Good Friday, April 3

Matthew 26:57—27:61: Mark and Matthew, but more especially John, tell the story of the Lord’s trial by weaving it back and forth with the scene in the outer courtyard, where Peter is also under a kind of interrogation. Jesus and Peter are both on trial, as it were, and the reader appreciates the contrast between them. In both cases there are testimonies, and in each case there is an adjuration of some kind. In both cases there is perjury (Matthew 26:63,74).

Even before the charges against Jesus are stated, the Sanhedrin is seeking the death penalty (Matthew 26:59). Indeed, Jesus’ enemies made this determination some time ago (12:14). The charge they want to sustain, if they can find witnesses for it, is blasphemy, one of their earliest accusations against Jesus (9:3). Jesus knows exactly what they are up to, and they know that he knows it (21:23). The Sanhedrin is specifically accused of suborning perjury (26:59).

It is not so easy, however, to find even false witnesses to support the charge of blasphemy (26:60). Jesus, it is said, made some remark or other about the destruction of the Temple, but there is inadequate agreement between the two witnesses brought forward to make this point (26:61). Only John (2:19-21) records the actual words of Jesus that formed the basis for this accusation.

Zechariah 13: Maintaining his emphasis on the Lord’s Passion and Death, the prophet goes on to speak of the striking of the Shepherd and the consequent dispersal of His disciples (verse 7), a text interpreted for us in Matthew 26:31 (cf. Mark 14:27; John 16:31).

This is the event by which the false gods are defeated (verse 1). These are the demonic forces brought to naught by the death of the First Born. Questioned about the marks of the wounds in His flesh, the Lord responds, “These wounds I received in the house of My friends” (verse 6).

Cyril of Alexandria wrote in the fifth century: “when the Only Begotten Word of God ascended into the heavens in the flesh to which He was united, there was something new to be seen in the heavens. The multitude of holy angels was astounded, seeing the King of glory and the Lord of hosts being made in a form like ourselves. . . . Then the angels asked this, ‘What are these wounds in Your hands?’ And He said to them, ‘These wounds I received in the house of My friends.’” These are the wounds that He will show to His disciples after His resurrection. He bears these wounds in his glorified flesh forever, as He stands before the Father, “as though slain,” being the one Mediator between God and Man (Revelation 5:6).

Holy Saturday, April 4

Matthew 27:62-64: 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 (verses 62-66). 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” (verse 65).

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.

Matthew recorded all this material, of course, looking back through the lens of what finally transpired!

Zechariah 14: A nun from Gaul, named Egeria, who visited the Christians at Jerusalem in the late fourth century, left us a description of the various liturgical practices of that ancient church. In the course of it, she described how, on Ascension Thursday, the believers gathered on the Mount of Olives, from which Jesus had ascended into heaven. And what did they do? They read the entire account, from the Gospel according to John, of the Lord’s suffering and death.

This remarkable detail reveals how closely related the Christians of old thought the various actions of the Lord by which we were redeemed. They did not think of redemption as taking place solely on the Cross, where the price of our sins was paid by our Lord’s blood (1 Peter 1:19), but as involving also the other events integral to the mystery of the Cross. The accomplishing of our redemption included also the event we celebrate today, Holy Saturday, when Jesus descended into the nether world to free the bondsmen whom Satan held there (3:19).

It included likewise his rising from the dead on Easter, inasmuch as Jesus “was delivered up for our offenses, and was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:25). As was suggested by Egeria’s account of the celebration of Ascension Thursday, the mystery of our redemption included also our Lord’s ascent into heaven and his assumption of the throne at the right hand of the Father, having been made for ever a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. This latter theme, of course, provides the major images of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

With this in mind, we should not be surprised that the Book of Zechariah, in the final chapter of its section dealing more explicitly with the sufferings of our Lord, prophesies also his standing on the Mount of Olives (verse 4); this mountain is symbolically divided, much as, in the Old Testament, the Red Sea and the River Jordan were divided. His ascent from the Mount of Olives will cause to flow the living waters of redemption (verses 8-9) and the reunion of all God’s people in the Holy City (verses 14-21).

Easter Sunday, April 5

The Resurrection I: At only one point in the Gospels does Jesus directly address the common Jewish hope of a resurrection: his encounter with the Sadducees (Mark 12:18-27). It is time to return to that encounter and more carefully to examine the type of argument the Savior employs. Since he appeals there to the scene of the Burning Bush, perhaps we, too, should begin in the same place.

When Jesus argued with the Sadducees, Jews who opposed belief in resurrection, it is passing curious that he demonstrated, not so much the coming resurrection, but the afterlife of the departed. Jesus argued: If the God of the living—not of the dead—is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive. Even though their tombs were visible at Hebron—and remain so today—those patriarchs have continued to live on, down through the ages. If they were not alive, God would not still be bound to them in covenant; He would not be their God. This, Jesus implies, is the reason they will rise.

We should not suppose that the Savior pulled this argument out of hat. In fact, he was pursuing a line of thought easily documented in biblical culture, and those who pursued it took their cue from what might seem a very improbable source: God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:5. “Look now toward heaven,” said the Lord, “and count the stars if you are able to number them. . . .So shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15:5).

To most readers, I suppose, this text simply refers to the numerous promised progeny of Abraham. The command to “count the stars” appears to imply as much.

Well, not so fast. The verb saphar does, indeed, mean to “count.” Nonetheless, the etymological root of the word is richer and quite a bit more complicated. In its various forms and contexts, sphr can mean, not only “to count,” but also “to recount,” or “to take account of,” or “to give an assessment of,” or “to interpret.” Based on the same root, the Hebrew word for “book” is Sepher, and a sopher is a scribe. That is to say, the purely numerical sense of the root rather quickly extends to forms of narrative and interpretation. The stars have a story to tell. “The heavens are declaring (mesapherim!) God’s glory,” insists the Psalmist (Psalms 19 Greek/Latin 18):1.

Consequently, depending on the scribal inflection (or “pointing”) of the Hebrew imperative, God may be telling Abraham something like this: ‘Take a good look at those stars and consider them well. Read what they have to say, because your own descendents are going to be very much like them.’

Later interpreters of the text did, in fact, take their understanding of it in that direction. A good example is Sirach in the second century before Christ. Here is his comment on Genesis 15:5:

Therefore by an oath [God] gave [Abraham] glory in his posterity, that he should increase as the dust of the earth, and that He would, like the stars, exalt his seed (hos astra anypsosai to sperma avtou), and they should inherit from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth (44:22-23).

According to Sirach, we observe, the dust of the earth is a metaphor for Abraham’s numerous children, whereas their likeness to the stars has to do with their “exaltation.” That is to say, the metaphor of the dust is quantitative, whereas that of the stars is qualitative; Abraham’s seed will resemble the stars: hos astra anypsosai sperma.

Easter Monday, April 6

The Resurrection II: Nearly contemporary with Sirach, the Book of Daniel contains a similar and most remarkable joining of these two images—dust and the stars—from Genesis 15:5. In the context of the Maccabean persecution Daniel writes,

And at that time your people shall be delivered, / everyone who is found written in the book. / And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, / some to everlasting life, / some to shame and everlasting contempt. / Those who are wise shall shine / Like the brightness of the firmament, / and those who turn many to righteousness / Like the stars forever and ever (Daniel 12:1-3).

In this passage the “dust” is contrasted with the stars; dust is the image of corruption (as in Genesis 3:19), from which Abraham’s wise descendents arise to shine like the stars in the firmament. Here in Daniel the quantitative interpretation of the promise is gone. The imagery has to do with the luminous quality of those who are raised from the dead.

This line of interpretation passed from Sirach and Daniel to Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of the New Testament. Philo comments,

And after [God] has conducted [Abraham] out, he says to him, “Look up to heaven, and count the stars, if thou art able to number them; thus shall be your seed.” He says quite appropriately, “Thus (houtos) shall be your seed,” not ‘as many’ (tosouton), as though equal in number to the stars. He does not refer here merely their number, but also to certain other features, which pertain to perfect and complete happiness. The seed shall be, He declares, like the ethereal light displayed before him, heavenly (ouranion) as it is, pure and unshadowed, because night is banished from the heavens, and darkness from the ether. It shall be the likeness of the stars (asteroeidestaton) (The Heir of Divine Things 86-87).

Philo takes up this theme, likewise, in his Questions and Answers on Genesis. The likeness of Abraham’s seed to the stars, he says, is twofold:

According to the nature in which things exist, two things are indicated, quantity and quality. With respect to quantity, there is “I will multiply.” With respect to quality, there is “like the stars,” which means they will be pure and giving light widely, ever arranged in order and subservient to their leader. They will conduct themselves in a star-like manner and, with the splendor of ethereal brightness, illumine all other things (4.18).

During the period between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, then, the theme of the resurrection mightily entered Jewish thought, leading to a new interpretation of God’s promise to Abraham. Jesus’ line of argument with the Sadducees appears to presuppose a development along that line.

Easter Tuesday, April 7

The Resurrection III: It is hardly surprising that Jewish intertestamental interpretation of Genesis 15:5 readily passed to Christian interpreters of that text. In the second century, for instance, Irenaeus of Lyons wrote,

And that Abraham might know, not only the great number, but also the splendor of his seed, God led him out at night and told him, “See if you can count the stars in heaven; thus will be your seed” (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching 24).

The “seed,” for Irenaeus, however, is properly Christ. Following the lead of Galatians 5:16—“ He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as of many, but as of one, ‘And to your seed,’ which is Christ”—Irenaeus goes on to comment,

Thus [Christ] fulfilled the promise made to Abraham by God, that he would make his seed like the stars of heaven; Christ accomplished this by being born of a Virgin descendent from Abraham’s seed, and by establishing as lights in the world those who believe in Him, justifying the Gentiles by the same faith as Abraham’s (ibid. 35).

A century after Irenaeus, the Christian apologist Origen followed the same line of comment on Genesis 15:5, going explicitly to the Danielic prophecy we examined above. He explained,

A prediction was given to Abraham from the Lord’s voice that said to him, “Look up to heaven and number the stars if you can count them.” And He said to him, “Thus you seed will be.” [This seed], having hope to become like the stars of heaven, were not disposed to bow down to things they were destined to resemble by reason of their understanding and observance of God’s Law.

Origen then goes on to show that this promise to Abraham was at the heart of Daniel’s prophecy of the resurrection:

In the Book of Daniel, also, the following prophecies were found relative to those who share in the resurrection: “And at that time your people shall be delivered, / everyone who is found written in the book. / And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, / some to everlasting life, / some to shame and everlasting contempt. / Those who are wise shall shine / Like the brightness of the firmament, / and those who turn many to righteousness / Like the stars forever and ever” (Daniel 12:1-3).

Most significantly, with respect to the resurrection, Origen relates the star-imagery of both texts—Genesis 15 and Daniel 12—to Saint Paul’s teaching on the resurrected body:

Consequently, Paul, too, declaring the resurrection, says, “there are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies; but the glory of the heavenly is one, and the glory of the earthly another. One glory there is of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; star differs from star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead” (Against Celsus 5.10)

Easter Wednesday, April 8

The Resurrection IV: Following the lead of Holy Scripture, the Church has consistently proclaimed that Christ is victorious over three enemies: Sin, Death, and Satan. All three, alas, pose special difficulties for those outside the Christian faith we are proposing to them.

We Christians understand sin, for instance, in a way nearly incomprehensible to those who suppose a progressive view of human nature and history. Although many of our contemporaries admit the existence of individual sins, these same people may have trouble with the singular form of the word in, say, the pronouncement that the Lamb of God “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Our contemporaries have read—if only through secondary sources—the ideas of men like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson; the hermeneutic blinders consequent to those ideas prevent their detection of something grievously out of kilter in human nature and history. They believe that, if there is anything wrong in human existence, it can be corrected by something called “progress.” Some of our contemporaries—Marxists—in the main, fancy that man’s problems are produced by political injustice and can be corrected by political adjustments.

This notion is common in today’s systems of primary and secondary education, where, in History and Sociology courses, the only recognized evils are the results of sexism, racism, financial inequality, homophobia, and (usually American) imperialism. And although the reality of sin is firmly established and deeply explored in our literary heritage, it has been quite some time since our students were familiar with the house of Macbeth, or the crew of the Pequod, or the heirs of Thomas Sutpen.

There prevails, rather, a presumption that the problems of humanity can be corrected by a positive attitude and sundry calibrations of social engineering. That is to say, many of those to whom we preach the Gospel of Redemption suppose that the government already has, or may soon acquire, the answers to man’s difficulties. In short, if there really is such a thing as sin, it can’t be anything to worry about.

As for our other two enemies—Satan and Death—the latter is thought to be adequately explained by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, while the former is identified as a burlesque figure sheathed in a red leotard.

That is to say, none of mankind’s three enemies, as they are portrayed in the Bible and the Tradition, is taken very seriously by the people we hope to evangelize. From the perspective of the history of Apologetics, this is a new situation, and, I believe, it calls for a fresh theological examination of our understanding of Sin, Death, and Satan.

Easter Thursday, April 9

The Resurrection V: Death, according to St. Paul is the “last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26). It is “last,” however, not just in the sequence of our enemies’ abolition, but also last in the sense of being the final goal intended by our first enemy, who is Satan. Death is exactly what Satan had in mind when it first occurred to him to employ the services of the garden snake.

Our consideration of this point requires attention to two ideas: the “natural incorruption” of man and the envy of the devil. I use the expression “natural incorruption” to distinguish it from the aphtharsia known to Christians, the “incorruptibility” conferred on those who share in the grace of Christ’s Resurrection. This “natural immortality” should be thought of as something negative; it simply means that man was not, as God created him, obliged to die.

Both this natural incorruption and Satan’s envy were affirmed in the Book of Wisdom:

God created man incorruptible (ep’ aphtharsia), / the image (eikona) of His very likeness He made him, / but by the envy of the devil death entered into the cosmos (Wisdom of Solomon 2:23-24).

Satan wanted man to die; Satan was determined to murder him. He lied in order to kill; mendacity and murder were two aspects of the same thing. Our Savior was explicit on this point:

Your father is the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and he does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from what pertains to him, for he is a liar and the father of it (John 8:44).

The lie Satan spoke to Eve had to do with death. He directly challenged God’s warning, “On the day you eat of it, you will die.” No, answered the Tempter, “Certainly you will not die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Easter Friday, April 10

The Resurrection VI: Against many heresies—Gnosticism and Manichaeism early and chief among them—Holy Church has been obliged to advocate the inherent goodness of the material world. Her position on this point has always been based, not only on the biblical doctrine of Creation—“God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good”—but also on the conviction that the goodness of created matter was vindicated in a definitive way by the Resurrection of Christ. Every tendency to doubt that goodness has been shouted down, as it were, by the same objection: “Handle me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.”

As a matter of fact, the Resurrection is a fact of matter: the Lord’s risen body is a real body, made up of chemical components. Although endowed with new spiritual qualities, such as the ability to pass through locked doors, His risen body loses nothing of its material nature. It is not so “spiritual” as to be intangible: “Reach your finger here, and inspect my hands; and stretch out your hand and put it into my side.”

Holy Church has remained ever sensitive on this point, regarding with stern disfavor any hint of a discontinuity between the body created and the body raised. They are the identical body: “It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” What is buried and what is raised are numerically identical, and in any suggestion to the contrary the Church recognizes a false cosmology.

In fact, false cosmologies, and dualistic cosmologies in particular, seem ever to threaten the foundations of the Christian faith. The Alexandrian catechist, Origen, who imagined the body to be the material prison of the preexistent soul, taught an example of this error. To sustain his thesis, Origen was obliged to treat the Resurrection as an allegory of spiritual restoration.

The sainted bishop Methodius of Olympus, martyred in 311, recognized heresy here. Against Origen he wrote: “I will not endure certain chatterers (phlenaphonton tinon) that do violence to Scripture, in order to find support for their opinion that the resurrection is without flesh—they allegorize ‘mental bones’ (osta noeta) and flesh” (On the Resurrection 39).

Origen’s error, according to Methodius, was cosmological: Origen believed that the union of the body with the preexistent soul was unnatural, because the soul possessed an integrity of its own. Consequently, the separation of the soul from the body—by death—was a restoration of the soul’s integrity. Death represented the return to a state more “natural” to man!

Methodius perceived that such teaching spelled out the very end of the Christian faith. It removed all soteriological value from the Resurrection, by identifying salvation with the soul’s liberation from the body. For Methodius—speaking in this respect for the orthodox faith of the Christian Church—the human “difference” wrought by Christ was the definitive abolition, not of matter, but of mortality. An orthodox Christian cosmology, therefore, requires that salvation be attained, not by death’s putting asunder of soul and body, but by the conferral of integrity, immortality, and incorruptibility on the whole man, body and soul.

Why, then, the prior dissolution of death? To answer this question, Methodius likened God to a sculptor, who sees His beloved handiwork spoiled and disfigured by an enemy:

Seeing man, His fairest work, corrupted by envious treachery, He could not endure, with His love for man, to leave him in such a condition, lest he should be for ever defective, and bear the blame for eternity; but He dissolved him again into his original components, so that, by remodeling, all the blemishes in him might waste away and disappear. For the melting down of the statue in the former case corresponds to the death and dissolution of the body in the latter, and the remolding of the material in the former, to the resurrection after death in the latter (op. cit. 43).

Christ died, that is, in order to be raised again. He suffered the dissolution of death for the sake of man’s attaining immortality.

Such was Paul’s answer, in First Corinthians 15, to those who denied the Resurrection: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty.” The bodily Resurrection of Christ is the cause, model, and medium of our integrity, immortality, and incorruption. It is also the work of the Holy Spirit, who abides in our flesh as promise and pledge. St. Gregory Palamas, a thousand years after Methodius, wrote, “the body will be indwelt and moved by the supernatural power of the divine Spirit in the age to come” (Sermon on John the Baptist 5).