Friday, December 23
Hebrews 1:1-14: The motif in this chapter is the solidarity of Jesus with humanity, and more specifically with His Church. The author even puts on the lips of our Lord the works of the Psalmist, “I will announce your name to My brethren; in the midst of the Church I will sing to You” (verse 12). This is one of the places in Holy Scripture where Jesus is explicitly pictured as a “brother” (cf. Matthew 25:40; 28:10; Mark 3:34-35; John 20:17; Romans 8:29).
Elaborating this idea of the Lord’s solidarity with us, Hebrews speaks of Jesus as the “sanctifier” (hagiazon) and Christians as the “sanctified” (hagiazomenoi), both sharing the same stock, both joined in a common humanity (verse 11).
Jesus shares the “flesh and blood” of other human beings (verse 14). This expression, meaning “humanity,” is used twice in this sense in Sirach and three times elsewhere in the New Testament.
Psalms 96 (Greek & Latin 95): This psalm was among the psalms chosen to be sung when the Ark of the Covenant was placed in the new tabernacle that David had constructed for it in Jerusalem (cf. 1 Chr. 16:23–33). This piece of information is valuable because it sets Psalm 95 in at least one of its interpretive contexts in biblical history: God’s enthronement as King in the worship of His holy people. Inasmuch as the Lord’s symbolic enthronement “between the cherubim” in the Holy of Holies was one of the more important Old Testament institutions preparatory for His definitive presence in the human race by reason of the Incarnation, the deeper meaning of this psalm is likewise to be sought in its relationship to God’s Word that “became flesh and dwelt [or tabernacled] among us” (John 1:14).
This psalm, then, and all other Old Testament references to God as King are prophecies fulfilled in the Kingship of Jesus the Lord, who declared to the local representative of the Roman Empire, “You say rightly that I am a king” (John 18:37).
Indeed, the universal Kingship of Christ is the root and warrant of the entire mission of the Church to the nations: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matt. 28:18, 19). The first component justifies the second. These two sentences are related as premise and inference. Because He has received all authority in heaven and on earth, we therefore go forth to make disciples of all nations. The proclamation elicits the universal evangelical mandate.
What is true of all inspired Scriptures seems especially applicable to thispsalm and its call to the nations to enter the Church in praise of the risen Christ: “Confession and beauty are before Him; holiness and splendor stand in His sanctuary. Bring to the Lord, you families of nations, bring to the Lord glory and honor; bring to the Lord the glory due His name. Bring sacrifices, and process into His courts. Worship the Lord in His holy court.”
Saturday, December 24
Matthew 1:1-17: St. Matthew breaks the genealogy of Jesus into three parts. He writes, “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations.”
This very simple chronological sequence thus divides salvation history—from Abraham to Jesus—according to the history of the monarchy. Thus, the three sections are pre-monarchical, extending from the 18th century before Christ to the beginning of the 10th; then, the period of the monarchy, from the year 1000 to the Babylonia Captivity in the 6th century; and finally, the post-monarchical period, from the sixth century, starting in 538, to the birth of Jesus.
Saint Augustine speculated that the period from Abraham to David could be called man’s adolescence—adulescentia, whereas his “youth” (iuventus, classically understood as the period between ages twenty and forty) began with David. This is why, says Augustine, history is divided at this point (The City of God 16.43).
If one observes it closely, Matthew’s historical division also corresponds roughly to the three parts of the Hebrew canonical Scriptures: the Torah in the pre-monarchical period, the Prophets during the monarchical period, and the Writings during the post-monarchical period.
One of the most striking features of this genealogy is indicated in verse 16. After fifteen verses tracing what one would naturally think to be the biological lineage of Jesus of Nazareth (very much like the various genealogies in the Old Testament), we suddenly learn that it is nothing of the sort. We are minutely instructed with respect to the biological lineage of Joseph, only to be informed that there existed no biological link between Joseph and Jesus! There is a great irony in this legal—as distinct from biological—lineage. Supremely the Heir to God’s covenants with Abraham and David, Jesus is in no way dependent upon them. On the contrary, the final significance of Abraham and David is derived entirely from their relationship to Jesus.
Matthew 22:41-46: While the Pharisees are still gathered in Jesus’ presence, He poses for them an additional exegetical problem: To whom was David referring when he spoke of his “Lord” in Psalm 110 (Greek and Latin 109)? If it was the Messiah, who must be David’s own son, how could he be David’s “Lord”? Jesus thus teases the mind to ask a deeper question of the Psalm, just as He earlier (verse 32) indicated a concealed meaning in Exodus 3. In each case this deeper meaning is verified and validated in His person.
As Christians grasped the point of Jesus’ question here, this psalm became ever more important in the development of early Christology (cf. Mark 16:19; Acts 2:34-35; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12).
Sunday, December 25
Hebrews 2:1-18: In this chapter we find our earliest extant Christian commentary on Psalm 8, which is a treatise on the Incarnation. The question under consideration is “What is man?” or, if the translator is sensitive to feminist concern, “What is a human being?” That is to say, in some recent translations of the Psalms, this question introduces considerations of anthropology.
According to the author of Hebrews, however, the reliable way to a correct anthropology—the accurate response to the question, “What is a human being?”—depends on the answer to a prior theological question: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son in He?” In other words, the proper address to anthropology is through the gate of Christology.
The most correct wording of the dogma of the Incarnation is the one to which we are accustomed: “He became man.” This translation, which leaves the implied article undetermined, means Christ is the archetype of man, bearing all of humanity in Himself. “It was for the new man that human nature was established from the beginning,” wrote St. Nicholas Kavasilas; “the old Adam was not the model of the new, it was the new Adam that was the model of the old.” Christ is how the author of Hebrews approaches the subject of human beings.
This approach to anthropology, taken from Holy Scripture, is normative in Christian thought. According to the Christian faith, when God gave our forefather Adam dominion over the earth and its fullness, that act was a prophecy of the universal subjection of creation to the reign of Christ. Such is the true meaning of Psalm 8: “You have made Him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under His feet.”
According to this perspective, Christ is no divine afterthought; He is the original meaning of humanity. Christ is what God had in mind when He reached down and formed that first lump of mud into a man. Again in the words of St Nicholas Kavasilas: “It was towards Christ that man’s mind and desire were oriented. We were given a mind that we might know Christ, and desire, that we might run to Him; and memory, that we might remember Him, because even at the time of creation it was He who was the archetype.”
According to this interpretation of Psalm 8, “we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.” That is to say, God’s Son assumed our flesh in order obediently to die in that flesh, and this is how the human race was redeemed.
In the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons followed the same theological line as the author of Hebrews, but he adorned it by introducing the Pauline contrast between Christ and Adam. According to Irenaeus the Word’s assumption of the flesh was required for our salvation because Adam’s sin had been committed in the flesh. Sin in the flesh required salvation in the flesh. He explained,
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).
Monday, December 26
Acts 6:—8:3: Generations of preachers have employed no little ingenuity, and sometimes a fair measure of eloquence, to expound the theological reasons for celebrating St. Stephen’s Day so close to Christmas. It is not to slight those rhetorical efforts that one reflects that “the feast of Stephen” was celebrated long before anyone thought of celebrating the birthday of the Savior. Stephen got into the liturgical calendar first. Indeed, there is good reason to think that St. Stephen’s is among the oldest feast days in the Christian Church. Moreover, except for the days of Holy Week and the paschal cycle itself, it is possible that the annual commemoration of the martyrdom of St. Stephen is the oldest feast day in the Christian liturgical calendar.
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, because 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—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, 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.
Tuesday, December 27
1 John 1:1—2:2: this section of John’s First Epistle breaks into two equal parts of five verses each, a division discernible by careful attention to the word “we.”
In general there are two ways of meaning “we.” First, it may mean “we” as distinct from “you.” Second, it may mean “we” in the sense of “you and I.” Both senses are found here.
When the word appears in each of the first five verses, it always means “we” as distinct from “you.” In fact, in each instance it refers to the authority of the apostolic witness. In the verses John’s “we” signifies the apostles who were eyewitnesses of everything that happened during “all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” (Acts 1:21). John’s “we” in these verses is identical to Luke’s “us” in this text from Acts. Thus, John writes, “ . . . we have heard . . . we have seen . . . we have looked upon, and our hands have handled . . . we have seen, and bear witness . . . was manifested to us . . . that which we have seen and heard we declare to you . . . these things we write . . . we have heard from Him and declare to you.”
Thus, the “we” of verses 1-5 indicates the authority of the apostolic witness itself, the genuine transmission off the divine revelation that took place in Jesus Christ. The identical use of this “we” is found also near the beginning of John’s Gospel: “ . . . we beheld His glory . . .” (1:14).
According to John, this authoritative witness involves the various senses by which the Apostles discerned God’s manifestation in the flesh—hearing, seeing, even touching: “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled” (verse 1).
God’s eternal Logos, here called “the Word of Life,” existing before all time, assumed human flesh and became accessible to the apostolic witnesses who by means of preaching and writing what they know of God as revealed in Jesus Christ: “we declare to you . . . these things we write to you.” This revelation is not a series of doctrinal propositions but a living Person in whom the eternal Father has been made known to the full experience of the Apostles, including their very senses.
In the later verses, the word “we” no longer refers to the apostolic witness. It means, rather, “we” in the sense of “you and I,” even “you and I” hypothetically considered. Indeed, the whole argument in verses 6-10 consists of a series of “we” hypotheses, in which the “we” means “you and I.” That is to say, an “if” clause appears in each of these five verses and always with a “we”:
(1) “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.
(2) But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.
(3) If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
(4) If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
(5) If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.”
This part of 1 John 1, a section particularly concerned with the forgiveness of sins, places that forgiveness in a social context indicated by the word “we.” The forgiveness of sins, according to John, is not placed in a one-on-one setting between the believer and God. On the contrary, it necessarily involves a “we” in the sense of “you and I.” The forgiveness of sins is situated in the framework of the Church, that society formed by the authority of the apostolic witness: “we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.”
Wednesday, December 28
Matthew 2:6-23: 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.
Psalm 2: The moral contrast described in Psalm 1 thus becomes the messianic conflict narrated in Psalm 2. 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).
Indeed, the parallels of Psalm 2 with the “last days” described in the Bible’s final book, Revelation, are quite remarkable: the anger of the nations and the wrath of God (Rev. 11:18), the political conspiracy against God (19:19), the Messiah’s “rod of iron” inflicted on His enemies (2:27; 12:5; 19:15).
God, meanwhile, may laugh at His enemies: “He that thrones in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord will hold them in derision.” His Chosen One and Heir is already anointed. In the verse that explains the Church’s partiality to this psalm at Christmas time, the Messiah proclaims: “The Lord said unto Me: ‘You are My Son; this day have I begotten You.” These words, partly reflected at the Lord’s Baptism (Matt. 3:17) and Transfiguration (Matt. 17:5; 2 Pet. 1:17), came to express the essential Christological faith of the Church. This verse is cited explicitly in the apostolic preaching (cf. Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5; also 1 John 5:9) and directly answers the major question posed by Christian evangelism in every age: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose Son is He?” The (most likely) earliest of the Gospels thus commences: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).
“This day,” God says, “today have I begotten You.” So early in the Book of Psalms is the Christian mind elevated to eternity, that undiminished “today” of Christ’s identity—“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). No one knows the Father except the Son and he to whom the Son chooses to reveal him (Matt. 11:27). That “blessed man” introduced in the first psalm is now proclaimed in the second psalm to be God’s only-begotten Son, the sole Mediator between God and man, the Man Jesus Christ. His is the only name under heaven given men by which we may be saved. Therefore, “Be wise now, you kings; be instructed, you judges of the earth. . . . Blessed are all that put their trust in Him.”
Thursday, December 29
Matthew 25:1-13: Here is the story of the ten maidens awaiting the arrival of the Bridegroom. Everything is going just fine in the account, except for the delay involved: “But while the Bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept” (25:5). That is to say, they were not cautious about the warning, “Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (24:44).
The “coming” of the Bridegroom in this parable is identical to the parousia of the Son of Man mentioned several times in the preceding chapter (24:39,44,50).
The ten maidens are divided between those who are “foolish” (morai) and those who are wise, prudent, or thoughtful. However we are to translate this latter adjective, phronimoi, it has just been used to describe the faithful servant that awaits his master’s return (24:45). Matthew is fond of this adjective, which he uses seven times. He uses the adjective moros six times—the only Synoptic evangelist to do so.
In addition, the distinction between moros and phronimos comes in the final parable of the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a phronimos who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a moros who built his house on the sand” (7:24-26).
The difference between the five foolish maidens and the five prudent maidens is that the latter have prepared themselves to deal with the prolonged passage of time. Not considering the possibility of delay, the foolish maidens have not provided oil for their lamps. They are unable to “go the distance” with God.
In context, then, the prudence required is a kind of thoughtfulness, the habit of critical reflection, a cultivated ability to think in terms of the passage of time, a sensitivity to the movement of history. These wise maidens are not creatures of the moment. Consequently, they carry along their little jugs of oil, to make sure that their lamps will not be extinguished. They are able to “go the distance,” because they have thoughtfully made provision.
Time is the test of all these women, because the Bridegroom is “delayed”—chronizontos tou Nymphiou. This is the same verb, chronizo, previously used of the wicked servant: “My master is delayed”—chronizei mou ho Kyrios (24:48).
We also observe that the prudent maidens are unable to help the foolish (verse 9). They are not being cruel or insensitive in this refusal. They are simply recognizing the limitations that come with responsibility. It is a plain fact that there are some things that one Christian cannot do for another. This limitation pertains to the structure of reality, and the foolish maidens have brought their problem upon themselves.
Friday, December 30
Matthew 25:14-30: In the third story, about the three stewards who receive “talents” from their Master, once again the passage of time is integral to their testing. “After a long time,” says our Lord, “the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them” (25:19). There is no instant salvation in the Christian life, that is to say.
The point of comparison with the rest of Matthew’s context is found in the Master’s return to settle accounts. This is a reference to the parousia of the Son of Man, the subject of all the parables in this series. Once again, and for the third time (24:48; 25:5), the parousia is delayed (verse 19; contrast Luke 19:15).
Everything has to do with the ability to persevere through the passage of time. After all, we do not remain the same through the passage of time. Time changes things, and we must cope. Events affect our thoughts and sentiments. This coping with the passing of time is an integral part of our testing before God.
A “talent” was a unit of money in Roman times. It was something to be invested, in order to make a profit. The metaphorical sense of “talent,” meaning a natural gift with which a human being has been endowed, comes entirely from this parable. Indeed, the metaphorical use of this word has become so common that we do not realize that this usage was originally a metaphor.
The Master makes an investment in His servants. They work for Him. The talents belong to the Master, not the servants. Their responsibility is what is known as stewardship, and proper stewardship is the subject matter of the judgment that follows the Master’s return.
This parable is in great part an allegory. The master who departs is Christ our Lord, who has gone into heaven but will return in due course. The talents are the resources that He leaves to the stewardship of His servants, so that they may increase the yield thereof. His return is the end of history, and His calling to account is the final judgment.
The differences among the five, two, and one talents, however, are probably not meant to be interpreted allegorically. It simply means that some of God’s servants are given more responsibilities than others. The essential moral concern is that each steward is to work with what he has been given. He is not responsible for what he has not been given.
Two of the servants are good stewards and justify the Master’s confidence in them (verses 16-17). They receive “the joy of your Lord” (verses 21,23), which is eternal life. It is the equivalent of the marriage celebration of the last parable (verse 10) and the “Kingdom” of the next (verse 34). It is encouraging to observe the terms in which these parables describe the reward of the righteous. The faithful man is called “blessed” (24:46; 25:34). He becomes a guest at the wedding (25:10) and enters into the Lord’s joy (25:21,23). He becomes a “ruler” (24:47; 25:21,23). He inherits a kingdom (25:34).
The third servant describes himself as “afraid.” Because he refused even to try, the Master calls him “lazy.” Obviously, they assess his character quite differently. Self-approval does not count for much with God.
The third servant “buried his talent,” an expression that is still common (verse 18). We observe that he blamed the Master for his own failure (verse 25). The Master’s response, in the second part of verse 26, should be read as a question: “You knew, did you . . . .?”
Rejected at the judgment (verses 27,30), this lazy, wicked servant is like the five improvident maidens in the preceding parable (verse 12) and the goats in the next parable (verse 41).