Friday, December 20
Luke 1:26-38: To Mary’s inquiry—“How can this be, since I do not know a man?” (1:24)—Gabriel gives an adequate and very reassuring response, whereas Zachariah’s inquiry was not only denied, but the man himself was punished for even making it!
The difference between the two cases is not hard to discern. Mary’s question is actually a request for further instruction. Since she is a virgin, and Gabriel is telling her she is about to become a mother, Mary really does need more information. Her question to Gabriel means something like “Tell me what I am supposed to do.” There is no arrogance here, nor doubt.
On the contrary, Mary’s attitude is summed up in her final words to Gabriel: “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (1:38). Such was clearly not the case with Zachariah.
God promised Abraham, “one who will come from your own body shall be your heir” (Genesis 15:4). This promise was paralleled in the words of Gabriel, as he announced the coming Messiah: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son” (Luke 1:31).
There is a further point of correspondence between the two cases in what we may call a “difficulty” standing in opposition to the promise. Nothing is really difficult for God, of course, but from a merely human perspective both promises appeared improbable. In the instance of Abraham, the difficulty had to do with the advanced years of both him and his wife. This thought, we are told, crossed Abraham’s mind at the time: “Shall one be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah yet give birth, who is ninety years old?” (Genesis 17:17)
The Mother of Jesus, for her part, mentioned a similar consideration to the angel of promise: “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” (Luke 1:34) In both instances, we observe, the “difficulty” was raised in question form.
In each case—Abraham and Mary—Sacred Scripture ascribes the conception of the promised child to the work of the Holy Spirit. Thus, St. Paul, contrasting the promised Isaac with Ishmael, said the latter “was born according to the flesh,” whereas the child of promise was born “according to the Spirit” (Galatians 4:23,29). With respect to the promised Jesus, the angel declared to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). Both the barrenness of Sarah and the virginity of Mary provided the occasion for the outpouring of God’s power on human inadequacy. The Holy Spirit, that is to say, is the “Spirit of promise” (Ephesians 1:13).
Saturday, December 21
Luke 1:39-56: As Mary draws nigh and the sound of her voice reaches the ears of Elizabeth, the pre-born infant John leaps (eskirtesen) in his mother’s womb. Elizabeth observes this and comments on it. I cite the Greek verb, skirtao here, because it hints at what Luke has in mind.
The Greek Skirtao is the root of the Italian scherzare, which means something along the lines of “to jump around and have a good time.” Derived from this root, a scherzo is an intense form of dance. Such is John’s reaction to the approach of the Holy One carried in the womb of Mary.
The close reader of Holy Scripture will remember here the scene in 2 Samuel 6, where David dances at the approach of the Ark of the Covenant. This is how Luke thinks of the Mother of Jesus; carrying Jesus, she is the Ark of the Divine Presence.
Revelation 21:19-27: 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. 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).
Sunday, December 22
Revelation 22:1-11: 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.
Monday, December 23
Psalms 115 (Greek and Latin 113b); One way of approaching this psalm is through the consideration of space. It speaks of heaven, earth, and the nether world, and all of these references are related to the question, posed in an early verse, about where God is to be located: “So where is their God?”
This question, posed by the unbelievers as a mockery (“Why should the Gentiles say”), is answered by the psalmist: “But our God is in heaven.” The affirmation here is not merely spatial, so to speak, for he goes on immediately to draw an inference that becomes a theme of the psalm: God “does whatever He pleases.” The verb, to “do” or “make” (‘asah in Hebrew) appears now for the first time and may be seen as a key to the psalm’s meaning. This psalm is about a God who does things.
Nothing more is said about space until a dozen verses later, when the psalmist speaks of “the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” The word “made” here is ‘oseh, the active participle of the same verb as before; it could be translated even as a substantive—God is a doer. The Lord does things.
Here, then, is heaven once more, not simply a spatial reference but a symbol of God’s omnipotence. Just as, earlier, “heaven” had to do with God’s activity (“He does whatever He pleases”), so now the reference to God’s activity leads back immediately to the thought of heaven: “The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord’s.”
In contrast to heaven there is the earth: “But the earth He has given to the children of men.” God is in heaven; He is omnipotent. Men dwell on earth; they are not omnipotent. Indeed, they will die and “go down into silence,” and this brings us to the psalm’s final reference to space—the nether world, where the “dead do not praise the Lord.” The “sons of men” are, in themselves, but creatures of a day. They are unlike God, for there are very strict limits to what they can do. And that was exactly the note on which our psalm began: “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to Your name give glory.”
In contrast to God, what can men—on their owndo? They can make idols. In fact, left to themselves, making idols is exactly what they will do.
These idols he calls “the work of men’s hands,” the noun “work” translating here ma‘aseh, a Hebrew passive participle of the same verb we have been examining all along. That is to say, idolatry is the only thing that the children of men, left to their own devices, can do. Once again, then, we continue the theme of man’s utter weakness contrasted with God’s omnipotent activity: “Not unto us, but to Your name give glory.”
The psalmist seems to enjoy meditating on the futility of these idols, “the work of men’s hands,” for he spends considerable effort describing their impotence. Using the mystical number seven, a standard biblical symbol of perfection, he goes on to tell what these idols cannot do: (1) “They have mouths, but they do not speak;” (2) “Eyes they have, but they do not see;” (3) “They have ears, but they do not hear;” (4) “Noses they have, but they do not smell;” (5) “They have hands, but they do not handle;” (6) “Feet they have, but they do not walk;” and (7) “Nor do they mutter through their throat.” There you have it. These idols, “the work of men’s hands,” are perfectly imperfect. They are infinitely nothing; there is simply no limit to their imperfection and nothingness.
And what becomes of the men who devote their lives to the making of these idols? They, too, become nothing: “Those who make them are like them; so is everyone who trusts in them.” The makers of idols (which includes any one of us who insists on going his own way) will, in the end, have nothing to show for their efforts and their lives: “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence.” The silence of the idols becomes the unending silence of eternal loss. Those who make them become like them.
The children of men, therefore, must not put their trust in the works of their own hands, which are destined to perish with them. Where, then, put our trust? “O Israel, trust in the Lord . . . O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord . . You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord; He is their help and their shield.”
Two days from now, it will be Christmas. God is going to do something.
Tuesday, December 24
Matthew 1:1-17: The Evangelist, St. Matthew, as though encouraging the preacher to deliver a three-point sermon on the subject, is careful to break the genealogy of Jesus into three parts. He writes, “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations.”
This very simple chronological sequence thus divides salvation history—from Abraham to Jesus—according to the history of the monarchy. Thus, the three sections are pre-monarchical, extending from the 18th century before Christ to the beginning of the 10th; then, the period of the monarchy, from the year 1000 to the Babylonian Captivity in the 6th century; and finally, the post-monarchical period, from the sixth century, starting in 538, to the birth of Jesus.
Saint Augustine speculated that the period from Abraham to David could be called man’s adolescence—adulescentia, whereas his “youth” (iuventus, classically understood as the period between ages twenty and forty) began with David. This is why, says Augustine, history is divided at this point (The City of God 16.43).
If one observes it closely, Matthew’s historical division also corresponds roughly to the three parts of the Hebrew canonical Scriptures: the Torah in the pre-monarchical period, the Prophets during the monarchical period, and the Writings during the post-monarchical period.
One of the most striking features of this genealogy is indicated in verse 16. After fifteen verses tracing what one would naturally think to be the biological lineage of Jesus of Nazareth (very much like the various genealogies in the Old Testament), we suddenly learn that it is nothing of the sort. We are minutely instructed with respect to the biological lineage of Joseph, only to be informed that there existed no biological link between Joseph and Jesus! There is a great irony in this legal—as distinct from biological—lineage. Supremely the Heir to God’s covenants with Abraham and David, Jesus is in no way dependent upon them. On the contrary, the final significance of Abraham and David is derived entirely from their relationship to Jesus.
Wednesday, December 25
Luke 2:1-20: This reading continues the theme of Jesus’ relationship to David. Both are born in Bethlehem, which is here called the “city of David.” In the Old Testament this expression, “city of David,” normally refers to Jerusalem, but Luke refers it to Bethlehem, in fulfillment of the fifth chapter of Micah (which we also read today). Bethlehem, which means “house of bread,” becomes the birthplace of Him who came as the living bread from heaven.
Luke’s final chapter, in fact, will speak of Christians knowing Him in the breaking of the bread, a deep reference to our Eucharistic meal. It is worth bearing in mind that the word “Christmas” means “Christ’s Mass,” which makes the Church supremely “the house of bread.”
Hebrews 2:1-10: In these verses we find our earliest extant Christian commentary on Psalm 8, which is a treatise on the Incarnation. The question under consideration is “What is man?” or, if the translator is sensitive to feminist concern, “What is a human being?” That is to say, in some recent translations of the Psalms, this question introduces considerations of anthropology.
According to the author of Hebrews, however, the reliable way to a correct anthropology—the accurate response to the question, “What is a human being?”—depends on the answer to a prior theological question: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son in He?” In other words, the proper address to anthropology is through the gate of Christology.
The most correct wording of the dogma of the Incarnation is the one to which we are accustomed: “He became man.” This translation, which leaves the implied article undetermined, means Christ is the archetype of man, bearing all of humanity in Himself. “It was for the new man that human nature was established from the beginning,” wrote St. Nicholas Kavasilas; “the old Adam was not the model of the new, it was the new Adam that was the model of the old.” Christ is how the author of Hebrews approaches the subject of human beings.
This approach to anthropology, taken from Holy Scripture, is normative in Christian thought. According to the Christian faith, when God gave our forefather Adam dominion over the earth and its fullness, that act was a prophecy of the universal subjection of creation to the reign of Christ. Such is the true meaning of Psalm 8: “You have made Him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under His feet.”
Thursday, December 26
Matthew 1:18-25: In today’s reading Joseph receives two commands that affect his legal relationship to Jesus: “Take to you Mary your wife” and “You shall call His name Jesus.” In fulfilling these commands, Joseph establishes the legal relationship of King David to Jesus. It is for this reason that Joseph is here addressed as “Joseph, son of David”; this is the only instance in the New Testament where “son of David” refers to someone besides Jesus. Two other features of this text should be noted: First, the name Emmanuel, which is translated as “God with us,” ties this passage to the very last verse of the Gospel of Matthew, the Lord’s promise to be with us always. Second, the expression “that it might be fulfilled,” which here appears for the first of the eleven times that it is found in Matthew, more than in all of the other three Gospels combined.
Acts 6:8—8:3: Israel’s recent killing of the Messiah, Stephen argues, is of a piece with all of Israel’s earlier sins. He begins to recount these, stage by stage, starting with the call of Abraham in ancient Mesopotamia. His point in starting in Mesopotamia is to show that God’s Word is not limited to the Holy Land nor tied to the temple or any Jewish institution.
To demonstrate this point, Stephen speaks of the endless wandering characteristic of the patriarchal period. Even the covenant itself, he notes, was prior to Israel, whose son Isaac was not conceived until afterwards. (This characteristic of the covenant with Abraham, particularly its priority to the Mosaic Law, will be an important aspect of the treatment of Abraham in Galatians, Romans, and Hebrews.)
In Stephen’s discussion of Joseph (verse 9), he begins to introduce the theme of jealousy and rebellion, taking the attitude of Joseph’s sinful brothers as a foreshadowing of Israel’s rejection of Jesus. Their cruel treatment of Joseph makes him a type or figure of the coming Messiah, who, albeit innocent and unoffending, would also be condemned, sold, arrested, and put in prison.
Then, Stephen goes on, a pagan Pharaoh would receive favorably the very one that the sons of Israel had rejected, accepting him as their “leader.” Again those events formed a foreshadowing of Jesus’ rejection by the Israelites and His turning to the Gentiles. Here Stephen is addressing one of the most important messages of the Acts of the Apostles.
Friday, December 27
John 1:1-18: We will be reading only the first two chapters of John during the Christmas season. The rest of this Gospel will be read in the Spring, the season in which John’s Gospel traditionally dominates. Our brief comments today speak of John wholly in the context of Christmas.
The Jesus presented in John’s Gospel appears as 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’s glory 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).
1 John 1:1-7: In the opening of this epistle we observe several parallels with the beginning of John’s Gospel. For instance, the “beginning” in verse 1 matches the same word in John 1:1. The Word’s presence with the Father in verse 2 find its correspondence in John 1:1-2: “the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” The “Word of life” in verse 4 matches John 1:4—“in him was life.”
When the word appears in each of the first five verses, it always means “we” as distinct from “you.” In fact, in each instance it refers to the authority of the apostolic witness. In the verses John’s “we” signifies the apostles who were eyewitnesses of everything that happened during “all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” (Acts 1:21). John’s “we” in these verses is identical to Luke’s “us” in this text from Acts. Thus, John writes,
. . . we have heard . . . we have seen . . . we have looked upon, and our hands have handled . . . we have seen, and bear witness . . . was manifested to us . . . that which we have seen and heard we declare to you . . . these things we write . . . we have heard from Him and declare to you.
Thus, the “we” of these verses indicates the authority of the apostolic witness itself, the genuine transmission off the divine revelation that took place in Jesus Christ. The identical use of this “we” is found also near the beginning of John’s Gospel: “ . . . we beheld His glory . . .” (1:14).
According to John, this authoritative witness involves the various senses by which the Apostles discerned God’s manifestation in the flesh—hearing, seeing, even touching: “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled.”