Good Friday, April 18
Matthew 26:57—27:61: Matthew and Mark both testify that “Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit” (Matthew 27:50; cf. Mark 15:37), but neither author relates what the “loud voice” said. One conjectures that Matthew and Mark are alluding to Jesus’ final words as they are recorded in Luke and/or John.
This anguished cry of the Savior has variously interpreted. In particular, there has arisen, in recent times, the notion that God the Father actually did forsake His Son hanging on the Cross. Jesus’ abandonment by his Father—his experience of damnation—is sometimes understood, indeed, to be the very price of salvation.
This theory is to be interpreted with a certain measure of caution, I believe. I suggest that the following points should be considered with respect to this caution.
First, the Christian faith firmly holds—as a doctrine not subject to contradiction—that the true God never abandons those who call upon Him in faith.
Second, whatever Jesus’ experience was—as expressed in this cry—it was still an experience. That is to say, it was existential; it pertained to Jesus’ existence, not his being, or essence. In being, or essence, Jesus remained God’s eternal and beloved Son. Consequently, it was not possible that his cry of dereliction declared, as a fact, that God had abandoned him.
For those who, like myself, follow the doctrinal guidance of Ephesus and Chalcedon, it was not possible for God the Father to forsake His Son in any real—factual—sense, because the Father and the Son are of “one being” (homoousios). The godhead is indivisible.
Therefore, Jesus’ cry conveyed, not an objective, reified condition of his, but, rather, his human experience of distance from God. The abandonment was psychological, not ontological.
God does not abandon His friends and loyal servants—much less His Son. Nonetheless, it often happens that God’s friends and servants feel abandoned, and they feel it very keenly. And when they do, they often enough have recourse to the Book of Psalms . . . . as Jesus does in the present case.
When the Savior expressed this painful experience in prayer, the opening line of Psalm 22 arose to his lips—in Hebrew, ’Eli, ’Eli, lamah ‘azavtani—“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” He could hardly have prayed this line of the Psalter unless he knew the Father was still “my God.”
In making this prayer his own, Jesus was hardly expressing a sentiment unique to himself. He was, rather, identifying himself with every human being who has ever felt alienated from God, abandoned by God, estranged from God. Perhaps this prayer best expresses what we mean when we speak of “the days of his flesh” (Hebrews 5:7). It was in this deep sense of dereliction that we perceive, most truly, that “the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us” (John 1:14).
Holy Saturday, April 19
Matthew 27:62-66: Matthew alone tells the story of the elaborate security provided by the Jewish leaders to guarantee that the body of Jesus would not be stolen. This account must be completed by a later one (28:11-13), in which those same enemies insist that the body was stolen! Matthew’s interest here is likewise apologetic.
Pilate’s answer to those leaders made no attempt to disguise his impatience and scorn: “You have a guard. Get out of here and guard the tomb. You know how.” Matthew’s style is freighted with irony. Quoting their fear that “the last deception will be worse than the first,” he identifies the deceivers as Jesus’ enemies. This last ruse of theirs will truly be worse than the earlier efforts.
Let me suggest that in Holy Saturday—the middle of the three sacred days (Triduum)-—we recognize in Good Friday and Easter Sunday, somewhat as in the Lord’s two natures, twin realities placed “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” Holy Saturday ‘hypostatically’ holds together, as it were, the two extremes of the Triduum.
To sense what I mean here, it may be useful to recall that when the events of those days originally took place, the Apostles and Myrrh-bearers did not know that Holy Saturday was the central day in the sacred Triduum. They had no concept of the matter. For them it was simply the day after the tragic climax. They did not realize what was to come on the next day, as we see in their incredulous response when it did come. For Peter and Mary Magdalene, therefore, Holy Saturday was not a recognized interval (literally “a valley in between”). It was not the prelude of a victory but only the aftermath of a catastrophe.
Holy Saturday thus conveys the sense that Good Friday was not “confused or changed” by Easter Sunday. The other two days of the Triduum were not mingled, so to speak, so that each or either lost its identity. The gall of the earlier day was neither less bitter nor its stripes less severe. The great calamity of the Cross was not mitigated in the tiniest degree. This is Good Friday’s original union with Holy Saturday.
Easter Sunday, April 20
Ezekiel 1: The Book of Ezekiel is constructed of four parts: (1) Chapters 1-24, which contain stories, visions, and prophecies in which God judges sinful Israel. These are to be dated prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587. (2) Chapters 25-32, in which divine judgment is pronounced against the other sinful nations of the same period. (3) Chapters 33-39, which contain prophecies given after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587. These prophecies are related to Israel’s eventual deliverance and restoration. (4) Chapters 40-48, which contain Ezekiel’s visions of the new temple to be built in Jerusalem.
Chapter 1 describes Ezekiel’s call to be a prophet. In the second half of summer Ezekiel received his inaugural call by the banks of the Kabari Canal, a man-made waterway that flowed out of the Euphrates, through the city of Babylon, and then back to its mother river. This “fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiakin” is calculated to be the period between April 30 of the year 593 and April 18, of the year 592. The “fifth day of the fourth month” of this year was August 4, 593.
Like the inaugural callings of Moses (Exodus 3:1-4) and Isaiah (6:1-6), the calling of Ezekiel is glorious and visionary. Above the “four living creatures,” who support the vault of heaven, he sees “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” God’s glory, because it fills all of heaven and earth, can be revealed anywhere, whether in a burning bush in the Sinai Peninsula, or in the temple at Jerusalem, or, as now, by the banks of a waterway in Babylonia.
John 20:11-23: Mary, who does not see very clearly through her tears, takes Jesus to be the gardener and answers his question in all seriousness: “Sir, if you have removed him, tell me where you have put him, and I will take him away.” Then comes the dramatic moment of recognition, when Jesus simply pronounces the name by which he has always addressed her: “Mary!”
Mary Magdalene does not learn the Resurrection as an objective fact conveyed through the testimony of a third person; she grasps it, rather, in the sensitive recognition of the beloved voice that addresses her personally. Only at this point does she know him as Rabbouni, “my Teacher.”
In this story, Christians are right to perceive in Mary Magdalene an image of themselves meeting their risen Lord and Good Shepherd: “the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name . . . , for they know his voice” (John 10:3–4). This devout narrative of Mary Magdalene is an affirmation that Christian identity comes of recognizing the voice of Christ, who speaks the believer’s name in the mystery of salvation: “the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Monday, April 21
Ezekiel 2: After his inaugural vision in Chapter 1, Ezekiel now formally receives his call in Chapter 2. The Spirit (in Hebrew Ruach), of which Ezekiel spoke in 1:4 (where the same Hebrew word is usually translated as “Wind”), now enters into him, causing him to stand up. This is the same Ruach that will enliven the dry bones in Chapter 37.
It will be another six years before Jerusalem will be destroyed, and the exiles, to whom he is sent to preach, are rebellious. Ezekiel is exhorted not to be impressed by them, nor necessarily to expect positive fruits from his preaching. In terms very reminiscent of the calls of Moses and Jeremiah, Ezekiel is instructed to continue preaching to his contemporaries, no matter how they receive his word. It is God’s word, after all, that he will speak.
Toward the end of this chapter he will be handed a scroll of God’s word, which he is instructed to eat. This is one of several places in Holy Scripture where God’s Word is likened to food.
This image also indicates the prophet is to assimilate God’s Word and to preach it from within the digestive processes of his own mind and heart. It is always the word of man as well as the Word of God. According to Christian theology God speaks to man through the inner creative workings of his mind and heart. In that inspiration by which God caused the Holy Scriptures to be written, man himself was a co-worker with God, a synergos. God’s word is likewise, then, the word of some human being who is properly called an “author.”
Matthew 26:1-15: “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” preserve the continuity with the Passion story. As they were witnesses to Jesus’ death (27:56) and burial (27:61), so now they will be witnesses to His empty tomb (verse 1).
Matthew, who seems eager to press on with the rest of the story, omits the reason for their coming to the tomb (Mark 16:1). To him, this detail would be nearly a distraction. Thus, he also omits the ladies’ discussion about how to open the tomb (Mark 16:3).
They find the tomb already opened, not to let Jesus out, but to let visitors in. This angel—if it is not irreverent to think of him as a “gentleman”—knows to open the door for ladies.
The myrrh-bearing women, perhaps already startled by the earthquake (an image favored by Matthew—see 8:24; 27:54), approach the tomb. The impressive appearance of the angel probably does nothing to reassure them (verse 3), and it certainly has its effect on the soldiers guarding the tomb (verse 4). These soldiers will later claim to have slept on guard (verse 13), which is a bit of an understatement.
As often in prophetic literature (Daniel, Zechariah, Revelation), the angel explains what is happening (verses 5-7). Indeed, this empty tomb requires an explanation. When Matthew’s Gospel ends, moreover, the difference between Jew and Christian will be their differing explanations for the empty tomb.
The announcing angel, having reassured these frightened women, reminds them that Jesus had already predicted this day and this event (verse 6; 16:21-23; 17:22-23; 20:18-19). In fact, Jesus had also promised to meet His disciples in Galilee (verse 7; 26:32; c. Mark 16:7).
Learning the news of the Resurrection, the women disciples go rushing out, to be the first human heralds of the event that changed the world (verse 8). The brief scene of their sudden meeting with Jesus (verses 9-10) may record the same incident of which St. John provides such a theologically rich account (John 20:11-18—Note that in both accounts Jesus refers to the disciples as “my brothers.”)
Tuesday, April 22
Ezekiel 3: The point of eating the scroll was that the prophet should internalize God’s message, assimilating it into his own being, so that he could speak God’s word as his own (cf. Revelation 10:8-11). It remains one of the great images of prophetic inspiration: “All my words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart.”
Thus, we believe that the teaching of the Pentateuch is not simply the word of God, but also the word of Moses. We contend that God spoke to Moses through divine inspiration, a Spirit-breathed process that included the thinking and imaginative powers of . . . Moses. Biblical Inspiration means that God’s word was filtered through—digested by—fermented in—the mind and heart of a human author.
Revelation comes to us, accordingly, through the inner anguish of Jeremiah, the soaring minds of John and Isaiah, the probing questions of Job and Habakkuk, the near despair of Qoheleth, the structured poetry of David, the disappointments of Jonah, the struggles of Nehemiah, the mystic raptures of Ezekiel, the slow, patient scholarship of Ezra, the careful narrative style of Mark, the historical investigations of Luke, and that pounding mill, the ponderous thinking of Paul.
God’s Word finds expression in inspired literature, because it first assumed flesh in human thought and imagination. This truth is indicated in that vision where Ezekiel sees God’s word on a scroll that he must eat. That is to say, God’s word always comes to us in a fermented, pre-digested form.
This great vision is then followed by seven days of reflection (verses 15-16), at the end of which Ezekiel is made aware of his new vocation as a watchman for God’s people. Whether they heed him or not, the watchman has a divinely-commissioned responsibility to give proper warning. This theme will return in Chapter 33.
Luke 24:13-35: The story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus on the afternoon of the day of the Lord’s Resurrection (Luke 24:13–35) is of great importance to biblical exegesis. The conversation of the risen Christ, as He walks with Cleopas and his un-named companion and interpreted the Holy Scriptures for them, is the Church’s first formal course in the proper Christian interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures. From time to time, as we know, Jesus had interpreted individual passages of Moses, Isaiah, David, and other Old Testament writers, normally in reference to himself. In the discourse on the road to Emmaus, however, Jesus devotes the entire effort and time to this theme, laying the foundation for the proper Christian understanding of the Bible. It may be said that all orthodox Christian exegesis goes back to that conversation, and we are surely correct in going to the writers of the New Testament as illustrating the interpretive patterns put forward in that conversation.
Wednesday, April 23
Ezekiel 4: Here begins a sequence of symbolic actions that Ezekiel is commanded to perform, as though in pantomime, to serve as efficacious signs to his brethren in the Captivity. These actions function as prophecies too, prophecies conveyed in sign language as it were. These prophetic actions have their counterparts elsewhere in Holy Scripture, such as the symbolic names that Hosea and Isaiah gave their children, and Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree.
The first of Ezekiel’s signs, a sort of symbolic enactment of the siege of Jerusalem, involves the prophet playing like a child with building blocks, placing the various pieces into an elaborate scene, accompanied by a narrative. Children do this kind of game all the time. A solitary child, indeed, may spend hours at it, telling himself the story as he moves the little pieces around.
The second action, more abstract, symbolizes the punishment of Israel and Judah, the former destroyed in 722 and the latter to be destroyed in the near future.
The prophet’s third action portrays the suffering of the siege about to come upon Jerusalem. Most significant to this prophetic priest is the ritual uncleanness that must accompany the preparation of the food and the circumstances of the people’s defeat. In the few words that Ezekiel himself speaks in this chapter, we observe the intense emotional pain felt by the prophet in the enactment of these symbolic gestures.
1 Corinthians 5:1-11: The Apostle Paul, for his part, certainly anticipated an afterlife immediately following death. This persuasion prompted him to “desire to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). This immediate afterlife was not, however, the true goal of Paul’s striving, which was to “attain to the resurrection from the dead” (3:11). Anyway, no early Christians—as far as we can tell—contested the expectation of an immediate afterlife.
When the Apostles proclaimed Jesus as risen, however, they did not mean that he had somehow survived in a spiritual state after his death on the Cross. They meant, quite plainly, “he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:4). It was an event, not a static condition.
Also, it was emphatically physical, not in the sense of induced by physical forces, but in the sense that it happened to the body. Had this not been the case, the Resurrection of Jesus would not have happened according to the Scriptures. The Resurrection-hope held out by Holy Scripture had to do with the body. When Isaiah prophesied, “Your dead shall live,” he went on to specify, “their corpses will arise” (Isaiah 26:19).
It was this physical quality of the Christian hope that proved to be too challenging for some of the brethren at Corinth. They summarized their argument with the sarcastic query. “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” (1 Corinthians 15:35)
What those individuals contested was not a belief in an afterlife, but the physical cosmology implicitly contained in the thesis, “the God of our fathers raised up Jesus” (Acts 5:30). They were unable to grasp that the Gospel proclaimed this truth as a vindication of the whole created order.
Holy Scripture, after all, had not declared, “God approved of all the spiritual things He had made,” but, “God saw everything (kol) that He had formed, and indeed it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
It was in refuting the skeptics at Corinth that the Apostle Paul came to understand the Resurrection of Christ as God’s historical act for the purpose of rectifying the evils inflicted on the created order by Adam’s Fall. The Resurrection had to be physical, because death and corruption were physical.
Thursday, April 24
Ezekiel 5: This chapter begins with the fourth symbolic action imposed on Ezekiel, which signifies the various fates awaiting the citizens of Jerusalem as the siege nears its end. It is clear that only a tiny remnant of them will survive. The rest of the chapter is a stirring oracle explaining why so severe a judgment is falling on Jerusalem. It will be so grievous, the Lord says, because He expected so much more of the city that He had chosen as His dwelling place on earth.
Ezekiel, as a priest charged to minister in the temple, was deeply acquainted with the sacred worship that made Jerusalem so special. This elect place of God’s presence and His proper worship had been particularly defiled by the idolatry of the populace (5:11). Whereas Jeremiah (7:1-15) had already warned the people of Jerusalem that they would not be saved by their mere possession of the temple, Ezekiel now instructs them that this possession will render their punishment all the more severe. God expects more from the one to whom He has given more, but the chosen Jerusalem has offended Him even worse than the nations that He did not choose.
1 Corinthians 15:12-19: Although it was a single event in history, the “logic” of the Resurrection implied that the whole physical world, starting with the bodies of Christians, was destined for restoration and transformation through the risen and glorified flesh of Christ. This meant that the true and ultimate afterlife anticipated by Christians was not based on the immortality of the soul, but on the resurrection of the body.
In answering the Corinthian skepticism, Paul established the “logic” of the Resurrection in a chain of short hypothetical syllogisms. Within 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, the word “if” appears nine times, leading to the final inference, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.”
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).
Friday, April 25
Ezekiel 6: The prophet, standing in Babylon, faces westward, the direction of Israel, to pronounce this oracle of doom. The threefold destruction predicted here (sword, famine, and pestilence) stands parallel to the three portions of Ezekiel’s shaved hair and beard in the previous chapter, as does the prophecy of a remnant that will be delivered.
Whereas in chapter 5 Ezekiel addresses Jerusalem, in the present chapter he addresses the rural areas of Israel, the hills and valleys. The immediate listeners to this oracle, however, are those Israelites who have already been brought to captivity in Babylon. It is they who must take warning, for they will soon see God’s judgment on idolatry.
Idolatry—the worship of whatever is not the true God—is the root sin against which all the Lord’s interventions in history are directed. Since idolatry always involves human bondage, the Lord’s interventions are directed to deliverance from bondage. The Exodus itself set Israel free from the gods of Egypt.
Idolatry is the sin that is about to bring about the destruction of Judah, says Ezekiel, as well as Israel not so long before; idolatry is the reason that the masses of their population were carried into exile. Indeed, idolatry is itself a form of exile, an alienation from the true God.
1 Corinthians 15:20-34: Paul calls death “the final enemy.” Of Christ he says, “For he must reign, until he has put all enemies under his feet. The final enemy (eschatos echthros) will be disposed of—death” (1 Corinthians 15:25-26).
The present reign of Christ is described as forward–looking; there is an “until”: “He must reign until He has put all enemies under his feet.” The final defeat of death lies in the future.
This reign of Christ until the subjection of his enemies is the thesis that comes to St. Paul from the first line of Psalm 110: “Sit at My right hand until I subject your enemies as a footstool under your feet.”
A close comparison of the psalm verse with Paul’s actual citation of it, however, reveals a subtle but significant difference; namely, Paul’s insertion of the adjective “all”: “For he must reign until He has subjected all (pantas) enemies under his feet.”
In fact, the Apostle has more than one psalm in mind here. In accordance with an exegetical principle the Rabbis called gezarah shavah (similarity of expressions), St. Paul’s citation of Psalm 110 contains an allusion to Psalms 8:6 (LXX 8:7): “You have set him over the works of Your hands, having subjected all things (panta) under his feet.”
In joining these two psalms in the same citation, Paul unites two Messianic themes. Whereas Psalm 110 refers to David/the Messiah, Psalm 8 refers to Adam, to whom God subjected all the other objects of His Creation (Genesis 1:28).