Good Friday, April 22
Zechariah 13: Maintaining his emphasis on the Lord’s Passion and Death, the prophet goes on to speak of the striking of the Shepherd and the consequent dispersal of His disciples (verse 7), a text interpreted for us in Matthew 26:31 (cf. Mark 14:27; John 16:31).
This is the event by which the false gods are defeated (verse 1). These are the demonic forces brought to naught by the death of the First Born. Questioned about the marks of the wounds in His flesh, the Lord responds, “These wounds I received in the house of My friends” (verse 6).
Cyril of Alexandria wrote in the fifth century: “when the Only Begotten Word of God ascended into the heavens in the flesh to which He was united, there was something new to be seen in the heavens. The multitude of holy angels was astounded, seeing the King of glory and the Lord of hosts being made in a form like ourselves. . . . Then the angels asked this, ‘What are these wounds in Your hands?’ And He said to them, ‘These wounds I received in the house of My friends.’” These are the wounds that He will show to His disciples after His resurrection. He bears these wounds in his glorified flesh forever, as He stands before the Father, “as though slain,” being the one Mediator between God and Man (Revelation 5:6).
Philippians 2:1-11: There were forces of disunity active in the Philippians congregation. These seem to have been based on differences of personality and temperament (cf. 4:2) rather than doctrine, but they were nonetheless disruptive and painful. Paul was especially sensitive to these Philippian problems, because he was suffering from similar difficulties, such as jealousies and rivalries, at Ephesus (1:15-17,29-30).
In the present chapter, therefore, Paul exhorts the Philippians to unity. This unity, based on “communion of the Spirit” (koinonia Pnevmatos), is expressed in “the comfort of love,” with “affection and mercy” (literally “heart and mercies”—splanchna kai oiktirmoi, words that the early Christians liked to join. See verse 1; Colossians 3:12; James 5:11). Paul is asking the Philippians to consult their experience of God in comfort, consolation, communion, and mercy, and then to live accordingly.
All the Philippians must cultivate the same set of mind (to avto phronete, have the same love (ten avten agapen), be of one soul (sympsychoi), and “think the same thing” (to hen phronountes). It has long been recognized that all four of these expressions mean the same thing. Thus, in the fourth century St. John Chrysostom commented, posakis to avto legei, “he several times says the same thing.”
Twice in the list Paul uses the verb phroneo, meaning “to think,” or, perhaps better, “to have in mind,” “to dwell on in thought.” The verb has as much to do with attitude and sentiment as it does with thought or reason. This epistle uses this verb ten times (cf. also 1:7; 2:5; 3:15,19; 4:2,10), more than any other of Paul’s epistles.
The attitude encouraged by Paul is opposed to all forms of “selfish ambition or conceit” (verse 3). The first of these words, eritheia, is perhaps better translated as “factiousness” or “party spirit.” In the first chapter Paul had used this same word to describe the problems at Ephesus (1:17), and he writes of the same evil elsewhere (Romans 2:8; 2 Corinthians 12:20; Galatians 5:19-20). Other early Christians warned about this evil as well (cf. James 3:14,16; Ignatius of Antioch, Philadelphians 8.2). It refers to partisan attempts to gain power and control in the Church. The presence of this word (which before Christian times is found in only one pagan Greek writer, Aristotle [Politics 5,1302b4 and 1303a14) in so much earlier Christian literature suggests that this was an ongoing problem.
The opposite of this vice is tapeinophrosyne (recognize here the root we just looked at?), which means lowliness, the internal sense of humility, personal modesty, humbling oneself (thus Jesus, in verse 8, “humbled Himself”—etapeinosen heavton).
It is instructive to note that this word is never found in pagan Greek literature. It conveys an ideal and state of mind alien to pagan culture. It is a distinctly biblical word. Indeed, the word had to be made up by the first Greek translators of the Hebrew Scriptures to express the sense of Proverbs 29:23 and Psalms 130 (131):2.
This humility means self-abnegation in the sight of God, the chief example of which is God’s Son, who emptied Himself and took the form of a servant and then humbled Himself in obedience unto death. This is the model that Paul holds out to the Philippians (verses 5-11).
Holy Saturday, April 23
Zechariah 14: A nun from Gaul, named Egeria, who visited the Christians at Jerusalem in the late fourth century, left us a description of the various liturgical practices of that ancient church. In the course of it, she described how, on Ascension Thursday, the believers gathered on the Mount of Olives, from which Jesus had ascended into heaven. And what did they do? They read the entire account, from the Gospel according to John, of the Lord’s suffering and death.
This remarkable detail reveals how closely the Christians of old thought to be related the various actions of the Lord by which we were redeemed. They did not think of redemption as taking place solely on the Cross, where the price of our sins was paid by our Lord’s blood (1 Peter 1:19), but as involving also the other events integral to the mystery of the Cross. The accomplishing of our redemption included also the event we celebrate today, Holy Saturday, when Jesus descended into the nether world to free the bondsmen whom Satan held there (3:19).
It included likewise His rising from the dead on Easter, inasmuch as Jesus “was delivered up for our offenses, and was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:25). As was suggested by Egeria’s account of the celebration of Ascension Thursday, the mystery of our redemption included also our Lord’s ascent into heaven and His taking His throne at the right hand of the Father, having been made for ever a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. This latter theme, of course, provides the major images of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
With this in mind, we should not be surprised that the Book of Zechariah, in the final chapter of its section dealing more explicitly with the sufferings of our Lord, prophesies the Lord’s standing on the Mount of Olives (verse 4), which are symbolically divided, much as He once divided the Red Sea and the River Jordan. His ascent from the Mount of Olives will cause to flow the living waters of redemption (verses 8-9) and the reunion of all God’s people in the Holy City (verses 14-21).
Psalms 16 (Greek and Latin 5): In addition to showing His disciples the truth of His Resurrection “by many infallible proofs, being seen of them for forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3), the newly risen Lord took special care likewise to explain to the Church the authentic meaning of Holy Scripture. Indeed, we know that the day of Resurrection itself was partly devoted to this task (cf. Luke 24:25–27, 44, 45).
These considerations, moreover, bear a special relevance to the interpretation of the Book of Psalms, for this section of the Bible, which became the Church’s official prayer book for all times, was singled out for specific consideration (Luke 24:44). On Pascha, the Sunday of the Resurrection, when the Lamb came forward and “took the scroll out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne” (Rev. 5:7) and began forthwith to open its seals (6:1), the Church commenced likewise her understanding of the psalms. From that day forward, the prayer of the Church would be rooted in the vision that the Lord gave her in His opening of the Psalter. We may be sure that Psalm 16 was among the psalms interpreted to the Church by the risen Christ, for this was the first psalm that she exegeted in her very first sermon when she came rushing with power from the upper room on Pentecost. According to the Apostle Peter, who preached that sermon, Psalm 15 describes the Resurrection of Christ ((Acts 2:22–32). Even though it was King David saying these things, the voice speaking more deeply in Psalm 16, according to St. Peter, is the voice of Christ. As the forefather and type of Christ, David was speaking in the tones of prophecy.
Since Psalm 16 speaks of the Lord’s Resurrection in terms of a future hope, rather than of an accomplished fact, there would seem to be a special propriety in praying this psalm on Saturday, the very day that the Lord’s body lay in the grave and His soul was in Hades. It may thus serve to prepare for the celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection each following Sunday, when the Lamb begins to open the seals.
And as David prayed Psalm 16 in persona Christi, looking forward to the one who was to come, so do Christians, when they pray this psalm, identify themselves in hope with the risen Christ, for we too will rise with Him: “And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power” (1 Cor. 6:14); “He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:14); “He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies” (Rom. 8:11).
Easter Sunday, April 24
The Resurrection: The essence of the Gospel is the Lord's Resurrection, which is the key to His identity. Because they are inseparable, we do well to look at these two subjects together. First, the Resurrection is the core substance of the "good news." It is not just one of the things that Christians believe, but the heart and kernel of the evangelion. For this reason the earliest, shortest version of the Creed asserted simply, "Jesus is Lord," an assertion explained in the first apostolic sermon: "This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. . . . Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:32,36). The Apostle Paul, in his sermon at the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia, proclaimed the same Gospel of the Resurrection: "And we declare to you glad tidings (evangelion)–that promise which was made to the fathers. God has fulfilled this for us their children, in that He has raised up Jesus" (Acts 13:31-32). Hence, "Christ is risen" is just another way of saying, "Jesus is Lord." His lordship and His resurrection are synonymous, forming the fundamental thesis of the faith, through the confession of which we are saved. "If you confess with your mouth," wrote Paul, "that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9). These two salvific assertions are substantially identical. It is by virtue of Jesus' Resurrection, therefore, that we are justified. In fact, the first time the noun "justification" appears in the New Testament, Paul proclaims that Jesus "was raised because of our justification" (Romans 4:25). He had earlier written, "For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!" (1 Corinthians 15:17) No Resurrection, no justification. It is through Jesus' Resurrection, then, that we are begotten as children of God. St. Peter wrote, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Peter 1:3). Second, the Resurrection is the answer to the identity of Jesus, because it is by His Resurrection that He is constituted as God's Son. This is not a denial of His eternal sonship in the bosom of the Father, nor a rejection of the doctrine of the hypostatic Incarnation. This thesis of Sonship-by-Resurrection has nothing to do with "adoptianism." It affirms, rather, that the redemptive sonship of God's eternal Son—the very man Jesus—includes His perfection through death and the Resurrection from the dead. Thus, St. Paul here in Romans writes of Jesus as “designated [horisthentos] the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). This affirmation of Christ’s sonship does not refer to His eternal generation by the Father, nor does it mean simply the Incarnation. It is specifically a reference to the Lord's resurrection from the dead. In what sense, then, does God designate Jesus as His Son by the Resurrection? St. Paul says, "with power." By His resurrection Jesus is established, is declared to be, God's Son en dynamei. Through the resurrection from the dead, that is, something truly new happened to Jesus. He is different from before. This divine Person incarnate has passed through, tasted, and been transformed by the experience of dying and rising again as a human being. He has thus been "made perfect" (Hebrews 2:10; 5:9). His perfected Sonship is established now "in power." It is the risen Lord, therefore, the perfected man Jesus, who declares, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me." It is a human being, God's Word in the flesh, who claims all authority, both in heaven and on earth, by reason of His resurrection from the dead. Because God raised Him from the dead, Jesus became something that He was not before. By His resurrection from the dead He is constituted God's Son in power, having universal authority in heaven and on earth. Through His resurrection He becomes the Head of creation and the medium of humanity's union with God. This is the meaning of the glad expression of our faith, "Jesus is Lord." Jesus is Lord, inasmuch as "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life."
Monday, April 25
The Song of Solomon 2: The assertion that this book, in its deepest level, refers to the union of God with His people does not in any way invalidate the book’s more obvious sense, celebrating the sexual love between husband and wife. Indeed, this more obvious meaning is presupposed, very much as the erotic intimacy between husband and wife is also presupposed in the assertion that marriage is an image of Christ and His Church. To declare that marriage is the mystic type of a higher spiritual reality is not to denigrate marriage itself.
And in this book the erotic intimacies of marriage are very much affirmed, even celebrated. The rapturous dialogue in the book describes in greater detail the truth expressed in the line, “Now Adam knew Eve his wife” (Genesis 3:1). What Adam knew in knowing Eve is here spelled out in great erotic particulars. Truly, Holy Scripture goes to some lengths to assert the God-willed goodness of these particulars, which constitute the immense pleasure and joy that God intends for husband and wife to find in sexual intimacy. Indeed, the wise man is exhorted to cherish these erotic aspects of his wife’s body (cf. Proverbs 5:19, compared with verses 9 and 17 of today’s chapter). Those who believe that the Bible’s attitude toward sex is mainly negative demonstrate a lamentable unfamiliarity with certain parts of the Sacred Text.
The Bible’s attitude toward sex is always positive, even when it seems to be negative. Take, for instance, the Bible’s prohibitions against sexual activities outside of marriage. This prohibition is really an affirmation of the dignity of marital intimacy, a declaration that there is no substitute for it.
Similar is the Bible’s prohibition against polygamy (cf. Mark 10:2-9). In this respect G. K. Chesterton remarked that the biblical prohibition against having more than one wife is a very small price to pay for the privilege of even seeing one woman. A close reading of The Song of Solomon demonstrates that a sexual commitment to one person is the proper context and imperative condition for the sexual intimacy narrated in it. The Song of Solomon may be described as the grammar of a lifelong sexual covenant. This is called marriage.
First Corinthians 15:12-19: An inspection of the New Testament, moreover, shows that the apologetic approach to the Resurrection came first; the early believers proclaimed the fact of it before they reflected on its soteriological meaning. In the earliest Christian preaching, the Resurrection was emphasized as probative before it was pondered as redemptive. St. Peter’s first sermon demonstrates this point. With respect to the Resurrection, Peter stressed two points: the historical fact that God raised Jesus from the dead and the fulfillment of biblical prophecy by that fact (Acts 2:24-31). In that sermon the apostle said not a word about the redemptive meaning of the Resurrection. He concentrated entirely on the historical fact itself, “of which,” he said, “we are all witnesses” (2:32).
The apostolic writings likewise record that the Resurrection was the point at which the first enemies of the Gospel directed their attack. In order to explain Jesus’ empty tomb, those responsible for His murder “gave a large sum of money to the soldiers,” bribing them to claim that Jesus’ disciples came, while the guard was sleeping, to take away His corpse. This explanation of the empty tomb, Matthew wrote, “is commonly reported among the Jews until this day” (Matthew 28:12-15).
Early Christian apologists recognized, of course, that the empty tomb itself proved nothing. So much was this the case that the first Christian to find the tomb empty presumed, not that Jesus had risen, but that His body had been stolen (John 20:1-2,13-15). Common sense testifies that this was a normal assessment: if we find a grave empty, it is not our first thought that the dead person arose. We suppose, rather, that someone took away the body. Hence, Jesus’ empty tomb by itself had no probative value, which is why it receives relatively little attention in the New Testament.
Tuesday, April 26
The Song of Solomon 3: If the imagery of this book seems too erotic to have a spiritual meaning, it would be good to remind ourselves that there are other instances where the imagery is just as erotic and the spiritual meaning is even more explicit. For example, here is how Ezekiel describes the Exodus: “‘I made you thrive like a plant in the field; and you grew, matured, and became very beautiful. Your breasts were formed, your hair grew, but you were naked and bare. When I passed by you again and looked upon you, indeed your time was the time of love; so I spread My wing over you and covered your nakedness. Yes, I swore an oath to you and entered into a covenant with you, and you became Mine,’ says the Lord God” (16:7-8).
Today’s mention of “King Solomon with the crown with which his other crowned him on the day of his wedding, the day of the gladness of his heart” (verse 11) has long been read by Christians as a reference to Jesus’ crowning with thorns by His mother—the Synagogue—that condemned Him on the day that He took the Church to Himself as His Bride forever. Indeed, among the Christians of the East the standard icon of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns, which is very much in evidence during the liturgical services of Holy Week, is still known simply as Ho Nymphios, “The Bridegroom.”
First Corinthians 15:20-34: In the man Jesus the human race commenced its journey through death to life. In the "faith of Jesus Christ" (Romans 3:22,26), "the author and perfecter of faith," humanity passed from the power of death to eternal life. It was this Jesus "who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2).
As "forerunner" (prodromos), Jesus became our high priest and mediator (Hebrews 6:20; 9:15; 12:24). Opening the way for us, He was the first to pass through every stage of human existence and experience, including the stage of death resultant from the fall of Adam, and to attain mankind's new and definitive stage, the Resurrection. Rising from the dead He became the true and efficacious Head of the human race. In His assumption of our humanity, God's Word took to Himself, not only our nature, but also that personal experience of history which is proper to human beings. He sanctified our personal histories by gaining a human, first-hand, personal familiarity with life and death, adding thereto the utterly new experience of eternal life gaining victory over death. His Resurrection was of the essence of man's redemption, His consecration of human experience from within.
Wednesday, April 27
The Song of Solomon 4: It should not surprise us that the ancient rabbis and the Church Fathers sometimes employed considerable poetic imagination to interpret this book. The book itself is highly poetic and imaginative. Even in their most literal sense, the individual verses of The Song of Solomon describe the details of sexual intimacy in the most exalted and extravagant poetic terms.
The Bible does not usually describe sex. Normally it just states the sexual act as a fact, such as “Elkanah knew Hannah his wife” (1 Samuel 1:19). There is no elaboration on these matters in the narrative parts of the Bible. In biblical narrative, sex is rarely mentioned except with respect to conception.
In this book, however, poetry prevails. Kisses are likened to the taste of wine, breasts are described as clusters of grapes. Eyes are like pools (7:4). Constant are the references to fruits and flowers and exotic aromas. There are frequent allusions to birds, flocks and frolicking animals. Lips are likened to scarlet lace, and cheeks and temples to pomegranates and apples. There is lots of honey in this book, often mixed with milk and wine. Myrrh is everywhere (1:13; 3:6; 4:6,14; 5:1,5,13).
This exotic imagery represents God’s attitude toward the sexual intimacy of husband and wife. It is not something crudely physical or merely biological. It is the heady stuff of romance and poetry. Were this not the case, the union between husband and wife could hardly serve as the symbol of a higher and more spiritual mystery.
First Corinthians 15:35-49: Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 15, which may be called cosmological, has to do with the quality of created matter, the "dust" of Genesis 2-3. Paul's case here is largely centered on Adam's legacy of death and corruption, to which the Apostle contrasts the immortality of the body through the Resurrection of Christ. Adam was formed of dust, to which he returned. Because of Christ's Resurrection from the dead, nonetheless, this inheritance of corruption from Adam is not the final word about the human prospect, says Paul.
Although humanity certainly shares in Adam's corruption, in Christ it is made to share in the incorruption of the Resurrection: "The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption (15:42). Thus, "as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man" (15:49).
Thursday, April 28
The Song of Solomon 5: Arguably the best commentary on the Song of Solomon comes to us from the pen of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk of the twelfth century. Although he preached eighty-six sermons on this book to his monks before he died, he barely made it into Chapter Two! Writing in the older tradition of the Alexandrian Fathers, going back to the third century, Bernard’s approach to the Song of Solomon is very sober and spiritual. There is nothing in Bernard of the morbid spiritual eroticism of later ages.
For example, in interpreting the “bundle of myrrh” that the bride places between her breasts (1:13), Bernard recalls that myrrh was used for the anointing of the dead. The myrrh of the Song of Solomon, then, refers to the death of Christ, by which He purchased the Church as His Bride. What would it mean, in these terms, for the Bride to bear the bundle of myrrh between her breasts? This description, answers Bernard, refers to the constant memory of the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ, cherished in love in the Christian heart. He reminds his monks, in his sermon on this verse, that the sufferings and death of Jesus were seldom absent from his lips, and never absent from his heart. Bernard interprets this verse, in other words, in the spirit of St. Paul who, speaking of the sufferings and death of Jesus, wrote of “the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Luke 24:1-12: In the scene of the empty tomb, angelic visitation is not unique to Luke: Matthew (28:2) and Mark (16:5) both mention an angel who appears to the women at Jesus’ grave. John (20:12), like Luke in today’s Gospel reading, speaks of two angels at that scene. In these instances, Luke’s inclusion of angels in the narrative is derived from the common catechetical tradition of the early Christians.
In other cases, however, angels appear at significant points in Luke’s writings, in settings where they do not appear in the other gospels. Thus, the Angel Gabriel announces the coming of John the Baptist and Jesus (Luke 1:5-13,26-31). Several angels put in an appearance at the birth of Jesus (2:8-4). Then, there is the angel who strengthens Jesus in his Agony (22:43). Finally, there are angels on the scene when Jesus ascends into heaven (Acts 1:10-11). In these cases, Luke appears to rely on the testimony of the Mother of Jesus and other witnesses. Clearly, Luke is fond of adorning these scenes with the heavenly light of the angels.
Friday, April 29
The Song of Solomon 6: It is important that the erotic imagery of the Song of Solomon is not separated from its covenant context. The bride in this book is not just any pretty girl. She is the unique beloved, the groom’s one and only, and she is constantly referred to in those terms. She is his sealed fountain (4:12; cf. Proverbs 5:15-19). This is a book about covenant fidelity, even beyond the grave (cf. 8:6-7).
At the same time, and like all love poetry, it stresses the theme of losing and finding one another, because in so many instances this is what husbands and wives do their whole life long. Consequently, great attention is given to presence and absence (4:8; 6:1), and, therefore, searching (3:1-5; 5:2-8).
Very important to this book is the imagery of the garden, for which the Song of Solomon uses the Persian word paradeisos, the very place where Jesus said He would meet the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43). This garden evokes, of course, the original garden, the garden of man’s innocence, where he lived in intimacy with God.
It was in that garden, too, that man and woman enjoyed the intimacy of their married love, in the days before clothing was deemed necessary. The joys of sexual intimacy between husband and wife, as they are described in this book, attempt to approximate man’s original state in that original garden. This joy that husband and wife find in one another is one of the basic human blessings that was not entirely lost by man’s fall.
Luke 24:13-35: All of Christian doctrine is rooted, I believe, in Jesus’ paschal discourse to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. The timing of that discourse is likewise significant, for it took place on the very day of His rising from the dead; on that day “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David,” demonstrated that He “was worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals.” He was worthy to do this because He was slain and had redeemed us to God by His blood (Revelation 5:5, 9). Jesus interprets Holy Scripture—indeed, he is the interpretation of Holy Scripture—because he “fulfills” Holy Scripture through the historical and theological events of his death and Resurrection. His blood-redemption of the world is the formal principle of Christian biblical interpretation.
As for the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, Jesus continues to act his play to the end: “Then they drew near to the village where they were going, and he indicated that he would have gone farther.” This is at least the third time, since the trip started, that Jesus teases these men in order to take the conversation in the direction he wants it to go. As though reluctantly—and only at their explicit invitation—“He went in to remain with them.”