Friday, December 21
Revelation 21:1-8: We now come to the final two chapters of John’s book of prophetic visions. Now we see no more battles, no more bloodshed, no more persecution. John sees, rather, the holy city, New Jerusalem, as the ultimate reality that gives meaning to all that preceded it.
In this final vision, which lasts two chapters, John is aware that seven things are gone forever: the sea, death, grief, crying, pain, the curse, and the night (21:1,4; 22:3,5). Here we are dealing with the definitive abolition of conflict, the end of chaos. The first symbol of this chaos is the sea, which has only such shape as it is given from outside of itself. The sea represents the nothingness out of which God creates all things, conferring meaning upon them. This chaos is both metaphysical and moral. It represents a nothingness replaced by the lake of fire, the second death. The sea is the hiding place of the monster and the setting where the scarlet woman thrones. This sea disappears at the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.
If we take the earth to represent man’s empirical and categorical experience, and heaven to represent man’s experience of transcendence, then the appearance of the new heaven and the new earth means the transformation of all of man’s experience. All of it is made new. The grace of God in Christ does not sanctify just a part of man’s existence, but his whole being. Man is not a partially redeemed creature. Both his heaven and his earth are made new.
Both heaven and earth are part of God’s final gift to man, the New Jerusalem, the “dwelling of God with man.” This dwelling, skene in Greek and mishkan in Hebrew (both, if one looks closely, having the same triliteral root, skn), was originally a tent made of “skins,” as the same etymological root is expressed in English. During the desert wandering after the Exodus, this tent of skins was the abode of God’s presence with His people. Indeed, sometimes the word was simply the metaphor for the divine presence (verse 3). For instance, in Leviticus 26:11 we read, “I will set My mishkan among you . . . . I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people.”
Luke 1:57-66: In the case of John the Baptist, faith began before he was born. His ears could already hear the prayers of his mother and father. He could already listen to the hymns they sang at home and in the temple. The sounds of their voices were already giving shape to his soul. In proportion to his tiny abilities, his culture was already taking shape. He was already assuming his place in history.
John held his identity as a matter of memory, memory earlier than his ability to recall critically. This memory, for John, was primitive, more aboriginal than mere recollection. The man that finally placed his neck on the block for beheading is the same person as the child that was awakened by the voice of the Virgin Mary as he nestled in his mother’s womb. Through all the vicissitudes of his life, there was a personal continuity in John the Baptist.
Saturday, December 22
Revelation 21:9-27: All of history is symbolized in two women, who are two cities. We have already considered the scarlet woman who is Babylon/ Rome. The other woman is the Bride, the New Jerusalem, whose proper place is heaven, but who also flees to the desert, where she does battle with Satan (Chapter 12). Now that battle is over, however, and she appears here in her glory. That other city was seated, as we saw, on seven hills, but this New Jerusalem also sits on a very high mountain, which everyone understood to be symbolized in Mount Zion (cf. Ezekiel 40:1-2). John’s vision of the gates on the city is reminiscent of Ezekiel 48.
John’s vision here, especially verses 19-21, is also related to Ezekiel 28:12-15, where we find joined the themes of the mountain and the precious stones, for this city is also the Garden of Eden, where those stones first grew (cf. Genesis 2:10-12).
The symbolic number here is twelve, which we already considered in Chapter 12, where it was the number of the stars around the head of the heavenly woman. The identification of twelve stars with twelve stones is obvious in our own custom of birthstones to represent zodiacal signs. The symbol is not only astrological, however, but also historical, because it is the number of the patriarchs and apostles. Here, in fact, the twelve gates bear the names of the twelve tribes, who are the seed of the twelve patriarchs, while the twelve foundation stones of the city are identified as the twelve apostles.
We recall that one hundred and forty-four thousand—the number of the righteous—partly involves squaring of the number twelve. In the present chapter John stresses that the plane geometry of the holy city is square, as in Ezekiel 45 and 48. John goes beyond Ezekiel, however, in viewing the New Jerusalem as a cube, as in the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:20).
Psalms 139 (Greek & Latin 138): The psalmist, instead of using one image to describe God’s knowledge of the heart, uses six: search and know, sitting down and rising up and lying down, paths and ways, thoughts and words. Obviously he wants to dwell on the thought; he is not anxious to leave it. He wants the conviction to sink deeply into his soul that God knows him through and through, so he comes at the idea from a variety of angles and aspects.
The psalm continues in the same vein: “You have beset me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me.” He is not content to say that this idea is transcendent; he must say it twice: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain to it.”
And because God’s knowledge of us is complete, it is impossible to escape His gaze. Once again the poet uses several lines to meditate on this fact, moving in several directions, as it were: “If I ascend to heaven [up!], You are there. If I make my bed in the netherworld [down!], behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning [east!] and dwell at the uttermost parts of the sea [west!], even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand hold me.”
Here we are, ten verses into the psalm, and so far there is only a single idea. The poet is still not finished with it, however. He now switches from space imagery to symbolisms of light: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will cover me,’ even the night will be a light around me. Yea, the darkness hides me not from You, but the night shines as the day; to You the darkness and the night are both alike.” Once again he has repeated the same motif several times. God’s knowledge of our hearts is not an idea that he is disposed to let go of.
After these images of space and light, the psalmist moves to a consideration of time. He goes back to his very roots of being, his mysterious formation in the womb: “For You take hold of my inner parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb.” Is that sufficient? Oh, no. He must say it all again: “I will praise You that I am awesomely and wonderfully put together; marvelous are Your works, and my soul knows it well.” Then, using a bold comparison of his mother’s womb to the depths of the earth, he goes on to reflect on his own gestation as a prelude to his coming life: “My substance was not hidden from You, when I was being formed in secret, and strangely put together in the depths of the earth. You saw my substance, as yet unfinished, but all my days were written in Your book before a single one of them came into being.” Even in the deepest past, God knows the future.
Then there is a quick twist. The tone of the psalm has, hitherto, been calm and contemplative, but we suddenly learn that there is trouble afoot: “Surely You will slay the wicked, O God; depart from me, therefore, you bloody men.” This dramatic mention of enemies makes us realize that, even while making this deep meditation on a single theme, the poet is somehow fighting for the very life of his soul. He resolves this problem by placing his soul ever more deeply under the gaze of God: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts.”
The psalm’s final strophe thus indicates that this whole effort takes place in a situation of strife and conflict. His quest is for salvation, and salvation consists in God’s salvific knowledge of us: “If anyone loves God, this one is known by Him” (1 Cor. 8:3); “Then I shall know just as I also am known” (13:12). So the believer seeks refuge in God’s saving knowledge of him and ends by praying that God will ever lead him “in the path eternal.”
Sunday, December 23
Revelation 22:1-21: The biblical story begins and ends in paradise. Thus, in John’s vision of the river of paradise we remember the four-branched river of paradise in Genesis 2. Both here and in Ezekiel 47:1-12 there are monthly fruits growing on the banks of the river—twelve in number—obviously. Just as Adam’s curse drove the whole human race out of paradise, so the leaves of the paradisiacal tree of life are for the healing of all the nations.
Heaven, portrayed here as vision and worship with the angels (verses 8-9), is for all those whose foreheads are sealed with the mark of the living God. This sealing, of course, stands in contrast to the mark of beast. (It is curious to note that, outside of the Book of Revelation [7:2-3; 9:3-4; 13:16-18; 14:1.9; 17:5; 20:4], the word “forehead” does not appear in the New Testament.) The literary background of John’s sealing is apparently Ezekiel 9:1-4.
The urgency of John’s message is indicated by the command that he not seal it up for future generations. The Lord’s coming, in fact, will be soon, and it is imperative for John’s readers to “get out” the message. John’s visions are not sealed, concealed, esoteric codes to be deciphered by future generations. John clearly expects his own contemporaries to understand what he is writing. These things “must shortly take place” (verse 6); it will all happen “soon” (1:1,3). John is warning his contemporaries that a special moment of judgment and grace is upon them and that they had better prepare themselves for it, because it is later than they think.
This final chapter of Revelation resembles in several particulars the first chapter of the book, one of which is that in both places Jesus speaks to John directly. In both chapters He is called the Alpha and the Omega (verse 12; 1:8). As in that first chapter, likewise, the references to Jesus’ swift return (verse 7, for instance) do not pertain solely to His coming at the end of time; He is saying, rather, that in the hour of their trial those who belong to Jesus will find that He is there waiting for them. The blessing in verse 7, therefore, resembles the blessing in 1:3.
In this book a great deal has been said about the worship in the heavenly sanctuary. Now we learn that Christians already share in the worship that the angels give to God (verses 8-9).
Verse 11 indicates a definite cut-off point in history, which is the final coming of Christ. Verse 12, which quotes Isaiah 40:10, promises the reward, which is access to the Holy City, eternal beatitude—the fullness of communion with God. In preparation for that reward, verses 14-16 are something of an altar call, an appeal for repentance, based on all that this book has said.
In referring to those “outside” the City, John is relying on an ancient Eucharistic discipline of the Church, called “excommunication,” which literally excluded the person from receiving Holy Communion (cf. Didache 9.5; Justin Martyr, First Apology 66.1). One of the major problems of the Christian Church, in any age, is that of distinguishing itself from the world, and the Christian Church, like any institution in history, finds its identity threatened if it does not maintain “lines” that separate it from the world. In early Christian literature, beginning with the New Testament, we find the Church insistent on making those lines sharp and clear. This preoccupation is what accounts for the rather pronounced “them and us” mentality that we find in the New Testament. It is an emphasis essential to maintain if the Church is to preserve her own identity down through history.
Monday, December 24
Matthew 1:18-25: Jesus’ family bore Joseph’s name. Although Matthew and Luke testified that Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father, it was through him that both evangelists traced Jesus’ family lineage (Matthew 1:1-16; Luke 3:23–31). Jesus inherited the messianic title, “Son of David,” not from Mary, but from the man who served him—literally—in loco patris.
Jesus “was supposed” (enomizeto—Luke 3:23) to be “the son of Joseph,” Jeshua Bar Joseph (John 1:45; 6:42). When he first addressed the citizens of Nazareth, those in the synagogue inquired, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22)
Matthew provides an instructive variation on this question: “Is this not the craftsman’s son?” (Matthew 13:55) The underlying Greek noun here, usually translated as “carpenter,” is tekton, a term including any sort of builder, craftsman, or skilled worker—even a blacksmith. A tekton was someone who constructed and fashioned things with his hands.
In short, Joseph taught Jesus those cultivated manual talents summarized by George Eliot as the inheritance bequeathed from a craftsman father: “the mechanical instinct, the keen sensibility to harmony, the unconscious skill of the modeling hand.”
Joseph passed these technical skills on to Jesus, who was also known as a tekton. A tekton was a man with talented hands, and Jesus’ hands could heal the sick and injured! Mark surely recognized the irony of calling Jesus a tekton in the context of his miracles and teaching: “And what wisdom is this which is given to him, that such mighty works are performed by his hands. Is this not the tekton?” (Mark 6:2-3)
What more did Jesus learn from Joseph? Let me suggest that he also found in Joseph an ideal son of Abraham—that is to say, a man who lived, as Abraham did, by faith.
Consider the calling of Joseph. Every vocation is unique——n the sense that the Good Shepherd calls each of his sheep by its own proper name—but there was something supremely unique in the vocation of Joseph, who was called to be the foster-father of God’s Son and the protector of that divine Son’s virgin mother. Joseph’s vocation was not only difficult; it was impossible! In a sense, Joseph had to figure it out as he went along, simply following God’s call, as best he could, wherever it led. He was obliged to “leave the heavy lifting” to God.
With so distinctive and demanding a vocation, Joseph might be excused, if, on occasion—the flight into Egypt, for instance—he felt anxious and insecure. The evidence, however, indicates that this was not the case. Joseph was not a person given to anxiety. He appeared, rather, as a man of extraordinary serenity. We find Joseph in five scenes in the Gospel of Matthew, and every single time he is sound asleep (Matthew 1:20-24; 2:12, 13, 19, 22). Whatever troubles Joseph endured, they apparently did not include insomnia.
Tuesday, December 25
Christmas: Even as we proclaim that the eternal Word assumed the concrete circumstances of an individual human life—becoming a subjective participant in human history—the redemptive significance of the Incarnation is rooted, not in the individuality of Jesus’ life, but in the general and common humanity he shares with the rest of us.
Indeed, in the New Testament one finds no impulse to treat Jesus as an “exceptional” man, as the world understands such a one: a heroic figure who rises above his contemporaries to answer the call of destiny. Such a man is different from other men.
Jesus is treated, rather, as one of us. This treatment is very different from the way their contemporaries regarded Caesar, Alexander the Great, and other “exceptional” men. Such figures were not usually thought of as mere members of the human race; they were not normally called “brothers” to the rest of humanity. They were, on the contrary, the viri illustres et clarissimi. Thus, although Plutarch’s Lives of famous Greeks and Romans was a work roughly contemporary with the composition of the gospels, its sundry biographies bear not the slightest resemblance to the gospels.
In fact, Jesus discouraged men from thinking about him in that way. He even manifested a reluctance to be called the Messiah (cf. Mark 8:29-30), inasmuch as that term had come to signify military and political ascendancy. Moreover, he deliberately assumed the role of a servant among those who followed him (John 13:4), precisely to discourage them from imitating the “rulers over the Gentiles” (Mark 10:42).
The biblical emphasis on the “common” quality of the Lord’s humanity, on the other hand, indicated more than an ethical preference on his part. His complete solidarity with the rest of the human race was a condition, rather, of His ability to redeem the human race. Such was the force, I believe, of the reference to Jesus as “born of a woman” in Paul’s account of the Son’s coming “to redeem those under the Law” (Galatians 4:4-5).
This solidarity of God’s Son with our humanity—in order to redeem humanity—gives structure to the argument made in the Epistle to the Hebrews:
Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared in the same, that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage (2:14-15).
This biological solidarity with the rest of humanity is what prompts the author of Hebrews to speak of Jesus as our “brother”: “He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: ‘ I will declare Your name to my brethren’” (2:11).
Our Lord’s oneness with mankind, however, is more than biological. He is not called a “brother” simply as the rest might bear that title. On the contrary, he has identified himself with human beings in the special sense of becoming their historical representative—their truly definitive spokesman: “Go to my brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, my God and your God’” (John 20:17).
Indeed, in the Gospel of Matthew, this special sense of Jesus’ “brotherhood” pertains directly to eschatology. At the end of history, all human beings—“all the nations” (25:32)—will be judged on the basis of their brotherhood with Jesus: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did to one of the least of these my brethren, you did to me” (25:40).
Wednesday, December 26
Saint Stephen: Generations of preachers have employed no little ingenuity—and sometimes a fair measure of eloquence—to expound the theological reasons for celebrating St. Stephen’s Day so close to Christmas. It is not to slight those rhetorical efforts that one reflects that “the feast of Stephen” was celebrated long before anyone thought of celebrating the birthday of the Savior. Stephen, that is to say, got into the liturgical calendar first.
Indeed, there is good reason to think that St. Stephen’s is among the oldest feast days in the Christian Church. Moreover, except for the days of Holy Week and the paschal cycle itself, it is possible that the annual commemoration of the martyrdom of St. Stephen is the oldest feast day in the Christian liturgical calendar.
In Luke’s description of Stephen’s martyrdom, several features are worthy of remark:
First, like the Savior (John 20:19; Hebrews 13:12), Stephen is executed outside the city wall (Acts 7:58), because even in this massive miscarriage of basic justice, Stephen’s murderers adhere to the Mosaic prescription (Leviticus 24:14; Numbers 15:35–36). This is ironic, because in Lukan theology this exit from Jerusalem, for the murder of Stephen, symbolizes that outward movement of the witness from Jerusalem that is so strong a theme in the Book of Acts (1:8).
Second—and also as a feature of considerable irony—it is in this scene that St. Paul is first introduced in the Acts of the Apostles (7:58). This introduction of the Apostle to the Gentiles, at exactly this point in the narrative of Acts, is of a piece with the theological significance of Stephen’s dying outside of the walls. Later on, praying in a state of trance, Paul will say to Jesus, “And when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by consenting to his death, and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him” (22:20).
Third, there is a powerful emphasis on the Holy Spirit. It was early said that Stephen was “full of the Holy Spirit” (6:3, 5), but the statement is repeated once again in the context of his death (7:55). This emphasis, which relates Stephen’s death to the pentecostal outpouring, reflects the conviction of the early Church that martyrdom is the supreme charism of the Christian life, the final and crowning gift of the Holy Spirit that definitively seals and consecrates the testimony, the martyria, of the Church and the believer. We meet this conviction somewhat later in The Martyrdom of Polycarp and in the earliest treatises on martyrdom by the Christian apologists.
Thursday, 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).
Today we read that prologue, which sets the theme for John’s entire story. It is peculiar to John, whose Gospel 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 his prologue.
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).
John’s contemplative gaze at the glory of God on the face of Jesus also determines other features of his Gospel. We observe, for instance, his treatment of Jesus’ miracles. Although his narrative very intentionally includes fewer of these than do the other Gospels (20:30; 21:25), John provides them greater theological elaboration.
John limits the number of recorded miracles, which he calls “signs,” to the sacred figure seven. Leading to the commitment of faith, these seven signs commence with the fine wine of the wedding feast: “This beginning [arche, the same word as in 1:1] of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him” (2:11, emphasis added).
The second sign John identifies as the curing of the nobleman’s son (4:46–54); as in the first case, the man himself “believed, and his whole household” (4:53). Next comes the curing of the paralytic at the pool (5:1–15), followed by the miracle of the bread (6:1–14), the walking on the water (6:15–21), and the healing of the man born blind (9:1–41). The final and culminating sign is the raising of Lazarus from the dead (11:1–44).
John’s recording of these revelatory signs is accompanied by theological comments on their significance, either in the detailed conversations of the narrative itself (as in the raising of Lazarus and the healing of the blind man) or by the Lord’s own further elaboration (as in the Bread of Life discourse). Thus, each of these events in the Lord’s life and ministry becomes a window through which we perceive the divine glory, and Jesus is transfigured with light through the whole narrative. In addition, two lengthy conversations, one with Nicodemus (3:1–21) and the other with the Samaritan woman (4:5–42), sound the depths of the revelation that takes place in the narrative.
At the end of the seven signs, John summarizes the tragedy of the unbelief with which the enemies of Jesus responded to His revelation (12:37–41). This unbelief leads immediately to the Lord’s Passion, which is introduced by the great Last Supper discourse.
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).
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).