Good Friday, March 25
Matthew 26:57—27:61: Evidently there were several “final words” of Jesus on the cross, some recorded in Matthew and Mark, others in Luke and John. As we have just observed, only Luke narrates the conversation with the thief. Luke alone, likewise, records the two times Jesus cries out to God as “Father”: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” and “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:34, 46).
John, an eyewitness to the Savior’s death, tells how the dying Jesus committed to him the future care of his mother (John 19:26-27).
As for Matthew and Mark, they 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.
Let us begin, then, with the “second to last” sentence of Jesus, as transmitted by Matthew and Mark, who cite it in an Aramaic/Hebrew mixture: “’Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?’” (Matthew 17:46; cf. Mark 15:34).
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,”
Holy Saturday, March 27
Matthew 27:62-67: Holy Saturday serves as a sort of dividing line between the Lord’s suffering and death on Good Friday and His triumphant Resurrection on Easter Sunday, thereby shaping the entire sacred “Three Days,” or Triduum. One function of a boundary, obviously, is to define something, in the etymological sense of conferring a finis, a “limit” that gives it form.
A real boundary, moreover, confers shape on two things, namely, those realities on either side of it. Like the god Janus, a boundary must cast its regard in both directions. A border unites two entities even in the act of segregating them. Ironically, they are disjoined by what joins them. I believe that the theological insight of Holy Church respects the unique place of this day in her traditional liturgical customs.
Let me further suggest that in Holy Saturday—the middle of the sacred 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 grasp 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 (or “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 union with Holy Saturday.
At the same time, nonetheless, regarded from the perspective of the triumphant Third Day, Holy Saturday is Good Friday’s link to the Resurrection, and this link was “without division, without separation.” That is to say, only in Easter is revealed the full significance of the Cross. When Christ rises from the dead, bestowing life on those in the tombs, the Church knows that He tramples down death by death.
In addition, Holy Saturday is also the most mysterious day of the Triduum, in the sense that Sacred Scripture says less about it. Whereas we know in some detail what the first Christians witnessed on Good Friday and what they subsequently learned on Easter Sunday, we are told about Holy Saturday almost nothing except that “they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56).
Certain disturbing developments, nonetheless, had already begun in Hades, and the place would never again be what once it was. It was already the site of an invasion. Death was even now in the process of being trampled down by a death. A Champion had appeared on the scene and was making a royal havoc of the neighborhood. The ancient gates, those everlasting doors, had been lifted from their hinges, the iron bars were rent asunder, and the King of glory had entered in. The reign of death was over.
Easter Sunday, March 27
John 20:1-10: No human witnesses actually saw the Resurrection. They did not watch it happening; the significance of their witness did not consist in their objective observation of it. Although we Christians hold the Resurrection of Christ to be an objective historical fact, Holy Scripture does not present its plain and unadorned objectivity as the form of its revelation. Not one of those original “saints,” to whom the faith was once delivered, was permitted to view the Resurrection as one might view a waterfall or the flight of a bird.
So, let us fancy, for a moment, that the Resurrection was presented to the saints simply as an objective fact, a thing they empirically observed like any other historical occurrence. Let us suppose the Apostles knew the Resurrection pretty much the same way, for instance, Dr. David Hosack, an eyewitness to the event knew that Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton: Hosack saw the event as a self-contained fact, an “it” to which his testimony remained external.
If the original believers had observed the Resurrection in this way, I submit—if the saints had known the Resurrection the same way Hosack knew what happened in the Burr-Hamilton duel—we would mean something quite different when we spoke of the Resurrection as “revealed.” The witnessing saints would have remained merely external observers of it. Their testimony would have remained independent of their identity.
The Resurrection of Jesus, however, was not revealed this way. The truth of it was conveyed, not by the factual observance of an “it,” but through the personal encounter with a “thou.” The fact of the Resurrection was conveyed to the saints in a completely interpersonal context. Believers learned the objective fact of it through their encounters with the risen Christ. The fact of the Resurrection was subsumed into a personal presence.
The consciousness of the chosen witnesses, then, was altered, not by the observance of an event external to themselves, but by seeing, hearing, and touching the beloved Savior, who called them by name and forcefully intruded his person into their conscious experience. The revelation of the Resurrection was inseparable from this transpersonal intrusion, in which the risen Lord, whose overpowering presence was brought to bear on their attention, effected a new and non-negotiable awareness.
I submit, moreover, that this mode of the original revelation qualifies also its transmission; our own knowledge of the Resurrection is rooted in—and determined by—the historically effected consciousness of the “saints.” The risen Jesus is conveyed to us, not as a known external object, but as a personal presence: “what we have seen and heard we declare to you” (1 John 1:3). This is what we mean when we speak of “the faith once delivered to the saints.”
Moreover, in the apostolic writings we also perceive how the historically effected consciousness of the saints prompted their immediate reflection on the theological significance of the Resurrection. That is to say, a “theology” of the Resurrection began to develop within the revelation itself. We observe, for instance, how the encounter of the risen Jesus with the two Emmaus-bound disciples assumed a theologically reflective form, relating the experience to the understanding of the Scriptures. Their hearts burned within them as they listened to the explanation of biblical prophecy (Luke 24:13-28).
Monday, March 28
Matthew 28:1-15: The apostolic writings likewise record that the Resurrection was the point at which the first enemies of the Gospel directed their attack. In order to explain Jesus’ empty tomb, those responsible for His murder “gave a large sum of money to the soldiers,” bribing them to claim that Jesus’ disciples came, while the guard was sleeping, to take away His corpse. This explanation of the empty tomb, Matthew wrote, “is commonly reported among the Jews until this day” (Matthew 28:12-15).
Early Christian apologists recognized, of course, that the empty tomb itself proved nothing. So much was this the case that the first Christian to find the tomb empty presumed, not that Jesus had risen, but that His body had been stolen (John 20:1-2,13-15). Common sense testifies that this was a normal assessment: if we find a grave empty, it is not our first thought that the dead person arose. We suppose, rather, that someone took away the body. Hence, Jesus’ empty tomb by itself had no probative value, which is why it receives relatively little attention in the New Testament.
Alas, there are modern critics that draw a completely skewed inference from the New Testament’s comparative lack of interest in the empty tomb. The empty tomb is not emphasized, these critics claim, because it was not important to the early Christians. Nor, they often enough go on to assert, should the empty tomb be important for us. It is not uncommon for such critics to avow, in fact, that the “essence” of the Christian faith is quite compatible with the tomb’s not being empty.
It should be obvious that suggestions like this are incompatible with the proclamation of the apostles. In fact, these assertions are a kind of delirium. Even the earliest enemies of the Gospel did not dispute that the tomb was empty. If the New Testament lays no special stress on the empty tomb, therefore, the reason must be sought elsewhere. And the reason surely has to do with the fact that an empty tomb doesn’t prove anything to anybody. It not only has no theological significance; it also has no apologetic weight. It doesn’t explain anything. On the contrary, it must be explained.
The correct explanation for Jesus’ empty tomb came through the physical experience of those who testified that Jesus, risen from the dead, had been seen (1 Corinthians 15:4-8; Mark 1:9,14) and touched (Matthew 1:9; Luke 24:39; John 20:27) by them. Far from being hallucinations brought on by wishful thinking, these physical manifestations of Jesus went directly contrary to the common-sense expectations of those who saw Him. The most important thing to observe about that evidence is that it was conveyed to—indeed, it overwhelmingly forced itself upon–those who were deeply reluctant to believe it. To a man, the first witnesses of the risen Jesus were at first skeptical of their experience. They could be convinced only when the risen Jesus “presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3). They came to believe in the Resurrection, only when the undeniable evidence coerced their assent.
Tuesday, March 29
Luke 24:13-35: All of Christian doctrine is rooted, I believe, in Jesus’ paschal discourse to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. The timing of that discourse is likewise significant, for it took place on the very day of His rising from the dead; on that day “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David,” demonstrated that He “was worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals.” He was worthy to do this because He was slain and had redeemed us to God by His blood (Revelation 5:5, 9). Jesus interprets Holy Scripture—indeed, he is the interpretation of Holy Scripture—because he “fulfills” Holy Scripture through the historical and theological events of his death and Resurrection. His blood-redemption of the world is the formal principle of Christian biblical interpretation.
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.
Wednesday, March 30
First Corinthians 15:1-11: The Christian proposal is expressed as a factual claim; namely, what things factually transpired with respect to Jesus of Nazareth. The claim of the Gospel is historical; it concerns things that really happened. And if these things did not happen, nothing of the Christian message should be taken seriously. Everything in the Gospel stands or falls with historical truth.
That is to say, absolutely every component of the Christian faith is based on specific historical claims made by those who personally knew Jesus and could bear witness to what happened with respect to him.
In testimony to this, Paul provides us today with a very early list of eyewitnesses; The risen Jesus, he says, “was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that he was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present.”
Of those five hundred original witnesses, Paul asserts, “the greater part remain to the present.” What does he mean by “the present”? The present was the time Paul was actually writing this epistle and sending it from Ephesus to Corinth. This “present,” as mentioned in this epistle, is apparently some time in the mid-50s.
If—as I believe to be the case—Paul wrote this letter in the spring of the year 55, this would be exactly one quarter-century after the very important facts of Jesus’ death and Resurrection in the spring of the year 30. Even 25 years later, says Paul, most of the 500 original witnesses are still alive. The entire Christian message is based on their combined testimony.
Those 500 individuals were not religious theorists; most of them were not theologians, although some of them—specifically the Apostles—late
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.
Thursday, March 31
First Corinthians 15:12-19: 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.
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.
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.
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 have 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.
Friday, April 1
First Corinthians 15:20-34: 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.
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.”
At this point, Paul is ready to move from apologetics to theology, and he marks the transition with a formal “now”: “But now Christ is risen from the dead and has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (15:20).
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.