Friday, December 28

The Holy Innocents: By way of prophetic type in the Book of Genesis, it was the dreaming of a man named Joseph that originally brought the Chosen People into Egypt. That prophetic type is fulfilled in today’s Gospel reading, when another Joseph has a dream that results in his taking the Chosen People back to Egypt. According to today’s reading from Exodus 1:8-22, it was in Egypt that the little boys were sacrificed to the fears of a sinful king. This also happens in today’s Gospel.

The account of the Pharaoh’s shrewdness in the Exodus story ties it to to two narratives: First, to the account of the serpent, “more cunning than any beast of the field,” in Genesis 3:1. Each of these two books, Genesis and Exodus, commences with a wily enemy who endeavors to deceive God’s people. Second, this theme is related to the later stories of Pharaoh’s attempts to outwit Moses.

This early verse of Exodus, then, introduces a major motif of our book: the “matching of wits,” in which the sinful wisdom of the world encounters the baffling wisdom of God. As this first chapter progresses, Pharaoh’s shrewdness is quickly outwitted by the Hebrew midwives, who are thus to be contrasted with the gullible Eve at the beginning of Genesis. Ultimately, of course, Pharaoh will be defeated by his own shrewdness, a process that the Bible calls hardness of heart.

For the first time in this book, the Israelites “pull a fast one” on Pharaoh, thus demonstrating a superior wisdom that ties this story back to the Joseph narrative at the end of Genesis. The midwives “feared the Lord,” and this was the source of their wisdom; cf. Psalm 110:10. Whereas the enemy outsmarted Eve at the beginning of Genesis, the women here in Exodus outwit the enemy.

The endeavor to kill the male children places this text in a parallel with Matthew 2:16. Beginning with the dreams of two Josephs in Genesis 37 and Matthew 1, there are many striking correspondences between the opening chapters of Matthew and the long account of the Chosen People in Egypt.

Psalms 2: 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), and 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).

Saturday, December 29

Hebrews 4:1-16: In his use of the Book of Psalms in this chapter, it is clear that the author of Hebrews believed that the meaning of that text was contemporary to himself and his readers. That is to say, the cited text was of more than historical interest.

The dominant word indicating this persuasion is “today” (semeron), which appears twice in verse 7. The voice of God, he says, must be heard today. He expounds this principle in verses 12-13, speaking of God’s word as living and efficacious, sharper than a sword. It penetrates and divides man’s inner being, judging the reflections and thoughts of his mind.

There is no stronger affirmation of the truth that God lays bare our being by the light of His word searching our souls. When the Bible is read, whether proclaimed loudly in the worship of the Church or pondered quietly in the intimacy of our homes, God speaks. His prophetic word of judgment sears into our being laying bare the secrets of our consciences. It is a “word of judgment”—logos kritikos (verse 12). It does not lie there inert on the page open before our eyes. We search the Scriptures so that the Scriptures may search us, cutting into our being to expose what we are within. This is what makes the Bible different from all other books. Only here does God speak prophetically, in the sense of placing our whole being radically under judgment.

John 1:19-28: The Evangelist speaks of a double interrogation of John the Baptist by the religious leaders from Jerusalem. It appears that the Evangelist 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 are said to represent “the Jews,” an expression that appears here 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).

Sunday, December 30

Hebrews 5:1-14: The chief point our author wants to make here, with respect to the priesthood of Jesus Christ, is His compassion for sinners. He is compassionate, says Hebrews, because He suffered temptation. This theme was already introduced in Hebrews, at the end of that section dealing with the Incarnation:

Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted (2:17-18).

Our author insists that this is kind of priest we need; He must feel the same weakness the rest of us feel: “For we do not have a High Priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but was, like ourselves, tempted in everything.”

The temptations faced by Jesus were recorded chiefly in two blocks of narrative in the New Testament: His temptation for forty days in the wilderness, and his agony in the garden.

For all that, however, we should probably not imagine that these were the only times Jesus was subject to temptation. As the religious leaders of the Jewish people started to reject Jesus and his claims—an experience that apparently grew more intense during the course of his ministry—he began to realize that He would finish his life nailed to a cross. In fact, the gospels tell us, “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed” (Mark 8:31).

It is reasonable to think that the sadness and fear of Jesus, which became critical during his agony in the garden, took hold of his soul much earlier, as he came gradually to understand how sternly his fidelity to His Father would be tested.

Jesus also knew the Scriptures. He had long ago learned the stories of Elijah, Jeremiah, and Job. He was fully aware that all those who would serve God must endure suffering. He could take personal charge of the admonition laid down by Sirach:

Son, when thou comest to the service of God . . . prepare thy soul for temptation. . . . Humble thy heart, and endure. . . . Wait on God with patience: join thyself to God, and endure . . . Take all that shall be brought upon thee: and in thy sorrow endure, and in thy humiliation keep patience. For gold and silver are tried in the fire, but acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation (Sirach 2:1-5).

This trial of Jesus’ spirit, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, made Him compassionate. Indeed, says Hebrews, compassion is a quality God requires of every priest:

For every high priest taken from among men is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness.

Monday, December 31

Hebrews 6:1-12: This work, apparently a sort of sermon (logos parakleseos—13:22), was composed for a congregation in fairly dire straits. This work contains several warnings about the dangers of apostasy. To find anything comparable to this in the New Testament, we must go to the letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in the Book of Revelation. Certainly we don’t find this level of warning in any of Paul’s letters to the churches, not even in the epistles to the Galatians and the Corinthians.

The author, however, adopts a tack that may appear surprising: Instead of reviewing the fundamentals of the Christian faith, he determines to take the congregation into deeper waters. He says to them, “let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity” (ESV). He explains what he means by referring to the earlier catechesis offered to the congregation at the time of their reception into the Christian Church.

He does this by way of reminding them of the components of that catechesis: “repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.” In the Acts of the Apostles we find all these subjects as matters of instruction when people were brought to the Christian faith.

Our author refers to them here just in passing, as it were, by way of reminding the congregation briefly of things they already know.

He then reminds them of the sacred mysteries by which they were received into the Christian Church. He reminds them of their enlightenment in Baptism—indeed, he actually uses this ancient expression for Baptism: “those who were once enlightened.”

Likewise, he mentions the Holy Communion, which was part of their reception into the Church: “have tasted the heavenly gift.” He speaks of the gift of the Holy Spirit, conferred by the laying on of hands: “have become partakers of the Holy Spirit.” He briefly mentions the understanding of God’s Word imparted to those who join the Church: “have tasted the good word of God.” And finally, refers to all of these experiences as a foretaste of heaven: “the powers of the world to come.”

The author intentionally does not dwell on these things; it is sufficient merely to mention them. Indeed, he mentions them to support a warning against apostasy. He says that those who have experienced such abounding grace must not come short, because it is unlikely they will ever get such a chance again. In fact, he does not even use the word “unlikely.” He says “impossible”; “it is impossible . . . to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.”

We recall that Jesus also used rhetorical expressions of this sort, referring to cutting off one’s hand, gouging out one’s eye, and even making oneself a eunuch. Rhetorical expressions of this sort have the merit of gaining the full attention of the listener, which they certainly do.

In short, those original listeners to the Epistle to the Hebrews knew themselves to be hearing a final warning, before it was too late.

Tuesday, January 1

Genesis 1: As a good Franciscan, Saint Bonaventure (1221-1274) loved to contemplate the wisdom of God in the wonders of Creation. This contemplation was not vague or sentimental. It was deliberately discursive, theologically guided by the beginning of Genesis, where Creation is described in a poetic narrative. That is to say, Bonaventure approached the created world through the eyes of reflective, sapiential theology, the literary model of which was the first chapter of Genesis.

Following this biblical lead, Bonaventure concerned himself with Creation on several occasions. Around 1254, he discoursed on the subject at length in his lectures on Book II of the Sentences of Peter the Lombard. He returned to the theme in his Breviloquium, a condensed theological outline composed in 1257. During the following year, he came back to God’s vestigia in universo—”footprints in the Universe”—in his Itinerarium, The Journey of the Mind Unto God. Finally, in 1273, the year before he died, Bonaventure began an extensive commentary on Genesis 1. (His elevation as a Roman Cardinal and his presidency at the Second Council of Lyons prevented its completion.)

Bonaventure’s discursive approach to Genesis 1 drew attention to its progressive note of distinctio, the ordering of Creation by the division and separation of its components (Breviloquium 2.2.1). He wrote of God’s “wisdom lucidly distinguishing all things”—sapientiam cuncta lucide distinguentem (Itinerarium 1.14). The art of “distinguishing” was one of the notable qualities and preoccupations of School Theology of the Middle Ages, and no one was better at it than Bonaventure.

Students of Holy Scripture, however, will recognize that this Scholastic preoccupation with “distinctions” works remarkably well for the first chapter of Genesis, where the inspired author structured each of the six days of the story on a series of distinctions. That is to say, a preoccupation with distinctions lends organization, not only to the divine act of Creation, but also to the human act of literary composition.

Thus, God divided the light from the darkness on Day One, thereby distinguishing day from night. The second distinction was introduced on the second day, when “God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament.”

On the third day, the land was distinguished from the waters, when God gathered the waters into seas and “let the dry appear”—wetera’eh hayabasha. On this “dry,” God caused to bloom the plants and trees, “each according to its kind.” On the third day, then, the author marked two levels of distinction: between the land and water, and among the various species of plants.

Then, having adorned the earth, on the fourth day God once again turned His attention to the heavens, where he placed two great lights, mainly for the purpose of further distinctions—”to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness.” By means of these lights, as well, time would be divided by seasons and days and years. The very purpose of the heavenly bodies was the insertion of distinctions into time.

On the fifth day, God formed creatures that would make their way through the air and the water. These self-mobile creatures, each distinct according to its kind, were distinguished from the plants created two days earlier, inasmuch as the plants were unable to move themselves. Here the author marks three levels of distinction: between self-mobile creatures and plants, between animals of the water and of the air, and among the various species of each.

For Creation’s sixth day, there were two narrative parts: the first, in which God created all the earth-bound animals, each according to its kind, and the second, in which “God created man in His image.” The Genesis narrative indicates no historical or biological continuity between the human being and the other animals. On the contrary, the Creation of human beings was distinguished from the creation of other animals by a distinct and unique act.

The final and crowning distinction, however, was between male and female human beings. Here the language is unique. Unlike the Creation account in Genesis 2, Genesis 1 does not speak of “man” and “woman,” but of zakar and neqebah—male and female.

If we compare this vocabulary with that of Genesis 2, the difference is striking. In the second story, the distinction is what we might call “personal”; it distinguishes “man” (’ish) from “woman” (’isha). In Genesis 1 the distinction is, rather, physical and biological: male (zakar) and female (neqebah).

Perhaps this distinction gains clarity if we contrast “male and female” with “masculine and feminine.” The former pair describes something physical, genetic, and absolutely immutable; a male cannot become a female, nor vice-versa. The most than be done—and this is a sin of a most serious order—is to mutilate certain organs marking of the deeper difference.

When we speak of “masculine and feminine,” on the other hand, we are not referring to sex but to gender. The terms “masculine and feminine” are not, properly speaking, biological but grammatical and psychological. That is to say, these terms are more malleable; they are open to different social, economic, and political expressions, which the terms “male and female” are not.

At the risk of oversimplification, we might say that Genesis 2 is about “masculine and feminine,” while Genesis 1 is about “male and female.” It is certainly true that Genesis 2 refers to marriage, which Genesis 1 does not.

Indeed, the Bible rarely uses the vocabulary “male and female”—zakar and neqebah—in reference to human beings. Being a specifically biological description, it most often refers to animals (in Noah’s Ark, for instance, and the various creatures sacrificed in Israel’s religion). When Holy Scripture does use this vocabulary with respect to human beings, it is in reference to “sins against nature” (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; cf. Romans 1:26-27).

It is worth inquiring, perhaps, which distinction is deeper in the structure of Creation, “male and female” or “masculine and feminine.” Because the former is strictly biological, it might appear to be more basic.

On the other hand, one can argue that there is something in the differences of things much deeper than biology. That is to say, perhaps the terms “masculine and feminine” grasp something more fundamental in Creation than biology. Maybe we should call it “poetry.”

Wednesday, January 2

Genesis 2: On other occasions I have commented on the patience of Saint Irenaeus, who set himself to refute the complex and highly arcane speculations of the Gnostics. In order to accomplish the task, this second-century Father of the Church was obliged to read many volumes full of the most awful sorts of nonsense. He had to study writers like Valentinian and Basilides. His pursuit compelled him to become familiar with the “unmeasured silence” of the Protennoia, the “thought that dwells in light, the movement that dwells in the All.” He was required to read endless treatises about “Barbelo,” the female emanation of the Absolute; he could not escape investigating the various aeons, such as Autogenes. He had to work his way through the Syzygy and pursue theories about Mirotheaos and the Ogdoad. And so on, without end. When, in the year 202, he suffered martyrdom, I suspect Irenaeus felt a sense of relief.

Fortunately, we live in a more enlightened age. Modern people are well founded in the proven facts. For Instance, people nowadays do not adhere to exotic and improbable theories about the origins of nature and the structure of reality.

What do modern people believe on these subjects?

Well, let us take an outstanding example of modern enlightened thought. Let us consider Dr. Lawrence Krauss, who heads the “Origins Project” at Arizona State University. Dr. Krauss’s most recent book, A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing, was published earlier this year. It is obviously an important book, because it quickly made its way onto the best-seller list of The New York Times.

According to Dr. Krauss, the first concept we must dismiss is “God.” God, it seems, not only has nothing to do with the origin of nature or the structure of reality; God is a useless distraction. Krauss writes, “Theology has made no contribution to knowledge in the past five hundred years, since the dawn of science.”

Well, okay. We all have our little hang-ups, I suppose. If we want to be fair with Krauss, let’s give him that one. Let’s bracket God for the moment. If we cannot be theological, let us try to be at least logical, as Krauss claims to be. Let us hear him out. How does Krauss explain “Why there is something rather than nothing”?

Well, says Krauss, it wasn’t always so. Until about 13.72 billion years ago, there really was nothing. (By the way, I love the scientific precision of that extra .72 billion. A lesser thinker would simply have rounded it off to 14 billion.) Until then, nothing existed. Then—and rather abruptly, it seems—there was something.

You see, Krauss explains, the pre-existent nothing was not ordinary nothing—le rien du jour, so to speak. It was real nothing, but it was nothing charged with energy. Then, somehow, this energetic nothing exploded into something. In just a second or so, you got—whammo!—atomic particles: electrons, neutrons, protons. That’s what you got right away, as soon as the pre-existent non-existent went “bang!”

Then, about three minutes later—his calculation—protons and neutrons found their way to one another to form the first atomic nuclei. (Let me quibble: I suspect it was probably something closer to 3.72 minutes.) Then, everything sort of calmed down for about 300,000 years, while these new nuclei cooled off, so the electrons could find their way in and establish honest-to-goodness atoms.

Then, over the next billion (perhaps 1.72 billion) years, these atoms came together to form stars. Then, a couple of billion years later, nuclear reactions in the stars created heavier elements, such as iron and carbon. Eventually the stars exploded, sending iron and carbon and all the other elements out into the universe. And here we are now, we modern people, made of stardust: “One of the most poetic facts I know about the universe is that essentially every atom in your body was once inside a star that exploded.”

I am not making this up.

Krauss is not a writer of science fiction; he is a professor of theoretical physics at a notable university. So why does his stardust so closely resemble moonbeams? As the song says, even someone “sixteen going on seventeen” knows that “nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could.” I don’t look for another long-suffering Irenaeus to come along any time soon, but I do hope even young people will notice that Krauss’s theory is quite marvelously irrational.

Thursday, January 3

Genesis 3: When we think of Adam’s Fall, we should think of him as “lost.” This sums up the human condition without Christ. So . . . man is lost. Worse, he continues to get lost. It is a mistake to think of the fallen human being as somehow looking for God. Indeed, the very opposite is true. When the human race fell in Adam, a kind of spiritual inertia came into play, a force that kept him going in the same direction—away from God. Of himself man had no power of initiative to reverse the movement. This is what is meant by the Fall.

If man was to return to God, God had to take the initiative. If God had not sought man out, he would have kept going in the same direction—away. This is very clear in the biblical story of Adam’s hiding from God immediately after his disobedience. He and all his descendants would still be lying low there in the bushes if God had not come after him, inquiring, “Where are you?”

It was not that God did not know where to find Adam. It was Adam who was lost, not God. God knew where Adam was, but Adam didn’t. God’s query, “Where are you?” was intended to wake lost man up to his real situation. “Where are you?” was the inchoative proclamation of the Gospel, the merciful word that began to reverse the direction of man’s existence. Indeed, it was the first step toward the mystery of the Incarnation.

This divine inquiry was necessary because man had no interest in finding God. It was of God, on the contrary, that Adam was most afraid, because
God recognized him to be naked. God understood this and promptly provided a covering for man’s nakedness. It was the initial step toward man’s final clothing, indicated in St. Paul’s exhortation to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14).

But even when confronted by his sin, Adam did not accept the accompanying guilt and responsibility. He immediately blamed Eve: “The woman You gave me, gave me of the tree, and I ate” (3:12). Indeed, this response even seems to blame God for the Fall. Adam speaks of Eve as “the woman You gave me,” as though to say, “I did not ask for a wife; this whole arrangement was Your idea. This woman, whom You designed, is the one who got me into this mess.”

Eve, for her part, follows Adam’s example of passing the blame: “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (3:13). This too was God’s fault, of course, because He created this “creeping thing” (1:25).

Eve could hardly hold herself responsible for what had happened. Even found, that is to say, fallen man was obviously still lost. Thanks be to God, more help was on the way.

Friday, January 4

Genesis 4: Not least among the ironies of the Bible is the fact that its very first family was also its first dysfunctional family. For one thing, the boys didn’t get along. Fratricide is a useful clue.

The theological source of the problem, certainly, was the sin of the first parents in Genesis 3, though the novelist Jessamyn West did offer her own peculiar slant on the point: “Always thought Adam might’ve handled his boys better if he’d been a boy himself. . . . Worked under a handicap, as it was.”

In regard to these two brothers it is ironical, too, that the first man to die was also the first to be murdered. More ironical still, perhaps, he was murdered for his religious faith. “By faith,” Holy Scripture tells us, “Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain,” and “Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.” Consumed with rage, he at last “rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (Hebrews 11:4; Genesis 4:5,8). The first man to die, therefore, perished in testimony to his faith, and it was an angry unbeliever who took his life.

The key to the discernment of the first murder is the prior moral fissure dividing these two men. Murder was the fruit, not the root, of Cain’s offense. St. John tells us, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15). Antecedent to the killing itself, then, the killer was already “of the evil one” (3:12).

While we easily perceive that Cain killed because he was a bad man, it is important to see also that Abel was slain precisely because he was a good man. His goodness was the very reason that Cain took his life. St. John affirms it: “And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12). While it is said of Cain that “he perished in the fury wherewith he murdered his brother” (Wisdom 10:3), of Abel we are told that “he obtained witness that he was righteous” (Hebrews 11:4).

Thus commences the Bible’s reading of history as a prolonged chronicle of “all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel” (Matthew 23:35). The saga of persecution begins with “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground” and ends with “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Genesis 4:10; Revelation 6:10).

Abel, then, though dead since the dawn of history, “still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4). The author of this book went on to invoke this same image with respect to Jesus’ own blood. The blood of Jesus, he wrote, “speaks better things than that of Abel” (12:24). Whereas Abel’s blood cried out demanding revenge, the blood of Jesus, who is called here “the Mediator of the new covenant,” invokes the divine mercy for sinners. Such is the blood in which we have access to “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (12:23).