Isaiah 32:15; Ezekiel 39:29; Zechariah 12:10).
John himself could not confer the Holy Spirit. Baptism in the Holy Spirit is proper to Christ’s own Baptism. Indeed, this was made a point of later Christian preaching to the disciples of John the Baptist. We read in the Acts of the Apostles: “Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” So they said to him, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said to them, “Into what then were you baptized?” So they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Then Paul said, “John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.”
Luke thus portrays the continuity between the preaching of John the Baptist and the preaching of Paul. Obviously John’s own disciples had not been paying very close attention. Each of the four Gospels describes John as preaching about the Holy Spirit, and yet, years later, we still find John’s disciples saying, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.”
Third, John testifies that it was the Holy Spirit who revealed to him the identity of Jesus: “I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God.”
John, then, is the first preacher to proclaim that the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth can only be given in the Holy Spirit.
In verse 34, some manuscripts read “the Chosen One of God” instead of “the Son of God.”
Friday, December 31
John 1:35-42: Only in this Gospel do we learn that Jesus’ first disciples had been disciples of John the Baptist.
This Gospel reading presents us with the two quite different brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew. Even though Peter often served as a spokesman for the other Apostles, one has the impression that he sometimes went out of his way to distinguish himself, to set himself apart, from the rest of the apostles — “Even if all are made to stumble, yet I will not be” (Mark 1:29). A consummate alpha personality, Peter simply cannot be overlooked; like the very sun, a boisterous giant rejoicing to run his course, there is nothing hidden from his heat.
Andrew, on the contrary, appears not to draw attention to himself but serves entirely as a conduit for others to come to the Lord. Even in this scene that prompts the Church to remember him as the first-called, he immediately went to share his blessing with his sibling. It is no wonder that he was known among the first Christians simply as “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.” There is more attention given to Andrew in this Gospel than in the other three.
In verse 35 we arrive at the “third day” of the week of the New Creation.
We observe that John translates the word “rabbi,” something he would not do if he had only Jewish readers in mind (verse 38). The same is true for the names “Messiah” (verse 41) and “Kephas” (verse 42).
These things happened “about the tenth hour,” which would be bout 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The events in this next chapter took place the next day.
Psalm 46 (Greek and Latin 45): The psalm’s structure is very easy to perceive, its two strophes each ending in the refrain, “The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our helper.” The wording of this refrain accentuates what we may call its ecclesiological theme; that is to say, the voice in this psalm is the voice of the Church, the holy city, which is the dwelling place of God. Hence the importance of the first person plural all through this psalm: “we,” “us,” and “our.” God is “our” refuge and strength, “we” shall not fear, The Lord of hosts is with “us,” and so forth. This is the voice of God’s people, the same voice that prays, “Our Father.”
This is no modest or understated theme in Holy Scripture, this image of God’s people as a holy city, the Church. Thus our psalm touches the rest of the Bible at a hundred points, all the way to the Book of Revelation, where John’s final vision is one of the holy city which is the definitive dwelling place of God: “God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved.”
As in the Book of Revelation, our psalm speaks of a stream of living water in connection with the holy city: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High.” This stream is at once the primeval river of Paradise, the holy font of Baptism and the water of eternal life.