Friday, December 25
The Birth of Our Lord: Why, then, did God become man? To join us to Himself: Union with God—theosis—is the full fruit of Redemption. God’s Son assumed our complete humanity in order to save and sanctify our complete humanity. In a poetic sense, God couldn’t help Himself; He loves us that much
Few themes, I suppose, are more pronounced in the teaching of Jesus than that of God’s invitation. Whether to a banquet or a wedding, Jesus sees man as invited by God.
I believe this divine invitation implies many considerations of anthropology, but I limit myself here to one: human dignity. God invites man for pretty much the same reason we send invitations to one another—friendship. Orthodox Christian theology has always insisted that his motive is friendship with man, philanthropia.
It is difficult, it is bewildering, and it is more than slightly frightening to assimilate the notion that God finds us loveable. It is among the most astounding truths in Holy Scripture. What could God possibly find loveable in us?
Indeed, even some Christians are so bewildered by this idea that they resort to subtleties to parse away its paradox. They may explain, for example, that God, being love, had to do so, even though He finds nothing intrinsically loveable in us. It is taken for granted, in some Christian circles, that God could not possibly find human beings desirable. It is assumed as obvious that there is nothing in us that would attract Him. It is impossible for God to love us for our own sake, we are told, but He does so because of His loving nature. He is forced to love us, as it were, because love is His definition.
Let me suggest that theories like this are difficult to reconcile with what God has told us about Himself . . . . and us. In Holy Scripture He describes Himself as a bridegroom rejoicing over a bride, who is the apple of His eye. He speaks of Himself as a father who celebrates the return of a faithless son, in whom He recognizes His own image. Surely, these are the teachings that justify that beautiful adjective by which Holy Church addresses God: philanthropos.
When the Church calls God the “lover of mankind,” She affirms an important truth about the human race: God finds man attractive. Indeed, when God made man, He put into his composition a radical point of attraction that man is incapable of destroying.
This favorable and loving attitude of God toward human beings perhaps justifies our speaking of a divine anthropotropism. God shows every sign of being drawn to man. It is hard for us to fathom this. It is as though the sun felt for the sunflower the same powerful attraction the sunflower feels for the sun. We would have to imagine a solar antheotropism prompting the sun to rush its rising each morning for another glimpse of the jonquil, the iris and the buttercup.
Holy Scripture, however, says no less of God’s feelings for man. Numerous times Jeremiah, that most tenderhearted of poets, speaks of God “rising up early” to speak to the human soul (Jeremiah 7:13, 25; 11:7; 25:3,4; 26:5; 29:19; 32:33; 35:14,15; 44:4; cf. 2 Chronicles 36:15).
It is arguable, indeed, that Jeremiah was the prophet who best understood this aspect of God—and of man. It was in Israel’s supremely dark hour, the dreadful day of Nebuchadnezzar and the destruction of the First Temple, that this philanthropic God declared through the lips of Jeremiah, ” I have loved thee with an everlasting love; therefore have I drawn thee with mercy” (31:3). It is this everlasting love of God that summons humanity; it is His undying mercy that prompts the invitation He dispatches to human beings throughout the ages.
God loves us and desires us because He formed us in His own image, which is essential to, and inalienable from, the very definition of human nature. God’s love for us is His response to the attraction He has made intrinsic to our being. There is absolutely nothing we can do to make God stop desiring us. Even the souls in hell are the object of His relentless affection, because they are formed in His image, the same image He saw on the day His hands gave them shape.
The truth is that God is drawn to us by love, that He has forcefully thrown in His lot with us, to the point of becoming one of us. This act of God, His deliberate assumption of our historical experience in order to make it His own, is what theology calls Divine Revelation, and its defining manifestation is the Mystery of the Incarnation. In the person of His Son, God has united humanity to Himself by an indissoluble bond theology calls the Hypostatic Union. Human theotropism and divine anthropotropism are both fulfilled. Perhaps we make think of it as the mutual joy of the sunflower and the sun.
Saturday, December 26
Acts 6:8—8:3: 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, be- cause 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.
Lastly, there is a dramatic change in Stephen’s tone. Having bitterly denounced the Jews in his testimony before the Sanhedrin (7:51–53),
Stephen finishes his life by committing his soul to the Lord and devoutly praying for his persecutors (7:59–60). Luke thus takes great care to observe the similarities between the deaths of Jesus and Stephen (Luke 23:34, 46), as Irenaeus of Lyons early noted (Against the Heresies 3.12.13).
Sunday, December 27
John 1:1-18: 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 illustrated (exsegesato) Him” (1:18).
The divine glory manifest in Christ is not only a theme in John’s gospel; it also serves as a structural component. John records exactly seven miracles of Jesus, which he calls “signs.” Seven, the mystic number of these signs, symbolizes the fullness of the revelation of the divine glory.
Leading in each case to the commitment of faith, these signs do not reveal the divine glory as static but as active. Who Jesus is, is revealed in what Jesus does. Each of these signs is enacted; it has motion.
The signs commence with the transformation of the water into wine at the wedding feast, concerning which John tells us, “This beginning (arche), of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (2:11).
John’s second sign enacted by Jesus is the curing of the nobleman’s son (4:46–54); as in the case of the miracle of Cana, the man himself “believed, and his whole household” (4:53). Next comes the restoration 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 sign in John is the raising of Lazarus from the dead (11:1–44). It was of this culminating sign that Jesus told Martha, “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” (11:40).
These Johannine signs are also 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 subsequent elaboration (as in the Bread of Life discourse).
Thus, each of these events is itself a transfiguration, a revelation of God’s glory in the activity of Jesus. In his life and ministry each sign becomes a window through which believers contemplate the divine glory, and Jesus is transfigured with light throughout John’s whole narrative.
Monday, December 28
Matthew 2:13-23: 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.
Psalm 2: Herod’s opposition to the true King of Israel prompts the choice of Psalm 2 for this feast of the Holy Innocents. A king of this world, Herod, immediately felt threatened at the birth of God’s Anointed One. Well he should, for there can be no compromise nor compatibility between the wisdom and power of this world and the wisdom and power of God. They are at deep enmity (cf. 1 Cor. 2:4–14), and our second psalm is concerned with this historical conflict. Psalm 2 is a Christological interpretation of history.
Psalm 1 had spoken of the “counsel of the godless,” and now Psalm 2 will go on to describe that counsel: “The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered in counsel, against the Lord and against his anointed [Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek].” The counsel of this world will not endure the reign of God and Christ. “Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us,” they say.
The early Christians knew the meaning of these words, and they included them in one of their earliest recorded prayers: “Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the mouth of Your servant David have said: ‘Why did the nations rage, and the people plot vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the LORD and against His Christ.” And about whom are these things being said? The prayer goes on: “For truly against Your holy Servant [pais, also meaning ‘servant’ or ‘boy’] Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together” (Acts 4:24–27).
The context of this prayer was the persecution of the Church by the authorities at Jerusalem (cf. all of Acts 3—4). That is to say, the psalm’s meaning, to those Christians, was not something in the distant past; it was something contemporary to ongoing Christian history.
This psalm is not impressed by all the sinful revolution against the reign of God and his Christ. Like the first psalm, Psalm 2 will finish on the theme of the divine judgment, which blesses the just and condemns the wicked. Both psalms end much like the Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge.”
Tuesday, December 29
Hebrews 2:11-18: The mediation of Christ, which is a major theme of this book, requires His solidarity with the rest of the human race. To save us from our sins, He must be one of us. Such is the burden of this section, which speaks of Jesus in terms of brotherhood: “He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: ‘I will declare Your name to My brethren’ . . . Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God.” Before a priest can be a father, he must be a brother; that is to say, he must be “taken from among men” (5:1).
Thus, when Jesus sent Mary Magdalene to proclaim His Resurrection to the Church, He instructed her, “Go and tell My brethren” (John 20:17). More particularly, Jesus claims brotherhood with all mankind in the context of history’s final judgment, where we learn, “inasmuch as you did it to the least of My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40). Jesus’ proclaimed solidarity of brotherhood with the whole human race means that the proper destiny of that race is a true community, founded and centered on the Incarnation.
Here in Hebrews this solidarity with the rest of human beings especially pertains to death: God’s Son assumed our humanity in order to die as a human being. Some chapters later, our author will repeat this thesis, citing the Book of Psalms: “Therefore, when He came into the world, He said: ‘Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, / But a body You have prepared for Me. / In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin / You had no pleasure. / Then I said, / Behold, I have come/ —In the volume of the book it is written of Me— / To do Your will, O God'”(10:5-7). That is to say, the obedience of Christ was to fulfill and replace the various sacrifices of the Mosaic Law, and for this task the Son obviously required a body.
In the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons commented on this theme in Hebrews: “So the Word was made flesh in order that sin, destroyed by means of that same flesh through which it had gained mastery and taken hold and lorded it, should no longer be in us,” and “that so He might join battle on behalf of our forefathers and vanquish through Adam what had stricken us through Adam” (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 31).
Wednesday, December 30
Hebrews 3:1-6: Having contrasted Jesus to the prophets (1:1-2) and to the angels (1:5-14), the Epistle to the Hebrews proceeds to contrast Him to Moses. In all cases, God’s Son and Heir is contrasted with His mere servants. In the cases of the angels and Moses, the words used for “servant” have a religious meaning.
First, with respect to the angels the descriptive word is leitourgos (1:7), translated in the KJV as “minister.” In describing the angels further, the author resorts to an equivalent expression, leitourgika pnevmata, translated in the KJV as “ministering spirits.”
Second, with respect to Moses, the descriptive word is therapon (verse 5). Since this word is normally translated into English as simply “servant,” the reader may not suspect the religious meaning it sometimes has. The noun therapon often refers to someone who serves in a temple. This is how we should understand Moses as God’s “servant.”
The underlying Hebrew noun is ‘eved, a word used for Moses many times (Exodus 14:31; Numbers 12:7-8); Deuteronomy 34:5 (cf. 33:1), Psalm 105 :26).
In the LXX of Exodus 14:31 and Numbers 12:7-8, this ‘eved is translated as therapon. This preference of the translators probably reflects the importance of Moses in the institution of Israel’s priesthood and ritual worship.
This became a designation for Moses, as we see twice in the Wisdom of Solomon (10:16; 18:21).
Now it is passing curious that in early Christian literature, the word therapon is used only for Moses. It became virtually a technical designation for Moses. Our earliest example is the present text in Hebrews, where the “house” (oichos), over which Moses is the minister, is the Church.
Moses remains a permanent minister in God’s house. This is an important assertion of the role of Moses in the Church. He is the therapon, the servant of the temple, and from the beginning this is how Moses was regarded by Christians.
Near the end of the first century, Clement of Rome wrote to the rebellious congregation at Corinth: “Envy brought down Dathan and Abiram alive to Hades, through the sedition which they excited against God’s servant Moses [pros ton theraponta tou Theou Mousen] (4.12).
Perhaps quoting our text here in Hebrews (and/or Numbers 12:7-8, Clement later speaks of “the blessed Moses, “a faithful servant in all his house”—ho makarios pistos therapon en holo to oiko Mouses (43.1). Clement uses this noun three other times to refer to Moses (51.3,5; 53.5). It refers to Moses also in Pseudo-Barnabas 14.4. Thus, we find the word used seven times in Christian literature prior to about A.D. 110, and each time it refers to Moses.
Even as the author of Hebrews contrasts Jesus and Moses, he is careful not to permit this contrast to reflect badly on Moses. He is called a “faithful minister” (pistos therapon). This expression, used also by Clement, comes directly from the LXX of Numbers 12:7.
This twofold concern of the author of Hebrews—to show proper respect for the angels and Moses even when arguing for the preeminence of Jesus—is consistent with his attitude toward the Old Testament generally. He never permits the superiority of the New Covenant become an occasion to denigrate the Old.
Moses is arguably the most prominent Old Testament figure to appear in the Epistle to the Hebrews. He will return to this work several more times (7:14; 8:5; 9:19; 10:28; 11:23-27; 12:21).
Thursday, December 31
Hebrews 3:7-19: The author of this work begins to introduce what is arguably his major moral concern: the danger of turning away from the faith professed by the Christian at the time of his baptismal rebirth.
He refers to this baptismal profession (homologia in the first verse of this chapter: “Consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession [homologia], Christ Jesus” (3:1). Explicit references to this baptismal profession appear two other times in Hebrews: “Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession “ (4:14). And again, “Let us hold fast the confession of hope without wavering” (10:23).
Throughout this work the author several times reveals some sense of alarm that his hearers are in danger of not finishing the course undertaken in that profession. In fact, this book contains the New Testament’s clearest warnings against apostasy.
To demonstrate the possibility of a radical falling away, our author’s first example comes from the period of the Israelites’ wandering in the Sinai desert. He was much impressed that only two adults, among the 600,000 who left Egypt, actually made it to the Promised Land. The rest of the people defected in the wilderness.
The author of Hebrews makes this point by citing Psalm 95 (94) and commenting on it over the space of two chapters: “Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, In the day of trial in the wilderness, Where your fathers tested Me, tried Me, And saw My works forty years. Therefore I was angry with that generation, And said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, And they have not known My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath,‘ They shall not enter My rest.’”
That psalm, used as an invitation to prayer (“Come, let us sing unto the Lord”), daily renewed in the mind of God’s people the terrible fate of that generation of Israelites for whom the Exodus itself came to naught. They left Egypt for nothing. They died without reaching the very purpose of the Exodus—arrival in the Promised Land. That psalm warned all Israelites that the same fate could befall them!
Our author, therefore, cites this text, and then he goes on to comment: “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God.”
Just like the Israelites who left Egypt and then died in the desert, it is possible to fail in the profession of the Christian faith. Ultimate defection is, therefore, a matter of grave concern. How concerned should Christians be on this point? Our author answers, “everyday!” He says, “but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our conviction steadfast to the end.”
Friday, January 1
John 2:19-21: John alone speaks of the purification of the Temple as the occasion when Jesus enigmatically spoke of the destruction of the Temple (verse 19). Although the Synoptic Gospels record that in Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, He was accused of making a threat against the Temple, none of the Synoptics actually record these words of Jesus. They are found only here in John.
Misunderstanding him, the Lord’s opponents mention that the Temple had been under construction for the past forty-six years. According to Josephus (Antiquities 15.11.1 § 380), Herod began this construction in the 18th year of his reign, which was 20/19 B.C. By this calculation, Jesus’ purging of the Temple took place at Passover of A.D 26. Following Luke’s assessment of the age of Jesus (Luke 3:23), Jesus was about thirty years old at the time. Consequently, we estimate that Jesus was born in 4 B.C., the same year that Herod died.
Hebrews 4:1-13: In his use of the Book of Psalms in this chapter, it is clear that the author of Hebrews believed that the meaning of that text was contemporary to himself and his readers. The cited text was of more than historical interest. The dominant word indicating this persuasion is “today” (semeron), which appears twice in verse 7. The voice of God, he says, must be heard today. He expounds this principle in verses 12-13, speaking of God’s word as living and efficacious, sharper than a sword. It penetrates and divides man’s inner being, judging the reflections and thoughts of his mind.
There is no stronger affirmation of the truth that God lays bare our being by the light of His word searching our souls. When the Bible is read, whether proclaimed loudly in the worship of the Church or pondered quietly in the intimacy of our homes, God speaks. His prophetic word of judgment sears into our being laying bare the secrets of our consciences. It is a “word of judgment”—logos kritikos (verse 12). It does not lie there inert on the page open before our eyes. We search the Scriptures so that the Scriptures may search us, cutting into our being to expose what we are within. This is what makes the Bible different from all other books. Only here does God speak prophetically, in the sense of placing our whole being radically under judgment.
Thus, we do not call the Bible into question. The Bible calls us into question. We imagine that we are alive, and the Bible is inert. On the contrary, the Bible is more alive than we are. It is vibrant and efficacious, because it is the word of God. We open its pages in order to share its life. We do not, then, truly open the Bible unless we open our hearts and invite God’s word to penetrate our minds. We come to the Bible, seeking its judgment, because only in being judged by God’s all holy word may we share in the redeeming life that is offered there.