Friday, April 13

The Resurrection and the Christian Hope: Jews at the time of Jesus—particularly those represented by the Pharisees—looked forward to a resurrection from the dead as part of God’s final judgment of history. The early Christians believed the Resurrection of Jesus was a vindication of that hope. Thus, at one of his trials Paul declared, “I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!” (Acts 23:6; cf. 24:15, 21; 26:6-8).

Because the Resurrection of Christ was seen to vindicate the Jewish expectation of a general resurrection, it served as the basis of Christian hope. In our extant literature the earliest testimony to this thesis comes from about A. D. 50, when Paul wrote to the new congregation at Thessaloniki, “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).

Paul wrote in similar terms to the brethren at Philippi: “We also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20-21). To the congregation at Corinth, he wrote, likewise, “But now Christ, risen from the dead, has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:20-22).

The hope of the early Christians, therefore, was very different from the hope entertained by many of their contemporaries, particularly the disciples of Plato. These latter looked forward to a spiritual afterlife, following the dissolution of the body. The more fervent among them longed to be set free from the body, as from a garment no longer needed. Theirs was an immaterial hope.

Not so the Christians. Paul declared,

For we know that if our earthly house of skin is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, everlasting in the heavens. For at the present we groan, earnestly longing to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven—if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked! For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:1-4).

The object of Paul’s hope was not to be stripped naked—to become an immaterial spirit—but, rather, to become “further clothed” (ependynasthai). That is to say, “what is sown in corruption is raised in incorruption. Sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. Sown in weakness, it is raised in power” (1 Corinthians 15:42-43).

Those possessed of such a hope, Paul believed, should manifest it in their lives—even in their lifestyle. They should not mourn, for example, “as others who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Most of all, they must eschew the sort of dissipation that is rooted in despair. Paul found an illustration of this in the Book of Isaiah. That eighth century prophet, describing the despondency that descended on the citizens of Jerusalem as they faced a siege of the Assyrian army, quoted them as saying, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die “ (Isaiah 22:13).

Paul, who saw signs of this despair in the fun-loving attitude of some of the Corinthians (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:21-22; 11:20-22), quoted this verse of Isaiah by way of warning. It was no wonder, the Apostle reasoned, that they lived such worldly lives, if they had lost hope in the coming resurrection (15:12; cf. Luke 12:19).

The word “resurrection,” in short, meant more than an assent to an event in the past; it conveyed also a hope for something in the future. Belief or unbelief in the Resurrection of Christ was not a purely speculative decision; it was weighted with practical consequences regarding how the believer, or unbeliever, conducted his life.

Unbelief induced a life of dissipation born of despair, the sort of feasting described by Herodotus as a celebration of death itself: “Drink and have fun—pine te kai terpev—for you will be dying like this” (Histories 2:78). Those who professed faith in the Resurrection of Christ, Paul was convinced, would not live this way. Their manner of life would be characterized by a patience and discipline born of hope.

Saturday, April 14

First Corinthians 15:20-34: To appreciate Paul’s introduction of Adam in order to elucidate the mystery of the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:22), it is important not to lose sight of the immediate setting of his argument: He was addressing the denial—on the part of some Corinthians—that the dead can be raised. Their denial was a general proposition; they contended that a bodily resurrection was impossible for all human beings. They affirmed, “there is no resurrection of the dead” (15:12). Such an expectation, they claimed, was not part of the human inheritance.

We observe that the denial made by those Corinthians did not specifically address the Resurrection of Jesus (to which, apparently, they had given little thought), but the resurrection of human beings as such. Consequently, it was Paul’s task to take the Resurrection of Jesus as a premise—antecedently established by apostolic testimony (15:3-8)—in order to make his case for a universal resurrection.

This was the reason Paul introduced Adam into the discussion. Adam, whose very name means “human being,” was not just an individual; he was the father of the human race, the “universal man” in the sense that he bequeathed to humanity the full inheritance of what it meant to be human. That universal inheritance, Paul promptly observed, included the experience of death: “In Adam, all died” (15:22). Fallen Adam was the cause and exemplar of universal death. Adam’s Fall was the final word.

An underlying theological proposition prompted Paul to argue this way—namely, the thesis that Christ “rose on the third day according to the Scriptures.” In the light of that reference—“according to the Scriptures”—it was a plain fact that Christ’s Resurrection stood in defiance of Adam’s Fall. Since Christ rose from the dead, Adam no longer had the final word about the human expectation.

On the contrary, a new order had been introduced, an order in which death was no longer the last chapter of history. That is to say, the risen Christ was not simply an exception to the Adamic curse but the initiator of a new order; his Resurrection was the cause and exemplar of what could be expected. It radically remodeled human iconography and changed the content of man’s inheritance. With respect to our ultimate destiny, Christ replaced Adam.

Paul elaborated the contrast between Adam and his replacement: “And so it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being.’ The last Adam, a life-giving spirit” (15:45).

The first Adam had been formed from that very element to which the Fall reduced him: “The first man was of the earth, of dust” (15:47). Inasmuch as we are descended from that fallen Adam, we are heirs of that reduction: “As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust’ (15:48). That is our expectation as children of Adam. But our lot is changed by reason of Christ’s Resurrection. The human iconography has been altered: “And as we have borne the icon of the ‘dustly,’ we will also bear the icon of the heavenly” (15:49).

The word chosen by Paul to express the universal significance of Christ’s Resurrection was aparche, properly translated as “first fruits” (15:20, 23). This term, derived from Israel’s theology of sacrifice, referred to the practice of giving back to God—by way of oblation—the initial yield of the harvest.

Even before Paul’s use of the term, it already served as a metaphor, signifying an initial portion of any kind, but it conveyed, as well, the implication that more was expected. That is to say, the aparche represented, by way of guarantee, the harvest as a whole. This was the sense Paul had in mind when he spoke of the risen Christ as “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep”: His Resurrection was the “first act,” the pledge and assurance of what lay in store for the rest of humanity.

Accordingly, Paul viewed the mystery of the Resurrection in distinct stages, or, more accurately, “groups” (tagma): First comes “the first fruits, Christ,” in whom the Resurrection begins. Next, there are “those who belong to Christ, who will arise at his appearance [parousia].” These will have priority with respect to rising from the dead (15:3; compare 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18; Philippians 3:20-21). Finally arrives “the end [telos], when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father” (15:24).

St. Thomas Sunday, April 15

First Corinthians 15:20-34: When Paul answered the skeptics at Corinth—those so-called Christians who denied the Resurrection—he became a bit agitated at one point. As he answered this denial, his language was unusually harsh. “Fool!” he said (aphron—1 Corinthians 15:36).

It is significant, I believe, that the noun here is in the singular, not the plural. If Paul intended simply to address the Corinthian skeptics, we would expect him to write, “Fools!” Let me suggest the reason he didn’t.

First, I believe Paul would not have felt comfortable addressing fellow Christians with such a term of opprobrium. After all, Jesus had warned against this very thing (Matthew 5:22). Paul probably came closest to doing it when he reproached the Galatians: “Oh thoughtless Galatians”—O anoetoi Galatai

Second, at the point when Paul used the word “fool” in 1 Corinthians, he had already answered the skepticism of those Corinthians who denied the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). Paul’s mind had moved on.

Third, the expression “fool” was addressed, nor directly to the Corinthians, but to a hypothetical interlocutor: “But someone will say.” Paul did not accuse the Corinthians of asking, ““How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” The person posing this question was imaginary; he was a conjectural “someone” (tis) Paul introduced as a partner in his argument.

The Greeks referred to this form of argument as a diatribe; literally a “wearing away,” in the sense of a pastime. The term was often used of arguments based on hypothetical objections. At this point, in other words, Paul was going beyond the mere unbelief of the Corinthian skeptics. He was pushing the question of the resurrection in a new direction, for the purpose of clarifying it.

The hypothetical skeptic, who pretended to dismiss the resurrection by asking what sort of body the dead rise in, is a fool, said Paul, because he contradicted the sovereign power of the Creator: “God gives a body as He pleases” (15:38). To deny God’s ability to raise the dead was to affirm that death lies beyond the reach of God’s power. This was an irrational, or foolish, claim.

Jesus, we recall, argued the same case when the Sadducees questioned him about the woman who had been married seven times. They, too, had raised a hypothetical objection to the resurrection: “Now there were seven brothers. . . . Therefore, in the resurrection, when they rise, whose wife will she be? For all seven had her as wife” (Mark 12:18-23). In answering the Sadducees, Jesus put his finger on the lack of logic in their denial. It was based in part, he said, on their unfamiliarity with “the power of God” (12:24; cf. Acts 23:7).

The sovereign power of God over death also served the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. When he wrote of Abraham’s resolve—in obedience—to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham took this step of faith, he said, “considering that God is able to raise from the dead”—ek nekron egeirein dynatos ho Theos (Hebrews 11:19).

We find the same presumption in all three of these sources: If there is an almighty God, then there can be no a priori argument against the resurrection.

For Paul, this power of the Creator was manifest in the great variety of bodies He had already brought into being (1 Corinthians 15:39-41). The God who could bring a large living plant from a puny seed—a seed which did not even slightly resemble the plant—will certainly not be taxed to transform a mortal body into a body filled with glory (15:37).

Paul went on to elaborate this agricultural illustration, in which the dead body, “sown” in the earth, represented the seed from which will spring the harvest of immortality. The dead body and the resurrected body are numerically the same body, but what a difference: “What is sown in corruption, is raised in incorruption. Sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. Sown in weakness, it is raised in power. Sown a psychic body (soma psychikon), it is raised a spiritual body (soma pnevmatikon)” (15:42-44).

To me it seems likely that Paul derived and extended this agricultural analogy from a metaphor in the treasury of the apostolic preaching. It preserved a parable of Jesus: “Amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain” (John 12:24).

Monday, April 17

Psalms 1—3: A progressive scheme of images is developed through the first three psalms: First, the Man (Psalm 1), then the Messiah (Psalm 2), and finally the Suffering Servant (Psalm 3). Since this triadic pattern of reference runs throughout the Psalter, one may regard these three psalms as the book’s proper “introduction.” They form the tripod on which the whole Psalter stands.

First, there is the Man: Psalm 1 is not a prayer in the usual sense, inasmuch as there is no direct address to God. It is, rather, a meditation on a specific Wisdom theme: How the righteous man lives and what he hopes for. The affirmations in this psalm are made in the calm, apodictic style of Proverbs and the Bible’s older Wisdom tradition.

If the form of the psalm is given by the Wisdom literature, its matter is from the early pages of the Torah. Who, after all, is this Man of Psalm 1?

Well, to begin with, he is the first Man of the Torah—righteous Adam—Man before the Fall, when he was still God’s friend. As Adam tilled the Garden irrigated by four rivers (Genesis 2:8-15), the Man in Psalm 1 is likened to “a tree / planted by the rivers of water, / that brings forth its fruit in its season, / whose leaf also shall not wither, / and whatever he does shall prosper.”

Of the Man described in this psalm, we are told that his “delight is in the Lord’s Torah, / and on His Torah he meditates day and night.” The “day and night” of this psalm were also introduced, we recall, at the beginning of the Torah; they are the most basic divisions of time.

In contrast to the stability of this godly Man, Psalm 1 speaks of the “wicked”—the rasha‘im, who are likened to “the chaff which the wind drives away.” Just as the former does not stand in the path of sinners nor sit in the seat of pestilence, so “the rasha‘im shall not stand in the judgment, / nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.”

Second, there is the Messiah: In Psalm 2, Adam becomes David, so to speak. The Man is transformed into the King, God’s Anointed One.

At this point the pace of the Psalter dramatically quickens, as it moves from the calm meditation of Wisdom to the robust narrative of conflict. Here, the Torah and the Wisdom Literature are replaced by the Former Prophets, particularly the Samuel/Kings saga.

Likewise, the contrast between good and evil in Psalm 1 grows into the conflict>/i> of good and evil in Psalm 2. Indeed, open rebellion is afoot, as the “kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against His Messiah.”

For this reason, the style of the Psalter moves from apodictic declaration in Psalm 1 to energetic inquiry in Psalm 2: “Why did the nations rage, and the people conspire at something futile?”

As the ungodly in Psalm 1 were as “chaff which the wind drives away,” so in Psalm 2 “You shall break them with a rod of iron; / You shall dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Third, there is the Suffering Servant: The trouble is serious and personal in the third psalm. Here, the Second Adam of Psalm 1 and the New David of Psalm 2 become the persecuted righteous man, so memorably depicted in the Book of Isaiah. In this respect, it is significant that Psalm 3 now speaks, for the first time, of “salvation”—Yeshu‘ah.

The vile activity of the ungodly in Psalm 1 and of the raging nations in Psalm 2 is now experienced first-hand in the persecution of the Suffering Servant, who “will not be afraid of ten thousands of people that besieged me all around.” As for the ungodly—those rasha‘im introduced in Psalm 1—Psalm 3 declares, “You have broken the teeth of the rasha‘im.

In these three opening psalms, then, three major Christological themes are set forth: the Incarnation, the Messianic Fulfillment, and the Suffering Servant.

These three psalms also establish the patterns of meditation, narrative, and prayer, which will be found throughout the Psalter. Likewise, these three psalms introduce other large blocks of Sacred Writ: Torah, Prophecy, and Wisdom—all of which find a place in the Psalter.

In the first two psalms, God was never directly addressed—“You.” This changes completely in Psalm 3: “Lord, how increased they are who afflict me! / Many they are who rise up against me. Many, as well, are those who say of me, / ‘There is no help for him in God.’”

In addition, these three psalms exemplify various “voices” to be found in the Psalter. First, we attend to the meditating wise man, next the raging nations, then the Messiah (“The Lord said to Me”), next the Father, who addresses both us (“I have set My King on My holy hill of Zion”) and the Messiah (“You are My Son”). Finally, the Suffering Servant declares: “Yeshu‘ah is of the Lord. / Your blessing be upon Your people.”

Tuesday, April 17

John 21:15-25: The Greek word anthrakia (cf. the English derivative “anthracite,” a type of coal), meaning a charcoal fire, is found only twice in the New Testament, both times in the Gospel according to St. John. The first instance is in 18:18 and designates the courtyard fire where the officers and servants of the high priest stood warming themselves through the chilly night of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin. Simon Peter likewise came to that place and stood near a cousin of Malchus, a servant of the high priest. It was there by the charcoal fire that Simon thrice denied even knowing our Lord, going so far as to confirm the denials with an oath.

It is most significant, surely, that that event, so embarrassing to the chief of the Twelve Apostles, is narrated in detail in each of the four canonical Gospels, for it is thus made to stand fixed forever in the memory of Holy Church.

The second charcoal fire in John’s Gospel is the one in its final scene, the fire kindled by the Lord Himself, over which He prepared breakfast for His dispirited Apostles (21:9). After breakfast it was at this fire that Jesus would put to that same Simon Peter his threefold question: “Do you love Me?” The Apostle understood, of course, why the question was asked of him three times, for it was the very number of his own denials. At this point the chastened Peter, no longer trusting himself, relies completely on the Lord’s knowledge of his heart (21:17).

But there is more to the story. Simon Peter’s threefold profession is followed by a reference to his eventual martyrdom, which had already happened by the time this text was written down later in the first century. Indeed, the author of John 21 clearly presupposes his readers’ familiarity with Peter’s martyrdom. The story of the Apostle’s crucifixion on Vatican Hill in Rome in the mid-60s was so widely reported among the churches that John could simply refer to the stretching out of Peter’s hands as “signifying by what death he would glorify God” (21:18–19).

The point required no further explanation. The early Christians were so familiar with the circumstances of Peter’s martyrdom in Rome that around the turn of the century Clement of Rome (Ad Corinthios 5.4), writing from Rome, and Ignatius of Antioch (Romans 4), writing to Rome, felt no need to elaborate on the details and circumstances. That this Johannine passage (“you will stretch out your hands . . . signifying by what death he would glorify God”) did in fact refer to Peter’s crucifixion in Rome was perfectly obvious to Tertullian, writing in Africa slightly after the year 200. Citing that Johannine verse, he wrote: “Then was Peter ‘bound by another,’ when he was fastened to the cross” (Scorpiace 15.3).

Wednesday, April 18

Ezekiel 9: The marking of the foreheads of the Remnant is a sort of renewal of the marking of the houses of the Chosen People in Egypt on Passover night.

Those thus marked will be spared on the day of wrath, for the simple reason that they “sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in Jerusalem.” Sometimes the just man is left so powerless in this world that all he can do, in the face of overwhelming evil, is “sigh and groan.”

Not only does the temple offer no sanctuary from the punishment; those in the temple are the first to fall, because they have defiled God’s house. The divine judgment begins, then, not with the world, but with the household of God.

The seven heavenly figures—the scribe and the six executioners—are angelic figures representing God’s just will in what is about to transpire in Jerusalem. Revelation 7 is a very good text to read with this chapter, which is surely in part its literary inspiration.

Psalms 119 (Greek & Latin 18):1-24: This longest of the psalms is constructed of twenty-two stanzas of eight lines each; we pray the first three stanzas today.

While there are several other psalms that are called “alphabetical,” in the sense that each verse, or pair of verses, begins with the next sequential letter in the Hebrew alphabet, Psalm 119 is alphabetical in a more extreme way. In this instance every verse in each stanza begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Thus, in the first stanza, each of the eight verses commences with the first Hebrew letter, aleph. Each line of the second stanza begins with beth, and so on, through all twenty-two letters of the alphabet.

If the artificiality of this alphabetic arrangement is not the stuff of powerful poetic impulse, it does serve, nonetheless, an important theological purpose. Psalm 119 is concerned entirely with the Law of God, the Torah, and its structural use of the alphabet serves here the purpose of asserting that the Law of God is the inner core and essential substance of human language.

This is a very deep reflection. Language is the gift of God. Its primary function, in the Bible (cf. Gen. 2:19, for example), is the formation of thought in accordance with reality, and the world’s deepest created reality, according to the rabbis, is the Torah, the eternal Law of God, on which the inner being of all created reality is based. The eternal Law of God, the Torah, reflects in turn the very being of God, and the final purpose of language is to lead man’s thought to the knowledge of God. Language and Torah, thus, are inseparable. In Psalm 119 Law and Word tend to be used interchangeably.

Thursday, April 19

Ezekiel 10: The wooden statues of the Cherubim, with their wings spread over the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies, were but symbols of the angels of the Presence, the heavenly Cherubim who serve to support the Throne of God.

Now Ezekiel sees these heavenly spirits themselves, and they are identical with the Four Living Creatures that he had beheld in his inaugural vision in Chapter 1, where they bore, as here, the Cloud of the divine Presence. They will appear again, of course, in Revelation 4.

The burning coals from within their whirling wheels, full of the divine holiness, are destructive of those whose brows have not been marked by the angelic scribe, who also appears again in this chapter.

Besides destroying the wicked, this divine fire purifies God’s loyal servants (cf. Isaiah 6:6f). As the chapter closes, the action moves to the east gate of the temple, facing the Mount of Olives. It is at this gate that Ezekiel will receive the two oracles in Chapter 11.

Psalms 18 (Greek & Latin 17): We should see the fallen angels in so many lines of this psalm, for against them the Lord waged a combat without quarter: “I will pursue My enemies and overtake them, nor will I turn back until they are perished. I will crush them, and they will not stand; they shall fall beneath My feet. . . . Like dust before the wind will I thrash them, and trample them down like mud in the streets.”

This crushing of the Lord’s demonic foes is vividly described in the Bible’s final book: “And fire came down from God out of heaven and devoured them. The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev. 20:9, 10). Obviously, in the ongoing war of the spirit, neither this last book nor the Psalter was composed for noncombatants.

Many lines of Psalm 18, however, lay greater stress on the rich blessings of the Lord’s triumph over evil. For example, the calling of the Gentiles to salvation. Rejected by the Jews at His trial (cf. Matt. 27:25; John 19:15), Jesus speaks of the other nations: “You will set me at the head of the nations. An unknown people have served me. . . . For I will confess You among the nations, O Lord, and praise will I sing to Your name.” Later the Apostle Paul will quote this verse from our psalm by way of explaining his thesis that “the Gentiles [should] glorify God for His mercy” (Rom. 15:9).

Friday, April 20
Ezekiel 11: The first oracle in this chapter addresses a slogan going around Jerusalem at the time, descriptive of the city’s coming destruction. The slaying of Jerusalem’s citizens, says the oracle, will ultimately be the fault of their leaders, not of the Babylonian besiegers. The latter are but instruments in the divine judgment.

The leaders back at Jerusalem planned big things for themselves, and their big plans are addressed in the second oracle. When Ezekiel and his other companions, including the cream of Jerusalem society and its most competent citizens, were taken hostage to Babylon in 597, some of those Israelites who remained in the Holy Land began to feel pretty good about their own prospects, now that the better rivals were gone. With respect to their brethren who had been carried away, they reflected: “Well, too bad for them, but that leaves more for us.”

The burden of this second oracle is to reassure those captives in Babylon that the Lord had not forgotten them and that He was determined to restore them. Indeed, it was on them that His coming blessings would fall, for their restoration is the substance of the great prophecy here about newness of heart, which becomes so important a theme in the New Testament (See especially Hebrews 8.)

As this chapter ends, the Cloud of the divine glory moves east onto the top of the Mount of Olives, and Ezekiel is restored to Babylon, where he narrates his visions and oracles to his companions in exile.

Psalms 16 (Greek & Latin 15): We may be sure that Psalm 16 was among the psalms interpreted by the risen Christ, for this was the first psalm that exegeted by the Church 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:

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know—Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it. For David says concerning Him: “I foresaw the Lord always before my face, / For He is at my right hand, that I may not be shaken. / Therefore my heart rejoiced, and my tongue was glad; / Moreover my flesh also will rest in hope. / For You will not leave my soul in Hades, / Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption. / You have made known to me the ways of life; / You will make me full of joy in Your presence” (Acts 2:22–28).

Even though it was King David saying these things, the voice speaking more deeply in Psalm 15, according to St. Peter, is the voice of Christ. As the forefather and type of Christ, David was speaking in the tones of prophecy.