Good Friday, April 14
Matthew 26:57—27:61: Since the story of Pilate’s wife is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, it seems reasonable to examine it specifically through the perspective of Matthew.
Commentators have remarked that Pilate’s wife, a Gentile woman who pleads the innocence of Jesus (“that just man”) serves as a literary foil to the Jewish leaders who clamor for his crucifixion (27:23). This comment is surely accurate, but it does not indicate a larger context nor an intention specific to Matthew.
Indeed, this is the sort of story we might more readily have expected in Luke. The latter, after all, is rather preoccupied with showing that the Roman authorities regarded Jesus as innocent (Luke 23:4,14-15,20,47), and among the four evangelist he is certainly the one that writes most often about women, whether in Jesus’ parables or in actual associates of our Lord.
It seems, then, that a closer examination of Matthew 27:19 is required. The text says that while Pilate “was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, ‘Have nothing to do with that just Man, for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of Him.'”
This woman is portrayed, not only as resistant to the official plot to murder Jesus, but as having “suffered many things today in a dream because of Him.” The most striking item here, I suggest, is her dream. The dream, then, is the place to start.
This Gentile’s dream near the end of Matthew clearly forms a literary inclusion with the dream of certain other Gentiles near that Gospel’s beginning. There we are told, with respect to the Magi, that “being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way” (2:12). That is the last appearance of the Magi.
The contexts of these two dreams are strikingly similar. In each case the dream takes place in connection with an official plot to kill Jesus. In the instance of the Magi this plot includes the official representative of the Roman government, King Herod, who has “gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together” (2:4). In the instance of Pilate’s wife, the murderous plot involves “all the chief priests and elders of the people” (27:1,12,20; the scribes are included in 27:41). In both cases the dreams of the Gentiles are contrasted with the plots of Jesus’ enemies. Pilate’s wife near the end of Matthew stands parallel to the Magi near its beginning.
In each case, moreover, the plot to murder Jesus has to do with His kingship, His status as the Messiah. In the example of the Magi, these come from the East “to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?'” (2:1-2). The usurping Herod, threatened by the suspected appearance of Israel’s true king, takes all the necessary precautions, including the murder of “all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under” (2:16).
The expression “King of the Jews” does not appear in Matthew again until the final plot against Jesus. It is while Pilate officiates in his judgment seat, and just before receiving the message from his wife, that he inquires, “Are You the King of the Jews?” (27:11). The source of Pilate’s question here is indicated in the next verse, which tells us that “He was being accused by the chief priests and elders” (27:12). These chief priests and others correspond to the group that Herod summoned earlier when he made his own inquiry about the King of the Jews.
Matthew tells us that Pilate “knew that they had handed Him over because of envy.” Indeed, he mentions this in the verse immediately preceding the message from his wife (27:18-19). This envy of Jesus’ enemies readily puts the reader in mind of the earlier envy of Herod, when he too was confronted with the real King of the Jews.
There is a special irony, then, to the title by which Pilate’s soldiers address Jesus in their mockery: “Hail, King of the Jews” (27:29). Pilate, moreover, apparently with a view to mocking the Jews themselves, attaches to the cross the official accusation against Jesus: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (27:39). At last is answered that question first put by the Magi, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” (2:2:2) He is on the cross, the just Man dying for the sins of the world.
Thus, the dream of Pilate’s wife, which had revealed Jesus to be a just Man, completes the earlier dream of the Magi. The testimony from the East is matched by the testimony from the West, both cases representing those regarding whom Jesus commanded His Church, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (28:19.
Holy Saturday, April 15
Psalms 16 (Greek & Latin 15): In addition to showing His disciples the truth of His Resurrection “by many infallible proofs, being seen of them for forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3), the newly risen Lord took special care likewise to explain to the Church the authentic meaning of Holy Scripture. Indeed, we know that the day of Resurrection itself was partly devoted to this task (cf. Luke 24:25–27, 44, 45).
These considerations, moreover, bear a special relevance to the interpretation of the Book of Psalms, for this section of the Bible, which became the Church’s official prayer book for all times, was singled out for specific consideration (Luke 24:44). On Easter, the Sunday of the Resurrection, when the Lamb came forward and “took the scroll out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne” (Rev. 5:7) and began forthwith to open its seals (6:1), the Church commenced likewise her understanding of the psalms. From that day forward, the prayer of the Church would be rooted in the vision that the Lord gave her in His opening of the Psalter.
We may be sure that this psalm was among the psalms interpreted to the Church by the risen Christ, for this was the first psalm that she exegeted in her very first sermon when she came rushing with power from the upper room on Pentecost. According to the Apostle Peter, who preached that sermon, Psalm 15 describes the Resurrection of Christ:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know—Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it. For David says concerning Him: “I foresaw the Lord always before my face, / For He is at my right hand, that I may not be shaken. / Therefore my heart rejoiced, and my tongue was glad; / Moreover my flesh also will rest in hope. / For You will not leave my soul in Hades, / Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption. / You have made known to me the ways of life; / You will make me full of joy in Your presence” (Acts 2:22–28).
Even though it was King David saying these things, the voice speaking more deeply in this psalm, according to St. Peter, is the voice of Christ. As the forefather and type of Christ, David was speaking in the tones of prophecy. Peter goes on to explain:
Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne, he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses (Acts 2:29–32).
Since Psalm 16 speaks of the Lord’s Resurrection in terms of a future hope, rather than of an accomplished fact, there would seem to be a special propriety in praying this psalm on Saturday, the very day that the Lord’s body lay in the grave and His soul was in Hades. It may thus serve to prepare for the celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection each following Sunday, when the Lamb begins to open the seals.
And as David prayed Psalm 15 in persona Christi, looking forward to the one who was to come, so do Christians, when they pray this psalm, identify themselves in hope with the risen Christ, for we too will rise with Him: “And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power” (1 Cor. 6:14); “He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:14); “He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies” (Rom. 8:11).
Easter Sunday, April 16
Psalms 118 (Greek & Latin 117: Still bearing in His flesh the wounds of the Passion, the risen Jesus comes to His Church in the vibrancy of His conquest over sin, Satan, and death:
I called on the Lord in distress; He answered me and set me in a broad place. . . . All nations surrounded me, but in the name of the Lord I will destroy them. They surrounded me, yes, they surrounded me, but in the name of the Lord I will destroy them. They surrounded me like bees; they were quenched like a fire of thorns; for in the name of the Lord I will destroy them. You pushed me violently that I might fall, but the Lord helped me. The Lord is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation.
Joining the Myrrhbearing Women who discovered His empty tomb, we raise our voices to greet the new dawn with shouts of exaltation:
The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tents of the righteous; the right hand of the Lord does valiantly. The right hand of the Lord is exalted; the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.” The message of Sunday morning is that the forces of death have not prevailed: “I shall not die but live, and declare the works of the Lord. The Lord has chastened me severely, but He has not given me over to death.
We Christians have every right to find in this psalm the expression of our paschal joy. Even the children of Israel had recourse to a line of this psalm to greet the Lord on His triumphal entry into Jerusalem: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” And whence did we Christians derive the idea that Psalm 117 is a psalm about Christ? From a very good source, actually—Christ Himself. Our Lord quoted a line of this psalm to His enemies by way of interpreting His parable of the wicked vinedressers:
Have you not even read this Scripture: ‘The stone which the builders rejected / Has become the chief cornerstone. / This was the Lord’s doing, / And it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Mark 12:10, 11).
Using a play on words, Jesus here identifies Himself as both the Son (ben) and the Stone (’eben) of His story about the drama of His death and divine vindication. The Lord’s parable of the wicked vinedressers is thus the interpretive key to this psalm.
It is in the Resurrection that we perceive that the “stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” The detailed accounts of the Lord’s Passion are descriptions of His rejection by the builders, while the Gospel stories of the risen Jesus are the narratives of “the Lord’s doing” that is so “marvelous in our eyes.” This psalm is the canticle of the empty tomb. It is to the risen Jesus that we sing, with the Myrrhbearing Women: “You are my God, and I will praise You; You are my God, and I will exalt You.” It is to the risen Jesus that we say with Mary Magdalene: “Rabboni!” It is to the risen Jesus that we address the words of the Apostle Thomas: “My Lord and my God.” Truly, in the Resurrection we see clearly that “God is the Lord, and He has given us light.”
Monday, April 17
Psalms 66 (Greek & Latin 65): The reference to the drying up of the waters in this psalm suggests that its original context was the celebration of the Passover and Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt, themes manifestly understood in the New Testament as types of the new Christian Pascha: “He turns the sea into dry land; through the river they will walk on foot.”
There is further reason for believing that Christian tradition has ever understood this psalm as referring to the mystery of Pascha. Most Greek biblical manuscripts of it add a single word supplementing the inscription. To the psalm’s Hebrew title, which reads simply “To the choirmaster—a song—a psalm,” the majority of Greek manuscripts adjoin the word anastaseos, “of the resurrection,” a reading that is followed in the Latin tradition as well. Thus, according to the general Christian manuscript tradition of Psalm 66, it is “a psalm of the resurrection.”
The psalm’s references to deliverance from enemies should be read in the context of the drama of Holy Week and the redemption thereby won. This is a psalm about the passage from death to life, for the enemies of the human race are sin and death. It is from these that Christ has set us free, restoring us to eternal favor with God: “He set my soul in life and does not let my footsteps falter. For You, O God, have tested us, You have smelted us as silver. You have brought us into a trap; You laid affliction on our back, and caused men to lord it over us. We passed through fire and water, but You have brought us back to life.”
The sense and sentiment of this psalm, then, are identical to the victory canticles in Exodus 15 and Revelation 15, celebrating the destruction of oppressive and death-dealing forces at Israel’s deliverance from slavery. Psalm 65 may be thought of as another “seaside psalm,” but this sea is “mingled with fire” (Rev. 15:2). Beside it stand the redeemed of the Lord, and “they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying: ‘Great and marvelous are Your works, / Lord God Almighty” (15:3). These are the “works” of our paschal redemption. “Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore, let us keep the feast,” wrote St. Paul at Passover season, only two decades or so into Christian history (1 Cor. 5:7).
Tuesday, April 18
Psalms 114 (Greek & Latin 113a): From the perspective of style, this psalm is a perfect illustration of Hebraic parallelism, a feature found in so much of the Bible’s poetry and the aphorisms of its wisdom literature. The references to Egypt/barbarous people, mountains/hills, stone/flint, rams/lambs, sanctuary/domain, are synonymous parallels, in that they are roughly repetitious. They serve the function of slowing down our prayer, making us take a calmer, more contemplative pace.
Others of the parallelisms here, Red Sea/Jordan and Judah/Israel, are merismatic, the merismus being a device of dividing a whole into representative components and addressing them separately. This serves the function of making our prayer more discursive and analytical. Our psalm combines both techniques very effectively.
In all such cases, the intent of the literary construction is to slow down our reading of the poem, making us go over everything twice, forcing the mind to a second and more serious look at the line, prolonging our prayer, obliging us not to go rushing off somewhere. Such poetry is deeply meditative, and the reader who resists its impulse will find himself with acid indigestion of the mind, serious “heartburn” in a most radical and theological sense.
There are two events described in this psalm, the turning back of the Red Sea at the Exodus, and the identical phenomenon of the Jordan River at Israel’s entrance into Canaan. These two occasions, which are also juxtaposed in Joshua 4:23, form the psalm’s twin poles, Israel’s departure from Egypt and her entrance into the Promised Land. Between these two events lie the giving of the Law and the forty years’ wandering of God’s people in the wilderness. Whereas the two poles of that crucial period, the Red Sea and the Jordan, are marked by God’s removal of the waters from their native settings, the time in between them is marked by God’s miraculously given water for His people wandering through the dry sands of the desert.
God, in short, reverses the expected course of things. He makes wet places dry, and the dry places wet. As for mountains and hills, what could be better symbols of stability, standards of the normal and expected? Mountains and hills, it would seem, are not easily moved. Nonetheless, God moves them, as was demonstrated in the earthquake shaking Mount Sinai when the Law was given. Because of the face of the Lord, that face that Moses prayed to behold on Sinai, the mountains and the hills jumped around like sheep, as it were, the normal and expected state of things becoming unstrung before the awesome face of God. Hills go skipping about!
Everything is set on its head. It is this complete dominion of the Lord that is manifested in His great acts of redemption: the Exodus, the giving of the Law, the desert wandering, Israel’s crossing the Jordan’s rocky bed into the land flowing with milk and honey.
Holy Scripture often identifies the Church in terms of Israel’s experience in the Red Sea, at Sinai and in the desert, and in the crossing of the Jordan. The pattern is quite standard in the New Testament, and readers of the multiplication of the loaves, 1 Corinthians, and Hebrews will recognize this at once. Psalm 114, then, is very much a psalm about ourselves and our life in Christ.
Wednesday, April 19
Psalms 115 (Greek & Latin 113b): One way of approaching this psalm is through the consideration of space. It speaks of heaven, earth, and the nether world, and all these references are related to the question, posed in an early verse, about where God is to be located: “So where is their God?”
This question, posed by the unbelievers as a mockery (“Why should the Gentiles say”), is answered by the psalmist: “But our God is in heaven.” affirmation here is not merely spatial, so to speak, for he goes on immediately to draw an inference that becomes a theme of the psalm: God “does whatever He pleases.” The verb, to “do” or “make” (‘asah in Hebrew) appears now for the first time and may be seen as a key to the psalm’s meaning. This psalm is about a God who does things.
Nothing more is said about space until a dozen verses later, when the psalmist speaks of “the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” The word “made” here is ‘oseh, the active participle of the same verb as before; it could be translated even as a substantive—God is a doer. The Lord does things.
Here, then, is heaven once more, not simply a spatial reference but a symbol of God’s omnipotence. Just as, earlier, “heaven” had to do with God’s activity (“He does whatever He pleases”), so now the reference to God’s activity leads back immediately to the thought of heaven: “The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord’s.”
In contrast to heaven there is the earth: “But the earth He has given to the children of men.” God is in heaven; He is omnipotent. Men dwell on earth; they are not omnipotent. Indeed, they will die and “go down into silence,” and this brings us to the psalm’s final reference to space—the nether world, where the “dead do not praise the Lord.” The “sons of men” are, in themselves, but creatures of a day. They are unlike God, for there are very strict limits to what they can do. And that was exactly the note on which our psalm began: “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to Your name give glory.”
In contrast to God, what can men, on their own, do? They can make idols. In fact, left to themselves, making idols is exactly what they will do. These idols he calls “the work of men’s hands,” the noun “work” translating here ma‘aseh, a Hebrew passive participle of the same verb we have been examining all along. That is to say, idolatry is the only thing that the children of men, left to their own devices, can do. Once again, then, we continue the theme of man’s utter weakness contrasted with God’s omnipotent activity: “Not unto us, but to Your name give glory.”
And what becomes of the men who devote their lives to the making of these idols? They too become nothing: “Those who make them are like them; so is everyone who trusts in them.” The makers of idols (which includes any one of us who insists on going his own way) will, in the end, have nothing to show for their efforts and their lives: “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence.” The silence of the idols becomes the unending silence of eternal loss. Those who make them become like them.
Thursday, April 20
Psalms 146 (Greek & Latin 145): We have here a list of the great messianic signs: “The Lord sets free the prisoners; the Lord enlightens the blind; the Lord straightens up those bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous; the Lord protects the strangers; He will adopt the orphan and the widow, but the way of sinners He will overthrow.”
This list is not unlike our Lord’s own description of His ministry: “The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Matt. 11:5).
Such are the great messianic signs prophesied in Isaiah: “‘Behold, your God will come with vengeance, / With the recompense of God; / He will come and save you.’ / Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, / And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. / Then the lame shall leap like a deer, / And the tongue of the dumb sing” (35:4–6).
This is not the only such list of messianic signs in Isaiah. Indeed, the Lord commences His ministry at Nazareth by publicly reading yet another of them: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, / Because He has anointed Me / To preach the gospel to the poor; / He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, / To proclaim liberty to the captives / And recovery of sight to the blind, / To set at liberty those who are oppressed.” This Isaian prophecy, Jesus announced, was being fulfilled in His own ministry (Luke 4:18–21; cf. Is. 49:8, 9; 61:1).
These miracles and wonders that marked the work of Jesus among men were at once the fulfillment of prophecy and signs of the divine presence. They are integral to the proclamation of the Gospel itself, which is concerned with “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him” (Acts 10:38). They were not, therefore, merely incidental to Jesus’ revelation and redemption.
First, revelation. The miraculous healings and other signs done by Jesus are revelatory of the presence of God: “So the multitude marveled when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed made whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they glorified the God of Israel” (Matt. 15:31).
Second, redemption. The miraculous signs in the earthly life of Jesus, but most especially His healings, are directly related to the mystery of the divine atonement. All the Lord’s various restorations and acts of therapy were both the foreshadowing and the first fruits of that definitive curing of the human race accomplished on the Cross. In testimony to this truth, Matthew even cites one of the Isaian Suffering Servant songs in reference to the healing miracles of Jesus: “When evening had come, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed. And He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: ‘He Himself took our infirmities / And bore our sicknesses’” (Matt. 8:16, 17; Is. 53:4).
Friday, April 21
But Creation is the stage on which God makes history, so in stanza 2, verses 10–22, we move from Genesis to Exodus. This we may think of as the “history stanza,” containing material from the Books of Exodus, Numbers, and Joshua. In this stanza likewise there is a fourfold series of verbs (again, descriptive participles in Hebrew), this time mainly in pairs, that describe God’s redemptive activity for His people: (1) “struck Egypt . . . and brought out Israel;” (2) “divided the Red Sea . . . and made Israel pass through;” (3) “overthrew Pharaoh . . . led His people through the wilderness;” (4) “struck down great kings . . . slew famous kings . . . and gave their land as a heritage.”
Finally, stanza 3, verses 23–26, speaks of God’s continuing care for His people down through the ages. He is not simply a God of the past, but of “us,” the present generation of believers. The last part of the psalm is about here and now: “remembered us in our lowly estate . . . rescued us from our enemies . . . gives food to all flesh.”
Thus, Psalm 136 pursues a threefold theme: creation, deliverance, and the continued care of the redeemed. In this respect, the triple structure of our psalm is identical with that of the Nicene Creed: God made us, God saved us, God stays and provides for us all days unto the end. In the Creed, this structure is explicitly Trinitarian: “one God, the Father Almighty, the Creator . . . one Lord, Jesus Christ . . . the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life.”
Psalm 136 insists, literally in every verse, that the root of all of God’s activity in this world, beginning even with the world’s creation, is mercy—hesed. This mercy is eternal—le‘olam—“forever.” Mercy is the cause and reason of all that God does. He does nothing, absolutely nothing, except as an expression of His mercy. His mercy stretches out to both extremes of infinity. “For His mercy endures forever” is the palimpsest that lies under each line of Holy Scripture.